Big catfish spend their winters nestled in deep holes, often in schools, along the main river channel. But as spring arrives and water temperatures warm into the mid-50 degree range, the cats emerge and begin working upstream into the current in search of baitfish. It's not at all uncommon for this "chase" to end at the upper end of a river pool near the dam.
"The shad will actually work upriver and eventually become pinned down by flatheads and blues and channels near the dam." When this happens, the fishing can be outstanding. Like bears emerging from winter hibernation, the cats begin to binge on shad, skipjack herring, bluegill and small drum, feeding up to get ready for the spring spawn.
Both live shad or cut bait will work in this situation. Typically, during the spring of the year I use cutbait mainly shad, my wife Lynn likes to use a big gob of nightcrawlers, which makes a lot of sense because as the rains of spring start, the crawlers get swept into the rivers, thats why she holds the family record of a 38# Flathead. She has informed me she will be breaking her personal best in 1999. Also she caught this fish during the daylight hours and during the spring. She uses Zebco 33 reels and Rhino rods and twenty pound test line to wrestle cats to the boat. I can always count on her to bring a big one to the boat.
During the spring as the water starts to warm look in the areas where rivers or tributaries empty into the Ohio. The water warms much faster in these small rivers, and warm water draws shad by the thousands and the channels and blues are right behind them. If you can find areas where there are log jams, brush piles, anything that will break the current cats will be holed up waiting on a meal.
Outside bends in small rivers where the water cuts into the banks are very productive during this time of year, anchor up river from the structure and lob your bait into the area, be very quite, if you drop something on the floor of the boat you might as well add 30 minutes to your fishing time, that's how long it will take them to come back to the area. These fish are adapted to hearing the ticking sounds from Transducers, prop sounds and engine sounds, the hum of trolling motors, the large engines from the barges running up and down the Ohio River, in water sound travels very fast. When you put your anchor down let it slip into the water and ease it on the bottom, don't throw it out the front of the boat, these are unnatural sounds that cats can hear and feel.
Talking about anchoring methods, I like to use the long rope,100 ft,may not use the whole thing but the added length is there if I need it. I have a cleat that is mounted on the front of my boat that I use to anchor with, if the current is strong and the boat sways a lot then I will put out an additional anchor and fasten them to the side cleats on the sides of the front of the boat, tighten the ropes up until the boat stops swaying. During the spring I stay up in areas like the Great and Little Miami rivers until the water warms up then I fish on the main river.
Watch your fish finder as you are anchored down, look for schools of shad moving under your boat and don't be afraid to move from an area, in the spring I use what I call a "Run and Gun" approach, I anchor down and if I catch a couple of fish and the action stops then I move, look over the sides of your boat,see which way the shad are going and follow them, look around the area you are fishing for structure, catfish are very structure oriented, ask any Bass fisherman that thinks he has caught the largest bass of his life flipping or throwing crank baits near a structure and a channel or flathead has come out and busted his offering because if it looks like a shad, it is a meal to them and they will go for it.
Sometimes the best areas to fish will never show up on your fish finder, trees that have fallen down into the water where the bank has washed the dirt out from under them that block part of the current, or areas where there is a deep hole that can stack up baitfish. Look up and down these small rivers, some times the biggest cats are sitting on a small stickup.
Small rivers will hold a lot of fish, they will be concentrated in several areas, and small areas.
Necked down areas where small rivers make bends, look to the sides, you will see small eddys where the water kind of boils or swirls in a circle, these are areas that cats can rest in and still go out and get a meal. Watch the flow of the river, if you see a change from it's normal path there could be a rock, large boulder, or a sand bar.
Rocks are a great place to fish, the biggest drawback is your going to get hung up fishing these areas,and when your using this type of a hook, a #6/0 Gamagatsu Octopus, you may need to switch your style of fishing to floating the cutbait or live bait under a float or a bobber or a balloon, I have also used planer boards to fish these areas, it's a little more work but it can pay off if the fishing is tough.
Here is one of my methods of catching channel cats, it is called Ballooning and works great in the current because the balloons offer no resistance to the current flow they just ride back and forth in the current, make a loop in your line and tie an overhand knot in the balloon and snug the balloon around the loop, set your depth at the level you are marking fish at. I like to use this when I'm fishing structure that keeps claiming my bottom rigs. This is a very effective livebait rig, as I put a couple ounces of weight above a swivel and fish the rig right over the structure, the cat grabs the bait and the balloon pops off the line, this is vey effective if you have trouble marking structure with your fishfinder, that shad or sucker that is suspended below the balloon will tell you where the big ones are by just watching the activity level of the balloon, try this sometime it is a very exciting way to fish for catfish. This method works very well in lakes where the fish are scattered about after the water warms up, just set-up a slow troll and drag the balloons behind your boat.
Good spring pre-spawn fishing continues until water temperatures hit the
mid to upper 60 degree range. During this time, fish can be caught just as easily during
the daytime as they can at night. It's not until late June, into July and August, that big
cats retreat into deep holes, coming out primarily at night to feed in shallow water.