VINCENNES, Ind. -- A quick glance at the river we were about to fish made me a bit nervous and skeptical. The west fork of the White River near Vincennes is noted for its catfishing, but on the day we chose to fish, it was a muddy, flooded torrent.
“Forget about finding fish in that mess, is it safe to launch a boat?” I asked. The fact that the ramp was empty made me also wonder if we weren’t wasting our time.
Did everyone else know something we didn’t?
“Have faith,” Captain Todd Arbuckle said. “The conditions are perfect for finding and catching big flatheads and blues, and my boat is made for these conditions.”
Click image to view photos of "Flood Stage Cats"
Arbuckle had proven me wrong several times before, so I threw my gear in the boat and climbed in on faith. Over the years, he had established himself as the best catfisherman I had ever met.
What I quickly realized was that fishing muddy, flooded rivers requires special skills. Catfishermen need to understand the habits of fish at every stage of the river, as well as how to handle a boat in the sometimes unpredictable and changing current.
Good flood - bad flood
Some catfishing veterans believe catfish experience two major feeding runs every year, and that they are both triggered by floods.
The first occurs in the spring, when warm rains jump-start their metabolism. The other happens in the fall, when cats take advantage of high water to bulk up for the winter.
Fish react similarly to floods, regardless of whether they occur in the spring or fall. Not all floods are necessarily worth fishing, however, even if they happen in the spring or fall.
Determining the level of water in a river or reservoir in relation to its bank is the first consideration. Rivers that are high but stable or on a slow rise are best, and they are actually often better fishing than rivers at normal pool.
On the other hand, a river or reservoir with a receding water level is no good, and almost never worth fishing. The general theory is that fish panic when water is receding and forgo eating to find safe water. But not all stable or slowly rising rivers are good either.
“I want a river to be bank-full, but definitely not over the bank,” Arbuckle said.
Bank-full means the river is flooded to the top of the bank only. Once the water spills over the bank and into adjacent timber and fields, the fish become too scattered, especially when the flooded areas have current.
Catfish guide Eddie Brochin agrees that catfish are hard to find once a river has spilled over the bank, but says he has still caught fish under those conditions.
“One time, I was all the way up into someone’s yard, next to their flooded tennis court,” he said. “I saw a tail swirl under a picnic table, went after the fish and caught a nice flathead.”
Those situations are the exception, however, since huge flooded areas generally scatter baitfish too far and wide to target. In those situations, angling is more dependent on sight fishing than targeting any particular structure.
When the river is just bank-full, on the other hand, big cats concentrate in predictable spots. In fact, they are probably easier to find in a river that is bank-full than they are when the river is at normal pool.
“In high water that is not yet over the bank, baitfish need to find eddies because the current through the main channel is too turbid and fast for them to hold in,” Arbuckle said.
And wherever bait concentrates, so do predators.
Eddies exist at normal pool, but are not as productive. Skip jacks and shad have no problem schooling in the main channel at normal pool in most big rivers, and don‘t need to hold in eddies.
Bait selection is another concern when fishing high, muddy rivers.
Bluegills are fantastic bait for flathead catfish when the water is clear, but not when it is turbid. Fish rely more on smell in muddy water, and panfish aren’t stinky or oily enough for them to locate.
Though Brochin agrees that bluegills aren’t the best bait in flooded conditions, he will use a male bluegill on occasion, if it is the darkest bait he has in the tank. If fish are close enough to see bait, a very dark offering might make the difference, he believes.
Though they aren’t easy to procure, big gizzard shad or skip jacks are still the best options in flooded water. They smell and shed scales at an alarming rate -- perfect for habitats with almost zero visibility.
Use a couple of the fish live, but always set one rod with cut bait. After cutting a big chunk of shad and putting it on the hook, score the body in a couple spots and scrape the scales to release even more scent into the water.
Concentrated fish or not, perhaps my biggest concern as Arbuckle and I backed down into the White River was the swirling, brown water and trees floating past us.
Anglers should wear personal flotation devices when fishing any current, but in flooded conditions it is a must. Eddies swirl in every direction and suck objects down to the bottom, which is often a lightless, brown world of tangled trees and debris.
People and animals sucked down into one usually become disoriented and drown. A flotation device can help victims find their way back to the surface.
Boaters also need to be prepared to dodge floating debris the entire time they are on a flooded river. It is helpful to have one person at the helm, and a second person just watching for oncoming trees and stumps bobbing their way down river.
Though tempting, it is a bad idea to run the boat at full speed in a flooded river. There are more than a couple lower units sitting at the bottom of every major river in this country, courtesy of boats going too fast in flooded conditions.
I donated one to the Tittabawassee River in Michigan several years ago because I was in a hurry to get to my spot in high water. Not only did I not fish that day, I was almost ejected from the boat on impact with a completely submerged tree root that was traveling down river.
Never tie or anchor-off a boat in heavy current. Not only are there no fish in the main current, it is also just too dangerous.
Even tying off or anchoring in slack water or secondary current requires extra vigilance. Floating debris needs to be constantly redirected before it crashes into the bow of the boat.
With a little common sense and a healthy dose of respect for moving water, flooded rivers are typically quite safe and offer some of the best catfishing of the year. Target the right flood at the right time, and not only will the fishing be the best of the year, there probably won’t be too many other anglers to share the action with.