February can be a dicey month for anglers in North Carolina. It will feature some of the coldest temperatures of the winter, but it will usually greet the first warmth of the oncoming spring. On Lake Gaston, guide Zakk Royce of Murfreesboro holds fast to tried-and-true winter catfishing patterns, while keeping an eye on a shift to the shallows.
“If we have a really cold January and it stays cold into February, it’ll keep the blues pretty deep,” said Royce (252-398-7192), who runs Blues Brothers Catfish Guide Service. “They’ll be in the deepest area of whatever part of the lake you’re on. If you’re in an area where the main-river channel is 40 feet, most of the bait and fish will move out to that channel. If you’re in an area where the channel is 70 or 80 feet deep, they’re going to move to that general area, out on the main lake.”
In this scenario, Royce scans with his sonar until likely catfish marks are detected, often near large schools of bait. Then, he splashes a spread of Santee rigs with 2-ounce slinky weights, 9/0 circle hooks and a 3-inch cigar float pegged in the middle of a 60-pound monofilament leader. Cut gizzard shad is the bait of choice, with a couple of tiny baits as small as an inch long.
Royce will slow-troll baits on as many as eight rods at less than .5 mph. He’ll have four directly behind the boat and four swung out to the sides as far as 40 feet by side-planer boards, with enough line to still drag bottom. In extreme cold, Royce slows the troll to a crawl or anchors up over his marks and switches to fan-casting Carolina rigs with 3-ounce weights around the boat.
In a mild winter, with warm fronts that bump water temperatures above 45 degrees, Royce said the deep bite can shut off like a light switch, causing him to check relatively shallow flats near the main channel or even into tributary creeks.
“When they get up on those flats, that can be a good time to anchor up and spread some baits around,” Royce said. “Whether the flat is 10, 20, or 30 feet deep, if you can set up where you can put some baits up on top of it and some in the channel running beside it, that’s a prime place.”
When this occurs, Royce makes a move up lake, believing the biggest blues will set up in anticipation of the spring migration of gizzard and threadfin shad as they prepare to spawn.