Winter Blue Catfish
May 24, 2015
When rivers flow frigid through leafless landscapes, the world goes by slowly for channel cats and flatheads. While flatheads can be difficult to raise, channels cats can still be caught from large groups concentrating in wintering areas. Winter blue catfish, meanwhile, are the mavericks of the family, snubbing the cold to see what the season has to offer.
It's not that blues are immune to the cold, as aggressive hits and catches of big fish this season might make one believe. Like their cold-blooded counterparts, blues are biologically influenced by the chilly environment, making large-scale movements and shifts to seasonal habitats. While their metabolism and digestion rates slow, they continue to feed, making winter one of the best times of the year to catch big fish when you find them.
John Jamison of Spring Hill, Kansas, and Jim Moyer of Clarksville, Tennessee, often need no introduction among fellow catmen. Between the two, they've logged decades of experience zeroing in on blue cats in some of the most famous blue cat waters Uncle Sam has to offer. And they're dialed into winter as much as in any other season.
Jamison on the Missouri
Jamison has racked up some catfishing honors, including as 2007 National Points Champion on the Cabela's King Kat Tournament Trail, and placing second in the 2006 Cabela's King Kat Classic. In winter, he primarily fishes the Missouri River from the Nebraska line to Columbia, Missouri. "I cover such a large area because every year is different from the previous depending on winter migration, which is directly influenced by the amount of water we receive each year," he says. "In low-water years, I don't see a lot of fish far upriver."
Jamison fishes for winter cats in water down into the 30ºF range, but he says winter patterns begin earlier when temperatures fall below about 50°F to 52ºF. "That's when blues make a big shift, from swifter outside bends to deeper water with less current. The best spots are scour holes around wing dams. The Missouri has a lot of dikes and scour holes but few concentrate blue cats, so you have to search to find fish.
"Current in scour holes runs at about 2 mph compared to 3 to 5 mph in outside bend areas. Depth is important but not the only factor. I normally prefer scour holes that are 30 to 45 feet deep and seldom fish any that are shallower. A scour hole that's immediately above a good summertime outside bend or channel swing holds more fish than one in a straight stretch of river."
In winter on the Missouri, he primarily fishes from an anchored position, because he hasn't been able to slow a drift enough to be effective in cold water. "I start by placing two rods at the front of a scour hole and two a little farther into the hole," he says. "I continue to move baits towards the back of the hole until I locate fish. When they're aggressive they tend to be toward the front side of the hole, but I also catch a lot of fish in the back or tailout. Fish in the core of the hole tend to be the least active."
Downsized presentations are key to Jamison's approach. "I believe that smaller is better in winter," he says. "I use a 7/0 to 10/0 Daiichi Circle Wide (DZ85) hook in warm water, but down through the mid-30ºF range, I switch to a 5/0 size to better match the smaller baits I use then. My primary winter bait is shad. I cut the head off and use only that. The whole bait is about the size of a quarter to a 50-cent piece, compared to the rest of the year when I'm baiting with 6- to 8-inch sections of cut skipjack herring, shad, or carp."
Blues become particularly sluggish, he notes, during midwinter cold fronts. "When there's a combination of a south wind and mild temperatures, blues tend to hit more aggressively. When the wind blows from the north and air temperatures are down in the 30s or lower, the fish bite more gingerly, even big fish, and the smaller hook and bait combo has the advantage."
He doesn't fish with the same piece of bait for longer than 20 minutes, noting that changing baits often is key to developing a stronger scent trail. "I think that a small bait emits more scent in cold water than does the same size bait in warm water. Or maybe the scent dispersion lasts longer when it's cold. Blues still eat big baits, but the smaller baits seem to have the advantage in winter."
Freshly caught bait is often preferred among blue cat anglers. But Jamison offers a theory to the possible benefits of using previously frozen bait. "A common thought in winter is that most of the forage base is winterkill, not fresh livebait," he says. Gizzard shad and other baitfish often experience pulses of mortality in winter, when dead carcasses provide a source of food for catfish. "I find that bait stored frozen and then thawed is a better option than fresh. Thawed baits develop a stronger and more distinctive odor, more closely mimicking a winterkilled baitfish. It might be just enough of a difference to attract more cats, at times.
"At a spring tournament on the Mississippi River around New Madrid, Missouri, I was fishing with partner Mark Thompson a boat's length from tournament pro Phil King. We were all using the same tactics over the same fish, but at the end of the day I'd caught more of them. The only difference was that I used thawed cutbait and Phil used fresh bait. That's only one situation, but it's another reason for me to think about thawed versus fresh in colder water.
"I learned another trick from a fisherman who's fished the Missouri for years," Jamison says. It's called a stink bucket. Put a bunch of carp fillets in a bucket and throw in a couple of whole shad for flavoring. Store the bucket in the refrigerator for a month or so, and use chunks of cut carp for bait. It works so well I hesitate to mention it." The formula he's referring to is a milder version of a true sourbait, which can be a top option for channel cats feeding on winterkilled shad in early spring.
To present baits, Jamison uses a sliprig. He threads a 4- to 6-ounce egg sinker on 80-pound-test McCoy braided line. The braid's tied to a barrel swivel, followed by an 18-inch leader of 60-pound Berkley Big Game monofilament, then the hook. He hooks the shad through the eyes or, if the current's fast, under the mouth and through the snout to keep the mouth from catching too much water.
If he's fishing around a lot of rock, he ditches the egg sinker and opts for a dropper — a bank sinker tied to a 4- to 6-inch section of 20-pound mono. The dropper's hung on the mainline using the snap end of a snap swivel. If the sinker gets snagged, the dropper breaks, saving the rest of the rig. He uses braid exclusively for a mainline, saying that since he's made the switch, his hooking percentage has been above 90 percent.
Through trial and error, Jamison arrived at a leader length of around 18 inches for his coldwater setup. "In the slower currents in the scour holes, you can get away with a longer leader. It allows the bait to waft around in the current without flapping too wildly. When leaders get too long, you lose control over the bait. Plus, I sometimes walk baits downriver through spots, lifting the rig off bottom and letting it move downstream in increments. That gets difficult when a leader's too long."
To match the lighter-style fishing in winter, he downsizes rod weight, using the Blue Cat Number 2, the lightest of his three signature series E-Glass models available from The Rod Shop (816/454-6740) in Kansas City, Missouri. The Number 2 is an 8-footer and has the softest tip in the series. This helps to detect lighter bites that often occur when midwinter fronts move through.
Moyer on the Cumberland
Legendary guide Jim Moyer's blue-cat proving grounds include the Mississippi, the middle to lower Ohio, lower Missouri, and Cumberland rivers. The Cumberland, flowing through his home state, is where he stays in close contact with blues in winter.
Unlike the free-flowing Missouri where Jamison fishes, the Cumberland is more affected by dams, which form a series of navigation pools along the river and dictate flows. Compared to the Missouri, the Cumberland is relatively uniform in terms of structural and depth diversity, characterized by steeper ledges along the margins dropping into the main channel and few wing dams. he says in stretches of the Cumberland, he fishes the Barkley and Cheatham pools, where frequent rains during winter keep flows running at a good clip.
The heart of winter is the best time of year to catch big blue cats. "Once the water cools, through fall and right through winter I target blues along steep ledges — spots that drop off quickly into deep water," Moyer says. "Steeper ledges are better than areas with gradual depth change. Often, the best spots drop quickly into 30 to 40 feet. There's pretty good current running along those ledges."
He anchors his boat parallel to a ledge and makes long casts to set baits between 30 and 40 feet deep along the lower part of the ledge, where it flattens into the channel. "That's how I start out the day, but if I find that a particular depth is more productive, I reposition the other baits to that depth. Sometimes the blue cats are tight to the base of the ledge, and that rod's getting all the action. So I make a short cast with one rod at that depth, then sequentially longer casts with the other rods to set baits in a line along the contour. It's amazing how closely tied to structure blues can be."
Moyer fishes ledges with a slipsinker rig. He starts by sliding a barrel swivel onto 40-pound-test Berkley Big Game mainline. The mainline's tied to a second barrel swivel, to which he attaches a leader of 60-pound-test Big Game. The end of the leader sports an 8/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Circle hook. To the end of the swivel sliding on the mainline, he ties a dropper of 15-pound mono; at the end of the dropper he ties on a bank sinker of 2 to 6 ounces, depending on current speed. "I like to use a longer leader in winter," he notes. "Most times I tie in a leader between 3 and 4 feet long. If there's good current, I like the bait to move. Long leaders give baits more room to swing. I can't say for certain how much of a difference it makes, but I've had good success with my setup."
Logpiles, either exposed or submerged, can also attract blue cats on the Cumberland in winter. "I often fish a slipfloat rig into and around a logjam, with baits about 6 inches to a foot off bottom in depths ranging from 5 to 30 feet. I've had a hard time finding corks that float a 2-ounce weight and a big bait, so I make my own rigs, with a plastic soda bottle serving as the float."
Like Jamison, Moyer is a deadbait man, but Moyer sticks with larger baits when it's cold, finding that blue cats continue to hit hard so there's no need to downsize. Cut skipjack herring is his favored bait. He experiments with several bait configurations to start the day, switching to the one that works best.
"On the first rod I pack big chunks of cut herring until it's about the size of a tennis ball. Rod 2 gets a strip of meat cut from the dorsal area, from the head down the back towards the tail. A pie-shaped fillet goes on rod 3, and on rod number 4 I use another fillet strip, cut halfway up the middle along the length of the strip opposite where it's hooked, so the tail waves like a split pennant."
Moyer used to insist on catching fresh bait each day, but in recent years he's been using bait that's been refrigerated a few days, finding that it can outperform fresh bait. "The storage time seems to enhance flavor and aroma," he says. "I store fillets in a plastic bag, skinside outward. The aged flesh develops a pink color. If I store it meat-side-out touching the plastic, the bait browns and isn't as effective." He agrees that Jamison could be onto something with his theories about the enhanced aromas of stored baits, and the connection between blue cats and winterkilled baitfish.
He markets catfishing rods that he designed, the Jim Moyer Boss series, sold through Catfish Connection (800/929-5025). The rods are 71â„2 — foot one-piece E-Glass baitcasters, available in light, medium, heavy, and extra-heavy powers. For winter fishing, he prefers the medium version, featuring a softer tip.
Jamison and Moyer bring unique insights to the table, drawing on different sets of experiences on the waters they fish. Knowing where to find blue cats comes first — the proper presentation seals the deal.