Blue Catfish Seasons
Surface temperatures are typically around 36°F to 38°F—prime conditions for giant blue cats. I focus on outside river-channel bends with submerged cover in the form of stumps, laydown logs, big rocks—and mud bottom, which is critical. Mud holds heat better than rocks, so a mud-bottom area often is a couple of degrees warmer than elsewhere, making it more attractive to the prevailing baitfish species (in my area, shad) and catfish. But mud erodes quickly in swift current, so if the river’s really steamrolling following heavy rains and I have trouble locating areas with mud bottom, I fish clay-bottom spots instead.
I catch most of my big blues now on banks with a rapid slope into deep water, with the majority of fish coming from 30 to 45 feet deep. This is the perfect time for classic heavy-duty bottom-fishing. I set out several lines throughout this depth range, each with a Carolina rig sporting a 3- to 5-ounce sliding sinker, a barrel swivel, and a 2- to 3-foot leader, with cut skipjack herring on the business end.
During the first half of the month, the river temperature is usually in the upper 30°F range, and blues typically use the same areas and depths they did in January. There’s often a warm-up during the last two weeks of February, which can trigger blues to move shallower (15 to 25 feet) and bite more aggressively. This winter warm snap, when the air temperature suddenly may hop into the 60s or even 70s, usually only lasts for a couple of days, but it’s definitely a time when I want to be on the water, especially in the afternoon after the sun has had a chance to warm things up a bit.
Target banks with a rapid slope into deep water. Massive pieces of woodcover, such as laydown trees and stumps the size of the hood of my Suburban, are important blue-cat magnets now, so don’t be too surprised if a big fish busts you off in the snags when you’re bottom-fishing.
With the water temperature around 45°F to 48°F, warmer days trigger algae blooms that in turn jump-start a food-chain scenario in the river. Shad feed on algae growing on rocks, and blues move in to feed on shad, making this a good time to fish the extreme outer edges of rocky channel banks. Fish Carolina-rigged cutbait on the bottom anywhere from 15 to 30 feet down.
Don’t be surprised if a big flathead muscles in on the blues’ territory now; the warming weather often gets flatheads stirring. March in my area usually means plenty of rain, which equates to increased current, so make sure you’re packing lots of lead—you may need an 8-ounce sinker to keep your rig and bait positioned where you want them in a fast flow. Rain also means muddy water, which can be a very good thing this time of year because muddy water warms fast and can push blues shallower. If the river’s running high and muddy, anchor down at inflowing creek mouths and target the 10- to 15-foot zone with bottom rigs.
With the water in the 50°F range, shad are abundant and blue cats are moving to feed. Time to blow the dust off your catfish jugs, bait up with live shad, and set your lines from 10 to 15 feet deep. Toss them out to drift down rocky channel banks for some fast action on smaller blues (as well as channels and flatheads). April’s not my favorite month for bagging a 70-pounder, but with action this fast on smaller fish, the heavyweights can wait.
Water temperatures in the mid- to upper 60°F range by early May signal blues to start moving from their deeper early-spring haunts for spawning. Blues spawn when the river reaches 70°F to 73°F, which typically occurs in late May, here. Spawning takes place on the full moon around rocks and woodcover in 1 to 5 feet of water. The smaller “alpha” males move into the shallows first to fan out a nest; these bucks can be caught all day long on cork rigs baited with shad or crawlers. Most of the males I catch now run 1 to 7 pounds, with an occasional fish up to 25 pounds. Many of the spawning bucks are bruised and battered—they fight for prime spawning territory.
The big spawning females can be frustratingly hard to catch. A sudden drop in the water level can really spoil the spawning pattern now for both the fish and the fisherman; expect the bite to decline sharply for anywhere from 2 to 5 days after the water drops. I’ve seen years when the blues didn’t spawn at all after they got the rug pulled out from under them during the bedding season.
It’s getting too hot for me to sit on the river all day soaking bait, so this is when my night-fishing pattern starts. The river temperature’s in the mid-70°F range, and after spawning, blues move out to steep banks around rocks and woodcover in the 20- to 30-foot zone. The algae growing on cover attracts adult shad and fry, creating feeding opportunities for blue cats. This is the best month to fish with livebait, and nighttime is the right time.
Anchor adjacent to a sloping bank or stairstepping ledge. For your rig, tie on a bell sinker to the end of your mainline and attach a 2- to 3-foot leader above the sinker. Bait with a 6- to 8-inch gizzard shad or wild shiner. Cast the rig or simply lower it to the bottom, and the livebait swims around in circles on the leader attracting big cats.
If night-fishing spooks you, and if you can tolerate the heat and humidity, head for a river-run reservoir during the day with a bucket of small shad or tuffy minnows, and bump bottom along river-channel drops with a Kentucky rig (1-ounce bell sinker on bottom, one or two 6-inch leader lines with light-wire hooks a foot apart, starting a foot up from the sinker). Tap the sinker along the edge of the drop to catch blues in the 1- to 10-pound range all day long.
With the river ranging from 80°F to 85°F, I’ll be at home in the air conditioning or on some big river like the Missouri that hasn’t cracked 80°F yet. But, if the white bass are schooling up heavy in the Cumberland, I hook up my boat and cruise the river until I spot a pack of whities. Then I cast out a slip-cork rig baited with live shad set 10 to 14 feet deep into the surfacing school and catch 1- to 10-pound blue cats hanging below the school, feeding on injured shad.
This is a real bad month for catfishing here. The river ranges from 80°F to 90°F; I’ve seen the Cumberland’s surface temperature hit 94°F in late August. Current is often minimal due to lack of rainfall, further complicating your fishing plans. Blues still eat under these torrid conditions, but infrequently. Even night-fishing gets awfully slow. Your best bet on a big river is jug-fishing. Head for the backs of big bays and set out jugs baited with shrimp, your lines ranging from 2 to 12 feet deep, and just let them drift while you drink a cold beverage.
The river is cooling into the mid- to high 70°F range, and blues are getting active again. They’re scattered and not all glued to bottom cover like they are in winter, so it’s important to fish a lot of water now and not waste time anchoring for long periods in one spot. The best option is drifting cork rigs and jugs along steep banks and around the intersections of tributaries and the main river, where most blues are in 10 to 12 feet of water.
The river temperature has dropped into the 60°F range due to chilly nights; we normally get a frost here by the end of the month. The blues start prowling outside channel bends in the 20- to 30-foot zone, so drop anchor, break out the heavy gear, and start soaking cutbait on the bottom. Even though it’s far from prime time, if you can find a good wad of submerged timber on outside bends, you’ve got a decent shot at a huge blue, because they’re transitioning from the banks to deep channel structure and getting back into a more active bottom-feeding mode. Shad are in a transitional phase, too. You notice them in numbers near the surface out in the middle of the river.
Water temperatures dipping into the mid- to low 50°F range means it’s time to get serious about doing battle with a monster blue. Get to outside channel bends and fast-sloping banks and fish cutbait on the bottom in the snaggiest, gnarliest woodcover you can find. November is normally when I start catching multiple heavyweight blues on each trip, instead of a bunch of small fish that I typically catch during the more transitional months. The big blues bunch up in a good spot tight to stumps and logs, so make sure you’re using heavy abrasion-resistant line and strong hooks.
I expect the water temperature to be in the low 50°F range at the beginning of the month, gradually dropping into the 40s as Christmas draws near. You’ll often encounter a huge burst of 2- to 10-pound blues, hundreds of them, on fast-sloping banks and channel bends, so there’s a decision to make: Either enjoy a day of fast action catching eating-sized catfish, or pull up your anchor and hunt for a spot where the bite might not be as active, but your shot at a trophy blue is far better. I don’t have to tell you what route I’d take—from thousands of hours on the water, I know that the biggest blues are lurking on quick-dropping ledges with mud bottoms and snaggy cover in the 20- to 40-foot zone. Once you’ve located a spot like this, commit yourself to it—most guys lack the patience it takes to catch a huge December blue.
Anchor and fish with cutbait, then give the spot a decent chance to produce, at least 60 to 90 minutes. Sometimes you get pestered by a bunch of undersized bait-nibblers at first, only to see the nibbles suddenly cease—that’s usually when a humongous blue has moved in. When that rod bends over double and you set the hook into the fish of a lifetime, buddy, that’s the best Christmas present die-hard catmen like us could ever wish for.