Reservoir Blue Catfish

Reservoir Blue Catfish

Blue cat guide Jeff Williams says that the Coldwater Period, when most fish are concentrated in deep water, offers the finest fishing of the year.

Jeff Williams is like a lot of the catfish anglers we know. Heʼs persistent. Heʼs willing to experiment with new locations and tactics. And heʼs confident that when he discovers something about how to catch blue cats during the dead of winter, other catmen will want to read about it. I agree.

Williams spends most of his time afloat on Grand Lake in Oklahoma. The reservoir isn't known for trophy blue cat production, but enjoys a growing reputation for numbers of fish in the 10- to 30-pound range. Williams adds that the top-end size of the fish seems to be growing every year.

But Williams' goal isn't to prove how good the fishing is at Grand Lake, but rather to outline a technique that will help you catch more reservoir blue catfish, from the Carolinas to California. In fact, he's never found a fishery where his tactics didn't work, so long as conditions are right.


Williams is like other catfish guides in another way, too. He often feels a compulsion to fill in the details about catfish location and behavior when no clear answer exists. Time on the water does that — makes you wonder why fish aren't where you expect them to be, or why they won't bite when they are.


Whether based on hunch or fact, though, Williams' hypothesis about the blue cat's seasonal cycle is accurate enough to keep him on fish throughout the Coldwater Period. And when you make your living by helping people catch fish, knowing when, where, and how to do it is what counts.

When

"The Coldwater Period really begins in late August," Williams says, "when the water temperature first begins to fall. Cooling water causes the shad to form tight schools, which in turn attracts big predators like blue cats. The colder the water, the tighter the shad school, and the better the fishing gets for big blues."

The cooling water also moves shad into deeper water. Once the water temperature at Grand Lake drops to about 50°F in October, virtually all the shad and most of the blue cats have abandoned the shallow flats — anything shallower than about 10 feet — where they spent most of the summer.


"This usually happens over the course of a few weeks," Williams says, "but once the surface temperature drops into the upper 40°F range, things start to happen fast. The shad and the blue cats continue to move deeper, off the 20-foot flats into 30 or more feet of water, or they suspend over deep basin areas."

From about mid-December through the end of February, frigid water temperatures force the shad into water that's about 30 to 40 feet deep. "Once all the water shallower than 30 feet or so is eliminated, most of the lake is eliminated," Williams says. "On a big lake like Grand, with almost 50,000 acres of water, I can limit my search to maybe 10,000 acres.

"This is the best time of year to target blue cats," Williams adds. "They're concentrated in the deepest structure in the lake, and they're almost always near massive schools of shad. Best of all, these shad schools usually are easy to find with a good sonar unit."


The one-two punch — drifting and anchoring produce blue cats from California to the Carolinas, even when water temperatures hover near the freezing mark.

Where

Williams says that river channels are the top blue cat attractors during winter, especially deep channels that cut across a deep flat. The shad might suspend over any part of the flat, but Williams doesn't get too excited until the school moves over or near the river channel.

"Let's say a channel cuts across a 40-foot flat," Williams continues. "The base of the channel is 60 feet deep. If a school of shad is suspended out over the flat, the fishing probably is going to be tough. If any part of that school contacts the river channel, though, you'll catch blue cats.

"Maybe blue cats or other predators, like white bass, drive the shad toward the channel, or maybe the blues wait for the shad to move in on their own," Williams adds. "Whatever the reason, when the shad are near the channel, the blue cats are feeding. And when the school moves out over the flat, the blues usually are tough to catch."

Like most patterns, though, Williams admits that the bite can change in a hurry: "A few years ago, I had been catching fish as regular as clockwork. Not a lot of big fish, but I was boating 25 to 30 fish a day for a couple weeks in a row. Heavy rainfall in the area raised the water level several feet and the dam operators began drawing water out of the lake.

"Things literally changed overnight," Williams continues. "All of the fish moved out of deep water and seemed to be spread all over the lake. I had to start from scratch. When the water dropped, the fish moved right back to deep water. If I hadn't been on the lake every day, I'd never have known what was happening."

How

Once Williams is in the right place at the right time, he has only one task remaining: putting a bait in front of an active blue cat. Experimentation through the years has resulted in two presentations: drifting in the wind and anchoring when it's calm.

Dealing With Wind — "Speed control is the most important consideration when drifting for blue cats," Williams says. "Small catfish often chase a fast-moving bait, but larger fish seldom move far or fast for a meal. If you're catching mostly small fish while drifting, you're probably moving too fast. And the windier the lake, the more important it is to slow down.

"I use two 6-foot-diameter drift socks to achieve the proper speed," Williams continues. "In a moderate breeze, I deploy them off the side of the boat. This keeps the boat perpendicular to the wind and allows me to spread a half-dozen rods along the length of the boat to cover a wider swath of water.

"When the wind howls, I usually deploy drift socks off the back of the boat," Williams adds. "This keeps the transom pointed into the wind and creates the slowest possible drift speed." An electric trolling motor will correct the drift, but Williams says it's rarely necessary.

"My sonar unit is the most important tool in my boat," Williams says. "After arriving at an area that I intend to drift, I drive my boat across the flat, heading into the wind. I watch my sonar the whole time, looking for evidence of shad, big fish (which probably are blue cats), or both. If I see what I'm looking for, I drift back across the area with rods deployed."

While seeing a big mark on his graph is enough to prompt Williams to start fishing, it's not enough to keep him a spot that's not producing. "If I'm marking fish but not catching them, I usually don't give the spot more than about 30 minutes. I'd rather spend time looking for active cats than trying to entice inactive fish."

Williams uses the same type of drift rig used by reservoir drifters from Texas to South Carolina, presented on 8-foot heavy-power rods and sturdy casting reels spooled with 30-pound superline. "Low-stretch line is necessary for drifting," Williams says. "Too much stretch makes it difficult to determine bottom composition, feel light bites, and set hooks at long range.

"The business end of my rigging consists of a two- or three-ounce bell sinker sliding on the main line above a barrel swivel and four-foot leader," Williams continues. "I thread a two-inch crappie float on the leader to suspend the bait slightly above the bottom, then finish with a 4/0 or 5/0 treble hook. I bait the hook with a pair of fresh cut 4-inch gizzard shad."

Coping With Calm — Williams says there are two ways to catch blues when there's no wind: the hard way and the easy way. "The hard way is using an electric motor to hover over the spot you're fishing," Williams says. "It can be the most effective method and allows you to follow a shad school moving along a channel ledge. But as I said, it isn't easy.

"The easy way is to anchor over the structure," Williams adds. "I can't emphasize how important it is to anchor over structure, though I probably can count on one hand the number of days that I've caught blue cats by stillfishing in the middle of a deep flat. Precision is the key.

"I often tell clients that blue cats are creatures of edges and ledges," Williams says. "And it's even more important to evaluate the area with sonar before you anchor. Drive your boat in a crisscross pattern over the river channel until you mark fish, then turn around and head back over the same spot. As soon as you hit the top edge of the channel, right where the bottom starts to drop, throw out a marker buoy. Continue on the same course until you hit the top of the channel and then throw out a second marker.

"Next motor upwind of the markers and onto the flat and drift back toward the channel," Williams continues. "Drop an anchor off the front of the boat as soon as the boat nears the channel edge. Once the boat comes to a stop, drop a second anchor off the back of the boat to keep the transom from swinging. If you've done it right, you'll be locked tight to the edge of the channel just upwind from the marker buoys."

Williams sometimes uses a drift rig while stillfishing, noting that buoyant baits seem to be most effective when cats are actively feeding. "Most of the time I prefer a type of three-way rig while I'm anchored," Williams says. "Instead of using a three-way swivel, though, I tie a loop in the end of my main line, then cut the loop to form a leader and a dropper."

Williams usually varies the length of the sinker-dropper to find what the fish prefer. He begins fishing with a six-inch dropper on one rod, a 12-incher on another, and an 18-inch dropper on a third. "If one rig seems to be producing more fish than the others," Williams adds, "then I change my whole spread to that rigging."

Sometimes a particular depth zone is more effective. Williams usually presents a spread of baits from the top of the channel to the bottom, then notes which rod or rods attract the most attention from fish. "When you hit the right spot," Williams concludes, "you won't be able to get the rest of your hooks baited before the first one is doubled over in the holder."

Adjustable Three-Way Rig

The three-way rig is an option so versatile that it should at least be considered in most catfishing situations. It's an effective rig for presenting static baits in the heavy current of a tailrace or the still waters of a lake or pond. But it's unparalleled for slipdrifting on big rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, and for drifting windblown flats in big reservoirs like Santee-Cooper.

The three-way rig consists of a dropper line 6 to 24 inches long, anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the bait near bottom. A half-ounce sinker might be sufficient in still water, but 3 to 8 ounces are needed to drift around the tips of wing dams for blue and channel cats. The leader should be slightly longer than the dropper line - usually 2 to 3 feet, depending on current velocity.

Three-way rigs also excel at extracting fish from areas where other rigs can't hold or return from. Say you're fishing for channel cats over a broken-rock bottom below a lowhead dam. Use a three-way rig with a 20-pound mainline and a 17-pound leader. Secure a 2- to 4-ounce bell sinker to the remaining rung of a three-way swivel with 6-pound line. When cast into place, the sinker hangs, anchoring the rig until a fish strikes. Big cats sometimes grab a bait hard enough to hook themselves and break the light dropper line. When a smaller fish strikes, a sharp snap of the rod tip breaks off the sinker and sets the hook.

Another versatile rig is an (pictured here) that doesn't require a three-way swivel. Instead, tie on a standard barrel swivel between your mainline and leader. Next, thread a long dropper line through one of the swivel rungs and clamp a lead shot somewhere on the dropper opposite the sinker and swivel.

The lead shot functions like a bobber stop. Where you set it determines the distance the swivel rides above bottom, and thus the depth the bait runs. To adjust the distance from bottom, simply slide the shot up or down the dropper. Should you snag, a firm pull slides the shot off your dropper line, once again losing only the sinker and saving the rest of the rigging.

Sliprig

Pictured: Basic Sliprig

Many catfishing situations call for a livebait or piece of cutbait to be stillfished on the bottom. The most popular bottom rig for all catfish species is the simple sliprig. This rig consists of an egg sinker sliding on the mainline, held in place above the hook by a lead shot. The objective is to anchor the bait near the bottom, and then allow a catfish to swim off with the bait without feeling too much tension. The idea is sound, but this rig doesn't accomplish either objective well.

The success of trotlines and limblines illustrates that catfish - particularly big cats - aren't timid feeders. Let a trout or walleye run with the bait before you set the hook, but don't wait for cats. When a decent-size cat picks up the bait, he has it. Most of the time, you could set immediately without giving any line. But your chances of a solid hookset increase if you let the fish turn first. When you feel the thump of a fish grabbing the bait, follow him with your rod tip for a foot or two, then set.

Another problem is the egg sinker. These sinkers work well when pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current. When cast across current, though, they tend to roll along the bottom and snag more often than other sinker designs like bell, bank, or flat sinkers. Slip your mainline through the top of a slipsinker and replace the split shot with a swivel to improve the effectiveness of this popular rig.

Leader length is another concern, especially for novice anglers. Don't use a longer leader just because it separates the bait from the sinker. Rather, adjust the length of the leader to vary the amount of action and movement imparted to the bait. A piece of cutbait tethered on a 12-inch leader may lie motionless on the bottom of a lake or pond, but would flail about wildly in heavy current.

Use just enough leader for your bait to attract fish without hanging up. That might mean a 3- or 4-foot leader for drifting cutbait across the clean bottom of a reservoir for blue cats; a 6-inch leader for holding big livebaits in front of a snag for flatheads; or no leader at all for probing the broken bottom of a tailrace for channel cats.

Double Barreled Float Rig

As much as floats aid strike indication, their true worth lies in the unique ways they present baits to catfish. Given that catfishing remains a game of delivering the right bait the right way, float rigs ought to play a major role in every angler's lineup. This is increasingly true as we discover how well cats respond to drifting, as well as to off-bottom presentations. A float is simply a bait-delivery tool similar to a sinker, and catfishermen ought to consider it just as important.

Regardless of which catfish species you're fishing for, the basic slipfloat rig is constructed in the same way. Before tying on a hook, cinch on a pre-made stop-knot, or tie a five-turn uni-knot around your mainline with the same or slightly heavier line to serve as an adjustable float stop. Sliding the stop-knot up the line makes the bait run deeper, while sliding it down allows for a shallower drift. Next, slip on a 5-mm bead followed by the slipfloat. Anchor cutbait and smaller livebait rigs with a few lead shot about a foot above a hook, ranging from a #2 for small baits to a 3/0 for bigger baits. To anchor larger livebaits for flatheads, add a swivel about 20 inches above a 3/0 to 7/0 hook. Slide a 1- to 2-ounce egg sinker on the line above the swivel to balance the float.

Double-Barreled Sliprigs

Pictured: Double Barreled Rig

These rigs are a combination of a sliprig and a three-way rig. They're worth the extra time they take to construct - particularly for presenting livebaits to flatheads. The low-frequency vibrations emitted by a struggling baitfish attract catfish by stimulating their sensitive lateral lines. Baitfish of all sizes must first be wild and super lively, and second be presented in a way that allows them to advertise these seductive qualities. Keep a wild bait suspended over cover and it feels exposed, vulnerable, and will panic.

Begin with a terminal leader as you would for a sliprig: A 12-inch section of monofilament or braided line with a hook on one end and a barrel swivel on the other. Before tying the swivel to your mainline, add a sinker dropper consisting of a lighter piece of monofilament with a bell sinker on one end and a swivel on the other. Thread the dropper swivel on the mainline so it slides above the leader swivel. The length of the bottom dropper determines how high the bait is held above the bottom.

This rigging is most effective when you maintain a 30- to 90-degree angle on your line, from rod tip to sinker. Fishing the head of a hole from a boat anchored slightly upstream, or fishing the edge of a flat from the sandbar on an inside river bend, or fishing the scour hole behind a bridge abutment from the top of the bridge are all top situations for double-barreled sliprigs.

Drifting Rigs - Bottom Bouncer Rig

Fixed sinker rigs usually are favored for steady drift speeds or heavy current, since active cats tend to hit moving baits fast and hard. Fish often are hooked on the strike, but always set anyway to ensure a good hookup - unless you're using a circle hook. Another advantage of fixed-sinker rigs is that the leader slackens and tightens as the weight pivots along the bottom. When pulled behind a boat moving at a steady speed, the bait slows then darts forward, often triggering a neutral fish to strike.

Slinky Rig

Slipsinker rigs usually are a better choice for slower drift speeds and lighter current. Standard slipsinkers like the walking sinker are fine over a relatively clean bottom, but more snag- resistant designs like the Lindy No-Snagg or Slinky sinkers are better in heavy cover. No sinker design is completely snag-free, but these designs glide through tangles that would devour egg and bell sinkers. Adding a panfish-size float to the leader and using weedless hooks make the rest of the rig more snag-resistant, too.

Pop Up Paternoster Rig

The paternoster is a wonderful rig in areas of relatively consistent depth. The problem is, as depth changes with cast placement, you need to adjust stop-knot position to keep the rig running properly. To some extent, the float acts like a sail, too, catching wind and riding current at speeds exceeding that of water moving below the surface. In significant current or wind, the float may drag the top of the rig into trouble spots or, occasionally, dislodge the entire rig from its position.

Again, we need to change the way we regard floats on a fundamental level. Floats aren't only bite indicators, just as they don't necessarily have to remain on the surface. Consider the pop-up paternoster rig. Rather than presenting the float above the rig on the surface, slide the float onto the dropper line between the swivel and weight, typically a 1- to 5-ounce bell sinker. Streamlined floats, such as Betts - Billy Boy or Little Joe's Pole Float, catch less current, reducing downstream drag. By submerging the float, you've eliminated worries about adjusting stop knots to changing depths. At rest, the float pops up the dropper line, holding the rig erect above bottom. The depth is a function of dropper length. Finally, by running back-to-back barrel swivels rather than a single three-way swivel, striking catfish run free with the line, similar to the action of a slipsinker rig.

Slip Float Rigging

Pictured: Slip Float Rigging

Splitshotting

If the weight of the bait alone isn't enough to keep it near bottom - either because the bait is moving too fast or the water is too deep - a lead shot or two pinched on the line may be the best solution. This is especially true in lakes and reservoirs, where tentative cats often reject a bait when too much pressure is on the line from a heavy sinker. A single 3/0 or #7 shot usually is enough to keep the bait in the strike zone, but not so heavy that a cat rejects the added weight.

This rig also is a top choice for river fishing situations that usually would call for a slipfloat rig. Pinching lead shot on the mainline about 6 to 12 inches above the hook results in a rig that can be drifted through riffles, shallow holes, and even around the edge of visible cover like snags and boulders. Round shot, as opposed to the removable type with ears, tends to drift better in current and doesn't twist as much while drifting in still water. Soft lead shot also is less damaging to lines than lead substitutes like tin or shot poured from hard lead alloys.

Standard Three-Way Rig

The three-way rig is another option so versatile that it should at least be considered in most catfishing situations. It's an effective rig for presenting static baits in the heavy current of a tailrace or the still waters of a lake or pond. But it's unparalleled for slipdrifting on big rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, and for drifting windblown flats in big reservoirs like Santee-Cooper.

The three-way rig consists of a dropper line 6 to 24 inches long, anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the bait near bottom. A half-ounce sinker might be sufficient in still water, but 3 to 8 ounces are needed to drift around the tips of wing dams for blue and channel cats. The leader should be slightly longer than the dropper line - usually 2 to 3 feet, depending on current velocity.

Three-way rigs also excel at extracting fish from areas where other rigs can't hold or return from. Say you're fishing for channel cats over a broken-rock bottom below a lowhead dam. Use a three-way rig with a 20-pound mainline and a 17-pound leader. Secure a 2- to 4-ounce bell sinker to the remaining rung of a three-way swivel with 6-pound line. When cast into place, the sinker hangs, anchoring the rig until a fish strikes. Big cats sometimes grab a bait hard enough to hook themselves and break the light dropper line. When a smaller fish strikes, a sharp snap of the rod tip breaks off the sinker and sets the hook.

Another versatile rig is an adjustable three-way that doesn't require a three-way swivel. Instead, tie on a standard barrel swivel between your mainline and leader. Next, thread a long dropper line through one of the swivel rungs and clamp a lead shot somewhere on the dropper opposite the sinker and swivel.

The lead shot functions like a bobber stop. Where you set it determines the distance the swivel rides above bottom, and thus the depth the bait runs. To adjust the distance from bottom, simply slide the shot up or down the dropper. Should you snag, a firm pull slides the shot off your dropper line, once again losing only the sinker and saving the rest of the rigging.

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