Kentucky fishing guide Joe Hall looks forward to winter, but not because it's time for a break. Actually, it's the opposite: Hall knows that cold water concentrates blue catfish in specific locations. When water temperatures drop below 60 degrees, it's time to be on the water, because that's when the blues will feed aggressively. And the best action takes place during the day.
Hall guides on the Cumberland River, from Cheatham Dam downstream to the Kentucky-Tennessee border, but his tactics work well on similar river systems across the country (see sidebar).
ON THE LEDGES
Blue cats on the Cumberland River gather on the lip of the old river channel that was inundated when Barkley Dam backed the water up in 1964. Many of Hall's most productive ledges lie on outside river bends. He fishes ledges from 15 to 50 feet, but spends most of his time on those that drop from about 25 to 30 feet.
Hall begins on the upstream end of a ledge. He idles straight toward the bank until he sees the shelf rise on his depthfinder. Then he immediately turns his boat upstream and anchors from the bow. His boat sits directly over the ledge; the transom faces downstream with the current.
"I throw two lines over the ledge, and two more into the deeper water just off it," says Hall, whose clients routinely catch 35-pound blues.
If Hall doesn't get a bite in 30 minutes, he relocates about 10 yards downstream from where his baits had been resting. He continues to hopscotch down the ledge until he finds fish.
"What I'm doing is sending a scent trail downstream with the current," says Hall. "Catfish are just one big taste bud. As they swim upstream to find my baits, I move downstream to speed up the process."
Hall's catfish tackle consists of stout 7-to 7 1/2-foot rods, Abu Garcia 7000 big-game baitcasting reels, and 40-pound-test Berkley Big Game monofilament. He runs the line through a flat 3-ounce, teardrop sinker and ties it to a large No. 5 barrel swivel. An 18- to 24-inch 50-pound leader withstands the abrasive mouth of a heavy blue cat. And an 8/0 to 11/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook impales the bait, normally a chunk of skipjack.
A PVC pipe extends across Hall's back deck and props up the rods. He puts the reels in free spool with the clicker drags on.
"When I see the tip of a pole quiver, I pick it up and engage the reel," says Hall. "When the fish starts to swim off, I set the hook." And suddenly, a cold winter's day turns warm.
If you're willing to brave the cold to battle heavyweight blue cats, make the Cumberland River, or one of the rivers listed below, your destination. --M.H.
COOPER RIVER, South Carolina The Cooper River produced the former world-record giant--a 109-pound monster. You'd be hard pressed to find a better spot in the South.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER Starting from its confluence with the Ohio River and moving downstream, the Mississippi has great winter fishing. The 116- pound world record came from Big Muddy in 2001.
JAMES and RAPPAHANNOCK RIVERS, Virginia Every year more anglers head to these two rivers. Though blues are not native here, they are big and plentiful. Key in on the lower tidal sections.
OHIO RIVER, Kentucky The best fishing occurs from the Meldahl Pool, which flows past Cincinnati, downstream. During minimal current, try hanging a few of the baits 2 to 3 feet above the bottom.
TENNESSEE RIVER, Alabama/Tennessee River sections of several reservoirs on the Tennessee give up big blues. High on the list are Fort Loudoun, Watts Bar, and Pickwick.