It looked like we were headed offshore. Half a dozen pool-cue-sized rods were matched with big conventional reels, spooled with heavy braid and completed with 3-ounce weights and 10/0 heavy-gauge circle hooks. Instead we were river bound for a day of hunting trophy catfish.
Sport catfishing has gone through many changes over the past couple of decades, most notably in the realm of gear and techniques used to intentionally target outlandish-sized fish. Time has taught serious cat men that big cats behave differently than their smaller cousins. While it’s true that almost any catfish outing could result in a jumbo fish, you’re chances of landing a monster increase dramatically when you know how to catch catfish. This includes intentionally setting up in locations where big cats tend to lurk, using baits that appeal to heavyweight fish, and arming yourself with tackle that can handle giant catfish.
Although channel catfish occasionally reach very large sizes, when the subject is trophy cat hunting, you’re essentially talking about fishing for blue and flathead catfish. Cats of either kind weighing 40 pounds are fairly common in many waterways, and both fish of species sometimes reach triple-digit weights.
Photos by Ron Sinfelt
Blue cats are big-river species by nature, so native populations live mostly in major rivers or impoundments of major rivers. However, quite a few impoundments of smaller rivers have been stocked with blues and now support good populations of quality fish. Flatheads are found in most streams of at least medium size and their impoundments. Generally speaking, flatheads grow to larger sizes in major rivers and impoundments than in smaller streams. Research the kinds of cats that reside where you plan to fish as flatheads and blue catfish are somewhat distinctive in the habitats they favor and the baits they are most apt to eat.
Jumbo blues like having deep water available and room to roam. In rivers, river-like impoundments and riverine sections of impoundments the best habitat often is found in deep holes along major bends in the river channel and within confluences of creek and river channels. In more open lakes and reservoirs, they typically stay in the main body, often holding atop humps or points or following baitfish. Depending on water temperatures, oxygen levels and baitfish movements, they might be on the bottom or suspended just beneath a big schools of bait.
Flatheads use some of the same big bends as their blue cousins, but instead of herding up in the bottoms of the big holes, they hold tight to outside bends, where toppled trees and craggy bluff banks create cover. Flatheads also hold tight to inundated channel edges, often along hard bends or at confluences and close to woody cover or boulders. Flatheads like complex combinations of cover and structure, with a broad range of depths in a small area, and it seems the biggest flatheads favor the thickest spots.
Beyond fishing where the big cats live, a critical element in any dedicated big-cat quest is presenting the kinds of menu items that appeal to extra-large catfish. Mature blue and flathead catfish aren’t scavengers and won’t just eat anything that stinks. Anglers fishing with commercial dip baits, chicken livers or night crawlers do catch an occasional jumbo cat, but targeting heavyweight blues and flatheads call for a different class of offering.
Big blues like cut fish, especially oily fish like shad or herring. Big-cat specialists are divided about how to cut bait and whether head, midsections, tails, fillets or chunks work best. Most do agree that bigger chunks favor bigger catfish.
Flatheads are pure predators. Given its druthers, almost any big flathead would rather eat a live fish than a chunk of meat — even a big chunk of fresh fish meat. As for the best kind of baitfish, that depends on regulations, local forage and availability. The biggest shiners or shad you can buy in a bait shop works for flatheads, but the best baitfish tend to be the types of fish the flatheads are used to having available in a given waterway, with typical good baits falling in the 5- to 10-inch range.
Of course, selecting the right bait only helps if you are able to put those baits in the big cats’ favorite haunts and then hook and land the fish when they bite. Deep water and sometimes-strong currents commonly call for heavy sinkers. Add extra-large hooks and bait into the equation, and you need stout gear to manage rigs. When fish do bite, powerful gear is needed to get hook penetration, to slow sizzling runs and at times to wrestle big fish out of tangled cover.
Big cat rods should be 7 to 8 feet long, with a heavy action and plenty of backbone, and designed to handle several ounces of weight. Spinning or baitcasting reels work, but baitcasters offer the most pulling power. In terms of line, it’s tough to beat braid’s strength and small diameter for managing rigs in heavy current.
Specific terminal tackle pieces vary according by technique, but everything should be stout. It defeats the purpose of a beefy rod and strong braid if a catfish straightens your hook or separates your swivel. Good hooks for trophy cats (all heavy wire) range from about a 2/0 to an 8/0 for J-hooks and from a 6/0 to a 12/0 for circle hooks.
Big blue catfish feed well during the day and at night in rivers and in riverine impoundments with good current pushing through them. Lacking current, they tend to feed better after the sun goes down. Big flatheads are highly nocturnal in any waterway, especially during the summer. They also move out of the very thickest cover and onto adjacent flats to feed at night, which makes it easier to present baits and to get fish in the boat.
A good strategy for targeting big blue catfish in a river hole is to anchor a boat in fairly shallow water at the upper end of a hole and cast bottom rigs downstream into the deeper water. Stagger cast lengths to land baits in a range of depths. Leave the reels in “clicker” mode, if your reels have them, so fish can run with the bait, and when one makes a good run simply engage the reel to hook the fish. If you use circle hooks, leave the reels in gear and the fish usually hook themselves.
Drifting works well in reservoirs that lack current to carry the scent of the bait and in places where the likely positioning of the fish is not obvious. Use a cylindrical weight that drags on the bottom without hanging and a 3-foot leader to the hook, and add small float about a foot from the hook to keep the hook from dragging and getting snagged.
Flatheads generally prefer baits presented barely off the bottom. If the water is deep enough to do so and currents allow good positioning, set up directly over where you want to fish. Drop your rig all the way to the bottom and then turn the reel handle two cranks before putting the rod in a holder. To get baits away from the boat, add a sliding float that’s large enough to suspend your weight and set the stopper so it suspends the bait just off the bottom.
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