June 22, 2021
Note: This article was featured in the South edition of May’s Game & Fish Magazine. How to subscribe
I always enjoy drift fishing for catfish. I like it much better than anchoring my boat and waiting for a bite or fishing from one spot on shore. Drift fishing lets you relax and enjoy the scenery as it rolls by. It’s also a fantastic way to find and catch scattered whiskerfish.
Spring in the South is a period of transition for blue, flathead and channel catfish. These whiskered warriors, especially heavyweight adults, travel along underwater creek and river channels as they migrate from the deep haunts they used when the water was cold to shallow areas where they will gorge on forage species to bulk up for summer spawning.
Drifting in river current using multiple baits and rods is an active approach to catfishing that can make your catch rate soar, and it’s a good way to target trophy-class fish. You also can drift-fish in lakes using a trolling motor for propulsion.
High-capacity baitcasting reels that hold 200 yards or more of 25-pound-test line are a must for drift fishing, especially when targeting big catfish. If you have 75 or 100 yards of line out and a heavy blue or flathead hits, you’ll need plenty of line still on the reel to avoid getting spooled. You’ll want a baitcasting reel, not a spinning or spincast reel, because it has better cranking power.
Be sure you properly set the drag on your reel to avoid losing hooked fish. Ideally, it should be at 20 to 30 percent of the line’s breaking strength to avoid break-offs. For example, when using 25-pound-test line, the drag should be set between 5 and 8 pounds. You can easily check your drag setting with a hand-held spring scale, and you should do so before fishing so you don’t have to make awkward adjustments on the fly.
Rods in the 7- to 8-foot range are ideal for drift fishing. Shorter rods aren’t long enough to keep the line out of the water to facilitate get good hooksets and control your bait. A 7- or 8-footer also provides more leverage for battling heavyweight cats.
The number of rods that can be used effectively depends on the experience of the angler. Experts sometimes can handle four to eight, but most beginners should start with no more than two. On a side note, be sure to check local regulations for any rod number restrictions.
Set rods in sturdy, transom-mounted holders and let the wind or current carry the boat over the structures where catfish are holding. A drift sock tied to the boat will keep the craft moving along the right course at the right speed, and you might use a trolling motor for maneuvering and forward movement as well.
BAITS AND RIGGING
Big chunks or fillets of shad and herring are widely considered the best trophy catfish baits, but when drift fishing, these pieces tend to spin in the moving water, tangling rigs and making a mess of things. I prefer using strip baits made from carp, buffalo and other fish with oily flesh. The baitfish is scaled and filleted, then the fillets, with skin on, are cut into triangular pieces 3/8- to 1/2-inch thick, 3 to 4 inches long and 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide. Baits are hooked through the top point of the triangle so they enticingly flutter through the water as they drift along.
A float rig works great for drift fishing. The main line is run through the slide on a 1- to 2-ounce snagless sinker like those made by Team Catfish, 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 peg-on panfish bobber 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.
OFF AND RUNNING
Some anglers start their drift fishing "blind." That is, they have no idea what type of structure or cover is beneath the water where they are fishing. They simply start drifting and hope their hit-or-miss tactics produce more hits than misses.
It’s best, however, to start each trip by using a fish finder and/or a bottom contour map to pinpoint underwater structure and cover catfish favor this time of year and then drift over those hot spots. This can be woody cover along the edges of creek and river channels, long points, rock piles rising into lighted water and man-made fish attractors among others. I like to zigzag over channel drop-offs and adjacent flats, and I also catch a lot of catfish in stump fields and along weed edges at proper depths early and late in the day.
If you’re fishing on a river, you can release your rigs, set your rods in holders and let your boat drift downstream with the current until you get a bite. This is one-way fishing, though. Once you’ve made a drift through the stretch of water, if you want to fish it again, you’ll have to take up the rods, motor back upstream, reset the rods and restart your drift.
A trolling motor allows constant fishing without fuss when you’re drift-fishing lakes. It also permits you to vary your speed and control direction—important factors when chasing spring’s often fussy catfish.
Some anglers go about this in the same manner as crappie anglers who enjoy spider trolling. They mount two pedestal seats side-by-side on the front deck of the boat behind a bar that holds six to eight rod holders. A sonar fish finder may also be mounted on the bar, with the transducer attached to the trolling motor. With this setup, two anglers can experiment with different baits at different depths to determine where catfish are holding.
GET THE DEPTH RIGHT
How much line should you have out when drifting? The ideal amount varies depending on 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 shorter lengths of line, the weight tends to drag or snag, causing the bait to jump and move wildly. If you’re drift fishing for the first time and are unfamiliar with what works best, start with 75 yards of line out, then experiment to see what works best.
Maintaining proper speed is one of the most important aspects of 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. Other days, you’ll find it necessary to move much faster to catch fish, and when you find the productive speed, you must maintain it with the help of a trolling motor even when wind or current push your boat ahead or drive it back. Savvy anglers experiment with different drift speeds until they determine what is most effective.
One mistake anglers on lakes often make is drifting at the same speed, whether headed into the wind or with it. On an otherwise still lake, you travel faster with the wind than against it, assuming you never reposition your trolling motor throttle. Therefore, in order to maintain your ideal drift speed, you must adjust the throttle up or down depending on which way you are traveling.
The same is true when in the current of a big river. When traveling against the flow, you must advance the throttle to maintain the same speed you had when traveling downstream. Fail to do so, and your speed will change dramatically. So will the number of catfish you’re catching. These factors may explain why you’ll catch lots of fish when drifting in one direction and none when going the opposite way.
When you catch a catfish, place a marker buoy on the spot so you can anchor nearby and make a few casts; the area may hold a group of loosely schooled cats. On a good day, you can pull catfish from one of these marked spots for an hour or more if the fish aren’t spooked.
Catfish usually aren’t hard to catch during the month of May, but many times they’re very hard to find. Done properly, drift fishing can help you overcome that problem. Learn the right ways to do it and you’ll rarely need to stop by the fish market on the way home.
GREAT CAT COMBO
Abu Garcia recently released a superb rod-and-reel combo you might want to consider when drift fishing for big cats. The Catfish Commando Baitcast Combo features a well-balanced 7-foot, medium-heavy rod with a durable EVA handle that provides good grip and comfort, plus stainless steel guides that won’t corrode or wear out. The reel holds 350 yards of 30-pound-test braid and has a powerful 5.1:1 gear ratio, a Carbon Matrix hybrid drag system, a six-pin centrifugal brake for controlled casting and a synchronized level-wind system that lands the big ones. ($105; abugarcia.com)
CHART YOUR WAY TO ’CATS
For anglers who have Humminbird sonar units on their rig, LakeMaster Plus offers an upgraded way to find and catch more catfish. LakeMaster Plus cards, which resemble SD cards, load into sonar units and offer topographic maps that are an upgrade over standard Humminbird maps. Additionally, they provide aerial image overlays, which allow anglers to reference landmarks both on land and on the water.
The maps can be viewed as aerial-only, which is a straight satellite view with no map data; as satellite view over land with LakeMaster features over water; or as satellite imagery over land and water, with contour data overlaid on the water.
With contours and landmarks (marinas, bridges, highways) shown, anglers can easily navigate to specific spots and then fine-tune their approach using the enhanced topographical contour lines. Maps are available by geographical areas (i.e., Mid-South States, Southeast States, Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic States, etc.), for $149. — Dr. Todd A. Kuhn