The Geography of Catfishing
By Brad Durick
When you are sitting along a river bank or in your river boat have you ever just taken a moment to look around? Have you ever just sat and studied the banks? Looked at what is happening at every bend? If you have, you understand more about how a river runs than most. If you have not, you are missing one of the most basic river reading skills you can possess.
Have you ever just been riding in your boat and see an outside bend that is just ripped out with a very steep cutbank? Did you know that is telling you a story about what is below the water?
Let’s break this down to the most basic form which is accurate in most cases. When you look at an outside bend, most of us know there should be a hole carved out. If the bank is steep and looks like it has been ripped out the chances are it is a deeper hole than it would be if there is a slow grade going up the bank.
If you see the steep ripped out bank you know that during high water periods the water is ripping and tearing at the bank but it is also ripping and tearing out the substrate at the bottom of the river. Right below that cutout there should be a deeper than average hole with faster current moving through it.
Likewise, if you look at the inside bend if it has a slow sloping bank you will know there is probably a sandbar or slower current area where the water flows past in some cases depositing sediment rather than tearing it up like on the outside bends.
Why is this important to you? Well it’s because by knowing these simple traits of how the main channel is moving in a river you can identify locations to fish and how to better pattern catfish without any electronics.
Locating Catfish with bank Geography
We have explained the basics of what to look for when watching the bank. Now we should explain how to fish it. When a river is at normal flow the best place to look is the cutouts on the outside bends. Feeding catfish will use these areas for aggressively hunting or ambushing food. Anchor at the front of the cut out hole and start working your way through the hole.
Should flows be above normal these areas may not be the best or even safe for fishing. In this case look to the inside bends where the water flow is swinging out away from the bend toward the outside bank. These areas will normally have a sandbar or snag on them. Work the current seam where the main channel meets the secondary currents.
The catfish will never be far from the main channel but will be just out of the main current to not expend as much energy but will be in a location where they can get to the bait or food source with little effort. The best way to identify these spots in higher water conditions is the surface of the water makes a visible V where it breaks to the channel and to the secondary current side.
Flathead anglers know that big flatheads stay out of the current more than channel cats do. In many cases this inside bend area with some cover will be your best areas for holding resting flatheads. The break lines upstream of these spots are great night spots as the flatheads come out to roam and feed.
Another bank geography that is often overlooked is steep cut outs on long straightaways. Most of the time if you find such a bank there is a faster current or a hole located underneath it. These areas may be difficult to fish during high water conditions but during normal to low conditions can be hidden gems. Since they tend to be overlooked they don’t get fished as often. They also can provide the deeper faster water that big catfish love.
Simply looking at the surface of the water for boils and/or riffles is also a way to know what is on the bottom when the bank is not telling you the story. If you see a boil, you will know that there is something pushing the water up. This could be a rock, sandbar or even a tree stump. Chances are if you put a bait right on the boil itself you will have placed bait right in the hole located behind whatever had caused that boil.
If you see stretches of riffles you will know that it is shallower water than the rest of the river. Eventually the water will flatten out signifying a hole or deeper area to fish.
A great way to learn and understand how a river works with holes, riffles, runs and bank structure is to watch runoff after a rain or in the spring. Water running off the surface will form its own rivers. It will meander and turn with the structure on a much smaller scale than an actual river. If you watch it you will begin to see how the corners carve out holes, how rocks affect flow and create holes. You can even drop small sticks and grass in and watch how it flows creating snags. Just another great lesson nature can teach us if we pay attention.
Adding in Electronics
So far, we have only talked about looking at the banks and the water to determine the best geographical features of a river. Now let’s add in advanced electronics and how they can help you locate the best spots and fine tune your strategy.
Humminbird has been on the forefront of this technological boom in catfishing. First, with side imaging back in 2007. This allowed us to see away from the boat to see fish and structure. Side imaging can literally draw a picture of the hole that the bank is telling you is there. You know the lay of the land in seconds. It will even tell you where in the hole the fish are sitting. This innovation took a summer of driving over a hole to get the lay of the land and made it a two pass mission.
The biggest and most important advancement to catfishing in my opinion is Humminbird’s AutoChart Live. This tool allows you to build your own custom maps and keep them for future reference. This is huge since most of our beloved catfish rivers have no charts or chips available. After taking the time to make the maps it almost feels like an unfair advantage when compared to anglers who don’t have this nifty technology.
Take AutoChart Live and tie it in with side imaging on a split screen and no fish is safe. You can see the layout of the holes while you are recording the corresponding map. If you already built the map you can refer to the map while re-imaging the hole to find out how the fish are relating to the structure on that particular day.
It is very clear that just understanding what you are looking like that was given to you by Mother Nature, you can find most of the structure you could ever want to catch a catfish and know what is under the water. Our relatives have done this for generations and it all still holds tried and true. Add in modern technology and no stone will be left unturned when in the search for old Mr. Whiskers.