Cold Water Cats
by Capt. Glenn Flowers
Location strategies for catfish when the temperatures drop.
Catfishing often has its challenges. Big moons, high waters, low waters, the spawn—all of these things can affect the way catfish feed. But winter and the cold water temperatures that it brings with it may affect catfish more than any other factor. Dropping temperatures, especially right after a cold front, can have a negative impact on the way catfish feed, especially flatheads.
When Temperatures start to fall below 50 degrees, flathead fishing becomes increasingly challenging. Flatheads will soon start to become lethargic by nature, lowering their metabolism in an effort to maintain energy. Flatheads will also give up their favorite food and stop chasing live fish. During the winter months, the cold water will also have a big impact on bait fish. Huge die-offs will occur and flatheads will start eating fresh dead fish that fall from above sinking to the muddy waters below.
It’s at this time of the baitfish die off when anglers should start to pull back on catching live bait and actually start to cast net for shad and skipjack herring. Flatheads will readily take fresh cut baits during these colder months. The fresher the bait the better. Flatheads are often caught during winter months by anglers who are blue cat fishing or channel catfishing using cut bait.
This is not to say flatheads won’t gobble down fresh live bluegill, but the odds are the flatheads falling metabolism is going to reduce its ability to hunt and heighten its sense of smell and taste. The fresher the cut bait the better. Shad and herring caught and used before frozen is always the preferred offering.
Watch the Weather
As if the falling temperatures aren’t enough to deal with, we also have volatile conditions to monitor that will drastically affect the feeding behavior of catfish. Fierce winds, snow, and rain will be relentless during the cold seasons. Picking your day to fish will be critical to your success.
As the cold front approaches, it will often bring warmer air with it. The trick will be riding the front-like wave to get on the water just before the front passes over. Preferable a day ahead of the front will be your window to jump through. Ahead of this cold front will be warm moist air and often cloudy skies. The fish will sense the approaching front. As the pressure starts to drop the fish start to feed.
Once the front has passed over, the cloudy skies that yesterday blanketed the earth retaining heat and moisture will give way to clear blue skies. As the clouds break apart the pressure will start to rise while the temperatures drop. These sudden drastic changes in conditions will shut the cats down. Once the front has passed it will be best to wait a few days for conditions to stabilize before heading back out.
For the passionate catfish angler that refuses to give up, even as temperatures start to plummet, rest assure you are not wasting your time. Some of the biggest cats are caught during the coldest part of the year when catfish eat only sparingly. As long as your conditions are favorable, you have the right bait, time, and a little luck on your side you may be surprised at what you find.
Locating Cold Water Cats
Studies on the Minnesota River conducted by biologists with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources found that channel cats and flatheads favor different wintering holes. I find this not to be true at all. There have been many occasions where I’ve consistently caught flatheads and channel cats from the same wintering hole. There are several videos on YouTube verifying this assumption. In these videos, you can see flatheads piled up like cordwood as channel cats lurk above. I mention this because flatheads often become difficult to see using sonar as they hug the bottom. That being said, the channel cats suspended far above will give away the flathead’s location beneath.
When it comes to locating cold water cats the old real estate phrase of location, location, location, comes to mind. Catfish are going to be traveling to their wintering spots or they are already there and settling in for the duration of the winter. It’s going to be up to you to determine where these places maybe.
Ledges are always one of the first spots I check when looking for cold water cats. Ledges are areas used by cats that are on the move, especially when the rivers are running fast and high. After identifying a possible catfish ledge that will be used as a travel lane for cats, I’ll make several passes over the ledge using my sonar trying to spot suspended catfish or catfish latched to the bottom.
Looking behind structure is a great place to find current breaks. Don’t get too caught up on seeking out really deep water. Cold water cats are often caught in water less than 25 feet deep, especially blues and channel cats. Instead, focus your energy on finding current breaks just alongside logs or lay-downs. Catfish will wait in ambush behind these obstructions looking for easy meals swept by in the river’s current.
Baitfish will be piled up in the creek mouths seeking warmer water during the coldest parts of the winter. Find the bait, find the fish. The catfish won’t be far behind the bait. Each time you pass a creek mouth, slow the boat down and make several passes with your sonar looking for bait and cats.
Once the flatheads start to build their nests along the river beds they will often completely shut down if the temperature drops too fast or too low. Sometimes they may not move for weeks. Once this happens it may be in your best interest to start targeting channel and blue cats until temperatures start to rise a bit.
I try not to get to carried away in how I rig up for cold water cats. Depending on the current I prefer a 3-5 oz flat sinker on a Carolina type rig. My mainline is 80-pound Team Catfish Tug-O-War braid in high-vis yellow for ultra-visibility. During the warmer months I use live-bait hooks, but being that its winter and I will be using cut bait, I prefer to use 5/0-8/0 Double Action hooks from Team Catfish. I snell them to a 60- to 80-pound mono leader.
I like to use a rod with a fast tip as the winter flathead bite is often very light. Using a 7-foot 6-inch medium action MOJO Cat Rod by St. Croix gives me that added sensitivity needed to see those small bites. Often the catfish will mouth the bait a few times then gracefully swim off giving the rod a slow bending takedown. From here all you need to do is start reeling, the double action hook will do the rest.
Feeding habits may be different for cold water cats, but they are not unattainable. Catfish anglers all across America spend countless hours bundled up enduring awful winter conditions as they seek their new personal best, and you can too. Pick your days, wait for the right window to go and you just never know what you might catch.
Granted some states like Florida see far less strenuous winters than states like Minnesota yet both produce big cats all year long. Once you get the hang of it and identify where these cats go, you will enjoy the benefits of being able to go back year after year to those exact same locations and catch some cold water cats.