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

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 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.

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.
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.

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