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

Berkley

Berkley's Frittside Crankbaits

World Fishing Network show host Chad LaChance had a chance to visit with legendary crankbait master David Fritts about his new Frittside crankbaits from Berkley. LaChance, host of the Fishful Thinker on WFN, also got a few cranking tips from Fritts, the former Classic and Forrest Wood Cup champion.

Berkley

Berkley's Surge Shad

Major League Fishing pro Scott Suggs has relied on the Berkley Surge Shad lure concept for years, using similar designs to capture MLF titles and a $1 million dollar FLW Forrest Cup win. With new features in the Surge Shad, Suggs tells OSG's Lynn Burkhead that even he can find success out on the water!

Costa and Captains for Clean Water

Costa and Captains for Clean Water

With the company's heavy involvement in initiatives like Kick the Plastic and Captains for Clean Water campaigns, Costa's Amanda Sabin tells OSG's Lynn Burkhead all about the sunglass maker's unwavering commitment to help the freshwater and saltwater environment.

Simms

Simms' Solarflex Ultra Cool Armor Hoody

John Frazier of Simms Fishing Products helps OSG's Lynn Burkhead understand the new features of the new Simms' Solarflex Ultra Cool Armor sun protection hoody.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Dozens of different bait types are commonly used for catfish, including these great options. Catfish

12 Great Catfish Baits

Jeff Samsel

Dozens of different bait types are commonly used for catfish, including these great options.

Here are the 10 most common spinning and baitcaster reel performance problems and how to fix them. Fishing How-To

10 Most Common Reel Performance Problems

Anietra Hamper

Here are the 10 most common spinning and baitcaster reel performance problems and how to fix...

Fishing for nighttime crappie gets you out of the summer heat and puts more fish in the cooler.

By Other Freshwater

6 Tips for Nighttime Crappie

Keith Sutton - June 19, 2017

Fishing for nighttime crappie gets you out of the summer heat and puts more fish in the...

We found 10 secret (and proven) catfish baits that have the staying power to attract catfish time after time. Catfish

10 Secret Catfish Baits You Didn't Know About

Anietra Hamper

We found 10 secret (and proven) catfish baits that have the staying power to attract catfish...

See More Trending Articles

More Stories

Bow fisherman arrows fish of a lifetime on South Texas trip. Other Freshwater

240 Pounds! Massive Alligator Gar Taken on Father's Day

Lynn Burkhead - June 22, 2020

Bow fisherman arrows fish of a lifetime on South Texas trip.

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. 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...

Various companies show appreciation to frontline defense – healthcare professionals – against the pandemic with special giveaway. News

Outdoors Industry Honoring Healthcare Heroes: COVID-19

April 27, 2020

Various companies show appreciation to frontline defense – healthcare professionals – against...

See More Stories

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

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