A recurring theme among all the catfish guides is that winter catfishing are all about the forage; you fish close to forage or you don’t catch fish.

“It doesn’t matter which lake you fish,” said Chris Nichols, who is based in North Carolina and guides on several lakes in both Carolinas. “To be consistently successful on cold-weather catfish, particularly quality fish, fishing around forage that’s readily available is crucial. Not all of the areas where you find forage will hold catfish, but most winter catfish hotspots will have readily available forage.”

Another key forage consideration is having the preferred forage base as your bait offering. Zakk Royce, a record-setting North Carolina guide, said if catfish are feeding on threadfin or gizzard shad, for example, it’s best to use shad as a primary baits. And he said big catfish will chow love to down on “second-hand” shad. 

“Forage for catfish bait goes beyond the simple thinking of smaller forage such as shad,” Royce said. “Threadfin shad attract white perch in big numbers, and catfish will readily chow down on perch that are eating shad. So I have perch available as a primary bait as well as shad. Big blue catfish are high on the predator chain, and they love to eat the things that eat shad.” 

William Attaway, who guides on a handful of South Carolina lakes, said he takes a few minutes to graph an area for both forage and big fish marks indicative of catfish.

“It all really boils down to forage,” Attaway said. “I ensure I see lots of forage on my graph in addition to what I believe are catfish marks near the lake bottom when I set up to drift. I may find forage and catfish in a creek one day, near a creek mouth another day and in the main river the next trip. Or I may find them in all of the above places on a single day. Follow the forage for winter blues.”