Gearing Up for a Mega-Cat

So you want to catch a trophy-sized catfish? These tips on gear, bait and tactics can make your quest a bit easier in the month of August.

By Keith Sutton

I've heard trophy-class catfish called whiskered warriors, and with good reason. They fry drags. They bust rods. They straighten hooks. They snap heavy line like sewing thread. They humble the most stout-hearted anglers.

How big is a trophy catfish? Different anglers answer in different ways. The reply depends on several things - where they fish, the type of catfish they seek and how big a catfish they've caught before. For most anglers, however, a channel cat over 20 pounds is an exceptional fish, and in most waters a flathead or blue over 50 pounds would be the trophy of a lifetime.

Trophy cats swim in many waters. In some, they are abundant. Nevertheless, few anglers catch them on a regular basis. True heavyweights may be older than the anglers who seek them, and with each passing year they grow more elusive and shy.

Successful trophy catfish anglers tend to have two common virtues - patience and persistence.

Patience is required because catching trophy cats seldom occurs on a daily basis, even for the most knowledgeable enthusiasts. You may spend scores of fishless hours trying to pinpoint a trophy fish. And as the hours pass, the doubts begin to grow. You start wondering if it's really worth the bother. That's why many anglers give up trophy catfishing even before they land their first big fish. They have little patience.

Savvy trophy men learn to bide their time without undue agitation. They carry comfortable seating, plenty of cold drinks and snacks, a good supply of insect repellent, and a buddy to talk to. They know it may be a long night, maybe several long nights. But they also know that sooner or later, the patient catter reaps his reward.

Persistence is equally important. Anyone can learn the tactics necessary for catching cats. You learn to change the places you fish and what tackle and bait to fish and how you fish from day to day as weather and other conditions dictate. But to catch a trophy-class fish, you must keep bait in the water where the big ones swim. You must learn everything you can about a lake or river where you know those big fish are. Then you stay at it, day after day, learning more. Catfishermen who do these things have the best chance of catching trophies.

Big flatheads like the one Josh Sutton landed require special gear and tackle, but a boat is not one of the necessities. Photo by Keith Sutton

Catfishing once was considered strictly a nighttime sport. We know now, however, that big cats can be caught day or night if you use the right tactics. In ultra-clear waters, night fishing may be best, but in the colored waters typical of the best catfish rivers and lakes, trophies are landed as often at high noon as at midnight.

Also bear in mind some seasonal considerations. Trophy channel and blue cats are caught every month of the year, and in some areas fishing during winter is considered best because it is then that trophy fish gather in larger concentrations in deep wintering holes. Both species, however, fall prey to good fishing tactics year 'round, so make the best of your fishing time whenever it may be.

Trophy flatheads become lethargic in cold water, and though they can be coaxed to bite in winter, the best fishing tends to be during high-water periods in spring or in late fall when big flats feed ravenously before a season of inactivity. Summer fishing can be excellent as well.

Focus your fishing efforts on large rivers and lakes. Trophy cats seldom come from creeks or ponds. It happens occasionally, but not often. When seeking a true heavyweight, zero in on sizable bodies of water.

Each river and lake also has specific areas on which you should focus your attention. Of course, the best waters usually are those where cats aren't heavily pressured by commercial or excessive recreational fishing. Waters where minimum length restrictions are imposed, or where catch-and-release fishing is mandated, also produce more than their share of jumbo whiskerfish.

A trophy hunter should invest in good heavy tackle and maintain it in good condition. Anytime you're fishing water where big catfish live, there's a chance "Godzilla" is going to bite. You must be prepared for that every trip, or the fish will find a way to get the best of you. Use good tackle - high-quality rods, reels, line and terminal gear - and pay attention to details. For example, change your fishing line regularly, and check it every time you hook a fish to see if it's scarred up and needs to be replaced. Anglers who don't may lose the fish of a lifetime.

Long rods 7 feet and longer offer several advantages when you're targeting trophy cats. Casting distance increases with a longer rod. This allows you to remain at a favorable distance from likely hideouts of big catfish, lessening the chance of spooking your quarry. Long rods let you keep more line out of the water, allowing quicker hooksets and better bait control and permitting more-accurate drifts for natural presentation when river fishing. Long rods also provide more leverage when you're battling trophy cats. You are likely to need all the leverage you can get.

Fiberglass, graphite and combinations of these two are the most popular rod materials. Fiberglass is more durable than graphite, but lacks graphite's remarkable sensitivity. Fiberglass is also heavier and bends more easily.

Graphite, on the other hand, is lighter and stiffer. Graphite is much more expensive than fiberglass, another important consideration.

Fiberglass/graphite composites offer the best of both worlds - strength, sensitivity, flexibility and moderate pricing. They probably are the best choice for most catfish fans.

If money is no object, consider the super-tough E-glass rods several companies sell. They're somewhat pricey but nearly indestructible, with extra strength for lifting, pulling and casting heavy rigs. A well-selected rod can provide a lifetime of use.

It's also wise to look at the various components of each rod to determine which one is the best buy. For example, long, reinforced fighting butts and blank-through-handle construction provide superior strength and leverage for big-cat battles. Examine each product thoroughly before making your purchase.

Are bait-casting, spinning or spincast reels best?

Bait-casting reels are toughest and provide more power for cranking in big fish, so they're the choice for most trophy anglers. Look for a solid frame, tough gears and smooth casting, plus enough line capacity for the conditions you fish. The best models hold at least 200 yards of 17- to 20-pound monofilament.

Good bait-casting reels also feature a "clicker" mechanism. The clicker gives an audible signal when line is pulled from the reel, thus indicating that a catfish is taking your bait. The clicker also keeps a soft, steady tension on the spool, thereby preventing a cat from backlashing the reel when it runs with the bait.

Catfish aren't line-shy, so you can use light or heavy line as situations dictate. High-strength, small-diameter monofilament rated 15- to 25-pound test is a good inexpensive choice for all-round use. But when hunting the big boys, it's best to upgrade to 30-, 40-, or even 80-pound-test, particularly when you're fishing rock-strewn tailraces, riprapped banks or heavy wood cover, where you need abrasion-resistant line.

Braids, or braided superlines, are best when you need a small-diameter line to reduce drag in heavy current. Because of their markedly decreased diameters, these whisper-thin lines cut the current better than normal lines of the same test, yet they are just as strong. They also allow longer casts, making them ideal for shore-bound anglers. Braids also provide the high break strength and low stretch needed to manhandle big cats in tight quarters. For most trophy anglers, these are the lines of choice.

Hooks may be the least expensive items in your tackle box, but they also are the most important. The hook is the final link between a fisherman and the fish, and this little item deserves the trophy angler's utmost attention.

There are literally scores of hook designs from which to choose, but today, most trophy anglers opt for circle hooks for several reasons. First, circle hooks are designed to quickly penetrate a cat's mouth as the fish struggles against the tension of the line. Most cats get hooked in the corner of the mouth, not deep in the gullet where the hook will not penetrate properly in bony structures. For this reason, cats are more likely to stay hooked during the heat of battle, and they can be released with little or no harm.

Another reason for circle hook popularity is the fact that circle hooks are readily available in the large sizes necessary for subduing hard-fighting trophy cats. Most trophy anglers prefer sizes 6/0 to 12/0, and choose thick, heavy wire that won't straighten under pressure.

Although I've never seen a good circle hook bend, even after long minutes battling a heavyweight cat, I have occasionally experienced another problem worth mentioning. Big cats have a tendency to roll and spin rapidly after they're hooked. This action sometimes creates a unique type of pressure on the line that causes it to slip through the gap between the hook's shank and the bend of the eye. The hook remains embedded in the catfish's mouth. When you reel in your line, you find the unbroken knot still tied at its end.

A simple remedy is buying circle hooks constructed in such a way that there's no gap between the shank and the bend of the eye. A few companies make them, but they tend to be expensive. Another solution is to "weld" the hook eye shut using a drop of liquid weld or epoxy.

If you have the patience, you might also learn how to create rigs like those used by saltwater anglers who pursue outsized fish such as tuna. Some are tedious to make, and involve the use of special crimping tools and metal fixings. But their use almost guarantees you won't lose a giant cat due to the aforementioned problem.

Finally, be sure to keep all hooks needle-sharp so they penetrate quickly. Even new, high-quality hooks dull quickly when dragged through rocks or debris. Examine your hook frequently to see if it needs sharpening. Draw the hook's point across a fingernail. A sharp hook leaves a light scratch and digs into the nail. A dull hook "skates" across the nail without scratching or digging in. If necessary, touch up the point using a hook sharpener or flat file.

Because catfish tend to twist and roll when hooked (as do many live baits used for catfishing), some fishermen like to add a swivel to their rigs. Swivels also serve as "stops" between slip-sinkers and hooks.

If you do use swivels, avoid cheap brass-plated models. Instead, use top-quality ball-bearing swivels. The extra expense could mean the difference between landing a trophy and losing one.

It's often been said that knots are the weakest points in every fishing rig. This is true. If your line breaks when you're battling a monster catfish, chances are it broke at a knot. For this reason, it's important to use knots that retain as much line strength as possible.

Other knots can be used as well, but the Palomar knot remains a favorite with many trophy catfish anglers for several reasons. First, it provides almost 100 percent of line strength. Second, it is easy and fast to tie and handy for attaching hooks, swivels and eyed sinkers on terminal tackle rigs. Finally, cat men like it because it is easily tied at night with a minimum of practice.

If you're learning to tie a Palomar knot for the first time, it comes more quickly if you follow an illustrated guide. If that is not available, see the accompanying graphic for directions.

The trophy catfisherman must also be picky about bait. Big cats rarely are caught with chicken liver, stinkbaits, catalpa worms, cheese and other things small cats frequently eat. Using fish for bait is your best bet - live ones for flatheads, and either live or cut bait for big channels and blues. Other baits work, but the odds aren't high enough to warrant their use when you're trying for a trophy.

The type of fish you use depends largely on what's available where you fish. Among those that are popular are skipjack herring, blueback herring and shad, with the latter particularly popular for blue and channel cats. Goldfish, chubs, small carp and suckers are good for all catfish species, along with fathead minnows, shiners and killifish. Mooneyes and goldeyes are other good baits for channel cats, while sunfish work great on trophy flatheads. One of the best trophy flathead baits, which is often overlooked, is live bullhead catfish.

When you finally land your first trophy catfish, you can take pride in the fact that you've managed to triumph over one of freshwater fishing's finest trophies. Catch a second, third and fourth trophy-class cat and you enter a fraterni

ty of elite anglers. Only a handful of fishermen catch the big ones consistently. l

Keith Sutton is the author of Fishing for Catfish. To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order for $22 to C & C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Drive, Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card orders or more information, log on to

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