When we think of catfish, visions of lazy summer evening drift into warm nights and the humming of mosquitoes and starry nights with light breezes. Maybe we are sitting back, sipping cold ones, and hoping for a bite or two. Maybe the vision is more of a swift river with a deep hole here or there, and always the chance of a nice forktail or two for an upcoming meal. Of course, chicken liver of shrimp would be in the mix, right? I mean, let's face it, catfishing is a summer, hot weather gig. Right?
Wrong. Catfish are a creature of the cold, too. It's just that not many anglers go after them when the wind is howling or the fingers are freezing. But the cold hard facts remain, channel and blue catfish are certainly active enough to pursue when the weather is below 50, and much colder.
Midwest and East Coast catfish guides who specialize in blue cats surely know that late winter into early spring can be the best time of the year to hang a giant. This is actually trophy time for cow-sized blues on the Potomac and James River systems. And as far as the channel cat gig goes, they, too, can be caught with a degree of regularity from both cold and warmwater discharge areas.
Last winter I fished the Brunner Island Discharge above York, Pennsylvania for smallmouth bass using Ãth and ¼ ounce jigs that routinely get bass and walleye on the bank. We were wading, and even thought the Susquehanna River was low, it was not so far down that bass and other game could not be had during the cold. The "other game" turned out to be channel catfish for me. Fish average 2 to 4 pounds. But I did manage a fine 8-pounder that struck a Zoom Fat Albert on an n eighth-ounce jighead bounced along the bottom. The fish was powerful, stayed down and used the current to its advantage for escape.
It wasn't the first experience that I had with cold cats. We had taken them before at other discharge sites along the East Coast. And on several occasions we had run ins with big channels through the ice. I can remember wrestling a 6 pounder through a tiny, 6-inch diameter hole through the ice at Lake Redman a number of years ago for angling friend Ron Munshower. He had hooked the fish on 4-pound test while fishing for bluegills and had quite a tussle on his hands. When the fish finally tired, I had to grab each of its' pectoral fins and scooch it up through the hole. Not easy, and I did it with gloves on to limit damage by those sharp spines. Nice fish! That fish made a great evening meal.
Another time, while ice fishing Long Arm Lake many winters ago, a neighboring ice angler had hooked a large fish that almost spooled his tiny panfish rod. When the fish finally made it topside, he gaffed it below the gill and heaved the 10-pounder up on the ice.
Scientists and fish biologists are finding out that channel cats are much more active than previously thought during the winter months. In the Midwest, many fish are taken along channel edges during late winter and early spring when a shad die-off occurs and cats take advantage of it. Gizzard and threadfin shad are sensitive to colder temperatures and will sometimes die off once ice comes off of a reservoir. Winds will blow these baitfish to shorelines and cove areas where a variety of gamefish, to include cats, will chow down on the abundance of them. In local lakes, this is likely to occur at Pinchot Lake and Marburg Lake in Pennsylvania - lakes that have thriving shad populations and tanker channel cats as well. Few reservoirs in Maryland have the shad-based forage populations, but big cats will still make a move up into creek arms and coves that have incoming stream runoff from snow melt or cold, late winter rains. High, muddy water can be a turn on for major cat migrations. This can occur at smaller lakes like Rocky Gap, Long Arm or Piney Run. January is certainly not too cold to be getting the jump on quality channel catfish in our region. The smallmouth famous Susquehanna now sports a solid trophy fishery for flathead catfish with 30-pound class fish being taken literally year round. In the mix are bruiser-sized channels in excess of 10 pounds and some as high as 20. Favored baits continue to be cut shad, live sunfish and large, native baitfish suchas chubs and shiners.
Standard issue baitcasting gear with 15 to 20 pound lines should be adequate for handling these fish, although some anglers may wish to employ spinning gear of the same poundage. The choice is yours, and most situations would call for fish-finder rigs with 1 to 3 ounces of weight.
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Nope, you don't have to wait for summer to arrive to get in on some quality catfishing, go now. You just might get a giant.