5 Surefire Strategies For River Cats

Now's the time to be hitting the moving water for summer catfish action. And here's what you need to know to find and tempt the fish!

Tight-line rigs are best for putting baits right in front of the cats in moving water.
Photo by Jeff Samsel.

When summer starts to sizzle, the channel catfish action heats up as well. The cats are all done spawning by now, so their focus is on feeding, and they tend to pile up in predictable places. River fishing can be especially good this time of year, if an angler is well schooled on the best approaches. Let's look at how, where and when to catch the most river cats during the dog days of summer.

Among the most predictable places to find concentrations of catfish in virtually any river is within the sharpest bends along a river's course. Sharp bends scour deep holes, often with steep banks, and bank erosion commonly causes brush and trees to fall into the deeper water. In addition, river bends naturally create a mixture of current lines and eddies that provide holding areas and feeding lanes for the catfish.

The fish might be over the slope at the head of the hole, along its edge or down in the deepest water. They are somewhere, though, and by trying a few different anchoring positions, you generally can find them. Because catfish follow their noses (and whiskers) to food, the best way to find fish in a river hole, generally speaking, is to begin at the upper end of the hole. Use baits that give off a lot of scent, which disperses farther down into the hole to draw fish to the bait.

A simple bottom rig consisting of an egg sinker, swivel, leader and hook works nicely for fishing big holes within river bends. The weight should be just enough to hold the rig solidly on the bottom, given the water depth and amount of current.

Circle hooks work nicely because the fish often hook themselves. Among the best baits for this style of fishing are commercial catfish pastes, chicken livers and cut fish. The best setup for many river holes is to anchor a cast's distance upstream of where the baits should be, cast downstream and let the baits settle on the bottom.

Although plenty of cats certainly can be caught through the middle of the day, channel catfish are somewhat nocturnal, feeding most actively at night. This behavior becomes even more pronounced during the summer, adding to the night bite. Providing even greater appeal, nights can be more pleasant than days for being out on the water when summer really starts to sizzle.

At night, the catfish are near the same holes where they stack up during the day; however, they typically aren't down in the deepest water. During the evening, they migrate up the slopes of the big holes, and at night, feed in shallow water just upstream of holes or on the flats that are often found along the insides of the same big bends in the river. These cats may be in very shallow water, so it's usually necessary to anchor upstream of their likely holding position and cast to them. An alternative setup that works well in light current -- which is common along inside bends -- is to beach the nose of the boat and spread baits out in different directions on the flat.

Catfish roam more at night than they do during the day, so action often occurs in flurries. The best strategy is to scout out a few productive-looking spots before dark -- areas where fish are holding in holes that have shallow flats near them -- and set up on those flats or along the slopes before the sun goes down. Because the fish do tend to move and because of the added challenges associated with navigating rivers at night, spending more time in less spots is a better strategy than doing a lot of searching at night.

Often the best way to place an offering among actively feeding cats is to position a boat directly over their heads and fish a tight line straight down to them. As long as the water is deep enough to fish overhead without spooking fish and the current is sufficiently modest to let you hold a boat in position with a trolling motor, a tight-line approach allows for precise bait presentations.

A three-way rig works really well for tight-line fishing. Beginning with a three-way swivel, one loop is tied to the main line, and the others serve as connections for leaders to a hook and a weight. The leader to the hook should be short -- maybe 6 inches long. Fluorocarbon works well because of its toughness. The leader to the pyramid or bell sinker should be 12 to 18 inches long and a little lighter than the main line and hook leader so that when the weight gets snagged, there's no need to break off the entire rig.

Tight-liners typically keep a close eye on their electronics, looking for groups of cats to target, schools of baitfish that suggest cats should be nearby or bottom contours and cover that are likely to hold fish. They let out line and reel it back in as needed, striving to keep the weight barely ticking the bottom so that the bait is suspended just off the river floor and in the faces of active cats. Good baits for this approach are big minnows, either dead or alive, frozen shrimp and small chunks of cut fish.

Root wads, deadfalls, stumps, flooded trees and other woody cover rank among the most favored haunts of river cats. They provide both cover and current breaks, along with deep water where currents wash around branches. The fish may be among the branches themselves or in the big eddies that commonly form immediately downstream of them.

Often, the best way to achieve good boat positioning around trees is to tie the boat to the cover itself. Along with getting the boat close to where the most fish are apt to be hiding, tying directly to the cover spares the risk of losing an anchor in the timber. Except in competing eddies, the current usually positions the boat and holds it in place.

Typically, the closer the bait gets to the cover, the better the chances are that a cat will come out and nab it. Fishing close to the trees results in some lost terminal tackle -- and possibly a lost fish or two -- but the enhanced catch rate warrants the losses. Because more timber often is hidden on the bottom, a good way to lessen tackle losses it to add a large slip-cork to the rig and suspend the weight and the bait just off the bottom.

Keys to not losing fish once they have been hooked are gearing up extra heavy and being prepared to immediately work any catfish that is hooked away from the cover. The first surge is usually toward the thickest cover nearby, and that can be the make-or-break moment.

One unique appeal of river catfishing is that you don't need to own a boat to get in on the best angling action

. In fact, bank-fishermen sometimes enjoy the best access to river holes, whether because of currents that make anchoring difficult or shallow sections that render certain spots tough to access or even inaccessible by water. Bank-fishermen also enjoy the advantage of being able to shift 100 feet to alter their approach without having to re-anchor.

The best rigs for bank-fishing can vary quite a bit from spot to spot, with the amount of current, the nature of the cover, the size of the stream and the locations of bank clearings all factoring into the equation.

For small rivers with light current, a simple and highly effective approach is to cast a split shot rig baited with a night crawler or other natural offering upstream and across. Then let it settle in a slack hole or bounce slowly downstream in the current.

For larger rivers with relatively clear access to likely cat-holding waters, a better approach is to use a sliding egg sinker, swivel, leader and hook. Cast this rig out and simply let it settle on the bottom.

Although the stereotypical shoreline catfisherman has his rods resting on forked sticks and is watching for one to bend, keeping one rod in hand significantly enhances your hookup rates. For multi-rod setups, it's a good idea to use circle hooks for any rods that won't be held, with the reels engaged and the rods well braced. That way the cats often hook themselves.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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