How to catch Catfish in the Winter

Right now, most guys have whitetail deer on the brain or are sitting at home reliving the memories of this past season or still trying to tag there deer. But for those who have tagged there trophy buck but still have the bug and adrenaline rush for the hunt and need to satisfy there craving, there is a great alterative that I promise will give you same awesome thrill as the white tail hunt plus you’re probably going to have the action all to yourself. The trip may be cold but the action will be hot. As a former deer hunter myself, I know the stupid weather we will sit in, just to get a chance to bag that trophy buck, catfishing is no different. You will just have to dress for the occasion.  

WINTER TIME CATFISHING

The best thing about wintertime catfishing is that fish are more predictable. Like the old saying “like moths drawn to a flame” is probably the best way to describe winter catfishing in Kentucky. Winter ranks among the best times of the year for targeting channel catfish and blue blue catfish, and depending on where your fishing and what you’re using for bait, there’s a real good chance to tangle with 50 lb. plus monster.

 Just imagine hooking into a bluecatfish that can weigh at least half of, or close to the weight of a decent size doe. It’s awesome! And the thrill is on. The world record bluecatfish is 134lbs. with plenty of 40-80lb cats caught every year. One thing is for sure though; to catch the monsters you must be fishing in waters that will support these giants. Taylorville lake for an example, supports the channel cats and blue cats but don’t expect to catch anything over 25 lbs. Now it’s not that Taylorsville couldn’t support monster cats, it’s the fact that the bluecats were only introduced into the lake 6-7 years ago and haven’t had time to grow to monster status but I’m sure will get there one day. The Ohio River also supports both species’ with the possibility of a 100 pounder.

Now I do not want to give you the impression that you will catch huge catfish every outing, because of the factors involved, just like in deer hunting, you will need to do your homework to consistently catch the trophies but chances are if your just starting out and your reading this article, and put this information to use, you will catch good solid fish in the 20lb plus range and you will catch numbers. Plus if you’re on the right hole, possibly the fish of a lifetime.  

WINTERING HOLES

Catfish will spend most of the time where conditions are most comfortable for them and where food is most readily available or, ideally, where they can find the best of both worlds. Once you figure out where the cats preferred winter areas are in any given river or lake, you often can find fish in the same general areas day after day and year after year throughout the winter.

Although there are some exceptions, most of the best winter catfishing action comes from the deeper water. Channel cats, the smallest of the two species and bluecats which grow to monstrous proportions will both share the same wintering holes. The fish will congregate in large holes, where they find both food and some degree of thermal comfort, and they stay in and around those holes all season. They won’t always be in the very deepest part of a hole, but they’ll usually be fairly deep. But the species you will catch will depend on the bait you present to them.

In rivers, the deep winter holes are often along outside bends or old river channels that run alongside a hard rock bank. In reservoirs, the old creek and river channels or in the reservoirs’ lower reaches. Channel confluences where the creek channels collide with the old river channels also tend to have deeper holes associated with them, run-ins or ditches will also provide some deep water habitat.  

The best set up, once you find a wintering hole, depends on the amount of current that exist, If current is crossing the hole, the best way to keep your baits and your boat in good position is to mark the hole with a land mark, an old snag, rock or anything on the bank to line yourself up with where the hole is and then motor a good two cast’s distance up current from the marker and anchor your boat. Cast your lines downstream, let them settle on the bottom, engage your reels, put your rods in some monster rod holders and hold on.  If you’re using circle hooks, the fish will generally hook themselves.


In no current situations like reservoirs the best  is to double anchor above the hole to keep the boat in the right position, dropping a couple of baits straight down and spreading others around the boat. However, if the water your fishing isn’t very deep, it will be better for you to anchor a cast’s distance away from the hole you want to fish and cast all your lines off that side of the boat.

Just like the rest of the year, fish holding in winter holes aren’t always in an active feeding mode. They generally will bite, but sometimes not right away. So if you have set your baits out in a wintering hole and are not getting bites right away, you’re better off sitting tight for a while longer, maybe as much as a couple of hours even, rather than moving around and looking for more fish. The good news is that when one decides to take your bait, it usually won’t be long before it triggers several others to jump on the free meal.

BAIT & TACKLE

Whatever size cats you are targeting, fresh cut bait is pretty tough to beat as winter catfish bait. Bigger cats naturally feed quite a bit more on schools of large baitfish (shad) or skipjack herring during the cold months, but most pan fish cut into chucks will also get the job done too. Even smaller catfish that feed more as scavengers cannot resist the scent of a piece of cut fish. Depending on the size of fish being used for bait, it might be cut in halves or thirds, chunked or even filleted. Either way, if you’re targeting eater size catfish you will want to use small pieces of cut bait, maybe an inch long and an inch or less wide.

 

The best catfish bait to use for cut bait is shad, sunfish-bluegills, suckers and chub minnows. If you don’t have access to these types of baits, visit your local bait house and get some large crappie minnows or shiners and they can be fished dead or alive. Another good option is to go to your local grocery store and hit the seafood freezer section. Shrimp works very well but can be a little pricey. If you want to add variety to your arsenal, pick up a couple of containers of chicken Livers, livers make excellent year-round bait for channel catfish especially, and they are readily available at any grocery store and many bait shops.

The best bait size for blue catfish really depends on how big the fish grow in the waters where you are fishing! But it’s not uncommon to use a 1-2 lb piece of bait cut in half or used whole. Shad and skip jack is the popular baits among trophy bluecat anglers, but cut or whole panfish will also work well. in the winter months you can obtain shad and skipjack around hot water discharges found around factories on the Ohio river. But most anglers will anticipate the winter time trips and will catch these baits in the fall and freeze them for the winter time use.   

The rig is a simple Carolina rig that will be fished on the bottom. The components are easy: an egg or no roll sinker, a barrel swivel, leader line and a hook. Begin by running your main line through your sinker and tie the swivel to the main line. The leader should be a 18-24 inch piece of mono fishing line which will be tied to the other end of the swivel, opposite of your mainline and to complete the rig by tying the hook to the loose end of the leader.

 

The amount of weight will vary according to water depth, wind and current in the water you are fishing. In most cases, though, between 1 and 3 ounces should do the job. In rivers that have current a 6-12 oz sinker will be required. A circle hook works well for any type of cut bait. For channel catfish a smaller hook will be needed like #2-#3-#4 for big blue catfish, #6- #7-#8 will be needed.

If you’re just getting started and want to test the waters before you make an investment in equipment, any spinning or casting outfit with decent backbone will work, just be sure you have at least a 150 yards of fresh fishing line on, in the 20-30-pound-test range. This will do the job nicely for smaller catfish. For the larger catfish you will want to fill your spoon with 50-80 lb fishing line.

I personally like the braided line for big blues, especially in rivers, because the smaller diameter of heavy tests is easy to manage in the current.  I use 65lb braided main line and a 50-60lb test heavy fluorocarbon or monofilament for the leader between my swivel and hook.

TAKE NOTE
Remember I said there was an exception to the deep water theory? that cats’ preferred to use deep water during the winter months, for the most part this is true but keep in mind, if you have 2-3 days of sunshine or unseasonably nice weather, this will cause the shallow flats to warm just a degree or two and will trigger Baitfish schools will move up onto the warmer flats and catfish will follow. Such a warm-up can result in excellent action in surprisingly shallow water, but it usually won’t last long.

The flats that are closest to the deeper water or wintering holes will be the best, so that the cats can retreat easily with the falling temperature. Water color and wind direction are also important considerations. Stained water warms faster than clear water and therefore attracts more baitfish and catfish. Also, when the wind blows on those sunny days, it pushes microorganisms to the wind-beaten side of the lake, which in turn attracts baitfish.

Catfish will roam the flats some, but they prefer to follow ditches or irregularities of the bottom contour and other little cuts, around rock piles or bush piles. If you can find significant cover or structure on a flat, you’ve found a good place to set up.

Anchor a long cast’s away from the cover and fan several lines in that general direction. Use circle hooks and engage the reels. Catching catfish on the flats  will be very different than catching them in deep water A typical fish will be hooked by the time it tightens the lines enough to bend the rod.  But If a line suddenly goes slack, pick up the rod and reel as fast as you can, with no room to dive, they will take off in any direction, most will come towards the boat at lighting speeds, so you will need to catch up to them fats to be sure the hook is properly set, hang on when they reach the boat, because that’s where the fight will begin. Also, because these catfish move onto the shallow flats with feeding on their mind, once you do get a bite you’ve often found a honey hole.

For more info on catfish tactics and tips visit my website discovercatfishing.com

Authors note: as I mention in each of my articles, conservation awareness is vital when targeting these trophy blue catfish. So please keep in mind that there is a limited resource on trophy bluecats and the importance of returning them to the depths, just take a snap shot of your fish along with a measurement and you’ll have memories to share for a lifetime. If eater fish is what you’re after, there are tons of 10-15lb fish for the taking. If a wall hanger is what your after be sure to take measurements of your catch and opt to get a replica mount done from your taxidermist.

8 Comments

  1. CatHunter says:

    Good stuff Steve as usaual.

  2. brother hilljack says:

    Another great article Steve!

  3. Freeman Clark says:

    Thanks for an outstanding post.

  4. foreverfishing says:

    Great article, lots of good info

  5. Cdgipson says:

    Great learning web site. I am ready to go fishing.

  6. doghouse says:

    I have greatly enjoyed the articles on this site. However, until recently I have been restricted to fishing from the bank and, had never fished the cold weather. I have noticed that the water temp plays a role in where they are at. In the cooler water I have been able to locate the fish, no monsters, but 8 to 10 pounders consistently. As the water warms I am having great difficulty locating them. Any ideas would be appreciated still trying to get the big one.

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