Precautions of catching deep water cats

Catfishing in the winter can be categorized in my book as one of the best times to catch a trophy sized catfish on the Ohio River as they have migrated to and have gathered in numbers to their deep water lairs where they appear to be most comfortable at during these cold harsh winter months and they will spend most of their time and energy cruising these haunts for food.
channel bend

Wintering Hole
These areas also attract many other species of fish during the winter months including many types of schooling forage fish such as carp, shad and mooneye which is one of the reasons the big ole cat is drawn to these deep water areas because it’s (What’s for Dinner) and these types of fish is also your best choice for bait as well, because it’s on the main menu for the big cats.
One technique commonly used to catch these winter time catfish is precision anchoring on deep water holes. First by locating specific pieces of structure or cover on your depth finder and motoring above the area moving up current then dropping your anchor and casting your baits to that specific area.
Another anchoring technique called bounding down is not as target specific but rather more of a cast and search technique working along the vast areas of these deep holes and runs.

This method involves moving from an anchored position frequently downstream and re anchoring again 50-75 yards apart looking specifically for active and feeding catfish while also keeping your baits in one scent trail as an attractant for the cats to follow and search for as you work downstream.
The most common rig to fish for these deep water cats is the Carolina rig but keep in mind these winter months can produce some of the biggest pigs of the year and your tackle needs to be able to handle these big fish.
Big catfish tackle
There is nothing worse to a fisherman than seeing this massive catfish surface only to have him surge and snap the wrong size tackle inches from being landed.
Here is what I use and recommend in big fish tackle. First I use 80 lb. test braided main line from McCoy fishing line.
braided fishing line
Braided main line

Next I thread a 3-8 ounce slip sinker on and then attach a 150lb. barrel swivel with a Palomar knot and then tie a 18 inch piece of 50 lb test Monofilament leader line to the other end of the swivel with a improved clinch knot.

The last step is to attach a hook to the end of the leader line. For this I use number 0/10 Mustad circle hooks and tie it on using a Snell knot.

This is my Go-to rig when I’m anchoring on these big deep water catfish.

Winter time catfish rig
Your equipment should be compatible with the size fish you are searching for as well. Most any medium to heavy duty rod and reel combos that are available at most local dept/sports stores will get the job done and are great deals if you are only fishing a few times a year, but if you are fishing more consistently for the big cats you may want to do some research and purchase some longer lasting quality equipment.

Caution, releasing catfish that has been caught from deep water could be fatal to the fish.

I have already touched on the bait choices for attracting these deep water wintering catfish along with the Where, When and How to catch them but I would also like to talk about the importance of a safe release.

Release you say.

Yes, over the last 10 years the lure of catching these behemoth size creatures has risen in numbers to where the sportsmen are now categorizing catfish as a sport fish and are introducing new regulations in favor of protecting them.

These large adult fish should never be kept for table fair as they have spent many, many years exposed to the toxins that have flowed within the water shed. The smaller younger catfish are much better for eating and has less of a risk of toxins.

So as a sportsman who fishes for catfish year round, my interest is to protect the large adults as well as the growing population so we can help sustain a healthy and strong fishery. Taking care of my catch for a safe release ensures that future anglers will have a chance to experience the adrenaline pumping hard fight that these magnificent fish give us which brings us to my main topic within this article.

Releasing deep water catfish
A catfish’s swim bladder is an internal gas-filled organ that contributes to the ability of a fish to control its buoyancy and Hooking catfish in deep water and reeling them up too quickly will result in gas expansion in their swim bladders causing them to float and not being able to return to the bottom when released, causing death. Keep in mind however that this is a year round issue and not just limited to winter time only.

Decompression is needed
Although many anglers today have the best intentions when it comes to catch and release practices and want the best for the fishery but many novice anglers are un aware of this issue and will often release their fish with the pressurized swim bladders. They may appear to swim away but will resurface downstream struggling just out of sight and away from the anglers who just released it and more than likely will not make it.

Learning the signs of this decompression phenomenon and knowing how to treat them for a safe release will help ensure positive population growth which is an important part of the conservation and management of a very cool resource.

Recognizing the problem is fairly easy, experiencing it is just as easy and even though an angler is aware of this issue and tries to bring a deep water blue cat up from the depths slowly to allow it to decompress naturally, certain variables out of our control will just allow the fish to surface to quickly, creating this health risk for our majestic and noble adversaries.
catfish care
Catfish care
The first signs of this problem will be noticed when the catfish first surfaces at the boat and just rolls on its side or back then shows little or no movement and no fight but appears to want to float in an unnatural state. Inspect the belly section before you let it go.

A fat belly from a fish that has fed heavily will look totally different from those that had been pulled to the surface too quickly.

Even when the fish has been gorging its self, the belly will remain soft to the touch and shouldn’t be mistaken for the oddly shaped and bloated look with extremely hard pressurized bellies which will be tight drum like to the touch caused from expanding gases that developed during the fight.

Not to worry though as this is an easy fix when needed.

All these fish needs is to do is relieve some pressure as in a “BURP” so to say and most times you can help them do it naturally by stalling your catch at the boat. Once you can see that fish is hooked good let it swim alongside the boat for an extra minute or two.

In most cases the fishes sudden movements of thrashing and twisting will naturally release these gases, removing the risk of becoming a floater and resetting the pressure on the fish’s swim bladder so to say.
It just takes a little time for them to blow off these excess gases and they can be returned safely.

Most of the time this can be achieved by simply letting them swim around a bit at the surface to blow the pressure and the constant movement helps the process happen quicker but other times, there are other instances where you may have to bring fish on board and place them in a controlled live tank to monitor while you help it recover for a safe and sure release.
Another effective option is to manually Burp them with a tube that has been inserted down their gullet.

Some anglers prefer to use a ½ inch PVC tube about 18 inches long to perform this action but this is my least favorite way to do it and my last resort as I feel this can sometimes cause more harm than good in the long run.
Although this way is one of the fastest ways to achieve your end goal of burping the fish, it can sometimes damage the fish’s esophagus as the fish begins the resist and thrash with the hard tube inserted 15” inches within their bodies vital organs.

It’s a double edged sword.

You’re trying to save the fish by manually burping the fish so you can release it for future action but end up slowly killing the fish because an infection from a hole that was punched in its stomach lining from a piece of PVC that was improperly pushed in their gullet while thrashing and resisting on deck.
I just like to take the little extra time with them at the boat to help them Burp when possible.

But In some situations like faster current, when you cannot leave them at the side of the boat for a period of time I’ll bring them into the boat and lay them on deck for a few minutes massaging the bellies, the best medicine I’ve found is just keep them moving and it seems to work out of them.

If I’m still unsure, I will hold them in a live tank to be certain that the fish has relieved its pressures and can be safely released.

big catfish
Passing this information on to others I feel will help in conservation awareness with the growing numbers of catfish enthusiast not only in Kentucky but across the nation as well. It’s important to share in the responsibilities of good conservation practices from our sportsman and educate our future enthusiast so they can continue to promote and maintain healthy fisheries while also growing a positive family outdoor activity.

“If we are going to play with these huge cats we should respect them and strive to put them back in their environment just as good as when we pulled them from it”.
Steve Douglas

catfish care

Catfish care

Shallow water Cats in the Springtime: Tactics for both bank and boat fisherman

Catfish are driven internally to move upstream for the spawn in the springtime and you can use this annual migratory pattern to your advantage. This is a great opportunity to look to the shallower water for success.

As the days are getting longer and the weather warms things up this will trigger the catfish’s biological senses to begin to moving from their wintering holes, to places that will allow them to feed heavily before the spawn.

The shallow water on sunny days can sometimes be 4-8 degrees warmer than the rest of the system there for drawing the bait fish as well as other fish including the cats.
In rivers the catfish begin to move up stream and as they do they will follow the underwater highways so to say, such as channels ledges, deep-water impressions, long points or other structure and contour irregularities but as they make their way upstream, they visit the shallower areas because they know it means food.

The shallow flats adjacent the deep water, north facing shallow banks or inside bends and tributary mouths are some examples of shallow water areas where you can cut the off at the pass as they travel up stream.

In reservoirs and lakes the catfish will begin to move and feed in the warmest parts of the lake as the warmer water will draw the baitfish and in turn will draw the predator fish such as a catfish. Again look to the north banks and coves these types of example will warm the fastest.

Other examples are shallow water with wood structure, mid lake flats or humps and feeder creeks. The spring rains will wash insects and other critters into the lake and the catfish have learned to frequent these areas , waiting for an easy meal.

Although the flats are featureless with little or no structure, they do attract catfish because of a flats ability to produce warmth and large amounts of algae from the suns energy attracting the shad and baitfish to the area which feed on the algae in turn creating a buffet for the catfish and other species as well.



(Santee Rig for dragging baits)
Items needed for the basic 3-Way rig
Keep in mind item specs listed below will change according to the size fish your ‘re targeting.
Example below is a good all around combination of tackle required. It’s what I use to target trophy size catfish but is also effective on smaller fish also.
65lb braided or mono main line. (I prefer braid)
3- Way swivel
50 lb mono Leader line
20 lb mono drop line
#8-10 Circle hook
Bank sinker
*(Santee option- 3 inch peg float)

Tip: Notice the break rating on the drop line is less than the mainline. This is one option you may want to take advantage of to save tackle and time when fishing with any 3-way combination. It’s called a sacrificial weight, meaning it will break before the mainline when hung up on structure, keeping the rest of your rig intact so all you have to do is retie the drop line and weight instead of the whole rig, this saves a lot of time and frustration.

3-way rig for catfishing

(Dragging the shallow flats)

Once you determine where you will fishing, just throw your baited rig behind your boat at different lengths of main line and place your rod in your Monster Rod Holder and begin to pull to drag your baits behind your boat.
I normally sling my first rod out behind my boat about 75 feet and the second one a little closer than the first and so on, keeping them staggered at different lengths.
The idea here is to drag your baits along the contour of the bottom using your trolling motor.

Although drifting with the wind will produce catfish, I prefer to control my (pull/drift) and target more precise contour structure, such as flats, humps and ledges.
The drag speed will be determined by the catfishes activity level the size sinker you are using; the heavier it is, the faster and deeper you can drag. After cold fronts and low activity levels I prefer to start with a 2 oz sinker and keep my speed at about .5 mph.
As your dragging your baits across the contour of the bottom, your pole will go to bouncing, this is normal. At times, your pole will even appear to be getting hung up, this is ok, just keep dragging and most likely it will pop off of whatever it got caught on.
When dragging the flats for instance, there is just not a lot you can get hung on other that maybe small stones and the occasional water logged limbs and twigs and as I indicted, you will most likely just pull yourself out what ever small obstacle it got snagged on along the bottom and continue to drag your baits across the flats but this rod bouncing and occasional jerking action of the rods with this technique again normal.

The bite on this technique will look somewhat similar to getting hung on the bottom on the initial takedown in the aspect of the rod bending; however when you’re dragging the baits at certain speed, your rod tip movements will also move at that same speed.
The bite of the catfish will start to look different the rod after the initial take down but keep in mind, all take downs are not created equal. Some takedowns are slow and steady, just as it appears when you get hung on the bottom and some will just flat-out be fast and hard. But once you have him hooked, the rod tip will begin to continuously pull and bounce violently unlike being hung on the bottom which would be more described as dead weight.

The Santee dragging rig is good method to search out feeding catfish, at the same time learning what your bottom contour is like and discovering new pieces of structure, however in the process you will get snagged and loose some rigs. (Don’t get discouraged), it just the way it is. I’ve fished places before where I’d lose 20 rigs a day and I’ve fished others and never gotten hung up. It is a proven fish catching rig.

Fishing from the bank?
For all of our friends that are bank bound anglers, this dragging technique is not going to help you at all.
However not to fret, as the catfish don’t know you are bank bound and you too can take advantage of the shallow water springtime phenomenon but you will just have to approach it differently.

Whether you have access to a big lake or small ponds or rivers, the catfish will have the same internal urges to do what it takes to complete the spawn just as these big river cats do and migration to feeding grounds or comfort zones is their first move. So with that in mind you will need to find areas in the waters you fish that will provide this type of comfort or activity.
In lakes I would look for the shallow north banks as they will be the first to warm in the springtime especially shallow coves on the north banks. This warmer water will definitely be a spot that can produce some real nice cats but other areas like the mouths of feeder creeks and shallow ditches are equally as good.

Going Old School
Since bank anglers don’t have the advantage of using the depth finders, we will have to determine the contour from observing the bank you can see above the water line. Most likely if you are seeing a small ditch running off the hill into the water, it more than likely will continue underwater and this type of areas can be very productive in the spring of the year. In farm ponds, use the same knowledge of fishing the north bank first in the spring to find the active catfish. Stay to the upper incoming, drainage or fill ditch area portion of the pond away from the dam to find the warmer water.

The Preferred bank bound Rig

The rigs I would opt for in this bank bound situation would be either a Carolina rig or float rig tied on a 7-8 foot spin or baitcast combos.

(Slip float)

carolina rig

(Carolina Rig)
Whether you’re fishing from a boat or the bank the shallow water springtime patterns are working now.
Remember though, the bigger catfish in the water you’re fishing will prefer cut bait over worms or stink bait but grocery shrimp, chicken livers, shiners and minnows are just a few other good bait choices for small lakes and ponds. Worms and night crawlers tend to be stolen by the pan fish and other small fish so I would avoid them completely unless you use them to catch pan fish with, to cut up for catfish bait.
This shallow spring action is the best times to get the family out for a fun, fresh spring day of catfishing.

Happy springtime folks. Let’s go catfishin’