I recently hosted an episode of the Southwest Outdoors Report on Fox Sports Southwest and promised some follow up information and tips through the Catfish Edge site at that time.
I covered numerous tips for catching cold water Blue Catfish in the TV show but wanted to follow up with this information and provide some more detail.
This is a down and dirty summary of tips to help you with locating and catching winter Blue Catfish and answers to some of the most asked questions following the show.
Chad Ferguson – Catfish Edge
Winter Catfishing Gear Tips
Here’s a quick overview on gear and some comments where applicable.
Don’t get hyper-focused on rods, reels and tackle. You need to focus your attention on the items that are going to make a significant impact on catching fish. The best thing to do is go fishing as often as you can and for as long as possible.
If you need something to keep you occupied when you’re not fishing then focus on the things that are actually going to help you catch fish. This can be as simple as studying topographic maps or reviewing creel survey reports on your local lake or river.
This is the gear I’m using for winter Blue Catfish right now and have been for many years this is good for the other types of catfish as well.
- Abu Garcia 6500C3 Reel
- Chad Ferguson Signature Series Catfish Rod
- Hi-Vis Monofilament Fishing Line
- Triple Threat Catfish Hooks in 8/0 and 10/0
- Clear Monofilament Line 50 Lb Test (Leader Line)
- Barrel Swivels Size 1/0
- No Roll Sinkers – 2 Ounce
- Snagless Drift Fishing Sinkers
- 2” Slotted Foam Peg Floats
- Rod Holders
Using this exact gear isn’t important. If you have something that even remotely fits the bill just use it.
What’s important is having a good quality rod and reel spooled with a good line that is capable of doing the job. You can do that by buying from a variety of different manufacturers and within a variety of budgets.
Take note of the following:
You need a good reel with a large line capacity and a smooth drag system that functions properly. The bottom line is no matter what you have or use it’s going to look a lot like the Abu Garcia 6500C3.
You can buy cheaper “knock-off” catfish reels and save a few bucks but they won’t last. Save your money and buy right the first time with an Abu Garcia 6500C3.
Catfish rods for big Blue Catfish are very different than many types of fishing rods. For trophy Blue Catfish I suggest an e-glass, s-glass, or composite blank.
Graphite is not made to bend and flex like these other materials. You can use a lighter graphite rod for landing trophy catfish but you’ve got to be careful and really know what you’re doing. You also have to make sure you don’t drag fighting a fish out too long because it increases the mortality of big Blue Catfish.
Ugly Stik is a composite blank and available through most retailers for $25 or less.
I constantly see people fishing with bad fishing line. It’s either old and brittle and needed to be replaced years ago or it’s a junk fishing line they never should have bought in the first place.
Blue Catfish will test your line and this is especially true of big Blue Catfish.
Make sure you have a good quality line that’s “fresh” (not been on your reel very long). Twenty-pound test monofilament is more than capable of landing anything in fresh water and high visibility line is preferred.
Avoid the temptation to buy cheap hooks. Get good quality hooks, it makes a big difference, especially with trophy class catfish.
I’ve used the 7/0 Daiichi Circle Chunk Light and 8/0 Team Catfish Double Action circle hook for seven or eight years with great success.
Most people gravitate to the Gamakatsu Octopus Circle Hooks because of the significant price difference but you get what you pay for. Good hooks will hook and hold more fish and cheap hooks miss fish or even worse, break.
The Gamakatsu hooks are notorious for breaking and twisting with large catfish. I’ve fished these hooks side by side with others over the years for comparison and the Gamakatsu hooks continuously fail when it comes to medium and large catfish.
If you’re going to fish for Blue Catfish you need rod holders. They’re used to drift fish and fish on anchor and are absolutely essential. Without rod holders, you’ll be limited in how many rods you can fish with and techniques you can use.
Driftmaster Pro Duo Rod Holders are my preferred fishing rod holders.
Gear Doesn’t Catch Catfish
I’ve found over the years that there’s a real issue among many catfish anglers that I jokingly refer to it as “shiny things syndrome”. It’s a real problem with people of all experience levels chasing after the latest and greatest gear.
For some unknown reason, there seems to be this “hope” that having the latest and greatest rod and reel or something different than what they’ve been using is going to help them start catching fish, catching more fish or bigger fish.
It doesn’t matter what you buy or how many of each one of these rods or reels you buy, there not going to do anything at all to start putting fish on the end of the line.
There’s one simple solution to being a more successful angler and that’s learning how to locate and pattern fish and get the right baits in front of them.
There’s no magical rod, reel, or tackle box that’s going to help you do that.
If you don’t already have the tackle and gear that will fit the bill then get some and move on.
If you want to obsess about something then obsess about learning everything you can about the body of water you’re fishing or learning how to find and catch shad.
Rigging For Winter Catfishing
There’s a variety of catfish rigs for catching Blue Catfish. Choosing the right rig is based on the technique used, target depth, and location the fish are holding in the water column.
I suggest using a Santee Rig and Slip Sinker Rig when rigging for winter Blue Catfish. These are both very simple and effective catfish rigs and among the most popular when fishing on anchor or drift fishing.
I rarely have a need to use anything other than these rigs during the colder months. They’re not limited to the winter though because they work great for catching Blue Catfish all year long.
These are both essentially the same rigs but the Santee Rig uses a longer leader than a Slip Sinker rig and has a foam peg float added to the leader that lifts the bait off the bottom.
Experiment with both rigs and fish them side by side. It’s a good idea to experiment with changing the leader length as well and see what works best. At times both rigs will perform equally but there are times when one works significantly better than the other.
Let the fish tell you what they want and adjust as needed.
* Here are some basic tutorials on popular catfishing rigs for winter catfishing. All of these rigs are essentially the same setup. The Santee Rig uses a small foam peg float to lift the bait off the bottom. Optionally you can substitute a Snagless drift fishing sinker in place of a traditional sinker for drift fishing for catfish. Get even more information here on the top catfish rigs.
Catfish Bait For Winter Catfishing Made Easy!
There are two rules to choosing catfish bait for Blue Catfish.
- Use fresh native bait
- There are no shortcuts
If you’re going to catch catfish you have to learn to catch fresh bait and there’s no way around that.
There’s no frozen catfish bait that works as well as fresh bait.
There’s nothing you can spray on or add to a store-bought or frozen bait that will make it perform as well either.
There are times where catching bait is easy and requires minimal effort. There are also times where catching shad can be a lot of hard work.
Winter is one of the more difficult times for most people.
The good news is shad are predictable fish and easy to catch with a little knowledge and the right tools but it’s going to require some work and you might get a little cold and wet in the process.
With all my years of experience as a guide and countless years fishing for catfish prior to that, I’ve done a lot of experimenting with a wide variety of baits and additives. I’d venture to say there’s nothing I have not tried for bait. Nothing comes close to working as well as fresh native bait!
I hear (and read) tales all the time of people claiming that certain baits work but it’s all relative. I won’t dispute that you might be able to cast out a chunk of fish purchased at a fish market, frozen shad, or even a chunk of chicken breast that many claim to have success with and you might catch a fish or two. I will say that you’re going to be much better off, catch a lot more fish and be successful by catching and using fresh bait.
Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow for bait selection:
The top choice is always going to be fresh baitfish that’s the primary food source for Blue Catfish in the waters you’re fishing. That’s usually threadfin and gizzard shad or skipjack herring.
The second choice is any other form of native fish you can legally use as bait. This can be anything from carp, drum, or buffalo to perch and everything in between.
Winter Catfishing Techniques, Drift or Anchor?
There’s a variety of techniques that can be used for catching catfish, but when you break them all down, they’re all the same, either drift fishing or fishing on anchor.
Anchoring is pretty self-explanatory. You’re fishing with the boat in a stationary position and casting baits in a specific area.
Drift fishing is done in a variety of ways but all have the same basic concept.
Traditional drift fishing is done allowing the wind to move the boat while dragging baits across the bottom. You can use a trolling motor to move the boat and drag baits or use a trolling motor to hold the boat relatively still and hold the rod as well but the end goal is all the same, slowly moving baits in search of fish.
Drift Or Anchor For Catfish? That Is The Question…..
One of the questions I’m asked most often is whether it’s best to drift fish or anchor in the winter and which technique works best for catching Blue Catfish (whether big or small).
The best approach varies based on the fish at that time, your skill level, the tools you have available, and your ability to use those tools.
The “right” answer will vary greatly from person to person or even day to day. The approach for trophy catfish and catching numbers of smaller Blue Catfish can vary as well.
Drift fishing allows you to cover a lot of water and increases your odds of catching catfish. When done correctly by using a targeted approach you
can catch excellent numbers of Blue Catfish or trophy Blue Catfish.
The downside of drift fishing is you often spend time covering water that’s not productive as even the best areas and approaches will have time spent moving in and out of fish.
Anchoring and targeting catfish requires the ability to find active feeding fish. This requires the use of sonar, the ability to interpret the sonar, and then actually being able to find the active feeding fish. Even with the best sonar and advanced skills reading it there may be times where drifting may be the best option.
Drift fishing is without a doubt the quickest way to start catching fish for many anglers. It also offers some learning experiences as well to assist with finding and anchoring on fish.
Likewise, if you’ve got a good sonar unit and know how to read it you’ll often be best starting with an anchored approach. If you start fishing on anchor and don’t start catching fish or cannot find a worthy area to anchor then resort to drift fishing.
Sonar is key, as it allows you to see what’s below the water’s surface and verify fish. Regardless of whether you’re drifting or fishing on anchor, it will help you catch more fish.
Boat Control Essentials
Whether you choose to drift or anchor, having the right tools to do either can make or break your success.
Anchoring requires the use of two anchors and you need good anchors that will grab and hold. Cheap mushroom-style anchors aren’t going to work and having two is essential.
There’s a wide variety of anchors that work well. I’ve used Digger Anchors for years with great success but for a cheap DIY alternative you can build box anchors (though they’re cumbersome to use). Regardless of the brand or style, make sure the one you choose will grab and hold in high winds.
When anchoring for catfish you need the ability to hold your boat still with minimal sway or movement which is only possible with two anchors.
Drift Socks are used to control the drift speed and direction when drift fishing. They’re bags or “parachutes” placed in the water and attached to the boat that create drag in the water.
One drift sock will work for some boats in very light winds but most boats require at least two drift socks to properly control speed and direction. I’ve found over the years that most beginners to drift fishing rush out and buy the cheapest drift socks they can find. They also typically have little to no knowledge of what’s needed for their boat and end up wasting money.
You can walk in most local sporting goods stores and find a few different drift socks. More often than not the largest size available isn’t remotely close to being the right size. They’re also typically very poor quality and don’t last long.
The Cabela’s Advanced Angler drift socks are the best drift socks available. There are other good drift socks but these are hands down the best in quality and performance and are comparably priced with other options. They’re built from heavy-duty nylon and every aspect of them is built to last.
The sizing chart Cabela’s provides for these drift socks is accurate, just choose the larger sizing option for your boat length. Regardless of which brand you buy you’re always best going with a larger size than a smaller one.
Drift socks are generally sold without harnesses or buoys included. The harness is the device used to attach the sock to the boat. Harnesses are typically made of nylon webbing with a carabiner clip on each end and a buoy float on the harness. The carabiners are used to quickly attach and detach the harness from the boat and also from the drift sock. The buoy keeps the drift sock floating on the surface and aids with drag in the water but also helps prevent losing the drift sock if it’s detached from the boat.
Spend the extra money and buy these, you’ll be glad you did and attempts to DIY a drift harness correctly won’t usually save you money.
Speed Kills When Winter Catfishing
When water temperatures reach the forty’s and low fifties fish get lethargic. They still move and feed but the cold slows their metabolism and activity down. They won’t move as quickly or aggressively as they do in warm water.
Keeping your drift speed down through the use of drift socks will make or break your success when drift fishing in the winter. The colder the water temperature the slower you need to drift with one-half mile per hour being the fastest you’ll want to drift in most instances.
This is important to remember even if you’re not drift fishing or even fishing for catfish.
Winter fishing in cold water means slowing down your approach, taking more time to cover an area, and slowing down the presentation of your baits. It’s something all successful anglers do in the winter.
Hybrid stripers and striped bass are a great example of this with a technique called “deadsticking”. Hybrids and striped bass are aggressive fish and they bite hard and fast, and in warm water, there are a wide variety of techniques to catch them where they’ll strike a fast moving bait.
In the winter many anglers use the “deadsticking technique”. This involves lowering a jig or artificial bait down to the target zone (usually towards the bottom) where the angler sees fish in the sonar and holding the bait dead still. There’s no jigging or movement of the rod other than the sway of the boat.
It’s the same principle as slowing down drift speeds and presentations when winter catfishing. Cold lethargic fish are not going to be aggressive and they’re not going to chase baits in most instances.
There’s a remarkable difference in big catfish from winter to spring and you quickly see how much the temperature impacts these fish. A fifty-pound catfish in the late spring is an entirely different fish than it is in January and puts up double (or more) the fight!
Slow it down and you’ll catch more fish.
The tips covered in the Southwest Outdoors Report show and information provided here will give you a good basic foundation for winter catfish fishing.
If you’re looking for more detailed information the Drift Fishing For Catfish and Catching Shad books will help you get on the fast track to success.
Drift Fishing For Catfish covers all of the detailed information you need to be successful drift fishing for catfish and takes all of the guesswork out of learning to use these techniques.
Catching Shad is an in-depth guide on locating and catching shad. Everything from seasonal patterns and environmental triggers that cause baitfish movements to how to locate and catch shad is covered in the Catching Shad book. This is an essential guide if you’re going to fish for Blue Catfish.
These are one of many guides on locating and catching catfish and catfishing techniques available here at the Catfish Edge shop.