Bass Tactics Work for Catfish
By Terry Madewell
Understanding catfish behavior to improve your catch
Years ago I got the best catfishing advice in the shortest time I ever heard by a grizzled catfisherman at an otherwise empty boat landing. It changed my entire perspective on catfishing.
This fisherman had a cooler full of hefty catfish when everyone else said the catfishing was kaput. His reason was simple and succinct.
“Catfish don’t get the respect they deserve,” he said. “Catfish change locations with weather and water changes as any fish do. They go to specific underwater targets, just like largemouth bass for example. Most catfishermen don’t think like that. But they should.”
He said anglers fishing for gamefish species target unique underwater targets. These places have higher potential to congregate black bass, striped bass and crappie.
“Bass fishermen spend hours checking specific targets, or underwater structures, knowing they may find a wad of fish when they form a pattern,” he said. “But catfishermen expect the catfish to come to them, regardless of where they decide to fish. Catfishing is more than casting out some smelly meat and waiting for a bite. You’ve got to treat catfish with the same respect as gamefish.”
The savvy old angler hit it on the nose. Catfish typically aren’t classified as game fish, but they have specific tendencies as do any gamefish species.
Catfish and striper guide Justin Whiteside from Rock Hill, South Carolina takes the art of catfishing to the gamefish level. He believes unusual topographic changes are crucial to catching catfish. Whiteside guides at several lakes and said every situation is different, but the catfish finding process is the same.
“A distinct feature on the lake bottom is a key to most all of my catfishing setups,” Whiteside said. “The specific targets will vary from lake to lake but great examples are drops, ledges, holes, channel junctions and humps. Some of my best striper targets are also favored catfish spots. Catfish and stripers are not always present on the same place at the same time of the year, but I find an amazing crossover between the species. During the fall I often catch both from the same spot at the same time, using live bait for stripers and cut bait for catfish. But the cats also jump on the live bait. It can get wild.”
Whiteside said catfish react to changes in the environment just as gamefish do.
“Factors impacting these changes can be weather such as fronts, a quick rise or fall in water level or temperature,” he said. “Also a change from clear to muddy water and forage movement will create changes. It’s the same things I consider when guiding for gamefish.”
“I focus on these bottom contour changes,” Whiteside said. “This is the primary home of catfish during most of the year. I slowly motor along ledges which drop into channels, around humps, off points and where feeder creeks junction the mainstream river. I am searching for something different along the bottom contour. Sometimes the biggest catches of the day will be from a small target.”
Whiteside (803-417-0070) said the tendencies of catfish are very similar to gamefish in targeting these unique features to define a daily pattern for catfish.
“Whether drifting or anchoring, boat control is paramount to success,” Whiteside said. “If the boat is improperly positioned I’ve found I won’t catch as many fish, particularly big fish. To properly position the boat, consider wind, current, the type of structure being fished and the manner in which you intend to present the bait.”
“If I’m going to set up in an anchored position and cast bait to the fish location I anchor upwind or upstream of the target,” Whiteside said. “If I’m going to fish directly under the boat, then I position the anchors solidly to hold the boat directly over the fish. When drifting I’ll ensure the boat is aligned just right to cover the bottom feature I’m fishing. I use my motor to make minor drift adjustments as I scan the graph. I never randomly fish for catfish. I have a target and I fish that target.”
“The rigs and baits are different of course, but the thought process is the key,” he said. “I fish multiple rigs with different baits to find the favored bait for the day, just like other fishermen will change lure size and colors seeking a pattern. I use a graph to target specific places and I work the area for catfish and eliminate water and structures. When successful I can fish similar areas and usually catfish will be on them. The process of finding catfish is the same as other species. The differences are rigs and baits.”
Whiteside said the use of a good graph is just as important to successful catfishing as it is to any gamefish species.
“When I set up on a target I use my graph to see bottom contour changes that will attract and hold catfish,” he said. “I also want to see forage and fish I believe to be catfish marked on the graph. I am fishing a target, not an area. The difference between catching lots of fish and big cats, or the occasional fish, is really that distinct.”
Whiteside said that finding good bottom structure is only the first part of the overall plan. Typically a number of places have different bottom features from the surrounding areas that appear impressive on a graph. But just like bass or striper fishing, not all these areas will produce fish all of the time.
“It’s important to place appropriate emphasis on the presence of ample forage in the area,” he said. “In most of the lakes I fish, that’s threadfin shad and herring. However, just like deep water is relative to the specific lake, so is forage. Whatever is unique to the particular lake or river situation, that’s what a fisherman needs to find.”
Whiteside said he often prefers to anchor and cast his baits to very specific targets on the feature he’s fishing. If fish are marked at the base of a drop, he’ll cast to that specific spot. In low light condition and on cloudy days, he often finds them on top of a shallow hump near deep water, so he’ll target that.
“Even when I’ve selected a specific target to fish, I refine it further by casting my bait to the specific places my graph depicts fish are located. It makes a huge difference in the catch by the end of the day.”
Based on the situation, Whiteside said he sometimes prefers to drift fish, enabling him to effectively cover a much larger area.
“Some of the open water structures I fish are large and I can’t effectively fish it from an anchored position, so I’ll make a couple of controlled drift passes over the area to check them out,” he said. “Sometimes the catfish are scattered on these structures, so this can be a very effective method to catch them. But attention to detail in terms of the targets I fish is just as important. I control the drift to hit precise targets.”
To summarize Whiteside, the key to consistently successful catfishing is to first think of unique bottom features in relation to depth changes. Focus fishing effort on areas that have forage already in place. Follow these guidelines and your catfishing success will soar.
Catfishing can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. If you’re willing to put out the effort to find them in their favorite haunts you may be rewarded with catfishing action you only dreamed possible. And you can do it right now and throughout the entire year if you keep pace with catfish movements.