“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Cat nipping at my bait…”
OK, that’s not how the song goes. Maybe that’s how it should go, though, because mid-winter ranks among the finest times of the entire year for targeting catfish. The days might be cold, but the action can be hot. Making a good thing even better, most sportsman have whitetail deer on the brain or are sitting at home, so you’re apt to have the catfishing action all to yourself.
Arguably the best thing about wintertime catfishing is that fish are fairly predictable. Like campers huddled around a fire on a cool night or lined up where the food is being served, the catfish will spend most of the time where conditions are most comfortable, where food is most readily available or, ideally, where they can find the best of both worlds. Once you figure out the cats preferred winter areas in any given river or lake, you often can find fish in the same general areas day after day throughout the winter.
BAIT & TACKLE
The best winter action is for channel and blue catfish. Flatheads tend to lay low, not feeding much through the coldest part of the year and don’t provide much opportunity for anglers.
Channel and blue cats use similar areas during the winter, so the only real differences in the best strategies for either involve the size of the hook and the bait. If a system supports a significant population of heavyweight catfish, rigging at least some lines with very large chunks of cut bait and using heavy duty tackle would make good sense. Even in big-cat waters, though, it’s a good idea to mix up bait sizes because the smaller fish help keep the action steady.
Whatever size cats you opt to target, fresh fish cut into chunks is pretty tough to beat as winter catfish bait. Bigger cats naturally feed quite a bit on lethargic concentrations of baitfish during the cold months, and even smaller ones that feed more as scavengers can never resist the scent of a piece of cut fish. Depending on the size of fish being used for bait, it might be cut in halves or thirds, steaked or even filleted, with the fillets then cut into chunks. One way or the other, the end product for pan-sized catfish should be fairly thin, maybe an inch or two long and an inch or less wide. The ideal bait size for monsters really depends on how big the fish grow in the waters where you are fishing!
The best baitfish to use for cut bait in many cases are those species you can net from the same waterway where you are fishing. Often area bait shops will carry locally caught forage fish. Lacking local options, though, don’t overlook simple bait store minnows — the kind normally used to catch crappie. Those can be fished dead or alive.
Another good option is to visit the seafood cooler at your local grocery store. Shrimp work very well — although they can get a little pricey. Otherwise, simply pick out inexpensive frozen fish that you can cut into little chunks for bait. If possible, get a couple of different species and give the catfish a choice of menu options.
If you want to add to the variety, pick up a couple of containers of chicken or turkey livers while you are at the store. Livers make excellent year-round bait for channel catfish especially, and they are readily available at any grocery store and many bait shops or even convenience stores.
For stationary fishing a basic sliding, bottom rig works nicely. The ingredients are simple: an egg or bell sinker, a barrel swivel and a hook. Begin by tying the swivel to the end of your main line and then cutting the line a couple feet up from the swivel to form your leader. Run your main line through the hole in the egg weight or eye atop the bell sinker and then tie the line to the free end of the swivel. Complete the rig by tying the hook to the loose end of the leader.
The amount of weight varies quite a bit according to water depth, wind and current in the water you are fishing. In most cases, though, between 1 and 3 ounces should do the job. A circle hook works well for any type of cut bait. Use a No. 2 to 2/O for channel catfish or a larger size for big blue catfish. For chicken livers, complete the rig with a fairly small No. 4 or 6 treble hook. Livers can be difficult to cast and often you end up throwing the bait off if you don’t use a treble hook. If the fish seem equally fond of the livers and the cut bait, the latter is a better choice simply because the single-point circle hooks are much easier to get out of the fish.
Any spinning or casting outfit with decent backbone in the rod and room for plenty of 20- to 30-pound-test line will do the job nicely for smaller catfish. Casting reels, which provide more torque, work better for doing battle with heavyweight blues. You’ll also need a rod with plenty of backbone. Many anglers favor braided line for big blues, especially in rivers, because the smaller diameter of heavy tests is easy to manage in the current. If your main line is braid, use heavy fluorocarbon or monofilament for the leader between your swivel and hook.
Although exceptions do occur, most of the best winter catfishing action comes from fairly deep water. The fish congregate in large holes, where they find both food and some degree of thermal refuge, and they stay camped out in those holes all season. They won’t always be in the very deepest part of a hole, but they’ll usually be fairly deep.
In rivers, the deep winter holes are often along hard outside bends or beside steep riprap banks. In reservoirs, they are either along inundated bends in old creek and river channels or in the reservoirs’ lower reaches. Channel confluences also tend to have deeper holes associated with them
The best set up, once you find the fish, depends on whether current exists, and at times on the depth of the water. If current is crossing the hole, the best way to keep your baits and your boat in good position is drop a floating marker buoy on top of the fish, motor a moderate cast’s distance up current from the marker and anchor your boat. Cast your lines downstream, let them settle on the bottom, engage your reels, put your rods in holders, brace them against the side of the boat or hold them. If you’re using circle hooks, the fish will generally hook themselves.
Lacking current, the ideal scenario is to set up directly over the fish, dropping a couple of baits straight down and spreading others around the boat with short casts. However, if the water isn’t very deep and it’s a clear, calm day, a better strategy might be to anchor a cast’s distance away from the hole and cast all your lines off that side of the boat. A floating marker buoy can be helpful for pinpointing your boat positioning and casting angles.
Fish holding in winter holes aren’t always in an active feeding mode. They generally will bite, but often not right away. Therefore, if you’ve marked a good school of fish and are confident that you’re set up so that you’re baits are among them, you’re better off sitting tight for a while — even a couple of hours — than moving around and looking for more fish. The good news is that when one decides to bite, it usually won’t be long before several others have the same idea.
One noteworthy exception to the cats’ tendency to use deep water during the winter occurs when two to three days of bright sunshine and unseasonably mild nights cause shallow flats to warm. Baitfish schools will move up onto the flats and catfish will follow. Such a warm-up can result in excellent action in surprisingly shallow water, but it usually won’t last long.
The most productive flats will be close to deeper water so that the cats can retreat easily with the first cold night. Of course, if there’s a big flat adjacent to a hole that has produced all winter, that’s the first place you want to look.
Water color and wind direction are also important considerations. Stained water warms faster than clear water and therefore attracts more baitfish and catfish. Also, when the wind blows steadily for a couple of days that pushes microorganisms to the wind-beaten side of the lake, which in turn attracts baitfish.
Although cats on the flats roam some, they prefer to follow ditches or other little cuts or to hang around rock piles or bush piles. If you can find significant cover or structure on a flat, you’ve found a good place to set up.
Don’t worry about spotting cats on the graph. The fish may be too shallow to search out effectively. Anchor a long cast’s distance from good cover and fan several lines in that general direction. Use circle hooks and engage the reels. A typical fish will be hooked by the time it tightens the lines enough to bend the rod. If a line suddenly goes slack, pick up the rod and reel as fast as you can.
Moving up onto a shallow flat and getting into position may spook the catfish, so they might not bite right away. If they are on the flat and using that cover or structure though, they will come back. Give them 30 to 45 minutes. If you don’t get any bites in that amount of time, it’s time to try another flat.
Cats on the flats are the most fun to catch all year. With no room to dive, they take off like racecars, and they fight with strength that seems to defy their size. Also, because they move onto the flats with feeding in mind, once you do get a bite you’ve often found a jackpot.