Catfish are warm-weather feeders. Everybody knows that.
But that's only part of the story. Catfish are also cold-weather feeders, and not everybody knows that. In fact, judging from the lack of catfishing activity across the nation during the cold months, very few people know it.
That's one of the things that make this little-known activity so enticing. Where else can the average angler go and have a more-than-reasonable chance of hooking a fish that weighs 20, 30, 40 or even more pounds without being crowded or spending an arm and a leg?
No matter where you live in the United States, you're within realistic driving range of good winter catfish water. Big lakes throughout the country hold good catfish populations, as do rivers both large and small, and there's usually enough open water to find the fish.
Blue and channel catfish are the most active feeders during winter; flatheads are much less active and get lethargic at water temperatures below about 45 degrees. Below 40-degree water temperatures, flatheads are pretty much out of the question unless you fish slowly and right on top of them.
Cut baitfish, especially shad, are the key to tempting big cats in cold water.
Winterkilled shad make up much of the food source of winter cats. Both gizzard and threadfin shad are cold intolerant, and they die off in massive quantities when water temps dip below 45. When the winter kill starts, blues and channel catfish gang up below tailrace dams and around riprap wing dams on larger rivers and gorge on these dead and dying shad.
The best bait for this fishing, of course, is shad. This can present a problem if you don't think ahead, but gathering a good supply of bait for winter fishing is easy with a small cast net or even a long-handled dip-net earlier in the fall, when the shad are schooling below dams. If you can't get shad, you can use dead shiners or other types of minnows, or cut bait from carp, suckers or other rough scaled fish.
Most knowledgeable winter catfish anglers prefer to use two or three small (2 to 3 inch) minnows or shad, threaded through the eyes on a single hook. Use a bell sinker or slip-sinker of sufficient size to keep the bait on bottom.
There are several ways to fish this rig. If you have a boat, drift-fishing is an excellent technique. Simply motor to the upstream end of the area you think is holding the fish, and drift along with the current, letting the bait bump along bottom with you. Once you've located the fish, you may want to anchor or tie off and fish the rig downstream from your boat to reduce hang-ups. Bank fishing is best where the current sweeps against an obstruction and provides a slack-water area where cats lurk to wait for passing food.
It's rarely too cold for channels, as this stringer proves. Time to clean fish!
Freshwater mussels are also on the winter menu for blues and channel cats. The fish congregate around beds of these mussels where they can feed leisurely, with little wasted energy.
These mussel beds are often much shallower than many anglers believe. Most of them will be found near shore in 3 to 6 feet of water, and you can find them by probing the mud with a long pole as you move along near shore on gently sloping, muddy banks. These beds are fairly consistent from year to year, so when you find one, mark its location in your memory. It will provide good winter catfishing in future years.
A slip-sinker rig is best for fishing mussel beds. Use fresh mussel meat or cut bait, and simply cast into the mussel bed and wait. The fish are there to feed on mussels, but they're opportunists and won't turn up their whiskers at a nice chunk of fish.
Don’t Give Up On Flatheads
Flatheads, which many anglers consider the king of the heap when it comes to catfishing, can also be caught in cold weather as mentioned earlier in this piece. However, you need to know exactly where they are. Flatheads tend to congregate in very specific wintering areas in lakes and rivers, and while there may be a thousand or more big fish in a three-acre area, there might not be another flathead within a mile. Therefore, you can fish a lot of very unproductive water if you don't know what to look for.
Contrary to popular belief, flatheads don't necessarily gather in the deep, quiet holes where you'd expect a semi-dormant fish to spend the winter. Instead, they seek out areas with heavy bottom cover—logs, rocks, brushpiles, treetops—in areas of moderate current, regardless of depth. The wing dams and riprap areas on large rivers are ideal wintering places. Of course, there are more rocky areas in these rivers than there are flathead wintering areas, so you'll still have to seek out the prime real estate.
If the water temps read 40 degrees or above, flatheads can be caught, usually from a vertical presentation.
One of the best techniques for winter flatheads is to rig a live shad or shiner on a heavy jig head and work it vertically over a rocky bottom, fishing as close to straight down as you can to minimize hang-ups. (You're going to have a lot of hang-ups anyway, so bring plenty of extra jigs.) Pay close attention to your business, and if anything feels amiss—if the jig stops short of where you think the bottom should be when you raise it, for example, or if your line twitches in a way it hasn't been doing—set the hook. Sometimes a cold-water flathead will really whack your rig when you put it in front of his nose, but just as often he'll sort of yawn it in and the strike will be as light as that of a crappie.
The Waiting Game
Below water temperatures of 40 degrees, forget about flatheads, but even in these extremely frigid waters you can still catch some channels and blues if you fish slowly and pay attention. Wait them out in cold weather, leaving your bait alone for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. The channels and blues will still be feeding some, but they'll be slow about it.
In fact, don't ever get in a hurry with winter catfish, no matter the water temperature, regardless of whether you're fishing a winter shad kill in moving water, a chunk of mussel over a shell bed or a jig-and-minnow over a suspected flathead wintering hole. Dress warmly, carry a thermos of hot coffee or cocoa, and discipline yourself to gear back and match your rhythm to the pace of winter. It's relaxing, peaceful and quiet out there this time of year…and you can catch some awfully big fish besides.