Phyllis Jones was bundled against the winter cold when her son Chris guided her to a 56-pound blue catfish several years ago.
by Brent Frazee
Brrr. It might be cold, but the blue cats are biting
Chris Jones’ idea of a great time of the year to catch big blue catfish differs from that of most fishermen at Lake of the Ozarks.
Sure, he looks forward to the warm, sunny, days of spring. But he also looks forward to the cold, gloomy days of winter when his boat is the only one on the lake.
Let the others think that the big blue cats are hibernating, buried in the mud somewhere. Jones knows better.
The big blues have a tolerance for winter like no other catfish, he will tell you.
“Blue cats like cold water,” said Jones, 49, who runs the Catfish Pursuit guide service. “They’re not like the channels and flatheads that will get inactive once the water temperature drops into the 40s.
“The blues will still be feeding. A lot of times, I think the fishermen will be a lot more uncomfortable than the fish.”
There weren’t many other uncomfortable fishermen on the water this day. Only one other vehicle and trailer was in the parking lot. And that fisherman was nowhere to be found.
By now, Jones is accustomed to that sight. Other outdoorsmen were either hunting, watching football or huddled by a fire someplace. But Jones knew it was time to go fishing.
“Some of the biggest blue cats that have come into this boat were caught in winter,” Jones said.
He shivered, then laughed, saying, “One thing for sure. You don’t have a lot of competition for the fish on a day like this.”
The cold truth
A trip several years ago served as proof that the big ones will bite in the dead of winter.
Jones started by using his throw net to collect the shad he would be using for bait. He got lucky this time. The baitfish can be tough to find once they descend to the depths during winter. But Jones marked a school on his Lowrance sonar unit and got all the bait he needed in just two throws.
Moments later, he was busy cutting those baitfish into two chunks—the head and a body. Both would work well for the hungry catfish.
He positioned the boat along a ledge near a bluff in the mid-lake area and anchored at the front and back. Then he made long casts to get several baits fanned out at different depths.
It wasn’t long before the rods bounced in the holders. When one cat started pecking at the bait, I assumed it was a small one. But Jones has learned not to underestimate the bites he gets in the winter.
“Some of the biggest fish we have caught just pecked around at the bait at first,” he said. “In this cold water, they’re not always going to just slam it.”
True to Jones’ words, I watched as the rod slowly bent toward the water, then began to vibrate under the tow of a large fish.
“With these circle hooks, the blue cats hook themselves,” Jones said. “You don’t have to put a big hookset on them like you were fishing for bass. Just start reeling.”
I did, and after a spirited tug-of-war, I watched as a large blue cat wallowed to the surface. It looked big to me—and it was—but Jones wasn’t impressed.
Weighing the fish, he announced, “Twenty-two pounds. That’s a good fish, but we’re after the big ones.”
With that, Jones slid that steel-blue fish back into the water and we waited for “the big ones” to show up.
They never did. We caught and released 30 blue cats that day, fish that weighed from four or five pounds to over 20 pounds. But the giants eluded us.
“Those big ones don’t come along ever day,” Jones said. “But they’re in here. You never know when that next bite is going to be something special.”
Jones’ customers have caught some of those special blue cats in the cold of winter.
He’ll never forget the first time he guided at Lake of the Ozarks in 2011. It was a frigid winter day, but the fishermen who set up the trip wanted to go out anyway.
Turns out, it was a good decision. Duane Marsh, a high-school classmate of Jones, caught a 63-pound blue cat that day.
For almost 10 years, that ranked as the biggest fish one of Jones’ guide clients pulled into his boat, until that record was broken by a 71-pound fish in 2018.
“We were anchored right along a ledge,” said Jones, who lives in Nemo, Mo. “That fish pecked a little but it didn’t bury the rod.
“When Duane reeled down to it, he thought he was snagged at first. Then it started peeling off line.”
Another trip also stands out for Jones. He took his mother, Phyllis Jones, on a winter trip several years ago, and she had a day to remember.
“It was cold, and she didn’t dress for it,” Jones said with a laugh. “But she didn’t want to come in. She started off by catching a 38-pound flathead, which was the biggest fish she had ever caught. Later, she caught a 56-pound blue, which really put up a fight.
“When she got that fish into the boat, we were both jumping up and down we were so excited.”
Keys to catching them
This isn’t your grandpa’s catfishing. Jones leaves little to chance when he fishes in the winter.
He doesn’t simply cast a bait out randomly and hope that a big catfish swims by. Instead, he relies on his high-tech electronics to help him locate everything from the baitfish to the big cats to the holes they use in the winter.
On a recent outing, he idled across a deep flat until the side-scan function showed several blotches on his Lowrance HDS 12 sonar unit.
“Those are shad,” said Jones, who is a member of the pro staff for both the Independence (Mo.) Bass Pro Shop and Lowrance Electronics. “We’re in business.”
He maneuvered his boat until he was over those marks, then tossed a weighted throw net into the cold water. When he quickly pulled it up, it was glistened with silver gizzard shad.
He got out his cutting board and cut two baits—the head and a body chunk— then baited his hooks.
“Fresh shad is the key,” he said.
In the winter, the blue cats often stack up in holes. Find one good fish and chances are, others won’t be far away.
Using the color down-scan function on his sonar unit, Jones can even get a good idea of which marks are made by big blue cats.
“See those marks suspended off the bottom?” he said, pointing to elongated color marks on the screen. “Those are paddlefish. You can even zoom in and see their paddles.
“Those big marks on the bottom are probably catfish.”
Jones usually anchors to fish those deep holes instead of drifting. The catfish are sluggish in the cold water and usually don’t chase a bait.
He uses medium-action Ugly Stik Tiger rods, Bass Pro Shops Revolution 7000 reels and 80-pound test braided line. He utilizes a three-way swivel and uses the least amount of weight he can get by with. In many applications, that means a two-ounce weight, but he will use heavier if it’s windy or there is current.
“In the winter, I’ve found that they are especially sensitive to weight,” he said. “If they pick up a bait and feel something heavy, a lot of time they will drop it.”
Jones laughs when some customers tell him that using the modern electronics is “cheating.”
“They help you find the fish,” he said, “but they can’t make them bite.”