By FishRecycler | March 24, 2008
The sweet smell of spring may mean blossoming blue bonnets and blooming bushes to some outdoor enthusiasts, but to others, spring’s sweet smell is something sour. It’s shad lining shorelines that spells dinner bells for catfish, and savvy catfish anglers can capitalize on it.
Spring may bring images of trout out west, or pictures of ice-out pike where they patrol the waters, but cats can be found across the continent, so for many of us, cats are among the kings of spring.
Cold winter water kills shad across the northern climates, so when the ice gives way to open water, a big shad die-off is revealed. Daryl Bauer of Nebraska Game and Parks points out that the die-off may actually have occurred months earlier.
“The shad die-off really does not happen in the spring,” says Bauer. “You’ll see shad that have been dying all winter long. Of course then when the ice is gone you can see all of them and they tend to be piled up on certain shorelines depending on which direction the wind has been blowing from (and those happen to be the shorelines where the catfish will be feeding). Generally the worse the winter the more of a shad die-off you can expect. That does not necessarily mean a long period of ice cover, however. It appears that what really knocks the shad for a loop is when ice-up is delayed by strong winds. When that happens the water gets well-mixed and water temperatures can actually get even colder than if you had ice cover. Those cold water temperatures are tough on gizzard shad, especially small gizzard shad. Once there is ice the system tends to stabilize and the shad will seek out the warmest water available.”
Wind and wave action push dead and dying shad shoreward, and that’s the place to start looking for springtime cats. Your challenge won’t be finding fish – they’ll be where the food is. It won’t be tough figuring out where the food is, either…just follow your nose. From a distance, your eyes will help too: look for the birds. Like clockwork, seagulls show up to take advantage of shad die-offs, too. How the birds know where to be and when is a curiosity, but when shad appear, so do the gulls.
Fishing may first present itself while ice and open water share surface space on the lake. Green leaves will still be a couple of months away. Shorebound anglers can use this to their advantage. You’ll have little under-brush, hip-high grass, and poison ivy to contend with if you want to press a course around your lake toward the most likely spot, affording you a chance to fish places that will be tough to access come summer.
Don’t feel as if you have to make a long cast. Whereas that could be in order, catfish may be feeding close to shore and in shallow water. The shallower water warms sooner, and the warmer water will be attractive to cats. If most of the bait has blown close to shore, then that’s where the fish will be feeding. Start short and then “go long” if you don’t find fish shallow.
Lots of weight isn’t necessary, and going “lead-free” with your weights is good for your lake. Circle hooks are a great tool for avoiding deep-hooking, as long as fish are on an “eat and run” mentality. Most of the time, you’re going to hook fish right in the corner of the mouth with a circle hook – let them eat and swim off, and the hook will do all the work. We like Daiichi’s Circle Chunk or Circle Chunk Light. The “Stop Gap” feature on the Daiichi Circle Chunk series helps prevent the bait from getting jammed between the point and shank, which is a common problem on circle hooks.
Another piece of helpful gear will be plastic gloves. Your bait will be at your feet if you’re fishing in the right spot, but it’ll be ripe. Avoid funny looks from your co-workers come Monday morning by using plastic gloves for handling these fragrant delicacies.
Catfish is synonymous with late-night midsummer outings. This time of year, dusk is a fine time to fish, but your most productive hours may be the middle of the afternoon until shadows lengthen in early evening. As the sun’s rays warm shallow water, fish will perk up.
Take a trash bag, too. Springtime is the long-awaited remedy to cabin fever for all kinds of folks, many of whom have not yet embraced the “stewardship ethic.” For too many, it seems like they arrive at the lake with a winter’s worth of trash in tow. Likewise, escaped trash tossed by winter’s winds has a way of turning up on springtime shorelines, so be prepared to “make up for the other guy” and help “green up the banks” before the first blades of grass spring forth.
As for baiting up, many of the dead shad you’ll find will be large – 12” or more. Ice-out isn’t necessarily the best time to try out big bait to fool heavy fish. Anthony J. Koch is an angler from Nebraska who theorizes, “it is very important to remember that fish cannot raise their internal body temperatures. This means that if they eat a large meal the enzymes in their stomachs will not be as effective or fast acting as they would be later this summer when water temps climb into the 70’s. The colder the water the slower the digestion. This can cause problems if the fish eats a large meal. The potential for the meal to spoil in the stomach is real and could cause harm to the fish. That is why the bite in the early spring seems so “hot”. The fish are eating a large number of relatively small meals to maintain their caloric intake without risking adverse health affects, so bites can be non-stop.” You’ll have faster action if you use a strip of shad, a section about 1” wide and 3” – 4” cut on an angle to release maximum “flavor.” Shad heads, shad guts, and shad belly strips may also be the key to trigger strikes, so some experimentation could be in order.
The challenge in your outing will be competing with all of the food that fish have available to them. Therefore, setting yourself apart in some way may be an advantage. Consider float fishing to suspend your bait just above bottom. Fish outside edges of areas filled densely with dead shad along approach lanes where fish may be entering to feed. Fishing an alternate bait to get noticed – chicken liver, night crawler, or other classic cat baits might make a good approach for a second rod, where using multiple rods is legal.
Unattended rods lead to deeply hooked fish which is no good for catch and release fishing. If you’re considering releasing your catch, keep your rods close at hand, holding onto one or both of them, and keep an eye on the other one. A bell is a great tool to help you stay aware of what’s going on with your rods.
If your favorite lake isn’t ripe with shad, don’t despair. Springtime cats will be hungry, and there are other ways to catch them. Kotch says his secret is versatility, which shouldn’t be overlooked in this shad-centric article.
“Channels will often “graze” on small invertebrates located on the bottom of whatever body of water you are fishing,” says Koch. “They are also opportunistic and will feed on whatever they come upon. To that degree anything that has a lot of scent (whether it be due to blood, oil, salt, or other) will be very effective as it will draw active fish towards it. Remember to keep the presentations fairly small and to move often if you are not getting any action. Many of them will still associate with wintertime holes. If you get into a mess of them, keep in mind that tightly schooled fish are particularly vulnerable to over-harvest, especially with larger specimens, you could remove a large percentage of the more mature individuals in a few short days/weeks.”
He adds, “Flatheads and blues seem to differ from the channels. All of the above holds true for these guys as well but these guys are a little more predatory. This isn’t to say that channels won’t take live bait, they will, but not to the extent that flatheads and blue catfish will. They also seem to prefer larger baits, and crawdads and mudpuppies will be just now coming out of hibernation. A good substitute for crawdads are raw, peeled shrimp. Soaking them in salt seems to help in the early spring but not towards summer. For fast action with a shot at bigger fish, start with small bait presentations and work up in size until you see the number of hits starting to fall off. Later in spring, frogs and mudpuppies will be the ticket in most reservoirs, early-on anything that resembles freshly dead baitfish will be the best point to start from.”
These cool-water cats will pull hard and work wonders to whittle away a winter’s worth of shack nasties. This spring, see what shad and springtime catfish can do for your spirits!
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