Patterning Your Summer Catfish
September 24, 2010
Summer means catfish to lots of anglers, and the dog days are a classic time to target these whiskered sportfish. Here's the lowdown on where to find summer cats in your favorite waters.
To catch jumbo catfish like this one, the angler must first establish the right pattern. Photo by Keith Sutton
Regardless of the season, the key to finding and catching channel catfish is flexibility. You must be willing to try different baits, various depths, different types of cover and structure, and multiple presentations until you strike pay dirt. In other words, you must establish a fishing pattern.
Fortunately, if you go about your fish-finding systematically, you should be able to determine a catfishing pattern, even when visiting new waters. Consider these factors:
TIME OF DAY
Catfish usually feed most actively at night, in early morning and late in the afternoon. During rainy or cloudy days, midday fishing may be good, and there is almost always some activity during the day. Still, peak activity is at night and near dawn and dusk.
At night, I fish the edges of deep holes first; then, if I don't connect with a cat, I move the bait into progressively shallower water, sometimes as shallow as 2 feet. If I'm fishing during the day, I look for the deepest well-oxygenated water.
Channel cats will eat almost anything. I've caught them on live worms, salamanders, maggots, leeches, caterpillars, crickets, grasshoppers, frogs, minnows, shad, goldfish, bluegills and crawfish, and I've caught them with artificial lures such as spoons, spinners, jigs, crankbaits and streamers. The dead and smelly also are relished by channel cats. Things like shrimp, fish guts, chicken livers, mussels, clotted blood, cheese, rotten milo and stinkbaits of all kinds will catch them. Even bizarre offerings like soap, hot dogs, dog food, marshmallows, bread, muscadines, persimmons and bubblegum are enticing at times.
Choosing the best bait from the vast array available is perplexing for novice catters. Fortunately, channel cats really aren't too particular, as you can see. It's not necessary to examine their bellies and "match the hatch," so to speak. Some baits do, however, work better than others. I've found three that always produce.
The first is fish. Fish are a major item in the channel cat's diet throughout its range. You can use fish that are alive or dead, cut or whole. You can catch your own or buy them through bait dealers. The best are oily fish such as shad, herring or suckers. Others to try include carp, chubs, mooneyes, sunfish and minnows, depending on what's available and legal in your area. Always use fresh fish - either live fish or cut bait stored on ice.
Night crawlers are also irresistible to channel cats. I take 100 or more along on all my forays. Buy them in bait shops or gather your own by raking through damp leaves. I like to add a shot of air to each worm with a hypodermic syringe. The added air lifts the worms, making them more visible to catfish.
My No. 3 producer is commercial stink bait. There are scores of brands marketed, and most have excellent cat appeal. These are available as chunk baits, dip baits, sponge baits, tube baits and dough baits. Experiment with different types until you find one you like that catches cats. Note, however, that these baits aren't likely to produce trophy-class cats - nor will night crawlers. For heavyweight channel cats, fish are the bait of choice.
Be flexible in your presentations. If one bait doesn't work, try another. Change to a bigger or smaller bait; vary the depth at which it is presented. If catfish are biting, and you've come prepared with an assortment of baits and tactics, sooner or later you'll find what's productive.
HOTSPOTS IN SMALL TO MIDSIZED RIVERS
Smaller rivers tend to be formed with a series of rapids and pools. Just below each set of rapids, at the head of each pool, fast water carves the channel deeper, creating a hole. This is the deepest part of the pool and the area where channel catfish are most likely to be found. Rocks, logs and fallen trees in the deeper upstream end of a hole make it even more attractive to catfish. Catfish ambush prey in these current breaks.
Other channel cat honeyholes in small to midsized rivers include eddies, boulders, low-head dams, logjams and channels to backwaters.
Big-river channel cats usually position themselves at strategic places to feed and rest - generally near structure that breaks the current. Focus your fishing efforts around such structures, which include wing dams; rock bars, gravel bars and sandbars; deep holes and cover in outside bends; humps; and deep holes at tributary junctions. A sonar fish-finder helps pinpoint prime areas.
The best channel catfish reservoirs are large, warm and fertile with plentiful cover near deep-water sanctuaries and shallow feeding areas. Key on specific areas within each reservoir. The most important are old river channels, tributary mouths, riprap, inundated lakes and ponds, and bridge channels. A good contour map of the lake, combined with sonar equipment, should be employed to zero in on the best fishing sites.
Channel catfish are among the primary game fish species stocked in most ponds. And because ponds are small, anglers have fewer problems pinpointing actively feeding fish. Portions of a pond where you should focus your attention include deep-water areas (often near the dam or along an inundated creek channel) where channel cats usually stay during daylight hours and during the temperature extremes of summer and winter; near the mouths of feeder creeks; near the outside (deeper) edges of green aquatic vegetation; and near rockpiles, stickups, stumps, logs, trees, holes, humps and points.
Still-fishing for catfish is a sit-and-wait game. You present your bait on or near the bottom, then wait for a catfish to find it. You can still-fish from the bank, as most catfishermen do, or from a stationary boat.
When still-fishing from shore, it's important to set up where action will be best. The area just below a river dam provides some of the best channel cat action, especially if you can cast to the slack-water areas between open gates. Many bank fishermen set up below tributaries or at the junction of two rivers. Fishing near fallen trees at the head of a deep pool on an outside bend of the river also can lead to good catches.
When still-fishing from a boat, carry two anchors to position your craft sideways on good holes. This way, your rods are spread out to cover
more water and avoid tangles. Try to pinpoint prime areas such as channel edges and humps, then narrow your fishing zones down to a few best spots - such as a stumpfield near the channel edge or a large snag along a riprap bank. Position your boat for best access to the structure you've chosen, then cast your bait to that spot and wait for a bite.
Drift-fishing is an active approach that helps you help the cats find your bait. You can drift-fish in a boat, or you can drift-fish your bait below a bobber.
When in a boat, use a drift rig composed of a bottom-bouncer sinker placed on the line above a barrel swivel, to which is attached a 2- to 3-foot leader with a 4/0 hook on the end. A small bobber added to the leader above the hook floats the bait above the bottom so fish can see it. Drift with the wind or use a trolling motor to move back and forth over areas you believe to hold catfish.
When wading or bank-fishing on a river, you can drift your bait beneath a bobber. This allows the bait to move naturally downstream, responding to the current. Use a slip-bobber on the line above your baited hook, and as the rig drifts, guide it alongside catfish-holding structure and cover. Keep a tight line at all times, and feed line as the bait moves downstream. Drift by one side of a hole, then down the other and finally right down the middle. If possible, shift sides of the river now and then to present baits in every likely spot as you move.
Keep your rod tip high when drifting a bobber rig. This keeps most of the line off the water, resulting in better rig control and hooksets.
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Regardless of where or how you fish, when you establish a productive pattern, remember it for future reference. If you visit the same body of water, or one similar to it, during the same time period and under similar weather conditions, chances are good the same fishing pattern will bring you luck again.