Brian Newberger caught the state-record flathead catfish from the Cape Fear River. In this article, he explains exactly how he goes about hunting trophy catfish. (June 2007)
Brian Newberger caught this big blue cat between the locks on the Cape Fear River.
Photo by Mike Marsh.
It was so hot the heat waves wavering over the crest of a hill created dreamscape images of a pickup truck backing down a boat trailer and unloading its cargo, a 20-foot pontoon boat with a sunshade top. The Corps of Engineers boating access ramp at Lock and Dam No. 2 was so steep you couldn't see anything from the level part of the parking lot under any conditions. But topping the hill and looking far down at the ramp through the heat waves shimmering above the pavement distorted the image of a man and woman readying their boat for a day on the water.
The name on the boat was a mirage until I got close enough to load my gear. Then the name, Web Weaver, told me I had found my night's ride. A few people were swimming and fishing from the nearby banks. But very few boat trailers were in the parking lot. While those boaters were probably sightseeing or panfishing, Web Weaver was setting out to catch giants.
No right-minded angler can argue that Web Weaver's owner, 46-year-old Brian Newberger, is anything but an expert at catching enormous catfish. What he learned bank-fishing as a kid he built upon for decades, until his expertise resulted in the landing of the North Carolina state-record flathead catfish Sept. 17, 2005, from the Cape Fear River. She officially weighed 78 pounds and was returned to the river for good after receiving her moment of fame -- unless and until, of course, Brian catches her again.
"I've been fishing for catfish since I was 10 years old," he said. "I started out as a pack mule for my dad, carrying lawn chairs, coolers and rods. I always enjoyed fishing, even from the bank."
While the record flathead was huge, she wasn't the biggest Brian has hooked. He thinks he may even have battled a world-record sized fish.
"I've hooked catfish I know weighed over 100 pounds and I think there's a world record in the Cape Fear," he said. "In 2006, I spent a week catching bullheads and bream as big as your hand for bait and fishing every night. I hooked a big flathead on a 1-pound bream. I finally got the fish up to the top and he broke off on a stabilizing line I had tied to a cinder block. That's happened to me twice with 100-pound-plus catfish. There's no margin for any errors when it comes to landing the big ones."
Brian fishes the Cape Fear and Neuse rivers. In the Cape Fear, he fishes as far upstream as rocks allow him to go at Fayetteville near the NC 13 bridge and as far downstream as Lock and Dam No. 1. At Fayetteville, he launches from River Side Marina. He launches from the COE ramps at Lock and Dam No. 1 and No. 2 at Riegelwood and Elizabethtown. To fish the Neuse, he launches from Price's Landing at Goldsboro and from Neuse Bait and Tackle in Smithfield.
"The Neuse has tremendous catfishing, but the river has to be up a foot over the normal flow," he said. "The rocks cause problems when the water is 2 or 3 feet deep. I've had to get out and pull the boat to get to a good spot. That's not the case in the Cape Fear between the locks because the water is deeper."
But in both rivers, his fishing methods are the same. Find a deep hole in a river bend, scan it for fish with the sonar machine, anchor upstream and begin fishing.
Ellie doesn't get to fish often, but enjoys being on the river with Brian. She said once it cools off at night and the stars come out, it's peaceful and quiet.
"I like to cook hamburgers on the boat," she said. "I like to catch catfish, too. But I have as much fun catching bait."
Besides finding the best holes, catching enough bait and the right kind of bait are the biggest obstacles to landing trophy catfish. Brian uses whatever the fish are feeding upon. He has aerated livewells running down the sides of his pontoon boat. These are big livewells -- big enough to keep a large catfish alive for weigh-in and release. He fills them with panfish he catches on hook and line and with live eels he buys at tackle shops. He uses live shad and cuts chunks of shad, eels and panfish for bait. Small bullhead catfish make the top baits for flathead catfish. To use them, he clips off the dorsal spine so they can twist up the line and so flatheads have an easier time swallowing them.
"I fish 17 to 32 lines at one time," he said. "There are so many lines it looks like a spider web. I put different baits on different lines and remember which bait is where so I can switch other rods to the best baits once the fish start feeding," he said. "If fishing is slow, I might pick up a couple times during the night and head to a new spot. I fish everything outside the main-river channel until dark. After the boat traffic quits for the night, I fish lines all across the river so anything that swims by smells my baits."
There are two depthfinders on Web Weaver, one at the bow and one at the console. Ellie and Brian watched them as they cruised the outside curve of a river bend. When they saw marks on the screen indicating catfish, they anchored and started setting lines. A pair of grapnel anchors was set at the bow corners to keep the boat from swaying: Excess boat movement makes it difficult to see strikes.
Brian uses 10-foot heavy-action rods with saltwater trolling reels. He picks up any reel he can get a deal on buying, mostly Penn 9, 109, 209 and Squidder reels with warning clickers along with a smattering of other similar reels by other manufacturers. He uses 30-pound, high-visibility monofilament lines and his rods have bright yellow tips to reflect light. He rigs yellow clearance lights to point upward, illuminating the rods once he starts fishing. He covers the boat completely with top and tarp to keep off dew and allow him to fish through rain showers so he can start fishing at sunset and stay out all night.
Once he begins fishing, the aft area sprouts so many rods, quickly finding the one rod with a nibbling fish can be tough.
"Sometimes they shake the bait, drop it several times before they take it or leave it alone," he said. "But not with a live bream fished on a trolley rig. A flathead hits a live bait and takes off like a train."
To spread the lines, Brian uses flattened river sinkers to keep bottom lines from moving through sinker roll. He uses an 8/0 circle hook and 50-pound fluorocarbon leader to make a giant version of a bass angler's Carolina rig. He also uses a pier-fisherman's trolley line with a weight that has four protruding wires by casting it to the ba
nk and burying it in the mud. He uses the trolley rod the same way a pier-angler fishing for king mackerel does: by sliding a release clip holding the bait from the fight rod along the trolley line. It keeps the baitfish swimming just beneath the surface, holding position in the current.
"If a fish hits, you try to keep him out of the other lines," he said. "But if they get tangled, you concentrate on landing the fish and untangle the lines later. If you watch the other lines while you're fighting the fish, you can usually keep him clear of them. I try to set them staggered, some short, some long, so all the lines are separated to begin with."
He controls the fish with a tight drag setting of 12 pounds or so. The hard part is keeping a big cat off the bottom during the fight where it might wrap something and break the line. He might thumb the reel to stop a medium-sized blue cat, but never a flathead. Flatheads can take line so fast the spinning spool can blister an angler's thumb.
"I don't fish near logjams and trees if I can help it," he said. "But a big catfish is going where he wants to go and it might take 45 minutes or more to land him. You do what you have to do to keep them out of structure to the point of breaking the line. If you have to lock down the drag, you do it because if he wraps a stump with the line, he's gone."