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There is a deep creek I fish not far from where I live that is a trib of the Neuse. Almost all winter long as long as the water temp doesn't get below 40 you can have pretty constant action with small channel cats. They are usually from 8 to 18 inches. Whats strange to me is in the summer you almost can't catch one in there but you can do real well on them in Main river. Where I have caught them the last two winters is 10 miles of creek from the Neuse. Where do these fish go?? Do they 1. Move up in the water column and predominately feed at night? or 2. Do they all move out into the main river?
 

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How deep is the creek where you catch them in winter? That may be the key. Most places I've seen and heard of will have the cats in the shallower tributaries during the spawn but in the winter they are found in the deeper holes of the river. Interesting that you appear to have the opposite situation. If your tributary is real deep, you may want to check out some of the smaller branches coming into that creek. That's one thing that makes the hunt so interesting. Same rules don't apply on all waters.
 
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