Fishing For Catfish: World-Class Cold Water Options
October 24, 2012
If we had tackled this topic just a few years ago, many of you would have thought us crazy. Fishing for catfish during winter and early spring? you'd have said, "you gotta be kidding." Some anglers have been catfishing in cold weather for decades, but only in the past five years or so have numbers of catmen started to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities available during this period. And as more catfish anglers brave chilly temperatures, we continue to learn about more locations for fine fishing.
Bessie Heights Marsh, Texas (Blue Cats)
Barry Mullin of Nederland, Texas, fishes for blue cats during winter in the brackish waters of coastal southeast Texas. His favorite honeyhole is Bessie Heights Marsh near the mouth of the Neches River. The Neches flows into Sabine Lake, a bay that empties into the Gulf of Mexico. "This river section is the threshold between salt and freshwater," Mullin says. "There's a big salt marsh on the east side of the river and another on the west.
"A strong rain usually runs the saltwater out of the river and the marsh," Mullin adds. "This sometimes occurs during summer, but almost always when cold fronts push down during early winter. By December most years, blue cats start moving into the area. Years with higher than normal rainfall levels during fall usually bring more catfish downriver to the marsh."
Mullin usually fishes in deep holes in the canals that feed the marsh, which are formed by the force of the tide. "When the weather's mild and the water temperature in the shallows is warmer than the canals, blues often move into the marsh in water as shallow as two feet," Mullin says. "I look for places where the tide has cut a trench through the flat, especially those located near a shallow hump covered with vegetation. Baitfish are drawn to the algae growing in the grass, which in turn attracts numbers of blue cats.
"I usually catch and use baitfish that's abundant in the area I'm fishing," Mullin adds, "usually mullet, shad, or croakers. I cut them up to give the cats a better scent trail. Shrimp also are a good bait. I often chum with the same type of bait I'm using on my hook, to entice cats to eat. I start with a piece of bait about the length of my thumbnail on a #4 wide-gap hook, and I double the portion if I start catching too many small cats. At times, though, bigger blues seem to prefer livebait."
Blue cats usually position themselves to intercept baitfish carried by the tide. Mullin says an incoming tide is best for fishing the shallow flats, while an outgoing tide may push cats into deeper holes in the canals. He also notes that cats rarely bite when the tide is slack. "I've caught as many as 23 keeper blues in a single day," Mullin adds, "but 4 or 5 fish is more typical. I've also caught several blues in the 12- to 15-pound range, and I know of at least one over 30 pounds from one of the canals."
Information & Accommodations: Barry Mullin's website ; Port Neches Chamber of Commerce, 409/722-9154.
Delaware Lake, Ohio (Channel Cats)
This 1,330-acre reservoir north of Columbus produces good numbers of channel cats for local anglers like Danny Pifer. "When the water temperature drops below 40ËšF in winter," Pifer says, "we use a temperature gauge to locate slightly warmer pockets of water in shallow bays. That's usually where channel cats feed.
"Some of these areas are only a foot or so deep and may be warmer than 50ËšF," Pifer adds. "We usually use cut shad presented about 6 inches beneath a float; or we attach a small float to the leader on a three-way rig to raise the bait off the bottom. We also use large shad, cut in half at the belly and hooked through the eyes.
"During some trips, we catch as much as 100 pounds of channel cats in about two to three hours. The average size may be as high as 8 to 10 pounds, though we usually catch larger cats when we're jug fishing." Pifer and his friends often use jugs to pinpoint actively feeding fish, deploying 10 or more jugs from a canoe. When they start catching fish, they pull the jugs and fish from shore with a rod and reel.
"In early spring, we also fish tributaries of the Ohio River that have lots of trees and sharp bends," Pifer says. "We usually fish near the mouth of the stream, where fish from the big river often congregate during the early season. And again, we also check water temperature, concentrating on the warmest streams. Colder tributaries still hold channel cats, of course, but they're usually not as active."
Information & Accommodations: Delaware State Park Marina, 740/363-6102; Delaware Area Chamber of Commerce, 740/369-6221.
James River, Virginia (Blue Cats)
Guide Jimmy Weir, Virginia Beach, Virginia, says the best fishing of the year for blue cats in the 30- to 50-pound range usually begins when the water begins to cool in late fall and continues to improve through winter and early spring. "At the beginning of this period, I usually concentrate on 30- to 50-foot holes in the main river channel during the day," Weir says. "After dark, though, I fish shallow flats adjacent to deep holes, since big blues often move shallow to feed at or after dark."
Once water temperatures drop to their lowest levels of the year, blue cats follow gizzard shad into small tributary creeks. "Use a sonar unit to locate the dense schools of shad," Weir advises, "then anchor upstream. In water shallower than about 30 feet, I usually cast a sliprig baited with big chunk of gizzard shad a short distance downstream. In deeper water, I often deploy a lively baitfish or piece of cutbait on a downline directly beneath the boat. This is a top technique for blues that may exceed 50 pounds."
The abundance of baitfish in the side channels makes bait gathering easier during the Coldwater Period than during any other time of year. "Some throws with an 8- to 10-foot cast net capture so many 8- to 14-inch gizzard shad that it's almost impossible to pull the net over the gunwale without first releasing a portion of the catch. Fortunate since we may use 3 dozen or more baitfish this size on a good day."
Information & Accommodations: Guide Jimmy Weir, 757/464-1112; Richmond Chamber of Commerce, 804/648-1234; Sandston Pro Shop, 804/737-5530.
Lake LBJ, Texas (Channels, Blues, & Flatheads)
Lake LBJ, part of the Highland Lakes chain on the Colorado River, covers more than 6,000 surface acres from Granite Shoals to Kingsland, Texas. Channels, blues, and flatheads all are abundant. "When I started fishing this lake 40 years ago I caught many flatheads and blue cats over 70 pounds, and a couple over 100 pounds," Guide Jim Files says." Fish that size aren't common these days, but I believe some monster flatheads still lurk in the Colorado and Llano rivers, LBJ's primary feeder streams."
Today, a trip to LBJ more likely will produce a mixed bag of channels and blues in the 2- to 15-pound range, and perhaps a blue or flathead in the 20- to 40-pound range. "The confluence of the Colorado and Llano rivers is a prime fall-winter location," Files says. "The channel averages about 25 feet and has many 30-foot holes within easy casting distance of shore. The discharge side of the power plant on the lower lake is another good spot during this period. During January and February, cats stack up in the creek, where temperatures are 10ËšF to 15ËšF warmer than the main lake."
Warm autumn and winter days bring catfish out of deeper holes and onto breaklines in 5 to 16 feet of water. "Sloping sandy points are prime spots," Files adds. "Anchor in deeper water and cast onto the point, slowly working your bait back down the point an inch or two at a time until you locate fish. Patience is a must during winter since catfish seldom feed aggressively. The bite usually is slower, but the fish often are larger."
The biggest flatheads and blue cats usually are taken on live baitfish, like sunfish, goldfish, and shad. Many anglers bait holes before they begin fishing, usually with fist-size chunks of cottonseed cakes purchased from feed stores, but sometimes with commercial chum mixtures or dry dog food.
Information & Accommodations: Guide Jim Files, 830/833-5688; Sunrise Beach Marina and Lodge, 888/BOAT-LBJ; Kingsland Chamber of Commerce, 915/388-6211; Marble Falls/Lake LBJ Chamber of Commerce, 800/759-8178.
Osage & Missouri Rivers, Missouri (Blue Cats)
It gets cold in Missouri during winter, but catmen willing to brave the frigid temperatures may find fast action for big blues. "The Missouri and Osage rivers qualify as top blue cat waters," says Craig Gemming, a fishery biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. "The stretch of the Osage River from Bagnell Dam to its confluence with the Missouri River is especially good.
"It has produced several blue cats over 50 pounds, including the unrestricted state record — a 117-pounder caught in 1964," Gemming adds. "Some local catmen claim at least 20 blue cats in the 90-pound class have been taken from the Osage in the last decade. Research conducted from 1988 through 1995 also indicated a high population density in the lower river. During the study, biologists sampled several blue cats between 50 and 75 pounds."
Gemmings says the Missouri River also is a good option for blue cats during winter and spring, particularly the stretch from St. Joseph to Glasgow. The rod-and-reel state record (103 pounds) was caught near Kansas City in 1991, and a 102-pounder was taken on a trotline near Glasgow in 1999. In 1998, several 50-to 90-pound blues also were reported between Glasgow and Easley.
"The fishery seems to have improved considerably since commercial fishing was banned in 1992," Gemmings says. "Catfish anglers claim to be catching more fish, and more big fish are being reported every year. Population assessments also show significant increases in catfish numbers and size, especially channel catfish. In fact, the Missouri River now is the most productive catfish fishery in the state, based on the number of fish caught per hour. Along with the Osage River, it's tough to beat."
Information & Accommodations: Missouri Department of Conservation (Central Region Office), 573/884-6861; Glasgow Chamber of Commerce (Missouri River), 816/338-2316; Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce (Missouri and Osage rivers), 573/634-3616.
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Lake Sharpe, South Dakota (Channel Cats)
Many channel cats hold all winter in the scour hole below Oahe Dam, but the population swells in early spring when rising water temperatures and water levels pull fish upstream from Lake Sharpe. Huge schools of channel cats often are seen holding over holes below sandbars in the 15-mile stretch of river below the dam. Anglers casting jig and minnow combinations in the shallows or vertically jigging for walleyes frequently catch 20 to 30 cats per day, but few anglers target cats.
Anchoring on the crown of sand points on inside bends, then casting to the head or core of the hole could double the catch rate. Fresh cut portions of sucker or other oily baitfish or a gob of nightcrawlers are effective baits, though some local anglers also have success with dipbait presented on small pieces of sponge on a #4 treble hook. Cats average 4 to 6 pounds, but 10- to 15-pounders aren't unusual.
Numerous snags and tributary mouths farther downstream also may hold cats before water levels peak in midspring. Be careful, though. Sandbars just below the surface can make the tailrace section difficult to navigate during low water, and high spring run-off often increases current velocity beyond safe levels.
Information & Accommodations: Carl's Bait Shop, 605/223-9453; Pierre Chamber of Commerce, 800/962-2034.
Sooner Reservoir, Oklahoma (Blue Cats)
Sooner Reservoir, near Stillwater in central Oklahoma, was built in the early 1970s to supply cooling water for an electrical power plant. The 9,000-acre lake was filled with water from the Arkansas River, which inadvertently stocked blue cats. "The lake probably is best known for exceptional hybrid striped bass fishing, but it also supports a strong population of blue cats that grow large on a diet of sunfish and shad," catman Steve Shipman of Stillwater says. "Blue cat fishing during summer usually involves drifting livebaits on downlines over midlake humps and points. It can be productive, but winter and spring usually produce more and bigger blues."
The lake is divided by a long rock dike that separates the warmwater discharge side from the coldwater main-lake portion of the reservoir. As the water on the coldwater side begins cooling late in the year, baitfish migrate to the warmwater side, and the catfish follow. "The best thing about winter is that boats aren't allowed on the warmwater side of the lake," Shipman says. "Anglers must hike more than a mile to fish from shore, which really reduces fishing pressure."
Shipman and other local catmen routinely catch blues in the 40- to 50-pound class, and fish in the 60- to 70-pound range aren't unusual. "I've never fished or even heard of a lake with so many big fish and so little fishing pressure," Shipman concludes. "I'd also be hard pressed to name another fishery that supports such a strong population of 5- to 40-pound blue cats."
Information & Accommodations: Pete's Place, 580/723-4277; Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, 800/593-5573.
Tennessee River, Mississippi-Alabama-Tennessee (Blues & Channel Cats)
Catfish guide Phil King of Corinth, Mississippi, has been the subject of In-Fisherman and Catfish In-Sider articles on drift tactics during the hottest part of summer, but he also reports excellent winter fishing on his home water. "I fish Pickwick Lake from the Mississippi-Alabama border to Pickwick Dam, and below the dam (in Kentucky Lake) to Clifton, Tennessee," King says. "The river supports strong populations of flatheads, channels, and blue cats, but I mainly target big blues and channel cats.
"Catfishing is exceptional here for about 11 months of the year," King says, "with January being the slowest month. The best fishing begins in fall when blues and channel cats begin gathering in deep holes. If the dam gates are open, cats also tend to congregate in the scour hole below the dam. September through December usually is the best time to catch channel cats from the riprap on dipbait, shad guts, cut skipjack herring, and in late fall particularly, on fresh chicken livers."
When he's fishing Pickwick Lake, King usually anchors to present baits in prime areas. Or he slowly trolls baits over the old river channel. Below the dam, though, he prefers to slowly drift though deep holes or along channel ledges. "This area has the potential to produce a world record blue cat," King adds. "A 125-pound blue cat was caught on a trotline last year, and I've landed blues up to 65 pounds on rod and reel."
Information & Accommodations: Guide Phil King, 662/286-8644; Tenn-Tom Marina, 888/689-5551; Pickwick Landing State Park, 901/689-3135; Hardin County Chamber of Commerce, 901/925-2363.
Lake Wylie, North Carolina-South Carolina (Channel & White Cats)
"Catfish" Bob Suttles of York, South Carolina, spends most winters on Lake Wylie, a 12,455-acre Catawba River impoundment on the North Carolina-South Carolina border just south of Charlotte. While not known for behemoths, Wylie is a top location for jumbo channel cats during late fall and winter.
"Wylie is blessed with an abundance of threadfin and gizzard shad, which begin congregating in the backs of creeks from late November through February," Suttles says. "This makes for some hot catfishing. Channel cats up to 14 pounds are common, though most weigh between 6 and 7 pounds. And a good number of feisty white cats are mixed in. A good four-hour day usually yields 30 to 35 fish. The key is finding the shad, then netting enough for a day of fishing. Cats seem to be targeting shad — especially small threadfins — more than any other forage at this time of year."
Suttles says top locations include the back ends of Big Allison Creek, Torrence Creek, and other major tributaries. "I usually set up within casting distance of the creek channel, then fancast Carolina rigs baited with shad to different depths," Suttles adds. "I spend a little more time at each spot during winter than I would during the warmer months, since the cats seem to follow schools of shad that move back and forth across the creeks."
Information & Accommodations: Lake Wylie Marine Commission, 704/372-2416; Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce, 803/831-2827.
More Coldwater Hot Spots
Lake Casitas, California — Water temperature seldom drops below 55ËšF, but cats may move to water deeper than 100 feet during midwinter. Following heavy rains, though, hordes of channel cats weighing up to 20 pounds ascend major creek arms where they're accessible to boat and shore anglers. Information & Accommodations: Angler's Den, 805/388-1566; Ventura Chamber of Commerce, 805/648-2875.
Elephant Butte Reservoir, New Mexico — Channel cats usually begin moving toward the upper end of the reservoir when water temperatures approach 60ËšF in spring. Many anglers chum along points and cuts with sour wheat before fishing with shrimp, nightcrawlers, and cut shad for cats that may weigh 10 to 15 pounds. Information & Accommodations: Desert Bass Fishing Guide Service, 800/9-GET-BIT; Guide's Choice Bait & Tackle, 505/744-5314; Truth or Consequences Chamber of Commerce, 505/894-3536.
Kentucky Lake, Kentucky-Tennessee — Blue and channel cats fall for night-crawlers and shad fished in deep water near cut banks and river channels throughout the coldwater season. By all accounts, the size and numbers of fish are exceptional. Information & Accommodations: Guide Ed Risner, 901/232-8674; Guide Jack Canady, 270/753-5355; Paris-Henry County Chamber of Commerce, 800/345-1103; Marshall County Chamber of Commerce, 270/527-7665.
Millwood Lake, Arkansas — Numerous creek and river channels crisscrossing the lake bottom are topnotch winter fishing locations for blues and channel cats that frequently exceed 10 pounds. The tailrace section of the Little River below Millwood Dam also is worth a look. Information & Accommodations: Millwood State Park marina, 870/898-5334; Little River Chamber of Commerce, 870/898-2758.
Lower Mississippi River, Arkansas-Tennessee — Anglers frequently catch blue cats to 70 pounds from October through February in the stretch of River near Memphis. Stillfishing with cut shad or skipjack herring is the most productive method, but live shad may produce bigger blues on occasion. Information & Accommodations: Guide James Patterson, 901/383-8674; Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce, 901/543-3500.
Ohio River, Ohio-Kentucky — Channel cats and a growing population of blue cats provide year-round action in the Markland Pool near Cincinnati. Gizzard shad are the primary forage, and fresh cut strips presented on three-way rigs usually account for most of the 5- to 15-pound channels and blues that may approach 50 pounds. Information & Accommodations: Guide Dale Broughton, 513/231-7116; Guide Frank Van Winkle, 513/724-7480; Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, 513/579-3100.
Santee-Cooper Reservoir, South Carolina — Big blue and channel cats often are taken by stillfishing over shallow mussel beds or by drifting over river creek channels during winter and early spring. Many veteran anglers believe the next world record blue cat could be caught here, likely during the early season. Information & Accommodations: Guide Joe Drose, 800/858-7018; Santee Cooper Lakes Information Hotline, 800/925-2537; Santee Cooper Country, 800/227-8510.
Lake Tenkiller, Oklahoma — Heated fishing docks on this 12,900-acre Corps of Engineers lake offer cozy fishing in cool weather. Many local anglers use ultralight spinning gear and split-shot rigs baited with crawlers or cutbait to tempt the lake's many channel cats in the 2- to 5-pound range. Information & Accommodations: Sixshooter Resort & Marina, 918/457-5152; Lake Tenkiller Association, 918/457-4403.
Lake Texoma, Oklahoma-Texas — Many local anglers believe that winter provides the best opportunity to catch a record-class blue cat (over 100 pounds). Blues are more concentrated in coldwater because the shad they feed on are tightly schooled. Find the bait and the cats likely are nearby. Information & Accommodations: Guide Cal Callander, 888/8TEXOMA; Dam-site Bait Shop, 903/465-0165; Denison Chamber of Commerce, 903/465-1551.
Toledo Bend, Louisiana & Texas — During winter, despite typical mild weather conditions, few anglers target Toledo Bend's big blue cats, which frequently approach 70 pounds. When they do, though, most concentrate their efforts on the Sabine River channel and similar areas. Information & Accommodations: Guide Greg Crafts, 409/368-7151; The Guide Association of Toledo Bend, 877/645-7979; Sabine County (Texas) Chamber of Commerce, 409/787-2732; Sabine Parish (Louisiana) Chamber of Commerce, 800/358-7802.
* Keith Sutton, Alexander, Arkansas, is a regular In-Fisherman contributor and a Field Editor for Catfish In-Sider.