August 30, 2022
By Dan Anderson
In his life, Grandpa never solved the mystery of his secret channel catfish hotspot on a local reservoir. He fussed and fretted every time we drifted stink baits across the lake's basin. We would always try to direct our path toward a magic location where we were almost guaranteed two or three nice cats. Then, before long, we would have to fire up the old Evinrude, move upwind and try to hit this sweet spot with another drift.
A lifetime later, I visited that same lake and graphed the bottom around Grandpa's secret honey hole. It didn't take long to identify a submerged roadbed with a jumble of debris that was probably an old bridge. As I sat on that spot, held in position by modern electronics, I wished Grandpa could have been there; he would have enjoyed solving the mystery. And he certainly would've loved catching his share of all the cats I found clustered along the roadbed and bridge that had become a thoroughfare for catfish moving around the lake.
Professional catfish guide Chad Ferguson has had similar experiences with submerged roadbeds in lakes in Texas, but a catfish's fondness for these areas is true of these fish across the country.
"Fishing around submerged roadbeds that are significantly different from the surrounding bottom is a no-brainer," says Ferguson. "That change in elevation from the bottom up onto the top of the road, with the road generally running from shallow out into deeper water, is like a highway for catfish."
He suggests, however, that these changes in bottom topography don't have to be extreme to attract catfish. On one lake he fishes, an old roadbed runs through shallow water. He says it's all silted in and doesn't show up on sonar, but he still catches loads of catfish over it. Even after taking off his shoes, hopping out of the boat and wading around one day, he still couldn't feel a noticeable difference in texture between the top of the roadbed and the ditches on the side. The fish, however, certainly knew the difference, and Ferguson estimates that his baits fished on top of the roadbed out-fished those placed on the sides by a margin of roughly three to one.
Submerged river and creek channels in reservoirs also act as highways for blue and channel catfish. Cats associate with drop-offs into old channels, though "drop-off" is a relative term. A deep channel with abrupt drop-offs may silt in and eventually become a shallow trough only a couple feet deeper than surrounding topography. But that subtle difference is often enough to attract catfish in reservoirs with featureless bottoms, to the point where catfish actually follow the paths where channels used to be.
Matt Davis, founder of Whisker Seeker tackle company, ran into that phenomenon in a Midwestern flood control reservoir. For years, he religiously marked every spot where he caught catfish from that lake on his sonar. One area seemed to contain a lot of marks, and he couldn’t understand why.
On the LakeMaster card he was using, it was roughly the size of a football field on a big flat at the north end of the lake. No structures or bottom irregularities showed up on sonar, but he consistently caught lots of channel cats there. So, he got on eBay and bought an older LakeMaster card for that lake from years ago.
"As soon as I put that card in my Humminbird, it showed there was an outside bend in the old river channel in that area," Davis says. "It's all silted in now, isn't shown on the newer card and doesn’t show up on sonar, but the catfish are still relating to where that channel used to be."
Shorelines, Points and Jetties
Shorelines are another catfish highway in lakes, especially at night. Baitfish move shallow after dark. Catfish follow, and they usually patrol parallel to the shoreline. Deadfall trees and jetties are chokepoints. The "armpits" where those chokepoints meet the shoreline tend to concentrate forage fish, and catfish take advantage of those natural baitfish traps.
The tips of points and jetties are also prime places to fish, day or night. Catfish cruising parallel to shore are forced to move out and around the obstacle, temporarily concentrating them around the tip of the projection.
If wind and waves blow across the tip of the jetty or point, it also creates a current. Cats moving around the tip often linger on the downwind side to take advantage of baitfish that cluster there to feed on microscopic organisms the current pushes into the slack water.
Knowing where to fish in lakes is only part of the conundrum of catching catfish. Knowing when to fish along catfish highways also greatly affects angling success. Cats move shallow as water cools in the evening and deeper as daytime temps rise in the morning. Radio tracking of tagged catfish shows they often follow submerged topographic features during daily movements. If there is a submerged creek channel, fence row or roadbed that provides a route between deep and shallow water, it can become a catfish highway during transition periods—such as when fish move shallow at night.
The Channels Within
Rivers are the catfish equivalent of the interstate highway system. Multiple lanes, rest areas and exit ramps control traffic on the interstate, just as submerged channels, brush piles and wing dams influence catfish movement in a river.
In his book, Cracking the Channel Catfish Code, professional catfish guide Brad Durick explains how advanced electronics helped him decipher the underwater mysteries in the legendary Red River of the North. He discovered that major holes associated with outside bends and log jams in rivers are often connected by distinct “channels” in the bottom of the river that catfish follow when traveling between holes.
He notes those smaller channels within the larger main channel may only be several feet wide and a foot deeper than the main river bottom, depending on the size and flow of a river. However, the difference is enough to create a pathway catfish follow.
"Sometimes they follow the edges of the channel," Durick says, "and sometimes they follow the bottom. I like to set up my boat so I can put out a spread of baits that goes all the way across that channel to intercept any cats that are moving through the area."
The daily movement of catfish in rivers and lakes along their submerged thoroughfares is often mistakenly assumed as a move from nighttime feeding grounds to daytime lounging areas. But catfish feed throughout the day. Truthfully, those diurnal movements may be more associated with sunlight penetration of the water than with changes in feeding behavior. In his years guiding, Durick has proven that catfish highways are busy 24/7.
"I run all my trips during the day, and my clients catch tons of catfish," he says. "[Catfish] move and feed all day. Do they move more at night? Maybe. But I catch all I need during the day when it’s easier to see what I’m doing on the river."
He says he catches more of the Red River's monster channel cats from shallower water on cloudy days and from deeper water on sunny days. If he’s finding fish shallow on a cloudy day, he knows he needs to move his baits deeper if the sun comes out. He adds that while fish may not move up- or downstream, they’ll certainly move sideways into deeper water. Sometimes, he says, all it takes to get the baits into deeper water is to move them to the other side of the boat.
A long-term study of the movement of radio-tagged flathead catfish in Missouri by Dr. Jason Vokoun shows that sunlight penetration may also influence flathead catfish behavior in late summer. Many of the flatheads in his study spent their days nearly immobile, typically associated with log jams. However, one irregularity became readily apparent.
"An odd thing we noticed was that they often did brief, short movements around noon each day," says Vokoun. "There's no good explanation why. It didn't seem to be a feeding move. It was never far—often only a few feet. One suggestion is that they were moving to stay in the shade, as the sun moved to the other side of the sky … who knows?"
MAP IT OUT
Fisheries biologists and catfish anglers will never know all the intricacies of catfish behavior. But modern anglers can use topographic maps and sonar systems to chart reservoirs and rivers and identify bottom features catfish use during their daily travels. Just like police officers who set up speed traps along busy streets, smart anglers can place their baits on or near catfish highways to catch their daily quota.