“Don’t worry about that stuff,” a friend calmly assured me, having seen me “go on point” every time the rod tip would jiggle. “Little cats tug on that big bait all day. When the one we want takes it, you’ll know.”
Boy, was he ever right! The line took off like a dragster on green. With the rod throbbing and the reel’s clicker screaming for mercy, I flipped the bail switch, as my friend had instructed earlier. The fish continued to run, now peeling drag, and it bent the rod deeply. In fact, it took all the strength I could muster to wrestle the rod out of the holder, and at first all I could do was hang on.
After a few minutes, the leverage of the rod and tension of the reel began to work in my favor, and the fish began yielding a little. Eventually, we won the battle, and my friend slipped his big net beneath a 40-pound blue so we could admire it, take a few photos and then slip it back into the water.
Catching trophy catfish typically is not that big a challenge. Cats abound in rivers and lakes of all sizes, and smaller fish readily scarf up anything that sends out a meaty smell. Catching heavyweight cats is a different story. As catfish grow in size they become more selective about their meals and craftier in their ways. They also gravitate toward dense cover, which can be difficult to fish efficiently. Plus, heavyweight cats can be extremely difficult to land even when you do manage to hook them.
Today’s trophy cat chasers defy stereotypes. They are as serious about their sport as any bass pro or fly fisherman, and they combine highly specialized gear with a wealth of knowledge as they search for big catfish and set up strategically to present the right baits in the right places.
BIG CAT COUNTRY
The first step toward targeting jumbo-sized catfish is to identify big cat waters. Although an occasional fish may grow to a large size in virtually any waterway that catfish call home, certain waters clearly produce far more big cats than others and are extra conducive to serious fishing for trophy catfish.
Plentiful food and fat cats go hand in hand; so fertile waterways that support an abundance of forage are extra likely to produce extra large catfish. “Cat food” comes in many forms and might include baitfish, sunfish, crawfish and even shellfish. Most of the best trophy waters offer a variety of forage types, which allows the catfish to find plenty to eat throughout the seasons and under a variety of conditions. Plus, when one forage species goes through a down cycle, another can keep the catfish well fed.
Habitat is another important factor, and again variety plays into the equation. Waters that offer good rocky spawning areas, deep refuge holes, and shallow feeding flats, all with some form of cover, provide cats everything they need to grow in numbers and in size. Also, while it’s not an absolute by any means, major rivers and impoundments of major rivers tend to produce larger catfish overall than smaller waterways.
A final factor that cannot be overlooked is that few catfish grow to large sizes in any river or lake where a high percentage of the fish end up in the frying pan. Far fewer big cats tend to come from waters where harvest rates are high, whether by recreational or commercial anglers, than from those waters where some of the fish are in some way protected from harvest. Protection comes in many forms, including special regulations, remote locations, local angler interest in other species, or the sheer scope of a fishery relative to interest. Whatever the reason, if less catfish are taken home, more catfish grow to large sizes.
Within any given river or lake, the bigger cats tend to favor certain areas, with those areas varying somewhat by season. Major big-cat attractors during the summer include a wide range of depths, amount of current and the availability of food and cover. The best spots for the biggest fish generally offer all four attractors.
Big cats like to have deep water available through the summer because deep holes provide a hint of thermal refuge. Some valuable forage species also favor deep water, while others prefer to stay shallow, so having a broad range of depths in close proximity provides the best of both worlds for feeding. Often the cats spend their days resting in the deep water, but still feed opportunistically on any available deep-water forage while they are down there. At night, they cruise up onto shallow flats to feed on sunfish, minnows, crawfish and whatever else they can find.
Catfish are river fish by nature, and they prefer to be close to current. They may hang in eddies just out of the strongest flows, but they stay within striking range of the food-carrying flow. Often, the more riverine upper ends of reservoirs hold the most jumbo cats because the fish find more dependable flows. In tailwaters, where the water gets turned on and off with power needs, the big cats typically feed more aggressively when more water is flowing. They also congregate in the deep waters on the “lake side” of a dam during generation periods because of the “pulling currents” that form.
Arguably the most valuable thing about a steady current is that it positions those big cats that are in an area and makes their specific locations predictable. If the current has been flowing strong and steady, big cats most likely are in the thickest current-breaking cover that is in or adjacent to deep water. That could be a big rock pile, a sunken tree or a thick stump row.
Bringing everything together, some of the most consistently productive types of summer spots for big catfish are major holes formed where river channels make hard bends and where tributaries join larger streams. Whether it’s a natural river situation or the channel edge that is inundated beneath the waters of a reservoir, these types of holes tend to provide a good combination of the features that attract big catfish on summer days and nights. Any deep hole associated with a lock-and-dam structure can likewise be very productive.
A hard bend of a major river can be a very large area, so it’s important to survey a hole, beginning with a topographical map, if one is available. A good map that shows how a hole is laid out, where the deepest water is and how adjacent flats are situated can help you devise a good searching strategy. Also, pay attention to those clues that you can see with our own eyes, such as current seams, broken rock banks and toppled trees along a hole’s outside edge.
Armed with a better feel for the hole’s features, take a close look with your electronics before you actually set up to fish. Today’s highly advanced graphs can help you locate specific edges, find rock piles and treetops — which you can then mark with GPS — and see for yourself how the baitfish and the catfish are orienting within the hole. In fact, you might come across a group of very clear and large arches just off the bottom that tell you exactly where you want to begin fishing!
BIG CAT APPROACHES
Once you’ve scouted spots, several strategies can be used to present cut or live bait, with the best specific approach varying according to the time of the day, whether you are fishing in current, the depth of the water and whether any cats you locate are concentrated or widespread.
If you are fishing in current and have identified fish or a potentially productive spot, the best approach usually is to anchor just upstream of those fish and cast bottom rigs downstream. Lacking current you might need two anchors to maintain boat positioning, but you can spread lines all around the boat, and if the water is deep enough that you won’t spook fish. You can even set up directly over any cover that you expect to hold fish.
For fishing larger areas where key spots are less obvious or the fish are widespread, an alternative approach is to drift, either dragging rigs behind the boat or using jumbo-sized three-way rigs and keeping your weight right at the bottom directly beneath the boat. Either river current or wind can drive a drift, and if need be you can always “create” a drift with a trolling motor.
When possible, plan your summer big-cat outings for after hours, as the biggest fish tend to feed more actively at night. Scout a few holes in the afternoon and set up along the edge of your best looking hole in the evening. If there’s a slope that connects the area where you saw the best fish while scouting, anchor over that slope and try to spread bottom rigs at a range of depths. As the evening gives way to night, you probably want to move all the way up onto the flat.
BAIT & TACKLE
If you’re fishing in big cat waters and have honed in on a spot where overgrown fish are likely to roam, the best way to specifically target them and cull smaller cats from the beginning, is to use a big baitfish or chunks of cut fish as bait. If you’re fishing for really big channel catfish or blues, use a large piece of cut fish. If you’re in flathead country and are after one of these brutes, there is no substitute for a live fish at the end of your line.
The best fish species to use for cut or live bait varies quite a bit from one waterway to the next and depends on what’s available and legal to use. Also, what are the cats accustomed to eating? Generally speaking, soft-spine species work well for cut bait, and the oilier the fish, the better. Lacking local species, mullet from the fish market is a good choice for catfish and usually is reasonably priced. Depending on your baitfish’s size and thickness, they can be used whole, cut into half or thirds, or cut into steaks from head to tail.
For flatheads, it’s tough to beat fishing with whatever species the cats are used to eating, if you are able to get them and they are legal bait. Otherwise, big minnows or other baitfish from a local bait shop will work. Normal flathead baits are between 4 and 8 inches long, and it’s not unheard of for a trophy hunter to use a 1- or 2-pound fish as flathead bait.
As vital as it is to put right baits in the right places in order to get big cats to bite, hooking a jumbo catfish is only half the battle. Consistently getting heavyweight catfish out of their tangled lairs and into the boat calls for stout tackle and a battle well fought.
Most dedicated big-cat anglers use large conventional reels with low gear ratios. Torque is far more important than cranking speed for fighting big cats. Rod lengths and actions vary by technique, but any big cat rod must have a lot of backbone, and most are made to manage large baits and heavy weights.
Line is another important consideration, with heavy braid being the line of choice for many big-cat chasers. Braid provides tremendous strength, and the smaller diameter makes it much more manageable than large monofilament. The minimum break strength most big-cat specialists trust for landing big cats is 50-pound-test, and it’s not uncommon to see catfish reels spooled with 100-pound-test braid.
Weights often need be large. For river fishing especially, big-cat specialists often use sinkers that weigh several ounces. Even in places where current is not part of the equation, getting a big bait to settle in place in deep water and maintaining good control of the rig might call for a couple of ounces of weight.
Between the size of the baits that work best for targeting heavyweight catfish and the size and strength of the fish, large, heavy-wire, ultra-sharp hooks are critical to the task. Trophy cat chasers remain split between “J” and circle hooks. Circles seem to be gaining ever more advocates because they tend to hook fish in the mouth and make big cats easier to release. Also, any anglers consider circles more efficient because no hook set is required. Others believe there’s no substitute for a big, sharp J hook and a hard hook set.
Specific sizes vary according to the size of the bait and just how big the cats grow in a given waterway, but J hooks most used for trophy catfish fall in the 2/0 to 8/0 range. Circle hook users go larger, usually arming themselves with hooks in the 6/0 to 12/0 range.
Not surprisingly, given the size of the hooks, the weights, the line and everything else, swivels, leaders and any other connecting gear used to complete various rigs need to be heavy duty. Accessories such as landing nets and scales need to have been designed with extra large fish in mind.