December 23, 2016
The big blue cat cruised the lake bottom beneath an enormous school of baitfish. The water was near 45 degrees, but the catfish was not lethargic. He moved rapidly, gorging on scores of baitfish stressed by the low water temperature.
Most of the baitfish swam in a tightly packed school, but now and then, one succumbed to the icy temperature and swam erratically away from the cluster. Before it swam far, it was wolfed down by the ravenous catfish.
Sitting in a boat above, a man studied a sonar unit and watched as this catfish and others like it cruised the lake bottom. The cats showed up as little animated pixel fish moving across the unit’s screen. The baitfish school appeared as a broad band of black. The school was suspended at 20 feet in 35 feet of water, too deep to be seen with the naked eye. But now and then a cold-crippled baitfish would make its way to the surface, and the fisherman would glimpse its silvery form as it did its death dance in the waning December light.
The man had thrown a cast net across another school of baitfish 30 minutes earlier. A dozen live fish thus captured had been placed in a bait tank, and two dozen more were thrown atop the ice in his cooler. With a dip net, the fisherman snatched up a live one, hooked it behind the dorsal fin and free-spooled his rig to the bottom. He turned the reel handle two revolutions to bring the baitfish up just above the lake bed, then placed the rod in a holder affixed to the transom.
As the man was baiting a second rig, the first rod went down. The angler lifted the rod, then, without setting the hook, he turned the handle. The circle hook he used required no hookset. It caught cleanly in the corner of the big cat’s mouth.
During the 15-minute battle that ensued, the man forgot all about the cold. The catfish surged straight away, then began spinning, wrapping itself in the line. Pulling the catfish sideways through the water made it feel like a behemoth, and though it was actually small on a blue-cat scale—21 pounds—the man was proud when he finally brought it aboard.
Another baitfish was rigged and free-spooled to the bottom. Once again, a catfish hit before a second rig could be baited. It, too, was landed, and during the next hour and a half, another and another and another joined it. None were 50-pounders as the man had hoped, but all were larger than the biggest largemouth bass a man could dream of catching. Five cats in 90 minutes, 18 to 26 pounds.
The man was not surprised. Catfishing often is like that in winter.
The scene just described may sound like fantasy, but it’s not. I was that angler, and I caught those fish using the tactics described. I’ve often had great catfishing days in winter, especially when blue cats are the species being targeted. Blues feed actively even when water temperatures are low, and if you can determine a fishing pattern needed to catch them, you can enjoy action hot enough to make you forget about the cold.
A Pattern for Lakes
One such pattern involves winter-killed shad. Gizzard and threadfin shad, two primary catfish forage items, are intolerant of severe cold. If the water temperature dips below 45 degrees in waters where they live, both species become cold-stressed. If the cold persists and the water temperature continues dropping, thousands of shad soon die. This phenomenon, a yearly event on many first-rate cat lakes, is known as winter kill.
When winter kill starts, catfish flock around shad schools like buzzards around a roadkill. Dying baitfish are quickly inhaled by waiting cats—one after another until the die-off has passed 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 blues is at its best.
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) seem to work best. Hook two or three on a 6/0 to 12/0 circle hook with a weight above it, running the hook through the eyes and leaving the barb exposed. Now 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, mere seconds will pass before a catfish strikes and the fight begins.
Be sure to keep plenty of shad ready for rigging. Where one cat is caught, there usually are dozens. Don’t be caught without bait when the bite is on.
A Pattern for Rivers
If you catfish in large navigable rivers, it also pays to study and understand the long, narrow rock walls known as wing dikes. These catfish-drawing structures are placed in strategic locations to help maintain barge channel depth and lessen shoreline erosion. They are most numerous in hydropower and navigation dam tailwaters but may be scattered along the entire length of a big river.
Wing dikes fulfill their intended functions by diverting current. They usually lay perpendicular to shore, and when moving water strikes one, it swirls back on itself. The force of the current then moves outward, toward the middle of the river.
Trophy-class blue cats are best targeted in eddies near the ends of wing dams. These eddies are circular hydraulics created when current bounces off the point of the rocks. They are readily visible, appearing much like miniature whirlpools, and because they are the prime feeding sites along wing dikes, they tend to harbor bigger, more dominant catfish.
Active catfish are usually near the eddy’s edge, lying on or near bottom in the hole beneath, which is created by the swirling water. A three-way rig is ideal for catching them. A 2-foot hook leader (the same pound-test as your main line) is tipped with a 6/0 to 12/0 circle hook. The 12-inch weight leader (of lighter line than your main line) is tied to a 3-ounce bank sinker. Both leaders are tied to separate eyes of a three-way swivel, with the main line tied to the remaining eye. Fresh fish cutbaits are preferred enticements.
Anchor well back from the eddy you intend to fish, then cast to the edge of the whirlpool. It would seem that a bait thus positioned would swirl, but done properly, it will sink quickly to the bottom and remain stationary. Reposition your rig if necessary to achieve this end, then prepare for the rod-jarring strike that will soon follow if a giant cat is nearby. Often, big cats cruise slowly through a hole, waiting for something to jolt their taste buds before they rush in to strike. Allow the bait to sit up to 10 minutes, but if there’s no bite by then, move and try another eddy hole. Strikes usually come quick and hard, so use heavy tackle, and keep a firm grip on your rod at all times. One moment of inattention could cost you the catfish of lifetime.
Don’t sit in one spot too long. If a cat is nearby, you’ll have a bite before 15 minutes passes. If you don’t, move to another eddy and try again.
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.