[TIPS] How to Catch White Catfish in Tidewater Rivers

For anglers in New England and elsewhere, fishing tidewater rivers for white cats is one of the best ways to enjoy a day on the water

Technique and the proper lures make a difference if you're itching to catch some cats in tidewater rivers. (Photo courtesy of Duane Raver/USFWS)

White catfish range from California to Florida, but despite being widespread and abundant in many waters, these fish are largely ignored by anglers.

That’s not the case in southern New England, however. In the waters of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut, white cats often are the best thing going.

Channel catfish inhabit this region, too, but in most areas, white cats are more abundant and catchable.

Bullheads also swim in local waters, but they don’t reach sizes that endear them to hard-core catfishing fanatics.

There are no flatheads or blues within hundreds of miles. That leaves white cats as the whiskerfish of choice for many anglers.

Before introductions of other species, white catfish were the largest of the native catfishes found in rivers draining into the Atlantic, from New York’s Hudson River southward through Florida.

Whites also are native to tributaries of the Gulf of Mexico in Alabama and Mississippi. Their ability to adapt and reproduce in a variety of water conditions makes them appealing to fishery managers, and they have been transplanted to ponds, lakes and rivers from Oregon and Nevada to Ohio and Rhode Island.

Northeast anglers are especially fond of white cats because they thrive in the brackish water of coastal rivers where other cats are absent. They sometimes live in half-strength seawater, right at the mouth of major rivers.

Catching them isn’t always easy, however. For consistent success, one must possess a thorough knowledge of tidewater rivers and fishing tactics that work best.

Understanding Tidewater Rivers

Water conditions in tidewater rivers change constantly because of the moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth. The water level fluctuates several feet each day, the river’s flow changes direction every 6-1/2 hours, and current velocity varies enormously depending on moon phase, distance from the river’s mouth and amount of runoff.

Savvy tidewater anglers pay close attention to tide tables, which appear daily in local newspapers, to plan their catfishing excursions. These show when high and low tides will occur in different spots on tidal rivers.

During a midsummer period of high flow and a full moon, a tidewater river has an upstream current during an incoming tide that’s nearly as strong as the downstream current during an outgoing tide.

With the same moon phase in early spring, however, the river will seem almost calm on an incoming tide. When the tide goes out, the current becomes much swifter, and fishing is more difficult.

Your fishing success will improve if you study such variations and learn when to expect certain conditions. Above the first dam or the fall line, a river is not influenced by tides.

Aziz on the Merrimack

Roger Aziz Jr. of Methuen, Massachusetts, has fished for catfish in the tidewater rivers of his home state since boyhood. He remembers a time years ago when he could catch scores of 4- to 7-pound white cats in the Merrimack River, a large tidewater stream flowing through parts of eastern New Hampshire and northeastern Massachusetts. He also remembers the dramatic decline of white cat numbers in the mid-1980s.

“At one time industrial factories lined both banks of the Merrimack,” Aziz says. “The river was dirty, polluted, but there were lots of big white cats, and I was catching six or seven in the 5- to 7-pound range every time I went fishing.

“Around the mid-1980s, a virus killed off many bottom-dwelling fish, including many catfish and carp. They laid by the hundreds, dead against the shore. Catfishing tapered off from then on.”

The river is cleaner now, and white cats have made a comeback.

“It’s still difficult to catch a 5-pounder,” says Aziz. “But the numbers are picking up. It’s not unusual to catch 15 to 20 whites a night weighing 1 to 2 pounds each. And eventually, I think we’ll be catching much larger fish. Those of us who are serious about our catfishing don’t kill any white cats. And other people are starting to follow our example, practicing catch and release. Catfishing is improving.”

Aziz ranks among the country’s top white cat anglers and has the credentials to prove it. He’s caught several line-class world records, and the techniques he uses to catch the big ones from the Merrimack can work for you, too.

“The best fishing in the Merrimack is the tidal water between Haverhill and Newburyport, about 20 miles of river,” Aziz reports. “The white cats here are current lovers. The only place you’ll catch them is in the current. I wait for the tide to peak, and as the water starts to go back out, that’s when I fish. You can catch whites when the current’s coming up, but they’re more spread out then. The best fishing is on an outgoing tide.”

Aziz targets rocky stretches of river, the same areas frequented by striped bass and smallmouths. In upstream reaches of the 20-mile pool, he finds most whites in deeper holes. When fishing closer to the river’s mouth, he targets white cats holding around bridge abutments.

“My favorite rig uses a 2- to 3-ounce bass-casting sinker, or a no-roll sinker that I mold myself with a swivel in the top,” Aziz notes. “A black rubber bead is placed between the sinker and a 3/0 Kahle hook. I fish this right on the bottom, letting the weight ride right against the hook. The sinker lays flat on the bottom, and the bait rides a few inches above it.”

The baits Aziz uses are 1-inch chunks of cut shad or herring, and often, strips of bacon.

“Bacon works best in spring,” he says, “because there aren’t any herring or shad moving in the river. I like to use a very sharp Kahle hook and get as much bacon on it as I can. A sharp hook will cut through the bacon and give you a good hookset. And I’ve found that hickory-smoked bacon works best. Always.”

The fish-finder rig is another Aziz favorite. This consists of a bass-casting sinker on the line above a barrel swivel. A short leader (up to 14-pound-test line) with a Kahle hook on the end and small Styrofoam ball in the middle is tied to the swivel.

“The sinker holds the rig near bottom, and the ball floats your bait up a few inches where catfish can find it,” he says.

The only problem with these rigs, Aziz says, is their propensity for attracting striped bass and smallmouths in summer.

“The best fishing for white cats is in spring and late fall when you’re less likely to catch these other fish.”

Small downriggers provide a means for catching white cats holding extremely deep in brackish water.

“We use light downriggers like those used on smaller lakes,” he notes. “Your line is connected to the ball, which is dropped to the bottom in deep holes with current.

“Let out 6 to 7 feet of line away from the clamp so your bait bounces in the current a foot or so above the bottom. When a fish grabs the bait, it trips the clamp, releasing your line, and you set the hook. This is the best type of rig you can use in brackish water when you’re anchored and fishing deep.”

For Aziz and other cat fanatics in the Northeast, white cats are the essence of day-to-day fishing.

“We get a few channel catfish and some bullheads, too,” he says. “But there are more white catfish up here than any other catfish. They’re the best thing going in this part of the world. And anglers who learn how to catch them in the tidewater stretches of our big rivers will find fun and satisfaction day after day.”