May 2019 Techniques

Wading Wet for Small Stream Channel Cats

catfish, Trophy club

by Spencer Bauer

Beat the heat for big cats in skinny water.

A slip float is a necessary piece of equipment when covering water in small streams. Bauer favors this one from Whisker Seeker Tackle.

It’s hot. I mean super hot. So hot just the thought of leaving your climate controlled living room makes you start to sweat. One of my favorite ways to beat the heat and get into a ton of fun is wading for small stream channel cats. Wading small streams is an awesome way to cool off and have a great time doing it!

“If you like catfish and fun, this is about as good as it gets.”

Location, Location, Location

One cool thing about channel catfish is they can be found nearly anywhere, especially in the warmer months were wading shines. However, for targeting bigger fish, there are a few tricks that can really up your odds.

The number one thing you can do to target larger channel cats in small streams is to fish sections of a river close to where they go into bigger bodies of water. Many of these streams are nothing more than a ditch with a trickle of water running through them a few miles from their confluence. However, near the big water, you may find channel catfish big enough to make you wonder why you haven’t been doing this before.

Anglers should also be aware of the habitat preferences that change throughout the day. In low water conditions that happen during the summer, rock riffles draw the majority of active fish early in the morning and late in the evening. Also, mid-depth holes are the main spot for channel catfish. Your biggest, deepest, most cover-laden holes will hold some channel catfish, but resident flatheads often keep channel catfish out of these spots.

Mid-depth depends on the river. If the deepest holes in the creek you are wading are 7-8 feet, then your best spots will likely be 3-5 feet deep. If the deepest holes are 3-5 feet, your best spots will be in the 2-foot range. It all depends on the water, but the concept remains the same.

Take a kid fishing. The fish are fun to catch, but the memories you will make are much more special.

Gear for Wading

Wading in August is a far cry from the images many people have of waders, rain jackets, and cold water. The water is hot, sometimes bathtub hot, and wearing anything more than a pair of shorts would make you feel like an egg frying in a skillet. If you have easy access to the water you’re fishing, a junky pair of tennis shoes and an old pair of shorts are ideal. If you have to walk through some brush to get there, jeans will work, especially considering you will cool off once you are in the water.

I store all my tackle in a backpack. You don’t need a lot of tackle for this kind of fishing, but you do need lunch and drinks. A backpack distributes the weight of the load a lot better than a shoulder bag, making it much more comfortable to wear as you’re covering water on the river. There are several models of angling specific backpacks that will work, you just need to find the one that works the best for you.

It will amaze you the quality of channel catfish that come out of some streams. Small water doesn’t always mean small fish.

Tackle and Rigging

Nearly any kind of tackle will get the job done here, but I’m a big fan of drifting a slip float when covering water in small streams. The longer the rod, the more effective it will be for mending the line as the float drifts downstream. Long rods improve hooksets from long distances. For float rigging, I use an 8-foot 6-inch medium heavy steelhead rod coupled with a 3000-size spinning reel and 20-pound braid.

As far as line goes for running a slip float, it’s tough to beat braided fishing line. Braided line doesn’t sink as much as mono does. Due to the floating tendency of braid, it is easier to flip your line back upstream as you drift a bait along a cutbank on the opposite side of the river. Also, braid has little to no stretch so it helps with hooksets from long distances.

For conventional fishing with a stationary bait on the bottom, lighter action catfish rods not only get the job done but also make fighting the fish more enjoyable. Don’t go too light though or a mean ol’ flathead might pop up and hurt your feelings. A medium or medium heavy baitcasting set up with 20-pound mono will give you a little insurance if a big boy decides to play.

For rigging, keep it simple. Use a slip float or clip on bobber set so the bait drifts just above the bottom, or is ticking the bottom. This reduces snags as you drift a bait and allows you to cover water. For bottom fishing, a Carolina rig with a 1- to 2-ounce sinker is all you need. I usually use a 4/0 J hook or a 6/0 Triple Threat circle hook.

Small stream catfish with big bellies are not uncommon. Catfish that run up small streams may be driven by the spawn, but eating is at the front of their minds. The small waters also heat up much faster, kicking up their metabolism even more.


Continuing with the K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple Stupid) method, natural baits are king. Fresh cut bait like creek chubs, bluegill, sunfish, or shad are my go-to. Worms are great bait, especially if you are wading in the spring. Commercial dip baits are another excellent option if you are fishing with the intent of catching lots of fish.

Another perk of bringing a backpack is you should have enough room to fit a small soft-sided cooler in it for keeping your bait cool and prevent it from spoiling, especially when it’s hot out. As the true red-blooded river rat, I like to think I am, bait goes into the same cooler as my drinks and food. Okay fine, I keep it in a plastic bag.


A Couple More Things to Keep in Mind

Make sure you are aware of land ownership laws. They are different in each state and may change from region to region. In Iowa, where I do most of my fishing, landowners have possession of everything but the water, except in the largest rivers in my area. If I were in a boat, I would have nothing to worry about. However, as soon as my feet touch the bottom of the river, I am technically trespassing.

Due to differing laws, if you are not wading through an area of public land, it is best to check your laws and make sure you are legally allowed to be there. There is nothing wrong with asking permission to fish private stretches. Be polite, say please and thank you, and you might be lucky enough to have permission to some catfish paradise no other human being has the chance to walk on.

Lastly, if you plan on returning to the same vehicle you started in, I recommend wading up river first. It is much easy to return to your ride going with the power of the current after a long day of fishing. With that being said, a great way to do it is to grab a buddy and park 2 separate vehicles at different access points. This way you can cover and fish untouched water from one area to another

If you like catfish and fun, this is about as good as it gets. Mix in some good company, and you’re looking at memories you will cherish for the rest of your life. A little warm air, cool water, and lots of sunshine. That’s fishing wet at its finest.

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