The Rock River in north-central Illinois is one of the best-known channel catfish rivers in the country and guide Matt Jones of Prophetstown has been targeting its cats for years. Although he chases whiskerfish year-round, he calls March and April his favorite months to land numbers of hefty cats. Catches of 50 over a six-hour span are common, and when the fish are really going, he might land as many as 100 up to 15 pounds!
But he doesn’t rely on common catfishing knowledge or tactics to put up these kinds of numbers. While other anglers are looking for fish in deep holes, he’s loading the boat fishing water sometimes inches deep and loaded with flooded grass and cover.
Cracking The Code
Once, many anglers thought channel cats spent the winter lying motionless in the mud along the riverbottom, waiting until spring before coming out of “hibernation.” As a result, targeting cats in water colder than 55 degrees was largely written off by most catmen.
Thanks to recent biological studies, advances in technology and a few open-minded fishermen who successfully targeted cats during the cold-water period, that has all changed.
Yes, near-freezing water temperatures slow fish metabolism, forcing river cats to take refuge in what are referred to as “overwintering” areas or “wintering holes.” These are usually deep, with an eddy or drop in the bottom that creates a large swath of reduced current. Small wintering holes might hold a few dozen fish while large ones can teem with several thousand from late October through about mid-April in the central U.S.
But contrary to once-popular belief, these fish can be caught, and in large numbers (see “March Madness,” North American Fisherman, February 2006).
Jones has long fished cold-water cats and made huge catches from the depths of wintering holes. But the more he fished the early spring pattern, the more he became curious if deep water was actually important to it.
He wondered that if low-metabolism cats only needed relief from fast current, then why weren’t there any cats in the backwaters and off-channel coves, which were completely devoid of current. The puzzle started to come together.
It became obvious to Jones that cold-water channel cats were attracted to at least some current—not the strongest or the slowest, but somewhere in between. He began fishing wintering areas much shallower than he’d previously ventured, especially during the latest part of the winter catfish behavior period, which, depending on latitude, means February through the first half of April.
Most interestingly, he found that not only were cats staging shallow near their wintering areas, but they would move up and locate tight to the riverbank, especially if there was good forage-holding cover, such as downed timber, rocks or, most often, a shallow flat with flooded grass. Best of all, he found these fish are usually more aggressive, bite with more intensity, and are usually easier to hook than fish in wintering holes.
Through relentlessly pursuing these cold cats for years, Jones has fine-tuned his ability to identify what types of shallow areas are best. Flooded grass with the right combination of gentle current, depth, and proximity to a mid-river wintering area, for example, consistently out-produces woody or rocky banks with the same general qualities. What’s more, he’s caught as many as 10 times more fish on certain flooded grass banks than on other seemingly identical banks.
How does he sort through the possibilities? With these four sets of criteria:
Proximity to wintering hole—This is crucial. Although a good bank doesn’t have to be adjacent to a wintering area, the closer it is, the more cats it will hold. Cats will move to the shallow area from the security of the wintering hole and stage there.
The right current speed—Gentle to slow current is a must if the water temperature is below 40 degrees. The higher the temp, the stronger the current can be and still hold late-winter cats.
Depth—With the first two elements in place, Jones selects areas with one to three feet of water extending no more than about 10 feet from shore.
Grass—Jones puts the last nail in the coffin by looking for grass tips sticking above the surface at least three feet from shore. This hints that there is a good-size patch inundated grass. “The grass I’m looking for is usually brown,” he says. A plus feature is a black dirt bank instead of a rocky or clay bank. Jones theorizes that dirt produces better because it may provide bonus feeding opportunities in the form of worms, grubs and insects, in addition to prey like crayfish, gizzard shad and minnows that also pour into the flooded cover.
Mowing The Grass
Once he selects a grassy area, Jones anchors his 16-foot jonboat from the bow at about a 45 degree angle 10 to 15 yards upstream of his target zone. Once the boat settles and holds straight in the current, he baits up a circle hook with small chunks of gizzard shad, shad gut, or redworms, depending on the level of catfish activity that day. He holds the offering in place with a ¾-ounce egg sinker stopped about 10 inches above the hook by a sturdy barrel swivel. He prefers to go light with a 10-pound test Cajun Red main line and a 7- to 8-foot, light- or medium-power stick.
An important part of Jones’ approach to fishing cats in the grass is placing baits at varied depths to start. Occasionally, the most active cats will be very shallow, running the edge of where the grass meets the water, or they’ll be deeper, where the grass ends and a mud flat begins.
Often, they are somewhere between these two extremes, so take notice of exactly where hits are coming. It will invariably help you keep your baits in the right depth zone and in front of feeding cats.
Even if an area has all the elements necessary to hold numbers of fish, Jones limits his “experimental anchors” to 20 minutes. If solid catfish bites aren’t coming regularly, he knows there’s better water somewhere else.
Just as he keeps on a strict time schedule, he makes sure to rebait often and cast to other areas he can reach from the same anchor. “Cats can just be sitting on the bottom waiting for food to come to them,” he says, “I make sure to recast often and I even drag baits around.”
Jones also advises to fish hard at the fringes of daylight to take advantage of low light and increased cat activity. “The fish are more active during the last hour of the day. It can be so fast-paced that I can only run one rod per client!”
Putting It Together
Success like that isn’t luck—it’s the product of a proven system, and Jones follows it, too. He chooses shallow areas that feature his four key elements, dials in the exact depth zone fish are using, keeps baits fresh and covers lots of water. The methodical approach lets him put numbers of huge channel cats in the boat at a time even fellow experts often zero—and he does it in waters they’d never think to fish!
But he’d be the first to tell you that if he can do it, you can, too.