The lazy summer days of June, a wise man who obviously was also an angler once said, are tailor-made for channel ‘cats. The water temperatures across most of the U.S. are hot, and the air is even hotter. The walleyes are deep, crappie are long done spawning, and for those fortunate enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, September’s run of silvers and pinks seem a long, long way off. Still, there are channel ‘cats, those always eager to bite critters that will often scarf down anything they can get their rubbery lips around. So it’s nightcrawlers and stink baits and lanterns and let’s not forget the mosquitoes. What a lot of folks don’t realize, though, is that the nation’s channel catfisheries don’t come to a screeching halt once the leaves start to turn. In fact, the opposite can be, and usually is, quite true. On noted ‘cat waters like the Red River in North Dakota, the Missouri River near Pierre, South Dakota, or the mighty Mississippi, whisker-fish often take advantage of Fall’s aquatic buffet to stock up their fat and energy reserves in preparation for the slim times to come.
How so? They gorge themselves on the gizzard shad and young-of-the-year panfish that populate these and similar waters by the millions at this time of year. And what’s this mean to the man who’s not quite tired of deep-fried catfish come the first of October? Well get on the water, pardner, because the fishing is just getting good.
Compared to spring and early summer, fall presents both similar and different scenarios in terms of locating fish, riggings and bait choices. In some cases—Reelfoot Lake in northwestern Tennessee is a prime example—every ‘cat tactic and technique that applied in May will, forgoing any dramatic global changes, be met with success come early fall. The reason is simple. The lake itself, water temperatures included, has changed very little. The six-foot holes that held channel ‘cats in early summer also harbor fish in late September. Hang a nightcrawler at five feet under a slip-bobber, and you’re in business. But this same-old-story situation isn’t always the case. First off, and of course there will be exceptions, summer channel ‘cats are often smaller ‘cats. Here again, the explanation is elemental: The larger fish simply don’t have to eat as often when the water’s warm. A 20-pounder will ###### an 8-inch shad or sucker every now and again, but spends most of his time with his belly on the bottom watching his world drift by. Come a drop in water temperatures, though, and the urge to eat has Old Mister Big on the move armed with a healthy appetite. So, and typically speaking, if it’s big channel ‘cats you’re looking for, think fall. Locating fall channel ‘cats and riggings go hand-in-hand, so to speak. As water temperatures drop and fish go on the bite, they become more nomadic, roaming from spot to spot in search of new and more abundant food sources. Generically, drop-offs will always attract and hold fish, and this includes sandbar drops in situations of moving water. Current breaks, too, provide an almost across the board start-here scenario. As the fish themselves roam, so too must you, the angler. Drifting what I’ll call fish hunter rigs—suitable egg sinker, barrel swivel, 3-foot leader, pea-sized buoyant Corkie float, and a quality No. 2 hook—over electronically located potential, i.e. drop-offs, creek channels, current breaks, until you find active ‘cats is often the best advice. What bait to use? Come fall, don’t be afraid to upsize your offering, be it multiple ‘crawlers, whole (4 to 6 inches) shad, or larger chunks of cut shad or sucker. Remember, the big fish are on the prowl now, and they’re not looking for a half-inch garden worm. Scent, a big player during the warmer months, can still give you the upper hand, so don’t be too quick to put away that Smelly Jelly.