by Keith “Catfish” Sutton
Things are changing as summer turns to fall, including catfishing action, which just keeps getting better and better.
As the blazing heat of summer wanes and the cooler weather of autumn takes hold, fishing becomes extremely frustrating for many anglers. One day, fish are deep; the next, they’re on top. Where fish nailed anything yesterday, they refuse everything today. Just as the seasons are changing, so are the daily routines of many popular sportfish.
Some anglers write this off as a terrible time to fish. But for those of us who love catfishing, the summer-to-fall transition period provides reasons to rejoice.
In most areas, catfish feeding activity increases as August changes to September, September becomes October, and October turns to November. My catch rate improves dramatically as summer’s heat dissipates and the days grow shorter. And I’ve spoken to dozens of avid catfish anglers who experience the same thing.
Why the bite improves is a matter of speculation, but like many catfish anglers, I believe cats feed more in autumn because they sense a season on low rations is about to begin.
“Catfish are like bears getting ready to hibernate,” one old-timer told me. “They have to fatten up in fall because they won’t feed as much until spring. That’s why the fall bite is so good.”
The truth is you can catch catfish even in the dead of winter. But when the water temperature falls to 50 degrees or less, feeding activity becomes greatly diminished. Catfish eat when the water is cold, but they don’t eat as often or as much. There’s a distinct peak in catfish feeding in autumn because these fish follow instinctive urges to put on weight before the cold “starvation” period ahead.
Of course, the reasons why catfish go on a feeding binge in fall are not as important as the fact they do. The months of September, October and November are prime times for catfishing. If you want to waylay a trophy specimen or catch a mess of eaters, fish as often as possible from the end of summer until harsh winter cold sets in.
The places you can find fall catfish action are almost innumerable. I especially like to fish around brushy treetops and standing timber along channel breaks. When weed beds have begin to die and decay, cats often migrate to open lake areas where inundated trees line long underwater creek and river channels. Here the fish can move shallow or deep as water and weather conditions dictate.
On cloudy or windy days when light won’t penetrate very far into the water, cats actually may be found within a few feet of the surface. Bright, sunny, post-frontal days may find them hugging the bottom. You’ll have to experiment to find the most productive depth, keeping on the move until you locate one of the few structures holding fish. But when a cat is landed, several often can be caught with just a few well-placed casts.
Long, sloping points also are good places to wet a hook, as are humps and inundated islands. Cats like old fencerows that run from shallow to deep water, and large trees that have toppled into fairly deep water near the shoreline should definitely be investigated. Other first-rate areas include riprapped shores, Christmas tree fish attractors, timbered areas edging underwater ditches and ponds, submerged rock piles, stump fields and, in ponds, deep holes and weed edges.
Generally, most summer anglers enjoy their best fishing during low-light periods—early morning, late afternoon or night. During autumn, however, catfish are more prone to feed around the clock instead of just during morning and evening. The sun is lower in the sky, and days are shorter. Thus, conditions are good for consistent action throughout the day and night.
As for the best baits to use during this time of year, it’s strictly a matter of what you like best. Live fish catch more flatheads. Herring and shad cut baits are hard to beat for blue cats. Channel cats feed on their usual smorgasbord of dinner items, everything from hot dogs and night crawlers to stinkbait and minnows. The bigger ones, however, are most likely to be enticed by live fish baits or cut-baits made from fresh fish.
Fish on bottom, using a sinker heavy enough to carry your bait down. Or use a bobber to float the bait slightly above bottom. This season, there’s no need to fish deep or far from shore. Late summer/early autumn catfish often are prowling the shallows.
Don’t get antsy; let the bait sit several minutes before moving it. Like kids after fresh-baked cookies, cats smell their treats then track them down.
You can fish from a boat or from shore, as you prefer, but a boat offers more mobility. Bank-bound anglers are limited in the choice of fishing areas. Anglers in boats aren’t. If you’ve been fishing in one spot for a while, and the fishing is unproductive or the bite stops, you can move quickly to another spot. Your range is limited only by the size of your fuel tank.
Nevertheless, many catfish anglers are bank fishermen, and most catfish fans fish at night when feeding activity is at its peak. A campfire is built, the rigs are baited and cast, and the rods are propped on forked sticks or placed in holders. The participants sit and sip coffee while they shoot the breeze. A cat probably will bite sooner or later, and the action starts. But if not, it’s an enjoyable outing anyway. The camaraderie makes it worthwhile.
If the action part of the outing is as important as the aesthetics, be sure to pick a bank-fishing site within casting distance of prime catfishing areas. This might be a clearing on shore near the outside bend of a river, a spot under a shady tree beside a farm pond levee or a gravel bar adjacent a deep hole on a small stream. The best areas have flat, brush-free banks where casting is easy, and you don’t have to worry about ticks and snakes crawling up your britches legs.
To ensure more catfish landed, always use extra-sharp hooks, and let the fish start moving off before you set the hook. When tightlining, you should feel the catfish yank at the bait before it swims off. When the fish starts moving away, count three, then set the hook with a quick, upward snap. When working baits beneath a bobber, wait until the float disappears or starts to move slowly across the water. That’s usually when the fish has the bait in its mouth.
Yes, cool-season catfishing can be a wonderful experience. Take one pretty lake, pond or stream. Add one angler or several. Warm them in the sun or beside a campfire. Toss in a few hard-fighting, good-eating catfish. Season with a blue sky or star-lit heavens. Stir with a light breeze. Brew as long as possible.
The result will be unforgettable. Try it and see.