Fall And Winter Catfishing Techniques | Great Days Outdoors

Fall And Winter Catfishing Techniques

Almost anyone can catch catfish May through October. But few anglers can take both huge catfish and eating-sized ones throughout the fall and winter months, like anglers do on the Tennessee River, below Pickwick Dam. In recent years, fall and winter catfishing has become a growing trend in Alabama as well as other southern states.  

As one Pickwick Dam angler told me, “My fishing for catfish in the late fall and winter is based on my being convinced that cats must eat something every day. I’ve learned where big catfish live through studying their habits. If I put bait up off the bottom that catfish will eat, I can catch them – no matter what the time of year.”

However, catfish take their time biting during the fall and winter months – far longer than they do in the summer. Many times, a big catfish will hit a bait for 10 minutes during these times,  before finally taking it in and swallowing it. 

Anglers fish in deep holes near the floodgates below Pickwick Dam on the Tennessee River on the borders of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, as well as downriver. When fishing for big cats, you must use a strong line, like a braided, no-stretch line to feel the catfish on the line, as soon as the fish first bites the bait. Then the fisherman can set the hook quickly. Fishing with only monofilament line, you may not feel the catfish, until it tries to get off the hook.

How To Rig For Winter Catfishing

To the main braided line, attach a three-way swivel with 12 to 18 inches of 60-pound-test Berkley’s Trilene Big Game monofilament line as a leader, coming off the second eye of the three-way swivel.  This line is known for being super-strong, shock-resistant, extra-tough and abrasion-resistant, as well as having outstanding knot strength – all characteristics needed to catch catfish. 

bottom bumping rig
A bottom-bumping rig like this one can produce eating-size catfish and trophy catfish, depending on the size of the hook and the size of the bait you put on the hook. 

To the end of that line, attach a barrel swivel and tie on another 12 to 18 inches of Big Game line before snailing a No. 2/0 Kahle hook, a hook that’s between a circle and a J hook and developed by Eagle Claw, to the line, leaving four to six inches of line coming-off the first hook. Then a fisherman will snail a second, No. 2/0 Kahle hook to the same line. This rig is what anglers use to catch eating-size catfish, weighing from two to six pounds each.. 

For anglers fishing for really-big catfish, they’ll use No. 6/0 or No. 7/0 Kahle hooks. They want two hooks in the big baits they’re fishing. Then, regardless of how a large catfish takes the bait, they’ll have at least one and perhaps two hooks in the fish.

On the bottom eye of the three-way swivel, most Tennessee River anglers use 14 to 20 pound test line to tie-on their leads. They’ll have 2 to 10 feet of leader line going from the eye of the swivel to the lead on the bottom. They determine how long to make the leader based on the depth that their depth finders say the catfish are holding. If the cats are holding 10-feet off the bottom, they’ll use 10 feet of leader to ensure their leads go toward the bottom but keep the bait  about 10 feet above the bottom. 

If the anglers pinpoint the catfish holding right on the bottom or close to the bottom, they may use only one to two feet of leader to go from the three-way swivel to the baited hook. If there’s a very-light current, catfish often will move 8 to 10 feet up off the bottom to feed. At times, anglers may not catch  cats, because they aren’t putting their bait at the depths where the catfish are feeding in the cooler weather.

winter catfishing
Your ability to catch a big wintertime catfish like this one will depend on the heavy tackle you use and your knowing where the large catfish roam.

Anglers also like to fish in the river below Pickwick Dam for catfish in the drop-offs and holes and on the underwater ledges downstream from the hydroelectric plant. To catch big wintertime catfish in Alabama, you first must survey the river bottoms below the dams with your electronics and search for these underwater drop-offs, holes and ledges downriver. Catfish like to hold in these areas, where baitfish congregate, and other food washes into the holes. 

Once you locate the holes, you can use your trolling motor to hold your boat steady against the current. Then let your line fall-down to the bottom, and slowly allow the current to move your boat downriver. Next, raise your rod tip, and lift the lead up off the bottom. Controlling the drift of the boat with your trolling motor, you can allow the boat to move back three to six feet before letting your lead down to the bottom again.


“I want the nose of my boat pointed into the current, and my line running at about a 30-degree angle toward the back of the boat. I’ll start bumping my bait along the bottom above the holes, let the bait drop-down into the holes and then bounce the bait along the bottom out the back side of the hole. Since the catfish are often on top of, in or behind a hole, you want to work that entire stretch of the bottom.” one wintertime catfisherman explained. 

Many wintertime anglers have learned that fishing the deeper drop-offs and holes downriver from the dams during the summer and winter months may locate concentrated, often-bigger catfish where depths reach 30 to 40 and even 60 feet.

winter catfishing
Oversized nets like this one help to insure that fishermen get very-big catfish into their boats.

Slack-water times are also productive for fishing holes in the bottoms in the fronts of spillways that aren’t discharging water. Big cats will hold around dam areas throughout the year. Some of their favorite places to concentrate in tailraces aren’t just in the swift water where the turbines are being discharged, but also in the slack water around the spillway. You need to search for holes in the bottom in front of the spillways and use the same rig there as when bumping the bait in the holes downriver. However, when fishing slack water, use lighter leads – often weighing no more than one or two ounces – and use your trolling motor to move your boat slowly around these holes.

Catching Huge Fall And Wintertime Catfish

My longtime friend, Phil King of Corinth, Mississippi, had an impressive winter catfishing catch, while fishing the deep holes below the dam at Pickwick in the slack water in front of the spillway gates. King and some friends were slow-trolling big baits in the deep holes. King had a large catfish hit his bait so hard that it jerked him around in his seat. He had to put both hands on the rod as the drag screamed off the reel. 

The big catfish came to the surface, made two figure eights just under the water and began a long, steady run down the river. Then the fish went down and stayed on the bottom for about 10 minutes. When it came up, the fishermen all spotted the big catfish on the surface. Next the catfish dove for the bottom a second time, and another 10-minute tug-of-war occurred. 

winter catfishing
Phil King uses a slab of hickory shad to troll for big catfish in the slack water below Alabama dams, when no water is coming over the spillways.

Most anglers don’t want to muscle large catfish to the surface, until the fish surrender. So, they’ll chase the catfish downriver with their trolling motors. On this day, finally after a 20-minute battle, the 61-pound blue cat rolled-up on its side, after a long and muscle-straining fight King had won. 

Tactics For Fall And Winter Catfishing

Most of the anglers who fish below Pickwick Dam and other Alabama dams know they’ll discover big cats in the holes downriver, as well as in the tailraces in cooler weather. The catfish anglers who target big catfish: 

  • don’t go over a hole running their big motors, to keep from scaring the fish into not biting
  • fish through the holes, allowing their baits to drift-back naturally, rather than trying to anchor on or above a hole and fishing vertically in it
  • pinpoint the catfish out in front of a hole or behind it, rather than fishing only in the hole; 
  • will fish all three locations – in front of, behind and through the hole – to have three chances of catching catfish, while anyone fishing in the hole only has a one-in-three chance
  • use their trolling motors to control their drift to move their baits through the hole slower than the current’s moving
  • lift their leads three to four  inches off the bottom; 
  • fish with 60-pound-test, abrasion-resistant monofilament leader line like Berkley’s Big Game line that has the power to move a big catfish, once the hook’s set with the braided main line. The braided no-stretch, small-diameter line as a main line enables an angler to feel the bite of the catfish better and get a faster and harder hookset
  • use an oversized dip net when fishing for big catfish to insure they get the entire fish in the boat
  • fish 10 to 20 holes in a day and often return to those same holes several times during the day
  • use a wide variety of baits, including cut shad, shad guts, chicken livers, night crawlers and live minnows – letting the catfish tell which bait they prefer on each day
catfishing techniques
This catfish was caught on Lake Eufaula using the fall and winter catfishing techniques described.

Whether you’re going for trophy-sized or eating-sized catfish, these techniques always have shown success when going fall and winter catfishing. 

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