The author’s son Braden holding a very early spring channel catfish. If you notice behind him, the river is full to the top of the cut bank, and plant life is just starting to sprout. This is a time to get out of the current on the OFF current seam to find sluggish catfish.
Northern Spring Fast-Water Channel Cat Strategies
by Brad Durick
Understanding current seams and how catfish use them can help you catch more and bigger catfish with ease.
Every river, no matter how big or small, has a shallow area that drops into the main channel. The location of this drop-off can vary from river to river, but all rivers have it. In the most basic term, this drop-off is the main current seam of a river.
Most rivers have two of these seams, and where each seam meets the bottom of the river, a current tunnel is created. Catfish use these tunnels to migrate from point A to point B.
If you take time to look at the river you fish, you should be able to see where each seam forms. In some rivers, it’s more obvious than others, but it can be done by sight. This is basic river reading.
With today’s technology, it is even easier to find these seams and tunnels. If you motor over a breakline with a depthfinder, it will show you the sharp drop and where the seam is created. New mapping technology is even better to help you easily see where these seams form and how they connect holes that might hold fish.
Utilizing ON vs. OFF current
When I wrote my book “Cracking the Channel Catfish Code” 10 years ago, I coined the term “lateral movement.” When conditions change, catfish won’t run upstream or downstream. Instead, they exhibit lateral movements from side to side in a section of river to find the conditions they feel comfortable in.
Look for Lilacs
When spring is coming on and the water is warming, area plants can give anglers indications of what the bite may do next. Lilac bushes are one great indicator. When the bushes start to green up, the water temperatures are usually reaching 50 degrees. When they actually blossom, the water temperature is getting up around 60, indicating that the prespawn bite is probably at its best.
To make this concept simpler to understand, I later changed the terminology to “ON” current versus “OFF” current. As stated earlier, every river has two current seams. As the river moves and meanders, these seams and the current tunnels will change speed, creating ON and OFF current seams. This takes the understanding of current to an entirely new level. It does not mean that there is NO current on the OFF current side. It just means that it is slower on the OFF side than it is on the ON current seam in the main channel.
An example of this is a typical bend in a river. The river will flow to the outside of the bend as it is turned to go around the corner. This is usually the fastest current and the deepest hole. That would be the ON current seam.
As the current is pushing around on the outside, if you look to the inside, you will see the current is pulling away, and there is a point in the hole that is about half the speed. That is the OFF current.
When water temperatures are warming and weather conditions are stable, catfish should be feeding more aggressively, and you should fish the ON current side of the holes. After a weather front has passed through and water is cooling, or if other negative conditions become apparent, look for fish to be in the OFF current side of the hole.
It is as easy as changing sides of the hole and casting into the same hole. While there may not be all that much of a visible difference in the current, the fish know the difference, and the results can be great.
Playing the Sun for Warming Zones Early
When spring is coming and things begin to heat up, it is important to remember that fish are cold-blooded critters and their temperature is the same as the water. They know to look for warming water to increase metabolism so they can actively eat more.
Many northern anglers don’t realize that sun penetration in mid-May is similar to sun penetration in mid-August because the water and ground have not yet warmed up from being frozen all winter. During this time, it may be best to fish later in the day when the sun is at its warmest and in the southern sky. Look for shallow ledges next to the current seams (usually just above them on a north shoreline) where the sun can penetrate into the dark bank and raise the water temperature a couple extra degrees.
Everyone loves a good spring bite, especially when there is a little high water to really get catfish moving. A little understanding of current seams, how they work and how to fish them during changing times can make the best time of year even better.
(Captain Brad Durick is a nationally recognized catfish guide on the Red River of the North, seminar speaker, and author of the books Cracking the Channel Catfish Code and Advanced Catfishing Made Easy. For more information go to https://redrivercatfish.com/.)