Catfish through the seasons
by Daniel Kiazyk
To everything - turn, turn, turn There is a season - turn, turn, turn And a time for every purpose under heaven -The Byrds
So it goes with catfish and catfishing… if you catch a lot or if you get the big one that's great but for the boat what really matters is that we have an opportunity to be in touch with a rhythm of a river that is more than either of the prior. The catfish seasons are inextricably intertwined with the terrestrial and aquatic systems visited when catfishing. Systems exist as a feature of all parts of the world. The catfish world is no different and has levels of internal and external influences on what goes on there-in. Getting a view of what is involved in those systems gives a greater satisfaction when we get out to fish these giant creatures of the Red River.
Firstly I'll start at a point that is different than most articles I read of recently about the Red River. I find it is amazing how there is such variety in species and year classes present in this system in those places where we'll catch a lot of good ones. Certainly the environment as a whole has aspects that make channel catfish as successful as they appear to be in this body of water, but Go back look at some of your favorite holes (if you fish the Red) and invariably there will be a variety of year classes in the area. Interestingly the best spots on the Red River have the capacity to hold a range of year classes of the same species. To verify what is being posited here I'd suggest going to the edges of area where you catch cats with some frequency, change your bait (for example try worms) and make an effort to determine the kinds of fish that are in the area. Doing this I've discovered a couple of things. Firstly that there will be some forage fish that catfish will probably key in on from time to time. Secondly you'll invariably find cats but the difference will be in some of these peripheral areas that most cats will range from 4" to 24". In some instances it has been my observation that catfish come by their favorite locations for a good reason. Living in the area and making the transition to what they'll utilize as "regular catfish holes and structure" are an extension of something that has been preceded by their earlier seasons in the area.
With regards to the prior, catfish will remain in an area if there is forage for them to avail themselves of.. Simply put, they will have a predilection to those places where they will have access to a lot of sustenance. In another article I've spoken of a forage analysis/availability as being significant for anglers to consider if they wish to have a modicum of success during any season on the Red. Simply fishing with shrimp will provide for reduced conditions of success.
I've also written of locations for coming into contact with the greatest number of fish throughout the Red. In 2012 I noticed fisheries biologists out electro-shocking near the boat launch at Selkirk park. Such science can only assist in the preservation of this hardy species but why electro shock near the launch? Well, there are those locations that you might visit to look for catfish and catfish do have spots they like to frequent but they also will be on other spots that you'd probably not associate them with. On some occasions the successful angler will go through a logical process of trying to determine the location of these fish through a trial and error (simply not getting bit) process. Most often you're going to get a hint or two as to their whereabouts and then you can try to repeat the process. Some days it's not where they are at it's just a matter of when the dinner bell rings…. Why not try some place different?
But that brings me to the point of this article. Too often I've watched or spoken to anglers who were fishing a particular location with a particular approach. Of course one of the things they'll often mention was that the bite was tough or that they had better luck last week. In most cases it is an issue of fishing by images that they have of the fishery as projected by TV shows or articles they may read about fishing the Red's mighty channel catfish. I'll often ask if they had tried some other location or approach only to see the wheels starting to turn on what truly is an important part to any angling approach: If they're not where you're fishing most likely you've got to change something about how you're doing it.
In the spring for example I'll not waste too much time back in the river looking at holes and the river's channel. The Lockport dam area will be my first choice as it appears that earlier on in the season that the cats in general will move upstream to obstructions like the dam at Lockport. Cats seem to cycle in and out of the area below the dam and to the stretch of river just north of the dam. It is also very interesting that during this period that catfish of all sizes will be caught. Some other observations during this beginning of the season bite is that there will be cats who are darker black with their upper snouts being quite swollen. Other cats with quite vivid colors of olive, buckskin and pink will also be caught. It might be suggested that pre-spawn and spawning cats are up at the dam looking for forage.
As the season continues it's quite interesting on how the more pronounced colors of early season are not as prominent. June and the beginning of July has some cats becoming less vibrant in terms of their coloring and not necessarily as well conditioned as many expect these cats to be. Reports of sores, rashes and cuts are quite common during this period. Some anglers suggest that these marks are from anglers not handling catfish as well as they should be handled. I'm not so sure that angler abuse is really the culprit here. It is more probable that what is being witnessed are fish that are finished with the rigours of the spawn and theses fish are making an effect to make an offset for energy expended during that spawn. At this time of the season It seems as though some fish start to disperse from the dam but some are still there. It might be suggested if you don't get bit at the dam that it's time to go back into the river to look for more active biters.
And then there's a movement to summer's apex. This period of time usually is marked by the warmest part of the summer. Hatches of mayflies occur and emerald shiners start to arrive in the river. As this season progresses sauger may also start to appear and become a target of shore anglers. Catfish in this context seems to become extra fat with bellies that hang below what has been seen to this point in time. In effect the heaviest fish of the season are caught during this period. You can still catch some good ones up at the dam but the best fish seem to be caught in deeper holes miles downstream from the dam. I've also noticed some very acute preferences for bait during this period. Goldeye works well but there are days when shrimp or goldeye will only yield 5 to 10 fish a day. Switching over to frogs can be opportune at this time. I do recommend to prospective guests that if they can arrange it, that this is the time to catch the best/largest fish of the system. Certainly this is a generalization and it does not suggest that you'll be fishing for numbers of fish either.
Finally the last period of time (or season) is the end of summer going into Fall. This period of time has catfishing winding down because of cooling waters. Catfish seem to prefer water temperatures over 50 degrees. As the water temps go down in the Fall the bite does dwindle on those days that do not warm. It always surprises me how when there are those days when the wind blows for a couple days from the south that the catfish will start to bite again. Fishing can be extremely active on these days whereas greenback anglers know they'll be hampered by such winds. I'll often suggest on such days that a greenback fishing guest tip crankbaits with a piece of crawler. More often than not the biter of this offering will be a 20# cat as opposed to a 10#greenback. Fun….you better believe it!
So there are seasons for catfishing that might be considered by anglers who wish to visit and angle the Red River. It has been the experience of this angler that they are definable and can assist the angler in achieving greater success and perhaps more importantly a greater appreciation for everything that happens under heaven. Certainly there are seasons for all species and in the case of catfish they have and will continue to turn turn turn….