Drift-fishing: An Ideal Tactic for Summer's Blue Catfish

Drift-fishing: An Ideal Tactic for Summer's Blue Catfish
Multi-rod set-ups used in drift-fishing provide an excellent means for anglers to find and catch trophy blue catfish in summer, like this fish caught in the Mississippi River by James Patterson of Bartlett, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Keith Sutton)

Most catfish anglers are “sit-and-wait” types. They find a shady spot on the bank where they can toss out a bottom rig, lean their rod against a forked stick, and then sit and wait, hoping sooner or later something will bite.

Something usually does, if they wait long enough. But hours may pass before it happens.

There are times, however, when still-fishing from shore is totally unproductive. You can sit and wait till the cows come home, but it probably won’t do you much good.

Fishing for summer blue cats is a case in point.

Blue catfish tend to be nomadic in summer, moving here and there following schools of baitfish and seeking comfort zones in their home waters. 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 much better. This is an active approach to catfishing that can make your catch rate soar, and a good way to target trophy fish.

Drift-fishing works great on both rivers and lakes. Start by using a fishfinder to look for large fish hanging around prominent bottom changes. Summer blues typically roam around bottom channels, humps, depressions and other readily identifiable structures, and use of sonar can help you find them.

Many cat men use a special float 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.

Whole shad or herring (live or dead) are widely considered the best drift-fishing baits because they are highly enticing to big blue cats and can be rigged to stay on the hook for the extended periods it often takes to find and catch fish. Hook the bait through the lips, and consider tying a stinger hook on a short length of line to the main hook. The stinger is run through the side of the bait to secure it even further and helps hook cats that bite at the rear of the bait.

The number of rods that can be used effectively depends to some degree on the experience of the angler. 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 may be used for maneuvering and 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 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 under a given set of conditions. 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 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.

Let the fish and the motion of the boat do the hook-setting. Wait until the rod has a definite bend in it, 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. But if your game plan doesn’t produce within a short time, try something different. Sooner or later, the innovative cat man discovers a pattern that allows him to capitalize on the situation. And when drift-fishing, this rarely takes very long. Few tactics are as effective on summer’s big nomadic blue cats.

Editor’s Note: Keith “Catfish” Sutton is the author of four books on catfishing. For autographed copies, visit www.catfishsutton.com.

Recommended for You

Trout & Salmon

How to Catch the Biggest Trout in the Stream

David Paul Williams

Several factors need to be evaluated before reaching a conclusion about what fly, lure or...

Other Hunting

New Gear: MidwayUSA Competition Range Bag

G&F Staff

Perfect for competition or a day at the range.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Mustad's Inkvader Octopus Live Jig

From big fish to small, just about any saltwater game fish out there will love the new Mustad Inkvader Octopus Live Jig that Mustad's Russ Whisler shows to OSG's Lynn Burkhead.

Lowrance Enters Trolling-Motor Market with Ghost

Lowrance's Lucas Steward shows OSG's Lynn Burkhead what all of the fuss is about in the brand new Ghost trolling motor being brought to market by the Tulsa, Okla.-based fishing equipment manufacturer.

New Optimum and Optimum TS Downriggers from Canon

From rugged reliability to smooth integration of cutting edge technology across several different platforms, OSG's Lynn Burkhead learns that there's much to like about the new Optimum and Optimum TS downriggers from Canon.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories


Top 10 Biggest Pike World Records of All Time

Jack Vitek - August 19, 2015

While wildly popular amongst anglers around the world, the IGFA World Record book shows the...

Wild Game

10 Memorial Day Recipes for Your Outdoor BBQ

OutdoorChannel.com Staff

Celebrate the start of summer with great food for your backyard BBQ or picnic with these...


Record-Sized Walleye Was Foul-Hooked, Agency Says

G&F Online Staff

North Dakota Game & Fish Department said the 16-9 walleye doesn't qualify for record.

See More Stories

More Fishing


South Carolina Catfish Best Bets 2019

Terry Madewell

Try these destinations for the best catfish angling in the state.

Other Freshwater

Augers to Tip-Ups: Best Ice Fishing Gear at ICAST

Drew Warden - August 01, 2019

It may be the middle of the summer, but it's not too early to think about winter ice fishing.


Summer Bass Gear, Tactics from MLF Pro

Joel Shangle - August 07, 2019

Jacob Powroznik powers through his hot-weather bass secrets.

See More Fishing

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.