May 27, 2014
By Jim Moyer as told to Don Wirth
Blue Catfish Seasons
Surface temperatures are typically around 36°F to 38°F — prime conditions for giant blue cats. I focus on outside river-channel bends with submerged cover in the form of stumps, laydown logs, big rocks — and mud bottom, which is critical. Mud holds heat better than rocks, so a mud-bottom area often is a couple of degrees warmer than elsewhere, making it more attractive to the prevailing baitfish species (in my area, shad) and catfish. But mud erodes quickly in swift current, so if the river's really steamrolling following heavy rains and I have trouble locating areas with mud bottom, I fish clay-bottom spots instead.
I catch most of my big blues now on banks with a rapid slope into deep water, with the majority of fish coming from 30 to 45 feet deep. This is the perfect time for classic heavy-duty bottom-fishing. I set out several lines throughout this depth range, each with a Carolina rig sporting a 3- to 5-ounce sliding sinker, a barrel swivel, and a 2- to 3-foot leader, with cut skipjack herring on the business end.
During the first half of the month, the river temperature is usually in the upper 30°F range, and blues typically use the same areas and depths they did in January. There's often a warm-up during the last two weeks of February, which can trigger blues to move shallower (15 to 25 feet) and bite more aggressively. This winter warm snap, when the air temperature suddenly may hop into the 60s or even 70s, usually only lasts for a couple of days, but it's definitely a time when I want to be on the water, especially in the afternoon after the sun has had a chance to warm things up a bit.
Target banks with a rapid slope into deep water. Massive pieces of woodcover, such as laydown trees and stumps the size of the hood of my Suburban, are important blue-cat magnets now, so don't be too surprised if a big fish busts you off in the snags when you're bottom-fishing.
With the water temperature around 45°F to 48°F, warmer days trigger algae blooms that in turn jump-start a food-chain scenario in the river. Shad feed on algae growing on rocks, and blues move in to feed on shad, making this a good time to fish the extreme outer edges of rocky channel banks. Fish Carolina-rigged cutbait on the bottom anywhere from 15 to 30 feet down.
Don't be surprised if a big flathead muscles in on the blues' territory now; the warming weather often gets flatheads stirring. March in my area usually means plenty of rain, which equates to increased current, so make sure you're packing lots of lead — you may need an 8-ounce sinker to keep your rig and bait positioned where you want them in a fast flow. Rain also means muddy water, which can be a very good thing this time of year because muddy water warms fast and can push blues shallower. If the river's running high and muddy, anchor down at inflowing creek mouths and target the 10- to 15-foot zone with bottom rigs.
With the water in the 50°F range, shad are abundant and blue cats are moving to feed. Time to blow the dust off your catfish jugs, bait up with live shad, and set your lines from 10 to 15 feet deep. Toss them out to drift down rocky channel banks for some fast action on smaller blues (as well as channels and flatheads). April's not my favorite month for bagging a 70-pounder, but with action this fast on smaller fish, the heavyweights can wait.
Water temperatures in the mid- to upper 60°F range by early May signal blues to start moving from their deeper early-spring haunts for spawning. Blues spawn when the river reaches 70°F to 73°F, which typically occurs in late May, here. Spawning takes place on the full moon around rocks and woodcover in 1 to 5 feet of water. The smaller "alpha" males move into the shallows first to fan out a nest; these bucks can be caught all day long on cork rigs baited with shad or crawlers. Most of the males I catch now run 1 to 7 pounds, with an occasional fish up to 25 pounds. Many of the spawning bucks are bruised and battered — they fight for prime spawning territory.
The big spawning females can be frustratingly hard to catch. A sudden drop in the water level can really spoil the spawning pattern now for both the fish and the fisherman; expect the bite to decline sharply for anywhere from 2 to 5 days after the water drops. I've seen years when the blues didn't spawn at all after they got the rug pulled out from under them during the bedding season.
It's getting too hot for me to sit on the river all day soaking bait, so this is when my night-fishing pattern starts. The river temperature's in the mid-70°F range, and after spawning, blues move out to steep banks around rocks and woodcover in the 20- to 30-foot zone. The algae growing on cover attracts adult shad and fry, creating feeding opportunities for blue cats. This is the best month to fish with livebait, and nighttime is the right time.
Anchor adjacent to a sloping bank or stairstepping ledge. For your rig, tie on a bell sinker to the end of your mainline and attach a 2- to 3-foot leader above the sinker. Bait with a 6- to 8-inch gizzard shad or wild shiner. Cast the rig or simply lower it to the bottom, and the livebait swims around in circles on the leader attracting big cats.
If night-fishing spooks you, and if you can tolerate the heat and humidity, head for a river-run reservoir during the day with a bucket of small shad or tuffy minnows, and bump bottom along river-channel drops with a Kentucky rig (1-ounce bell sinker on bottom, one or two 6-inch leader lines with light-wire hooks a foot apart, starting a foot up from the sinker). Tap the sinker along the edge of the drop to catch blues in the 1- to 10-pound range all day long.
With the river ranging from 80°F to 85°F, I'll be at home in the air conditioning or on some big river like the Missouri that hasn't cracked 80°F yet. But, if the white bass are schooling up heavy in the Cumberland, I hook up my boat and cruise the river until I spot a pack of whities. Then I cast out a slip-cork rig baited with live shad set 10 to 14 feet deep into the surfacing school and catch 1- to 10-pound blue cats hanging below the school, feeding on injured shad.
This is a real bad month for catfishing here. The river ranges from 80°F to 90°F; I've seen the Cumberland's surface temperature hit 94°F in late August. Current is often minimal due to lack of rainfall, further complicating your fishing plans. Blues still eat under these torrid conditions, but infrequently. Even night-fishing gets awfully slow. Your best bet on a big river is jug-fishing. Head for the backs of big bays and set out jugs baited with shrimp, your lines ranging from 2 to 12 feet deep, and just let them drift while you drink a cold beverage.
The river is cooling into the mid- to high 70°F range, and blues are getting active again. They're scattered and not all glued to bottom cover like they are in winter, so it's important to fish a lot of water now and not waste time anchoring for long periods in one spot. The best option is drifting cork rigs and jugs along steep banks and around the intersections of tributaries and the main river, where most blues are in 10 to 12 feet of water.
The river temperature has dropped into the 60°F range due to chilly nights; we normally get a frost here by the end of the month. The blues start prowling outside channel bends in the 20- to 30-foot zone, so drop anchor, break out the heavy gear, and start soaking cutbait on the bottom. Even though it's far from prime time, if you can find a good wad of submerged timber on outside bends, you've got a decent shot at a huge blue, because they're transitioning from the banks to deep channel structure and getting back into a more active bottom-feeding mode. Shad are in a transitional phase, too. You notice them in numbers near the surface out in the middle of the river.
Water temperatures dipping into the mid- to low 50°F range means it's time to get serious about doing battle with a monster blue. Get to outside channel bends and fast-sloping banks and fish cutbait on the bottom in the snaggiest, gnarliest woodcover you can find. November is normally when I start catching multiple heavyweight blues on each trip, instead of a bunch of small fish that I typically catch during the more transitional months. The big blues bunch up in a good spot tight to stumps and logs, so make sure you're using heavy abrasion-resistant line and strong hooks.
I expect the water temperature to be in the low 50°F range at the beginning of the month, gradually dropping into the 40s as Christmas draws near. You'll often encounter a huge burst of 2- to 10-pound blues, hundreds of them, on fast-sloping banks and channel bends, so there's a decision to make: Either enjoy a day of fast action catching eating-sized catfish, or pull up your anchor and hunt for a spot where the bite might not be as active, but your shot at a trophy blue is far better. I don't have to tell you what route I'd take — from thousands of hours on the water, I know that the biggest blues are lurking on quick-dropping ledges with mud bottoms and snaggy cover in the 20- to 40-foot zone. Once you've located a spot like this, commit yourself to it — most guys lack the patience it takes to catch a huge December blue.
Anchor and fish with cutbait, then give the spot a decent chance to produce, at least 60 to 90 minutes. Sometimes you get pestered by a bunch of undersized bait-nibblers at first, only to see the nibbles suddenly cease — that's usually when a humongous blue has moved in. When that rod bends over double and you set the hook into the fish of a lifetime, buddy, that's the best Christmas present die-hard catmen like us could ever wish for.
Berkley Gulp! Catfish Shad Guts
Sporting random intestinal shapes, realistic bloody colorations, and patented Gulp! fish-attracting scent, these fake guts put an end to scooping the innards out of hapless shad to sucker hungry cats. Just glom a gob around a 1/0 to 4/0 treble or baitholder, secure it on the barbs, and you're set. Available in 1.2-ounce, re-sealable packs. Click Here to View Product!
Berkley PowerBait Catfish Chunks
Studies in simplicity, these cubes are easy to fish. But more importantly, they're formulated by Berkley's scientists to tempt catfish three times faster than standard doughballs. Available in liver, blood, and fish flavors, in 6-ounce packages. Click Here to View Product!
Bowker's Catfish Bait
A staple of diehard catmen for decades, Bowker's dip excels on dip worms, tubes, and sponge strips, which the company also carries. You can also coat natural baits such as shrimp with it for extra flavor. It's available in original, blood-, shrimp-, and shad-added versions, which let you tailor taste to season and conditions. The blood bait, for example, is deadly on dog-days channels, while the shad scent shines in cool water after ice-out. Click Here to View Product!
Catfish Charlie's Dip Bait
An extra-sticky dip, Charlie's molds on and sticks to hooks, tubes, worms and other baitholders with ease. Available in 12- and 36-ounce tubs, in cheese, blood, and shad variations. As with other dip baits, Charlie's shad flavor is particularly productive in cool water. 641/673-7229
Doc's Catfish Bait
On the cat scene since 1927, Doc's knows a thing or two about stinkbait. Which explains why the company offers three temperature-driven dips — an extra-stiff blend for hot weather, an original mix for temps of 70 to 90 degrees, and a cool-weather concoction for temperatures below 70. All are available in 12-ounce, 40-ounce, and gallon-sized containers, in cheese and blood flavors, while liver is an option with the original, in 12-ounce cans only. Click Here to View Product!
Magic Bait Hog Wild Catfish Dip Bait
Cat fans seeking traditional thin, fast-oozing stinkbait will appreciate Hog Wild's ability to quickly infiltrate the water column with cheese, blood, and shad-based aromas. Available in pint-sized jars, it's a natural for tubes, sponges, netting, and similar delivery systems, but also shines for giving dough baits an upgraded coating. Click Here to View Product!
Rippin Lips Leakin' Livers
Pinch one of these all-natural chunks to activate its scent-dispersal system, and it oozes a fine flavor trail for about an hour. Easily skewered on a 1/0 treble or single baitholder, Leakin' Livers are available in original chicken liver, blood, garlic, and fish oil options, all sold in re-sealable, 15-bait packs. Click Here to View Product!
Strike King Catfish Dynamite
Better known for bass baits, Strike King also whips up this dandy kitty dip. Available in 12-ounce tubs, in cheese and blood flavors, it works well with a number of cat baits, including the company's ribbed Dipping Worms. strikeking.com
Team Catfish Secret-7 Dip
Nearly 20 years of tinkering went into the recipe for this sticky, cat-calling dip, which the company purchased from a retired chemist. Rich in fish attractants, the bait bonds with a variety of cat lures, but Team Catfish says it's especially deadly on its Furry THaNG dip holder. Available in 12 to 64-ounce jars and buckets. Click Here to View Product!
Uncle Josh Little Stinker Dip Bait
Famous for pork rinds, Uncle Josh also offers the Little Stinker line of prepared catfish baits, plus rigs for presenting them. Available in blood, chicken, and rotten shad formulations in 16-ounce allotments, the dip is a doozy for delivering a scent trail in flowing water situations, particularly when paired with the company's Sticky Worm. unclejosh.com Click Here to View Product!
The Kermit Factor
The unwary mouse that falls from a vine over a catfish hole has made its last mistake. We sometimes find rodents and snakes, as well as water-dwelling amphibians like frogs and salamanders, in the guts of catfish.
Frogs are locally popular and usually productive baits. They can be hooked through the nose or through one leg. Some anglers cut off the lower legs to make a more compact bait. Dead frogs usually work as well as live ones. As with fish and crayfish, cutting or crushing them allows the attractive amino acids to flow toward the catfish's sensitive olfactory and taste organs. Forget tadpoles, though. They apparently secrete a substance or aroma that's noxious.
The leopard frog is one of the most widely distributed frog species and the one most commonly used for bait. Leopard frogs mate in early spring, leaving clutches of eggs clinging to submerged vegetation in ponds and river backwaters, before moving to adjacent meadows and other grassy areas for the summer. With the exception of occasional visits to lakes and rivers, catfish rarely encounter leopard frogs during summer.
As the days become shorter and air temperatures cool in early fall, leopard frogs begin to congregate and prepare for winter. They gather in staging areas adjacent to water, particularly during periods of cool, rainy weather. One clue that this fall migration is underway is increased numbers of road-killed frogs. Once nighttime temperatures approach the 50ËšF range, frogs begin moving toward lakes and rivers where they'll spend the winter.
Such an abundant food source rarely goes unnoticed, and catfish often cruise shallow flats where leopard frogs make brief forays into the water during the first few hours of darkness. As the water continues to cool, frogs gradually spend more time in the water than on land, providing increasingly better feeding opportunities for prowling cats. Fish continue to consume other live or dead prey when the opportunity arises, but using frogs makes sense when they're so abundant.
Catfish take advantage of any food seasonally available, though there's no denying the appeal of human food like hot dogs. Still, wild-grown baits natural to the system and familiar to the fish, or commercial baits that duplicate them, work best most of the time.
Flathead catfish share with bass an innate love of crayfish. Often just rubbing a cat's belly reveals their lumpy remains. Tail-hook live craws and bottom rig them. But as flatheads grow, they're less likely to take these smaller baits, or maybe they have a harder time beating their 5- to 10-pound kin to the forage.
Crayfish are easy to catch, and the best time to collect them may coincide with the best catfishing. Crayfish usually hold under rocks or other cover during the day, then emerge to consume whatever living or dead prey they can find after dark. Chub creeks and bullhead ponds usually hold good numbers of craws, which are easily located and captured with the aid of a headlamp and long-handled dipnet. Wire minnow traps baited with a piece of dead fish are excellent craw catchers on any water with a decent crayfish population.
For channel cats, craw tails make a fine bait for bottom drifting or float-fishing in summer. When using a whole craw, try crushing the head a bit to release those tasty brain morsels that Cajun crawdad fans can't resist.
Catfish eat clams — freshwater mussels, Asiatic clams, snails of various sorts, even zebra mussels. Blue cats are notorious for foraging on mussel beds. Shake their bellies and you can almost hear the shells rattling. Food habits studies suggest that blue catfish feed on mussels more readily from spring through fall, especially in more southerly reservoirs, with blues turning almost exclusively to shad when they become more lethargic and vulnerable in cold water.
Across North America, white suckers are a can't-fail bait, as this most common species is suitable in size for yearling channel cats and up to 40-pound flatties. Slice 'em and dice 'em for float or bottom rigging for blues and channel cats, or tail-hook a 2-pounder to lure a mother flathead from her lair.
Note the difference, though, between pond-raised bait suckers and wild ones. Cultured baits don't flee, a movement that often triggers a lethal attack from a predator. Seine baits or catch suckers on live worms, instead. We've found that keeping pond-raised suckers in a tank with a big flathead quickly trains the suckers in survival, making them better baits.
Smaller members of the catfish clan — stonecats, madtoms, and bullheads — make excellent baits. Indeed, studies of catfish show these species can be cannibalistic. In some waters where flatheads have been introduced, bullhead populations have plummeted.
Young carp, for example, are gourmet fare for big flatheads, who may follow them onto flooded pastures at night.
The closely related exotic goldfish also makes a fine bait on setlines or rod and reel. Surprisingly, cut carp doesn't rank nearly as high for channel, white, or blue cats. As a caution, be sure to check state regulations on which baits are legal and how they may be obtained. Rules vary.
Wherever gizzard and threadfin shad abound, catfish prey on these aromatic, abundant species. Catfish guides on Santee-Cooper and many other southern reservoirs use cast nets to gather a tank full of livebait to start the day. Skewering several 4-inch threadfins through the eye socket provides a tasty bait for channel cats, blues, and flatheads. Cutting larger gizzard shad in half and rigging them on the bottom also brings action.
In early spring and fall, 3-inch shiners and redtail chubs from bait shops make fine baits for channel cats. These selections follow the general rule: Smaller baits in colder water, big stuff for summer nights.
Sunfish make great baits, remaining lively on the hook and attractive when cut. Toughest and liveliest of all is the green sunfish, a prime flathead bait on line or rod and reel. Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, redears, and the rest of their clan are appetizing, too.
Nightcrawlers remain a great bait for all cats, sometimes unequaled for channel cats. Even the biggest cats can't resist worms. Drift 'em, float 'em, or bottom rig 'em. A ball of about six crawlers on a 3/0 hook is a fine bait for flatheads early in the season. The aroma and wriggling action seem to attract the big cats. In Kansas reservoirs, catmen dabble treble hooks adorned with several juicy crawlers for spawning flatheads, targeting undercuts and rock crevices along riprap walls where cats have holed up.
Catalpa worms are a highly regarded bait in parts of the South, where they're common. These meaty green worms apparently become a focus for many fish species, where they feed on lakeside trees and tumble into the water. Freeze them for future use. The worm's flavor is said to be so irresistible that the essence of catalpa or crushed worms is added to some commercial pastebaits.