From late fall through March or April (depending on latitude), channel cats abandon most of their warm-weather habitat and hunker down in a relative handful of wintering areas. Although that means most of the river is void of cats, it also means anglers can find huge concentrations of fish by combining river map research with on-the-water recon.
As in summer, deeper areas such as bends or long, deep runs adjacent to shallower water stretches are prime, but not just any will do. While deep waters often serve as wintering areas, mid-depth and shallow wintering spots are more likely to hold relatively active fish. Finding such spots is tricky, however. Most simply don’t hold the right combination of current and depth. Plan to visit six or seven distinct holes before you find a single cold-weather channel cat.
Current is the most important factor to watch. A perfect scenario is shown here: The main current splits, sending water through a slower, shallower back channel, with a slightly deeper depression on the downstream side. Cats hold in the depression where winter-killed shad collect and current is manageable. Active March fish (white) position on the fringes.
When you’ve narrowed down potential wintering holes on your map or from current flow observations, investigate each with your sonar. Grid the suspect areas looking for large groups of fish huddled on the bottom, or small bumps scattered across it.
Suspended schools are also promising signs of a good wintering hole. Although I’ve found suspended cats seldom bite, there are almost always a few cats underneath them, along bottom, looking for food.
Once you’ve mapped these key spots, you’ll have almost the entire population of channel cats in a given section of river at your fingertips when they become more aggressive in late winter