Get the Right Drift for Catfish

The size of drifted baits can be tailored toward the size of the fish you are looking to catch. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

Improve your drift-fishing technique and you will catch more cats.

Once considered a slow-paced, random method of fishing, the sport of catfishing has morphed into a big-time sport that uses all the electronic technology that bass fishermen — or any serious anglers — employ on high-profile species. For many anglers, huge catfish (and high numbers of smaller catfish) are now present in waters they can access.


Having access to good catfish waters is crucial, but on any water a solid game plan is required for consistent success. Drift-fishing is a technique that works almost anywhere and can be tailored towards producing high numbers of eating-sized fish, or toward attracting a more select bite from trophy fish.

Drift-fishing as applied today by guides and catfish tournament anglers has become a highly refined science. As refined as it is, the good news is that drifting for catfish is very effective, reasonably simple and highly productive. Successful drift-fishing is a systematic, organized method of searching for, finding and catching Mr. Whiskers.

Before you get on the water you need the right drift rig to be effective, and that includes hooks, line, sinkers, rods and reels.


An almost universal choice for expert catfishermen is the circle hook for drift-fishing. The circle hook doesn’t require a hookset, but when the bite comes anglers do need to get to the rig and reel down on the catfish to ensure it’s “loaded up.” The size of the hook depends on your choice of catfish targets. Most pros focused on trophy fish go with anything from a 6/0 to a 9/0 hook. Anglers who are looking for faster action on numbers of fish use smaller hooks — 4/0 to a 6/0 range. Smaller hooks also do not put an angler out of the game if a trophy does show up: Big fish can be landed with them.

The drift rig used by experienced drift-fishermen is fairly consistent. Using a 30- to 36-inch leader of 30- to 50-pound-test line, place a 2-inch cork cigar float about 8 inches from the hook, enabling the bait to drift just off the bottom. This pegged float is one key that makes this rig so effective: It simultaneously reduces snags and keeps the bait at eyeball level for most catfish.

Above the barrel swivel use a 3/4- to 2-ounce snake/slinky type sliding sinker or an egg sinker. The slinky sinker is simply multiple pieces of lead shot (even split shot) in a sleeve such as parachute cord. It is useful in drift-fishing because it is quite snag resistant. The egg sinker works but is slightly more snag-prone.


Sinker weight is important, but the amount to employ depends on the wind speed, water depth and the size of bait being fished. You want to weight the rig so that it stays in contact with the bottom but doesn’t dredge into it. Adjusting sinker weight makes a big difference in the number and size of fish caught.

The rods can be casting or spinning rigs; both are used with success. Most experts want a 7 1/2- to 8-foot rod with a medium-heavy to heavy action. This is important to getting a good, solid “load up” on biting fish.

Properly rigged, you’re ready to formulate a plan of action. Begin before you even get on the water. Potential catfish targets are quite apparent on topographic maps of the underwater contours of a lake. Study these before you go, searching for specific objects to check when you get on the water. Consistent and highly productive drift-fishing success requires fishing specific targets.

Catfish are more active predators than even many anglers realize. They set up to ambush live baitfish using many of the same kinds of hard structure that bass use to do that same thing, though the two predators may not be in the same place at the same time. The ledges along major creeks or the main river channel are prime places to begin the search. Look for humps to be catfish magnets. Irregular contours along the ledge are typically more productive than long, straight ledges.

The key is bottom contour changes. If there’s a large flat with a deeper channel coursing through it, then along the edge of the channel and down that slope will be a prime catfish contact area. Points protruding from the shoreline close to deep water are good. In fact, any unusual feature in shallow water in proximity to deep water is usually good.Once potential areas are identified, refine the search to specific, fishable targets.

Use your electronics to check out these potential targets and while doing this look for “big fish marks” on or near the bottom. Also look for forage. Catfish forage varies on different waters, but catfish are going to be near forage. A good example is most of the lakes I fish have threadfin and gizzard shad and on these lakes shad location is a key consideration.

One highly productive and specific technique is to fish downwind areas. An ideal scenario is having a steady wind for consecutive days from one direction, packing forage in downwind coves and flats. If the area has a hump or point, catfish will often pile up on that specific spot when feeding heavily. But often it’s a consistent bite over a general area.

If the wind blows in just the right direction, you can get upwind of the target and drift. If not, use your electric motor to maneuver your boat over your targets. You’ll likely need to work different depths to find biting fish as well.

If possible, identify an extended area to drift to make a relatively long drift before pulling the rigs and repeating. But if you’re catching catfish in a confined area, then do what you have to do to continue catching fish.

Drift speed is crucial and a successful drift can be faster during warm weather than colder weather. In warm weather, a 0.5- to 0.8-miles-per-hour drift rate is typically productive. Occasionally that top end and even slightly higher can be best. For cooler water temperatures most experts prefer a 0.4- to 0.6-mph drift rate.

Boat control is essential to making a good presentation of the bait. Even if all the other factors are in place, a boat that is improperly positioned or moving too fast or too slow catches fewer fish.

On windy days, you may need to use your electric motor or employ wind socks/drift anchors to slow the rate of drift. Drift anchors or wind socks are commercially available in multiple sizes but many anglers use 6-, 8- or 10-foot diameter drift anchors. Two 6-foot diameter wind socks will slow most boats considerably. Simply use the configuration needed to get the speed you’re seeking.

The decision on how many rigs to drift will depend on other factors, such as size of the boat and number of people fishing.

A small boat is more limited than a large rig. For example, a properly rigged pontoon can handle multiple rigs easily without having unnecessary tangles created by lines crossing.

You will need to employ rodholders, and the best I’ve found is the Driftmaster Duo, which holds rods rock solid while giving anglers options of two different rod angles.

Six rigs can usually be managed well with two anglers, but you’ll work this number out pretty quickly with some experimentation. I firmly believe more fish will be caught by having a manageable number of rigs because that helps you focus on keeping the drift pattern correct for best targeting the places you intend to fish. Also, if you fish alone, all the rigging, re-tying and re-baiting is a one-person show.

Chaos on a boat gives the edge to the catfish.

One additional pattern is using planer boards to present catfish baits. Many catfish experts employ this tactic because it enables anglers to get the baits farther away from the boat, thus effectively covering a larger area of water.

Guides and professional catfish tournament anglers also believe that planer boards offer the best chance to catch big fish. The thinking is that getting the bait away from the boat helps because big fish have learned to associate boats with getting caught.

Size of bait can matter and basically should be relative to the size catfish targeted. Big baits generally work well for big catfish, but often small baits will produce big fish as well as a higher quantity of fish. I like to see fish loaded up on a rig, so I’ll pull at least a couple rigs with small baits to keep action going and angler interest peaked. Thus, when a big fish bows a rod three eyes deep in the water someone is ready to catch it.

Different locations can have varied guidelines on what can be used for bait, so check the regulations appropriate for your catfish destination.

As in any type of fishing, when you hit a hot pattern, stick with it until it slows. If on a long drift several fish are caught in a small area then the action slows as the drift continues, repeat the drift in the productive area. If an area looks good on the graph but isn’t productive after reasonable effort, move to a different area. But if you marked fish and forage, check it again later and you may get a positive result. Catfish can “turn on” or “turn off” like many game fish.

A controlled, patterned drift is a fun and very effective method of fishing for quality and quantity of catfish. It’s effective on channel, blue and flathead catfish as well as bullheads.

If you’re serious about catching catfish, getting the right drift needs to be in your arsenal of catfishing tactics.

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