Anglers who fish for catfish from shore often have an inferiority complex. They assume they would catch more catfish if they were in a boat. However, professional catfishing guide Chad Ferguson says these assumptions are wrong and that shore-based anglers can often catch just as many catfish as people in boats. He recalls an experience at a local lake with an older gentleman who always toted a nice stringer of catfish across the parking lot. Ferguson befriended him and offered a trip in his boat in exchange for learning from the old fellow’s catfishing expertise.
“He wasn’t at all interested in fishing from my boat but said I could fish with him from the shoreline,” Ferguson says. “He used an 8- or 9-foot rod that was really limber, like a crappie rod, and we went down the shoreline of that lake using that rod to dip his bait into every brush pile, laydown and bit of structure he could find. We absolutely clobbered catfish.”
The lesson here, Ferguson offers, is that where and how you fish from shore matters a lot when you can’t move with a boat. And this is something that any boatless catfish angler should keep in mind when setting up to fish on a given day.
WIND, WAVES AND WASH
Charles Jones founded CJ’s Baits, a major supplier of catfish punch baits, as well as rods, hooks and tackle designed for catfishing. He owns two boats but rarely uses them because he says it’s often easier and more productive to simply fish from shore. Jones emphasizes the importance of first planning where he fishes from shore, then strategically placing his baits. “One of the big mistakes shore-fishermen make is to pick a spot that’s easy for them to get to,” he says. “They go to some place close to a parking lot, and then just cast as far as they can out toward the middle.”
Instead, Jones says he picks his shore spots by examining what’s in the water that might bring fish close to shore and hold them. He’s usually casting specifically to a drop-off or hump that he’s found on a topographic map or seen himself during a drought when the lake was low. How easy the area is to access, on the other hand, is not a prime consideration. Jones also likes targeting windward shorelines. “I like shorelines so windy that other people don’t want to fish there,” he says. “The waves push insects and debris and baitfish toward that shoreline, and the catfish move in to feed.”
Hydrologic science explains that as waves wash into a shoreline, especially a sloping one, a thin layer of undercurrent drains lakeward along the bottom. At some point, depending on slope gradient, wave action and other variables, the undercurrent weakens, and any debris, insects or invertebrates carried by the current accumulate in that area. Baitfish work that zone of debris and catfish follow. Jones watches for offshore evidence among the waves that hints where he should place his baits.
“It’s hard to describe, but a lot of times there’s a line of foam, or small bubbles, or it just looks different, and that’s the spot I want my bait to drift over,” Jones says. “Sometimes it’s offshore a ways and I have to chuck it way out there. Other times it may be only 5 or 10 feet offshore. Once I get a few bites, I can tell where that zone is and focus on it.”
Jones likes to keep his equipment and baits “light.” He often carries only a couple poles and a 5-gallon bucket with an array of baits, hooks and floats. He rarely anchors baits on bottom with heavy sinkers. His preferred strategy is to cast out a wad of punch bait suspended 1 to 3 feet off bottom under a float and let wind and waves “troll” the rig toward shore. Usually, this carries the bait through the transition zone created by undercurrents or over submerged points, ledges and drop-offs.
“I use my CJ’s punch bait under a slip float,” he says. “The float lets the bait move with the wind and waves, distributing the flavor in the water. When I reel in to refresh the bait, it spreads the flavor around even more. If nothing bites in 30 minutes, I’m moving to another spot. If a good punch bait doesn’t get cats in that time, they aren’t in that area.”
Mobility and location are also keys to catching cats from the banks of rivers. It’s said that 90 percent of fish occupy 10 percent of water, and that’s very true in moving water. Dams are focal points for anglers and fish, but the best action is often downstream. Cats may feed in the turbulent waters below a dam, but they also like calmer waters downstream a bit. Wander down a few hundred yards, maybe half a mile, to find concentrations of catfish that have drifted down to rest in calmer holes or behind logjams.
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My father, my catfishing mentor, detested fishing along any riverbank where there were human shoe prints. Occasionally, he had to trek a long way from parking lots to find virgin banks and sandbars, but it often required little extra effort to find footprint-free fishing. “A lot of fishermen are lazy,” he’d say. “Sometimes all you have to do is walk an extra 50 or 100 yards, or through some brush and weeds, to get to a spot where there aren’t any footprints.”
Of course, a lack of footprints wasn’t the only consideration when Dad was hunting catfish in rivers. His rules of thumb were to avoid “straight” water, never fish more than 20 feet from wood and avoid scum. His reasoning was that water flowing smoothly down a straight stretch of river creates smooth bottoms unattractive to catfish. He favored “woody” water because turbulence around logjams creates holes and current breaks favored by both channel cats and flatheads. And areas of slack water devoid of current were, in his opinion, “dead water.”
“I don’t mind slow swirls or back currents,” he’d say. “But if it’s so stationary that there’s foam and scum just sitting on the surface, there won’t be any cats. That’s carp country.”
Equally important to the “where and how” of fishing from shore is the “what and when.”
“Channel catfish, blue catfish and flathead catfish are as different in the way they behave as goats, pigs and horses,” says Jeff Williams, founder of Team Catfish, a guide service and catfish tackle brand. “If shore anglers don’t understand the way the individual species move and feed, they’re going to have a hard time catching them. You’ve got to match the species and the time of year with the places you fish from shore.”
That means channel and flathead catfish anglers have their best luck from shore in spring, summer and fall. Both species move shallow after sunset, feeding across flats above holes in rivers, or along shallow shorelines in lakes. Proximity of shallow water to a drop-off into deeper water is key. Water flowing from tributaries into lakes and rivers also attracts catfish, making the mouths of streams prime places to fish from shore.
Anglers who fish from shore for blue catfish find best success in winter. Williams says cold temperatures bring blue cats—traditionally associated with deep water—closer to shore.
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“If you get a cold snap, it puts thermal stress on forage fish and they can have a die-off, especially gizzard shad,” he says. “Then, if you get a warm spell with a steady wind, the dead shad all drift into shallow bays or along points that stick out into a lake. Some of the guys do really well in the middle of winter fishing from shore and catching big blues that move into those areas to feed on the dead shad.”
To prove his point, we cite Texas’ Cody Mullennix, who held the world record for blue catfish for a number of years with a 121 1/2-pound blue he caught from shore at Lake Texoma in January 2004. Mullennix and a group of friends specialized in fishing from the lake’s shoreline on sunny winter days.
“Those guys tend to use long rods so they can cast farther, something like a 12-foot, medium-heavy surf-type rod rigged with a 3- to 5-ounce weight and a chunk of shad,” Williams says. “I don’t want to give the impression you have to have a long rod and throw [the bait] halfway across the lake, because sometimes they’re right up close to shore and you can reach them with a 7- or 8-foot rod. But having the longer rod gives you the option to cast a long way if you need to.”
Understanding options is the key to successful shore fishing. Know what species of catfish you’re seeking, understand how and when they use close-to-shore waters and then present baits in tantalizing ways. If you want to sit and sunbathe, pick a shore spot on any lake or river, toss out any bait and take a nap. But if you want to catch cats, plan where to fish, use the right tackle and avoid footprints until you find an impressive number of catfish within casting distance of shore.