River or Reservoir? — Winter Catfishing Tips from Larry Muse and Ricky Eiselt
by Ron Presley
Don’t let the cold winter weather stop you from catfishing. These two anglers say they are still biting.
Coldwater catfishing has changed over the years as anglers discover that they can catch big cats all year long in many places. In the past, many anglers put away the rods and reels in favor of shotguns and rifles when the cold months set in. Now more anglers are chasing the whisker fish in the winter months.
Boats equipped with enclosures and heaters are making the experience more comfortable and improved skills of anglers have increased the probability of putting quality fish in the boat, even in the cold water.
Pictures of big catfish on social media during the winter months encourage other anglers as they realize that they too can get in on the wintertime fun. For many anglers, the best winter fishing is in their own backyard, but for others, they travel to find the best chance of catching a winter trophy.
Larry Muse and Ricky Eislet have good winter fishing close to home. For Muse, it is nearby lakes along the Tennessee River. For Eislet it is an Ohio River experience.
There are plenty of trophy catfish destinations near Muse’s home in Corinth, MS. Among the Tennessee River lakes close to his home are Pickwick, Wilson, and Wheeler. Wilson is his choice in the winter.
“Wilson is my favorite lake to fish in the wintertime,” acknowledged Muse. “The other pools near me on the Tennessee chain, Wheeler and Pickwick, experience a lot of water level fluctuation with rains. Wilson does not. Wilson is the most stable therefore most predictable. It’s only 15 miles long, so if you don’t find fish on one end you can go to the other end and see if they are there.”
Muse identifies Wheeler as a great fishery too. When conditions are stable the fish seem to be pretty much everywhere.
“Anglers have to adjust to conditions more on Wheeler,” advised Muse. “If the water level is on a hard fall I find more fish on the lower end of Wheeler. But on a rise, the fish are usually found near Guntersville. Decatur is about middle ways, so that’s a good place to start.”
Regardless of which lake he fishes in the winter, Muse prefers to target deep water. He says that when the water temperatures get cold, the deeper water is normally more stable around 50 degrees. For Muse, deep is about 80 feet on Wilson and 45 on Wheeler. Once he finds a desirable spot using down facing sonar he targets the fish with suspended bait.
“The map on my electronics is probably the best tool I’ve got,” instructed Muse. “I use it to mark structures that hold fish. When you’re sitting still and see fish marks on the down scan that appear as spots they are swimming through under you. If the fish are stopped under you they will appear as a line. Over time I have collected a lot of waypoints, some of them I have had for 15 years. I can go back to many of those same waypoints and find fish there time and time again.”
Anglers often debate how long they should fish in a particular spot. For Muse, his recorded waypoints factor into how long he might stay and fish. When he fishes one of his past waypoints, it gives him the confidence and commitment to wait them out.
“It takes confidence to stay put,” explained Muse. “But is easier to stay and fish where you have caught several over 50 pounds, even if they were months or even years apart.”
Muse prefers to suspend fish deep water. He uses 7-foot 6-inch, medium/heavy Meat Hunter Boss Hog rods with the roller top tip. He likes the roller tip for suspend-fishing.
“I have noticed that when we are suspend fishing sometimes fish will load that rod and then turn it loose,” explained Muse. “I think those big fish are feeling the grit in that braided line on rods with conventional tips. When they load that pole with the roller, I don’t think they feel it. Big fish will take that roller tip pole when they won’t take nothin’ else.”
A Carolina rig with 7/0 Daiichi circle hooks, a 2-ounce egg sinker, and a 60-pound mono leader is Muse’s preferred terminal tackle. He uses it to suspend big bloody baits in 60 to 80 feet of water.
“Suspend-fishing is my favorite method,” said Muse. “I normally start at about 3 to 5 feet above the bottom, but I always keep an eye on the electronics for an indication that the fish have changed depth. Place the rod in a Driftmaster Rod Holder and wait for the bite.”
After using his electronics to find the next location, he uses the Spot-Lock feature on his trolling motor to set his position.
“Once we are on em’ we want to stay there,” advises Muse. “Once the smell starts flowing in the current it won’t be long until they follow it up to the bait.” The idea is to stay in the same place and make it easy for the big cats to find the bait.”
The Ohio River—Ricky Eiselt
Ricky Eiselt fishes regularly in the Cannelton Pool of the Ohio River in the wintertime. Some anglers give up the fishing rods when the weather cools down—not Eiselt. Just because it’s cold out doesn’t mean you won’t see him out on his SeaArk chasing whiskers with rods that he builds himself.
“I just hunt big catfish,” joked Eiselt referring to his winter hunting.
“My first time fishing the Ohio River was in 2007,” recalled Eiselt. “It was with my good friend Rob Benningfield. I grew up fishing and loved catching catfish so to go out with Rob and target catfish intrigued me. After seeing a blue cat takedown I was hooked.”
“I fish every weekend,” stated Eiselt. “Sometimes 2 or 3 times a week, year-round.
Fall/winter is my favorite time of year to catch huge fish but spring is great too. I fish the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers too, but the Ohio River is my favorite. What I love about the Ohio River is the fact that we have seasons. For example, early spring water is usually high water with plenty of flow, so I’m bumping or anchored. Late spring or summer I am more likely to be drifting or dragging. In the fall I’ll be drifting or anchored depending on current.”
When it comes to fishing in the winter he fishes on the rope most of the time because the water is usually high and fast. For Eiselt, the key to catching winter cats is reading the water to determine where the fish want to be.
“I always check the current speed on a bank before I fish,” explained Eiselt. “If my outside rods keep getting the bite that tells me the fish are more in current and I will adjust other rods accordingly. If it’s the inside rods that get the bites I will adjust my bait placement closer to the bank on my next move.”
Once Eiselt figures out what type of current the fish are in, he searches for similar areas as he moves spots. Along with water levels, water temperature plays a big part in the fall and winter fishing. As the water temperatures drop he believes the fish don’t want to be in the fast current so he targets banks where the current is softer.
“I’m 30 minutes max on anchor,” said Eiselt. “Then I normally move. The time I spend on a spot depends on whether or not I caught them there before. If the spot is historically productive I tend to give it a little more time.”
As Eiselt learned the tricks of the trade he kept hearing that deep holes were the key to catfish success in the winter. Experience taught him differently. He now professes that fish can be found in a hole that is 35 feet deep on the bank that is 25 feet deep.
He fishes a simple 3-way rig when fishing on the rope. His main line is 100-pound Power Pro braid. He adds about 19 inches of 80-pound mono leader tied to a 10/0 Eagle Claw L2022 circle hook as the hook drop. The rig is completed with a 50-pound test drop leader with a loop knot to attach a bank sinker to match the current.
“My advice is to find structure and you will find the fish in the winter,” concluded Eiselt. “Fresh bait helps, but frozen skips work well for me in the winter.”