A Winter Catfish Whisker Wonderland
January 15, 2014
Traditionalists who fish for catfish only when they have to swat mosquitoes miss out on fantastic fishing. A progression in catfishing attitudes and tactics over the years has turned the coldest months into the hottest time to catch some of the biggest fish of the year.
Of course, winter catfish have regional restrictions. South of a line from southern Pennsylvania, across southern-Ohio to central Missouri and then trailing down toward Arizona and New Mexico, anglers have discovered that blue and channel catfish, and to a lesser degree flatheads, feed through the winter — often aggressively — on baitfish schooled tightly in distinct and predictable locations. Knowing where big fish feed is the first step to catching them any time of the year, so the limited movement of baitfish during midwinter often allows anglers to stay on catfish for days or weeks at a time.
James and Potomac Rivers, Virginia-Maryland
"Much of the trophy catfishing in the Mid-Atlantic region focuses on the blue cat fishery in the tidal portions of the James and Potomac rivers," says Maryland resident and In-Fisherman contributor Jim Gronaw. "Late January and February is trophy time for the local guides. There are lots of blues over 50 pounds, and they're more active in winter than are the smaller ones, so it's easier to focus on the biggest fish. That time of year the resident shad are 16 to 18 inches long, and that's what big blues are feeding on, so using big chunks of shad targets the largest fish."
Winters tend to be mild in the Mid-Atlantic region, and on sunny winter days when air temperatures rise to the 55°F to 60°F range, blues in the Potomac and James rivers follow schools of shad seeking warm water on shallow flats. The best flats are associated with distinct channel edges that allow blues to move into deeper water as conditions and appetites change. "It's a daytime bite, and warmer temperatures move fish shallower," Gronaw says. "There are still fish in 20 to 50 feet of water, but the ones in shallower water are more active and aggressive."
Contact: Guide Joe Hecht, Fat Cat Guide Service, 804/221-1951; Guide Josh Fitchett, 804/836-5220, rivercatn.com.
North Texas Reservoirs
Anglers have options when fishing for midwinter catfish in Texas reservoirs, says North Texas fishing guide Chad Ferguson. Channel cat enthusiasts can take advantage of rapid-fire action beneath cormorant nests from sunrise till mid-morning. "Look for a tree covered with what looks like white paint, then toss a hook with dipbait against the base of that tree. It's almost a sure thing for 2- to 5-pound channel cats and an occasional blue cat up to 10 pounds. Just don't get too close, because the water is shallow and the cats spook." He shifts efforts to shallow flats on sunny afternoons and catches channel cats feeding in those sun-warmed waters.
Ferguson points to Eagle Mountain Lake as a top option for blue cats. "If you don't know the lake or aren't on the water every day to keep track of the blues, drifting is the best option to catch the biggest fish," he says. "I usually have a good idea of where they are, so I anchor to stay on top of them."
He says baitfish movement and location are the keys to catching big blues in midwinter. "When the weather is cold, in the 40s, shad move deeper so I target middepths adjacent to deeper areas. If it's a bluebird day, with sunshine and temperatures in the 50°F to 55°F range, shad move up onto shallower flats and the blues follow. It's the easiest time of year to catch a bunch of 20- to 30-pounders, and the best time to cross paths with 50- or 60-pounders."
Contact: Guide Chad Ferguson, North Texas Catfish Guide Service, 817/522-3804, txcatfishguide.com.
Santee, Cooper, & Edisto Rivers, South Carolina
Many guides on the Santee-Cooper complex of lakes consider midwinter the best time for trophy blue catfish. John Archambault of Charleston, South Carolina, says the sheer size of the lakes has overshadowed the significant blue catfish opportunities that exist in tidal rivers in that region.
"Flatheads are my passion," Archambault says, "but they're notoriously inactive during cold weather so I go after blues in the rivers through the winter. Blues get active and are easier to target when the shad runs begin in the rivers after the first of the year. American shad and blueback herring runs begin in early January, peak in late February and early March, and provide bait and focus for trophy blue catfish hunters throughout that period.
"Blues will be in holes and washouts in the riverbends," he says. "They're associated with current breaks, ambushing shad as they work upstream. When the sun shines they get more active and move onto shallow shelves as the baitfish move shallower." Guide Marlin Ormseth says catches in Santee-Cooper lakes are declining, but the river still holds lots of big fish. He catches them slipdrifting and vertical fishing, depending on current speeds.
On Santee-Cooper, the diversion canal is well known as a hot spot for winter blue catfish. Guides often focus on flats, and stay on top of the movements of schools of shad and the monster blues that shadow them, to provide clients opportunities to land blues up to about 70 pounds.
Contact: Captain Marlin Ormseth, santeecooper-catfishhunter.com; Santee Cooper Country, santee-coopercountry.org.
Ohio River, Cumberland and Barkley Lakes, Kentucky
"It never gets too cold here for me to go catfishing," says Kentucky catfishing guide Paul Willett. "If I can safely put a boat in the water and there's less than a foot of snow in the forecast, I'm going fishing. The weather doesn't affect blue cats on the Ohio. Changes in current are what turns them on or off."
Willett carefully monitors current flow and other factors in the big river to find small, scattered pods of shad associated with ledges and dropoffs — and the big blue catfish that lurk beneath the shad. Massive schools of shad don't interest him because they apparently don't interest blue catfish.
"I've noticed that even if I mark big fish beneath or beside a huge school of shad, the bigger fish aren't active and feeding," he says. "But if I find a small pod of shad off to the side, or an area with several smaller pods, and mark big fish around those pods, those catfish are actively feeding and easier to catch."
Willett monitors the movement of shad in the river because wherever shad go, blue catfish follow. "Peak period for blues is when shad make their move upriver, usually from mid-November through mid-January," he says. "When shad are piled up below dams, blues are there gorging on them. Later in winter the shad drift back downstream and the blues follow them.
"Often in mid-January, the Ohio rises, and I think higher water levels disperse the shad. When the river is high and dangerous, I fish tributaries like the Green River, or go to Cumberland or Barkley lakes. I fish those lakes like I fish a large area of the Ohio River, targeting current seams along ledges that run parallel to the current, or drop-offs into deep holes."
He uses up to 16 ounces of weight to anchor fresh skipjack herring heads or whole gizzard shad. He uses 80-pound-test braided mainline, and says that the thinner diameter of braid compared to mono allows him to use less weight in strong currents and keeps him aware of tentative bites by sometimes sluggish blues.
"If the flow is right in January and February — around the 22-foot level — fishing can be fantastic," he says. "I'm disappointed if I don't catch 8 to 15 blue cats in a day's fishing, with nothing less than 10 pounds and most of them over 20 or 30."
Contact: Captain Paul Willett, Camo Fish Guide Service, 270/748-6077, camofishguideservice.com.
Lake Pleasant, Bartlett Lake, Arizona
Flathead catfish guide Ed "Flathead Ed" Wilcoxson literally lived in his boat 39 weekends last year in pursuit of flathead catfish on Arizona's Lake Pleasant and Bartlett Lake, and landed a 76.5-pounder that set a new state record. "There are bigger ones out there," he says. "I hooked two last year that I know were bigger, but just couldn't land them."
Even in Arizona's relatively warm waters in winter, flatheads become less active, making precise bait placement critical. Wilcoxson fishes in 35 to 40 feet of water and focuses on deep structure. On warm, sunny days, desert flatheads move up onto shallower flats adjacent to their deeper lairs. A 2- or 3-degree increase in temperature is enough to initiate movement. When they're "sunbathing" on flats, they associate with rocks, sunken trees, or other submerged cover.
"They're opportunists, almost lazy," he says. "They don't want to expend much energy to feed, so they're typically in and around cover that allows them to feed efficiently. I've been in situations where simply moving a couple boat lengths was the difference between catching fish and not catching fish."
He recommends that anglers who prefer frequent action and enjoy a meal of cats should target channels in Arizona's small reservoirs and urban lakes. "Fish a wad of stinkbait, chicken liver, or nightcrawlers on the bottom of a shallow bay or point and you can catch channel cats all day long. They average 2 to 3 pounds, and there are lots of them," he says.
Contact: Guide Ed Wilcoxson, 623/256-7245, flatheadedadventures.com.
Colorado River, Arizona/California border
The majority of Americans associate the Colorado River with white-water rafting, the Grand Canyon, and Hoover Dam. For flathead catfish hunters, the Colorado River along the California-Arizona border means prime fishing for their favorite species in three distinctly different situations.
"There's the main river between Blythe and Yuma, there are backwaters, and there are canals," says Winnetka, California's Kirk McKay. "The river's not real fast in that stretch, with maybe an 8-foot average depth, but that varies with how much water they release from the dams upstream. The average hole is 10 to 15 feet deep, depending on river level. Flatheads in the Colorado River are in the top ends of holes or in the best structure in holes."
The backwaters and canals tend to stay warmer through the winter because of their shallower water, and warm faster in the spring, making them good areas to hunt for flatheads from December through March. Canals are a unique opportunity to catch flatheads in places that don't look like flathead habitat.
"There are two types of canals associated with irrigation," McKay says. "Inflow canals are straight, often lined with concrete and bring fresh water from the river to the fields. They look barren but there are fish in there anywhere there's shade or structure.
"The other kind of canal, outflow canals, carry runoff from the fields back to the river. They're weedy, muddy, full of tules, and full of fish. They're usually lined with dense brush, so a lot of locals go to a bridge or canal crossing and drift baits along the shaded banks or under the bridge or into a tube. They catch amazing flatheads from plain-looking spots. The big challenge when you hook a big one is battling the brush to get down to the water and land it. Vegetation in the desert grows thick wherever it has a chance to get water."
McKay says channel catfish are abundant in the lower Colorado River and adjacent waters. "The channel cats aren't huge, the biggest I've caught is a 15-pounder, but you could sink a boat with them if you wanted to catch that many. You can sit on a dock in the river at an access point and use chicken liver, dough balls, nightcrawlers, or any other catfish bait and catch them easily."
Most anglers fish during the day during the winter for channel cats and flatheads along the Colorado River, he says. Sluggish in cool mornings, both species regain their appetites on sunny afternoons, and stay hungry till water temperatures drop after sunset, making noon to twilight from December through March the best time to catch catfish in the desert.
Contact: B&B Bait and Tackle, Blythe, California, 760/921-2248.
Chattahoochee River, Alabama/Georgia
Preston Hobbs, flathead angler from Thomaston, Georgia, says Chattahoochee River flatheads are mobile and feed actively throughout winter. "Every fish I catch is hooked in the mouth," he says, "so they're not holed-up and hibernating like they do up north. In winter, I fish a string of deep holes separated by shoals. One day the flatheads in one of the holes bite and the next day the fish in another hole bite. On cloudy days they're in the deepest part of the holes, but they may be at the head of the hole or closer to the tailout, so you've got to find them.
"If I'm not getting bites, I slip out an extra 15 feet of anchor rope, and that often moves me enough to put me on hungry fish. On sunny days when the temperatures get in the 50s or 60s, that little bit of extra warmth moves fish up into 10 or 15 feet of water, especially in areas with big boulders. Those big rocks absorb heat, and the flatheads like that."
Hobbs baits with 4- to 8-inch bluegills or 3- to 4-inch goldfish, but says he often has a bluegill head in the water alongside his livebaits. "Some days they want nothing but livebait. Other days they like fresh brim heads and ignore livebait. You've got to experiment to see what they want," he says.
He uses slipsinker rigs anchored with up to a 6-ounce weight in the relatively fast waters of the Chattahoochee, and says the river from the Ringer boat ramp in upper West Point Lake to Franklin, Georgia, is 24 miles of prime habitat for winter flatheads.
"I would give up fishing any other time of year just to fish the Chattahoochee in winter for flatheads," he says. "On a good day I can catch over 400 pounds of fish. So far I haven't landed anything bigger than 40 pounds, but I haven't been using heavy enough tackle to handle the really big ones that I've hooked but couldn't land. But I've upgraded my gear, and this winter I'm going to see how big they can get."
Contact: Paul Parsons Guide Service, 706/302-4778, fishwestpoint.com.
*Dan Anderson, a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications, lives in Bouton, Iowa.