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Catfishing may stir memories of a lazy summer afternoon on a shady creek with a cane pole, can of earthworms and stringer of eatin’ size fish. But when Richard Simms hits the water in Chattanooga with his clients in winter, they never know what might end up in the boat.

“If you hit it the right day it can be highly active. And the next day with identical conditions—or what we think are identical—could be dead as a doornail,” said Simms, a certified captain and owner of Scenic City Fishing. He plies the Tennessee River impoundments of Nickajack and Chickamauga year-round for blues and flatheads.

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“I had a client on Nov. 20 and we had some good, quality fish, probably a dozen from 5 to 8 pounds, and then a few up to 25 and 30 pounds,” Simms said. “Typically in wintertime I always tell people to take their patience pills. You’re not going to catch big numbers all the time but that day, we had a really active day.”

Below Chickamauga Dam, a hydroelectric dam controlled by Tennessee Valley Authority, the bottom is smooth and perfect for bottom-bouncing. Depending on which turbines are running, Simms and his client will rig up with cut skipjack, bluegills, or chicken breasts, and drift the turbine discharge.

If things aren’t hot, he’ll move to other areas that are deeper, have some cover or structure changes, and use the same drifts or anchor. Blues and flatheads are most common. Simms guides for crappie and bass, too, although catfish are pretty doggone reliable.

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“I’ve seen times in winter when you go one day and the next day they have lockjaw,” he said. “The winter bite often is unpredictable but doesn’t mean it’s non-existent, even on the coldest days. Sometimes those can be great days.”

When his stockpiled skipjack supply runs out Simms switches to bluegills, which he believes may be more sought by catfish in winter. The skipjack “go somewhere, and we don’t know where, but the bluegills are still here.” He picks up a few more flatheads in winter with bluegill heads.

“I think in winter they’re in the same (home) spots they always are,” he said. “Due to their metabolism they don’t have to eat as much. It’s kind of cyclical; one day a whole bunch of catfish think they need to eat one day, and then they just hunker down and digest.”