Blue catfish bewilder many anglers. Their activities differ considerably from those of their whiskered brethren. In many situations, blue cats behave more like striped bass than like other catfish. Like stripers, large blues feed largely on shad, herring, and other schooling baitfish. Consequently, they tend to be more migratory and are more frequently found in open water than other cats. Blues also frequent areas of heavy current, while channels and flatheads prefer areas of slow to moderate water flow.
Their food preferences also differ. Small channel cats aren’t finicky. They eat almost anything, live or dead, from chicken guts and hot dogs to worms and shad. Big flatheads are more choosy, preferring live fish over all else. Trophy blues fall between these extremes. Baitfish are their food of choice, but living or dead doesn’t matter. Freshwater mussels, crayfish, and other invertebrates also comprise a significant portion of their diet in many waters.
To target blues successfully, especially trophy-size blues, it’s necessary to understand their primary feeding patterns. What are they eating? When? Where? Armed with the answers to these questions and a considerable measure of patience, you can expect to find and hook a beefy blue. Without this information, however, luck alone determines the outcome.
Dams and Dinner bells
In big rivers, blue cats move from one area to another as the seasons and water temperature change. In the lower Mississippi, for instance, they move downriver where water is warmer in winter, moving back upstream in spring and summer. Their upstream runs eventually reach spawning areas.
Before dams were built on our big rivers, this yearly upstream-downstream procession was interrupted only by a natural barrier—a shallow portion of river perhaps, or a bank-to-bank logjam. Today, however, migrations are usually cut short by dams.
This wouldn’t matter much to catfishermen if the urge to procreate was the blue cat’s primary instinct. Upon encountering a dam, they’d simply fall back downstream until they located suitable spawning areas. But it’s eat first, spawn later. Gluttony rules. And at every dam on every river, a banquet awaits.
Baitfish like shad and skipjack herring are especially plentiful, many drawn to the tailwater for the same reason the cats are there. Some are washed in from the upstream pool, often crippled or cut to pieces after a ride through turbines. Blue cats gather like bears around a salmon run, gobbling every morsel that swims or drifts near.
After reaching a tailwater, they may stay for several days or weeks, gorging round-the-clock on the irresistible feast. By late spring, their numbers have swollen and individual blues jockey for position in prime feeding areas. Large tailwaters may contain a dozen or so prime areas; small tailwaters, only a few. Yet each of these spots can hold scores of big cats when conditions are right.
In the end, though, most fish eventually move downriver to spawn. As some leave, others arrive. And if oxygen levels remain high and the tailrace continues to hold schools of baitfish, blues may return after spawning, staying as long as they’re comfortable and well fed. Thus, this pattern may extend from early spring through much of summer.
To locate prime feeding areas, remember that big tailwater blues favor swift well-oxygenated water with a steady supply of living or dead baitfish. But to conserve energy, they seek slack-water holding spots within these areas. The grooves or current tunnels of slower-moving water between open gates or running turbines offer these conditions. The fastest flow is in the center of the discharge, the slowest on the outer edges. Fishing the grooves between two discharges is more productive than fishing the main current.
Chunks of cutbait are the perfect enticement in this situation. Slice crosswise through a 4- to 6-inch shad, herring, or sucker, dividing the pieces into one-inch-square chunks. Cats eat any piece of fish drifting by, and larger pieces are more difficult to present properly in current. Slip the hook through the bait once, leaving the point exposed to ensure a good hookset.
Several rigs can be used, but a basic three-way rig with a Kahle-style hook and bell sinker is suitable for most situations. Cast toward the dam and into a groove, let the rig sink, then gently pick up the weight, letting the current wash it back a few feet. Then let the weight down again and repeat the process. This tactic covers considerable water, giving cats a chance to see and take the bait.
Other prime feeding areas for tailwater blues include deep scour holes at the end of wing dikes, the upstream and downstream side of submerged boulders, shoreline riprap, tributary mouths, and lockwall edges. If a significant number of cats are caught from one area, however, several days, sometimes weeks, may be needed for the spot to replenish. Peaks and valleys of good and poor fishing become evident, as during Prespawn, Spawn, and Postspawn Periods. Be on the water as much as possible during peak periods to take advantage of good fishing.
Following The Schools
During summer’s heat and winter’s cold, blue catfish in reservoirs and rivers often move to deep pools and channel edges, following schools of baitfish and searching for suitable temperatures and oxygen levels. Baitfish, like gizzard and threadfin shad, and skipjack herring are continually seeking comfort zones where plankton, young-of-the-year baitfish, and other foods are available. They may move several times and several miles in 24 hours, or they may remain relatively stationary. Wherever they go, however, blue cats follow, with most holding in loose schools beneath the baitfish, feeding on the dead, dying, and unfortunate.
Find baitfish and you’ll find blue cats. One way is to use sonar to probe deep-water habitat for big fish holding beneath baitfish schools. Most will be within the thermocline in stratified waters, or near prominent bottom structure like channel breaks, humps, and holes. When blips indicate the possibility of a big cat beneath schooling baitfish at a specific depth, anchor, count off the right amount of line, and place a piece of cutbait or a live baitfish right in front of a fish. Or use a stacked minnow rig—several large minnows hooked through both lips on a single hook presented at the proper depth beneath a float or balloon. Blue cats find this struggling school of crippled baitfish irresistible.
Drift-fishing is another method for locating scattered concentrations of blue cats in summer and winter. Use the wind or a trolling motor to move the boat over and along bottom channels and other structure spotted on a depthfinder.
A polyball or floating drift rig is often used for this type of fishing. Run the main line through the eye of a pencil weight and tie a barrel swivel below it to keep the weight from sliding down. Tie a 12- to 18-inch leader to the lower eye of the swivel. Affix a small bobber or float to the middle of the leader, and tie a Kahle-style hook at the end. The float suspends the baited hook above the bottom to help prevent snagging.
When you catch a fish, ply the spot thoroughly, as several cats often hold in the same area. When action tapers, resume your search at the depth you found fish.
Gizzard and threadfin shad, two of the blue cat’s primary forage items, are intolerant of severe cold. If water temperature dips below 45°F, shad become stressed. If the cold persists and the water temperature continues to drop, thousands of shad soon die. This phenomenon, a yearly event on many first-rate blue cat waters, is referred to as winter kill.
Blue cats in many parts of the country feed continuously throughout winter, and when winter kill starts, they flock around shad schools like buzzards around roadkill. Dying baitfish that flutter down through the water are quickly inhaled by waiting cats—one after another until the die-off has passed and the catfish are gorged. The pattern may last a day or a month, depending on the weather. But while it lasts, fishing for big blues is at its best.
To capitalize on this cold-weather pattern, use sonar to pinpoint schooling baitfish, then throw a cast net over the school to collect bait. Large shad can be sliced for cutbait, but small whole shad (an inch or two long) seem to work best. Hook two or three on a single hook run through the eyes, leaving the barb exposed. Now lower your rig through the school of baitfish to the bottom, reel it up about a foot, and hang on. If the winter-kill feeding frenzy is in full swing, mere seconds will pass before a catfish strikes and the fight begins. Catch one cat, and usually dozens more are there. Don’t be caught without bait when the bite’s on.
Summer Skipjack Pattern
Skipjack herring are common in nearly all big rivers inhabited by blue cats. They comprise a major portion of the blue cat’s diet in some areas, so often are used for bait. They’re easily captured in cast nets or on small jigs.
Like shad, skipjacks are active, moving about continuously in large schools. Unlike shad, however, which feed primarily on microscopic plants and animals, skipjacks prefer minnows, shad, and other small fishes. This makes them doubly attractive to blue cats, especially in late summer.
In July and August, large schools of skipjacks often churn the surface of the water as they pursue young-of-the-year shad. This highly visible phenomenon is similar to the surface-feeding melees of stripers and white bass. Skipjacks can be seen swirling near the surface, with little shad swarming all about as they try to elude the skipjacks. This activity usually occurs near dawn and dusk, frequently near creek mouths or at the junction of two big rivers.
When surfacing skipjacks are sighted, scores of blue cats likely are lurking below, attracted by the prospect of a skipjack entree, plus the many dead and crippled shad left behind when skipjacks have slashed through a school. Sometimes striped or white bass join the feeding frenzy, increasing the number of injured baitfish and serving as another enticement for gluttonous blues.
For cat anglers, this setting is like no other. A 1/64- to 1/32-ounce silver or white jig cast toward swirling fish usually garners a strike from a skipjack. Cut the skippie in small pieces, run a hook through a chunk, and cast it toward the swirls, letting it fall enticingly to hungry blues waiting below. Or better yet, come prepared with a few small shad ready to rig.
Next to baitfish, freshwater mussels or clams are a blue cat’s favorite food. In fact, some ardent anglers believe blue cats prefer mussels to baitfish. It’s not unusual in some waters to catch a big blue that actually rattles from all the mussel shells stuffed in its gut.
The inch-long exotic Asian clam, now common in many lakes and rivers, is a special favorite, but native mussels—especially smaller varieties like lilliputs, wartybacks, and deertoes—also are relished. Shell and all is eaten. Digestive juices kill the mussel, the shell opens, the flesh inside is digested, and the fish excretes the shell.
Many mussels live in dense colonies called beds. In winter and spring, blue cats congregate around these beds where they feed day after day with little expenditure of energy. Beds usually are near shore in three to six feet of water and can be seen during low-water periods or by moving parallel to shore, probing the bottom with a cane pole. Catfish return to the same beds season after season, so memorize the location of a bed or mark it on a map.
In summer as shoreline shallows warm, many mussels die and float to the surface. Blues gorge on these, and anglers gather the shells with dip nets to use the soured flesh for bait.
In his 1953 book Catfishing, catman Joe Mathers proclaimed freshwater mussels “excellent to superior” for bait. “If soured just right (sour, not rotten, determined by smelling), clams are one of the best catfish baits, especially during midsummer when few other baits are productive. Collect them in the shallows or drag bottom areas with clamming hooks. Or, if a clamming industry is located nearby, get a bucket of flesh after the shells have been steamed off.”
An egg sinker rig is ideal for fishing around mussel beds. Use mussel flesh or small chunks of cut shad or herring for bait. Although the catfish may be feeding primarily on mussels, they won’t pass up a properly presented piece of cutbait.
Cast to the shell beds, allowing your bait to sit on the bottom undisturbed for up to 15 minutes. No bite? Move and try again. If you catch a cat, ply the water several yards in either direction for others feeding in the area.
*Keith Sutton of Little Rock, Arkansas, is a freelance writer and photographer as well as the editor of Arkansas Wildlife, conservation publication of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.