Hints For High Water Cats

By Ted Peck - July 1, 2008
Catfish have at least one characteristic for the feline mammal which gave them the name-when threatened a catfish will often seek refuge in a tree. Boiling currents in the Rock and other rivers push virtually all fish species to seek refuge from high and roily water. Native intelligence tells channel catfish that the downstream edge of shoreline timber will provide both refuge and easy food.

Right now virtually all of the forktail's habitat needs are easily met within 5-10 feet of the shoreline, hunkering down in the slipstream a tree or similar barrier provides. Channel catfish are omnivores, eating everything from insects to annelids to ivory soap. They are aided in this process by an ultra-sensitive sense of taste-as fishing buddy Bobby Burnett puts it " a catfish is just a swimmin' tongue". Sensitive barbells-the whiskers which give the catfish it's name-process the perpetual menu flowing by in the river's current , with the fish following this sensory input to it's source.

During normal river pool levels channel catfish may have to be more aggressive in seeking the source of a potential meal . But with water at or near flood conditions native intelligence drives these fish to hunker down in places where the river will bring food floating by without expending precious energy to chase down dinner. Conventional wisdom says fish move upstream on a slowly rising river, with catfish gravitating closer to shore to take advantage of foodstuffs which may come tumbling into the river from the bank and tributaries.But with flood conditions fish species experience downstream displacement which can be measured in miles.

Two cases in point are found in the great flood of 1993. Prior to this time there were essentially no walleyes swimming in the Mississippi down around St. Louis. Since this time the population of displaced fish which ended up here has grown to the point where walleye tourneys are now held within sight of the Gateway Arch on a regular basis.

Our own Rock River also illustrates downstream displacement with both sauger and muskie stocked above Lake Koshkonong now stretching the strings of happy anglers down in the flatlands. Not that we need to worry about all of our fish getting washed to Illinois. Most will find refuge within a mile or two of where you would likely catch them if the Rock was at typical summer pool levels.

Those stretches of river below the Indianford dam and upstream from the boat launch at Happy Hollow south of Janesville which are usually veritable catfish factories this time of year are tough and even dangerous to fish.

The waters south of the Highway 14 bridge west of town or generally slower moving water found south of the Townline road bridge are still boiling by at a pretty good clip. But you can still anchor up close to shore at some points out of the current and find fish.

Herein lies a good news/bad news scenario: The bad news is, not many potential out-of-the-current spots hold active fish during near-flood conditions. The good news is, when you find 'em filling a 10 fish limit might only take you about an hour.

The movement of catfish during our recent flood conditions is similar to an annual migration which catfish undertake with impending winter-movement en masse to "wintering holes" on the outside bends of certain places in the channel where survival is possible until conditions improve. A few select areas fulfill all of the channel cat's habitat parameters during this time of "current" duress. These threatened cats are right where you would expect to find their mammalian counterparts under similar circumstances-tucked in the shelter of a tree.

It may be several weeks before these piscators relocate to places you would expect to find them in the summertime. This is a question of when-not if. Not to worry. Have you ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree?

Author Ted Peck
Ted Peck
Cap'n Ted Peck has over 30 yrs. guiding experience, specializing in multi-species fishing on Pool 9-10 of the Mississippi from Genoa, Wi. to Prairie du Chien. Cap'n Ted is a pro staffer for Lund, Northland Tackle, MinnKota, Bill Lewis Lures, Evinrude, Uncle Josh, HT Enterprises and Custom Jigs & Spins. When not guiding Cap'n Ted communicates the outdoors experience via newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and through seminars. This work has taken him all over the midwest, Canada and beyond... but he always returns to the upper Mississippi which he considers the most diverse fishery in North America. Click here for more info on Ted's guide service. Cap'n Ted's new book Mississippi Musings with the Old Guide is a personal account of his long career as a professional fishing guide on Old Man River.