Catfishing during late summer and into fall can be some of the most amazing fishing of the year. It can also be one of the more head scratching times of the season. Why is it that some days can be so great and others so bad? To answer this question you first must understand how channel catfish work and how they relate to the change in season.
What Drives Channel Cats
There are two major factors that determine what a river channel catfish does throughout the seasons. First, is water temperature (metabolism) and second is flow. By simply understanding how fish react to these two factors get you ahead in your catfishing escapades. Understanding how to make minor adjustments within these two factors as they change and you are on your way to cracking the channel catfish code.
Everything a channel catfish does is determined by water temperature. This is because a fish is a cold-blooded creature. When water temperatures rise, so does the metabolism. When metabolism rises, so do food requirements to survive and grow. Hence, as water temperatures decrease the metabolism also decreases and the food requirement falls. In simple terms when the water is stable to warming catfish will feed more aggressively and when the water temperatures are cooling they will feed less.
When water temperatures fall from 80-74 degrees this poses a 33-percent decrease in metabolism and less food is required to survive. If it drops from 74-65 that is an additional 46-percent decline in metabolism. This is also a breaking point where channel cats food requirements fall from five to six percent of bodyweight daily to five to six percent of body weight three times per week, a substantial drop in the amount of feeding. To further understand the downward trend in falling water metabolism; when the water temperatures fall from 65 to 50 is cut by an additional 66-percent.
What I hope I have done so far is to have illustrated how feeding requirements decrease as fall temperatures take hold. While the above seems very dramatic keep in mind that the decrease in water temperature is usually a slow process that stretches over six to ten weeks depending on where you live. With a slower decline the fish adapt to the cooler water and you should not notice a decline as drastic as pictured above.
Most years, by the time fall arrives the high water seasons have long passed and the catfish have set into their home ranges. When the fish are in the home ranges, they tend to not move up and down stream all that much. When the flows increase they will move out of the main channel and when flows decrease or are normal they will stay in traditional spots within the area.
When I was in the beginning of my guiding career I could never really put my finger on why the fall was so up and down. Some days I would absolutely kill the fish and other days it was like pulling teeth to find a fish to bite. In those days I had a set of spots that I liked to fish and simply fished the spots no matter what time of year and what the conditions were.
One fall the bite just kept getting worse and worse. I knew the water temperature had fallen seven degrees over just a few days. I knew that something was not right but did not understand what the fish did when this occurred. Once I put two and two together that the water temperature determines metabolism and the metabolism determines how much fish need to eat. Match that with how catfish react to flow and I learned how to pattern channel catfish based on water temperature.
Making Adjustments to Metabolism and Flow
When the water temperature falls and the metabolism of the catfish is in decline, there are a few very minor adjustments that you can make to increase success.
Normally the catfish don’t just move to the wintering holes when the water temperatures start to drop. During this transition they will turn on and off, based on what the conditions are and how the water temperature is fluctuating.
If the water temperature is rising or falling very slowly (a degree every few days) the catfish will be in an aggressive feeding mode (put the feed bags on as some say) they will be running the traditional feeding areas along break lines, edges of snags, or other ambush zones. Really no change is needed from the normal way of fishing. But, what happens when the water temperature makes a substantial drop turning off the fish?
This is when what I call “lateral movement” comes into play. The fish just don’t move out and start looking for deep water for winter like many think. They simply are shocked from the fast decline in temperature and if it is a sharp enough decline don’t need or want to eat as much to stay alive. What they do is move “off current” to avoid expending any energy until things turn around. In most cases they move shallow near structure. It is common to find catfish in as little as one foot of water during this time.
There are other times when they don’t necessarily move shallow but they still move “off current” staying deep. The spots they tend to go in this case are areas where the faster main current meets a deep washout hole that is creating an eddy. This exact point between the two distinct currents creates a point of virtually no current, the same scenario created by the shallow off current spots.
There is one other change that needs to be made to combat this slowdown in the bite. When the fish move to this pattern you must be willing to sit on a spot longer. Instead of the 15-20 minutes that most of us “run and gun” catfishermen like you must be willing to sit on a spot for at least 30 minutes.
The whole reason for the long sit is that the catfish have moved out of the current to expend as little energy as possible and to rest until they feel like feeding again. Your job at this point is to get bait in front of them and let it sit long enough to roust them up to come and get the bait.
Look at it like this. After a huge Thanksgiving dinner you head to the couch to watch some football. If someone were to put some pie on the coffee table you might groan and ignore it for a while because you are stuffed from dinner, but after looking at it and smelling it for a while you will find a way to sit up and eat it. This is the same thing with a catfish, just laying in the snag until they can’t take it any more and the easy food spurs them into action.
Once you find the spot of little to no current, put the bait in front of the fish and wait the extra time, if there is a fish there and he decides to take the bait you will be greeted with a punishing hit. If in less than two feet of water sometimes it is so powerful that the water will explode on the hit and it really doesn’t get much more exciting than that.
Now you know what happens when the water temperature and metabolism fall but what happens when the bite is tough and the warm up arrives? It is as simple as casting to the deeper run in the fast water and moving back to more of an aggressive approach. When this happens you can also start to fish faster and more like other times of the season. From there, stay on the move looking for active fish.
Lateral Movement in Review
You now know what drives the fish during the cooling times of the year and know how lateral movement patterns can increase success to catch more catfish. The quick way to know where to start is watch the local river gauges or take physical temperature readings to monitor trends in water temperature.
If the water temperature is dropping more than a couple degrees in a short time (a day or two) then start looking to the shallow, “off current” areas and sitting a little longer to catch the fish. When the water temperatures drop below 50 degrees then start looking to the deeper wintering holes as the fall/winter migration will begin.
When the water rises a few degrees you can start looking laterally back to the main currents and fishing the catfish as normal. This simple bit of knowledge can and will make your fall fishing very predictable and will help you locate catfish that are willing to be caught.
Understanding what drives a channel catfish can make your catches better any time of year but in the fall time can make a good day a great day.