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Out There: Cats as cold as ice

4/25/2006

Someone tell me, do catfish contain antifreeze?

That question crossed my mind on a recent winter day after my son Matt landed a 10-pound Missouri River blue cat.

The water temperature hovered around 40 degrees. One might expect a catfish in such a frigid environment to take bait rather gingerly, if at all. Not this one. Its strike was powerful. It fought long and hard.

When finally Matt brought the pot-bellied cat beside the boat, I laid a hand on its side. Its flesh was incredibly cold. How, I wondered, could an animal be active when its body temperature was barely higher than a block of ice?

Fish are cold-blooded, I know, but most cold-blooded creatures hibernate in winter. This fishy freight train was anything but lethargic.

Our angling companions looked like they were clothed for a mountain-climbing expedition. Reggie Gebhardt wore a goose-down jacket and a Russian-style hat with coyote-fur fringe. His brother Rick had enough insulation to warm a glacier. Matt and my best friend, Lewis Peeler, were dressed like they just descended Mount Everest.

The scene seemed absurd: a group of catfishermen bundled up like Himalayan Sherpas. What bunch of knuckleheads would go catfishing with the temperature in the teens?

I asked myself that question as I fumbled to impale a chunk of fresh shad on my hook. My fingers hurt from the cold, despite 100 grams of Thinsulate in my gloves. My feet were numb. I couldn't feel my nose. My core temperature hovered somewhere between hypothermic and deceased.

Between spasms of shivering, I cast my rig into the Missouri River's frigid water. Matt's rod took a nosedive first, however, and the smiling 20-year-old enjoyed battling his fifth catfish of the day. Rick netted the 15-pound blue and brought it in. They slid it into the livewell alongside Rick's 64-pounder, a monster by any standards. (Later that day, we shot photos of the fish and released them.)

Reggie and Lewis returned from an upstream foray. They had luck, too — good and bad. Reggie released a dandy blue cat as I shot photos and listened to Lew describe the one that got away.

"He was huge!" Lewis exclaimed. "I hooked him good, but he busted my line."

"There's only one good thing to do in that situation," I told him.

"What's that?" he asked.

"Bait your hook again and try for another one," I said.

Many catfishermen still labor under the false impression that catfish don't bite in winter. That's simply not true.

The experience just described shows the exciting potential for catching these fighters during cold months. Even more amazing is the fact that catfish — channel cats in particular — are now common targets for icefishermen in Northern states.

Despite popular misconceptions, cats don't lie in the mud and sulk when it's cold. They actively hunt for food, even when lakes and rivers are frozen over.

Blue catfish are especially active winter feeders, devouring pound after pound of shad, herring and other schooling baitfish.

Consequently, blue cats are more migratory than other species of catfish and more frequently are found in open-water habitat. That makes them tough to find at times, especially for catters who refuse to abandon near-shore fishing tactics. But when you do, the blue cat's tendency to gather in large winter schools can lead to cold-weather fun.

Flatheads seldom fall to winter anglers. Cold water slows their motor to a purr, and studies indicate little winter feeding. Anglers who catch them usually spot them on sonar and drop a bait down. With luck, the bait drifts in front of the fish; the fish takes it.

But flatheads won't move far to feed in cold water. You must place the bait right in front of their nose.

In one respect, winter catfishing is almost like bass fishing:

The angler casts to a good-looking spot and hopes for a strike. But if a hit isn't forthcoming, the angler doesn't sit in one spot for hours waiting for something to happen. He keeps on the move, trying one area, then another, hunting for his prey. Some fishing holes won't yield a single fish, but others may produce a big catfish on nearly every cast.

Bottom ledges created by old creek and river channels are among the best winter-fishing areas.

Some can be found using bottom contour maps and a good dose of luck, but most must be pinpointed using sonar — a most important tool for the cold-water catter.

Use the sonar to zero in on steep, easily definable ledges, as well as shorter, more subtle drops. Both are catfish magnets and, in winter, you're likely to chart dozens of fish concentrated near each structural feature.

Cut shad and herring are perhaps the best winter baits; but when these are unavailable, some anglers use strip baits made from carp, buffalo, bonito or other oily fleshed fish.

The baitfish is scaled and filleted; then the fillets, with skin on, are cut into triangular pieces three-eighths- to ½-inch thick, 3 to 4 inches long, and 1½ to 2 inches wide on the wide end.

Each bait is hooked through the point of the triangle, so it flutters enticingly in the current or when drifted. Sometimes the strips are split like a split-tail eel to give them more action. A heavy sinker carries the bait to the bottom, where cats are most likely to be feeding; then a short waiting period begins.

If you don't get a hit right away, don't get antsy. Cats are like kids after fresh-baked cookies. They home in on the aroma and follow the scent trail to track down their treats. Give the bait time to do its job before moving it.

Lew, Matt and Reggie caught several more nice cats before our polar expedition ended.

What surprised me most was how icy-cold these fish were. Each fought furiously, despite having the same body temperature as a Popsicle. But how is this possible?

Do the bodies of catfish contain some amazing ingredient that wards off the effects of cold? Why do catfish remain active when turtles, snakes and other cold-blooded creatures are hibernating? Could it really be antifreeze?

As for me, I was out of antifreeze. I sipped another cup of coffee and tried to quit shivering.

Finally, a cat took my bait. It was only then I realized it wasn't so cold, after all.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His new book, "Out There Fishing" (Stoeger Publishing; $19.95), is available at www.catfishsutton.com.