April 28, 2022
Channel catfish adapt better than most fish, allowing managers to stock them in many bodies of water outside their native range. Today, these popular sportfish swim in waters of all kinds, from little farm ponds and creeks to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.
The types of waters where channel catfish are not found are relatively few. They rarely thrive in cold, fast-running streams where trout are abundant, and they don’t do well in the cold lakes of the Far North. They don’t like brackish water or saltwater, either, or waters that are polluted.
Almost everywhere else, thriving populations of channel catfish exist. Waters they love include big, fertile rivers; bayous; large, man-made impoundments; oxbows; creeks; water-supply lakes; sloughs; irrigation canals; ponds; backwaters; strip pits and just about anywhere else there’s fresh water.
The behaviors exhibited by these whiskered warriors may differ greatly from one habitat type to the next, depending on what foods are available and the types of cover and structure present. But experience gained while fishing will enable you to learn key facts about the fish, their foods and their hideouts.
For example, channel cats in clear mountain rivers may gorge on native crayfish. Catfish in a big farm pond, on the other hand, may feed primarily on frogs and juvenile bluegills. Channel cats in big man-made reservoirs may favor hideouts like cavities in riprap or deep bottom-channel edges, while cats in a clear upland stream might ambush prey from crevices beneath boulders.
The key to successful angling is understanding some of these differences and using your knowledge to zero-in on the best fishing locales with the best catfish baits. A thorough understanding of the three common Southern habitats below will put you on the road to catching more channel cats.
THE MASSIVE IMPOUNDMENT
Catfish inhabit lakes throughout their range but typically reach their greatest numbers and largest sizes in large, warm, fertile lakes with plentiful cover near deep-water sanctuaries and shallower feeding areas. This includes many large Southern impoundments constructed by government agencies like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The month of May, just prior to spawning time, rates among the best times of the year for fast-paced cat-catching in these waters.
Catfish are ravenous feeders as they prep for egg laying and guarding, and many are easy to catch with well-placed baits like night crawlers, chicken liver and chunks of shad or skipjack. Some will follow bottom channels toward shoreline shallows where spawning sites like muskrat holes, undercut banks, hollow logs and riprap crevices are found. Others run up tributary streams searching for similar sites.
After spawning, catfish that ate very little while guarding eggs or fry will start moving and feeding again. Those in tributaries may move downstream and back into the lake, or linger near the spawning area if good summer habitat is available. Cats that spawned in the lake usually return to deeper water, often hanging around cover near fast-breaking bottom structures such as humps and channel edges. Most will rest in deeper areas during the day and feed in shallower water at night.
Watch for quiet coves and backwaters with beds of green aquatic vegetation such as water lilies, water lettuce and elodea. Catfish love to lurk in shady holes or cruise weed-bed edges to feed on crayfish, shad, minnows and insect nymphs. All these make great baits in this habitat, but many anglers believe the best enticement is a fat frog hooked through a front leg. Cast the amphibian to an opening in the interior of the weeds and coax it to swim around with little tugs. Or just fish it along the outer edges of cover. With the hook through a foreleg, it still can swim well enough to garner the attention of any hungry catfish nearby.
When it comes to massive impoundments, two of our region’s biggest and best are the Santee-Cooper lakes, Marion and Moultrie, in southeastern South Carolina. Spanning more than 170,000 acres together, these lakes produce big channel cats and lots of them. The current world record of 58 pounds was caught in Moultrie in 1964, and today, daily catches of 50 or more up to 15 pounds are common in both lakes.
A great way to catch these good-eating cats is fishing the lakes’ many beds of small mussels. Locals anchor their boat near a bed spotted during low water, then cast commercial chunk baits or pieces of hot dogs. These are about the same size as most mussels and are quickly gobbled up by eager channel cats. Big blue and flathead catfish often are caught in these hotspots, too, so 7-foot rods, heavy baitcasting reels, 25-pound-plus line and 5/0 to 8/0 Kahle hooks are typical. Drop a bait down, reel it up a little and you’ll often have a big one on before you place the rod in the holder.
THE CLEAR MOUNTAIN STREAM
We often think of broad, slow-moving, bottomland rivers when we think of catfish, but our whiskered friends—channel cats, especially—are equally at home in clear, swift mountain streams. For example, cats are common catches in numerous flowing waters in the Allegheny, Blue Ridge, Cumberland, Great Smoky, Ouachita and Ozark mountains of the South. Eating wild-caught catfish here is as much a part of local life as river baptisms and Friday night football.
You can fish these waters from a canoe, johnboat or kayak as conditions allow. Once you’re on the stream, though, you need to know where to look for catfish.
Among my favorite spots are eddy pools—areas of calm water that move in a circular pattern downstream from faster riffles and runs. These are like all-you-can-eat buffets for catfish. Crayfish, minnows, insect nymphs and other creatures are drawn there, and the calmer water provides an ambush point for actively feeding cats.
Fallen trees that break the current also attract big catfish. The best of these will be in outside bends. Water eats away at the bank beneath trees, causing them to topple into a washout where catfish can hide. If a deep-water pool lies just downstream from the fallen timber, the area will be even more attractive.
Catfish also like to hold on the downstream side of boulders, watching for prey drifting past in the current. Big boulders usually harbor the biggest catfish, but even rocks no bigger than a football can hide eating-size cats, so don’t overlook any possibilities.
The Buffalo National River in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas is a great example of a channel catfish stream of this type. It flows freely for 135 miles and is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states. As you float in the shade of tall bluffs, try your luck for some of the 5-pound-plus channel cats swimming there.
One of the best techniques is simply casting to good-looking spots while you wade the shallows. Position your bobber so the bait will hang just above, but not on, the stream bottom. Then allow the rig to drift naturally in the current, guiding it alongside catfish cover.
Bait choices run the gamut from minnows to chicken liver. I generally start out using live crawdads caught by turning leaves and rocks in shallow feeder creeks. Nightcrawlers also work extremely well, as do big live grasshoppers and small sunfish. Cast to a good-looking spot and allow your bait to sit for at least 10 minutes before changing locations.
THE FARM POND
Farm ponds frequently are stocked with channel cats. Their small size allows anglers to thoroughly fish them—a real advantage over larger waters. Most ponds also can be fished without a boat and without worrying about wind, current or other complications. Best of all, there are thousands of ponds throughout the South, so anglers everywhere can enjoy pond fishing for channel cats close to home.
I like to start by fishing in a pond’s deepest water, usually a hole near the dam. On the first series of casts, the bait rests directly on the bottom. If that doesn’t produce fish, I add a slip bobber to my rig and present the bait at mid-depths. For the third series of casts (if a third series is necessary), I present the bait just a foot or two below the surface, changing the position of my bobber stop to achieve the desired depth. The depth at which I find catfish is the depth I will continue fishing.
In sizing up a pond, also look for rock piles, stick-ups, stumps, logs, trees, holes, humps and points. These are typical catfish hotspots and should be fished thoroughly. Any brush or submerged objects offshore deserve special attention, as do docks and piers, deep holes around in-flowing water pumps, cool spots beneath overhanging trees and green aquatic vegetation.
Ponds may not look like much, but they offer superb catfishing opportunities far out of proportion to their size. If you’re a devoted channel-cat fan, ask your county extension agent to introduce you to farmers who might allow you to fish in their ponds, and after obtaining permission from those who will grant it, visit these bantam waters as often as possible. No other habitat type offers such excellent fishing in such a small area. Ponds are easy to find, easy to learn and easy to fish.
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