A river is the catfish angler’s pot of gold. Lakes, ponds, creeks and bayous serve up exceptional catfishing at times, but catfish evolved in the currents of our rivers, and it’s in these waters cats reach their greatest numbers and largest size.
Catfish are drawn to different areas in a river. If you’re lucky, you might pick a spot on the bank, sit down, cast your bait and start reeling in fish. But most of us aren’t that lucky.
For consistent success, especially on unfamiliar waters, the catfish fan must be armed with an in-depth knowledge of his quarry’s preferred habitat and know what rigs catch them there. Fortunately, when you know what to look for, most river hotspots are easy to find; just use your eyes. Finding some areas requires use of a boat, map or electronic equipment, but most rivers also have many catfish attractors readily visible and accessible from shore. Here are some tactics for rigging and catching moving water catfish.
RIVER FISH AND FISHING
River water moves constantly. Feeding catfish face upstream into current, waiting for edibles to drift to them. Consequently, baits should be cast upstream beyond the fishes’ holding points so the current they’re carries them downstream in front of fish.
River cats position themselves at strategic places to feed and rest. This is usually near structure, such as holes, humps, boulders that break or reduce current to an acceptable level. Resting fish prefer areas with little current. Moderate current is preferred when feeding by ambush. When restless and actively feeding, cats may move into areas of heavy current, but even then, they’re usually found near current-breaking structure.
Understanding these facts is the catfish angler’s key to reading rivers.
TACKLE & RIGS
You can use any rod-and-reel combo for catfishing, if you take into account the size of the fish you’re targeting. When trying to catch a mess of small “eaters,” a basic bass-fishing combo works well. When targeting heavyweight cats, you will, of course, need heavy tackle.
Rods 7 feet and longer offer several advantages over short rods when river fishing, including increased casting distance (which is especially important when bank fishing); more “reach,” so you can work rigs properly around cover; and better line control for more accurate drifts and natural presentation.
Bait-casting reels are toughest and provide more power for cranking in big fish. Many feature a “clicker” mechanism that gives an audible signal when line is pulled from the reel, thus indicating a catfish is taking your bait. Spinning and spin-cast reels are best when using smaller diameter lines for eating-size cats.
Many river anglers use a basic three-way rig, which works great for both still- and drift-fishing. Tie your main line to one eye of a three-way swivel, and add drop lines 12 and 24 inches long to the other two eyes. Tie a hook to the longer drop line and a bell, pyramid, bank or bottom-bouncer sinker to the other.
If a three-way swivel is unavailable, a barrel swivel can be used instead. Tie the main line to one eye and the two drop lines to the other. With this rig, the sinker moves along the bottom but the bait rides high.
Float rigs also are great for drifting baits through river-cat hideouts. The simplest consist of nothing more than a fixed bobber above a hook and perhaps a split shot or two.
A more versatile version employs a sliding bobber. A bobber stop is placed on the line so the sliding bobber suspends the bait at the desired depth. Beneath the bobber, tie your hook, then, if necessary, add two or three split shot to sink the bait. With this rig, the bobber slides down to the hook or split shot to allow casting, then slips up to the bobber stop to hold the bait at the correct depth.
Use sinkers heavy enough to carry your bait to the bottom. A 1/0 to 3/0 Kahle or octopus hook works well for eating-size cats, a 5/0 to 10/0 circle or octopus hook for trophy cats.
Good baits? Try chicken liver, night crawlers or hot-dog chunks for smaller cats. Live sunfish or goldfish work for big flatheads, and fresh shad or herring cut baits for big blue and channel cats.
Wing dikes, also called wing dams, are among the best river hotspots. These long, narrow rock structures are built perpendicular to the riverbank. They direct current into the main channel to lessen shoreline erosion. They’re most numerous immediately below dams but may be scattered along the entire length of a big navigable river.
Most actively feeding catfish hold near the river’s bottom on the wing dike’s upstream side. Reduced current exists in this area along the dam’s entire length, allowing cats to remain active without expending excess energy while feeding. Some active fish feed along the crown and in the boil-line just downstream from the wing dike’s crown. When resting, cats move to deeper scour holes, usually near the channel end of the dike. Occasionally, these fish are enticed to bite, but only when bait is presented right under their noses.
When fishing wing dikes, look for subtle changes in structure that concentrate catfish. Feeding cats often gather around a fallen tree, rocky point, incoming culvert or other change in structure.
A TRIP TO THE BAR
Rock, gravel and sand bars —all common in most rivers — are good catfishing areas when water is high and current strong. For this reason, it pays to find bars when water is low and they are exposed.
Catfish gather around bars to avoid excessive current and are especially common here when concentrations of forage species are available. In many big rivers, for instance, thousands of small leeches “hatch” from sandbars in late summer, attracting enormous schools of channel catfish. Rock and gravel bars often harbor dense populations of crayfish when spring’s high water begins receding. Catfish of all sorts gather to feed on these seasonal banquets.
When the water level falls, the tops of bars may be exposed. When this happens, catfish and forage move to deeper sections of the bar, usually near the channel end. Adjust your fishing tactics accordingly.
AROUND THE BEND
Outside river bends are exceptional cat attractors. In outside bends, the river may gouge deeply into the bank, forming undercuts. Undercut ledges or lips offer seclusion to hole-loving flatheads and other catfish waiting to ambush prey.
Outside bends attract catfish for other reasons, too. As the river eats away at the bank beneath them, trees topple into the water. This timber provides excellent current-breaking cover for catfish and baitfish. If a deep-water pool lies just downstream from the fallen timber, the area is even more attractive. The existence of current, cover and food with a deep-water escape route nearby creates great spots to find big-river cats.
HUMPS & BOULDERS
Underwater humps and boulders always merit the catfish angler’s attention. Unless they rise close to the surface, they are difficult to find without electronic equipment. Those with shallow crowns may be visible or at least apparent due to the boil-line above them.
At night and on cloudy or rainy days, catfish move to the shallowest part of humps, feeding on baitfish attracted to the structure. This is a place to fish on hot summer nights.
When fishing is confined to daylight hours, look for cats positioned on portions of the hump that are shaded or around deep-water edges where light penetration is minimal.
Fish boulders as you would a wing dike. Most feeding cats are near bottom on the upstream edge, with a few feeding near the crown and boil-line areas. Cats in slack water behind boulders are usually inactive.
Catfish of all species congregate year-round in the churning tailwaters of dams. Few places offer such outstanding odds for taking trophy cats.
Tailrace catfishing is so good for several reasons. All catfish are somewhat migratory, undertaking seasonal movements in response to changes in water temperature. Astounding concentrations gather in tailwaters when dams impede their instinctive movements.
Abundant baitfish are another attraction. Shad, herring and other catfish favorites require well-oxygenated water to thrive. Current-laden tailraces offer ideal habitat, thus providing catfish plenty to eat. Baitfish sucked through hydroelectric turbines in dams come into the tailwaters injured or cut up. They, too, become part of the catfish banquet. Regular water flow keeps oxygen levels high, an important consideration during hot weather when slow-moving water downstream may be low in oxygen.
Big catfish, especially big blues, favor swift, churning, well-oxygenated water where baitfish are readily available. To conserve energy, however, they seek slack-water holding spots within these areas. The “grooves” of slower-moving water between open gates or running turbines offer these conditions.
When gates or turbines are discharging water, the fastest flow is in the center of the discharge; the slowest water is on outer edges of the flow. The surface water all appears to be moving at the same speed to the casual observer, but actually, the area of water between two discharges-the groove-is slower-moving water where big cats usually hold, feeding adjacent swifter current. Fishing these grooves is far more productive than fishing heavier current.
If cats quit biting in one groove, move to a similar location and try again. Water flow through a dam fluctuates as power requirements or water levels demand. So even though water runs continuously, the volume of flow may change several times daily. When the flow changes, cats often move, seeking more slack water in which to feed.
The walls of locks also beg for the tailwater angler’s attention. In many rivers, a locking system is constructed adjacent to the dam so boats can traverse the stream. Each time a boat is locked through, water is pumped in or out of the lock, creating heavy currents that stir up baitfish and other forage. Small catfish, usually channels, often gather in sizable feeding schools in these areas.
Because locks are near one bank or another, you can fish from shore. Cast your bait against the lock wall, letting it roll into the water below. The best fishing is usually when the lock is being filled or emptied, but catfish may remain in shady areas throughout the day and night. Fishing can be good even during midday hours.
Other first-rate tailwater fishing areas are shoreline riprap, wing dikes, mid-stream boulders, rock piles and the large log jams and drift piles that form on the upstream edge of many dams.
Reading big rivers involves more than identifying fish structure. Good river anglers also pay attention to changing water flow and seasonal considerations.
A muddy, fast-rising river intimidates many anglers, but under these circumstances, the cat bite may be extraordinarily good due to the abundance of forage stirred about in the roiling current. When the river begins falling again, the bite may cease until conditions stabilize. But when things are back to normal, cats should feed again with their usual vigor.
When fishing below a dam, avoid periods when gates are closed and current is nil. Under such conditions, catfishing is rarely productive. Open gates create current and oxygenate water, a stimulus for feeding, especially during summer when water conditions may be poor in other parts of the river.
River cats are somewhat transient, moving from one area to another as seasons change. In summer and winter, extremes of heat and cold may drive them to deep-water haunts in or near the main river channel. Spring and autumn offer more moderate water temperatures, allowing catfish to invade shallow, off-channel areas such as backwaters, river-connected oxbows and other areas with little current. Tailwaters and tributaries draw heavy cat concentrations during spring spawning runs and when water conditions are poor in other reaches.
Savvy catfish anglers consider all these factors when planning their river-fishing strategy.