Veteran catmen know that blue catfish, more than channel catfish or flathead catfsih, are creatures of big rivers and impoundments. They know, too, that big blues like more current than either of their whiskered cousins. Until recently, however, few people were aware of the blue cat’s love of cold water. Instead of sticking their belly to the bottom of a hole for the winter, these fish continue to forage in chutes of swift current when water temperatures drop to 35 F. In river-run reservoirs across much of the blue cat’s range, the period from December through March may be the best time to tangle with a monster blue.
Rod: 6- to 8-foot medium-heavy-power casting rod. Reel: large-capacity casting reel with a freespool clicker. Line: 20- to 40-pound-test abrasion-resistant mono.
A basic slip rig consisting of a 1- to 6-ounce egg sinker sliding on the main line, which is tied to a 1- to 3-foot leader consisting of a hook, line, and swivel. Several 1-inch cubes of cutbait packed neatly on a 7/0 Kahle-style hook don’t roll as much in current as a long strip of bait.
During winter and early spring, big blue cats run the river channel, feeding along channel ledges. They rarely move onto adjacent shallow flats. Even hot-water discharges don’t attract big blue cats, although they do draw one of the blue cat’s favorite baitfish, the skipjack herring. A discharge area is a prime spot to gather fresh herring for cutbait.
Area A – The head of a narrow river section before the river widens and flattens is a prime area for blue cats that hesitate to move farther upriver into decreasing current. Use sonar to run upriver along the channel ledge, looking for nooks and debris that attract and hold fish. A particularly good area is where the ledge begins to push away from the bank to form a large shallow flat.
Area B – The entire ledge is a potential holding area for blue cats. Try the ledge area near the final barge tie-off. Should be a big eddy here, too. Note also how the ledge pushes away from the bank near the beginning of the discharge area — good spot. The head of a deep channel area as it pushes into a shallower area is another hot spot for big blues.
Area C – First check the ledge area where the shallow flat extends into the channel below the discharge inlet. Then note how the flat cuts back toward the bluff bank, creating another possible holding area. Be sure to run along the ledge near the bluff bank — limestone outcroppings are particularly craggy and difficult to fish, but often hold big blues.
Due to the light weight of this rig, it’s usually fished in water shallower than about 20 feet, and most often shallower than 8 feet, with a 6- to 7- foot slow to medium action, medium-light power spinning rod with 4- to 8-pound-test monofilament line. The split-shot rig can be gently cast and slowly retrieved, fished stationary, or allowed to drift. Follow the drift with your rod tip to be sure it drifts naturally and doesn’t snag.
The slipsinker rig can be cast and slowly retrieved, slowly trolled, or used as a stationary presentation, so the depth of the water, bottom terrain, and how fast the bait is being moved by the boat, current, or during retrieval, all play a part in determining the weight of the sinker. The sinker usually is a boot-shaped walking sinker or egg- or bell-shaped sinker for gravel and sandy bottoms, or a bullet sinker in weeds and wood. Beads or blades are sometimes added to the leader in front of the hook as an attractant.
Because the mainline slips through the sinker, anglers often find it to their advantage to let a fish “run” with the bait, fishing the presentation with an open spool and letting the fish pull line off the spool with the least resistance possible. This gives the fish more time to get the bait further in its mouth or throat, which can cause more—often lethal—injury to fish. If you can set the hook quickly, or fish on a tight line, it’s often better to do so, especially if you intend to release your catch.
There are two primary types of float rigs—fixed-float and slipfloat. The fixed float is just that, when the float is fixed to a certain point on the line, and is best fished in situations where the fish are feeding shallow, say four feet or less. The slipfloat rig allows the float to slide up and down the line so you can fish in deeper water. A small bobber stop is fastened on the line somewhere above the bobber to limit how far up the line the bobber can slide, determining how deep the bait is fished. When the rig is reeled in, the stop goes through the rod guides and onto the spool of the reel to allow for casting and retrieving.
While the fixed-float rig is a good way to target shallow fish like crappies, bass, sunfish, catfish, and trout, the slipfloat rig’s ability to go deep broadens the potential species list to include pike, walleye, muskie, striper, and more. A longer light-to-medium action spinning rod, about 7 feet long, with a slow to moderate action, spooled with 4- to 8-pound monofilament, is a good choice for a float rig. Hooks should be matched to the bait, such as a #4 to #8 baitholder hook for angleworms and nightcrawlers, for example, although a jig also can be used.
Fishing a float rig often is a case of not doing anything at all, letting the bait do the fish-attracting work, as the float is slowly moved by wave action on the surface. Both rigs should be cast by gently swinging the rig sideways and behind you, then thrusting the rod toward the target with a slight upward motion as you release the line. You want to lob the rig to a specific spot as gently as possible. If the wind is blowing, or you’re fishing in current, target your cast so that the wind or current moves the rig into your target zone. In other instances, a little bit of action added by quick twitches of the rod tip or even substantial pulls that move the bait up in the water column and then let it settle, induces strikes. The float signals when a fish is on the line, a visual experience that remains exciting to anglers no matter their age or fishing experience.