Find the Sweet Spots
By Keith “Catfish” Sutton
Locational strategies for catfish in lakes and reservoirs
Veteran catfish anglers call them “sweet spots”—specific types of habitat that attract hungry catfish like kids to an ice-cream truck.
To catch more cats in lakes and reservoirs, you need to know these catfish magnets. Some sweet spots are readily visible and easily identified. Others must be pinpointed using sonar and may be so subtle they’re hard to find. Either way, your ability to zero in on these prime waters can mean the difference between catching lots of catfish or catching none.
Here are eight sweet spots you should know.
Bottom Channels and Ditches
Some lakes have prominent bottom channels; others have subtle ditches and drops. All such structures are sweet spots you can find using good electronics.
Main channels act like major highways, leading migrating catfish from one part of the water body to another. Small branches act as secondary roads, leading migratory fish toward shallow-water habitat. The biggest congregations of catfish often are found at the junction of two or more channels.
If it’s trophy cats you’re after, remember they usually feed near deep water falling into the channel. Look for them near features on the ledge distinguishing it from surrounding areas—brushpiles, points, adjacent humps, cuts in the bank, etc.
During the day, anchor in the shallowest water near the drop-off and fish deeper water. At night, do the opposite to catch cats moving shallow to feed.
Engineers often place riprap (large rocks along shorelines to prevent erosion) near dams, bridges and causeways on lakes. Riprap appeals to catfish because it attracts forage animals and provides cover, depth and shade. Large channel cats and flatheads, especially, like this habitat.
When fishing a long, look-alike stretch of riprap, focus on objects distinguishing a small section. A pipe or fallen tree may attract catfish. Other times, a difference in the rocks does the trick. Watch for big boulders changing to smaller rocks or slides of rocks creating points.
Inundated Lakes and Ponds
Small ponds and lakes inundated when larger lakes fill are prime locales for trophy cats of all species. These offer easy access to deep-water holding areas and shallow feeding spots. They’re especially productive in large, shallow lakes.
Pinpoint the spot with sonar, and then look within it for points, drop-offs, sunken islands or humps that may attract cats. If scattered trees or stumps exist around the perimeter, fish them carefully.
Heavy wind produces a chain reaction on fertile lakes. The wind blows floating plankton (microscopic plants and animals) against the shore. Minnows, shad and other baitfish that feed on plankton follow their food to shoreline reaches. Catfish that feed on baitfish follow, too. For this reason, fishing shorelines pounded by heavy winds often produces extraordinary catches of catfish. It’s a situation every catfish angler should know.
Locating an underwater hump, rise or submerged island is like finding a map to buried treasure for the cat fan. These structures are among the most productive catfishing spots in any lake or reservoir, especially during summer and winter.
When you’ve pinpointed a hump with your electronics, learn all you can about it: its size, the steepness of drops on each side, existing cover and so forth. Narrow your fishing area to a few choice zones—points, pockets, rock beds, timbered or brushy areas, etc.—and mark them with buoys.
Power-plant facilities for generating electricity are a common sight on many large lakes. Water flowing into and out of the plant creates a subsurface current covering a big area in a power-plant lake, and large numbers of catfish often hold near the mouths of discharge and inlet channels and out into the lake where there’s still a hint of moving water. Hot-water discharges are especially attractive to catfish in cooler months because they attract schools of baitfish like shad.
Sometimes the current hugs the shore. In other lakes, it may curve out into the main lake. When you figure out the current pattern, you can fish places where chances of locating catfish are greatly improved.
Note the depth of the hump below the surface. Humps rising no closer than 40 or 50 feet of the surface may be below the summer thermocline with oxygen levels too low to support catfish. The best humps are 5 to 20 feet from the surface and have substantial deep water around them, such as a creek channel running alongside. Humps with timber, brush, rocks or other cover are also very productive.
Weed Beds & Thickets
Weed beds and brushy thickets provide first-rate action for savvy catters. Most anglers assume the interior of these hotspots can’t be fished and confine their fishing to the edges. They may miss big cats hiding deep in the cover.
The trick to catching these cats is working methodically to cover every accessible nook and pocket. A heavy jigging pole is tops for this because it allows you to reach likely honeyholes from a distance with fewer hang-ups. Attach a float above your bait, and probe every opening you see, changing the float’s position until you determine the depth where fish are feeding.
Don’t be shy about fishing tiny, “impossible” looking openings. Chances are, your bait will penetrate quite easily, and catfish in such places are far more likely to strike than those found on edges pounded by every passing angler.
The area where a creek or river empties into a lake can be a real sweet spot when conditions are right. Catfishing is outstanding after rains when high flow carries forage into the reservoir. In early spring, an incoming creek or shallow stream may bring warmer water that attracts baitfish and, consequently, catfish. Cool- or cold-water stream mouths have excellent potential in summer, especially at night.
If you fish for catfish in big river-bottom oxbow lakes, learn all you can about a phenomenon known as “the run-off.” This occurs when a river “falls out of” a connected oxbow, usually in spring or early summer when overflow waters recede from the river bottoms. There comes a point, when the water has fallen low enough, that the only connections between an oxbow and its parent stream are small “run-outs” created by low points in the topography. Sometimes only one run-out exists; occasionally, there are several. All run-outs serve up extraordinary catfishing.
Water constricted in run-outs is swift, and forage animals are pulled by current into the rushing stream of water and adjacent areas. Catfish gather to gorge on the resulting feast. Some hold near cover at the head of the run-out, in the lake. Others position themselves at the run-out’s tail, where the rushing water meets the river. All feed ravenously, and any bait—night crawlers, cut-bait, live fish, crayfish—drifted through or along the run-out area is likely to be taken.
These eight sweet spots are among the most important you should know. But lakes and reservoirs differ greatly in their physical traits, creating fishing hotspots that may not be covered here. To catch more cats, it’s important that you learn to identify key areas that attract actively feeding cats regardless of where you fish. A lucky cast may put you on the right spot, but it’s better to count on knowledge, not luck, to lead you down the path to success.