Springtime Blue Catfish
Springtime blue catfishing can be some of the fastest paced, action packed fishing all year. When the water starts to warm after a cold winter, the shad and other baitfish move from their deep winter holes to find the warmest water they can. In our muddy, silted in lakes of Northeast Oklahoma, this is always shallow mud flats. Warm weather and the sun quickly heat up the dark mud and attract the bait. Blue catfish follow the shad and have a feeding frenzy all spring long.
Shallow water also makes feeding easier for blue cats, baitfish have less water to avoid the predator fish in. The blue catfish use the bottom of the lake and the surface of the water to trap the baitfish, so the less distance between the two, the easier it is to catch them. Blue catfish would much rather feed in shallow water than deep water, so when the baitfish are shallow, the majority of the feeding fish will be shallow. Never think any water is too shallow. Shallow can mean 5 to 8 feet, but a lot of the time during the spring we catch fish in 10 inches to two feet of water.
This time of year blue catfish travel and feed in different sized schools, these schools usually consist of fish of the same size/age. These fish work together to herd shad, much like a pack of wolves. Sometimes blue catfish swim close together in a school, but a lot of times fish in the same school will be spread out. For instance, if a school of feeding fish swim by and we hook a fish on one side of the boat, a lot of times we will hook a fish on the opposite side of the boat at the same time. These baits can be 100 yards apart and get eaten by fish at the exact same time.
Bait size can play a big role in being successful during the spring. Some days the fish aren’t picky, but on the days that they are, changing the size of your bait can make all the difference. If you are using larger baits and notice a lot of short strikes and are missing a lot of fish try downsizing your baits. It seems that some days during the spring they would rather eat smaller baits.
Finding the right shallow mud flat where the baitfish are can make a springtime blue catfisherman very successful. Whether you are trying to fill the boat with eaters or chasing trophies, catching blues in shallow water is one of the most exciting fishing experiences to be had. Just be ready to have a hard time keeping all of your rods baited.
Catfish Guide – Gear and Tackle
We fish lakes and small rivers so we use gear and tackle suited to our situation. Catfishermen that fish large rivers, such as the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, will use different approaches.
Rods – 7.5 ft Team Catfish Thunder Cat Rods Med-Heavy and 7.5 ft ProAngler Med-Heavy. Both of these rods have good action to allow circle hooks to bury in the fish’s mouth and enough backbone to pull a trophy out of timber. The Thunder Cat is a higher quality rod with higher quality components such as eyes, reel seat, and hook keeper and therefore a higher price. While the ProAngler focuses on a quality rod blank, the components are not as high quality. We’ve had several of each brand for about six years while guiding and tournament fishing which both put a test to the quality of a rod.
Reels – We are currently trying a variety of casting reels and spinning reels. Quality, price, and replacement part availability are all factors to consider when purchasing a reel. Casting reels have a much larger availability for parts replacement, hold up to abuse better, and store easier. Spinning reels, in our opinion, are easier to fight big fish with and we have the option of switching a reel handle over for our less ambidextrous customers.
- Casting Reels – We’ve had three Team Catfish Gold Ring 400 reels for about 6 months. They cast well, reel smooth, and the drags are high quality. We also have three Abu Garcia 6500 C3 reels which are high quality as well. The benefit of Abu Garcia is the ability to get high quality replacement parts if needed.
- Spinning Reels – Okuma Avenger 65 and 80 series, Cabelas Saltstriker 65 and 80 series, Penn Fierce 65 series. Each model has lasted a year or two. It’s typically the nylon gears that strip out or a reel handle that breaks which end the life of my spinning reels. Finding replacement parts for spinning reels is hard to do and not cost effective in many situations, unfortunately.
Line – For our mainline we use 65 lb PowerPro braid. Our leader line is 50-80 lb Ande clear monofilament. We use monofilament for the leader because of it’s abrasion resistance. The teeth and fins of big blue catfish can cut braid quickly, as can rocks and timber.
Hooks – 5/0 & 8/0 Team Catfish Double Action hooks are all we use and need. We’ve tried several other brands and styles. The others just don’t have the quality we need in a hook.
Floats – We buy both 3 inch slotted cigar floats and 3 inch slip style floats in large packs from a local dealer, KeyCo in Dewey, Oklahoma. They can also be found on the internet at several online stores.
Swivels – Typical brass two way and 3-way swivels
Sinkers – We use almost exclusively 3 ounce sinkers. Many years ago, we used only 2 ounce sinkers but accidentally ordered some 3 ounce sinkers by mistake. The distance and spread we can get with the heavier sinker was amazing. So, we tried 4 ounce sinkers and we felt like the 4 ounce sinkers were too heavy and blue catfish would drop the bait many times after feeling the sinker on bottom. They were just a little too heavy for our style of fishing. No-roll style and slinky style are what we use almost exclusively. The no-roll style is for anchor fishing and slinky style is for drifting and dragging baits. You can buy weights online from Team Catfish or from most local bait stores.
Anchors – We use a box anchor on the front and back of the boat when anchoring. They set quickly and hold a large boat well, like our 24′ SeaArk Procat240, in high winds. We do not recommend them for high current rivers. They tend to catch in the current and float too far off your spot before settling to the bottom.
Bait – Gizzard shad are the most often used bait and are highly effective for catching blue catfish. The larger the bait fish, the thicker the skin and meat which will better keep the bait on the hook. However, we try to get a variety of sizes and let the fish tell us what they want. Fresh bait is the key to catching blue catfish. We’ve never had great success with frozen bait. Sure, you will catch a few, but not near the amount you would have with fresh bait.
Rigs – We use a variety of rigs for different situations: Carolina rig, Santee Cooper rig, Tiny’s Float Rig, and a 3-way drifting rig. We will cover more on catfish rigs later using videos and pictures. Check back for updates.
Finding Blue Catfish During a Winter Flood
Find the feeding fish! Winter time is trophy catfish time and also a great time to fill the freezer. It’s a time that blue catfish gorge themselves on shad and roam in larger and tighter schools than they did in the summer and fall…usually. As with fishing, nature has a way of keeping us mere humans on our toes and always thinking.
Our winter in 2015-2016 has proven to be a wet one following a very wet spring and summer. In fact, it has been over 50 years since we have gotten this much precipitation. This leads us fisherman to new conditions and we have to adapt.
A typical December pattern has me fishing deep ledges and edges, creek channels, river channels, deep points, ect. This winter, some of those fish are there but not in the large numbers that they typically are. Our swollen rivers and lakes with warmer temperatures than normal have spread the shad and other prey fish out all over the lake, which has led to blue catfish roaming the waters in smaller numbers.
Example 1: During a trip, we caught large blue catfish on a deep water point in 42-46ft of water on one end of the lake then made a run to the other end in 8 foot of water and caught large blue catfish there also. It was a “couple fish a spot” type of day with a water temp 12 degrees higher than it typically is this time of year. The fish I marked in deep water were roaming in groups of 3 to 5 under a large expanse of shad. Once we found some shad busted up on the Lowrance HDS 12 graph, it was game on! When we went into the shallow water, I turned on the Humminbird 1199 graph and we could see blue catfish in groups of 6 to 15 around clusters of timber. We tied up, caught a couple, and moved on to the next.
Example 2: After another large late December rainfall bringing the lakes up to record level, we spent a couple of hours searching our deep water areas that typically hold good numbers of winter blue catfish. Some fish were there as well as large amounts of small shad, but the feeding fish were never found and the larger blue catfish that were there a couple of weeks ago were not in the same areas. We decided to try a typical spring and summer flood pattern and hit the mouths of swollen creeks.
That was the ticket to turning a slow day into an action packed “fill the live well” day! Using the Humminbird side image we found groups of 20+ catfish and busted up bait in 5-12ft of water. It was game on. Now the part that might be a little confusing…we broke ice up in this shallow water. Typical winter pattern would say only fish deep water this time of year, by deep I’m meaning 20 to even 100 feet deep.
Any given day can change the pattern and location of predator blue catfish. Blue catfish are on the top of the food chain in our lakes and don’t have anything to hide from…well, except for us blue catfish fisherman. They will go where the bait is. We look for busted bait on the graph more than we look for fish most of the time. If we find busted bait, then it’s time to look at the fish and decide what species they are.
Blue Catfish Guide – A Tail Learned from a Youngster
I’m speaking for most fishermen here. We (fisher folks) tend to try new things, but then come back to our bread and butter that work most often and stick with it. The industry as a whole has grown substantially over the years in regards to tournaments, guides, and overall exposure to catching blue catfish. Some techniques have stood the test of time and others have dwindled.
As a guide and tournament fisherman, I like to think I know what is best in every given situation to put fish in the boat for my customers. However, a trip this past September proved that even the most experienced guides can learn from the youngsters.
My customers and I were dragging baits over deep flats catching fish, but the bite was finicky for how many active fish were showing on the Lowrance HDS 12 graph. The young man of the group walked up as I was cutting bait and asked why I wasn’t using the tails. I told him I tried using the tails many years ago without success. The look on his face and pleading for me to put a tail on convinced me to give in….what could it hurt? One out of the 6 rods out may not get a hit, but the customer would be happy, right?!?!?!
We tossed the rod out with a tail, as we are using the MinnKota trolling motor to pull the baits at 0.6mph. Within thirty seconds, bam! The rod with a big gizzard shad tail went down with a nice eight pound blue catfish. In the cooler he went and I look over to a smiling young man.
Okay, fresh bait works and even a tail got lucky. The bait was still on the hook, so I tossed it out again. You guessed it, rod tip down and another blue catfish was in the cooler off the rod with the tail. I’d say we caught about 60% of our fish on tails that day.
I have to say, I wouldn’t have tried tails for many years, if ever, if it wasn’t for that young man. It is now a part of my arsenal when chasing blue catfish, especially when dragging baits.
Winter Mode Blue Catfish on Grand Lake
Today, was the first day all year that we fished a true winter pattern on Grand Lake this winter for blue catfish. Grand Lake has finally cleared up north of sailboat bridge causing the shad to drop to the lower third of the water column into the river channels.
We focused our attention on fishing the shad “carpet” looking at our sonar. At the edges of the shad “carpet” in the river channels we would find blue catfish feeding. Using our Navionics lake maps and sonar on our Lowrance HDS 12, we would see little yellow blunt arches that we interpret as blue catfish hanging on the edges of the channels gorging on shad. Blue catfish use the edges of channels to trap their food. I like to think about it as if we were playing tag in a racquetball court. The tagger would use the wall as a way to corner the opponent and tag them. Catfish, well fish in general, use ledges and drop offs much the same way to capture their food.
Our fish were caught in 28-45ft of water using fresh cut bait. The bite was on fire for the first couple of hours of the trip and got much lighter when the wind shifted from the northeast to the southeast. We still caught fish, but had trouble seeing the bite. We’d go to reel in and we’d have several fish on. They just weren’t hammering the baits like they were earlier in the morning.
We tried to find a shallow bite later in the day, but the fish just weren’t up there. They were deep on the channel where the bait was hanging out.