By Troy & Amy Hansen
Fall marks the transition from summer to winter; a time where the leaves are changing, nights stretch longer, days become shorter, and temperatures start to dip. This beautiful but brief period can offer some incredible fishing for catfish across the United States.
If fall is a transitional period, how does that make it for great fishing? Well, the rule of thumb is that the slow transition of the water temps triggers a slow transition of the fish. While the water temps are dropping, they are not changing completely overnight. This still leaves us a nice window (usually in early fall) of water temps that stay in that 50-to-70-degree range, making the catfish and baitfish in a very active and aggressive state. Mother Nature is in control of how long this feeding frenzy window stays open.
However, when there are drastic changes in the water temps, the fish will start to scatter. This is when it can become tough to pattern fish. You might also hear the term “fall turnover” during this time. This mainly happens in lakes that have a thermocline. Thermocline is the layer between the upper layer (surface water) and the deep layer of the lake. The thermocline layer prevents those two layers from mixing. In the summer, the upper layer will heat up due to the constant sun penetration, while the deep layer will remain cooler. Because summer is a consistent season, these layers do not mix. In the fall, the ongoing cold nights will begin cooling the upper layer until it is more dense than the bottom layer. Once this occurs, with the help of the wind, the lake will mix these layers, and this will be known as a “turnover”.
This can be a difficult time for adequate oxygen if it happens too quickly. After the lake has turned over, the waters will stabilize again, and the fish patterns will be more consistent. The cats will now have transitioned themselves into deeper water for the colder months ahead.
Cold Blooded Animals
Catfish are cold blooded animals, meaning their behavior and patterns are controlled by the water’s temperature. As water temps increase, so does their metabolism. To keep up with this high metabolism, they must feed more. As water temps decrease, their metabolism slows down, resulting in a less active fish. This usually happens when water temps dip below 50 degrees.
Technically, all cats feed year-round, which means you can ice fish for them too, but it’s how active (or aggressive) they are in those temps that determine how well your fishing goes. Flatheads, however, are built a bit differently. When that magic 50-degree temp approaches, flatheads move their way into hibernation mode and become almost inactive. Of course, everything is relative to where you are located. As southern states experience warmer temps in the winter months than the northern states, the cats will experience different activity levels too.
Blues and Channels
In early fall as the waters begin to cool, baitfish are on the move to more oxygen-rich areas. This could mean schooling up in shallower waters, feeding along weed lines, or just scattered about. As the bait moves around, so do the cats, making them a little more aggressive as they hunt.
A great way to target Blues and Channels in a lake during this period is by trolling or drifting. Both tactics are a form of “moving baits.” Trolling is done by using the trolling motor to troll through the water at a specific speed. This can be achieved by going with or against the current, depending on the wind.
Drifting is done without the use of a motor and just by floating along with the wind. Many times, a drift sock is used to control the boat speed during this. Both drifting and trolling provide a range of scattered moving baits to help mimic the shad below and offer more scent throughout the water while covering more water, faster. This is great for when you aren’t sure if they are shallow or deep. Planer boards are also a nice addition to help fan out your baits even wider.
For the river, anchoring would be best. As the fish are in that transition for deeper holes, this is what you will look for. The key is to keep moving and try all options. There's no need to stay put for too long. Start off by fishing the top side of the hole for 15 - 20 min., then pull anchor and set up in the middle of the hole for a little bit, then try fishing the bottom end of the hole. Just keep moving. Also, try to always cast one up in a shallow area if you can reach or mid depth. An extra tip is to fish different depths in the water column. You always want to provide options!
Because Flatheads tend to go into a more dormant state in the winter months, fall will put these monsters into a feeding frenzy in preparation for the cold. Many flathead anglers say this is their favorite time to target them because they are so aggressive.
Whether you are targeting these fish in a lake or river, always look for structure. Flatheads love cover. Rocks, fallen trees, log jams, root balls, you can't go wrong. Remember, flatheads are territorial. Just because you found one, it doesn't mean there will be more in that spot. Always scan everything you come across. Also, look for deep holes and current breaks. As those cold-water temps creep in, these monsters will be looking for their winter hole quickly.
Rigs and Baits
When it comes to rigs and baits, not a whole lot really changes from your summer tactics. For trolling, use a Santee Cooper Rig. For anchoring, a Carolina Rig works great. In early fall, you can still get away with bigger hooks and bigger baits. In fact, we suggest that. Once you begin to notice a change in their behavior as the temps cool, you can make small changes by switching out for smaller hooks and using smaller cuts of bait.