How To

Chasing Winter’s Catfish Blues

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Catfish guide Dale Broughton and a young angler about to release a nice blue catfish, a species that gets more active as the water cools during the winter. Image courtesy Dale Broughton.

Catfish guide Dale Broughton and a young angler about to release a nice blue catfish, a species that gets more active as the water cools during the winter. Image courtesy Dale Broughton.

One of the “coolest” fishing trips I’ve been on in a while took place in late January when I was duped into going winter catfishing on the Ohio River. I’m usually ice fishing this time of year, but as I was leading fishing seminars at the Cincinnati Sports Show, I met Dale Broughton. Dale is an Ohio-based catfish guide. He had an exhibit booth and was doing talks on the subject and he invited me to go fishing with him sometime. I accepted, thinking it would be a warm-weather trip we’d embark on the following summer, when it might be nice to cool off with a day on the river. He surprised me by asking then and there if I could be ready the next morning before the show opened at noon.

It was about 20 degrees outside and there was snow on the ground. But I was stuck, for he knew I was booked to perform at the show the next day and probably didn’t have anything to do in the morning until it opened. He said he’d supply the tackle and all I had to do was dress warm and be out in front the Hyatt by 7 a.m. the next morning.

Broughton showed up on-time towing a huge, open jonboat, and we drove west into Indiana on a winding Route 50 along the river to the iced-over ramp, leading to a river the color of Nestlé’s Quik. We actually broke ice with the boat crossing the embayment before we reached open water and headed upstream in the frigid January air. We stopped where a huge pipe came out of the riverbank, spilling a steaming flow of hot water into the murky Ohio.

This Michigan kayak angler knows the blue cats continue feeding through the coldest winter months. Image by Lucian Gizel.

This Michigan kayak angler knows the blue cats continue feeding through the coldest winter months. Image by Lucian Gizel.

Casting small darter jigs into the lukewarm current below the pipe, we caught foot-long skipjack herring to use as bait. When we had a half-dozen, Broughton motored us to some barge pilings, where he anchored in about 30 feet of water, and we cast out weighted lines baited with matchbook-sized fillets cut fresh from our earlier catch threaded onto circle hooks.

“Blue cats often don’t get active until mid-winter,” Broughton explained. “This is the best time to catch big blues, and you have the water to yourself.”

I knew why, for I was flat-out freezing—that is, until my rod tapped twice and then bent double in the holder. I grabbed it and battled a fish that finally emerged from the muddy waters an eerie gray/blue color, weighing about 10 pounds and with the distinctive whiskers on the corners of its gaping mouth. Having been a few months since I had felt the tug of a fish on a rod and reel, that catfish was definitely game for a fight and I forgot the cold as I battled and landed it. We caught and released several more of the bullish brutes before Broughton pulled the home-made anchor and we raced back to the ramp in time to make our appearances at the convention center that afternoon.

Broughton has caught blue cats over 50 pounds from the Ohio River, many taken during a time of year when most other anglers are staring at holes in the ice, shivering and begging for the bite of a bluegill or crappie while dreaming of hot summer nights tangling with giant catfish by the warm light of a lantern or campfire.

Broughton advises anglers looking for catfish action this time of year find a fishing guide or buddy who knows where the blue cats prowl—and go get ‘em now.

“The blue cat bites-on this time of year wherever they are found,” he proclaimed. “But until folks get out there and hook-up, most people don’t know it!”

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  • Winter is without a doubt one of the best times for catching trophy catfish plus you have the added benefit of having the water to yourself. It’s a big bonus from the crazy summer days where many waters are packed with boaters.