May 14, 2019
Editor’s Note: This is one of the stories featured in the June issue of Game & Fish Magazine, on sale now at newsstands. Click here to subscribe and learn more about what’s inside the issue.
I learned precision catfishing from my elderly, catfish-loving father back in the ’80s. We were fishing from shore one hot summer afternoon on a medium-sized river, and he was out-catching me three to one. The fact that he outfished me was annoying, but even more exasperating was him grinning every time he clipped another cat onto his stringer and commented: “Are you sure you’ve got bait on your hook?”
I’ll admit that eventually, while he was unhooking a fish, I unapologetically moved into his spot to try to even the score. He wiped his hands on a towel, rebaited, then stood next to me, cast out and smugly asked: “Do you mind if I catch another fish while you’re fooling around here?”
After he caught a few more cats, he took pity on me and showed me his secret. It wasn’t the bait, it wasn’t the rod, reel or line. It was simply that he had identified the one spot in the current below a main-stream riffle that would take his lightly weighted bait downstream and curl it precisely to a dropoff where channel cats were apparently lined up like hungry patrons at an all-you-can buffet.
There’s a famous saying: “Ninety percent of the fish are in 10 percent of the water.” I’m convinced it was a catfisherman who came up with that fishing fact.
PRECISE CATFISHING IN RIVERS
The first step in understanding precision catfishing in rivers is to understand the three things that control a catfish’s life: eating, resting and reproduction.
Rarely do catfish eat, rest and reproduce in the same location, so knowing when and where catfish prefer to do those separate functions helps anglers know when and where to precisely place their baits.
Flathead catfish are notorious for their fidelity to location and routine, so we’ll use that species as an example. Multi-year studies of radio-tagged flatheads in rivers in the Midwest showed individual flatheads returned to the same specific spawning areas (areas of large rocks or logjams with cavities large enough to provide nesting sites) each year — often within yards of where they spawned previous years. After the spawn, those flatheads moved up or downriver to the same general area where they spent previous summers — often to the same logjam or deep hole.
Even more interesting, once in those summer haunts, the flatheads were often literally immobile more than 23 hours a day. They would set up in the middle of a logjam or at the bottom of a hole and not move, to the point where researcher Greg Gelwicks was concerned they had died.
“We were checking them during the days, and they were in the same exact place day after day,” he says. “It wasn’t until we did some checking at night that we found out they moved to feeding areas before they went back to the same spot in the same logjam.”
Video: How to Hook and Reel in a Catfish
Gelwicks’ and other studies of radio-tagged flatheads in other rivers showed flatheads were nearly as loyal to feeding areas as they were to resting areas. Unless river levels rose or fell significantly, the big fish returned to the same sandbar or dropoff every time they got hungry. Researchers noted the loyalty to specific feeding locations but couldn’t identify the magic that made one sandbar more attractive than another.
“The areas where big fish feed are strange,” says professional catfishing guide Denny Halgren. “There’s often no specific structure, maybe just a drop from a sandbar in 2 feet of water into a hole in 7 feet of water, but the area attracts baitfish, which attracts flatheads and big channel cats. You have to experiment to find those feeding areas, but once you do, memorize them. Until something changes in a major way, that’s where the big ones go to feed.”
Because flatheads generally feed after dark, and because Halgren prefers to fish during daylight hours, he often takes a different approach to precision fishing and targets spots in logjams where flatheads and the biggest channel cats rest.
“When they’re in those resting areas, they aren’t feeding,” he says. “They won’t move to take a bait, even 3 feet. So, you either have to tantalize them by putting an irresistible bait right on their nose or annoy them by putting a really active live bait in front of them.”
Halgren explains that flatheads and, to a lesser degree, large channel catfish are territorial and have little patience with intruders. Experience has taught him exactly where in a logjam to place a lively bullhead or green sunfish so that it is “invading” a flathead’s personal space.
“The little pocket of calm water at the upstream side of a root ball, or the deepest part of a logjam — those are the places I’ll use a heavy weight to anchor a really lively live bait,” he says. “I want that bait right in front of the flathead, banging around, fighting the hook. Sometimes a slightly smaller live bait works better because flatheads have two ways to deal with anything that intrudes into their territory — ram it with their nose, or simply eat it. A smaller bait, sometimes it’s easier to just eat it than to ram it out of the way.”
Channel cats are less territorial but easier to tempt into biting. They’re always hungry, even in their resting area. A big gob of stinkbait or — for channel cats larger than 3 pounds — a bloody-fresh chunk of cut bait is like tossing a piece of fresh, raw meat into the wolf pen at the zoo.
It’s easy to write about those hotspots in logjams or feeding areas but difficult to exactly explain how to identify them. Every logjam isn’t guaranteed to hold big catfish. Every dropoff from a sandbar isn’t a catfish buffet. But there are enough generalities to give anglers a head start when diagnosing the best places to fish in a river.
Big, complicated logjams with grass and weeds growing from them tend to hold the biggest flatheads. The biggest fish claim the “best” areas, and those areas tend to be: (1) the top end, where current slows and carves a deep hole before it spills off to the sides and (2) the sides with the strongest current, or boils inside the logjam, that indicate currents have carved a deep hole among the tangled branches, or (3) the downstream “tailwater” where calm water reunites with the main current.
Don’t overlook holes running along the base of cutbanks or submerged root balls in mid-channel. Large rocks or root balls often lodge at the base of cutbanks and provide hidden hidey-holes for flatheads and especially channel cats. Submerged mid-river current breaks, like root balls or hidden dropoffs, are tough for anglers to find, but they are easily found and favored by catfish.
Feeding areas are especially tough to identify. As I learned on that day on the river many years ago, it takes experimentation to identify the exact spots where currents and bottom topography align to take baits to waiting catfish. Some anglers mistakenly try to use a leaf or twig to figure out which currents are moving toward a specific hole or known dropoff, but surface currents and subsurface currents can actually move in opposite directions.
I often use a float with a weighted bait dangling just off the bottom to test what’s going on below the surface. When I find a place where my float moves upstream along a cutbank, or circles into a logjam, I either let the float do its job of taking the bait to the catfish I know are lurking or switch to a weighted rig that I cast into that sweet spot and wait for the catfish to bite.
PRECISE CATFISHING ON LAKES
Catfishermen on lakes are famous for casting an array of baits along a shoreline and waiting for a channel or blue catfish — sometimes a flathead — to come along and take one of the baits. That shotgun approach puts catfish on a stringer, but a more precise approach loads those stringers faster and more heavily.
Albert McBee, former professional catfishing guide, recommends fishing the windward shore of lakes and targeting specific types of shoreline structure.
“I like to fish a windward shoreline where there’s a cutbank with trees or root balls sticking out of the water,” he says. “There will be catfish feedingall along a windward shoreline, but catfish are catfish, whether they’re channel cats or blue cats. If they have a choice between feeding along a long sandy shoreline or a cutbank with wood and junk along a shelf that drops off to deeper water, they’ll be along that cutbank, and they’ll be associated with those individual areas of structure.”
Jeff Williams, owner of Team Catfish, recommends shore anglers get topographic maps of lakes and avoid “easy fishing.”
“Shore anglers tend to pick spots close to parking lots or that are easy to get to,” he says. “You want to fish specific spots along the shore — places where an old river channel or creek channel swings to within casting distance, or where an old roadbed goes across an artificial lake. This is where catfish will be looking and waiting for food. wBlue and channel catfish will move up out of that old channel onto the shelf along the shore to feed or follow that roadbed from deep water to shallow as the sun begins to slowly set. If the wind is blowing toward that shore, it’s even better.”
Williams says submerged channels that swing close to a shoreline are some of the best places for shore anglers to target flatheads in a lake. He suggests looking for a choke point along that shoreline, a place where a fallen tree or fishing jetty juts across the “shelf” between shoreline and submerged channel.
“Especially at night, flatheads will come up and cruise along that shelf,” he says. “When they come to a fallen tree or something that blocks them, it kind of focuses them in one spot.”
Charles Jones, owner of CJ’s Catfish Baits, favors windswept shorelines all year but targets shorelines armored with large riprap during the channel catfish spawn in June. Channel cats spawn in the rocks, and Jones uses floats to identify exactly where they’re at on a given day.
“I load up with some of my CJ’s Fusion Catfish Bait, put it under a float and cast it into the wind,” he says. “The float brings the bait in with the wave action, and I shallow-up the float [on subsequent casts] until I start getting bites. That tells me how deep the cats are along those rocks on a given day, and then I can get to work catching channel cats about as fast as I can re-bait.”
Which brings us back to the analogy of catfish clustered in an area like a crowd of hungry folks overrunning a buffet. Don’t fish in the “parking lot” where everybody is scattered over 20 acres; fish precisely in the places where catfish are lined up waiting to grab your bait.
CATFISH BAITS FOR PRECISION FISHING
Channel catfish from 1 to 5 pounds are very susceptible to commercial dip baits and punch baits. Catfish above 5 pounds will take commercial baits but are largely predators and therefore favor either fresh cut bait or live bait. The concept that channel catfish prefer “stinkbaits” has been largely disproven. It’s not the stench of a bait that attracts them; it’s the complex flavors of amino acids associated with animal proteins that rings their dinner bell. It just so happens that many products that have those amino acids “stink” to humans.
Blue catfish will take commercial baits but are more commonly caught on fresh cut bait of the predominant species of baitfish in a lake or river. If gizzard shad are the dominant baitfish in a lake or river, use gizzard shad. If there are no gizzard shad in a lake, you’ll reduce your catch rate if you use “foreign-flavored” bait.
Flathead catfish prefer live bait but will take commercial bait or cut bait. They like “lively” baits such as green sunfish or bullheads, which fight and flop endlessly on a hook.
Many anglers believe catfish are so preoccupied during the spawn they quit feeding. If their hunger is diminished, it is offset by an increase in aggression. Spawning catfish don’t respond to the flavor of baits as much as to the mere presence of the baits. Floating a nightcrawler, minnow, crawdad, shrimp or other common catfish bait in front of their nests results in savage attacks. Some anglers do well dragging small crankbaits along spawning areas to antagonize cats into attacking.