Expert Advice: Big River Catfish in Winter
December 24, 2018
The long-standing notion that catfishing is best during summer’s heat is folklore. Granted, summer is a blue-ribbon season for catching big cats and lots of them. But it’s not necessarily the best time to catch them.
Most blue cat anglers who fish year-round agree that winter is tops in terms of catfish numbers and size.
If you’re not convinced, chum around with a die-hard catfisherman this time of the year. In autumn, you’ll find him changing lines, oiling reels and pre-rigging a few special catfishing sets. During December, January and February, when most anglers have stored away their gear, this guy is on the water every spare moment. He’s not just fishing either; he’s catching blue cats, and lots of them.
James Patterson of Bartlett, Tennessee, is one such angler. Owner of Mississippi River Guide Service, a business he started in 1997, this life-long catfish angler chases blues, channels and flatheads in the Mississippi River near Memphis throughout each year. Winter, he says, is prime time for big blues and lots of them.
“In the Mississippi, blue cats bunch up in large numbers in wintering holes,” he says. “Once they’re located, which is fairly easy, catching 100 to 300 pounds or more in a day is very common.
“The average size here is about 10 pounds, but 20- to 40-pounders are very common, and bigger cats come along often enough as well.”
Sonar and an intimate knowledge of the river help Patterson pinpoint blues gathered in wintering habitat.
“When the water temperature is above 50 degrees, I catch the blues in areas with current,” he says. “When the temperature drops below 50 degrees, however, the blues start holding tight in big deep holes, usually over 50 feet deep.
“These areas offer protection from the cold, swift currents of the river, and they harbor large schools of baitfish such as shad. There’s plenty for the blue cats to eat, and resting areas out of the fast-moving water.”
Patterson usually fishes near rock wing dikes and cuts in the banks. In these places, the main river current is diverted out into the channel, creating a big circular rotation in the water below the structure.
“I don’t fish the eddy part of this rotation,” Patterson notes. “Instead, I fish the current along the edges. I find that catfish in eddy water are not active. Active cats are along the edges. I want to be anchored and fishing right along the edge of the eddy.”
Like many ardent blue cat anglers, Patterson relies on shad and skipjack herring baits to entice his quarry.
“I use live shad a lot, even though they’re hard to find,” he says. “I locate them with a depth finder, then throw a 6- to 8-foot cast net with 1/2-inch mesh over them. Cut skipjacks also are good bait.”
A simple three-way-swivel rig is Patterson’s standard. The 2-foot hook leader is tipped with a 3/0 to 7/0 Eagle Claw Kahle hook. The 8-inch weight leader is tied to a 3-ounce sinker.
His fishing gear consists of “a heavy-action casting rod with a light tip and a lot of butt strength” and a bait-casting reel that holds at least 200 yards of 20-pound-test line.
“I anchor above the hole I intend to fish,” Patterson says, “then cast to the spot and let the reel free-spool until the weight hits bottom. Sometimes I’ll have out 200 feet of line. Blues usually hit hard and quick, so rod holders are necessary if you fish more rods than you can hold.”
Patterson’s biggest blues usually are caught in October, November and December. January and February are excellent months as well, he notes, weather conditions permitting.
“Clear, high-pressure bluebird days with a north wind seem to be best,” he says. “The best day I ever had was the first Monday in November a few years back when conditions were like that. In less than five hours, I caught 320 pounds of blues.
“I also caught a 65-pound and a 62-pound blue one day in late November. Catching 100 pounds of blue cats on a five-hour trip is common if weather and river conditions cooperate.”
Unfortunately, conditions aren’t always what anglers hope they will be. In winter, dangerous weather and water conditions limit the number of days a catfisherman can safely fish.
“Safety considerations should be foremost on every winter angler’s mind,” says Patterson.“Always wear your life jacket, dress warmly and obey the rules of the water. Don’t go out in too small a boat or in bad weather.Know your limitations, and if you’re unfamiliar with the body of water you’re boating on, winter is no time to learn.
“Winter catfishing can be good and very enjoyable on mild days with reasonable temperatures and light winds,” he continues.“But weather conditions can change quickly, and you should always be prepared for the worst.
“When you can get out there, though, go. Those big blues are hungry, and now is the time to put the fish of a lifetime on the dry side of your boat.”