Aside from ice fishermen, many anglers hope for a rising thermometer to trigger improved fishing. Blue catfish anglers take a different view.
"Fifty degrees is the magic number," says Texas Guide Chad Ferguson. "Once the water temperature falls below 50°F, blue cats start to congregate in specific areas and you can pattern them. The fishing keeps getting better as the water cools. When it's cold enough that it's miserable to be on the water, that's when the big blues are easiest to catch. I like a week of consistently cold weather, with enough wind to move and concentrate baitfish in certain areas. The blues follow and you can hammer them when there's a consistent pattern."
That pattern is consistent, if somewhat confusing to some anglers, in lakes across the southern United States, from eastern Tennessee to West Texas. In general, blue catfish move to deeper areas of a lake once water temperatures cool. In those deeper waters they hold near structure such as an old river channel, underwater ledge, or submerged tree.
Some anglers have noted a pattern where blues suspend in the water column during the winter, but the tournament-winning Masingale brothers of Arkansas believe that blues always associate with structure in some way.
"We've done well for blues that were suspended at 15 feet over a brushpile in 30 feet of water," says Daryl Masingale. "They may not be directly on the structure, but there's generally going to be structure in the neighborhood anytime you find blues, even if they're suspended."
Also keep in mind that structure comes in many shapes, forms, and sizes. We consider a submerged tree as structure. A submerged ledge is structure. A tree on a submerged ledge is really good structure. But a one-foot ledge on a big flat also can be structure. As long as they're different from the surrounding area, even small structural elements can hold blue cats.
That's especially true when a sunny day encourages midwinter blue cats to temporarily abandon their deepwater haunts in both lakes and rivers. On sunny days, water temperatures on shallow flats on lakes and rivers can rise 10°F above temperatures in nearby deep-water holes. Blue cats and baitfish take advantage of the warmer water, and savvy anglers take advantage of that opportunity.
"On the Missouri River, I always look for areas of reduced current, like shallow flats behind wing dikes," says St. Louis-based Guide Ryan Casey. "I look for dark-bottom areas with reduced current, almost slack water, on sunny days. I think the dark bottom absorbs and radiates warmth that fish relate to. Everybody has traditionally looked for blue cats in the winter in the deepest holes in rivers, but two winters ago we caught a 105-pounder and a bunch of 60-pounders from a flat in 4 feet of water in late November. I had a buddy on the river the same day who was struggling, fishing deep holes. I told him the pattern that was working for us, and he moved shallow and caught a 67-pounder that afternoon."
The same shallow, sun-warmed pattern works on the tidal areas of the James and Potomac rivers on the East Coast. David Ashby, owner of Bottom Dwellers Tackle, says a day last January typified a consistent midwinter pattern in those rivers.
"There are old channels and backwaters that silt in with black, stinky muck and are as shallow as 18 inches in places," Ashby says. "On that day, we moved into a big, shallow area the size of 6 or 8 football fields, off a stretch of main channel that was 20 to 40 feet deep. We anchored in about 30 inches of water, started setting out a full spread of rigs, and had a fish on before we got all the rigs out. It was a 43-pound blue. While we were unhooking that fish and taking pictures, we tossed out a fresh bait to that same spot and had a 45-pound blue on that line before we had time to release the first fish." Blue cats also sometimes move shallow in lakes, too. Texan Cody Mullenix held the world record for blue catfish for a number of years with a 121.5-pounder he caught fishing from shore at Lake Texoma.
"Blues may be deep in the morning and shallow in the afternoon on sunny days," Ferguson says. "There are always a few that stay shallow in winter, and those that are always shallow tend to be bigger. When you fish relatively shallow like Cody did when he caught that world record, you generally catch bigger fish, but you won't catch as many in a day."
Along with a better understanding of blue catfish movements during winter, anglers are becoming adept at interpreting what they see on their electronics. "I don't fish where the fish 'are,' I fish where they feed," says tournament champion Justin Cook of Missouri. "Simply marking a bunch of fish doesn't mean they're in the mood to bite. I'd rather mark one or two fish in an area where I know they'll be feeding. For instance, on a trip to an Alabama lake I marked a ton of fish in deep water, but couldn't get them to bite. We moved to a clam bed on a point in only 30 feet of water where we were marking only one or two fish and caught them left and right. The one or two fish we were marking were fish moving through the area as they fed.
"If you're fishing a hole in a river, or a long ledge in a lake, just because you see a bunch of fish stacked up in one spot doesn't mean you can get them to bite," Cook says. "You may be better off to move to a different spot on that hole, or along that ledge, where you're marking only one or two fish, but those fish are part of a group of active feeders moving along that part of the structure."
Gizzard shad are a favorite midwinter bait for blue catfish, but are difficult to get that time of year. "Shad are deeper, and it doesn't work to try and catch them with a $29 cast net from Walmart," Ferguson says. "You need to know how to locate schools of shad in deep water with your depthfinder, and then have the right type of net to get them. I like a 3/4- to 1-inch-mesh cast net, with at least 11„2 pounds of weight per foot on the leadline to give you a faster sink-rate. That works for catching shad down to 25 feet. If they're deeper, you need a bigger mesh and more weight, and a taped net like they use for shrimp. That sort of net costs more than $100, but you've got to have the right equipment to consistently catch fresh shad through the winter."
The Masingales prefer fresh gizzard shad when they can get them, but have used "juiced" frozen shad. "Fresh is always best, but you can help old bait with bait treatments," says Jason Masingale. "If we have to use frozen shad, we've had good luck soaking them in Team Catfish's Dead Red Blood Spray. Just spraying it on isn't as good as soaking the shad in it for a couple hours, but you can definitely improve frozen shad with it."
Casey also prefers fresh shad, but says any legal, fresh cutbait can catch blue cats in winter. "Threadfin shad are acceptable," he says. "Sometimes blue cats want a bunch of little threadfin threaded onto a hook instead of one big chunk of shad. Fresh-cut carp, gaspergou (aka sheepshead, freshwater drum), buffalo, sunfish, bluegill — they all catch blues on certain days. But fresh, cut shad is the all-round go-to bait for me, followed by fresh carp or gaspergou."
Techniques and tackle for presenting baits vary with conditions and situations. Cold water slows fish activity, so using Spot-Lock or Pinpoint GPS to electronically anchor with a trolling motor, or traditional anchoring, gives cats time to find baits. Fishing over deep water, Casey favors stacker rigs with his weight on the bottom of the rig 8 to 12 inches below a circle hook, then another circle hook 2 to 6 feet above the first hook. He often experiments with different sizes and types of baits on his rigs until he finds what blues want on a particular day.
He uses both Tangling with Catfish Extreme and Whisker Whip rods in 7- to 10-foot lengths. He's beginning to favor the softer-tipped Whisker Whips. "I've noticed that I get 'pops' on the Extreme rods, then nothing happens," he says. "But when I get a pop on the Whisker Whips, they usually start to pull down a few seconds later. I think catfish don't like the resistance they feel on stiffer-tipped rods."
The Masingales maintain that blue cats in midwinter aren't fussy about biting, and get along fine with Tangling with Catfish Extremes. "Channel and flathead catfish, they don't like to feel resistance," Jason says. "But blues aren't shy about taking baits, even in winter, and we prefer the backbone we get from the medium-heavy to heavy-action Extreme rods."
Cook uses a medium-heavy 7-foot 6-inch Rippin Lips rod and braided mainline. "Braid gives you better feel of what your bait is doing, and it has no stretch," he says. "So I want my rod to bend when a fish bites. When I fish under the boat, and the fish are from 5 to 10 feet off the bottom, I use a Carolina (slipsinker) rig with the bait swinging below my weight. I use a lot of weight — 12 to 24 ounces — so that the line stays vertical. Otherwise, if you get small fish pestering your bait and pulling it sideways, your lines get tangled. When I fish right on bottom I drag a Carolina rig, or a Santee rig with a float to keep the bait off the bottom a bit, and use 6 to 8 ounces of weight on each rig."
Where for Winter Blues
"On the East Coast, blue catfish fishing in the James and Potomac rivers is impressive," Ashby says. "You have to catch over a 50-pounder on the Potomac to get people's attention. On the James, it takes a 65- or 70-pounder. I'm concerned about the Potomac because Maryland is allowing commercial fishing that's transferring a lot of big fish into pay lakes. I think the fishing will stay good through this winter, but if something doesn't change I think the blue cat fishing in the Potomac is going to suffer."
Ashby also has heard good things from the upper reaches of the Tennessee River. "The headwaters of the Tennessee River system at Fort Loudoun and Watts Bar lakes have been producing some big blues," he says. "The locals have known about it for a long time, but kept it to themselves. I've been hearing of 80-pound-plus fish from that part of the upper Tennessee for the past three or four years. Tennessee started protecting trophy catfish, and I think those bigger fish are the result of tighter regulations."
Casey adds Lake Gaston, North Carolina, to the list of hotspots for blues. "Gaston is on fire for blue cats," he says. "They're catching 100-pounders there. I even heard of a kid catching a 117-pounder from a dock."
Ashby, Cook, and the Masingales consider Wheeler, Wilson, Pickwick, and other lakes on the Tennessee River system prime targets for big blues during winter. The Ohio River also holds strong numbers of mid- to large-size blues, the mid-Mississippi River has produced a number of 100-pounders, and the Missouri River from St. Louis upstream to Kansas City can be a goldmine for mid-size blues, depending on weather conditions.
Texas is probably the best-known winter blue-cat region because of its numerous lakes that consistently produce phenomenal numbers of often huge fish. Lake Texoma has been on the radar since Mullenix caught his world record there, and the reservoir has continued to impress anglers with strong catches of big blues. But Lake Tawakoni has been the national buzzword for blue catfish in recent years.
"Lake Tawakoni has been on fire for catfish the past few years," Ferguson says. "The numbers of channel and blue catfish that come out of that lake are incredible. It seems to be getting better every year."
While lakes such as Texoma and Tawakoni earn a lot of attention, Ferguson says nearly any decent-sized lake in central and northern Texas is worth exploring for blue catfish. "I often fish Eagle Mountain Lake, as well as Lake Worth, and do well for blues," he says. "Pretty much every lake in North Texas has a good population of nice-size blue cats.
Twenty- to 50-pounders are pretty common in North Texas during the winter."
The fishing can get hot when it's cold enough outside to make fishing uncomfortable. But it's amazing how quickly a cold, disgruntled angler can suddenly feel comfortable when blue catfish go on a bite.