The season is about to turn, and with it the big fall catfish bite in lakes and rivers is picking up. Here’s how to tangle with the big ones.
Catfishing is on a roll across much of America these days, with national catfish tournaments, catfish series tackle and baits, lots of catfish websites and even some dedicated catfish boats decked out almost like bass rigs, but generally without 250 horses on the transom.
However, the basics of catfishing are still much as they’ve always been. First, find the fish, followed by figuring how to catch the fish. Across the Southeast, there are many experts who know how to target the three main species of catfish, all of which are approached a little differently.
Blues are the largest American catfish, with the current IGFA record being an amazing 143 pounds for a fish caught in 2010 in Kerr Lake, Va. Fish larger than 70 pounds are not all that rare in big rivers, and 100-pounders are caught now and then.
Blues like deep holes and are noted for feeding in the swift water below power-generating dams where dead fish are spewed out by the turbines. Blues feed on both live fish and dead bait, eating pretty much anything they can fit down their throats. In some areas, they’re noted for swarming at the surface to attack schools of shad throughout the warmer months.
In waters where there are landlocked striped bass, they also sometimes gather below feeding stripers. They survive brackish water well, feeding on just about any sort of fish, as well as shellfish, crawfish and crabs, but one of their favorite foods is skipjack herring. A 4-inch slab of fresh-cut skipjack (or gizzard shad where skipjacks are absent) is a prime bait, putting out lots of scent, and long-time commercial catfishers/guides like Brian Barton say the hand-size chunk of bait is good for anything from 10-pounders up to the monsters. Even better, larger baits are not necessary or advantageous, according to most pros.
“I use 2 to 4 ounces of weight and a 4/0 to 5/0 octopus or circle hook, and tie it up on a three-way swivel with 30-pound-test monofilament leader running to 65-pound-test braid,” said Barton. “The dropper line to the hook is about 2 feet long, and I put a small float on that line so that it keeps the bait up off the bottom. People think catfish are bottom feeders, but you catch a lot more if you keep that bait up a little.”
When it comes to tackle, folks could probably land an 80-pounder on 10-pound-test spinning tackle with a bit of care. But since these big cats are nearly always released it makes sense to use heavier tackle that will bring them to the boat in a short time and not tire them excessively.
Barton and other big cat experts typically use 7.5- to 8-foot medium-heavy rods, which provide lots of leverage to swing big baits and weights. Reels in the 6000 size in baitcasters or 4000 to 5000 size in spinning are adequate. Mono line of 20- to 25-pound test is the ticket for baitcasters, while 40- to 65-pound braid is the best choice for spinning reels.
Channel cats are not the largest of the catfish clan, but they are preferred on the table by many catfish connoisseurs and are the species raised in aquaculture across the Southeast. The IGFA record is 58 pounds, taken from the Santee Cooper drainage in 1964.
Channels are well named, because they prefer ledges and channels. They’re also a “clean water” catfish, more often found on sand, rock and gravel bottom than on mud like flatheads. They sight-feed now and then, which is the reason they’re caught occasionally by bass anglers throwing artificial lures.
Channel cats are noted for eating almost anything, from aquatic insects to crawfish to tadpoles, shad, sunfish and more. They are highly scent-oriented feeders — that’s the purpose of their whiskers — so stinkbaits are a favorite of many anglers. Commercial baits, usually scented in part with fish oil, are highly effective for catching eating-size channels, but the bigger fish more readily take a chunk of fresh-cut shad or other fish.
Channels don’t get anywhere near the size of blues, so standard bass-weight tackle is plenty. A dropper rig also works fine for channels.
Flatheads are big and very abundant in many areas of the country, which is one of the things that make them so popular with anglers. The sport of “noodling” or “grappling” for catfish mostly involves flatheads in shallow, muddy rivers and lakes, where intrepid waders get down in the water to wrestle them hand-to-hand.
Like blues, they get huge, with the IGFA record being 123 pounds for a fish from Elk City Reservoir in Kansas.
Flatheads, much more than the other species, feed on live fish. The adults mostly eat panfish, shad and bullheads, which means they’re most likely to be found near shorelines and shallows with cover likely to hold panfish, as well as in algae-rich bays where shad abound.
River flatheads tend to hang on downed trees, large stumps and other woody cover. In lakes, they also seek out woody cover, usually at moderate depths that put them close to panfish territory where they can lie in wait for an unwary bluegill or other sunfish. They also eat lots of small carp and bullheads, as well as crawfish
The flathead catfish is designed to be an ambush predator, both in structure and the instinct to blend into its surroundings. As such, they definitely prefer live food, meaning anglers can’t go wrong with 4- to 6-inch live bait.
The same tackle that works for blues is the right size for flatheads. Along woody shorelines, the baits are sometimes freelined or fished with just enough weight to keep them near bottom.
FINDING THE FISH
Big cats tend to gather in certain areas — they’re not randomly distributed around a lake. Usually, they won’t be far from the food, so anglers who locate large schools of shad on sonar can be fairly sure catfish are somewhere nearby. Keep moving until finding fish, putting out several baits in an area for 15 to 20 minutes before moving on.
Where there’s wind or current, simply drift along slowly with a spread of baits dragging behind until finding a hotspot where fish are holding. And the spot that is good one day will probably be good the next week and many days after.