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

Target anchoring for big cats.

The winter time Bluecats become predictable and will school up or congregate in wintering areas that offer some sort of thermal or stable comfort zone and food availability. February one of the best times for hooking up with one of them monster cats along the Ohio River or its major tributaries like the Green or Kentucky rivers. Other areas like outside bends, drop-offs, creek beds and deep ledges. Look for the deepest contours and water depths that have been carved by nature. Blucats remain fairly active and aggressive in the winter months and will travel in and around these deep lairs looking for its next meal.

Target anchoring is my preferred method for wintertime catfishing. It involves the use of a GPS/Depth finder to find, mark and fish areas such as natural or manmade structure or cover, places where catfish will frequent for food, travel or spawn.
Anchoring on specific spots known to be high traffic areas such as ledges, humps or holes will increase an angler’s success, but if an angler can find certain that spot within the spot such as a big log laying among some rocks along the edge of a channel break, then you will more than likely have a productive day.

fishing map

Custom Mapping your favorite fishing spots

(Custom Mapping your favorite fishing spots)
Gps mapping lake charts has made fishing more productive as it allows the angler to discover, map, mark and return to these spots like clockwork. The mapping card technology in fish finders makes it a lot easier to understand, pinpoint and mark certain underwater structure, cover and contours that will most likely produce some action. Most lakes or impoundments map cards are very well defined in the contour terrain of the bottom which gives an angler the edge by taking of a lot of the guess work out of finding certain types of structure and it can position an angler precisely on a ledge or other obvious mapped contour changes.

Marking and setting up on specific fish that have been spotted on the sonar is another good use for this GPS technology. However the Rivers maps are not as defined in the contour terrain but more concentrate more on the navigational aspects. But with effort spent manually mapping the rivers bottom contour changes, an angler can still reveal those same productive types of contour or structure changes that are so well defined in the lake cards. Combining the depth finder and GPS to determine depth changes and GPS co ordinances to precisely mark spots to give anglers a blank canvas to personalize their own mapping charts of favorite locations either recently found or previously mapped. This is useful when scouting new areas marking the data that the angler inputs from their mapping also serves as a fishing log.

Find and anchor above your target about 80 to 100 feet and then cast the baits out of the back of the boat into the target area, staggering or fanning them out behind the boat in different depths. Lift your rod tip up and down a few times with the bait/sinker tension. This will straighten the line and remove any un wanted slack.
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.
Fan cast your baits to cover a wider areas, Anchor the boat closer to the bank so that it’s in the positioned in middle so to say of zero or the bank and its deepest point which is 50 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.

anchor for big catfish

Target anchoring for big catfish.

(Target anchoring)
In rivers, the deep winter holes are often found 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 or HOT SPOTS.
Once you’re anchored on a spot, give it 30-35 minutes to see if you get any interest. If it’s been inactive it’s time to move down river a bit, but you don’t want to go far. The idea is to keep the scent trail close to the structure your fishing for the catfish to follow but to move just simply pull your anchor up and move your boat 40-50 feet down and re-anchor where you last placed your baits on the previous anchor and cast out again, keeping your bait in the same scent trail just a little further downstream. 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 concentration of catfish.

Target anchoring

Aaron Wheately Director of Monsters on the Ohio with a nice winter time blue cat.

Using fresh bait
Big Shad and skip jack is the popular baits among trophy blue cat anglers, but cut or whole pan fish will also work well.
When finding and catching bait is not an issue, I like to have enough to re-bait on every move to keep the bait and scent trail fresh. Re-baiting often doesn’t seem to be as important in the spring or summer when the water is warmer as much as it does in the winter months.
In the frigid winter water the scent trail doesn’t seem to dissolve or disburse as well as it does in the warmer months, so keeping the freshest bait on each anchor in the winter time will attract the best results.
Winter time is a great time to land some huge trophy blue cats and there fun to catch but they are also kind of vulnerable this time of year as they are easily patterned.
Please remember to keep conservation in mind and put the big ones back after you’ve snapped some braggin pictures. Keep the smaller cats for fryin! Selective harvest works.

Steve Douglas