You may think dog days of summer when catfish come to mind, but blue cats are perfectly happy in cold water, where they will be shadowing every move of shad and feasting on the baitfish in reservoirs across North Carolina. Patterning baitfish is a key for Kannapolis guide Chris Hammill of Hammill Outdoor Adventures, who puts them in the boat on Yadkin/Pee Dee system reservoirs. Here are some of his winter catfishing tips:

·        Don’t wait for bait, catch gizzard shad in advance. “When the water temperature is under 50 degrees, cut gizzard shad makes the best bait,” said Hammill, who admits that shad can difficult to net on deep lakes like Badin or Tillery, which can drop to 90 feet or more in the river channel where shad are seeking stable water. “I go to High Rock and catch bait in a creek the night before. “High Rock is relatively shallow, and it doesn’t have an upper dam, so there’s a lot of current on the main lake; that keeps the shad in the deep creeks. Sometimes I’ll vacuum-seal and freeze gizzard shad if they are bigger than 8 inches or so, and they’ll be good for a month or two.” If gizzard shad aren’t an option, Hammill’s second choice would be cut white perch, caught on Sabiki rigs near schools of threadfin shad in the river channel. He fishes both on Carolina or Santee rigs, with 2 to 4 ounces of weight, and a 6/0 to 9/0 Kahle or octopus hook.

·        Look away from the ledges.  “Most of the fishing I do in winter is adjacent to the main river channel, on the ledges where it’s intersected by a creek mouth, or where there is a sharp bend in the channel,” said Hammill.  “But when the water is in the low 40s, the shad will move out into the middle of the channel bed, away from the ledge, and the blues will go with them, 20 to 30 yards away.” 

·        Make sure you are targeting active fish on your sonar. “Active fish will be 1 to 5 feet off the bottom, showing up as big scattered arches,” Hammill said. “They may not necessarily be in the bait, but they will be near it.”  According to Hammill, big piles of fish stacked on top of each other and flat on the bottom are usually not feeding.

·        Fish near deep, vertical timber. “It never fails in cold water,” said Hammill, “but, It’s aggravating because you get hung up a lot.”  Hammill’s trick is to graph the area before fishing, drop marker buoys along the edge of the trees, and fish as close to them as possible.“The best places are near the edge of the main river channel,” he said.

·        It’s not too early to look for a shallow bite. “Starting in mid-January through March, the shallower flats on the main lake and the backs of the creeks will warm up a few degrees more than the channel when we have some warm sunny days,” Hammill said.  “When that starts, the shad will migrate there and the catfish will follow them. I might start out fishing in deep water in the morning and end up in 5 feet that afternoon.”