Seasonal Blues

Keith “Catman” Sutton’s guide to catching blue catfish all year long.

The problem stems from their distinctive behavior. They don’t behave like channel cats. They don’t behave like flatheads. Their activities differ considerably from those of their whiskered brethren, so it’s not surprising that anglers who use typical cat tactics often go home disappointed.

In many situations, blues act more like striped bass than other catfish. Like stripers, large blues feed largely on shad, herring and other schooling baitfish, consequently they tend to be more migratory than other cats and more frequently found in open-water habitat. Blue cats also frequent areas of heavy current, while channel cats and flatheads prefer areas with slow to moderate water flow.

Food preferences differ as well. Jumbo channel cats aren’t picky; they’ll eat almost anything live or dead, from chicken guts and hot dogs to worms and shad. Big flatheads are finicky, preferring live fish above all else.

Trophy blues fall between these extremes. Baitfish are their food of choice, but whether the fish are living or dead doesn’t matter. Freshwater mussels, crayfish and other invertebrates also comprise a significant, though smaller, portion of their diet in many waters.

To consistently catch big blues, you must acquire an in-depth understanding of their primary feeding patterns. What are they most likely to be eating? When? Where? Without the answers, you’re relying on luck alone.

Here are the patterns you need to know to even the playing field; one for each season.

Autumn: Drift Fishing Cutbait

Blue cats are nomadic in autumn, following baitfish schools and seeking comfort zones. They’re scattered and difficult to pinpoint, which frustrates many anglers. Drift-fishing, however, is the great equalizer. This is an active approach that can make your catch rate soar, and is an excellent way to focus on trophy fish.

Autumn blues may be roaming, but they’ll still concentrate on channels, humps, depressions or other readily identifiable structure. Scour a contour map for these primary structures, then methodically probe each with your sonar.

When you mark fish, tie up a float rig. Run the main line through the eye of a sinker (usually a pencil, flexible shot or bell sinker), and tie a barrel swivel below it to keep the weight from sliding down. Attach a 12- to 18-inch leader to the lower eye of the swivel, and fix a small float in the middle of the leader. Tie on a 5/0 to 8/0 wide-gap circle hook on a split ring and slide on a chunk of cutbait. The float suspends the baited hook above bottom to prevent snags, and the split ring allows the circle hook to swivel more easily for surer hookups.

Shad or herring cutbaits are best; either as strips of fillets; head, mid-section and tail chunks; or as small cubes. At times the catfish will show a preference for one type of cutbait.

Where laws permit, fish up to eight lines in rod holders, and use the wind to push the boat across the channel-edge flats where fish are holding. Use quick pulses from your trolling motor when necessary to maneuver over prime spots.

Drift socks are a huge asset for governing speed—you need to keep the boat moving at a slow pace. Also use the sock to maintain the boat angle needed to keep your lines and baits evenly spaced.

Although speed is one of the most critical factors to successful drift-fishing, there’s no magic formula for determining what pace is best. On some days you may have to inch your boat along to trigger strikes; on other days cats will want baits presented so fast you’ll wonder how they could possibly catch them. When you find the productive speed, you must maintain it, even in wind and current.

Winter: Shallow Mussel Beds

Freshwater mussels attract winter blue cats like Cajuns to a crayfish boil. Mussels live in colonies called beds, each containing thousands of mollusks. Cold-water cats visit the beds repeatedly, because they can gorge here day after day with little expenditure of energy.

They love inch-long Asiatic clams, now common in many North American lakes and rivers, but also relish native mussels, especially smaller varieties like lilliputs, wartybacks and deer toes.

They eat the shell and all; digestive juices kill the mussel, the shell opens and the flesh inside is digested. I’ve caught winter blues with so many shells in their belly, they rattled like maracas.

To find mussel beds, search near shore in three to six feet of water. Pinpoint these by sight during low-water periods, or find them by moving parallel to shore and probing the bottom with a cane pole. The shells produce a distinctive crunching sound when you find one.

Rig an egg sinker on the main line above a barrel swivel, with an 8- to 12-inch leader connecting the swivel to a 3/0 to 5/0 wide-gap circle hook. Bait up with inch-square chunks of shad, herring or hot dogs. These are about the same size as the small mussels catfish usually feed on, and most days, they work well. Do not use the mussels themselves unless you are an expert at distinguishing various species, because many are federally protected endangered species.

Cast to various spots on the bed and let the bait sit for 15 minutes. If you don’t get bit, hit another portion of the shell bed until you pinpoint fish.

Spring: Crayfish Bite

If you’re looking for numbers of blues right now, one of the best ways to put fish in the boat is to exploit the crayfish bite that takes place like clockwork in flooded hardwood forests along big bottomland rivers.

When spring rains inundate thousands of acres of floodplain forest, it gives cats access to the millions of terrestrial crayfish that inhabit these areas. Not surprisingly, blues are drawn to them like kids to a candy store.

Although the biggest blues usually stay in their main river haunts through this period, many decent fish readily leave rivers, bayous and sloughs and move into the shallow flooded timber and oxbows. They’ll stay as long as the water is high enough to swim in—sometimes for months.

Many savvy catmen already know about this phenomenon, but a select few know that the best bite during this period actually occurs as the floodwaters are receding and the pattern is about to end.

To dial in this bite, you need to understand river flow dynamics. As the river is rising in spring, note the exact point at which the river overflows into each oxbow—that river gauge reading is your magic number. When the level is at or above this height, the river and oxbow are connected. When it’s below it, you’ve already missed the best action, because that means the floodwaters have already pulled out of the oxbow.

Prime time is when the river level is just slightly higher than the magic number. The few days following this moment is when “run-out” catfishing is at its best.

To capitalize, look for run-outs, deep cuts on the river-side lip of an oxbow. As the high water recedes it will funnel out of these low spots, especially when the water recedes to the point that they are the only connections between the flooded oxbow and the main river. In some cases, only one run-out exists; in others, there are several.

All run-outs, however, serve up extraordinary fishing—as long as you time it right. The best fishing occurs during the few days before the river falls completely out of the lake. Water constricted in the run-out chutes increases in velocity, pulling crayfish into the rushing stream of water and adjacent areas. When this happens, catfish gather in great numbers to gorge on the resulting feast. Some hold near cover at the head of the run-out in the oxbow lake. Others position at the run-out’s tail, where rushing water meets the river.

A slip float rig works great here, with the float positioned so the bait suspends just off the bottom. Use a big float and an egg sinker heavy enough to balance it. Then tie on a barrel swivel and a leader with a 4/0 to 5/0 baitholder hook.

Cast above the run-out (in the oxbow) and let the rig drift back through, or drift the rig through current in the tail-out.

Of course, crayfish are top baits in this situation. The best are “peelers,” those that have molted their hard outer shell. Small- to medium-size hardshells also work, but break off their pincers to keep them from grabbing objects on the bottom. At times, you may catch more blues fishing only a crayfish tail—peeled or unpeeled. Let the fish tell you what works best.

When the flooded hardwoods bite is over, don’t abandon crayfish as blue cat baits. They’re also excellent around riprap banks on reservoirs, in deep holes in ponds and in pools of small- to mid-size rivers.

Summer: Skipjack Herring

Skipjack herring are common in many big rivers inhabited by blues and comprise a major portion of the blue cat’s diet in some areas. They are active baitfish, moving continuously in large schools, plus, they’re fish-eaters that gorge on minnows, shad and other small fishes—all of which makes them easy to capture in cast nets or on small jigs and spoons.

They’re doubly attractive to blue cats in July and August, when large schools of skipjacks often churn the water’s surface as they pursue young-of-the-year shad. You can see the fish swirling near the surface, with shad jumping about as they try to elude the skipjacks. This activity usually occurs near dawn and dusk, near creek mouths or at the junction of two rivers.

When you spot surfacing skipjacks, scores of blues are probably lurking below. They’re attracted not only by the prospect of a skipjack entrée, but also by the many dead and crippled shad left behind when skipjacks slash through a school. Sometimes stripers or white bass join the feeding frenzy, working on skipjacks and shad alike. This increases the number of injured baitfish fluttering about, which serves as another draw for gluttonous blues.

Begin your hunt by casting a 1/64- to 1/32-ounce silver or white jig toward swirling fish to catch a skipjack. Cut the skip into small pieces, run a hook through one, then cast it toward the swirls and let it fall to hungry blues waiting below.

Keep your rig as simple as possible. All you really need is a circle or octopus hook at the end of the line with a split shot or two to carry it through the water column.

If you use the patterns I’ve described here, while letting the cats tell you where they are and what they want, you’ll catch more and bigger blues no matter what the calendar says.

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