When it comes to channel catfish fishing in the winter, there are a few tricks involved. You can be just as successful at catching channel cats in the winter as you are in the summer. You just have to understand their seasonal patterns.
Your catfishing days don’t have to come to a bitter end just because the weather is turning. It’s not voodoo or magic. You just need to learn how to locate and pattern fish and get the right baits in front of them.
Know Where The Channel Catfish Go!
If you’re following catfish through the warmer seasons, you know you can find them in certain areas at certain times. That may very well help you track them down in the winter months. Finding them means understanding what triggers movement and identifying their wintering habitats. Catfish don’t work according to your 12-month calendar. Their patterns and behavior are all relative to water temperature – it controls everything they do.
In the spring, you’re finding channel cats well upstream from the bigger rivers, sometimes miles and miles off of the main tributary. They may be hunkered down in shallow feeder tributaries, some no wider than a few yards with water not much deeper than three feet. In the summer and early fall, those same fish move to deeper pools, but within that same area.
Come late fall, they’ve vacated those shallower areas and moved downstream to the deeper sections of the mainstem rivers, as well as in the deepest holes in the lower reaches of the tributaries. Some fish will move down river to larger, warmer, deeper sections of the river. But if suitable wintering habitat in the tributary is available upstream, such as below an upstream dam, some catfish will winter up there.
In smaller rivers in the fall, catfish are likely to inhabit the same holes where they spend the summer. Once the water starts to cool down to around 60℉, studies show most moving downstream to deeper wintering holes with slow current. Don’t let that be a rule, though. If there’s a great wintering habitat upstream, they may congregate in these spots once the temperature drops below the 40-50℉ range. They’ll stay there from late fall throughout winter.
Where To Focus When Channel Catfish Fishing In The Winter
You’ll want to fish the deepest holes, especially those with some form of cover. If they’re not there, keep moving. If you have a river-run reservoir within easy reach, the best late-season strategy is to fish the deeper areas of the reservoir from a boat.
Activity will vary depending on the weather patterns, too.
“There’s no doubt weather influences catfish in fall, so watching weather patterns is critical,” says In-Fisherman Editor-In-Chief, Doug Stange. “October has been a consistent bite month in the smaller rivers I fish in the Upper Midwest. Then the weather gets colder and the nasty late October and November rains and snow slow the bite. I’ve found that a bout of warm, moderate weather for several days gets fish active again, sometimes even into early winter.”
Water level can also have a big impact, as well. According to Stange, “High water can be a disaster. The best bet is when stable mild temperatures are accompanied by stable flows, especially on the moderate to low end of the spectrum. High water and cold weather stimulate movement of channel catfish to wintering areas. If you get a week of moderate weather afterward, fish those wintering holes catfish likely moved to.”
Catfish often return to the same spot every year, so if you can find a sweet spot, your chances are good it’ll be there for you for a long time to come, provided you don’t over-harvest. Most avid winter anglers stick to a catch and release policy for larger cats at this time of the year.
The use of the Free ANGLR Fishing App can help you keep excellent track of your fishing patterns while uncovering channel cats, logging information on location, weather, and water conditions easily, creating a trip profile you can come back and review later.
Don’t Fret the Channel Catfish Fishing Gear
The key is to not really get hyper-focused on your gear. Next to the biology of the fish, your gear isn’t really going to make much of a difference. What is important is having a good quality rod and reel spooled with good line that is capable of doing the job.
Channel Catfish Reel
Your reel needs to have a large line capacity and a smooth drag system that is functioning properly. There’s no need to break the bank when looking into a reel, unless of course you want to!
Channel Catfish Rod
A good rod is made to bend and flex with the large fish, so look for something made of e-glass, s-glass, or composite blank. These blanks are fairly important, but again, there’s no need to break the bank. You want the rod to have a good back bone for when you are pulling them up off the bottom. The tip should be soft for when they make those last minute runs at the edge of the boat!
Channel Catfish Line
You want to be sure your line is fresh and hasn’t been on your reel for very long. Look for a good quality twenty pound test monofilament, as it’ll be more than capable of landing anything you’re going to come across. High visibility line is a good idea to help you detect bites!
Channel Catfish Hooks
When it comes to hooks, you get what you pay for. Don’t give in to the temptation to go cheap. The cheaper hooks will not only miss fish, but they can break and twist. Thankfully, good hooks aren’t that much more expensive than their cheaper counterparts. Many catfish anglers recommend using a circle hook when available to make the release of the catfish that much easier!
Rigging For Winter Channel Catfish Fishing
Since the fish are holed up in deeper areas, late season is the time to use bottom-oriented presentations like slip rigs and split-shot rigs. You’ll want to avoid float rigs through the winter. A few to try: a single hook like the Eagle Claw 84 or Mustad 92671, or a beaked design like the Eagle Claw L7226. For more vertical presentations, like when fishing from a boat, a jig tipped with minnow or cutbait is a good option.
For late-season channels, cutbait probably ranks at the top of the list, but it needs to be fresh. These fish don’t like scaley baits at this point in time, so use either softer-scaled bait or remove the scales. Shrimp can make a great winter bait for channels. They tend to jump on it. But if you’re really strapped for bait, night crawlers can be a good choice, too.
Keep replacing your bait regularly so they continue to ooze the substances that are attractive to catfish.
Because these cold fish are more lethargic this time of year, locating where they’re resting and getting the bait right in front of them at just the right depth are the two most important key factors.