Catfish anglers know the water and its surrounding structure above and below the surface.  For those who ply the rivers of Illinois this often can be quite a challenge.

They study the vegetation to find where the fish feed and why.  They know which rocks provide shelter from current and are good places for ambushing forage.  They know where bluffs have broken off and boulders lie beneath the surface.

Known as river rats these anglers study current breaks created by the things that fall into the water to find the shelter and food the fish require.  To be a successful catfish angler one needs to be a river rat.

By observing water quality, they are usually the first to notice any problems from pollution and/or run off that damage the ecosystem.  At various times of the year river rats will use varying techniques and tackle.  Their plans relate to the conditions on the river.

Beginning by fishing for flatheads early in the year over deep water structure, they change in June and July to seek out the deep holes over which to drift. The big fish will suspend only in light current.

Flathead feeding during this period is somewhat selective.  Flatheads remain in deep holes by day venturing up on the flats late in the day and during the night.

On the Mississippi River, anglers will fish the back of a wing dam, as there is less current.  The wing dam of choice must be one that is not silted-in.  They also like the end of the wing dam in the swirl working the outside edge of the swirl. Damaged wing dams create two currents and are very good.

Perhaps the most popular areas are the tailwaters below dams.  The astute angler will fish the grooves.  When water flows over a dam, there will be slower water in some areas.  These are the grooves.  A heavy weight on a three way swivel will get the bait down deep.  The bait will float off the bottom above the weight.

Once the weight is on the bottom, the angler can lift the rod tip slightly and the current will move it down stream.  By allowing the current to carry the bait, it moves right to the fish holding in the groove.  After a short period retrieve the bait and repeat the process.

Early in the day, it is a good idea to fish fast moving water as it meets still water.  Catfish will feed along the borders such slack water.

Downstream, one can look for rocks that break the current in fast moving areas.  Behind them can be an eddy hole where fish will stack up.  One can cast upstream, let the bait wash around the rock and into the hole.  Feeding fish will feed on the upstream edge of the hole.

If one fishes from a small boat or canoe, the use of an electronic depth finder comes in handy.  Look for bottom breaks that drop off 1 to 4 feet.  Anchor downstream below the break.  Cast upstream, allowing the bait to role along the bottom and fall off the edge into the hole where catfish are waiting in ambush.

Points of land or large trees that have fallen into the water block current.  Many times the part of the tree above the water is only about 20% of the entire tree.  The rest is beneath the surface.  This often creates an eddy hole behind the current break.  Fish the eddy.

Late summer means low water conditions on most rivers.  Water temperatures often get into the 80’s and low 90’s as the channel catfish move to the shallow water up tight against dams.  The flatheads move to the deep holes.  As a result, catfish are in deep water, fast running well oxygenated water, or both.

Beneath most dams are deep holes created by the water cascading from one level to another.  Casting up under the dam can catch fish.

On the Ohio River, some anglers use crankbaits to catch fall cats.  They will get their boats right up in the shallow water at the dams and then cast floating Rapalas.  The river flow helps to provide action to the lure.  They prefer blue ones in the #13 and #18 sizes.

September is a time when artificial lures also are productive.  A 1/4 ounce jig, crankbaits or a 5-inch salt craw are good choices.  As the fish move into their fall feeding, movement of the bait becomes the key.

In the fall, use a trolling motor on a Jon boat.  Troll over deep holes in the 30 foot depth class.  The electronics identify fish in the bottoms of the holes.  Experience has taught that they are flatheads about to go on a fall feeding spree.

Other structure in the holes such as submerged trees, rocks and some other kinds of “home habitat” the catfish likely hold fish.  Bounce jigs right on their nose.  A 2- ounce jig with salt craw attached works well.  In order to get the fish to take the jig, it must be right on top of the fish.  Not being a bottom feeder by nature, the flatheads eyes are located to find food slightly above it.

Rivers are a constantly changing ecosystem.  Floods, temperature changes, civilization, and currents are just some of the factors that cause change.  If one wants to have success, he has to study it like a river rat.


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  1. Pingback: RIVER RATS CATCH CATFISH | Don Gasaway's Blog

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