Channel Catfish Fishing in the Winter

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!

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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

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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

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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.


Fishing For Catfish In The Winter

Just because the dog days of summer are over, doesn’t mean you’re done with fun. There’s good catfishing to be had all year long. Like any other winter fishing, you just need to learn to adjust your approach and know where your fish are going to be camping out through the cold season.

ANGLR Expert, Jake Derhake, a catfishing tournament angler, sets us straight and lays down some of the best winter catfishing tips we’ve ever heard. While he rarely lands Flatheads and somtimes Channel cats, he’s mostly onto Blue cats come winter time.

What You’ve Heard About Fishing For Catfish In The Winter Isn’t Always True

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Oldtimers historically decried that daytime catfishing just wasn’t productive: the only time to catch a catfish was at night. We now know that isn’t true at all, as daytime catfishing can actually be very good, and much safer than being out on the river at night.

So what about winter catfishing? Those same old timers would hang up their gear for the season once cold weather set in, twiddling their thumbs awaiting spring’s warmer breeze. If you ask Derhake, “Winter is actually a very special time of year.”

He enjoys the fact that he gets a little more elbow room out on the rivers in January and February. Only the die-hard catfishermen are out braving the bitter temperatures. He heads out winter catfishing in the early morning hours.  

What Do Colder Cats Do?

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As the temperature of the water drops, the fish’s metabolism slows down, so they do become a little more lethargic. Derhake has noticed that they start to exhibit almost a schooling-up type of behavior. “In the summer, they’re everywhere feeding on everything, but in the wintertime, there will be many of them clumped together, and in a lot fewer places,” he says.

“You’re not going to find them in every spot you look, like you do in the summertime, but once you find them, you’ve found them.

Once you catch one catfish in a spot, you’re likely to find several others in that same location.

They tend to lay claim to a hole and generally stay there all winter. “If you find a spot where you’ve caught 15 fish in a day, a week later you could probably go back out and catch more fish out of that same spot,” mused Derhake. That’s because once the water cools down to a certain temperature, they generally stop moving around and tend to stay in one place. In the fall, once the water drops below 50℉, they’ll start schooling up and getting into the deeper holes with a little less current, remaining there until the water warms up into the upper 40’s again.

Pay close attention to the makeup of the river bottom, as that has a big effect on the surrounding water temperature. Muddy water and a sand bottom will heat up faster, so the cats may be feeding in the shallows on a warmer day.

“When it’s been 30 degrees and the sun is out and hitting the water on a 50 degree day, they might be feeding in a shallow sand spot, because that’s where the bait fish, like shad, would be,” he said.

You want to look for structures like a wing dike that jets out from the shore. At the tip of that structure, there will be a hole because of how the current hits the edge. Behind these structures, the water will create a whirlpool that cuts a divot into the bank. There are often trees stuck down in the bottom, which creates good cover for cats. Find the bit of a whirlpool current, and tie your boat off right in the back flow side, so your stern is facing upriver. “That is a really good place to start.”

Since the fish swim up out of their hole to feed, Derhake recommends casting one line down into the deep hole, cast one line out pretty far, and cast a few lines out the sides. You’re looking for difference in elevation, so put your baits there, since that’s where the fish are going to be targeting for feeding.

The big thing is to stay flexible. If you don’t get a bite in a location, it doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong spot but the conditions may not be right to catch a fish. Changing something about your setup, whether it be changing the way you cut your bait or just reeling in and casting to a new spot, can change the way your day is going. When you’ve tried plenty of new things and are still not finding success, then it is time to move spots. Derhake stated,

“I don’t keep doing the same thing for long, usually after 30 to 45 minutes, I’ll change something up or move to a new spot.”

It’s All About That Bait When Fishing For Catfish In The Winter

Derhake switches his bait up for the colder season. “In the summertime, the main bait I use is skipjack herring. In the wintertime, I will still use skipjack, but the most popular bait is gizzard shad.” Some people have success using frozen skipjack, as it’s almost impossible to catch fresh in the wintertime in his area.

“Fresh bait is always going to be preferable to frozen. Frozen shad doesn’t keep well since it turns mushy once frozen. If I have to, I’ll use frozen skipjack before I use frozen shad.”

If you’re not catching fish, the bait is often the problem. If you’re using fresh shad, and not catching fish, your problem is probably elsewhere: You’re either not in a spot where there’s fish, or they’re not feeding.

Since the fish’s metabolism has slowed down, they’re after smaller bait, so you don’t want to fish with as big of a bait as you do during the warmer months. “The fish are slower, they bite softer, so the smaller bait usually will catch more fish,” advised Derhake. “You could put a larger bait out there and catch a larger fish, but you’ll catch big fish on small bait as well, in the winter.”

Gearing Up For Fishing For Catfish In The Winter

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Your basic catfishing rod should be a medium heavy rod. “Because the fish are slower in the wintertime, you could go a little lighter because they’ll give you a less aggressive bite and less aggressive fight than they give you in the summertime,” he said. There’s no need to change anything with your reel on an anchor rod in the wintertime. Derhake uses an Abu Garcia 7000 C3 or Shimano Tekota 500. You’re looking for big, round reels that give you smooth drag and a large line capacity since, if you mimic him, you’ll be using 100 pound braid.

His rigging uses a 100-pound braid main line that goes down to a three-way swivel. On his two to three-foot leader, he uses an 80-pound crimped mono-leader. In the center of his leader is a 6-bead chain-swivel. His weight leader is six inches to two foot 30-pound line, and he uses an 8-0 Daiichi circle hook.

He chose this rig as a “break-away” rig. The main line is the strongest and hopefully, the last to break. The leader is meant to break-away so that the entire rig isn’t lost. The sinker, being the cheapest and most likely to snag component, is on 30-pound line so it is strong enough to cast but also not too hard to break off in the case of a snag. This allows you to spend less time being stuck and more time fishing!

Derhake has recently begun utilizing the free ANGLR App to begin correlating barometric pressure to his successes. He’s noticed that a cold front will result in smaller catches. To see an episode with Jacob and Jake from the ANGLR Tour, check out the video below!