November 09, 2016
Put aside the reputation catfish have for being a warm-weather species. A growing number of catfish enthusiasts have discovered that catfishing can be good right up until the threshold of winter. Anglers and researchers alike have discovered that seasonal migratory habits and behaviors of catfish result in concentrations of catfish that can produce exceptional catches in weather more suited to mountain trout.
Research by fisheries biologists across the nation proves that falling water temperatures prompt catfish to make seasonal migrations. In Northern states catfish migrate to distinct wintering holes where the majority of catfish from miles and miles of a river, or acres and acres of a lake, cluster in relatively small, deep-water areas. Fisheries biologist Dan Kirby reported that in small Midwestern rivers, channel catfish migrated as far as 30 miles to find deep holes that served as wintering areas for impressive numbers of catfish. In some cases, research with radio-tagged channel and flathead catfish indicated that virtually all the cats from miles and miles of small to medium-sized rivers moved downstream to one or two specific holes in the lower reaches of that river, or in a larger river connected to the smaller river.
In Southern realms catfish may not pack into specific wintering holes as tightly as their Northern brethren, but they definitely respond to cooler water temperatures and congregate in specific basins, bends or regions of lakes and rivers during winter months. Whether this is a genetic response to cooler water temperatures that mirrors the wintering behavior of more northerly catfish, or because the forage fish on which Southern catfish feed tend to concentrate in specific locations during winter months doesn't matter. The result is the same all over the country: Once water temperatures drop into the 50s and 60s, catfish are concentrated in smaller areas, hungry, and easy to catch — if anglers take time to find and target them.
The key to catching coolwater cats is to target specific locations. In rivers, cats make forays up or downstream from their wintering areas to feed on warmer fall days, traveling along the edges of the main channel. If a dam is above the deep-water wintering area, it restricts that movement and provides a focal point for cool-weather anglers. Likewise, a narrowed river channel or shallow-water riffle above or below a known wintering area is a prime place to catch coolwater cats on the prowl for a meal.
In reservoirs, catfish use old creek or river channels as highways between their deep-water wintering areas and nearby sun-warmed flats on sunny afternoons. They won't travel far, usually less than half a mile, but targeting those travel routes and feeding areas puts anglers over hungry fish.
If an angler is lucky enough to know the specific location of a wintering area, it's obviously the hot ticket to fish over that exact spot. Identifying those wintering areas can be a snap if you know the right people. Find a local river rat in your area, get on his good side, and you'll discover that the locations of mysterious "wintering areas" aren't mysterious at all. They're often well known among diehard catfish anglers who fiercely protect the location to prevent unethical anglers from massacring the sometimes amazing numbers of catfish concentrated in relatively small areas.
If local catfish experts refuse to share their secrets, it's possible to analyze local waters and identify potential wintering areas. Channel cats look for deep-water holes with moderate current, favoring depths of more than 20 feet, which are rare in many of the smaller rivers they inhabit. Flatheads are less interested in sheer depth than unique circumstances related to flow, water oxygen levels and the availability of logs, rocks or other structure that provide them shelter from currents but keeps them close to those currents.
After all, they are catfish, and no self-respecting channel or flathead catfish would spend time in an area without some sort of submerged log, rock structure or dropoff nearby to make it feel "homey." Structure is part of catfish décor — winter, spring, summer or fall.
Blue catfish are by nature nomads, their lives and travels dictated largely by the movements of baitfish, which, during winter months, tend to concentrate in specific areas of lakes and rivers based on their somewhat narrow temperature and oxygen requirements. In lakes and rivers where blue cats live, if you find shad between November and April, blue cats won't be far away.
So it doesn't matter whether you target channel, flathead or blue catfish — cooling water temperatures concentrate the fish. The challenge becomes how to tantalize them into taking your bait.
There are two schools of thought about baits when fishing for catfish concentrated in cool water. One school's approach is to "match the hatch" when sizing baits, especially in early autumn. By that time each year's crop of baitfish are full-sized, so "match the hatch" anglers use the biggest baitfish they can find to give catfish baits sized similarly to what they're used to eating. Slabs or filets of 8- to 10-inch shad are preferred, though the size of offerings of cut bait and the hook onto which those baits are loaded varies with the size of the target species of catfish.
Commercial catfish baits, aka "stinkbaits," are always an option for catfish, although more favored for channel cats. The concern when using commercial baits in cool water is that the dispersal rate of their "flavor" is diminished in cool water. Some anglers thin commercial concoctions with cooking oil to improve their dispersal rates in cool conditions.
The second school of thought toward bait selection — downsizing baits — comes into play in late autumn, especially for flatheads. All catfish react to water temperature, but flatheads are particularly sensitive and become nearly dormant once water temperatures fall below 45 degrees. They still feed above that temperature point, but their slower metabolism finds them targeting smaller, slower food sources. Small live baits and smaller fresh cut baits no longer than 6 inches are the hot ticket to take hefty flatheads once water temperatures fall below 60 degrees.
With that in mind, a handful of innovative flathead anglers all across the country have found surprising success jigging for flatheads near known wintering areas.
The key to jigging for coolwater catfish is to "go slow." Four- to 6-inch white paddletail or twistertail grubs on 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jigs, fished slowly along the bottom, have scored a lot of flatheads in recent years. The relatively "small" jigs (compared to the 10- to 30-pound fish they catch) also score magnum channel catfish as well.
No matter what size of bait is used, coolwater catfish bites often are subtle. Don't expect the arm-wrenching bites common in mid-summer. It's more of a heaviness to the line that deserves attention and a careful hookset.
Once the deal is sealed, however, you're still dealing with a heavyweight catfish, so be prepared for a battle. Traditional catfishing rods, reels and lines are recommended and will be tested during fall and winter battles with catfish. Temperatures may be low, and it may take some searching to find where the cats are congregated, but once the hook is set there's plenty of hot action for catfish. And that's true even though the thermometer says summer is long gone!