Early Spring Channel Catfish
Get muddy for cold catfish
I love mud. It feels good on bare feet. It makes an excellent face paint when trying to scare your significant other while camping. It will hold your drink tighter than any cup holder available on the market. Even better than all of that, early spring channel cats love mud too.
What and why
On early spring days that make you feel like summer is just around ther corner, water temperatures rise rapidly. Even though the entire waterway is warming, the shallow, muddy flats heat up the fastest and catfish seem to know that. Not all flats are created equal, but if you find the right one, you can expect some of the fastest channel catfish action of the year.
When identifying which flat to fish, there are two ways to approach this. The first strategy, which may be the most difficult, is to locate a wintering hole that catfish spend the winter in. This is my favorite method because not only can you catch cats in the spring, but all winter as well. If you can work around the ice, there are often willing channel catfish eating all year. During the winter you can catch some fish in the deepest section of the wintering hole. During the spring, active catfish tend to spread out on the shallower mud flats above and below the hole. That's where the catfish are, and that's where your bait should be.
The other way is much less time consuming than trying to locate a winter hole. Go where a river dumps into a lake or reservoir. These areas tend to be shallow and muddy as a result of silt settling where the current disperses. After the ice melts, cats are on the move. There is a general trend of fish moving out of the main body of water and heading upstream. The trick is to set up in areas that congregate fish.
Pinch points funnel fish into specific areas. With fish moving, you can likely catch a cat or two nearly anywhere a river dumps into the lake, but pinch points boost your odds. Any area where skinny water opens up to the larger lake is an area worth checking out. Islands commonly form as a result of silt settling after high water periods. The downstream sides of these islands are shallow, warm, and usually have reduced current. Food floating downstream, often consisting of dead baitfish that couldn't survive the winter, tend to settle here. Cats that are on the move stop in these areas for a period of time before moving on. This concentrates fish and puts the odds in your favor. Any trees or timber that has settled on these flats is also worth a look.
Not sure what a pinch point is? Click HERE to find out.
Bait and tackle
Bait for cats in the early spring doesn't have to be that much different from the rest of the year. Worms, cutbait, and commercial dipbaits all still work, but one exception exists. Sour baits. Sour baits are rotten, putrid, disgusting pieces of fish that channel catfish will sometimes key on this time of year. It is the catfish version of "matching the hatch". During the winter, smaller fish often die from the stress. During the spring, these rotten fish concentrate in areas of swirling current. Cats are drawn to this and feed on the buffet waiting for them. To get sour baits, you can either collect dead fish that have floated onto the shore or make your own.
To make your own, catch a carp or other tough skinned batifish. Remove the scales and fillet it. Cut the fillets into bait-sized chunks and put them in a mason jar with a little water. Put a lid on the jar, but do not tighten it. The gases resulting from the decomposing flesh can cause the jar to crack. Bury the jar in your yard in a nice sunny spot. Dig it up after a few days and you have some sour catfish candy.
This is not for the faint of heart or those with a weak stomach. If you do end up using sour bait, eat before you go fishing. Don't ask me how I know.
I tend to downsize tackle this time of year. Any bass size rod and reel set up with 10 to 20 pound line will work. Even better if the rod has a soft tip to allow tentative cats to take the bait while feeling little tension. When it comes to hooks, I avoid circle hooks when the water is cold. Circle hooks will still work, but the cats are not nearly as aggressive when the water is cold. If a fish is not willing to take the rod all the way down, they often do not get hooked. Being able to set the hook on a light biting fish becomes important. I find I catch more fish if I use a 1/0 to 3/0 J hook or kahle hook.
Go out and explore. Find a wintering hole or check out the upper portion of a reservoir. Either way, catching cats when many people have no idea where to start is a sure fire way to make you feel like an accomplished angler.