By Mark Fike
Late winter is not a bad time at all to go looking for Mr. Whiskers. Catfish are more active in the spring and summer, but strings of days where the weather warms are like a switch to these underwater vacuum cleaners.
Catfish are opportunistic predators. They will eat just about anything and when prey fish come into their domain they will not likely pass a meal if it is put in front of them. So how do you find catfish in late winter?
Catfish are going to be found near structure, but often where they can readily access warmer shallow water on a string of sunny and warm days. Why? Because invertebrates and minnows, followed by other fish that are prey are found in those areas when things warm up.
Where to fish
So, where do you look for these areas? If you are in a river, look for mudflats. Mudflats, particularly those in tidal water, are excellent spots to fish at this time of year IF the sun is out and the temps have been decent for your area. The sun can reach the darker muddy bottom which warms up the water and mud and activates life in that area.
Look for secondary channels that might go through mudflats too. These channels end up being good access points and ambush points for fish to operate from. Sometimes a fish finder is useful in this instance, but sometimes you just need to slowly drift or explore the flat first.
When fishing the flats, cast out an array of baits and “shotgun” your approach to cover as much water as possible. If you don’t get a bite in 20 minutes, move. Watch the tide and definitely fish moving water. Still water is tougher to fish.
Another great area to explore is a ledge. Ledges offer a step into deeper or shallower water. Ease along the channel edge and watch your fish finder. If you see shad in a school on a ledge, it is worthwhile to fish that spot. If you can get some fresh shad to use, all the better. Again, use several rods if possible.
Anchoring over a ledge can be tough. Go into the shallows closest to the ledge and cast to it. Just remember that when you haul your line back in you will have to reel really fast or your hook will hang up on the ledge. Sometimes you can use your depth finder to find a “hook” or point of shallow water above the ledge and anchor on that while letting your boat drift out over the ledge. It takes some boatmanship and patience, but the results are worth it.
Channels and creeks or tributaries dumping into the river are real hotspots at times. New water coming into the river often brings food, nutrients or a temperature change. If your fish finder shows warmer water in this influx, you better try fishing it. In the late winter, the bait will congregate there and therefore predators to include catfish.
I will leave you with a few observations about late winter catfishing. First, you can really catch some big fish at this time of year. Be sure to take some heavy gear if you are targeting a big fish. Use big bait. Second, when you catch a few fish you are likely going to realize that they tend to school in similar sizes. In other words, if you are catching 18-inch fish, that is probably what you will keep catching if you stay there. If you catch a big fish, pay attention to what kind of situation was present when you hooked that monster, and if you don’t get more bites in that spot, move to another similar spot with the same kind of habitat and conditions.
Be sure to wear a PFD and dress warmly. Let someone know where you are going. Last, if you catch some of the smaller catfish, take them home to eat. They are quite good when caught out of cold water!