by Joe Schmitt, PhD and Fisheries Biologist
Find the catfish highways and improve your success.
Autumn is usually associated with changing leaves, cooling temperatures, and shorter days. It’s also an excellent time to target blue catfish in rivers and reservoirs across North America.
While flathead catfish and channel catfish gorge with the changing seasons, blue catfish are especially susceptible to capture in the fall because of their migratory nature. The scientific name for blue catfish is Ictalurus furcatus, and “furcatus” translates as “forked”. They get this name from their forked “caudal” or tail fin. The forked tail of the blue catfish is more extreme than the moderately-forked tail of a channel catfish or the rounded tail of a flathead catfish, which is an ambush predator.
Why does this matter? Scientists have noticed that tail shape influences behavior and swimming patterns of fish, and forked tails are associated with powerful and efficient swimming. Tuna and marlin are excellent examples of this. Blue catfish also reinforce this concept, as biologists consider them to be the most migratory of North American catfish. In rivers and impoundments, blue catfish movements are often upstream in the spring and downstream in the fall, and migrations can span hundreds of miles.
Historically, blue catfish probably made longer migrations up and down the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers prior to the construction of hundreds of dams. Blue catfish could theoretically make seasonal migrations from Minnesota to Louisiana, but dams now restrict much of their habitat. Long distance migrations allow fish to seek optimal water conditions and habitat throughout the year, which could increase growth, longevity, and result in bigger catfish.
This could very well be the case, as records suggest that big catfish were more common historically. For example, 144-pound and 150-pound blue catfish specimens were purchased from a St. Louis fish market one morning and sent to the U.S. National Museum in 1879. The note that accompanied the specimens gave the impression that fish of this size were commonplace at the time. While 150-pound blue catfish are no longer common, there are still plenty of big catfish to be caught as they migrate in the fall.
I spent a great deal of time fishing rivers and impoundments in Oklahoma, and found that the riverine sections just above reservoirs are excellent for targeting catfish as water temps drop during the autumn months. I prefer to focus on what I call “pinch points” – basically anywhere the river channel is constricted. Many blue catfish move out of reservoirs into the rivers during the spring and summer, seeking higher oxygen concentrations and spawning habitat in the form of undercut clay banks. They then move back into the reservoirs during the fall to overwinter.
Savvy anglers target them on the “highways” as they move downriver. Any constriction of the main river channel can increase your odds of encountering these transient fish by essentially “funneling” these fish past your baits. October is usually the best month for catching migratory catfish, though it will vary based on weather patterns and water temperatures.
When fishing pinch points, it is important to get a good spread across the width of the river channel. Migratory blue catfish follow very specific paths, like contour lines and channel edges, and it’s not unusual to get all of your action on one or two rods in your spread. You can reposition your other rods once you identify the exact corridor(s) that these fish are moving through.
The same tactics can be applied in reservoirs, where blue catfish also migrate during the autumn months. Constrictions and pinch points along the main river channel are excellent places to focus on. Many big blue catfish are caught in these areas.
I generally catch fewer fish targeting reservoir pinch points, but the fish are often much larger. This makes sense as big fish are more efficient swimmers than small fish, and may move more in reservoirs where downstream movement is not assisted by current.
Terrain constrictions are easily spotted visually or with Google Earth, but having a quality sonar and GPS combo on your boat will help you identify underwater constrictions not visible to the naked eye. Again, make sure you get a good “spread” across the river channel as catfish often follow very small and specific paths.
Tidal River Systems
I’ve also fished for blue catfish in tidal river systems in eastern Virginia. Here, the seasonal migrations are not as pronounced, but this makes sense since catfish are often limited by physical barriers upstream (rapids and dams) and by saltwater downstream. While some blue catfish move upriver in the spring, they generally move back downriver before summer.
Spawning fish will move into tidal creeks during May and June, but they don’t necessarily stay in these creeks until autumn. Tidal rivers are great because many of the best locations hold fish almost year-round.
Blue catfish do appear to make small movements with the tide. During high or flood tide, blue catfish often feed on shallow flats, while deeper drop offs, current breaks, and channels adjacent to feeding flats should be targeted during an outgoing tide.
I’ve studied tidal blue catfish feeding patterns extensively, and stomach fullness patterns show that they feed the most during the last three hours of an outgoing tide. I think this is because strong tidal current acts as a “conveyer belt of food.” Blue catfish position themselves in current breaks adjacent to the main flow, and occasionally dart out to grab shad or white perch that are getting swept by the current.
There are several other things I’ve noticed about blue catfish behavior over the years. In clear reservoirs, the day bite can be very challenging due to excessive sunlight penetration. Blue catfish evolved in turbid rivers and have sensory systems that enable them to hunt in complete darkness. If you are struggling to catch fish in a clear reservoir or river, try the night bite.
I’ve been most successful during the new moon where catfish can hunt in complete darkness. These fish often feed in the same areas you see gizzard shad and small forage fish during the day, sometimes in less than 1 foot of water. When you hook into a 60-pound blue catfish in 1 foot of water, they tend to make quite a commotion.
That brings me to my second point. After reviewing some of my largest catfish catches, I realized that many were caught close to a new or full moon. Muskie have been shown to be more susceptible to capture during a new or full moon, so why wouldn’t large, predatory catfish? While I no longer target trophy catfish like I used to, anglers and guides who are on the water hundreds of days each year should document and test this theory.
Finally, always keep a log of your fishing trips including time, date, location, and anything else that may be of interest. This collected data will help predict when and where to target catfish in subsequent years, and it will help you evolve into a better fisherman.