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Written By: Cal Kellogg, December 17, 2013
The hiss of a Coleman lantern, moths fluttering in the yellow light and in the distance you can hear the mournful bellow of bullfrogs. Sitting in your folding chair decked out in shorts and a tee shirt, you enjoy the coolness of the evening. It’s quite a contrast from the 100 plus degree daytime temperature. Suddenly a rod tip shakes and you spring forward...Mr. Catfish is knocking!
When most anglers think of targeting catfish, they imagine a scene like the one I just described and why not? Everyone knows that the best catfish action takes place after dark during the summer months, right? Well maybe not…
While the summer is a great time to target catfish, the winter months are super productive too. In fact if your goal is hooking a catfish of trophy proportions, winter is one of the hands down best time to achieve your objective.
The days are short, the water is cold and the fish are lethargic. Why is it then that winter catfish fishing can be so productive? Honestly I’m not really sure, but here’s what I know.
The first key to productive winter catfish action is the conditions. If the weather has been clear, cold and dry, chances are a winter whiskerfish hunt won’t be that productive. Add rain to the mix and things change for the better, but the rain has to be vigorous enough to cause water to flow into the lake from seasonal tributaries.
When the tributaries start flowing into the main lake, a veritable smorgasbord of goodies is flushed into the lake. The bugs, worms, lizards and drown rodents that are flushed into the lake act just like a chum line, drawing catfish from all directions to feed on the bounty.
The influx of fresh water will draw catfish of all sizes, but it seems like it’s the largest most experienced cats that are most savvy about the feeding opportunity offered by inflowing runoff. As a result, when the timing is right and you locate the right tributary, you might just find yourself presiding over a concentration of big bad trophy caliber channel cats.
Timing is everything when it comes to targeting tributary cats during the winter months. What you are looking for is an abrupt change from dry stable conditions to heavy rain. This year is a prime example, it’s been pretty dry all fall. When heavy rains come, the run off created will be exceptionally rich with forage, since the tributaries haven’t flowed in a long time. As a result, catfish action will explode at lakes and reservoirs all around the state for anglers in the know.
To take advantage of this action you’ve got to be willing to sacrifice comfort. Showing up at the lake after a long bought of rain won’t do. By that time the cats will have cleaned up the forage and will be long gone. You’ve got to show up right after the tributaries start to run. You’ll almost always be fishing in the rain and often the best action takes place during the absolute apex of the storm when the conditions are the worst in terms of rain and wind.
The good news is that while you’ll be fishing in stormy weather you won’t have to fish at night. When the tributaries are flowing, daytime fishing is just as productive, perhaps more productive than fishing at night.
Trophy Catfish Gear
Over the years my trophy catfish gear has undergone a number of changes. I started off with light tackle that utilized monofilament line. I found that during a prolonged fight the line would get frayed and break. Next I started using heavy mono, but often felt over gunned with the meat stick rods that heavy mono required. These days braided line allows my to enjoy the best of both worlds. My 30 pound braid is plenty strong, but fine enough to allow me to use relatively light black bass size rods and reels.
While spinning gear will certainly do the job for trophy cats, I prefer bait casting gear. My favorite combo is an old Fenwick Crankshaft Crankbait rod teamed with an Abu Garcia SX Revo matched with 30 lb. Spiderwire braid. The Crankshaft rod utilizes both fiberglass and graphite construction making it both durable and sensitive. The rod has a relatively soft tip backed with ample backbone.
End tackle for hunting trophy cats is characterized by strength, abrasion resistance and minimal weight. While trophy cats give you a big brawl once you hook them, they can be downright shy when it comes to taking your bait. If they feel too much resistance during the strike from either the rod tip or the weigh they will often drop the bait.
If I’m targeting big cats in shallow current free water, I’ll often rig up with no weight at all. I simply attach a swivel to the end of my braid and add a 24 inch 25 lb mono leader tipped with a 6/0 Gamakatsu octopus hook attached via an egg loop knot.
When I need to add weight I use the same leader, but before attaching the swivel to the end of the braid I slip a ½ to 1 ounce egg sinker followed by a plastic bead onto the braid.
Big Baits For Big Fish!
When targeting big cats during the summer months, live baits in the form of shiners, small bluegill and crawfish are king. In the winter when fishing the runoff, dead baits are a much better choice and dead semi-rotten baits can pay hefty dividends.
For the sake of simplicity a simple tried and true “worm glob," 3 or 4 big night crawlers pinned on a hook, works well. I’ve seldom encountered cats that didn’t have a soft spot for worms. Sardine or mackerel fillets fished whole put off a lot of scent and can be just as effective as worms.
My all time favorite baits for tempting runoff catch are either crawfish tails or shiners that I’ve allowed to “ripen." To “ripen” the baits I place them in a jar or Ziploc and let them set in the garage for several days. You’ll want to wear plastic gloves when pinning these baits on your hook.
Targeting trophy catfish in the winter months is seldom easy or comfortable, but the rewards can be great. Channel cats are the largest gamefish residing in many of our lakes and the winter is the one time of the year that you can find them concentrated and feeding heavily.
There is a long list of lakes around northern and central California that feature trophy cats. Amador, Collins, Folsom, New Melones, Camp Far West, Berryessa, Clear Lake, Shasta and Lake Sonoma are just a handful of lake’s that offer to notch winter catfish action.
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