August 28, 2023
Sometimes I accidentally do the right things to catch catfish. Take, for instance, the time my brother Bill and I were slow-trolling in 15 feet of water along a shoreline on a big flood-control reservoir. I hooked a nice 5-pound channel cat. Bill put the boat’s motor in neutral as I fought the fish, and the boat drifted with the wind for 5 or 10 minutes while we landed, unhooked and admired the fish. When Bill turned to get back to fishing, his rod was doubled over in the rod holder.
That prompted a "Dumb and Dumber" scramble that involved tripping over our net’s handle and bumping into each other twice. By the time we got his 8-pound cat into the boat, the wind and waves had pushed us around a point and into the calm water of a small cove.
That’s when I glanced at my second rod, which had been sitting in a rod holder with its line slack and motionless, and noticed the line tightening. Cue “Dumb and Dumber, Part Two.” After tripping over the net’s handle (again), I crawled to my rod, lifted it from the holder, gave the reel’s handle a couple of turns and set the hook into a 4-pounder.
Three channel cats caught in 20 minutes—one taken while slow-trolling, one caught while drifting and the third hooked while accidentally still-fishing. Proof that all three methods are effective, even at the hands of the “two stooges.” The fact is, each of these strategies catches catfish at certain times and in certain places. The trick is knowing when and where.
Although anglers fishing for walleyes, stripers or pike generally troll at 2 to 4 mph, slow-trolling catfish anglers target the 1/2- to 1 1/2-mph range. The goal is to use the trolling motor to create just enough lazy forward movement to provide steerage and keep the boat on a selected course over bottom structure known to hold catfish. Following old river channels, creek channels and other submerged structure allows anglers to slowly direct their baits to where catfish commonly lurk, and to cover a surprising amount of water in only a few hours of fishing.
Most GPS-equipped sonar units accurately register speeds below 1 mph. Anglers lacking GPS-linked speedometers can use free GPS speedometer apps on a smartphone to accurately monitor boat speed. Or you can use an old-school method of gauging speed: When dragging a bait across a mud or sand bottom, the tip of the rod should slowly rise and fall every 3 to 5 seconds. A bouncing or jerking rod tip indicates a speed above 2 mph.
The traditional rig for slow-trolling is a Carolina rig, which has a sliding sinker on the main line ahead of a swivel, then a 12- to 36-inch leader terminating with a 4/0 to 9/0 circle hook. The length of the leader determines how high the bait can drift as the sinker drags along the bottom.
The Santee Cooper rig—a variation of the Carolina rig in which the angler slides a foam, cigar-shaped float onto the leader ahead of the hook—has gained popularity with slow-trollers because the float lifts the bait off the bottom, dispersing blood, scent and flavor more widely to attract catfish.
Before trolling motors and sonar made precise presentations of slow-moving baits possible, drifting a boat with wind and waves was the primary way to find and pull catfish from lakes and reservoirs. It remains a great way to target feeding catfish scattered across large flats.
Position your boat on the upwind side of a known flat and set out rods rigged with Santee Cooper or Carolina rigs. Then, enjoy the rocking and slapping of waves as you gently present your baits to catfish feeding in or near your path across the flat. If wind and wave action pushes you faster than 1.5 mph, deploy a drift sock to slow your surface speed.
A poor man’s drift sock can be made by drilling 1-inch and larger holes in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket, tying a rope to the handle and trailing that bucket behind the boat. The more buckets in the water, the slower the boat drifts. A bonus of using buckets to control drift speed is that they stack neatly for storage.
Incidentally, these same drift socks/buckets are also useful for slow-trollers dealing with strong winds and waves that push their boats faster than 1 1/2 mph. They can use their trolling motor for directional control and drag a drift sock or bucket to slow surface speed.
While slow-trollers and drifters generally pull baits 25 to 100 yards behind the boat, don’t overlook the option of fishing vertically under a moving boat.
Hanging a bait on a drop-shot or three-way rig, especially in 10 feet of water or more, can be deadly. Keeping the bait slightly off snaggy bottoms has obvious benefits, but the jigging motion created by the rocking boat more widely disperses blood and flavor from baits. Catfish are known as bottom feeders, but readily "feed up" when their renowned sense of smell and taste detects juicy foods overhead.
The advancement of sonar and trolling-motor technologies often causes anglers to overlook an old but still productive approach to catfishing: “still-fishing.” Sitting over an anchor is tough if you’re used to moving around a lake. However, the ability to precisely place baits can yield impressive catfish catches in key places at certain times of the year.
Any time a reservoir rises significantly is a great time to drop anchor and still-fish near flooded vegetation. Baitfish and catfish eagerly move into flooded willows or weeds to feed on invertebrates in the vegetation. Anglers who cast a Carolina or Santee Cooper rig with fresh, juicy bait and let it sit along the edge of flooded vegetation can hammer cats patrolling that edge.
Inflowing water also attracts cats in lakes, so anchoring in the mouth of tributaries after heavy rains is a no-brainer, both on the rise and the fall. If the tributary is rising, park upstream where the tributary first narrows to intercept cats moving upstream. When the tributary is falling, drop anchor in the lake just off the submerged delta that forms where moving water meets lake water. There, you’ll catch cats drifting back into the lake after a couple days of upstream partying.
On small lakes or ponds with submerged rockpiles, brush piles or artificial structures, an anchor can be a catfish angler’s best friend. Use sonar or a topographic map to identify the locations of those structures. Anchor nearby and place baits around the edges, or use a float to dangle juicy baits just above the top of the structure. Catfish will respond to flavorful baits placed near submerged structure just like teenagers hiding in their bedrooms respond to the aroma of a fresh, hot pizza unboxed in the kitchen.
Anglers who slow-troll or drift for catfish favor medium-power rods with slow actions, meaning they have good backbone for muscling big cats, but “soft” tips that flex easily. The result is a rod with a tip that flexes easily when a cat picks up a bait, offering minimal resistance that could spook the cat. The movement of the boat—or the movement of the cat with the bait in its mouth away from the boat—“loads” the flexible tip of the rod and provides increasing tension that makes circle hooks rotate, catch in the jaw and self-hook with remarkable consistency.
Six- to 7 1/2-foot rods are popular for slow-trollers and drifters because they provide enough length to reach out away from the boat for a multi-rod “spread” of baits. Longer rods create a wider swath of baits, but they are more awkward to store and wield in the confines of a boat.
Hook selection is critical for slow-trollers and drifters. Circle hooks or octopus hooks are preferred because they are designed to self-hook when using moving baits. J-hooks work better from anchored boats because there’s no movement of the bait to rotate and embed like a circle hook. The angler has to “set” the J-hook to seal the deal. Octopus hooks combine elements of both circle and J-hooks, making them a universal hook that self-hooks when slow-trolling or drifting or can be set with a jerk of the rod when still-fishing.
In the end, just about any hook or type of tackle will catch a few catfish using any technique. But the right tackle used correctly, whether slow-trolling, drifting or still-fishing, will consistently catch more fish—even if done accidentally.
- Hit these prime Midwestern waters for quality catfish action.
Late summer is the time to slow-troll, drift or anchor in Midwestern flood-control reservoirs. Find a shallow flat with a submerged river or creek channel, and you’ve found a great place to drag a chunk of fresh cut bait or soak a wad of stink bait and catch channel cats weighing up to 20 pounds.
In Kansas, Milford Lake’s 15,700 acres holds a large population of channel catfish and strong numbers of trophy blue catfish. Find a submerged creek channel and slow-troll the edge.
Iowa’s Saylorville and Red Rock lakes both offer channel cats that can exceed 15 pounds. Slow-troll or drift the flats above the mile-long bridges that span the middle of both lakes.
Truman Reservoir and Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri offer good catfishing action. Focus on shallow flats in 10 to 20 feet of water. When pleasure boats chop up the main lakes, anchor and still-fish back in snaggy coves.
South Dakota’s Missouri River lakes—Lake Oahe, Lake Sharpe, Lake Francis Case, and Lewis and Clark Lake—provide strong late-summer catfishing. Slow-troll over mid-lake humps or still-fish among standing timber in the mouths of tributaries.
There’s a reason so many catfishing tournaments are held on Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley in western Kentucky: lots of catfish … big catfish. Anchor over a log or drop-off chummed the previous day to load a boat with channel cats.