Cold-Water Strategies for Giant Blue Cats

by Keith “Catfish” Sutton

Winter is prime time for catching monster blue cats if you know some tips for success.

Winter often is disregarded as a prime season for catfishing, but big blue cats frequently are caught when temperatures are numbingly cold.

Winter often is disregarded as a prime season for catfishing, but big blue cats frequently are caught when temperatures are numbingly cold.

The big blue cat cruised the lake bottom beneath an enormous school of baitfish. The water was 45 degrees, but the catfish was not lethargic. He moved rapidly, gorging on baitfish stressed by the low water temperature.

Most baitfish swam in a tightly packed school, but occasionally one succumbed to the icy temperature and raced erratically away. Before it swam far, the ravenous catfish wolfed it down.

Sitting in a boat above, a man studied a fish-finder and watched as this catfish and others cruised the lake bottom. The cats appeared 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 made its way to the surface, and the fisherman would glimpse its silvery form as it did its death dance in the waning January 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. The fisherman grabbed 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.

Blue cats in lakes gorge on the abundance of fresh dead shad during winterkill periods. A cast net can be used to gather the shad to use for bait.

Blue cats in lakes gorge on the abundance of fresh dead shad during winterkill periods. A cast net can be used to gather the shad to use for bait.

As the man was baiting a second rig, the first rod went down. The angler lifted the rod, then quickly turned the handle. The circle hook he used required no hook-set. It caught cleanly in the corner of the catfish’s mouth.

During the 15-minute battle that ensued, the man forgot 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 we caught and released. 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.

Eddy holes appear as little whirlpools at the ends of rock wing dikes in big navigable rivers. Blue cats like to feed in and around them.

Eddy holes appear as little whirlpools at the ends of rock wing dikes in big navigable rivers. Blue cats like to feed in and around them.

A Pattern for Lakes

One such pattern involves winter-killed shad. If the water temperature dips below 45 degrees in waters where they live, both species—gizzard shad and threadfins—become cold-stressed. If cold persists and the water temperature continues dropping, thousands of shad soon die. This phenomenon is known as winter kill.

When winter kill starts, catfish congregate around shad schools, gorging on dying baitfish until the die-off ends or the catfish are sated. The pattern may last a day or a month, depending on the weather. But while it lasts, fishing for blues is at its best.

To capitalize on this cold-weather pattern, use your fish-finder to pinpoint schooling baitfish, then throw a cast net over the school to collect shad. Large baitfish can be sliced for cut-bait, 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 shad school o the bottom, reel it up 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.

“Often, big cats cruise slowly through a hole, waiting for something to jolt their taste buds before they rush in to strike.”

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 resemble 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 cut-baits are preferred enticements.

Anchor well back from each eddy, then cast to the whirlpool’s edge. If done properly, your bait 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 could soon.

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 15 minutes, but if there’s no bite by then, move and try another eddy hole. Bites usually come quick if actively feeding cats are nearby.

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 cold out there, even when you’re wearing the proper clothing.

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.

 

Hardcore Catfishing

Want to learn more great tips and tactics for catching catfish? Keith Sutton’s “Hardcore Catfishing” book contains 179 full-color pages of information that will help you succeed. To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order for $18 to C&C Outdoor Productions, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander AR 72002.
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