Out of the Box Catfishing: Don’t Catfish Outside the Box; Make a New One

As we go through life, we often hear the phrase “think out of the box.” How many times at work have you heard the boss say; “we have to think outside the box, that is how we survive in this business.”  Some call that creative thinking while others call it a deviation from the norm to put your own little spin on the situation.

Over the past few years I have been fishing differently and developing new or modified ways to identify patterns to stay on river channel catfish.  Of course as things progressed the comment came up that I may have just been thinking outside the box.  I prefer to say I threw the box out and created a new one.

When you think of catfishing, how much can you really think outside the box?  I guess you can change a j-hook to a circle hook or vise versa.  You can make a spot change but is that really outside the box?  Oh yeah!

Let’s dig a bit deeper into what making a new box means.  Most catfish anglers have their go-to spots in their go-to river or lake.  They will tend to fish these same spots no matter what the conditions are telling them and success is determined by how many fish the caught that day.  Of course they move and check out other spots.  They might just go home or they might think outside the box and start playing with presentation or bait selection but that is about the extent of it.  They tend to fish the same way no matter if it is pre spawn, spawn, summer or fall.  In some cases one can have success with this method because some spots are just that versatile.  Like I said earlier, thinking outside the box can be pretty simple in the catfish world.

So what does it mean to throw the box out and make a new one?  Well, throwing the old box out might be a bit harsh of an analogy because we are still going to use most of the basics we already know, we are just going to expand on them.

Channel Catfish Movement

Let us start with the seasonal patterns of channel catfish.  In the spring when everything starts to wake up from the long winter the channel catfish is getting going as well.  This is typically a time of fresh water running in the rivers and runoff making its way to the lakes.  The catfish are in feeding mode eating the dead things that died during the winter and are now showing up.  They are also looking to expand their own metabolism by feeding in the warmer typically shallow water.

As the water warms and the easy picking of winter death dwindle the catfish begins the hunt of the pre spawn.  This is when they will start aggressively feeding (in rivers they tend to feed upstream and in lakes they had to shallow flats.) They are trying to accomplish two goals during this time. 1.  Bulk up as metabolism is rising and 2. Prepare for the spawn that is right around the corner.

When the water temps get to 70 degrees the fish tend to move downstream and get ready for the spawn.  They are feeding all the way until it is time to settle in to spawn.

If weather conditions are good the spawn is usually two to three weeks then the fish move off the nest and start feeding to gain back what was lost during the spawn.  After this they move into their summer spots until the fall cooling starts and they bulk up one last time before heading to the wintering holes.

For those who fish their spots and stay in the box they will probably enjoy good success during the pre spawn and as the fish are moving to the nest.  During the spawn they will sit and wait with little to show for it (probably even take a few weeks off) before getting back on fish after the spawn.  I have seen this time and time again.  It is to the point that most of these individuals simply stop fishing for a few weeks or start flagging me down for location tips.

Making a New Box

We know where the fish will be as the season progresses.  It happens the same every year with some wrinkles and exceptions in water and weather conditions but in the end the same circle of catfish life exists no matter what.

When the ice comes out and the water is still cold we know to get the stinky baits that “match the hatch” so to speak of rotting fish.  How about instead of fishing the normal spots with the stinky bait look for feeding spots in areas with the longest sun of the day and with a darker bottom substrate what will increase metabolism drawing in more fish and increasing their feeding and activity.  It only takes a degree or two to spark up feeding.

When the cold water period is over and the fish are making their up current feeding migration think in terms of areas where there should be increased feeding such as below dams or some other natural barrier that may cause feeding fish to stack up and use the structure to wash bait to them.

Sometimes you will be fishing before the migration has reached maximum capacity. In this case head upstream and utilize current breaks near structure in the feeding areas.  This is a cool pattern as sometimes you may have to drive miles downstream to find the big bite but if you put in the time will find yourself following the bite as the catfish migrate into the most upstream feeding areas.

Just as pointed out earlier, as the water temperatures reach 70 degrees the catfish will turn back and start moving downstream again feeding and searching for an adequate nesting area.  During this time you can do what you did in the pre spawn and just follow them back downstream.

In a normal year not all catfish will spawn at the same time so while most are sitting in their spot waiting it out, you can be working high percentage feeding areas searching for cats that have not gone to spawn yet or cats that have finished up the spawn and are back on the prowl looking for food to bulk back up from the couple weeks they did not eat during the spawn.

When spawn is finished, look for the high percentage spots that will hold catfish. The areas usually on a bend with faster water on the outside bend, slower water on the inside bend, some deeper water with a shallow flat nearby.  This area will hold catfish until one of three things happens.  1. It gets fished out. 2. Fall hits and tells the fish time to move on.  3.  Something in the environment whether it be fluctuating water levels or something that dictates water temperature to change metabolism levels.

You may be thinking this stuff is pretty average in the box knowledge but wait, there’s more.  This is where my research comes in and starts to construct the new box.  One of the most overlooked things about fish is their metabolisms and how they react to weather and water changes.

We have already looked at the seasonal patterns and how to make small adjustments to what happens every year but what can you do to stay on fish and not sweat the small stuff.  First off; think lateral.  I have written about this many times over the past couple years and the pattern proves itself time after time.

Everything a catfish does depend on water temperature. If there is a front or cold snap that cools the water even a degree the fish will slow down and move “off current”.  This may be only a few feet from where you were fishing just the day before in some cases.  The term lateral means looking side to side in a river rather than up and down stream.  With a small change in conditions the fish may quit feeding or so we think.  Instead of moving to just another hole, look to the edges for locations of off current.  Usually this is a shallow spot near structure where the fish will hold out but sometimes it may be near a strong current seam.

If feeding conditions change the fish don’t just move to another hole, they move to a spot to wait out the negative condition.  This is generally off current.  They find the deadest water with the most likely ability to warm up and get them back in order to feed.

Think about it like a deer hunter.  When conditions are good you will see deer feeding in the fields at various times of day with the prime times of morning and evening.  But if a storm front moves through (more noticeable in the winter) deer will not be seen.  They will hunker down in the woods and wait in the wings until the conditions warrant feeding again.  Like a fish, a deer will wait for a stable condition to feed.  This is not to say they won’t feed, it is just not as aggressive.

Catfishing is considered pretty simple to most.  It doesn’t take much to step out of the box for success but so much more success can be had with a little more knowledge and a willingness to just forget about the old box and create your own.  Here’s to great catfishing in 2014.

Captain Brad Durick is a nationally recognized catfish guide, seminar speaker, and author of the book Cracking the Channel Catfish Code.

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