Here’s the challenge: You have 24 hours to catch just one trophy channel catfish. But it has to be brag-at-the-baitshop big. We’re talking about a channel catfish big enough that bystanders will scramble to find a certified scale and a listing of the current state record for channel cats.
It won’t be easy. All the tricks and techniques that help you easily fill your frying pan with eater-size catfish are minimally helpful. Professional catfishing guides who specialize in catching only the biggest channel catfish say it’s going to take different tackle, different baits and different locations to put a monster channel cat on the end of your line.
“First, you’ve got to quit fishing with chicken livers and shrimp,” said Skip Martin, a Midwestern catfish guide (www.catfishrevolution.com; 330-671-1559). “You’ve got to use big, fresh-cut live baits. The old saying about using big baits to catch big fish is true when it comes to channel cats. I use shad 99 percent of the time, and when I’m after the biggest channel cats, I use the biggest shad I can find. They can’t be too big. I’ve used 8- to 12-inch shad, full-size without cutting them, and 12- to 14-pound channel cats inhaled them without any problem. I usually use cut shad, just to get more blood and oil in the water, but I use the biggest pieces I can to avoid catching smaller cats.”
In the upper Midwest where professional catfishing guide Brad Durick (www.braddurick.com; 701-739-5808) works, goldeyes are the prime bait. “I normally get four to six baits out of one big goldeye,” he said. “That size of bait will put lots of 5- to 10-pound channel cats in the boat. But if my clients are willing to give up quantity and go for one or two truly monstrous fish in a day, I’ll take a 12- to 14-inch goldeye, cut off the tail, cut it in half, and that’s the bait that will catch the biggest cats.”
Beyond agreeing that big baits catch the biggest catfish, Martin and Durick’s strategies for catching big channel catfish diverge. Martin targets big cats in lakes and reservoirs. Durick specializes in pulling mega-cats from large rivers. Both focus on areas where they know the biggest cats live and feed.
CRUISING FOR CATS ON LAKES
Martin slow-trolls large flats on lakes to target big channel cats. There are times he’ll work drop-offs on the downwind side of major points or follow creek channels, but big flats are his favorite spot for big fish.
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“If I can find a big flat around 14 feet deep, I’m happy,” he said. “I slow-troll at half a mile an hour, maybe up to 1 mile an hour, pulling Santee float rigs, with some of them running out to the side on Church-brand TX-22 planer boards. Planer boards catch bigger fish. If I’m catching 8- or 10-pounders under the boat, the planer boards will be getting 12- to 14-pounders. I think bigger cats are a little sensitive to boats passing overhead.”
Martin’s Santee float rigs are essentially a 5/0 to 7/0 semi-circle hook on a 16- to 20-inch leader below a slip sinker. A 2- to 3-inch cigar float pegged at midpoint on the leader keeps the bait off the bottom.
“I catch bigger fish when I keep my baits off the bottom with the float rigs,” he said. “I believe smaller catfish hug the bottom ‘cause it’s safer for them. Big cats are the kings in our lakes; they aren’t afraid of anything, and don’t need to hug the bottom and hide. They just cruise around looking for an easy meal. Keeping the bait off the bottom puts it right in front of them.”
After experimenting with 50-plus-pound braided lines, Martin now uses 25- to 30-pound monofilament lines.
“I lost a lot of fish on braided lines,” he said. “The braids tended to fray on rocks and ledges, and with braids I tended to set the hooks too hard and pulled the hooks out of their mouths. Mono line takes more abuse and has enough give so I can get a good hookset without ripping it out of their mouth.”
Though Martin slow trolls for big channel cats from his boat, he said shore anglers can target mega-cats using similar tactics. “Find a point near a big flat, and fish it when the wind is blowing strong across that point,” he said. “Or fish the approaches to a bridge when the wind creates a current around them. Put a big bait under a big float set to mid-depth, and let the wind and current slow-troll it for you. Be patient. You’re not going to catch a lot of fish using big baits, but by using the wind and a float to move that bloody bait around, eventually the biggest cat in the neighborhood will find it.”
Martin said anglers who finally land a big channel cat should keep fishing.
“I’ve noticed that channel cats hang with fish of their own size,” he said. “If you catch a 4-pounder, then all you’ll probably catch from that area is 4-pounders. But if you land a 10- or 15-pounder, there’s a good chance there are other 10- or 15-pounders close by.”