Which works better for catfishing, the old ways or new technology?
Grandpa Keenan’s only catfishing rod was a fiberglass Garcia, 6 feet long and as flexible as a pool cue. The rod had a massive chrome Pfleuger baitcasting reel he called “The Winch” bolted to it. He always matched that rod and reel with a humongous sinker to anchor a golf ball-sized gob of dough bait in what he determined on a given day to be the exact, perfect spot to catch channel and flathead catfish.
My catfishing rods are medium-action composites of fiberglass and graphite. Some of them have compact, industrial-grade baitcasting reels and some of them are equipped with silky-smooth open-face spinning reels. I use only enough weight to minimize movement of my bait and rarely fish in the same place from day to day or spend more than 30 minutes in a spot.
Gramp has been gone for more than 40 years, and the world of catfishing has changed. Thinking about how much catfishing has changed, it’s fun to imagine teaming Gramp with some of today’s cutting-edge catfishermen for a day of catfishing to compare old-school versus new-school.
We’re talking about folks like Matt Davis, who has perfected the art of slow-trolling for channel cats with vibrating, rattling and semi-floating “catfish lures” baited with fresh-cut shad. Or Jeff Williams, for a day of fishing with scientifically formulated dip baits and punch baits. If it could be arranged, Gramp would probably be gob-smacked if he spent a day loading a boat with 50 or more 5- to 10-pound channel catfish using Chad Ferguson’s tactics of suspending baits under floats.
Gramp’s religious dedication to still-fishing, with his catfish bait firmly anchored to the bottom, is still effective, but slow-trolling has become the way to put lots of catfish in a boat. “Slow” is the key. Anglers drift with the wind or use a trolling motor to slowly pull baits across flats associated with old river channels, creek beds or bottom structure in reservoirs. Anything more than 1.5 miles an hour is too fast.
“The fish tell me how fast to run,” said Davis, owner of Whisker Seeker Tackle. “During the hottest months, they’ll sometimes bite better if I’m above 1 mile an hour, occasionally up to 1.5. When it cools down in the fall I’ll slow down to .5. Year in and year out, .7 mile an hour seems to be the sweet spot. While 1 mile an hour seems impossibly slow the first time you try it, sticking with that slow speed is absolutely critical to make slow-trolling work.”
Davis pairs slow-trolling with special terminal tackle he developed through years of on-the-water research. He advocates a weighted Carolina Rig, or weighted three-way rig, that incorporates some sort of float on the leader just ahead of the hook. The goal when slow-trolling is to keep the baited hook 1 to 2 feet off the bottom.
“We’ve done tons of experimenting with slip sinker rigs, trying to develop the best way to present catfish baits,” he said. “There have been hundreds of times we’ve had half the rigs we have in the water dragging on the bottom, and the other half of the rigs with some sort of float that kept the bait a foot or more off the bottom. The floated rigs always out-caught the bottom rigs 4-to-1.”
One thing Gramp never considered was adding noise or vibration to his catfishing tactics. He should have.
“I don’t care if it’s a rattle added to the line, or a propeller that spins and thumps as the bait moves through the water, but a noisy bait will generally catch more catfish than a silent bait,” Davis said. “When you think about it, catfish generally live in murky water, so it only makes sense that noise and especially vibration would be a big deal for them when they’re looking for food. That’s the reasoning behind our Whisker Seeker Catfish Lures and Rigs that have built-in floats, spinners, rattles and other options.”
BAITS, OLD AND NEW
Gramp firmly believed there were only three catfish baits worth taking to the water: nightcrawlers, chicken guts and doughbait. He cussed (proficiently) at all three of them. He complained nightcrawlers attracted carp and other rough fish. He swore about the stench and mess of chicken guts, and railed about the exorbitant cost of the 50-cent-per-tub doughbait.
The only swearing many modern catfish tournament anglers do is that they swear fresh-cut gizzard shad, threadfin shad, mooneye or whatever forage fish are prevalent in a body of water are the absolute baits for catfish. Other anglers, who don’t have the time or skill to cast-net for fresh baitfish before every fishing trip, find modern commercial catfish baits “stink baits” that produce plenty of catfish.
The odiferous dough baits with the consistency of Play-Doh that Gramp formed into a 1-inch-diameter ball around treble hooks are still available, but dip baits and punch baits now dominate the commercial catfish bait market. Dip baits have a more liquid consistency and require some sort of absorbent or textured component on the hook to carry and disperse the flavor of the dip bait into the water. Punch baits are pasty, with lots of fibrous content, so the angler merely forces (“punches”) a treble hook into a tub of the bait and pulls it out at an angle to load the hook with an appropriate dollop of redolent catfish candy.
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“For a number of reasons, Northern catfishermen have always favored dip baits, and Southern catfishermen have used punch baits,” said Jeff Williams, owner of Team Catfish. “To some degree it’s simply because dip baits have a thinner consistency and work good in the cooler water up north, while punch baits stay on the hook better in the hot summers down south. Then you get into the arguments about dip bait worms and sponges versus punch baits and having to use a treble hook, and it eventually all comes down to personal preference about which is easier to use.
“I’ll stay neutral, because we offer both kinds of baits,” Williams said. “Our Secret 7 is a great dip bait that a lot of guys swear by. Sudden Impact is our punch bait. The difference is in the delivery system, but the results are pretty much the same: dip baits and punch baits work really good for 1- to 10-pound catfish. Catfish above 10 pounds tend to favor fresh-cut bait. You can catch them on stink baits, just not as often as on cut baits.”
FLOATING A CONCEPT
One thing Gramp was adamant about was anchoring his baits to the bottom. He’d spend 15 or 20 minutes studying the current in a river before precisely placing his heavily weighted bait in a specific spot, where it sat for up to an hour before “freshening” it with new bait. If he were alive and on a fishing trip with professional catfishing guide Chad Ferguson, where all the baits are suspended under floats, Gramp would sputter, mutter and demand that his line be outfitted with a heavy sinker — until the boat started to fill with channel catfish caught below the floats.
Ferguson has refined catfishing with surface floats in shallow waters of large reservoirs into an art form. From May through October he targets water 5 feet or shallower near docks, weed beds, rocky shorelines or other catfish-friendly structure, usually along a windward shoreline. He anchors upwind of his target area, uses floats to drift punch baits on size 6 treble hooks with the wind and waves, and lets the float rigs work their magic.
“I use 12-pound monofilament as my main line, then use a bobber stop and a slip float to position the bait a couple feet off the bottom to start,” he said. “I tinker with the depth till I find fish. Most of the time I end up catching the majority of my fish about a foot off the bottom. I don’t have to mess with boat movement or maintaining a specific speed — I let the wind and waves drift the floats over the area and disperse the punch baits’ flavor. The longer I fish in an area, the more the flavor spreads and attracts more fish. We can put 50 to 100 2- to 8-pound channel cats in the boat in a day, depending on how many clients I have in the boat.”
Ferguson prefers a home-made quill float he describes on his Catfish Edge (www.catfishedge.com) website, but said commercial floats such as Comal Tackle’s 3-inch Durafoam Slip Float are his suggestion for anglers who prefer to purchase their tackle.
“They’re a styrofoam slip float you peg on your line to adjust depth,” he said. “They work good, stand up to heavy fishing, and aren’t real expensive.”
Click the video link above to get great catfishing tips for your future trip.
Another modern catfishing technique that’s deadly on large creeks or small rivers is completely contrary to everything Gramp believed about catfishing. Gramp believed patience produced catfish. He planted himself on a riverbank overlooking a particular hole and spent all afternoon and evening patiently waiting for every catfish in that hole to eventually get hungry.
The impatience inherent to our modern culture was probably the driving force behind modern run-and-gun tactics, but efficiency and success has given the strategy legs. In larger rivers anglers in boats dart from hole to hole. In shallow rivers, they wade. Either way, they’re targeting the active, aggressive catfish in each spot. Fifteen to 20 minutes is the usual limit before they’re retrieving lines and collecting tackle in preparation to move.
That tackle is often minimized for improved mobility when wading in rivers. When I wade I carry only a single medium-action, 7-foot-long Ugly Stick rod outfitted with an old Shimano 200 spinning reel loaded with 12-pound-test mono, so I can break off from the frequent snags I encounter as I probe the nooks and crannies of every log pile. Terminal tackle varies with current flow. Low flows allow the use of a split shot pinched a foot or more above a 4/0 bait keeper hook; stronger flows merit heavier weight. Traditional catfish baits in a small floating cooler — fresh chicken liver, shrimp, fresh-cut shad, chubs or suckers, and, of course, stink baits — minimize nuisance bites from carp and other non-target species.
That’s my favorite way to catch catfish, running and gunning between the sandbars and holes on a local river. The same river Gramp fished those many years ago with his old-school catfishing tackle and techniques. It’s fun to imagine what would happen if I could magically spend another summer afternoon on that river with Gramp. He’d stubbornly plant himself on an over-turned 5-gallon bucket beside his favorite hole, with a gob of stinkbait working off the end of his “pool cue” rod. I’d ramble up and down the banks a half mile in either direction with lightweight tackle and some fresh chubs, chicken liver and punch baits. It would be interesting to see who caught more catfish.
There would be lots of swearing (from Gramp) and needling (from his still impetuous but now aging grandson), but by the end of the day, there would be lots of catfish on each of our stringers.
I’d like to think there would be more on mine, because I learned — and have improved on — tactics and techniques from the best catfisherman on the river.
THE STINKING TRUTH
The majority of commercial catfish “stink baits” are based on some form of soured cheese, which is the catfish equivalent of Doritos.
Research conducted by the scientists at Berkley Tackle revealed it is specific proteins and amino acids in soured cheese and other stink bait ingredients that trigger catfish to bite. “Stink” is a human perception, and in many situations, less odiferous baits, but with more of the desirable proteins and amino acids leaching into the water, were actually more attractive to catfish.