Yes, it’s cold.  Yes, it’s still winter.  Yes, you can still rabbit and goose hunt, but it  won’t be long until you can break out the long rods. The walleye and the channel catfish bite is not far away.  

I remember, one of the best-ever years I had catching walleyes at our local spillway was in February. Seems early, but if there is open water, the walleyes are focusing on spawning.

Walleyes in the Midwest typically spawn in water that is below 50 degrees, so the time to get after them will be soon. In fact, shortly after ice-out is a good time to start.

In rivers, many walleyes head upstream to dams and spillways to search  good spawning areas that include gravel bars in and around current breaks.

While some current breaks may be obvious from the water’s surface, others, not so much. Underwater structures such as humps and drop-offs can create breaks where fish will congregate. In small streams and rivers, many of these can be spotted with the naked eye.

Plenty of fish can be caught on lures from crankbaits to jigs tipped with live bait. In fact, these may be the most popular methods, and for good reason, they catch fish. But, the tailwater areas can get crowded when the bite starts,  sometimes something different can help.  One method that has brought me success over the years is to simplify things. I have had good luck bouncing a portion of nightcrawler about fifteen inches below a split shot. I let the current drift the bait downstream, lifting it whenever it gets caught on a rock.  

If you want to escape the crowds and possibly land bigger fish, try moving downstream from the spillways. Not all the fish make it to the spillways.

That particular February found me catching my biggest fish, about a quarter-mile downstream from the dam. I was fishing a small creek and happened to find a honey hole. Start out at the spillway, but don’t be afraid to wander downstream in your search. Be sure to gain permission if you venture onto private property.

Channel catfish
Although channels won’t spawn until the water temperatures warm up, their minds shift to seeking prime spawning locations in streams and rivers once the water levels stabilize from the snow melt. Unlike walleyes, the channel catfish isn’t amped up to spawn, but rather, preoccupied with finding food.

In rivers, these are areas of consistent current which attract baitfish. I have caught plenty of channels this time of year by bobbing red worms in the main current of the river just below the spillway.

River cats also like to hang out in eddies close to the main current.  This way they can dart out and snag a quick, easy meal as it swims by.

Likewise, in reservoirs, try current breaks off the main river channel. Position your boat just off the main channel, say on a point or mouth of a cove, and toss out some chicken liver on the edge of the channel. Let your offering nestle to the bottom and wait for a strike.

Whether fishing in rivers or reservoirs, don’t feel that you have to stick the old-time adage of casting your bait out and sitting all day, especially not this time of year. Rather, if you don’t get bit in 15-30 minutes, move on. Stick and run. Once you find fish, they shouldn’t be too reluctant to strike this time of year.  

Once you yank a few good cats out of a hole, it will likely be time to move on to the next good spot.