Catfish stand out in the winter as predators in Mississippi waters; they’re a little less active, but more than willing to hit a properly placed bait. Here’s how to take advantage of the opportunities.
What’s the difference between targeting catfish in July and January? About six months; that’s all. Mid–winter catfish are just a little less active than in summer, but they still cruise the waters, looking for a quick meal.
Well, sort of.
The ever-popular flathead, which prefers live bait and is known for a good fight and good taste, becomes lethargic during the winter. While they do not hibernate in holes and logjams as some insist, their metabolism slows dramatically, limiting their need to feed.
Blue cats and channel cats are not as active as in the summer, but they are feeding regularly enough to be laudable targets. Shad are the favored meals for these two species, and finding and fishing where shad are ganged up can prove worth the effort.
Like all fish, shad prefer the comfort of warmer and more-oxygenated water. This can be on riprap where the sun warms the rocks and water. In larger reservoirs, that will be along the dams, breakwaters and similar areas. Tailrace water, where and when it is accessible, is warmer and high in dissolved oxygen. Fishermen downstream from dams will find shad and catfish plentiful, along with a few crappie and bass feeding on shad.
In the open water, using sonar to locate shad balls or dense schools of shad will pay off big-time.
Big cats will be close by as the shad go with the flow in the deeper water. Having a rig with two or three shad all hooked through the eyes and trolling just beneath the shad will almost guarantee a good bite. Often, there will be an area holding shad where an angler can catch a few in a cast net.
There is a successful bait most Mississippians associate with Sunday dinner rather than catfish: chicken, especially chicken breasts. Cats prefer theirs’ skinless and raw, as opposed to crispy and fried. In big water, allow the speed of the river current to move the boat. It’s a good technique to use on the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers, or with trolling-motor power in all of Mississippi’s big lakes. Attach just enough weight to the line so that it sinks easily; catfish this time of year are not topwater feeders.
Make sure all netted bait is dead before using it above the dam to prevent the possible spread of the invasive Asian carp, whose young resemble shad.
Free-floating fishing devices (FFFDs) remain a popular weapon when searching for Mr. Whiskers. Line can measure from 3 to 12 feet until a comfortable thermocline can be found; after that, all lines are adjusted to that depth. Most commercial fishing floats have a swivel incorporated to allow a specific depth to be fished. Homemade FFFDs can have a swivel attached just as easily.
Rod-and-reel anglers will find catfish in the deep bends of rivers such as the Pearl or Big Black. Banks that catch the sun will have warmer water, just a little warmer, making them good areas to try. The rush of water over the Low Head Dam in Scott County creates a good environment for catfish.
Borrow pits and old river channels are another place to place FFFDs with longer lines. These devices also work well around channel markers where deep water and shallow flats meet.
Blood baits have long been a popular choice for catfish anglers. Colder water remains a good situation for these scent-emitting morsels. At this time of year, many fishermen are choosing to use deer hearts and livers. A hunter will be wise to save those organs for this purpose. Cut the heart into 1-inch thick strips about 2 inches long. Soak them in a coffee can filled with deer blood for a few days if the weather allows, then place them in freezer bags. The liver can be prepared the same way.
“Some people cook and eat deer hearts,” said angler Patrick Shannon of Jackson. “I’d rather have the fried catfish fillets the bait will catch. I have friends at deer camp who always save me the hearts from the deer they kill. I catch enough catfish to feed the camp at least one meal every season.”
Hook the slices of deer heart so they resemble a bow-tie. The heart meat is dense and will release blood and scent slowly. To a lesser degree, deer livers can be sliced in chunks and used with good success.
Shannon also uses “juiced-up” hot dogs with good success. Those are red franks cut into 2-inch chunks and soaked in raspberry Kool-Aid. Fish oil is another good bait soak, according to Shannon, but finding liquid fish oil can be a challenge. Hooking a fish oil gel cap above the bait seems to work most of the time in spreading an underwater scent trail.
Old South Lures makes a fish attractant that has served this writer well when fishing in state lakes and ponds, where there is little current to carry the smell, but it works well in any water.
Most bait shops are stocked with small shiners to satisfy the demands of anglers starting to test the winter crappie bite. Crappie heads with the guts attached are good catfish baits. A shad, when it can be found, can be broken so that its guts hang from the head. Angler Sid Montgomery of Jackson said shad guts remain his favorite bait for catfish in the backwaters of the Mississippi River during colder months.
Keith Sutton, an outdoor writer and angler from Arkansas, has authored two books about catfishing. So authoritative is Sutton that his nickname is “Catfish.” When asked about winter catfishing he had this to say.
“Follow the shad balls; the catfish will be just beneath them,” Sutton said. “Blues and channels are active in winter and position themselves beneath the bait balls to pick off the shad, especially during the shad kills.”
According to biologist Keith Meals of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, shad die-offs are usually threadfin shad since they are more cold-sensitive than gizzard shad. Threadfin die-offs are more common farther north, but they can happen anywhere if it gets cold enough fast enough. Literature says anywhere from 35o to 45oF is their lower lethal limit. If water temperature decreases slowly and steadily over several days, fish may acclimate to temperatures colder than normal. Most big die-offs happen when there is a sudden temperature drop from severe cold fronts where wind-blown cold air mixes the water top to bottom and the water temperature drops significantly in 12 to 24 hours. Water is most dense at 4oC or 39.2oF, which is why ice floats. If a lake or pond ices over, the warmest water available is 39.2oF unless there are underwater springs or inflowing streams that provide temperature refuges.
Catfish and other predators gorge on dying shad, but predators are in cold water, too, so their metabolism is slower, and it takes longer to digest a meal. It will be a while before they are hungry again, but when the pickings are easy, just like people with a bag of chips on the couch, they’ll eat until they are stuffed. The best time to fish shad for cats is when the kill first starts.
Threadfin shad have shown up in all the flood-control reservoirs in recent years, likely as escapees from private-pond stockings. Since these lakes are drawn down in winter, they are shallow, wind-swept bowls where threadfins often experience winter kill. I have seen dead shad under the ice, but ice cover is not necessary; shallow water and wind combine to drive temperatures too low for threadfins to survive during severe cold snaps.
Connected oxbow lakes off the Mississippi and other rivers that flow south towards the Gulf can have winter kills of threadfins, but they recolonize from the rivers. Downstream shad that survive in warmer temperatures move upstream as the water warms in spring to spawn. Below reservoirs, they aggregate below locks and dams in spring.
So there you have it. Deer season is winding down, and there are the few false spring days. Use these days to get the fishing tackle out and find a fishing hole near you.
Special considerations must be given to angler safety with fishing in cold weather. Hypothermia can happen quickly, and unless treated properly, it can result in severe illness or death very quickly.
Dress in layers and always wear an approved personal flotation device. Never go out without leaving a plan with a friend or relative that tells where you intend to fish and your planned return time.