If you have ever read a book or article about catfishing, for the most part you will almost never read about fishing the fast water with the exception of tail races. You will read about fishing holes, runs, snags, a combination there of, or if the article is about blue cats drifting. One thing that seems to be left out or maybe just not realized is fast water opportunities.
Fast water can be a very productive pattern all throughout the season as it provides a constant supply of fresh food and oxygen that can be the source of a quick meal. When coupled with a hole, snag, or trough it can produce a monopoly on trophy channel cats. To clarify, in most cases when “fast water” is referred to, it means visible current, not a raging river or boiling froth.
Each period of the catfishing season may produce different looks or different obstacles to catching catfish in current. Understanding how the fish move and feed throughout the season will help determine where the fish are in relation to the fast water and how they will feed in it.
Pre-Spawn Period (typically May and June)
Fast water is most often thought of as a go-to pattern during the pre-spawn period. Many times it is simply because the spring high water or flooding periods have not yet subsided. It is this higher rate of flow that makes the term fast water come to fruition for most catfish anglers. They have no choice but to fish in the high water and deal with the currents. Many realize great fishing, in fact some of their best fishing of the year and don’t really understand what was happening under the water to produce such a great outing.
In spring, when the rivers open up there is typically higher flows bringing in fresh water and oxygen to get the fish moving after a long winter of moping around in the holes. It is this time when the catfish go on a feeding frenzy to get fattened up for the upcoming spawn. As the fish are bulking up for the nearing spawn they have a tendency to school up and feed along break lines in faster currents. The reason is these breaks are throwing all the dead fish and other food into the drop off of the breaks making for easy pickings.
The best way to fish during this period is to anchor your boat in a spot where the bottom structure makes a sharp drop creating almost a shelf to the next depth level. These spots operate almost like a highway as fish move up and down the breaks feeding anything in their path. Set your baits along these shelves and let the pre-spawn madness begin. It is sometimes very beneficial to find a stump, rock pile other current break to provide a small resting spot. This will make the fish school up even more and keep them in one spot so you can catch them.
Spawn Period (Mid-June and July)
Spawn period is viewed by most catfish anglers as the toughest time of the year to catch fish consistently. In traditional methods of catching catfish the spawn period can be difficult. Many people in the know try to find cut banks or large logs on the high side of a steep drop off for nests to draw spawning fish out. This method does work but fast water is a greatly overlooked option during this period.
The key to fishing fast water during the spawn is to think back to the basic fact that not all fish spawn at the same time. Find the places where the river almost funnels down to create a trough of faster water. Within these troughs look for a current break or boil to create current break. The last of the pre-spawn fish will be out aggressively feeding in these locations before looking for the nest and letting nature take its course.
Post-Spawn Period (July)
When you’re fishing the currents during the spawn you will all of a sudden notice that instead of catching fat, aggressive channels you will begin seeing fish that are long and skinny with big heads. These are the first of the fish that are in the post-spawn coming out for their first meal in a few weeks. Most post-spawn catfish are not as aggressive as pre-spawn but they will come out in the currents looking to eat after weeks of sitting on the nest. This is the time of year where the best bet is find a current running into a deeper hole. This allows the fish to rest but have a steady stream of food running in. When something good comes near they will swim over and grab it. This is the only time it may be best to fish out of the fast water rather than in it but keep in mind, it will always be nearby.
Summer (Late July/August/Early September)
Summer time is when the sun is high, the water and currents are lower and the catfish are spread out all along the rivers. Typically this is the time when the catfish sit down in the holes or tight in the snags. It is this time of the season where visible currents can help you find more active fish faster than placing baits in the holes or in each snag hoping a fish is there.
All along a river system there are snags and holes, sometimes snags in or near holes. It is these locations where if you can find a little faster flow, just some sort of visible current washing in that you can find more active cats. It is these faster water areas that will hold a lying fish just lurking waiting for this faster whoosh of water to bring in a nice easy meal.
To fish a snag in such a spot anchor about 120 in front of it. Then depending how the bottom is structured and how many lines you have available to you cast baits as tight to the biggest part of the snag as you can. From there try to put lines along the current lines fanning out from the main part of the snag.
This way of setting the lines will have all possible current lines and breaks covered. Where ever the fish might be within the structure and the faster current brings in the baitfish into the snag.
The summer pattern is a great time to look at night fishing. When the sun is high and water is hot, sometimes the cats like come out and roam during the low light periods. When they come out of the hole or snag they have been sitting in all day they tend to run the currents and faster shallower water closer to the banks. This is where shore anglers have traditionally caught there fish while sitting on the bank next to a camp fire. It is a great fast water pattern to stick with on a hot summer day.
Tailrace Cats (When Safe)
There is one fast water pattern that works nearly every day on the water. This pattern is tail race fishing. Day in and day out if you can find a tailrace (dam) spot there will be aggressive feeding cats.
All tail races create natural current lines that in most cases are visible and easy to read. The key to these areas is anchor one side or the other of the current break. (When anchoring keep in mind that you sometimes need heavier anchors and more rope to get the boat to stay where you want it.)
Once you are in place you can bait up and set the baits in or as close to the current lines as you can. Adjusting sinker weight may be required to keep the sinker in the desired spot. The feeding cats will swim up and down the current breaks picking up the fast moving food or baits that are along the break lines.
One other pattern to keep an eye on in tail races is boils. In some situations there is an impurity such as a rock or a stump under the water that will cause the fast water to create a boil. (It looks like a big boiling pot from the water’s surface.)
Tailraces are known to be very dangerous with deadly currents and under toes that are killers. When fishing these locations safety and comfort must be the highest priority. No fish is worth dying for so make sure you are with trained boat operator when navigating these spots. Also pay close attention to posted safety laws. Many dams and tail races have a minimum distance for safety. Please pay attention to all warnings.
Slip Bobber Cats
In some occasions there is no way to catch channel cats that is more fun that fishing floats. Most people fish cats exclusively on the bottom. There are some times when the catfish turn on and begin feeding aggressively. These aggressive fish will destroy anything that comes in their path.
The most effective way to catch these heavy feeding channels is to find a fast water spot where there is a shallow current break along the bank. This current break is usually located very close to the bank and has a back eddy pulling water upstream along the bank. This current break is an easy swimming spot for bait fish and the cats will feed all up and down the current line.
To fish this fast water pattern, anchor a bit downstream of where you plan to fish. Make sure to be out in the faster water a moderate cast from the actual break line. Set your bait 12-18 inches from the bottom and throw the bobber upstream to the visible break line. As the bait moves back toward the boat reel up the slack until it floats by the boat then begin to let out line until you have to reel in and repeat. The reason for reeling up and releasing line is to keep as much slack as possible out of the line so when a fish pulls down the float you will be able to get a good hard hook set. It will also allow you to better keep the bait in the strike zone along the current line.
The best times to use this technique are when you see many catfish surface feeding along the break lines or right before sunset or after sunrise when catfish are roaming for food. This method of fast water catfishing does not work every time you hit the water but it does work sometimes and when it does hang on.
Fast water (or faster water) currents and breaks can be one of the most rewarding and overlooked places on a river system to find and catch channel cats. It takes a bit more time to learn the systems and how to read the currents that hold the most fish. Fast water catfishing is one pattern that can produce trophy fish during every stage of the open water season and can be the most consistent way to land aggressively feeding fish every day on the water.