Most anyone can catch catfish May through October. But few anglers take monster-sized cats throughout the winter months like Phil “The Catfish” King of Corinth, who guides on the Tennessee River. I fished with King below Pickwick Dam to learn his secret strategies for catching big cats year-round — particularly in the winter. “I’m convinced that cats eat something every day,” King said. “I’ve learned where big cats live through studying their habits. If I put bait up off the bottom that catfish will eat, I can catch them — no matter what the time of year.
"However, catfish do bite much more slowly during the winter months than they do in the summer months. Many times, even a big catfish will hit the bait for 10 minutes during the winter before the fish will take it in and swallow it."
King fishes in deep holes near the floodgates below Pickwick Dam and downriver, where he gears up specifically for the light winter bite. King uses either Berkley’s FireLine or SpiderWire. This braided, no-stretch line enables the veteran angler to feel the catfish on his line as soon as the fish first bites the bait.
Then he can set the hook quickly.
With monofilament line, he may not feel the catfish until after its bitten the bait and tries to get off.
To his main line, King attaches a three-way swivel. Coming off the second eye of the swivel, he ties 12 to 18 inches of 60-pound-test Berkley Big Game line.
To the end of this line, King attaches a barrel swivel. Next he ties-on another 12 to 18 inches of Berkley’s 60-pound-test Big Game.
Then he’ll snell a 2/0 Kahle hook to the line and leave 4 to 6 inches of line coming off the first hook to allow him to snell a second 2/0 Kahle hook to the same line.
"This rig is the one I use to catch eating-size catfish that weigh from 2 to 6 pounds each," King explainrf. "But if I’m fishing for really big catfish, I’ll use 6/0 or 7/0 Kahle hooks. When I’m fishing big baits, I like to make sure I have two hooks in the bait.
"Then, regardless of how the catfish takes the bait, I’ve got at least one and maybe two hooks in the fish."
On the bottom eye of his three-way swivel, King uses 14- to 20-pound-test Big Game to tie on his lead.
"I’ll have 2 feet to as much as 10 feet of leader line going from the eye of the swivel to the lead on the bottom," King said. "I determine how long to make the lead leader based on what depth I mark the fish with my depth finder.
"If the cats are holding 10 feet off the bottom, I’ll use 10 feet of leader, since I want my lead to go to the bottom but my bait to be in 10 feet of water. When I find the cats holding right on the bottom or really close to the bottom, I may use only 1 to 2 feet of leader from my three-way swivel to my lead. If there’s a very light current, wintertime catfish often will move 8 to 10 feet off the bottom to feed.
"I believe many fishermen don’t catch cats, because they aren’t putting their baits where the fish are feeding."
King decided that, since catfish would eat just about every day year-round, he’d focus his fishing for catfish in river-bottom holes.
"On an average day, I can catch 40 to 50 pounds of catfish," King comments. "On a really-good day — even in the winter — I often can catch 100 pounds of cats. Most people are deer hunting or doing other things instead of catfishing during the winter and may not realize they can catch cats then.
"Catfish bite a little slower and aren’t nearly as aggressive in the winter, but they’re still hungry."
He said it takes patience to get tied into a good winter fish, but the rewards are worth the wait.
"While fishing one winter, I had a 51-pound catfish barely peck at my bait for 10 minutes," King said. "When the catfish finally did inhale the bait, it pulled me and the boat sideways downriver."
King enjoys fishing for big cats more than other types of fish because he gets such an adrenaline rush from the whiskered monsters.
"When I finally put a big cat in the boat, I’ll sit down and shake all over I’m so excited," King explained.
"Some of the places I like to fish are in deep holes down the river below Pickwick Dam," King said. "But almost every major river system in the nation will have drop-offs, holes and underwater ledges downstream from hydroelectric plants."
So if you plan to begin a career catching big wintertime cats, survey the river bottom below any Mississippi dam and look for drop-offs, holes and ledges downriver, King advised. Catfish like to hold in these areas in cooler weather because baitfish congregate, and where other food washes into the holes.
Once King locates such a hole, he uses his trolling motor to hold his boat against the current. Then he lets his line fall down to the bottom, and very slowly allows the current to move his boat downriver.
King will raise his rod tip and lift the lead up off the bottom. By controlling the drift of his boat with his trolling motor, King allows the boat to move back 3 to 6 inches before he sets his lead down again.
"I want the nose of the boat pointed into the current and my line running at about a 30-degree angle toward the back of the boat," King said. "I start bumping my bait along the bottom above the hole, let the bait drop down into the hole and then bounce the bait along the bottom out the back side of the hole.
"Since the catfish often will be on top of, in or behind the hole, you want to work that entire stretch of the bottom."
King prefers fishing deeper drop-offs and the deeper holes in the river during the summer and the winter months because bigger cats tend to hold where depths reach 30, 40 and even 60 feet at these two times of the year.
King also enjoys fishing holes in front of spillways that don’t discharge water during the winter months.
"Big cats will hold around dam areas throughout the year," King emphasized. "I’ve learned that some of their favorite places to hold in tailraces are not just in the swift water where the turbines are being discharged, but also in the slack water around the spillway."
When King finds such holes in front of the spillways, he uses the same rig here that he does when he bumps back in the holes down the river.
However, when fishing slack water, King fishes with lighter leads — often weighing no more than 1 or 2 ounces — and uses his trolling motor to move his boat slowly around these holes.
One of King’s most-impressive catches of big cats occurred as he fished below the dam in deep holes at Pickwick in the slack water in front of the spillway gates.
"On a Friday night, using my trolling motor, I slow-trolled five big baits in the deep holes about 9 p.m.," King recalled.
As a catfish struck a bait and pretzeled a rod resting in a rod holder on the opposite side of the boat from King, the veteran catfisherman reached over, grabbed his rod out of its rod holder and pulled back to set the hook.
"The cat hit so hard that it jerked me around in the seat, and I had to put both hands on the rod as the drag screamed off the reel," he said.
The big cat came to the surface, made two figure 8s just under the water and began a long, steady run down the river.
The catfish went down and stayed on the bottom for about 10 minutes. When the fish came up, King could see the big cat on the surface and hoped he could land it.
Then, for a second time, the cat dove for the bottom and another 10-minute tug-of-war ensued.
"When you’ve got a big cat on the line, and the fight’s lasting for more than a minute or two, you’ve really got to have confidence in your line and in your equipment," King said. "If you don’t have a strong line and an abrasion-resistant leader line that can handle the constant pressure of a big catfish, you can’t land that fish."
Because King had learned through the years not to try and muscle a large catfish to the surface until the fish surrendered, he chased the catfish downriver with his trolling motor.
Finally after a 20-minute battle, the 61-pound blue cat rolled up on its side and King slid the net under the big fish.
"The real fun of catching a monster-sized catfish in the winter definitely is the fight," he said.
More big-cat secrets
Most anglers who fish below Pickwick Dam and other Mississippi dams know they’ll find big cats in the holes downriver. But why does King consistently catch monster-sized catfish out of these holes, and other anglers don’t always?
According to King, he never goes over a hole running his big motor; the sound of a big motor moving over a catfish hole will cause the fish not to bite.
A trolling motor, however, doesn’t seem to spook the fish.
King fishes through the hole, allowing his bait to drift back naturally rather than trying to anchor on or above the hole and fishing vertically in it.
Many times he’ll pinpoint catfish out in front of or behind the hole rather than in the depression. Anyone fishing in the hole only has one in three chances of catching the cats.
Using his trolling motor to control his drift, King moves his bait through the hole slower than the current. He only lifts his lead 3 to 4 inches off the bottom.
King fishes with 60-pound-test abrasion-resistant monofilament leader line that has the power to move a big cat once he sets the hook with his braided main line.
He fishes with a braided, no-stretch, small-diameter main line when he’s looking for monster-sized cats because — once again — he can feel the catfish’s bite better and get a faster and harder hook set.
King suggested use of an extremely large dip net when fishing for big cats. Often an angler will lose a large catfish at the boat because he doesn’t have a net big enough to land a huge cat.
King fishes 10 to 20 holes in a day, and often returns to the same hole several times during the day. He uses a wide variety of baits, including cut shad, shad guts, chicken livers, night crawlers and live crappie minnows.
"I let the catfish tell me which bait they prefer on that day," King said. "I enjoy fishing for cats during the winter, but I do catch big cats year round.
"However, I know you seldom catch big cats unless you fish specifically for big cats."
To learn more about Phil King and fishing for wintertime catfish, go to www.h2ow.com/catfish, email email@example.com or call 662-286-8644.
For more information about fishing for catfish, get the new eBook, "Catfish Like A Pro" by John E. Phillips. Go to www.amazon.com/kindle-ebooks, type in the name of the book, and download it to your Kindle and/or download a Kindle app for your iPad, SmartPhone or computer.