Hot Catfish after Dark
Story and photos by John E. Phillips
Strategies for Catching Nighttime Catfish
Everyone knows that tailraces make great places to catch catfish in the daylight hours during the summer months. However, rarely will you see a hook-and-line fisherman angling the tailrace for catfish when the turbines don’t run, the water has turned as slick as glass, and all the fishermen have gone home sunburned, tired and dehydrated.
As one avid nighttime angler told me, “I like to fish at night for cats because I have the entire tailrace to myself. The weather is cooler, the fish bite more, and when you find a good school of cats, you don’t have to worry about other anglers crowding into where you’re fishing.”
“…the tailrace area will become calm and still…”
If you like to catch catfish, but you hate to fight the crowd, the heat and the swift water, then why not fish for cats when the weather becomes cooler, and most of the anglers have left the lake?
Find Summertime Catfish at Night
Catfish generally move in schools and you are likely to find them where you discover large schools of baitfish. Big schools of bait, like shad, generally will hold in the same places at night that they do in the daytime. If you locate a school of shad during daylight hours in a tailrace, you can return to that same spot at night and search for the school. Then more than likely, you’ll find catfish.
Because the tailrace produces turbulent water during daylight hours, especially during the spring and summer months for power generation, charting the bottom with a depth finder can prove difficult. However, at night when the hydroelectric plants stop generating current, the tailrace area will become calm and still, making surveying the bottom very easy. Search for holes in the bottom and boulders sticking up off the bottom, and use your depth finder and GPS to mark these spots. Catfish historically will hold in places like these.
Also, to find catfish in a tailrace, look for jug fishermen in the states that permit catfishing with jugs. Jug fishermen will put most of their jugs out in the spots where anglers have caught catfish during the week. If you know where the jug fishermen fish by day, go to those places, and fish them at night.
Fish the Dams for Summer Catfish
Many dam authorities shut off the turbines around 8:00 or 9:00 pm at tailraces. Not as much current will run at night anyway as it does during daylight hours when the demand for electricity is high. When no turbines are running, fish right in front of the turbines. Catfish love to feed on baitfish at night near the underwater concrete walls at the mouths of turbines.
Lock the Catfish Up
After dark, many anglers catch catfish around the locks of dams. Locks have good lighting to enable you to bait-up and land the fish. Locks also offer long concrete walls leading into the lock where baitfish and catfish hold.
Motor up to the lock wall, and run right beside the wall with a depth finder to spot a school of baitfish. Then kill your motor, and start fishing. Many anglers have found that fishing the ladders going from the wing walls up to the top of a dam is productive for catching catfish. Baitfish often will congregate around these ladders, and the ladders provide places to tie your boat.
Search for Other Structure around Dams
Most dams have wing walls in front of their floodgates. The dam construction generally has a hydroelectric plant on one side of the dam, the lock on the other side of the dam and the floodgates in the middle of the dam. These floodgates often have wing walls coming from the base of the dam out into the water.
Generally a wing wall has a deep hole right in front of it. You’ll see these walls going down into the water and may think that’s the end of the concrete. However, if you look closely, you’ll see that the concrete above the water continues to extend below the water to a dark spot that shows right at the end of the concrete. At the ends of these underwater wing walls, you’ll almost always locate a hole that’s been created due to the tremendous amount of current at the end of the wing wall when the floodgates are open, and water comes over the dam and digs out that hole. Also, when water isn’t coming over the dam, but current is being generated from the hydroelectric plant, a reverse current is created that hits the ends of the wing wall and helps to dig out the hole even more.
A mile or two below the dam the rock piles and/or mussel beds also can yield catfish at night. When the weather is really hot, and the mussels start dying off and open up to release the carcasses of the dead mussels, great catfishing at night can be found.
Rig Light and Check Your Line Often When Fishing For Catfish
Although most anglers fish for cats with 15- to 20-pound test line, night anglers often prefer to use abrasion-resistant 10-pound-test line. You’ll need to check your line every time you catch a catfish to see how much damage the fish has done to the line – not only at the point where the hook is tied but also for about 3 or 4 feet up the line. The sharp, bony spines on a catfish’s dorsal and pectoral fins can nick and cut your line. So, if you’re serious about catching catfish, make sure you have fresh line going to the hook each time you catch a cat. If you don’t, you’ll lose more fish. Many successful catfish anglers also use a bait tank to keep shad lively for a day or two.
About 10 to 12 inches up the line, pinch on a 1/2-ounce split shot and then tie a #2 Eagle Claw Pattern 84 hook onto the end of the line and fish with live threadfin shad minnows. This size hook allows you to hook the threadfin shad through the nose without killing it, and the bait will stay alive on the bottom with this size hook at night.
If you’re tired of fighting the heat to catch a few catfish, wait until the sun goes down, and the stars come out, for cooler, more productive catfishing. Try these after-dark tailrace tactics to add more fun to your catfishing and more catfish fillets to your skillet.