How to Rig for Summer Catfish
September 24, 2010
For fishing for everything from pan-sized channel cats to boat-filling flatheads, these tackle choices will get the job done for you this month. Grab the livers and chicken heads and let's go!
by Gerald Almy
As the sun poked its crimson crown above the eastern horizon on the sprawling lake, the depthfinder glowed too. We had found what we were searching for - a sharp dropoff mixed with bottom rubble and brush. This was a perfect place for a big catfish to be lurking, so we dropped the anchor in the 30-foot-deep water and quickly began preparing our gear.
Impaling freshly cut bait on stout 4/0 hooks, we lowered them to within inches of the bottom and sat back to soak in the beauty of the still-unfolding sunrise.
Our relaxation was short-lived. Suddenly the left stem rod throbbed twice and then bowed deep from the weight of a heavy fish. Grabbing it instinctively, I reared back into what felt like a good-sized steer. The fish lurched, and then it dove in a powerful run. Fifteen minutes later, bubbles rose in the water.
I knew that meant my quarry was close to being vanquished. Pumping hard, I worked the big cat up, and my partner scooped the huge 40-plus-pounder into the boat.
Was I disappointed that it was "just" a catfish? Not a bit. I had done battle with one of the gamest fish that swims and was ecstatic with the catch.
In fact, that is exactly what I was hoping to latch onto when I dropped the freshly cut chunk of shad down into the lake's inky depths.
Most anglers are not aware that stream catfish can be taken on crankbaits with ultralight spinning gear, as the author deftly demonstrates. Photo by Gerald Almy
HAIL THE CATFISH Not long ago, many sportsmen did denigrate the catfish as an inferior quarry, one fit only for lazy anglers. Those who stooped to fish for cats at all, rumor had it, did so by tossing a rotten, malodorous bait into a slimy river, propping their pole rigged with a rusty reel across a forked stick, and sitting back to sip cheap wine and breathe in noxious fumes from a nearby factory.
Thankfully, that unwarranted repu-tation is vanishing like frost from a sun-baked meadow. Ranked according to popularity, catfish now hold the No. 3 position in the United States - right behind panfish and black bass. Cats attract millions of anglers each year, more than such touted species as trout, northern pike, salmon and walleyes.
The catfish is a game fish through and through. Cats have it all - challenge, incredible power and tenacity when hooked, abundance, wide distribution, willingness to take a variety of baits and lures, and taste appeal that few freshwater species can match.
ALL-TACKLE QUARRY One of the most intriguing things about catfish is the variety of ways they can be taken and the number of different outfits that can be used to catch them. While it was a ball battling that 40-pound-plus fish mentioned earlier with a heavy 8-foot baitcasting outfit and 30-pound line, there's a middle range of tackle and waters that is appealing too. This is where a typical bass fishing rig of 10- to 20-pound line with either a baitcasting or spin rig is employed to take fish in the 3- to 15-pound class on medium-sized lakes and rivers with bait and - yes - lures.
If that weren't enough, there's yet a third type of catfishing that is both fun and productive during summer - going after fish in the 1- to 8-pound class with truly light gear - spin tackle or a very light baitcasting outfit and 6- to 8-pound-test line. This is often best on small creeks and ponds, but it can also work on larger reservoirs if you fish in the shallows or find concentrations of cats of a size that can be handled on the refined gear.
LIGHT-TACKLE CATFISHING When the mercury hovers in the 80s or 90s, one of the most rewarding types of fishing is wading a stream, small river or tree-shaded pond for catfish with light spinning tackle. This is pure, simple fishing. The water keeps you cool even on the hottest days, and your gear needs are so limited they can be carried in a shirt pocket.
A light-action rod of 5 1/2 to 6 feet and a spinning reel spooled with 6- to 8-pound-test line fits the bill perfectly. For terminal gear, stock a small box with No. 1 to 4 hooks, split shot and a few bobbers. I usually go without the floats, but in slow stretches of river they can increase strikes and help keep the offering just off the bottom so hangups aren't a continuing problem.
Alternately, use a small sinker in the 1/2- to 1-ounce range with a snelled hook attached a foot or two above it or a hook tied off on a dropper.
Bait for this type of fishing can range from grasshoppers and crickets to shrimp or chicken livers. Day in and day out, however, few offerings can top live night crawlers and minnows. Bring one or both of these if possible, carrying the night crawlers in a small container strapped over your shoulder, or the minnows in an aerated bucket floated in the water from a stringer on your belt. Dead minnows work nearly as well as live ones, so you can just carry a few in a plastic bag and dispense with the aerated bait pail.
Cast upstream, quartering across, and allow the bait to drift down on or near the bottom. When fishing in ponds, cast to coves, points, weeds and structure such as stumps or rock-piles. Strikes shouldn't be long in coming. You'll likely feel a tap-tapping, or sometimes just a sudden, hard jerk on the line. Give the fish a few seconds to get the bait in its mouth and then set the hook firmly.
Use care when wading because catfish can be spooked, particularly in shallow, clear streams or small ponds. Good spots to try in streams include deep bends, points, boulders, logjams, eddies, island edges, tributary mouths, gravel bars and other structure. These areas provide a break in the current where catfish can lie in wait for food to wash by without expending as much energy as they would in midstream. If a strike doesn't come by the time the bait starts to swing around below you, reel in and try again. After a couple of drifts through a likely area, move a short distance upstream and probe a new spot.
The most important thing to remember with this technique is that the bait must be on or just above the bottom. Catfish sometimes swim in mid and upper levels to feed, but for the most part they hang out near the bottom. If you don't feel your offering nicking the streambed or pond bottom, add more weight. You will occasionally get hung up, but keeping the bait deep is the best way to draw the most strikes.
Moving up a level in tackle is worth it if you fish deeper water or if the cats are running heavier, say in the 3- to 15-pound class. This tackle is good on lakes, small reservoirs, rivers and large impoundments. It can be utilized with a variety of baits, including those mentioned above as well as prepared baits. A wide variety of these are available, some that you mold around a No. 6 treble hook and others that you dip the hook in to coat it. These can be fished with split shot, a Dipsey sinker or a bullet sinker set 18 inches up the line and crimped or pegged so it doesn't slide.
You can increase your odds for success with this tactic by chumming or pre-baiting the fishing area (where this practice is legal) a day or two or even a few hours before you fish it. Just throw out several handfuls of wheat, maize or milo that has been placed in a bucket, covered with water and allowed to sour for several weeks.
While bait is the No. 1 choice in most cases for catfishing with medium-weight tackle, there are times when artificials are worth trying. If fish are in an aggressive mood or feeding actively, they'll often smack a spoon pumped in front of them, a slowly retrieved jig or a seductively wobbling plug.
One of the best ways to catch catfish with lures is to troll. Tie on a deep- or medium-diving crankbait suitable for the depth of water you plan to probe. Work contour lines, points that jut into deep water, dropoffs and other structure at a slow speed but fast enough so that the plug wiggles enticingly.
Casting and retrieving these lures can also be productive. Other choices for this approach include lipless crankbaits, jigs and grubs. At times catfish will even strike plastic worms.
One of the very best tactics of all for medium-tackle fishing with lures is to vertical jig. Probe likely cover and structure, such as those areas listed above, with a 1/2- to 1-ounce slab spoon. Work the lure up and down in 6- to 12-inch jumps just a few inches off the bottom. Lift the rod tip briskly but lower it just fast enough so that the lure falls freely but there's not excessive slack in the line. Strikes will often come on the drop, so you need to be ready for any slight hesitation in the lure's descent or sideways movement in the line. Set the hook immediately and hang on!
HEAVY TACKLE FOR BIG-WATER CATS If you want sheer drama in your fishing, get out the heavy tackle and fish big waters. While small-water fishing is fun and relaxing and yields catfish that are delicious to fillet and fry for dinner, big catfish in big waters provide an adrenaline rush few other forms of angling can offer. Fish of 40 and 50 pounds and more are not out of the realm of possibility. A cat of those proportions can keep you occupied for a long, exciting battle. And contrary to what some anglers think, the flesh from such big fish is very tasty - firm, white and flaky.
Gearing up for big-water cats can be summed up in one word: strength. Lines, rods, reels and rod holders must be quality heavy-duty models to challenge out-sized cats. Several companies make rods designed specifically for catfish that are excellent choices. Other options include rods designed primarily for medium-duty saltwater use. I like a medium-heavy to heavy-action rod of 6 1/2 to 8 feet with a long handle and a fast-action tip. Heavy-duty bait-casting or spinning reels spooled with 20- to 50-pound line complete the setup. Vary the line strength according to the size of the catfish that are present and the amount of logs, brush and abrasive rocks you'll have to wrestle them out of.
LAKE TACTICS Most of the large catfish species were originally riverine fish and are still found in many major flowages. However, they've adapted amazingly well to the hundreds of lakes and impoundments that have been built across the country in the past century and thrive in these big, still waters today. Certain select waters seem to have just the right combination of fertility, cover, temperature and forage to grow large catfish, however, so it's worth contacting your state fisheries department or inquiring in local tackle shops to pin down the best waters in your region for exceptional-sized cats before venturing out.
If possible, obtain a topographic map of the lake you plan to fish. This will be invaluable in helping you pinpoint specific cat haunts.
Big catfish occasionally feed in turbid water over a muddy bottom. Their preference, however, is clear water and bottom strata of boulder, gravel, bedrock or sand. In rivers, top spots to try include deep, long holes; bridge abutments; channel dropoffs; points; the mouths of tributaries; backwater sloughs; eddies; and tailwaters below dams.
In lakes, small and medium catfish often invade the shallows at night. Truly jumbo specimens, however, typically spend the bulk of their time - in darkness or light - in deep offshore holes. If most of the water in a lake runs 50 feet deep and you find a pocket that plummets to 55 or 60, drop anchor. You've pinpointed a catfish hotspot!
Big cats like rough areas - dropoffs, points, riprap around dams, submerged bridges, roadbeds, cem-eteries, clusters of trees, humps, etc. They feel especially comfortable around tall structure, like the wall of a submerged building. When the depth-finder shows a 10- or 15-foot vertical piece of structure, you're definitely on top of good cat cover. If strikes are scarce on this structure after sun-down, move into slightly shallower water, trying shoals, points and rocky coves.
Bait choice for catching giant catfish in big waters can vary widely, and it's important to be flexible. Some good offerings include cut bait, whole live or dead fish, night crawlers, shrimp, mussels, catalpa worms, chicken livers and prepared baits. If any one food is particularly abundant locally, try to match it. Otherwise, cut or whole fish or prepared baits are the top offerings.
To rig up for baiting big cats, thread a 1/2- to 1 1/2-ounce egg sinker above a barrel swivel, then add a 2- to 3-foot leader of 20- to 40-pound mono with a No. 1/0 to 6/0 hook tied to the end. Vary the hook size according to the size of bait you're using and also the size of catfish you expect to catch. In any case, rods should always be stout, heavy models.
Serious catfishermen generally put out as many lines as the law allows, but be sure they're firmly anchored in rod holders. Catfish have stolen more than a few outfits in their time. This usually happens when an angler turns away for an instant and leaves his gear unattended.
When fishing in a boat directly over structure, position baits six to 18 inches off the bottom. Avoid moving the baits too often because part of the appeal to catfish is the scent current you're sending out to them. This scent trail will be disrupted if you keep reeling in and casting out needlessly. If you don't get a bite in 20 or 30 minutes, though, it is time to put a fresh offering on or move to another spot.
While fishing at anchor is productive, one of my favorite tactics is to use an electric motor and depth flasher to stay right on top of the quarry, dangling the bait in front of
its snout until it simply can't resist chomping down. To do this, first locate good structure, and then mark it with a buoy. After you pinpoint large fish with a depthfinder, lower your offering to the precise level of the fish or a few inches above them and then use the electric motor to control your position and keep the bait directly in front of them. It won't take long before a big cat will nab it.
TAILRACE TIPS Big catfish often congregate below tailraces at the headwaters of lakes. Drift-fishing at the edge of the main current during power generation is a popular way to take these fish. Drift a half-mile or so downstream and then motor up and try a different "lane" on your next float. If the current is strong, use your motor to slow the boat's progress. Whole shad or a cut piece of baitfish works well for this type of fishing.
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Whether you choose light tackle and small streams, medium-weight gear on reservoirs or heavy-duty equipment fished in tailwaters and sprawling lakes, don't overlook the catfishing opportunities in your area this summer. This whiskered game fish is widespread, abundant, hard-fighting and great tasting on the table. That's a combination that's hard to beat no matter where you live.
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