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Channel Surfing for Summer Catfish

Forget finicky flatheads and boorish blues. Summer is for loading up on channel cats.

Channel Surfing for Summer Catfish

Channel cats aren’t very picky when it comes time to eat. Just about any live bait that creates a scent trail in the water will attract them. Nightcrawlers, minnows and redworms are easy to find in most places and incredibly effective. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Channel catfish have long been a favorite of anglers throughout the South. Whether you’re sitting on the bank with a rig propped on a forked stick and a gob of redworms on the business end or in a boat with the latest electronic gear and sophisticated equipment, channel catfish rank high.

With the surge in popularity of catching huge blue and flathead catfish in recent years, combined with the upswing in popularity of catfish tournaments emphasizing big catfish, the channel cat is sometimes overlooked. But the summertime action for channel catfish is spectacular, and this abundant species is found in countless waterways throughout the South.

The heat of summer is prime time to tackle these hard-fighting and great-eating fish. They don’t grow to the gargantuan size of monster blues and flatheads, but they are caught in big numbers and provide fast-paced action any fisherman can appreciate.

Channel catfish can be randomly caught from a fixed shoreline location, but with a good game plan they can be targeted and caught in large numbers. Modern catfishermen have proven these fish have something in common with more highly regarded game fish, like bass, in that they relate to specific areas, position themselves to actively feed and move to find forage.


WHERE TO FIND THEM

The recipe for channel catfishing success varies depending on the type of lake or river you are fishing. Mainstream “run of the river” lakes with lots of feeder creeks and ample shallow water offer more specific targets than deep, clear lakes with a lot of steep shoreline. Rivers also are full of catfish-catching opportunities, with current flow, eddies and deeper holes often the keys to success.


Regardless of the type of water, points—especially long points that drop into deeper water—are prime targets for summertime channel cats in both lakes and rivers. Junctions of smaller creeks with the main river channel are channel catfish magnets during summer, too.

For lakes specifically, the offshore humps (which are often far from the shoreline) that rise to fishable depths are hotspots. In lakes with defined creek and river channels, target underwater ledges that drop into deeper water.

Current flow moves forage fish, making main channel runs potentially productive. Flowing water in a big lake or river is always appealing to actively feeding channel catfish.Any irregular underwater bottom feature has the potential to hold multiple channel catfish in a small area, and it’s common to catch multiple fish from a single spot. To enhance your odds, use electronics to scan for signs of catfish holding near the bottom. Also, be sure baitfish or other forage are present. Channel catfish feed on a wide range of food sources and aren’t going to spend a lot of time in places without forage.

ChannelCats
In both lakes and rivers, long points that drop into deeper water are excellent places to focus efforts for summertime channel cats. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

HOW TO CATCH THEM

To catch a lot of channel catfish consistently, two specific tactics are proven to produce on lakes and rivers alike: anchoring and drifting.


When anchoring, the best scenario is to select a specific target to fish, such as a point, hump or junction of creeks. Using electronics helps significantly with identifying the exact target to fish. After anchoring the boat securely so it will hold position in wind, current or boat traffic, fan-cast baits around the area to cover multiple depths. Be sure you know if the water you’re fishing has any limits on the number of rigs you can legally fish.

When targeting big blues or flathead catfish, it’s wise to be patient and give the spot an hour or longer. When chasing channel catfish, I generally get antsy after 10 minutes with no action. After 20 minutes, if I don’t have multiple fish flopping in the cooler, I pull anchor and find another spot.

Drift fishing should never be random. Select a specific area with good bottom topography changes that is far too large to effectively fish from an anchored position. A prime example is a long ledge adjacent to a channel drop. Another is a series of humps and deep holes in a lake that enable you to fish multiple depths on a single drift.


Catfish are often more likely to chase a bait in hot weather, and since they often follow forage fish, the best drift-fishing tactic is to pinpoint areas where both bait and catfish are present. If the wind is from the right direction, use it to move your boat and keep you over your target area. A drifting speed of 0.5 to 0.8 miles per hour is the proper range for summertime channel cats. If the wind is causing you to drift faster than this, drag a sea anchor to slow the boat.

If the day is calm and the wind won’t push the boat fast enough, use an electric motor to propel you at the ideal speed. I prefer this method because if I hit a very productive drift pattern, I’ll use my electric motor and GPS on a graph to recreate the drift multiple times and catch many more fish.

ChannelCats
Where available, catalpa worms are a slam-dunk catfish bait.

WHAT TO CATCH THEM ON

Channel catfish have a reputation for eating a lot of different offerings, and it would be impossible to name all the baits they’ve consumed over the years, but one key to summertime success is selecting something they really want to eat. Live baits that emit an alluring scent, like minnows, redworms and nightcrawlers, are solid choices. In places where catalpa worms are available, they are a near sure thing.

Another great offering is a small chunk of any abundant forage fish that’s native to the lake or river you fish. In many cases, threadfin or gizzard shad are excellent choices. If you can catch your own bait with a cast net, cut chunks of the larger shad you catch. Small shad minnows rigged whole can also be lethal.

My favorite bait for consistently catching big numbers of channel catfish is stinkbait. I don’t have a good explanation for why stinkbaits are so effective, but the fact remains that channel catfish will reliably follow their nose to the alluring scent, often from long distances. The soft, brownish goo adheres to special large-ribbed plastic worms rigged on treble hooks. Also effective are sponges cut into small chunks and rigged on a treble or single hook, then dipped into the goo and poked with a “dipstick” until completely saturated with bait. Whether using plastic worms or sponges, tie the hook to a 10- to 12-inch leader and add a swivel to the opposite end. Above the swivel, add a weight—anything from a small split shot to a sliding sinker weighing an ounce or more—depending on depth and current.

You can make your own stinkbait, but there are many commercial options available. I have used several brands successfully, but Doc’s Catfish Getter Dip Baits (docscatfish.com) is one that several catfish guides I’ve worked with in different states find extremely reliable.

Channel catfish are typically very active by day because the water temperature in summer causes their metabolism to be high. To support that high metabolic rate, they need to eat frequently, but the locations where they’re found will change during the course of the day. In the low-light conditions of early morning and late evening, they’re often found shallower and more actively feeding across relatively wide areas. During bright hours of high sun, they’ll typically retreat to deeper water on the points and down the humps and ledges. They’ll continue to forage greedily, but do so in smaller, more defined spots.

These deeper targets can have a lot of channel catfish crammed in a very small area. Find them and you’ll be in catfish-catching heaven. Some of my most memorable channel catfish outings have been during mid-afternoon on a hot summer day fishing deep water. I love fishing multiple rods, but sometimes keeping just one baited is all I can handle in this situation.

Don’t overlook nocturnal opportunities, either. By night, channel catfish will often migrate to skinny water to feed heavily. Again, follow the forage to the best action.

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