This 68-pound Potomac River blue catfish was caught in November from a main river
ledge by the author’s long-time friend and tournament partner, Mike Dodge.
Water Temperature & Catfish Location
by Brad Hierstetter
How to find active river blues and channel cats in different water temperatures.
Variables exist which, alone or in tandem, can hinder an angler’s ability to consistently catch catfish. Fortunately, astute anglers who understand, then employ, certain foundational principles and practices can locate and catch active catfish more often, regardless of external conditions.
This article will focus on the impact of one especially important variable—water temperature—and its influence of the location of active blue and channel catfish. It will explain how anglers can tilt the odds in their favor by always maintaining awareness of water temperatures and ensuring that, in response to certain water-temperature ranges, they fish where active catfish are most likely to be found.
Fortunately, measuring water temperature is not complicated, nor does it have to be costly. Most modern fishfinders, including many lesser expensive models, adequately measure water temperature. When catfishing from shore, an inexpensive digital aquarium water-temperature gauge is more than sufficient. Regardless of the measuring device you use, never fish without first knowing the water temperature.
I would be remiss if I did not briefly discuss the extraordinarily strong relationship between catfish and both structure and cover. Structure is simply any change (drastic or subtle) in bottom contour: channels, ledges (aka drop-offs), flats, points and the like. Cover is anything that can hide a catfish or baitfish. Objects such as stumps, rocks and wrecks are examples of cover. Active catfish relate heavily to, and often feed near, structure and/or cover. Generally, they do so without fail.
Remember, too, that blue catfish are fish of edges (think ledges, aka drop-offs) and faster moving waters. Channel catfish, on the other hand, prefer slower waters and are heavily attracted to cover.
In addition to always knowing the water temperature, anglers seeking year-round success should memorize or bring with them a list of structures and covers that active catfish frequent the most in certain water-temperature ranges.
Water temperatures will be at their coldest for an extended time during winter. Blue catfish, especially, and channel catfish can be caught from very cold waters.
Captain Neil Renouf, who was a long-time catfish guide on Virginia’s James River, recommends targeting structure and cover in stronger currents when water temperatures drop below 43 degrees. He notes that blues are far less likely to stray from structure and cover this time of year.
Captain Jason Kintner, a highly successful trophy blue and flathead catfish angler, focuses on shallow water located near deeper water. “Two to four feet of water is plenty,” he says. Shallow oxbows, feeder creeks and gravel pits attached to main rivers are ideal shallow spots.
Anglers in search of active channel cats in winter should focus on deep holes or pockets (preferably those away from the main river flow), deeper areas bordering the main channel, deep holes at the mouths of tributaries and, behind any cover that slows or eliminates water flow or current.
Spring is characterized by rising water temperatures. Active blues can consistently be found along ledges. Be on the look-out for, and always fish, steeply sloping ledges in moving water. Throughout the year, active blue catfish also consistently locate in faster-moving water along the deep, sloping edges of outside river bends.
In early spring, active channel cats can often be found in the deep holes they frequented during winter. But as water temperatures rise, these fish will begin to move away from where they wintered. As river flows stabilize and water temperatures reach the upper 60-degree Fahrenheit range, active channels often move into smaller feeder rivers, where they temporarily concentrate behind upriver barriers, such as dams and wings dams. They move to these waters to conserve energy and to feed heavily in preparation for the rigors of spawning.
As they did during the spring and will continue to do during the fall, active blues will consistently locate along steeply sloping ledges in faster waters. Ledges that contain cover (a rock pile, wreck, retaining wall, etc.) are particularly attractive to active blues in the higher water temperatures characteristic of summer.
Channel cats often begin to spawn when water temperatures reach 75 degrees. Across their geographic range, channels most commonly spawn in June. Seeking protection, active channel catfish will spawn in shallower and narrower river stretches. Within these stretches, active spawning channel cats can nearly always be found near structural nuances (e.g., crevices, undercut banks, muskrat holes and sloughs) and cover—rocks and especially downed trees.
After they spawn, and as water temperatures rise to and even surpass the mid-80-degree range, active channel cats relocate in or near logjams in deeper water, deep cover-laden holes and flooded timber in backwater lakes and sloughs.
Active blues will continue to locate along ledges, and active channel cats will remain in summer locations, even as water temperatures begin to drop in fall. However, as water temperatures become increasingly colder and fall below 50 degrees, active channels will slowly transition towards bigger, deeper waters, until they eventually reach their wintering destinations.
(In 2012 and 2013, Brad Hierstetter and his long-time friend Mike Dodge won two Potomac River Monster Cat tournaments on the tidal Potomac River. In addition to catfishing throughout Maryland, Hierstetter enjoys sharing fundamentals that can help any angler catch more catfish, regardless of when and where they fish.)