I wrote this article for the Kentucky Outdoors Magazine but this is a method that ive used around the country and it will work most anywhere.
Winter cat fishing in Kentucky is the best time to catch a trophy bluecat. Kentucky has over 400 miles of Ohio River shoreline and has some of the best bluecat water in the nation. Blue cats weighing up to 100 lbs. The Kentucky state record of 104lbs was caught not far from the Cannelton dam in the Newburg pool around the Hawesville Kentucky area. Kentucky also has two more of the nation’s top bluecat fisheries which is the Tennessee river (Kentucky lake) and the Cumberland river (Lake Barkley) both of these systems are well known as trophy bluecat destinations.
These three River systems will hold cats in the outside bends, inside bends, drop-offs, and deep ledges and most other structure such as wood. Look for depression in the bottom contour of the river these are all good places to start and can be excellent places for cats to congregate.
As the water cools down for the winter the Bluecats become predictable and will migrate to wintering holes and congregate in these areas from mid November to about March. blucats are aggressive feeders and will actively travel in and around these deep lairs looking for its next meal. Some of my best days for big fish came when the water temperature is in the mid 30’s and my boat had two inches of snow in it.
Anchoring will be the preferred method of wintertime catfishing. Anchoring above your target and casting your bait out of the back of the boat into the lair and securing the rods in monster rod holders so your rig can’t be snatched from the boat. It’s not a good feeling to see a 100 dollar rig leave your boat.
Channel bends in a river are great wintering holes and the best place to start your search, the river continuously keeps the bottom cut out and creates deep holes or runs in the bottom contour with lots of ledges, wood and irregularities, in general a catfish magnet.
Let’s say the deepest part of the bend is 50 feet at the deepest point, we want to anchor and position the boat closer to the bank so that it’s in the middle of zero and 50 feet say 30 feet. This way we can cover more area by spreading the baits, throw one rod out of the side of your boat in the deeper 50 ft. section, a couple straight out of the back of the boat one In the 40 foot section the other in the 30 ft section and the last one out of the opposite side towards the shallower 20 foot of water.
Once you’re anchored on a spot give it 30-35 minutes, to see if you get any takers, if you get no bites it’s time to move but you don’t want to go far, the idea is to keep a scent trail for the catfish to follow, so bounding down is the best method, what this means, is pull your anchor up and move your boat down and re-anchor where you last placed your baitson the previous anchor. and cast out again, keeping your bait in the same scent trail just a little further down stream. Because some of these channel bends can be up to a half mile long, you may need to bound down 4-5 times until you find the fish.
Don’t expect to catch these big bluecats with night crawler and chicken livers, these big fish will want fish for food, the most popular bait fish will be skip jack herring and shad, but cut pan fish like bluegills, suckers, carp and chubs will also work, these bluecats are extremely opportunistic and will not pass up a free meal and don’t be afraid to attach a large piece of cut bait to your hook. These fish grow big with big appetites and have the mouth to accommodate a 1 lb. piece of cut bait.
Rods and reels
Rods should be at least seven foot long with a medium heavy action, with a soft tip so the fish doesn’t feel the resistance and let go. Bait casting reels like the Abu Garcia 6000’s are the most popular for catching these huge but the heavy duty spinning reel also work great, it just depends on what your most comfortable with.
Main line and rigging
I like the braided lines for this type of fishing, 65 to 80 lb. there are many types of rigs for catching these fish like three ways and Kentucky rigs but I prefer the Carolina rig the best for winter time fishing. I will put a 3-10 oz sinker on my main line, depending on the current and then tie a swivel to the mainline. From there ill tie about a 18 inch piece of mono leader to the swivel and a hook to the end of the leader. Now we’re set up for monster cats
There are many styles of hooks available to cat fisherman but my favorite hook is the circle hook. With circle hooks you will need to let the fish hook themselves so there is no need to actually set the hook like you would with the traditional j-hook and they are less likely to get gut hooked with a circle hook so that so that the fish can be released for others to enjoy the battle of a monster bluecat.
I love to share my secrets with all, and hope that it has helped you understand the winter turn on. But be we should keep in mind that these huge fish do not grow on trees and we should do our best to preserve our resource by releasing them after a few photos. If eating fish is your priority, just down size your bait and you will still catch plenty of 5-15 lbers for table fair.