Here's the challenge: You have 24 hours to catch just one trophy channel catfish. But it has to be brag-at-the-baitshop big. We're talking about a channel catfish big enough that bystanders will scramble to find a certified scale and a listing of the current state record for channel cats.
It won't be easy. All the tricks and techniques that help you easily fill your frying pan with eater-size catfish are minimally helpful. Professional catfishing guides who specialize in catching only the biggest channel catfish say it's going to take different tackle, different baits and different locations to put a monster channel cat on the end of your line.
"First, you've got to quit fishing with chicken livers and shrimp," said Skip Martin, a Midwestern catfish guide (www.catfishrevolution.com; 330-671-1559). "You've got to use big, fresh-cut live baits. The old saying about using big baits to catch big fish is true when it comes to channel cats. I use shad 99 percent of the time, and when I'm after the biggest channel cats, I use the biggest shad I can find. They can't be too big. I've used 8- to 12-inch shad, full-size without cutting them, and 12- to 14-pound channel cats inhaled them without any problem. I usually use cut shad, just to get more blood and oil in the water, but I use the biggest pieces I can to avoid catching smaller cats."
In the upper Midwest where professional catfishing guide Brad Durick (www.braddurick.com; 701-739-5808) works, goldeyes are the prime bait. "I normally get four to six baits out of one big goldeye," he said. "That size of bait will put lots of 5- to 10-pound channel cats in the boat. But if my clients are willing to give up quantity and go for one or two truly monstrous fish in a day, I'll take a 12- to 14-inch goldeye, cut off the tail, cut it in half, and that's the bait that will catch the biggest cats."
Beyond agreeing that big baits catch the biggest catfish, Martin and Durick's strategies for catching big channel catfish diverge. Martin targets big cats in lakes and reservoirs. Durick specializes in pulling mega-cats from large rivers. Both focus on areas where they know the biggest cats live and feed.
CRUISING FOR CATS ON LAKES
Martin slow-trolls large flats on lakes to target big channel cats. There are times he'll work drop-offs on the downwind side of major points or follow creek channels, but big flats are his favorite spot for big fish.
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"If I can find a big flat around 14 feet deep, I'm happy," he said. "I slow-troll at half a mile an hour, maybe up to 1 mile an hour, pulling Santee float rigs, with some of them running out to the side on Church-brand TX-22 planer boards. Planer boards catch bigger fish. If I'm catching 8- or 10-pounders under the boat, the planer boards will be getting 12- to 14-pounders. I think bigger cats are a little sensitive to boats passing overhead."
Martin's Santee float rigs are essentially a 5/0 to 7/0 semi-circle hook on a 16- to 20-inch leader below a slip sinker. A 2- to 3-inch cigar float pegged at midpoint on the leader keeps the bait off the bottom.
"I catch bigger fish when I keep my baits off the bottom with the float rigs," he said. "I believe smaller catfish hug the bottom 'cause it's safer for them. Big cats are the kings in our lakes; they aren't afraid of anything, and don't need to hug the bottom and hide. They just cruise around looking for an easy meal. Keeping the bait off the bottom puts it right in front of them."
After experimenting with 50-plus-pound braided lines, Martin now uses 25- to 30-pound monofilament lines.
"I lost a lot of fish on braided lines," he said. "The braids tended to fray on rocks and ledges, and with braids I tended to set the hooks too hard and pulled the hooks out of their mouths. Mono line takes more abuse and has enough give so I can get a good hookset without ripping it out of their mouth."
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Though Martin slow trolls for big channel cats from his boat, he said shore anglers can target mega-cats using similar tactics. "Find a point near a big flat, and fish it when the wind is blowing strong across that point," he said. "Or fish the approaches to a bridge when the wind creates a current around them. Put a big bait under a big float set to mid-depth, and let the wind and current slow-troll it for you. Be patient. You're not going to catch a lot of fish using big baits, but by using the wind and a float to move that bloody bait around, eventually the biggest cat in the neighborhood will find it."
Martin said anglers who finally land a big channel cat should keep fishing.
"I've noticed that channel cats hang with fish of their own size," he said. "If you catch a 4-pounder, then all you'll probably catch from that area is 4-pounders. But if you land a 10- or 15-pounder, there's a good chance there are other 10- or 15-pounders close by."
ROLLING ON RIVERS FOR CATS
Durick, the expert at catching monster channel cats from rivers, agrees.
"If I'm after the biggest possible cats and pull a couple 5-pounders from a hole, I move to another spot," he said. "But if the first fish I pull out of a hole is a 15-pounder, I put on my biggest baits and sit tight."
Patience is a virtue when fishing for mega-cats, though it must be tempered with aggressive tactics. Once, when searching for the biggest possible channel catfish while filming for a TV show, Durick baited with halves of 14-inch goldeyes weighted with 6 ounces of lead, tossed them into the main boil below a dam tailrace, and waited for 4 hours to catch only two channel cats. But those channel cats weighed 22 and 27 pounds.
"I'm not normally a patient guy," he said. "My normal strategy is to move after a half-hour if I'm not catching the fish I want. But we had been catching 13- to 15-pounders from the edges of that boil all week, and I had a feeling if I could anchor some big baits right in the boil long enough, I'd eventually catch the big fish that had to be there."
Many river anglers would have targeted slack water away from the tailrace's boil, but Durick favors fishing in strong currents. In fact, some of his best catches have come pre-spawn, when rivers in his area run high. He targets submerged structure.
"Everybody fishes visible logs and trees along the shore, but I've got some of my biggest cats from submerged logs in mid-channel, and from holes and troughs nobody else sees," he said. "I use side-imaging sonar, and some of the best spots I've found are little holes at the upper or lower ends of long flats. Those little holes may not be much bigger than my boat, maybe only a foot or two deeper than the surrounding bottom, but they're loaded with catfish."
Side-imaging sonar has also taught Durick to look for troughs that connect major holes.
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"Imagine a big bend in the river, with logjams and major holes at the upper and lower end of the bend," he said. "Side-imaging has taught me there is often a trough that runs between those holes. It may only be a foot or so deeper than the rest of the bottom, but catfish use that like a highway between those holes. If you park baits across that trough, especially in the middle, that's where the big boys roam, day or night."
Durick does most of his fishing during daylight hours even though conventional wisdom maintains the biggest channel cats only come out at night. "As long as you fish where you know the big ones are during the day, you'll catch just as many as at night," he said. "That means I fish in the holes and places where they rest during the day, or in places I know they travel when they feed during the day -- and they do feed during the day."
The only exception to daytime fishing is during the hottest days of summer. "I've noticed when the water gets really hot in late summer, they're more active after dark," said Durick. "They're like humans -- when it's hot, they lay low during the hottest part of the day and do more of their activity after dark when it's cooler."
Day or night, Durick says location, location, location is the key to putting big channel cats in his boat. When fishing his local river, where he knows the channel well, he targets the upper ends of major holes, troughs between holes and small mid-channel holes he's discovered with his sonar.
"The biggest channel cats lay at the upper ends of major holes or logjams, in the best spots to get any food that the current sweeps into them," he said. "The troughs between holes are the highways those big boys use when they go looking for food, so those troughs are spots that expose your baits to multiple big fish as they move around. The small holes at the ends of long flats are little gold mines if you can find them. They're the first structure above and below those long feeding flats, and big fish naturally like to rest close to the food."
There are big channel cats waiting in almost every temperate river or lake in the United States. Anglers who know where and how to target those mega-cats, anglers who take time to offer those picky eaters the biggest, juiciest baits, are the ones who walk dripping wet and grinning into bait shops to show off their prizes.