Frigid Fury: Finding big catfish in cold water

by John N. Felsher

 Catching catfish is not just for summer anglers

An angler shows off a big blue catfish he caught while fishing the Tennessee River system near Sheffield, Ala. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

An angler shows off a big blue catfish he caught while fishing the Tennessee River system near Sheffield, Ala. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Many people think of catfishing as a spring or summer activity. However, in the right spot, anglers can find hot action for big whiskerfish during the coldest months, usually with little or no competition.

“When I first started guiding, I thought summer was the time to catch catfish, but to me, winter is the best time to fish,” proclaimed Chuck Jarvis with Fish Unlimited Guide Service of Hopewell, VA (804-704-1819). “I’ve caught catfish with ice on the water and the water temperature close to freezing. People who don’t fish for big cats in the winter are missing out.”

Blue and channel catfish remain more active than flatheads during the coldest months. On frozen northern lakes, ice fishermen sometimes catch big blues and channels throughout the winter if they fish the right spot.

“Channel and blue catfish do remain somewhat active during the winter, although far less than at warmer water temperatures,” explained Daryl Bauer, a fisheries biologist with the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission. “Blue catfish are the most active species in the winter. Channel cats are caught through the ice in Nebraska every winter. My largest channel cat pulled through the ice weighed more than 18 pounds!”

 

Find Them, Catch Them

In the winter, catfish go where they can find the best combination of bearable temperatures, oxygen levels, food and cover. Anglers may need to search considerable territory before finding fish, but once they find them in the winter, they can usually catch several quickly and keep catching them in the same spot until spring. In cold water, finding fish usually means searching for the deepest holes.

“Once we find them, we can catch them,” remarked Denny Halgren with Rock River Guide Service (815-288-6855) of Dixon, Ill. “In this area, we have a gigantic hole that harbors tens of thousands of channel catfish in the winter. The hole drops down to about 33 feet deep. The fish might remain in the deep holes until mid-April when they start dispersing.”

Anglers show off a blue catfish they caught near the Pickwick Dam that separates Wilson Lake and Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee River system near Sheffield, Ala. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Anglers show off a blue catfish they caught near the Pickwick Dam that separates Wilson Lake and Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee River system near Sheffield, Ala. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

In deep holes, catfish don’t move much. Chilly temperatures make cold-blooded creatures lethargic so they won’t chase prey or leave their hole. Generally, whiskerfish wait in their holes for something tempting to pass irresistibly close so they can slurp it up without burning too much energy. Anglers almost need to drag baits across their whiskers to get a bite.

“In the winter, it’s not the bait that matters, but finding the fish,” Halgren quipped. “In that cold water, catfish are not active, but they still need to feed. When we can put a bait in front of a thousand hungry catfish, something will bite. It doesn’t even have to be the right bait, just in the right place.”

 

Find the Most Comfortable Waters

Catfish don’t always find the most comfortable temperatures in deep holes, even in February. Shallow water warms – and cools – quicker than the depths. Still waters warm quicker than moving water. Sun beating down on a shallow flat could raise the water temperature slightly. Water just two or three degrees warmer can make a big difference on a cold day.

“Everyone usually thinks they can only catch blue cats in deeper water, but around here, when the water gets below 42 degrees, we have to fish shallower,” Jarvis advised. “When temperatures get really cold, blue cats go up on the shallow sunny flats to warm up. I’ve caught them in as little as two feet of water in the winter.”

Sam Williams shows off a channel catfish he caught on a Live Target lipless crankbait while fishing at Lake Eufaula near Eufaula, Ala. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Sam Williams shows off a channel catfish he caught on a Live Target lipless crankbait while fishing at Lake Eufaula near Eufaula, Ala. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

In the northern hemisphere, the sun reaches its southernmost point in the sky around Dec. 21 each year. Therefore, during the winter, the most intense solar rays hit the northern shorelines, ironically warming that part of the lake faster than the southern end. In addition, since the sun sets in the west, eastern shorelines receive more direct afternoon sunshine than shady western shorelines. On a cold day, fish later in the afternoon during the warmest part of the day.

Winds can also greatly influence water temperatures on a daily basis. Biting north winds push chilly water toward the southern part of a lake. Warmer south winds blow water against northern shorelines. Because of the sun position and winds, the northeast section of a lake typically warms first, followed by the northwest, southeast and finally southwest portions of a lake.

“…it’s not the bait that matters, but finding the fish…”

In addition, hard objects absorb solar heat and can radiate that warmth into the water column. Wood can retain heat, but harder rocks, concrete blocks, metal pilings and similar structures gather more heat than soggy logs or stumps. Thick floating grass mats also absorb solar heat. Dark objects absorb heat while bright colors reflect it. Consequently, a dark bottom might warm a bit quicker than a bright sandy one. Suspended particles in muddy or stained waters also retain more heat than clear waters. Any slightly warmer spot might attract baitfish, which draws catfish.

“First, find the bait,” Jarvis instructed. “That’s where the blue cats will go. If bait comes up on the flats, it’ll get around rocks when it’s cold. Often, we can see baitfish sunning themselves on top of the water. We’ll look for structure, like log jams and rock piles in shallow flats, but near deeper water. In the winter, catfish will move up and down in the water column.”

Anglers can catch big catfish during the winter, as demonstrated by Chuck Jarvis of Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Jarvis)

Anglers can catch big catfish during the winter, as demonstrated by Chuck Jarvis of Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Chuck Jarvis)

Seeking Flatheads in the Cold

Cold temperatures affect flatheads more than blues or channels. When temperatures dip below about 58 degrees, flatheads start looking for deep holes. By the time temperatures hit the low 40s, they almost go dormant. In some places, flatheads might not move or touch a bait for months.

“Flatheads sit motionless all winter long and do not feed,” Bauer explained. “In those wintering holes, there may be dozens, perhaps hundreds of flatheads stacked head to tail, side by side. Literally, all the big flatheads in miles of river or in an entire reservoir may be piled into the same wintering hole.”

“I’ve spent many cold days looking for flatheads,” Halgren echoed. “I’ve tracked them and dropped underwater cameras down in the water. Once, I found a spot where flatheads were stacked up in February. I went back there with the camera and baits. I spent three weeks trying to get them to bite to no avail.”

However, in Deep South states, waters don’t usually get cold enough or stay cold long enough for flatheads to go completely dormant. Even if air temperatures drop drastically, water temperatures change much more slowly. A freezing snap might chill everything for a while, but water temperatures might only decrease a few degrees. Unless water temperatures stay icy for a long time, flatheads remain on the prowl for baitfish.

“Winter is the best time to catch flatheads in Mississippi,” declared Joey Pounders, a professional catfish angler from Caledonia, Miss. “We fish the same techniques all year long. The only difference is where we fish and how much clothes we wear. It’s tough to go on the water in freezing weather, but the winter can produce some of the best catfish catches all year. When it’s hungry enough, a catfish will bite.”

In the winter, die-hard anglers who bundle up often catch the biggest catfish of the year. They might also fish the best spots with little or no competition as fellow sportsmen turn to hunting, other winter sports or simply huddle around the fireplace anxiously awaiting the return of spring.

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