Predicting the seasonal move: Catfishing

This is one of the best times for hooking onto a huge catfish along the Ohio River and its tributaries. Because of the catfish’s internal clock or seasonal patterns is hard at work and it’s easier to predict their next move.

In the dead of winter they will spend most of their time in areas where the conditions are most favorable for them, ideally where they can find the some sort of refuge from the harsh winter conditions or a food source. But now that the daylight hours are getting longer and their biological clock so to say, is provoking a seasonal move, they will be compelled to position themselves for the spring run. This is good because they continue to be predictable in their move and we can intercept them as they move up river.

winter catfish

Winter Catfishing


(Late Winter Bluecats)

Understanding what is motivating these huge fish to occupy an area can help you decide on the best locations ith the highest percentage of success.
Catfish will frequent certain areas of water ways for one of three reasons.
1. Food source
2. Cover
3. Navigation

Seasonal patterns will often help determine locations as well. Winter is probably the most predictive time to locate catfish.

In rivers, the deep winter holes are often along outside bends or old river channels that run alongside a hard bottom bank, in reservoirs, look for the old creek and river channels.
Channel confluences where the creek channels meets 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 or HOT SPOTS.

Learning how to analyze the seasonal patterns, structure and cover to find the best winter time opportunity is the key to catching a winter trophy blue catfish. Here are three TOP HOT SPOTS to start looking for your trophy blue cats.

Channel bends:
A Channel bend is just simply a turn in direction of the river flow and usually associated with hard bottom and deep water as the current flow is constantly cutting the structure contour of the bottom and ledges and undercuts are formed, giving these trophy blue catfish a comfortable environment to take up residents.

(Channel bends make good fish attractors)

channel bend

Channel bend for catfishing


Channel bends will also get cluttered with big trees and logs that get washed down river and deposited over the years during high water periods, which gives the blue cats just one more reason to hang out. Now there’s a Hot Spot! Look for the cover that has lodged in the channel bends along the deep water ledges. Finding the spot within the spot is golden and will increase your chances of catching a trophy blue catfish.

Holes
Holes are most often going to be associated with current of some kind. Look for holes around the channel bends, below dams, around the mouths of tributaries and current breaks such as points and manmade structure like barge cells or bridge pilings. Current breaks will create scours holes down river of the break which is attractive to the big blue cats, as it makes an ideal spot to hang around and wait for food to flow by. Use your depth finder to locate the head of the hole and start there. Set up on these spots by anchoring above the holes and casting your baits back into the deeper water. Deep water holes of any structure type are always a good spot in the winter because catfish seem to stack into the deep water wintering holes making them easier to locate.

Mouths of tributaries

Tributary mouths are pretty much a year round hot spot. They provide many elements throughout the catfish’s seasonal patterns from staging to ambush and feeding areas. But in the winter months, the catfish will relate to the deep water at the mouth where it intersects the main river.
Bait fish along with several other species of fish will gather in these deep water areas to over winter and feed on what is washed out, in turn attracting the catfish to also take up residents for the duration.

There are many structure elements that that make up a tributary giving the catfish some options in the winter months, current breaks or ledges allows them sit and wait comfortably on food to pass by out of the current.
The Deep holes associated with the tributaries provide a place to escape the current with some thermal comfort. The shallow points along the tributary will warm up on sunny days attracting the blue cats to the baitfish that have moved up on the point to the warmer water.

Bait:
The best bait to use for a trophy winter time blue catfish is cut bait. Big baits equal big catfish. Use shad; skip jack herring, sunfish-bluegills, suckers and chub minnows. 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.

skip jack

catfish bait


Cut skip jack for late winter action

Big Shad and skip jack is the popular baits among trophy blue cat anglers, but cut or whole pan fish 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.
Rig:
The Three way slip rig is great for fishing in current. It is one the most common catfishing rigs used for winter time catfishing for a few reasons. 1. Easy to tie up.
2. Versatility
3. The slip feature allows the catfish to take the bait without detecting any resistance from the weight.
The sacrificial sinker feature

catfish rig

Catfish rig


3-Way Rig

This rig is very versatile for catfishing a number of different situations. one feature I like about this rig is the sacrificial sinker. It allows you to pull the rig free from most snags, saving the hook and swivels which saves time and money.

Method:
Anchoring is the best technique for locating and patterning winter time blue catfishing, Once you’re anchored on a spot, sling about four baits out behind the boat and place them in your rod holders and hang on, the winter time take down will be just as massive as the summer time bite.

Once you have spread all your baits out, give it about 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 baits on the previous anchor, and cast them out again, keeping your bait in the same scent trail just a little further downstream. Because some of these areas can be up to a half mile long, you may need to bound down 4-5 times until you find the fish.

winter catfishing

winter catfishing


Anchoring up on some late winter catfish
But once you have found them you can catch several on just one anchor.
Tributaries to the Ohio River like the Kentucky and Green rivers offer some excellent late winter time action for big Blues and channel cats but unfortunately the flatheads are mostly dormant this time of year.

Good Fishin’
Steve Douglas

Where to find and catch Shad for catfish bait

Shad is one of the most abundant forage fish in the south so it only makes sense to think the catfish feed heavily on the shad too. Well you would be right in thinking that as shad is on top of the list for most consistent for catching catfish of all sizes and species.  Whether you use it live, or cut it up shad will attract the more mature cats available in the waters you fish.

What do shad look like?

Shad come in different species and sizes but most are appear silverfish but are generally dark colored on the back and top of the head, with bits of bluish green silvery tints and white sides, sporting a black dot on their sides just behind their gills.

live shad for bait

Shad is a good catfish bait

Shad is good catfish bait

These thin bodied forage fish are very distinctive, having small mouths with big eyes and a forked shape tail.  Both the gizzard shad and threadfin shad are abundant in lakes, reservoirs and rivers throughout the country and both species are great for catching catfish.

The Gizzard Shad is the bigger of the two and can grow in lengths of over 12 inches, which makes them great as cut bait and are generally referred to by catfish anglers as, cutters. The Threadfin Shad are much smaller and will normally only grow to around 6 inches.

How do you catch Shad?

 A cast net is the best way to catch shad for catfishing.  My favorite size cast net is 5-6 footer, but sometimes it don’t matter what your favorite size cast net is, as in reality the size of your cast net will ultimately  be  determined according to each states netting  and fishing regulations. Some allow 10 footers while other states only allow 3- 4 footers. Be sure to check your states regulations before you cast your nets.

How to find shad?

Look in these types of places for shad.

Bay’s…. Look in the back of the shallow bays, large cuts, coves or feeder creeks on lakes.

Marinas…  Shad can be attracted to the Marinas because of their food source, algae and other microscopic creatures that grow on the docks and boats and other marina related structures.

Creek mouths…  Check in the mouths of feeder creeks shad will often gather around fresh water and also to find refuge from heavy current.

Bridges pilings……. will often attract the shad because of algae growth again and or a current break.

Water discharges……….. You can find these types of areas along the  many of the rivers in our country.   Factory’s  will pull river water within their facility to cool equipment and will discharge a continuous flow of water back to the river and these discharges are an excellent place to look for shad. Some of the factory discharges often produce hot water which will attract many shad and other bait fish to these even in the winter months.

Pockets and Eddy’s … Eddy’s are good place to search when current is present. The Eddy is a result of a current break of some kind like a point or a cut in the river bank creating some slack, still water next to the main current which makes a good place to look for shad at times.

Now these are some of the top spots or habitats to start looking for shad but I would like to just add that catching shad is just like fishing, in the since that weather can affect the outcome to some extent.

Most days you can cast your net  a few times and have all you need  but other days you will have to throw the net a hundred times only to catch a few. Sometimes we have to work for the best baits but shad can literally be anywhere but these top hot spots mentioned in this article have a higher percentage of producing shad on a regular basis.

When fishing new water and don’t know where the bait hot spots will be, Ive always turned to google earth for the answers. You can locate these types of areas just by zooming in on the area you will be fishing and seeing where the potential places are located even before you touch the water. This will save a lot of time and also somewhat familiarize you with this new area.

 

How to use shad as catfish bait?

The smaller shad can be use whole or cut them into sections as illustrated or just simply cut the shad in half.

How to cut shad

How to cut shad for cut bait

Cutting Shad for catfish bait

The size of your cut bait you use will really depend on what size catfish you are targeting but generally as a rule the bigger pieces of cut bait catches bigger catfish and smaller pieces for the small and medium catfish. But I will add this, I have also seen that general rule turn completely the opposite of said rule and have caught huge catfish on small pieces of cut shad and small cats on large pieces, Its fishing and anything can happen.

Another popular piece of cut shad is the fillets. The fillets can be attached to the hook in the same way you would a night crawler be sure to leave the skin on it for a tougher cut. The last cut I will mention on the shad is the guts.  And the best guts come from the large gizzard shad. They are used mainly for catching channel catfish.

Using Live Shad

Using shad live is a little more challenging as the shad can be difficult to keep alive in bulk without the help from  a good bait tank.

You can use shad live to catch all species of catfish but predominantly it is used for catching big Flathead or blue catfish. The Flatheads diet consist primarily of other fish like shad, carp, pan fish and even other catfish  so your chances of landing a large Flathead catfish goes up when you use live shad as catfish bait.

I would recommend the larger shad 6 to 8 inches because they just seem to stay alive on the hook longer than the smaller shad do. The more lively and active your bait is the better chance you have of success.

How to hook a live bait.

How to hook live shad

Hooking live bait for different methods of catfishing

Hooking Live Shad for catfish bait

When fishing in current I prefer to hook the shad through its nostrils and through the dorsal area when I’m in no current such as low flowing rivers or lakes. These are the two most popular places to place your hook for the best results. Hooking it in other places sometimes can cause the bait to hook back into its self which will cause a lost fish when that phenomenon happens so be sure to pay attention when your experimenting with hook placement.

The same goes with hooking cut bait pieces, be sure to hook it in a way that it will not hook back into itself. Here is how I like to hook my cut bait.

hooking cut bait

How to hook cut shad

Rigs used for catfishing with shad.

The two rigs I would suggest using with shad is the 3-Way or the Carolina rigs.

Both of these rigs are effective at present the bait in many different situations but I prefer the Carolina rig for my cut bait presentation and the 3Way rig for my live presentations when I’m anchoring  but when I’m drifting with live shad I prefer the Carolina rig..

Sometimes bait catching can be as challenging as the catfishing itself but when you get the right bait, it’s all worth the time and trouble spent by experiencing success but these are some of the most likely places to find your catfish bait. Good luck and be safe on the water.