When I was a youngster learning to catch catfish, my uncles taught me versatility often brings success. If the nightcrawlers we brought enticed some eating-sized channel cats, all was fine; worms it was.
But if crawlers didn't produce, it was time for another come-on. Sometimes casting live frogs did the trick. Other times we'd find catfish by drift-fishing with chunks of shad. If that didn't work, we might try still-fishing with chicken liver or live sunfish baits. Thus, I learned that catching the biggest and most whiskerfish often involves a variety of tactics and enticements.
No matter what bait you use, there are special ways of fishing it that produce more catfish than others. I call those "power tactics." They are trickeries that trigger strikes from cats even when their bellies are full.
To make the most of your catfish outings, give these power tactics a try this season. Your catfish-eating friends and relatives will thank you.
LIVE FROGS FOR TROPHY CHANNEL CATS
Channel catfish aren't finicky eaters. They'll devour almost anything anglers offer. If you want to be consistently successful and catch lots of fish, however, be selective about the baits you use. Some are decidedly better than others.
Consider frogs, for example. For trophy channel cats, these amphibians are hard-to-beat baits. Small catfish relish them as well, but most cats thus enticed are larger than average.
Check local regulations for restrictions before using frog baits. Water-loving species work best, particularly larger, more common ones such as bullfrogs and leopard frogs.
Most users hook frogs through the lips or thigh. I've learned, however, that hooking the amphibian through a foreleg maintains maximum swimming ability, making the frog more enticing. I use a 5/0 to 6/0 weedless hook with wire guard to prevent snagging. In lieu of that, use a similar-sized octopus or Kahle hook. Adding two split shot on the line 12 inches above the hook completes the rig. No bobber is necessary.
This rig can be fished several ways. I prefer using a sturdy 12- to 16-foot fiberglass or graphite jigging pole to work the bait around lily pads in ponds or shallow lakes. Position yourself along the pads, and reach out with the pole to ease the frog into openings. Slack off to let it swim. You also can place the frog on a pad and let it jump off. Be ready, however, for the ensuing explosion. Lily pads are favored haunts for giant channel cats, and despite misconceptions, these fish will hit frogs on top, providing unparalleled thrills.
Another effective tactic is casting the frog near cover using a spinning or bait-casting outfit. The frog will swim to the bottom, where it's easily spotted by foraging cats. If a bite is not forthcoming within a few minutes, raise your rod tip to stir the frog into action again. Most strikes come quickly when the bait is swimming. Strangely, few catfish anglers use frog baits. I suggest you give them a try. Live frogs will catch trophy channel cats no matter where you fish.
TROLLING CRANKBAITS FOR FLATHEADS
When targeting May flatheads, try another power tactic: trolling shad-imitation crankbaits on riprap edges. Yes, I said crankbaits. Flatheads frequent riprapped banks when feeding and spawning, and they're suckers for a tight-wiggling, fishy-looking plug darting past.
Riprap is a covering of large rocks placed along shorelines of large lakes and rivers to control erosion. These blankets of stone, which often extend deep into the water, appeal to flatheads for several reasons.
First, riprap provides a home for some of Mr. Whiskers' favorite eats — live baitfish in particular. Algae grow on the submerged stones. Shad and minnows are attracted to the vegetation. Flatheads swim along the rocks, gobbling up the baitfish.
Riprap also provides favored habitat. There is cover, depth, shade and protection, and cavities where cats often nest. As the water warms in spring, female flatheads lay their eggs in holes between the rocks. The female then departs, leaving the male to guard the nest and, later, the newly hatched fry. Flatheads generally stay in these areas after spawning, making them prime targets for anglers using this power tactic.
To make the most of this technique, troll long-billed crankbaits that will dive to the bottom where the riprap ends. Most spawning holes are where the mud meets the rocks, and hungry flatheads also patrol these easily discernible edges while foraging.
Use an electric motor to troll with two to four rod/reel combos (where legal), each rigged with a crankbait. Start relatively fast to get the lures down, and then, when you feel the crankbaits hitting bottom, reduce your trolling speed and allow the lures to just skim the bottom, bumping the rocks occasionally.
It's best to start with lures of different colors on each fishing combo. Then, if you notice catfish show a preference for one color or another, you can rig all your rods with that particular color. Natural shad, blue-back shad, bright orange and green are the proven winners in my boat.
It's important to be sure you hold each rod tightly while trolling, or keep it properly secured in a sturdy rod holder. If you don't, be prepared to lose some tackle. Strikes from predatory flatheads are explosive!
DRIFT-FISHING FOR BLUE CATFISH
Blue catfish are nomadic in May, following baitfish schools and seeking comfort zones. They're often scattered and difficult to pinpoint, a fact that frustrates many anglers. You can sit on the bank and try to catch them, but drift-fishing in a boat works better. This active approach can make your catch rate soar.
Drift-fishing works great on rivers and lakes. Start by using a fishfinder to look for large fish hanging around prominent structure such as bottom channels, humps and depressions. When you've pinpointed fish, drift through the area several times.
Many cat men use a special rig for drift-fishing. The main line is run through the eye of a sinker (usually a pencil weight or bell sinker), and a barrel swivel is tied below it to keep the weight from sliding off. A 24-inch leader is then tied to the swivel's lower eye.
A small float is placed in the middle of the leader, and a 5/0- to 8/0 wide-gap circle hook is tied at the end and baited. The float suspends the baited hook above bottom to reduce snagging. Preferred baits include whole shad or herring (live or dead), or cut baits made from the same baitfish.
The number of rods that can be used effectively depends on the experience of the angler — and what's legal where you fish. Experts sometimes can handle four to eight, but most beginners should start with no more than two. Check local regulations for restrictions.
The rods are positioned in sturdy, transom-mounted rod holders, and then wind or current carries the boat over the structures where fish are holding. A drift sock often is tied to the boat to keep the craft moving along the right course, and a trolling motor can be used for maneuvering and for forward movement as well.
How much line should you have out when drifting? The ideal distance varies with water clarity, speed and other factors, but many anglers start by releasing 75 to 100 yards of 25-pound-test or heavier line to keep the fishing rig moving smoothly across the bottom.
With lesser lengths of line, the weight tends to drag or snag, causing the bait to jump and move wildly about. If you're drift-fishing for the first time and unfamiliar with what works best, start by drifting with 75 yards of line out, then experiment if necessary to see what works best.
Bear in mind that high-capacity reels are a must for this type of fishing, especially when targeting trophy-class catfish. If you have 75 yards of line out and a big blue hits, you'll need plenty of line on the reel to avoid getting spooled. Also be sure to properly set the drags on all your reels.
Proper speed is important when drift-fishing, but there's no magic formula for determining what speed is best. On some days, you may have to inch your boat along to get strikes. On other days you'll have to troll so fast you'll wonder how a catfish could possibly catch your bait.
And when you find the productive speed, you must maintain it, even when wind and current push your boat ahead or drive it back.
When using circle hooks, let the fish and the motion of the boat do the hook-setting. Wait until the rod has a definite bend in it and then remove it from the holder and reel in your quarry.
The key word when drift-fishing, as with any form of catfishing, is "experiment." Try to determine how catfish are likely to react in the type water you're fishing, and then adapt your tactics to conform to those expectations. If your game plan doesn't produce within a short time, however, try something different.
Sooner or later, the innovative catfish angler discovers a pattern that will capitalize on the situation. And when drift-fishing, that rarely takes very long. Few tactics are as effective on May's big nomadic blue cats.