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Drift-fishing Tactics For Indiana Catfish

Drift-fishing Tactics For Indiana Catfish

Our state's reservoirs are perfect places to take a proactive role in catching whiskerfish this month -- and throughout the summer season.

The author holds up a hefty channel catfish, which was taken while drift-fishing on Morse Reservoir.
Photo by Ed Brochin

The six rod tips bounced independently of each other -- one quivering like a foxtail in the wind, the next wagging up and down like the tail of my Labrador retriever. No rod was still. Each tip thumped and bumped as the sinkers bounced along the varied contour of the bottom. The rods stood in holders mounted around the stern of the boat.

Not far away, the shoreline slowly moved past -- an ever-changing scene of houses, boat slips, and points made of riprap. As the boat drifted by a cluster of boat docks, one rod's tip sank sharply toward the water and stayed down. The rod holder creaked as the rod surged, the tip jerking even lower.

I grabbed the rod -- it took some work to get it out of the holder, now that it was so heavy -- but the circle hook had already found its mark. And it felt like another nice one. We'd already boated several cats near 10 pounds, and this one fought like it might be even heavier.

I had never fished Morse Reservoir before. I'd never even seen it. Late summer had settled in, and the catfishing had slowed somewhat now that the spawn had run its course. The catfish were still hitting, though, but they were harder to locate. So when guide Ed Brochin (Geist Lake Charters at 317-826-8231 or visit called to say he wanted to show me an unusual way to catch catfish, it didn't take me long to throw the fishing rods in the truck. We'd only been fishing for three hours, but I'd already seen a good portion of the lake, and had boated some fine catfish.

For a long time, fishermen believed the best way to catch catfish involved throwing out some little piece of stink bait (maybe some rotten cheese concoction or road-killed skunk innards) and opening up a lawn chair. And I've certainly caught a few catfish while sitting, watching rods propped against forked sticks. It might be downright un-American to suggest this is not a proper way to catch catfish.

I've also thrown out my fair share of boat anchors, and hoisted them back up again when it came time to move to the next spot. Anchoring near likely areas is a proven way to tangle with catfish, and it remains the best way to fish in rivers and waters that are filled with snags.


But as summer drags on, it helps to leave the anchor in the boat. Now is the time to start experimenting with drift-fishing for catfish. Stop waiting for the catfish to come to you. Take your baits to the cats' resting spots and dens, and put more fish in your boat this summer.

The concept is simple: Using either the wind or controlled bursts from a trolling motor, a boat is started on a path along a particular bank or channel. Baits from several rods are lowered into the water, different lengths of line are released from the spools. After the reels are engaged, the baits are bounced along the bottom of the reservoir.

The slower your boat drifts, the longer the baits are near waiting cats. The longer the drift, the more cats the baits encounter. The angler waits above, controlling the boat's position and watching the rod tips, until a fish hits. After the fish is caught, the hook is baited, and the process repeated. Gone is the sedentary angler. In his place is a mobile angler who sees a good deal of the lake and, more importantly, more active fish.

Not every boat is drift-fish ready. Boat size isn't important, and neither is the number of horsepower your outboard produces. But you'll need a spread of rod holders, and they need to be strong.

Decide first if you want to drift off the side or stern of your boat. Some anglers prefer to drift sideways, as it allows them more room to mount rod holders and gives the wind a broader target to push. Some, like Brochin, prefer to drift off the stern of the boat. The important thing is to have several rod holders (there is a limit of three rods per person in Indiana) fastened securely to the boat.

"I strongly encourage the use of metal rod holders," Brochin said, like those made by Driftmaster. "Mine are welded directly to my boat, so a big fish can't pull the whole outfit overboard."

The sinkers aren't especially heavy, but dragging any weight along the rough bottom of a lake will stress equipment. Every component on your end -- rod holder, rod and reel -- needs to be stout enough for the task.

Even if the wind is blowing lightly, it may be enough to keep the boat moving at a decent speed. "The slower you can drift, the better," Brochin claims, as long as you are still covering water. If the wind is too slight, try using a trolling motor. Sometimes the trolling motor is needed only to keep the boat drifting in the right direction. Brochin often spins his bow-mounted trolling motor around and pushes against a strong wind, especially if it starts moving his boat too fast.

Other anglers will drag one or two drift socks behind the boat to slow the pace. The key is to maintain boat position. Once you have three lines out, you can't let the wind push your boat around in circles. Use your trolling motor, drift socks, or even a paddle to control the drift. "Boat control is number one," Brochin warned. "Or else you've got a nightmare of tangles."

Have the rods angled upward (45 degrees), which puts the stress of a bouncing rig on the rod itself. The rod acts as a shock absorber, and the tip will telegraph the sinker's action to the angler. Medium-heavy rods with soft tips, like the Berkley Reflex, work best. The soft tip will flex as the sinker bounces along, and still allow for a big cat to load the rod when it takes the bait (crucial when using circle hooks). Because the reel stays engaged, the weight of the fish is initially solely on the rod.

Any good catfish reel will work. Brochin likes Abu-Garcia 6500CTs. Make sure your reel will hold enough line, and a strong drag is a must. Again, the reel will be engaged when it is placed in the holder.

The rig is paramount here, but focus on line first. Spool with what the lake calls for -- usually at least 25- pound-test on the main line. Most of our reservoirs hold some nice cats, and you'll want to be ready if one hits. Of course, big flatheads or blues could also hit this presentation, so on a lake like Monroe, 50-pound-test would not be beyond reason. Monofilament provides the stretch that braided will not, and the stretch can be beneficial here.


veral variations exist when it comes to a drift-fishing rig. The basics remain the same: main line, sinker to keep the bait near the bottom, hook, and maybe a small cork to keep the hook suspended off the bottom to reduce the risk of snags and increase the odds of a catfish finding the bait.

Brochin prefers to run his rig in a straight line. He runs his main line through a pencil-shaped sinker (usually 1 to 2 ounces will do), and then adds a bead and a barrel swivel. To that he attaches a short piece of monofilament, slightly weaker than the main line, say, 25-pound-test if the main line is 30-pound-test. He adds another barrel swivel, and connects an enameled Styrofoam ball to the swivel known as a Polyball.

Brochin ties a loop to the second barrel swivel. From there, a leader (maybe 8 to 16 inches long) and hook are attached. He uses circle hooks, like the Octopus circle from Gamakatsu. Match the hook size to the size of the catfish you expect to encounter. Usually, between a 1/0 and a 5/0 will suffice.

A variation on this rig is to run the main line through a sinker, adding a bead and a barrel swivel. From there, the hook leader is attached, with this leader running through a float like a crappie cork. "I'm convinced colors matter," Brochin cautioned. "For that reason, I'll paint all the hardware black or dark green. I've also started using wine corks instead of Styrofoam floats. I just split the wine cork with a razor and lay my line inside it and wrap it with a rubber band. That way I can slide it up and down the leader, and it looks very natural."

Still another way to rig this system is to use a three-way swivel. Tie one line back to a cork and hook, and tie another to a sinker; the third swivel loop is for the main line to reel. Vary the lengths of the leaders to match the situation. A shorter sinker line helps in snag-infested lakes, while a longer hook leader, up to 3 feet (with the cork slid near the hook), will allow the bait to float over bottom obstructions.

Experiment and find a rig that works. But remember one basic concept: Using lighter line near the sinker will allow you to break off only the sinker should the rig become snagged. You cannot troll all over a reservoir dragging hooks and sinkers without losing some. "By having a sinker that breaks off more easily, you can reduce downtime in the boat, retying rigs," Brochin said.

Once the mechanics are mastered, this system can be applied to almost any reservoir in the state. In fact, that's the beauty of drift-fishing -- it allows you to cover a lot of water fairly quickly. Even if you are fishing unfamiliar water, drifting will, sooner or later, put you over actively feeding fish. And it works almost year 'round! Still, now through late summer is a particularly great time to try drift-fishing, and the following three reservoirs are superb places to try.


Morse Reservoir, north of Noblesville in Hamilton County, is gaining a reputation as a channel catfish hotspot. Brochin agrees: "I think Morse may be one of the best channel cat fisheries we have right now, due to superior bottom structure. It has lots of rockpiles. The fish are all fat and healthy."

There is a fee to launch a boat here, but the fishing is worth it. "If the cats haven't spawned yet, drift between the bank and the channel," Brochin advised. "The cats will be looking to spawn around cover near the bank -- riprap or boat docks, for example."

If it's later in the summer, try drifting out over the channel a little bit. The fish may have moved deeper, especially if you're fishing during the day. Experiment and see where the fish are holding. Ordering a topographical map from the Department of Natural Resources will help you prepare to fish any Indiana reservoir; call (317) 232-4180 for more information. Knowing where the channel runs is crucial to predicting where the catfish will be.

Brochin often catches shad with a cast net before he fishes. "I love to drift shad heads at Morse," he said. "Although night crawlers could work, too."

If it's summer and the fish are feeding, Brochin may cut the tail section off a shad and troll the whole body. "These are big fish used to feeding on big baitfish," he said.

In the summer, the middle section of Morse Reservoir should be loaded with channel cats. Drift different sections until you start hooking up. Use stout tackle on this reservoir -- fish near the double digits are common. While channels are the dominant catfish species, flatheads could be possible, and the same is true for another popular lake -- Geist Reservoir.


Geist Reservoir, in Marion and Hamilton counties, is a proven performer when it comes to channel cats. And it's a lake that matches up nicely with drift-fishing. "At Geist, I love to drift across points," Brochin said. "If you have enough line out behind the boat, you can drift up and over a point, and back down the other side. Doing that ensures you are going to come across catfish."

Following the shoreline is another tactic that will work here. According to Brochin, catfish will spawn under docks and other manmade structure. They continue to relate to that cover all summer long, provided there's some deeper water nearby. Troll along the outer edges of the docks and wait to get ambushed.

"The stick grass that grows around the islands and some of the banks is another hotspot. Cats will spawn in this vegetation, and drifting along the slightly deeper water beyond the grass is likely to result in some fish. Drifting on the flats around the islands can be deadly."

Like Morse, Geist supports a gizzard shad base that the channel cats feed on. Freshly cut shad is a year-round winner, as is using a knot of shad guts. (It is illegal to fish with live shad in Indiana, except in Brookville Lake.) In fact, using the heads or middle sections of any fish indigenous to the lake is a good idea.

While guide Brochin has caught channel catfish up to 26 pounds here, expect most fish to fall in the 3- to 7- pound range. Like Morse, there is a fee to launch at Geist, and there is heavy pleasure boat traffic on the weekends.


Monroe Lake's 10,750 acres (in Monroe and Brown counties) probably boast the biggest and healthiest population of catfish in the state, many suspect. The sheer volume of water encourages and allows for giant fish. But the vast size of this lake makes it an ideal candidate for drift-fishing, too. Try drifting on the idle zone side of the lake. You could drift and catch fish elsewhere there, but it's usually safer and easier to begin a drift where you don't have to worry about pleasure boaters speeding by.

Even on a big body of water such as Monroe, it's fairly easy to find the channel and begin a planned route. Brochin likes to vary the lengths of the lines he's trolling, to discourage tangles and improve his odds of bumping into fish.

"Off the immediate sides of the boat, I'll set one rod with the bait almost directly below the boat. From the corners of the stern, I'll run two lines

back about 20 yards. When clients are fishing with me and I'm using six rods, I'll put two off the center of the stern and send those baits back farther yet."

This system spreads the baits out from side to side, but also varies the bait distribution from front to back. It never hurts to put a variety of baits out there, either. Live fish are a good idea, too -- maybe suckers or minnows. At Monroe Lake, anglers could catch channels up to 20 pounds, as well as flatheads and blues that could approach the weight of grade-schoolers.

With practice, you'll learn to interpret the bumps and bounces of the rod tips, using them like a primitive depthfinder. A sandbar will make the rod react a certain way, while dragging the sinkers through a rockpile will trigger a different reaction. If the lines suddenly swing straight down, you'll know you've moved over much deeper water, and need to let out more line. It all comes with practice.

Of course, if you start catching a lot of fish in one area, you've learned something else. That might be a good time and place to go back to the old style and drop anchor. But think of all that water you've covered to find that hotspot!

Because Indiana allows its fishermen to take liberally of its catfish, be your own guide when it comes to knowing how many to keep and how many to release. While no one would tell you not to eat fish from these clear-water reservoirs, remember that three 5-pound catfish taste even better than one 15-pounder. And if you let the 15-pounder go, it will be more enjoyable to catch next time.

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