Jeff Williams is like a lot of the catfish anglers we know. Heʼs persistent. Heʼs willing to experiment with new locations and tactics. And heʼs confident that when he discovers something about how to catch blue cats during the dead of winter, other catmen will want to read about it. I agree.
Williams spends most of his time afloat on Grand Lake in Oklahoma. The reservoir isn’t known for trophy blue cat production, but enjoys a growing reputation for numbers of fish in the 10- to 30-pound range. Williams adds that the top-end size of the fish seems to be growing every year.
But Williams’ goal isn’t to prove how good the fishing is at Grand Lake, but rather to outline a technique that will help you catch more reservoir blue catfish, from the Carolinas to California. In fact, he’s never found a fishery where his tactics didn’t work, so long as conditions are right.
Williams is like other catfish guides in another way, too. He often feels a compulsion to fill in the details about catfish location and behavior when no clear answer exists. Time on the water does that—makes you wonder why fish aren’t where you expect them to be, or why they won’t bite when they are.
Whether based on hunch or fact, though, Williams’ hypothesis about the blue cat’s seasonal cycle is accurate enough to keep him on fish throughout the Coldwater Period. And when you make your living by helping people catch fish, knowing when, where, and how to do it is what counts.
“The Coldwater Period really begins in late August,” Williams says, “when the water temperature first begins to fall. Cooling water causes the shad to form tight schools, which in turn attracts big predators like blue cats. The colder the water, the tighter the shad school, and the better the fishing gets for big blues.”
The cooling water also moves shad into deeper water. Once the water temperature at Grand Lake drops to about 50°F in October, virtually all the shad and most of the blue cats have abandoned the shallow flats—anything shallower than about 10 feet—where they spent most of the summer.
“This usually happens over the course of a few weeks,” Williams says, “but once the surface temperature drops into the upper 40°F range, things start to happen fast. The shad and the blue cats continue to move deeper, off the 20-foot flats into 30 or more feet of water, or they suspend over deep basin areas.”
From about mid-December through the end of February, frigid water temperatures force the shad into water that’s about 30 to 40 feet deep. “Once all the water shallower than 30 feet or so is eliminated, most of the lake is eliminated,” Williams says. “On a big lake like Grand, with almost 50,000 acres of water, I can limit my search to maybe 10,000 acres.
“This is the best time of year to target blue cats,” Williams adds. “They’re concentrated in the deepest structure in the lake, and they’re almost always near massive schools of shad. Best of all, these shad schools usually are easy to find with a good sonar unit.”
Williams says that river channels are the top blue cat attractors during winter, especially deep channels that cut across a deep flat. The shad might suspend over any part of the flat, but Williams doesn’t get too excited until the school moves over or near the river channel.
“Let’s say a channel cuts across a 40-foot flat,” Williams continues. “The base of the channel is 60 feet deep. If a school of shad is suspended out over the flat, the fishing probably is going to be tough. If any part of that school contacts the river channel, though, you’ll catch blue cats.
“Maybe blue cats or other predators, like white bass, drive the shad toward the channel, or maybe the blues wait for the shad to move in on their own,” Williams adds. “Whatever the reason, when the shad are near the channel, the blue cats are feeding. And when the school moves out over the flat, the blues usually are tough to catch.”
Like most patterns, though, Williams admits that the bite can change in a hurry: “A few years ago, I had been catching fish as regular as clockwork. Not a lot of big fish, but I was boating 25 to 30 fish a day for a couple weeks in a row. Heavy rainfall in the area raised the water level several feet and the dam operators began drawing water out of the lake.
“Things literally changed overnight,” Williams continues. “All of the fish moved out of deep water and seemed to be spread all over the lake. I had to start from scratch. When the water dropped, the fish moved right back to deep water. If I hadn’t been on the lake every day, I’d never have known what was happening.”
Once Williams is in the right place at the right time, he has only one task remaining: putting a bait in front of an active blue cat. Experimentation through the years has resulted in two presentations: drifting in the wind and anchoring when it’s calm.
Dealing With Wind—“Speed control is the most important consideration when drifting for blue cats,” Williams says. “Small catfish often chase a fast-moving bait, but larger fish seldom move far or fast for a meal. If you’re catching mostly small fish while drifting, you’re probably moving too fast. And the windier the lake, the more important it is to slow down.
“I use two 6-foot-diameter drift socks to achieve the proper speed,” Williams continues. “In a moderate breeze, I deploy them off the side of the boat. This keeps the boat perpendicular to the wind and allows me to spread a half-dozen rods along the length of the boat to cover a wider swath of water.
“When the wind howls, I usually deploy drift socks off the back of the boat,” Williams adds. “This keeps the transom pointed into the wind and creates the slowest possible drift speed.” An electric trolling motor will correct the drift, but Williams says it’s rarely necessary.
“My sonar unit is the most important tool in my boat,” Williams says. “After arriving at an area that I intend to drift, I drive my boat across the flat, heading into the wind. I watch my sonar the whole time, looking for evidence of shad, big fish (which probably are blue cats), or both. If I see what I’m looking for, I drift back across the area with rods deployed.”
While seeing a big mark on his graph is enough to prompt Williams to start fishing, it’s not enough to keep him a spot that’s not producing. “If I’m marking fish but not catching them, I usually don’t give the spot more than about 30 minutes. I’d rather spend time looking for active cats than trying to entice inactive fish.”
Williams uses the same type of drift rig used by reservoir drifters from Texas to South Carolina, presented on 8-foot heavy-power rods and sturdy casting reels spooled with 30-pound superline. “Low-stretch line is necessary for drifting,” Williams says. “Too much stretch makes it difficult to determine bottom composition, feel light bites, and set hooks at long range.
“The business end of my rigging consists of a two- or three-ounce bell sinker sliding on the main line above a barrel swivel and four-foot leader,” Williams continues. “I thread a two-inch crappie float on the leader to suspend the bait slightly above the bottom, then finish with a 4/0 or 5/0 treble hook. I bait the hook with a pair of fresh cut 4-inch gizzard shad.”
Coping With Calm—Williams says there are two ways to catch blues when there’s no wind: the hard way and the easy way. “The hard way is using an electric motor to hover over the spot you’re fishing,” Williams says. “It can be the most effective method and allows you to follow a shad school moving along a channel ledge. But as I said, it isn’t easy.
“The easy way is to anchor over the structure,” Williams adds. “I can’t emphasize how important it is to anchor over structure, though I probably can count on one hand the number of days that I’ve caught blue cats by stillfishing in the middle of a deep flat. Precision is the key.
“I often tell clients that blue cats are creatures of edges and ledges,” Williams says. “And it’s even more important to evaluate the area with sonar before you anchor. Drive your boat in a crisscross pattern over the river channel until you mark fish, then turn around and head back over the same spot. As soon as you hit the top edge of the channel, right where the bottom starts to drop, throw out a marker buoy. Continue on the same course until you hit the top of the channel and then throw out a second marker.
“Next motor upwind of the markers and onto the flat and drift back toward the channel,” Williams continues. “Drop an anchor off the front of the boat as soon as the boat nears the channel edge. Once the boat comes to a stop, drop a second anchor off the back of the boat to keep the transom from swinging. If you’ve done it right, you’ll be locked tight to the edge of the channel just upwind from the marker buoys.”
Williams sometimes uses a drift rig while stillfishing, noting that buoyant baits seem to be most effective when cats are actively feeding. “Most of the time I prefer a type of three-way rig while I’m anchored,” Williams says. “Instead of using a three-way swivel, though, I tie a loop in the end of my main line, then cut the loop to form a leader and a dropper.”
Williams usually varies the length of the sinker-dropper to find what the fish prefer. He begins fishing with a six-inch dropper on one rod, a 12-incher on another, and an 18-inch dropper on a third. “If one rig seems to be producing more fish than the others,” Williams adds, “then I change my whole spread to that rigging.”
Sometimes a particular depth zone is more effective. Williams usually presents a spread of baits from the top of the channel to the bottom, then notes which rod or rods attract the most attention from fish. “When you hit the right spot,” Williams concludes, “you won’t be able to get the rest of your hooks baited before the first one is doubled over in the holder.”
- Pictured: Basic Sliprig.
Many catfishing situations call for a livebait or piece of cutbait to be stillfished on the bottom. The most popular bottom rig for all catfish species is the simple sliprig. This rig consists of an egg sinker sliding on the mainline, held in place above the hook by a lead shot. The objective is to anchor the bait near the bottom, and then allow a catfish to swim off with the bait without feeling too much tension. The idea is sound, but this rig doesn’t accomplish either objective well.
The success of trotlines and limblines illustrates that catfish—particularly big cats—aren’t timid feeders. Let a trout or walleye run with the bait before you set the hook, but don’t wait for cats. When a decent-size cat picks up the bait, he has it. Most of the time, you could set immediately without giving any line. But your chances of a solid hookset increase if you let the fish turn first. When you feel the thump of a fish grabbing the bait, follow him with your rod tip for a foot or two, then set.
Another problem is the egg sinker. These sinkers work well when pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current. When cast across current, though, they tend to roll along the bottom and snag more often than other sinker designs like bell, bank, or flat sinkers. Slip your mainline through the top of a slipsinker and replace the split shot with a swivel to improve the effectiveness of this popular rig.
Leader length is another concern, especially for novice anglers. Don’t use a longer leader just because it separates the bait from the sinker. Rather, adjust the length of the leader to vary the amount of action and movement imparted to the bait. A piece of cutbait tethered on a 12-inch leader may lie motionless on the bottom of a lake or pond, but would flail about wildly in heavy current.
Use just enough leader for your bait to attract fish without hanging up. That might mean a 3- or 4-foot leader for drifting cutbait across the clean bottom of a reservoir for blue cats; a 6-inch leader for holding big livebaits in front of a snag for flatheads; or no leader at all for probing the broken bottom of a tailrace for channel cats.