Catfish Gear Destinations

Winter Whiskers: Cold Water Fishing Means Tickling a Catfish’s Whiskers

This nice January blue was caught by Will Temme’s son, Hunter when he was 7. The 65-pounder came from a warm water discharge while anchored on the Ohio River. (Contributed photo)


by John N. Felsher

Successful cold weather fishing requires proper bait placement and patience.

Wisps of fog rose from the frosty water as the boat slowly drifted backward. Carried by the current, lines played out behind the craft as the bait bounced along the bottom some 40 feet beneath the near-freezing surface.

Suddenly, a line stopped and then began moving against the current! The angler grabbed the heavy rod, cranked up the slack and set the hook on another frigid finny fighter.

Catching lethargic catfish in cold water usually means finding them first. In late winter or early spring, whisker fish frequently seek the deepest holes they can find. They won’t move far or fast, but might hunker down in cover waiting to ambush any tempting morsels that drift irresistibly close to them. To find cold cats in their deep winter lairs, people might need to scan considerable territory with their electronics. Once they find the fish, though, anglers can usually catch them until the water warms in the spring.

“…we almost have to hit the catfish in the face…”

Patience is Critical in the Winter

“Patience is critical when fishing for catfish in late winter or early spring,” advised Will Temme, who runs the Poor Boys Catfish Tournament in Evansville, Ind. with Brent Jones of Seymour, Ind. “Whenever the water gets around 50 degrees, I’ll anchor on some of the nastiest structure I can find. If I can’t find structure like that, I’ll concentrate on structure down in deep holes and along ledges. If I mark fish in a certain spot, they may not want to bite at first. I might fish a spot for two hours. If I don’t catch a fish, I’ll find another spot. As the day wears on, catfish might begin to move around a bit and want to grab something to eat.”

When fishing systems with significant current, Temme employs a tactic he calls “back bouncing.” He points the bow of the boat into the current, but fishes off the stern. He controls the boat speed to make a controlled drift downriver at slightly less than the current speed.

“Sometimes, catfish are not in the cover, but they’re just buried in the mud,” Temme explained. “They are not doing much except waiting for something to come by. That’s when I like to do back bouncing. For example, if the current is moving at two miles per hour, I’ll set the boat to run at one mile per hour. I keep the button on my reel pushed to feed out line behind the boat. I’ll periodically pick my bait off the bottom so it just bounces along. The line stays well back behind the boat while the bait goes over little crevices and hits rocks or other cover.”

Kelly Godbolt shows off a blue catfish he caught while fishing at Lake Wateree near Camden, S.C. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Back Bouncing Rig

For back bouncing, Temme fishes a three-way swivel rig. He attaches a single hook to a three- to four-foot leader on a chain swivel, which keeps the line from twisting in the current. Then, he rigs a sinker line about four to five inches long. He uses a sinker light enough for the current to carry it slowly downriver while the bait hovers just over the bottom. Where legal, Temme uses multiple rods. He ties a slip-sinker rig on one rod, a three-way rig with a peg float, which keeps the bait off the bottom, on another line and a three-way rig without a peg float on a third rod.

“A slip-sinker rig keeps the bait right down in the mud,” Temme clarified. “The peg float on one three-way rig keeps the bait off the bottom. The rig without the peg float will also keep the bait off the bottom, but not as high.”

Sometimes, Temme deploys planer boards, brightly colored floating blocks designed to run either to the left or right when pulled behind a boat. Planer boards spread the lines as far from the boat as one wishes to fish so the angler can search significantly more water.

Greg Schlumbrecht shows off a blue catfish he caught by a bridge on a cold day. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Demon Dragon Rig

“I like to use planer boards when dragging baits,” Temme confirmed. “I always drag my baits upriver. With planer boards, we can spread lines farther away from the boat shadow while still dragging baits right along the bottom. When using planer boards, I use the same basic three-way rig, but instead of using peg floats I’ll use a Demon Dragon rig.”

Just a Zara Spook topwater bass lure with the hooks removed, a Demon Dragon gives a bait more buoyancy. It also generates wobbling vibrations and rattling sounds when pulled behind the boat. Anglers attach the main line to the eye of the plastic floater and rig a leader for the hook off the back of it.

“A Demon Dragon is like fishing with a peg float, but it keeps the bait higher up off the bottom,” Temme detailed. “Some people use a cork or plastic float the same way, but I like that really loud rattle on a Spook. In my opinion, the rattle seems to attract more catfish and makes them hit more aggressively too.”


Bait Placement Matters More than Selection

With bait frequently scarce in late winter or early spring, hungry blue and channel catfish might eat practically anything they can grab without expending too much energy to snatch it. Therefore, use smaller baits such as bite-sized shad or skipjack chunks for tempting lethargic cold-blooded fish that typically don’t eat much in cold water. Flatheads prefer live or fresh baits. As the water warms in the spring, anglers can use larger baits. Bait type doesn’t matter as much as placement so put any morsels as close to a catfish’s whiskers as possible.

“When the water is cold, we almost have to hit the catfish in the face to catch them,” Temme quipped. “We need to keep the bait moving to put that morsel in front of as many fish as possible. If the bait is five feet away, the catfish might not go out and grab it in cold water.”

On freezing days, hardy anglers who bundle up against the elements and fish with great patience can put some monster catfish in the boat while others sit home by their heaters and fireplaces waiting for spring.

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