Chutes, Ladders, and Sore Thumbs, Too

By Brad Hierstetter

“Reliable Spots for River Blues and Channels”

These fallen trees, the tops of which lay in over 10 feet of water, are an excellent example of visible structure.

These fallen trees, the tops of which lay in over 10 feet of water, are an excellent example of visible structure.

Catfish heavily relate, and often feed in close proximity, to structure; therefore, identifying structure is a very important skill that will allow river anglers to immediately increase their likelihood of more consistently catching blue and channel catfish.

What exactly is structure? Simply stated, structure is any change, drastic or subtle, in bottom contour or composition. Before exploring the two main categories of structure always remember that structure is a blue or channel catfish’s dining room, so fish near it whenever possible.

In a 2 and 1/4 mile stretch of river this chart shows three quality invisible structures within a few yards one another: 1.) a shallow point that drops into a deep channel, which is marked by a visible red buoy; 2.) a steep ledge dropping into deeper water; and 3.) a submerged pile.

In a 2 and 1/4 mile stretch of river this chart shows three quality invisible structures within a few yards one another: 1.) a shallow point that drops into a deep channel, which is marked by a visible red buoy; 2.) a steep ledge dropping into deeper water; and 3.) a submerged pile.

The first structure type, visible, refers to objects such as a shoreline log jam, a riprap (rock or concrete) bank, a partially sunken wreck, or a bridge. Generally, anglers who arm themselves with an acute sense of awareness can fairly easily identify these structures, many of which will “stick out like a sore thumb” when viewed in relation to their immediate surroundings.

Some anglers find locating underwater anomalies to be a bit more challenging. Examples of this second major structure type, invisible, include: ledges (commonly called “drop-offs”), holes, humps, log or rock piles, and changes in bottom hardness. Aside from being productive year-round and, generally, easier to locate, ledges are my favorite type of invisible structure, thus my reference to the popular board game “Chutes and Ladders” within this article’s title to assist with remembering not to overlook them.

Three geographical principles, applicable to nearly all rivers and creeks, can also be useful when deciding where (or where not) to fish: 1.) The current on outside river bends moves quicker than the current on inside bends; 2.) The deepest part of any river stretch is typically on the outside river bend; and 3.) Complex snags, which are comprised of more than one structure, are often found near river bend holes.

Your preference of targeting blue or channel catfish should also factor into your selection of fishing spots. Blue catfish favor “bigger” waters with faster currents. Blue catfish also remain active in a much broader range of water temperatures. In fact, many trophy blue catfish are caught during the cooler months of October through March, in water temperatures as cold as 33 degrees Fahrenheit.

The author's tournament partner, Mike Dodge, holding a 68-pound blue catfish caught in November from a main river ledge.

The author’s tournament partner, Mike Dodge, holding a 68-pound blue catfish caught in November from a main river ledge.

In contrast, channel catfish prefer slow to moderate currents and, according to most experts, thrive in water temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. I will caveat this, however, with a general statement from my personal experiences: on bigger rivers inhabited by both blue and channel catfish, large blue and large channel catfish can regularly be caught from deep ledges when the water temperatures start to consistently rise from their winter lows and consistently drop from their summer highs.

RELIABLE CHANNEL CATFISH LOCATIONS BY SEASON
WINTER (coldest water for an extended period)

·         Deep holes or pockets away from the main river flow

·         Deep areas bordering the main channel

·         Deep holes at the mouths of tributaries

·         Behind anything that reduces current

SPRING (rising water temperatures)

·         In early Spring, channel catfish might still spend most of their time in deep holes

·         Moving, but still avoiding direct current

·         The core of holes and shoreline holding areas

·         Flooded sloughs

·         Backwaters

PRE-SPAWN (rising water temperatures and stabilizing river flows)

·         Into smaller feeder rivers

·         Temporarily concentrate around upriver barriers such as dams, riffle areas (or rapids), and behind wing dams

·         In spots offering both food and protection from current

SPAWN (water temperatures of 75 degree Fahrenheit or higher)

·         June is the most common spawning month across the channel catfish’s geographic range

·         Shallowest and narrowest stretches of river

·         Crevices near rocky riffles

·         Undercut banks, muskrat holes, and objects in the water

·         Flooded timber in backwater lakes and sloughs

POST-SPAWN/PRE-SUMMER (water temperatures between upper-70 degrees and mid-80 degrees Fahrenheit)

·         Logjams

·         Deep, cover-laden holes

·         In high water, try the lower ends of tributaries, flooded timber, side channels, and backwater areas

SUMMER (annual maximum water temperatures)

·         Holes

·         Woody structure

·         Snags

·         Flooded timber in backwater lakes and sloughs

·         In higher water, try the lower ends of tributaries, flooded timber, side channels, and backwater areas

TURNOVER/FALL (water temperatures cooling from 80 degrees Fahrenheit)

·         Below rock riffles in October

·         Bigger, deeper water and deep wintering holes

“… always remember that structure is a blue or channel cat’s dining room, so fish near it whenever possible.”

An effective way to identify invisible structure prior to venturing towards the river is to review a nautical chart, if one exists for your particular waterway. On charts maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), two or more contour lines running closely together indicate a ledge; the more lines in close proximity to one another, the steeper the ledge. An icon, bordered by a dotted line, resembling a football with its laces up marks a sunken wreck.

Additionally, abbreviations such as “hrd” (hard), “Le” (ledge), “Obstn” (obstruction), “Rk and Rky” (rocks and rocky), “so” (soft), “Ru” (ruin), “Subm piles” (submerged piles), “Wk” (wreck), and others indicate invisible structures that may be worthy of further investigation. Be sure to review “U.S. Chart No. 1” for a thorough description of the “symbols, abbreviations and terms used on all NOAA, NGA and international nautical charts…” The latest edition of U.S. Chart No. 1 can be found online, here: http://www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/mcd/chartno1.htm

If you are fortunate enough to own or fish from a boat equipped with a chart plotter, it is likely that the chart plotter’s pre-installed map will, to some degree, mirror the nautical charts described above. If its factory-installed map lacks adequate granularity, most modern units can be upgraded with more detailed maps for an additional fee.

If the river that you are fishing has not yet been formally mapped, time on the water dedicated primarily to scouting may be the only available means of “marking” specific structures. If you are fishing from shore, purposefully choose locations in the vicinity of both visible and invisible structure.

Once on the river, cast your fresh, preferably native and/or oily, baits well above your chosen structure. Doing this will afford you the maximum opportunity to catch active fish immediately near your baits, as well as any that may be holding above the structure.

Recall that catfish can taste food without actually putting it in their mouths. This biological fact, coupled with directing your initial casts well above the structure and allowing the current to carry your bait’s scent trail downriver (toward the structure), is what may pique the interest of fish positioned above the structure.

            Fishing near reliable river structures will allow you to more consistently land blue and channel catfish across a greater variety of conditions and seasons. This primer will enable you to more easily locate these productive structures, which truly are catfish magnets.

I would like to close with a reminder about the importance of conservation to our sport’s present and future. Please remember that not everyone views catfish as the precious natural resource they are. Do your part to support sustainable recreational catfish fisheries by harvesting your catch selectively, by practicing Catch-Photograph-Release of larger fish, and by actively supporting regulations that foster quality fisheries. Recognize, too, that, now, more than ever, the recreational catfishing community must unite and, as an organized entity, actively promote catfish conservation.

catfish-now-catfish-speak

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