November 13, 2020
Catfish bite year-round, but winter catfishing requires a few more strategies. Why? When water temperatures dip below 50 degrees, the fish slow down and become less aggressive hunting for food. So, winter cats require a bit more work for the bite.
Some anglers hit the ice while others head out on chilly lakes by boat in search of winter cats. Successful anglers have a number of ways to arrive at the two key factors for catching cats in colder water: locating where the lethargic fish are resting and getting bait right in front of them at just the right depth.
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Your first step in winter catfishing, long before you assemble your gear, is researching the body of water you are fishing. No amount of expensive tackle can help you catch fish if you cannot find them.
Everybody of water is different. If you are new to winter catfishing you might initially spend time experimenting on different lakes and rivers at different depths.
Catfish often return to the same spots year after year, so once you find your sweet spots, you should find success there every winter. Because cats return to familiar resting grounds, it is important to not over-harvest. Most avid winter anglers stress a catch and release policy for larger cats for this reason.
Winter catfishing can be exhilarating and offers a different kind of thrill than the warmer months. Half the fun is finding the fish, and with a few secrets up your sleeve, braving the cold will be a worthwhile endeavor.
Here are 8 tips towards more catfish during the colder months.
Since wintertime catfishing requires finding the fish and getting precise placement of bait for both for location and depth, a little technological assistance is helpful. Ice flashers, fish finders and sonar devices are the recommended tools.
Playing catfish with just a handline during the winter months is exhilarating to say the least. Here one is surfacing through a drilled hole in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy: Troy Hansen
There are quite a few on the market and they come as simple or elaborate as you prefer. Some units have clear underwater camera technology, some enable you to fish two holes simultaneously and others accept SD memory cards for you to load lake-mapping software. Vexilar, Aqua-VU, Lowrance and Humminbird have a range of models with varied technology and price points.
If you do not have one of these fish locaters, try loading the Navionics App onto your smartphone. It is handy for quick access to lake maps and GPS plotters.
Team-up On Ledges
If you have friends who enjoy wintertime catfishing, teaming up to target the ledges in lakes can net impressive results. A group of eight or 10 people hitting the ice together enables you to spread out the rods along ledges where the fish often cruise for food.
WhiskerSeeker Pro Staffer Troy Hansen holds a 16-pound channel catfish on a lake in Wisconsin.
Starting in the deepest spot, drill a number of holes so that you vary the depth of bait for each rod until you reach the flat of the ledge.
In lakes deeper than 50 feet, channel cats are often located at depths of 15 to 35-feet. Fishing with multiple rods at multiple depths near the ledges and drop-offs has you covered when a school of cats moves through.
Target The Break Side of a Structure
Winter cats are resting in large holes (not necessarily deep) with slow-moving water, which makes the break side of structures the perfect spots for finding them.
Benji Brown with a plus-30-pound flathead catfish caught at Santee Lakes in South Carolina.
Structures like log jams and beaver dams interrupt the natural flow of the current.
The opposite side of where the current flows (the break side) is where you find slower water, and the moderate flow of natural food sources. If you can drop your bait into the resulting eddy, you will likely find waiting cats. These areas are great targets for channel cats and flathead catfish.
Follow The Food
While the catfish are not moving as much in the winter, the native food sources still are, so one way to find the fish is to follow the food. If you are fishing on ice or from the bank, a fish finder or sonar can help you locate schools of baitfish. They will appear as a cloud. If you fish just below the cloud, you are likely to find the catfish that are waiting to feed.
Riley Brown with a 30-plus and two 25-plus blue catfish on Lake Marion in South Carolina. Photo courtesy: Benji Brown
If you are fishing from a boat, look for the birds. If they are diving into the water, you know baitfish are present and the catfish are nearby. Use that as your starting point to fish the area, keeping an eye out for natural ledges or a creek mouth where cats may be hiding. Set your anchor and rods, and then wait for the cats to bite.
Whether you are ice fishing or dropping bait by boat, slower presentation is everything. Natural bait is moving slower in the water and so should yours. Once you decide on a location or spot to fish on sonar, drop bait throughout the area.
Winter catfish set-up on a SeaArk Procat 200 with a dozen rods cast with shad and perch 360 degrees around the boat while anchored. Photo courtesy: Benji Brown
This might require multiple rods, varying depths, or both to cover your bases in this location. Keep the bait as still as possible. You can do this by keeping your lines tight or using a Carolina rig setup to keep bait suspended and stationary.
If you are fishing by boat and do not know where the fish are located, try drifting. The key is to slow the boat to less than 0.5 mph. Drift socks can help slow your speed.
Fish Sharp Turned Banks
If you are not sure where to drill your first hole or what location target first, look for spots where the river makes a sharp turn or where a point protrudes into a lake. These are the locations where the current cuts into the edges creating deep holes where the catfish like to hide. Areas with a slow current over those holes are optimal.
Amy Smith with an 18-pound channel catfish on a Wisconsin lake
You can use GPS or topographic maps to locate the tip of a turn or point that may be hidden beneath the ice or below the water's surface. Drill holes into the ice along both sides of the tip or turn. Drill more holes on the end and a few more up on part of the flat. You can use a fish finder to locate schools of cats or just cover your bases with multiple rods and tip-ups.
Plan Ahead for Bait
Fresh bait is always best, so planning ahead ensures that you are adequately stocked when you set out for your day of fishing. Go out during the week to catch panfish like shad, bluegill or skipjack. Keep the bait in a bag in the refrigerator.
Dawn Debski with a 35-pound blue catfish on the James River in Virginia. Photo courtesy: Benji Brown
Cut bait into smaller pieces than you would for other times of the year as the cats do not require as much food for winter feeding. Keep food sources native to the location that you are fishing. If you are venturing to a new location, go in a day or two early to catch the native bait sources that you need.
Dress for Conditions
It seems like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised at how many outings are cut short because anglers do not dress properly for the conditions. Due to the longer periods of time that you will spend fishing for cold weather cats, proper layering is essential.
Anietra Hamper layered for winter fishing with a merino wool base layer, insulating layer and neck gaiter by Woolx.
Start with a sweat-wicking base layer to manage moisture, then an insulating layer made of merino wool, fleece or down and top it with a protective outer layer that is wind-proof and water-resistant. Stay away from cotton. A hat, gloves, wool socks and comfortable boots round out the necessities.
You might also opt for a lightweight merino wool neck gaiter that adds additional comfort and warmth. Keep a spare set of dry clothes in your bag.
Hopefully, these 8 tips for catching catfish during the colder months will help you put more fish in the boat and make for lasting memories with friends and family.