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Author: Larry Crecelius
Everyone has their favorite spot and each of them claims to have the biggest catfish around. But when it comes to big catfish, make no mistake about it, big rivers produce the big cats.
Two of the main rivers in the Midwest are the Mississippi and the mighty Ohio. There are several interstate rivers throughout the Midwest that produce large catfish, but the Mississippi and Ohio reign above all others. Catching these monsters of the deep can be much more challenging than the average person thinks, but if the truth be told, there is more to catching big cats than sitting on a bank with lawn chairs, poles and a case of drinks.
Big cats adapt well to big rivers basically because of the food supply and room to grow. The amount of structure and cover in these rivers give catfish areas to stay out of the current and ambush baitfish as needed.
Some of the best places to start looking for big cats on river systems are old concrete structures such as bridges, old dams, and sunken barges. Any large underwater structure that is holding heavy cover can produce big cats. Depending on the time of year and the species of catfish you're in search of, underwater humps, in deep water and shallow flats, are also hot spots for nighttime catfishing. Another point to keep in mind when looking for big cats is a combination of deep water and structure that will hold baitfish. If you find baitfish near structure in deep water, you are more than likely going to find big catfish.
In major river systems there are three main species of catfish that most anglers pursue; blue, flathead and channel. These species are different in many ways, most importantly their habitat and food supply.
Blue catfish are very predictable when it comes to their habitat - deep during the day and shallow at night. Blues can often be found on deep outside bends in the river, most generally in 20 feet of water or more. As the night falls, these cats will move up into five to ten feet of water to feed. When in deep water, they will move along the bottom edge of channels or steep drop-offs much like a roadway or path.
One of the easiest ways to find blues is to watch your fish finder for schools of baitfish in deep water. Like any creature, they will stay close to their source of food. The best time to fish for blue cats is at night, when they move up shallow to feed. Blues will move up to five to ten feet of water on flats to chase baitfish, and will stay until sunrise in most cases. As a rule of thumb, they are more active as they move up shallow when the baitfish are still moving around on flats in the river, but don't give up if the activity slows down. These blues will cruise the shallows throughout the midnight hours.
Blues are more prone to hit on fresh-cut bait such as shad and bluegill. The size of the bait portion depends on the size of the fish you're after, but as a general rule, think big baits for big fish! One thing to keep in mind is that blues are very sensitive to noise such as banging on the boat or any other clatter that can be heard underwater.
Flatheads are a breed of their own. Get out the heavy equipment for these big boys or you are just wasting time. Flatheads are partial to heavy cover next to structure such as old bridges, dikes or sunken barges in relatively shallow water - but close to deep drop-offs. By heavy cover, I mean brush piles and other such cover where they can hold - and as a result can pose a challenge to land with a rod and reel. This is why heavy equipment and line is a must for these creatures of the deep. In most cases, fishing right next to brush piles is the most productive method using live bait such as large shad or bluegills for the really big cats. Flatheads also prefer areas with less current, which may help to eliminate some of the less productive areas in the river. The best time to fish for flatheads is early morning or late in the evening. Not to say you can't catch them during the day or late night, but dusk and dawn are the most productive.
Of the three main species of catfish, the channel cat is most likely the one that is fished for and caught the most frequently. From small children to the more experienced catfish anglers, channel cats have provided more fishing fun than any other species of cat known to man. Baits for channels range from night crawlers, homemade or commercial stink/dip baits, chicken livers (the smellier the better) and even hotdogs. In most cases, a channel will be attracted to anything that gives off an odor.
Channel cats are active both day and night on river systems and can be found on shallow flats or deeper water, depending on where their next meal is coming from. A good starting place is on shallow sandy flats, where they cruise for baitfish. Another excellent place (if you have one close) is grain-loading areas. Generally, when grain is loaded onto barges, a small amount ends up in the river and channel cats will flock to these areas. Other exciting channel cat areas are old restaurants on a river where some of the scraps might just end up going into the river. The channel cat is a non-discriminating connoisseur of almost any type of junk food. No matter what your technique for catching channel cats, it's a lot of fun and presents great opportunities for kids.
Catfishing for big river cats can be more of a challenge than many anglers think. Each species is different to some degree and must be fished for in different ways. As a general rule when fishing for big cats, give each area at least 45 minutes to an hour. If nothing is happening in that amount of time, it's time to move on. From fishing deep to shallow water and in heavy cover, you'll find no more fun than, "Fishing Big Rivers for Big Cats".
For more information on catfish gear, more stories & tips and catfish tournaments, go to Cabela's King Kat Tournament Trail pages.