Although often considered a “Southern fish,” channel catfish provide fine fishing throughout the United States and into Canada. In northern waters, channel cats exhibit extensive annual winter migrations that rival those of many fish, including salmon.
In the lower Missouri River, channel cats congregate in deep scour holes behind rock wing dikes, where they find shelter from the cold winter flow. These deep holes concentrate fish from the mainstem Missouri, and from shallow tributary streams and rivers miles away. In the spring, these fish again distribute throughout the Missouri and move back into tributary streams to spawn. They remain in these areas through the summer and fall, returning to the deep, slow-current refuges the next winter.
The seasonal movements of channel catfish have been most extensively studied in the Wisconsin River. Channel cats are known to pass the cold-water days in deep holes with slow current and scattered cover, such as rocks and logs. This important wintering habitat occurs where the Wisconsin River enters the Mississippi River.
Commercial fishing in Wisconsin is limited to the Mississippi River. Unable to fish in the Wisconsin River, commercial fishermen intensively fish for catfish in and around the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers immediately before and after the Mississippi River freezes over.
Because channel catfish provide an important recreational fishery in the Wisconsin River, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resource biologists wanted to know if these heavily exploited fish were part of the channel cat population that spent the warmer months in the Wisconsin River.
The Wisconsin DNR biologists tagged over 10,000 channel catfish throughout the lower Wisconsin River. The majority of tagged channel cats recaptured from the Mississippi River wintering sites between October and April of the next couple years were Wisconsin River fish. The summer recaptures were back upstream in the lower Wisconsin River.
Also, there was evidence that at least some of the channel cats returned to a home area. In the summer, 60 percent of the fish were recaptured less than 1 1/2 miles from their home site.
Despite the slim odds of recapturing the same fish several times in a system this large, six fish were recaptured during at least three of four consecutive summers. Five of these fish were captured in the same area as in previous summers. Channel catfish, like salmon, are able to return quite precisely to a home area.
What about southern populations?
Unfortunately no biological studies of channel cats’ winter habitat use in southern waters have been conducted.
In the Mississippi River, where water temperatures frequently fall below 40 degrees, catfish are known to concentrate in deep holes below dikes, just as in the Missouri River. Channel catfish move onto the floodplain with warming and rising waters in the spring.
It is clear from studies in more-northern waters that channel cats head for deep, slow-current holes when the water temperature drops below 40 degrees. However, except for the Mississippi River, Mississippi’s reservoirs and streams rarely get that cold.
Seeking more intel on southern winter channel cats, I spoke with accomplished catfish tournament angler and guide Phil King from Corinth (email@example.com). King confided that channel cats are tough to find in the winter, but he has found them bunched up and biting in the deep water above Pickwick Dam on the Tennessee River.
"Channels don’t shy away from the deepest areas of the rivers in the South as long as there is food and current breaks," King said.
Rising water or a good flow seems to trigger movement onto the sandbars flanking deep river channels.
"Other locations in the reservoirs where you will find channels in the winter are the shallow flats that warm up and attract shad and other small forage fish after a few warm, windy days," King added.
He has also found that channel cats are quick to move up swollen tributary streams after heavy winter rains, likely seeking forage on the floodplains or grain washed in from the now-barren ag fields.
The book about the winter behavior of southern channel catfish is filled mostly with blank pages. Innovative and dedicated cat anglers are likely to enjoy some good fishing while filling in the gaps about the winter whereabouts of channel cats. It appears that the well-documented winter behavior of channel cats in colder climates would be a good starting point.