Someone tell me: Do catfish contain antifreeze?
That question crossed my mind on a cold winter day after landing a 28-pound Mississippi River blue cat. The water temperature hovered around 40 degrees. One might expect a catfish in such a frigid environment to take bait rather gingerly, if at all. Not this one. Its strike was powerful. It fought long and hard.
When finally I brought the pot-bellied cat beside the boat, I laid a hand on its side. Its flesh was incredibly cold. How, I wondered, could an animal be active when its body temperature was barely higher than a block of ice? Fish are cold-blooded, I know, but most cold-blooded creatures hibernate in winter. This piscine freight train was anything but lethargic.
During that day, my friends and I caught 23 blue and channel catfish. Each was as cold as a Popsicle, and each displayed amazing power. Hypothermia, I learned, does not affect catfish. But how is this possible? Do the bodies of catfish contain some amazing ingredient that wards off the effects of cold? Why do catfish remain active when turtles, snakes and other cold-blooded creatures are hibernating?
I’ve asked those questions of several biologists and researchers, but none has offered a satisfactory explanation. That’s just as well, I suppose; gives me reason to continue my on-the-water research.
Here, kitty, kitty.
Many catfishermen still labor under the false impression that catfish don’t bite in winter. That’s simply not true. The experience I outlined above shows the exciting potential for catching these fighters during cold months. Even more amazing is the fact that catfish — channel cats in particular — are now common targets for ice-fishermen in northern states. Despite popular misconceptions, they don’t lie in the mud and sulk when it’s cold. They actively hunt for food even when lakes and rivers are frozen over.
Blue catfish also are active winter feeders. Like striped bass, blues devour shad, herring and other schooling baitfish. Consequently, they are more migratory than other cats and more frequently are found in open-water habitat. That makes them tough to find at times, especially for catters who refuse to abandon near-shore fishing tactics. But when you do, the blue cat’s tendency to gather in large winter schools can lead to cold-weather fun.
Flatheads seldom fall to winter anglers. Cold water slows their motor to a purr, and studies indicate little winter feeding. Anglers who catch them usually spot them on sonar and drop a bait down. With luck, the bait drifts in front of the fish; the fish takes it. But flatheads won’t move far to feed in cold water. You must place the bait right in front of their nose.
To target cats successfully in cold water, it helps to understand their primary winter feeding patterns. What are they likely to be eating? When? Where?
Freshwater mussels draw winter cats like Cajuns to a crawfish boil. Mussels live in bottom colonies called “beds,” each containing thousands of these mollusks. Cats in cold water visit the beds repeatedly, because they can gorge here day after day with little expenditure of energy.
The inch-long exotic Asiatic clam, now common in many North American lakes and rivers, is a special favorite for catfish, but native mussels, especially smaller varieties like lilliputs, wartybacks and deertoes, also are relished. The bellies of some cats I’ve examined were full of tiny zebra mussels, the noxious invader that has colonized many U.S. waters. Large cats sometimes contain yellow sandshells or other mussels that may be eight inches long and as big around as a man’s wrist.
Shell and all is eaten, regardless of the mussel species. Digestive juices kill the mussel, the shell opens, the flesh inside is digested, then the shell is passed by the fish. Some catfish have so many shells in their belly, they rattle like maracas.
Freshwater mussels provide easy pickings for hungry winter catfish. (Keith Sutton photo)
To find mussel beds, search near shore in three to six feet of water. They can be pinpointed by sight during low-water periods, or you can find them by moving parallel to shore and probing the bottom with a wooden pole. The shells produce a distinctive crunching sound when the pole hits them.
A good fishing rig here consists of an egg sinker on the main line above a barrel swivel, with an 8- to 12-inch leader connecting the swivel to a sturdy 3/0 to 5/0 wide-gap hook. This bottom-fishing rig is baited, cast to a likely spot and allowed to sit for up to 15 minutes. If no bite is forthcoming, move to another portion of the shell bed and try again. Good enticements include inch-square chunks of shad, herring or hot dogs. These are about the same size as the small mussels catfish usually feed on, and most days, they work well. The mussels themselves need not be used, and unless you are an expert at distinguishing various species of mollusks, they should not be used because many are federally protected endangered species.
Gizzard and threadfin shad also are favored foods of cool cats. If the water temperature dips below 45 degrees, these schooling baitfish become cold-stressed. If the cold persists and the water temperature continues dropping, thousands of shad die. This phenomenon, a yearly event on many first-rate catfish waters, is called “winter kill.”
When winter kill starts, catfish flock around shad schools like buzzards around roadkill. Dying baitfish fluttering down through the water column are inhaled by waiting cats—one after another until the die-off passes or the catfish are gorged. The pattern may last a day or a month, depending on the weather. But while it lasts, fishing for big cats is at its best.
Shad are top baits for winter cats, particularly when water temperatures drop and shad die-offs occur. (Keith Sutton photo)
To capitalize on this cold-weather pattern, use sonar to pinpoint schooling baitfish, then throw a cast net over the school to collect your bait. Large shad can be sliced for cutbait, but small whole shad (an inch or two long) work best. Hook two or three on a single hook, running the hook through the eyes and leaving the barb exposed. Lower your rig through the school of baitfish to the bottom, reel it up about a foot, and hang on. If the winter-kill feeding frenzy is in full swing, only seconds will pass before a catfish strikes.
One first-rate zone for winter kill fishing is in the tailwater of a big-river dam. As baitfish die, they’re drawn through the dam’s turbines or open gates where they’re chopped up and spit out. Catfish gather like bears at a salmon run to feed on this seasonal bounty.
During cold months, scattered concentrations of catfish often hold near old river and creek channels snaking across the bottom of big lakes. Drift-fishing provides an excellent means for finding and catching these fish.
Sonar aids the search. When a big fish is spotted on bottom, often as not it’s a nice catfish. But the savvy winter cat man knows not all these fish are feeding. Catfish found down deep inside the channels usually are resting and inactive. Active feeders prefer shallower flats beside the channels. Most are spotted beneath schools of shad or herring.
Many cat men use a float rig for this type of fishing. The main line is run through the eye of a sinker (usually a pencil weight or bell sinker), and a barrel swivel is tied below it to keep the weight from sliding down. A 12- to 18-inch leader is then tied to the lower eye of the swivel. A small bobber or float is affixed in the middle of the leader, and a wide-gap hook is tied at the end and baited. The float suspends the baited hook above bottom to help prevent snags. Cut shad and herring are widely considered the best winter baits.
Where permitted, up to eight rods are rigged and placed in rod holders. Wind carries the boat across the channel-edge flats where fish are holding. Some innovative anglers use drift socks to help govern speed, keeping the boat moving at the slow pace best suited for catching winter cats. The angler maneuvers as necessary to keep the rigs “square”—lines properly spaced so the baits are evenly spread apart. Then he prepares for the battle that is sure to come when a big cat strikes.
Drift-fishing with multiple poles enables cold-weather anglers to find and catch often scattered catfish in winter. (Keith Sutton photo)
Of course, when you’re fishing for cats in winter, it pays to keep moving anyway, just so you can keep warm. This is not a sport for anglers who detest the cold. You’ll get chilly out there, even when you’re wearing the proper clothing. Your teeth will chatter, and your hands and feet will feel like popsicles.
Nice thing is, when the cats start biting, that frigid feeling disappears. Nothing in the world warms you quicker than battling a rod-bending cat.
Don’t miss the new episodes of “Bottom Feeders,” Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on Outdoor Channel. Click here for the full schedule.