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Catfish Week: Cold Hands & Hot Bites: The Biggest Blue Cats of the Year

The late-season bite for blue catfish lasts as long as anglers are willing to battle cold temperatures, or until ice locks up lakes and rivers.

Catfish Week: Cold Hands & Hot Bites: The Biggest Blue Cats of the Year
Guide John Garland plies the tidal waters of the James River for behemoth blue cats.

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Eavesdrop on any group of tournament catfish anglers or catfish guides and you’re guaranteed to hear a lot of opinions about the best techniques, bait, and tackle to catch trophy blue catfish. But ask either group the best time to catch monster blues and they’ll come to an agreement.

“If someone calls me and says, ‘Captain John, I want to catch a lot of nice-size blue cats,’ I have them schedule a trip after the water temperature drops below 50°F in the fall,” says John Garland, owner of Screaming Reel Charters on the James River in Virginia. “But if someone calls and says, ‘I want to catch a personal best, a real hog,’ I have them schedule a trip when the water temp is getting down to around 40°F. When things cool off in the fall is a good time to catch lots of big blues, but when things get cold is the time to go looking for Miss Piggy.”

Garland pays close attention to water temperature as summer fades through fall and into winter. Cooling water influences the movement of baitfish in the tidal waters of the James River, and baitfish movement controls blue cat movement.

“At different times of year, blues in the James River feed on hickory shad, American shad, herring, eels, all sorts of things,” he says. “It’s almost a challenge to figure out what they want on a given day during spring and summer. But in the fall we’re down to pretty much gizzard shad and some white perch. If you know where the shad are, you know where the blues are.”

A smiling man holding a large blue catfish
Guide Jeff Faulkenberry with a big cool-water blue cat from Truman Lake.

Gizzard shad are temperature sensitive. They search for water with even a few extra degrees of warmth. While they spend cool October and November nights in the relative warmth of deep-water holes, sunny afternoons move them to mud-bottomed shallows.

“If the weather has been stable and the fish are settled into a pattern, and I can feel sunshine on my bald head on a nice sunny afternoon from mid-October into early December, I’m heading for shallow water,” Garland says. “Because that’s where baitfish are and where big blues will be. There are two locations I always check for a warm-water bite on a sunny afternoon—shallow flats and areas of riprap. Rocks absorb heat, and rocks have lots of algae and invertebrates baitfish like to feed on. On a warm afternoon, an area of riprap is like a Golden Corral for blue cats. I bait up with smaller chunks of fresh, bloody shad because blues aren’t interested in big chunks of bait in cooler water. I fillet a piece about the size of a Vienna sausage. I call those fillets, “flappers,” because they flap and move in the current.”

Cloudy days find Garland working deeper water. Deep water with structure—sunken trees, rocks, humps, holes—especially draw his attention.

“Really big blues are lazy,” he says. “They wait till the tide’s changing, when there’s less current, to do their feeding. They’ll be around some sort of structure, behind a tree, behind some rocks, maybe behind a little hump or mound, depending on which way the tide is flowing. If I find some sort of current break, some sort of structure in 25 to 45 feet of water on a cloudy day, that puts a big smile on my face ‘cause we’re going to catch fish.”

A smiling woman holding a large blue catfish.
Joyce Messer with a big cool-water blue cat from Truman Lake.

Garland’s baseline setup includes 7-foot 7-inch heavy or medium-heavy MadKatz Patriot rods and Shimano Tekota baitcasting reels. “Patriot rods have a sensitive tip and a strong backbone. “I can pull in my anchor with one of those rods if I needed to,” he says. “There’s the potential for 60- to 80-pound blues in the James. You’ve got to have enough rod for those big ones. Using a medium rod when there’s the chance of big blues is like hunting bears with a .22 rifle. You could maybe get the job done, but it’s easier with the right weapon. I want a rod tough enough so my clients can give a big blue a facelift once the hook is set.”

His slipsinker rig starts with sliding a sinker slide clip onto 50-pound-test Berkley ProSpec mainline, followed by a bumper bead, before tying on a barrel swivel. To the other end of the barrel swivel he ties on a 32-inch leader (10 inches longer than in summer, to let the bait move more in the current) terminating in an 8/0 to 9/0 Team Catfish circle hook. Sinker weights range from 10 to 16 ounces, sometimes as heavy as 24 ounces, depending on the current.

Strong currents can be an issue on the James. Heavy fall rains upstream, combined with a tide change every six hours, require strategy. “Small and medium-size blues feed in areas of current,” he says. “But the really big ones will hold back, wait for the tide to go slack, and then feed when they don’t have to fight current.”

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An illustration of a diagram of a Garland Rig for catfish.

Big Rivers: Reading the Flow

Catfish guide Ben Goebel, owner of River City Catfishing Service on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, doesn’t deal with tidal flows, but pays close attention to rainfall and dam releases on those mid-continent rivers.

“In the fall and winter, the Ohio is usually low, and current is the key to finding blues,” he says. “The Ohio has dams from Louisville down to the Mississippi. If there’s not much flow, blues spread out between the dams in any areas of current they can find. I look for them on big flats out in the middle, in 50 to 60 feet of water. That’s where there’s still usually some current. If they’re releasing more water than normal, it creates currents below the spillways, and they’ll move up toward the dams.

An illustration of a diagram of Goebel's Rig for catfish with a photo of large blue catfish superimposed.
Guide Ben Goebel (left) and client Butch hoist a late-September 76-pound giant.

Current and structure: those are the keys in the fall and winter for blue cats on the Ohio. I side-scan and look for deep rockpiles, humps, or especially submerged trees. Last year I caught a 70-pounder out in the middle of the channel, deep, where I found some submerged wood. We lost a lot of tackle, but side-scan said the fish was there, so we stayed after it until we caught it.”

Cooling water temperatures signal a change in Goebel’s strategy and presentation. Through October he bumps, drifts, and drags baits in a traditional summer pattern. Once water temperatures fall toward 50°F, he switches to anchoring or spot-locking for a more precise presentation.

“They’re not as active below 50°F,” he says. “They’re feeding heavily, but they’re not going to chase baits like they do in summer. I downsize baits, anchor, or spot-lock, then set out a spread of baits to give them time to find them and eat.

“Early in fall, they’re still fond of skipjack, but the later it gets, especially in December and January, they like gizzard shad. And it varies from day to day about which part of a baitfish they want. You’d think they’d prefer the midsection, but there are days when they don’t want anything except a head. At one tournament, we ended up with a cooler full of skipjack bodies because all they wanted were the heads. I start every trip with a couple rods baited with heads, a couple with midsections, and a couple with fillets, just to figure out what they want that day. In the winter when I might be using only shad, I put out some rods with heads, some with bodies, and some with fillets, just to see what part of the shad they prefer.”

Goebel’s clients use the same tackle year-round. Seven-foot 6-inch heavy or medium-heavy B’n’M Silver Cat rods do the heavy lifting. Daiwa Saltist reels are spooled with 80-pound-test Vicious braided line, which is tied to a three-way swivel. Off another eye of the swivel he ties on an 18- to 24-inch, 80- to 100-pound Slime Cat mono leader terminating in an 8/0 to 10/0 Backstabber circle hook from Hooker’s Terminal Tackle. To the third eye of the swivel he ties on an 18- to 24-inch, 20-pound mono dropper line with a sinker. He uses 3 to 5 ounces for bumping presentations. For walking baits from a spot-lock or anchored position he uses 8 to 10 ounces. For dragging baits on the Ohio River in the fall he uses 2- to 4-ounce weights, with bait 75 to 200 feet behind the boat.

Because current is the key to finding and catching blue cats from the Ohio from fall through winter, Goebel checks every possibility to find even subtle currents. “The mouths of tributaries often have some current associated with them,” he says. “Any structure—trees, humps—out in deep water usually creates a little current. That structure, plus any current, attracts blues. Outside bends usually have at least a little current at their base. Once the water gets below 50°F, find current and you’ll usually find blue cats.”

Reservoirs: Shallow Flats

Anglers fishing the reservoirs of Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma have traditionally associated blue catfish with deep water during the transition from fall to winter. At least that was tradition, until catfish guide Jeff Faulkenberry, owner of Endless Season Guide Service, discovered that big blues frequently visit shallow water during the transition from fall to winter.

“I’ve caught 30-pound blues in as little as 2 feet of water that time of year,” he says. “It’s all about baitfish blues feed on. Gizzard shad are the main baitfish here on Truman Lake. Once the water temperature gets down to that magical 50°F mark, shad are looking for warmer water. If deeper water is warmer by a few degrees at night, they’ll move deep and the blue cats follow them. But if it’s a nice sunny fall day, the shad move up onto shallow flats.”

Fishing in such shallow water requires special tactics. Faulkenberry uses side-scan sonar to scout shallow flats, then he goes into stealth mode. If he marks schools of baitfish, and especially if he marks big fish associated with those schools, he turns off his Lowrance Active Imaging.

“In anything less than 3 feet of water, it doesn’t take much to spook fish,” he says. “I’ll either set out an anchor, or use my Power-Poles to position my boat within casting distance of the fish, then set out a spread of baits. Sometimes it’s so shallow you can see the wakes of the fish as they’re moving around. If you see V-shaped wakes, it’s probably carp or rough fish. But if you see a U-shaped wake, especially a big U-shaped wake, you’re looking at a blue cat.”

An illustration of a diagram of Faulkenberry's Rig for catfish with a photo of large blue catfish superimposed.
Jeff Faulkenberry with a sunny afternoon, shallow-water blue cat from Truman Lake.

Faulkenberry uses Jeff Faulkenberry Signature Series rods marketed through Power Catfish. He prefers his Brute model 7-foot 6-inch medium-heavy fiberglass rods for anchor fishing in cool water, and his Drifter model 7-foot 6-inch medium rods for drift-fishing in the warmer waters of summer. His uses a variety of reels, including Abu Garcia 6500s and Okuma CLX200s, in his search for the “perfect” reel for catfishing.

For rigging, he ties 30-pound mono mainline to one eye of a Rosco three-way swivel. To the second swivel eye, he attaches an 80-pound leader tied to an 8/0 Gamakatsu Octopus circle hook. On the leader, about 4 inches from the hook, he installs a 2-inch slotted foam float. To the third swivel eye he ties on a dropper line of just a couple inches, with a 2- to 4-ounce bank sinker. In the past he’s used Berkley ProSpec line, but is developing his own signature series of lines with Mad Fishen.

“I run as many as 250 trips a year,” he says, “and I’m in search of the perfect rod, reel, and line combinations for the way I fish. You don’t have to have the perfect rod and reel and line to catch lots of big fish, but why not, if it makes it easier and more fun?”

While Faulkenberry provides his clients big blue catfish from the comfort of his boat, he notes that late fall and early winter is an excellent time for shore anglers to tangle with big blues.

“That’s my wife’s favorite kind of catfishing,” he says. “She likes to ride our side-by-side down to the water, turn on some tunes, and cast out a couple rods and go catfishing. The trick is to pick a sunny day, maybe with a little breeze blowing into a shallow flat that’s not far from a cut or drop-off into deep water. Baitfish and blues move out of the deep water as the sun warms things up. You don’t have to cast out to the middle of the lake. Like I said earlier, we’ve caught big ones in as little as 2 feet of water. Another good spot is around any swimming areas in lakes. There’s something about the transition from sand bottom to mud bottom that’s attractive to baitfish, and therefore attractive to blue cats.”

Shore-fishing for blues in shallow water actually has advantages. “They can’t dive deep like when they’re out in the lake, can’t power-down,” Faulkenberry says. “They can only go side to side, which makes them a little easier to handle.”

Whether fishing from a boat or from shore, he places importance on the size of baits. “You need to downsize your baits as the water cools,” he says. “Take an 8-inch shad and fillet it, maybe use just the gut pocket, or cut the fillets in half. They’re not in the mood for big meals at that time of year, but they’re definitely hungry. Once the water temperature drops below 50°F, blues really start feeding, and they get thick-bodied and heavy.”

The late-season bite for blue catfish lasts as long as anglers are willing to battle cold temperatures, or until ice locks up lakes and rivers. Garland hauls in big blues from the James River throughout the winter. Goebel has dodged ice floes while landing monster blues from the Ohio. Faulkenberry refuses to give up the potential for trophy blues from the icy waters of Truman Lake until he’s absolutely forced to.

“I’ve had to break ice in order to launch my boat,” Faulkenberry laughs, “and then had to run the boat in circles once we got to where we wanted to fish, in order to clear enough ice so we could set out a spread of baits. There’s too much good fishing for blue cats in the fall and winter to give up without a fight.”

Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a regular contributor to In-Fisherman and Catfish In-Sider Guide. Guide contacts: Ben Goebel, 812/568-8716; Jeff Faulkenberry, 660/351-5420, John Garland, 804/350-2146.c




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