Skip to main content

Catfish Thrive When Big Rivers Flood

The have managed to not only survive, but thrive

Catfish Thrive When Big Rivers Flood
Catfish Thrive When Big Rivers Flood
A fisherman gathers crayfish from shallow flooded woods for catfish bait. (Keith Sutton photo)
A fisherman gathers crayfish from shallow
flooded woods for catfish bait.
(Keith Sutton photo)

The year 2011 will go down in history as one of the worst flood years ever along big rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, Atchafalaya and their tributaries. People have suffered a terrible toll in lost lives and property. Wildlife has suffered, too.

One group of animals has thrived as a result of the high water, however. Catfish evolved to take advantage of floodwaters like those that have inundated hundreds of thousands of square miles this year. The reason, in a word, is “crayfish.”

Because the ground in big-river floodplains is low and flat, a rise in river level of only a few inches can flood literally thousands of acres of bottomlands. As water rises and woodlands flood, a new food source — terrestrial crayfish — becomes available to catfish.

Crayfish are abundant in most bottomland hardwood forests, but most of the year they live on land and are inaccessible to catfish. During overflow periods, however, the crayfish must live in an aquatic environment, and catfish are drawn to them like kids to a candy store.


Flatheads, blues and channel cats all join the feeding frenzy, moving from rivers, lakes and bayous into shallow water that now inundates many acres of bottoms. They will feed here as long as water is high enough to swim in, sometimes for several months.


Fishermen have long been familiar with this phenomenon and practice a form of fishing known as “woods fishing” to take advantage of it. Few cat fans are familiar with the tactic today, but in the early twentieth century, it was widely practiced in the lower Mississippi River Valley. D.S. Jordan and B.W. Evermann wrote about this unique sport in their 1923 book, American Food and Game Fishes.

“During the spring rise in the Mississippi hundreds of square miles of the adjacent country become flooded, and then the catfish leave the rivers, lakes and bayous, and ‘take to the woods,’” they said. “Here the fishermen follow them, and ‘woods’ or ‘swamp’ fishing is resorted to. Short ‘brush’ lines with single hooks are tied to limbs of trees here and there through the forest, in such a way as to allow the hook to hang about six inches under water. The trees selected are usually those along the edges of the ‘float’ roads, and, that he may readily find his lines again, the fisherman ties a white rag to each tree to which he has attached a line.

“The lines are visited daily, or as often as practicable, and the fish are placed in a live-box, where they are kept until the tugboats from Morgan City (Louisiana) make their regular collecting trips. Then they are transferred to very large live-boxes or cars carried in tow by the tugs, and are taken to Morgan City, where the fish are dressed, put in barrels with ice, and shipped to the retailers in many States of the Union.”

When floodwaters make terrestrial crayfish available to them, catfish gorge on the bounty to the point they often can swallow nothing more. (Keith Sutton photo)
When floodwaters make terrestrial crayfish available to them, catfish gorge
on the bounty to the point they often can swallow nothing more.
(Keith Sutton photo)

In more recent years, fisheries researchers also have studied this phenomenon. For example, Don Jackson and Joe Flotemersch, researchers at Mississippi State University, learned that peak use of crayfish occurs prior to egg occurrence in channel catfish. And because the crayfish are excellent sources of essential amino and fatty acids, they are likely to be significant resources for egg development. In other words, when rivers overflow and catfish can feed on crayfish, they produce more eggs.


As a result, during flood years, these river ecosystems produce astounding numbers of catfish that later are available for anglers to catch.

Floods certainly are devastating in many ways, but for catfish anglers, flooding brings better fishing, and lemons are made into lemonade.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

New for 2021: Rage Broadhead, Nockturnal Nock, Carbon Express Arrows

New for 2021: Rage Broadhead, Nockturnal Nock, Carbon Express Arrows

New for 2021, here's a look at the new Rage Trypan NC, Nockturnal Shift Nock, Carbon Express Maxima RED Contour and D-Stroyer PileDRIVER arrows.

New for 2021: Elite Archery Bows, Slick Trick Broadheads and CBE Sight

New for 2021: Elite Archery Bows, Slick Trick Broadheads and CBE Sight

Learn more about two new Elite Archery bows, the Enkore and Remedy, two new broadhead from Slick Trick and a new site from Custom Bow Equipment (CBE).

New for 2021: Bear Redemption EKO, Legit RTH Compound Bows

New for 2021: Bear Redemption EKO, Legit RTH Compound Bows

Bear Archery's newest bows - Redemption EKO and Legit RTH - are light, adjustable and fast.

A Bolt Action from Benelli?

A Bolt Action from Benelli?

We know what you're thinking: Isn't Benelli a shotgun company? Of course it is, but decades of shotgun manufacturing actually put Benelli in a unique position to redefine what a hunting rifle should be. Episode 1 reviews some company history to explain how this all came about.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

More visible arrow flight to your intended target.New Archery Gear: Easton 6.5 Whiteout Carbon Arrows Bows

New Archery Gear: Easton 6.5 Whiteout Carbon Arrows

Game and Fish Staff - December 16, 2020

More visible arrow flight to your intended target.

Expansion of Woodland Series targets continues fun, realistic way to practice.New for 2021, Rinehart's 1/3-Scale Moose Archery Targets ATA Show

New for 2021, Rinehart's 1/3-Scale Moose Archery Targets

Game and Fish Staff - January 07, 2021

Expansion of Woodland Series targets continues fun, realistic way to practice.

HHA Sports releases new Tetra LR and LRZ for 2021 — ATA Show.New Bow Stabilzers, Accessories for Hardcore Archers ATA Show

New Bow Stabilzers, Accessories for Hardcore Archers

Game and Fish Staff - January 15, 2021

HHA Sports releases new Tetra LR and LRZ for 2021 — ATA Show.

A new long-range hunting contender enters the fray.First Look: Winchester's New 6.8 Western Cartridge SHOT Show

First Look: Winchester's New 6.8 Western Cartridge

Drew Warden - January 19, 2021

A new long-range hunting contender enters the fray.

See More Trending Articles

More Stories

The The eastern Georgia lake may be best known for its bass, but anglers will find more trophies in these waters than just largemouths. Georgia lake may be best known for its bass, but anglers will find more trophies in these waters than just largemouths.Chase a Mixed-Bag Bite at Lake Oconee Fishing

Chase a Mixed-Bag Bite at Lake Oconee

Larry Larsen - April 28, 2020

The The eastern Georgia lake may be best known for its bass, but anglers will find more...

Pan-friend slabs may not sound like a holiday meal, but as a celebration of Mom's life it was my most memorable Christmas dinner ever.Crappie for Christmas: The Fondest of Childhood Memories Stories

Crappie for Christmas: The Fondest of Childhood Memories

Keith Sutton - December 19, 2018

Pan-friend slabs may not sound like a holiday meal, but as a celebration of Mom's life it was...

An hour here, 30 minutes there, 10 casts after work; sometimes that's all it takes.Perspective: Satisfy Fishing Passion When You Can Stories

Perspective: Satisfy Fishing Passion When You Can

Adam Heggenstaller - June 24, 2020

An hour here, 30 minutes there, 10 casts after work; sometimes that's all it takes.

When an angler has thinking time—like now—interesting thoughts come to mind.Sheltered in Place: I Miss My Boat-Ramp Friends Stories

Sheltered in Place: I Miss My Boat-Ramp Friends

Tory Mansfield - April 10, 2020

When an angler has thinking time—like now—interesting thoughts come to mind.

See More Stories

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now