September 01, 2020
By Dan Anderson
Some anglers refer to it as "slow trolling." Others use the term "dragging." Whatever you call it, it’s one of the most productive, yet underutilized, catfishing techniques to come along in the past few decades.
The basic concept has been around since the 1970s, when walleye anglers trolling bottom-bouncers baited with nightcrawlers in large Midwestern reservoirs noticed they sometimes caught more catfish than walleyes. For years, catfish bait anglers had used drift fishing—allowing wind and wave action to push the boat across the lake—to locate catfish before dropping anchor and fishing from a fixed spot. Nobody knows who first combined the fish-locating movement of drift fishing with the precise presentations used by walleye anglers, but once catfish tournament anglers discovered that moving catfish baits caught more and larger cats than stationary baits, the revolution was underway.
Tournament anglers may have refined the practice, but amateur anglers now use it to their advantage anywhere catfish swim. The keys are accurate speed control, targeting specific locations and careful rigging.
WHERE TO TROLL
For Channel Cats: mid-depth flats; submerged cutbanks; submerged channels of tributary streams
For Blue Cats: deep, submerged cutbanks; deep flats; transitions between sand, rock or mud bottoms
"Slow trolling is a precision strategy," says Dave Studebaker, a tournament catfish angler from Kansas. "You move your catfish baits at a precise speed in precise areas of the lake."
Just how slow you troll is crucial. Anglers trolling conventionally for walleyes, wipers and other species often run from 2 to 5 mph. Slow trollers rarely troll faster than 1 mph.
"I usually start trolling at half a mile per hour, then speed up or down by a tenth of a mile per hour until the catfish tell me that’s the speed they want on that day," says Troy Hansen, a tournament catfish angler from Iowa. "I've seen days when speeding up or slowing down only a couple tenths [of a mile per hour] was the difference between catching catfish and not."
Anglers without GPS-based speedometers can have trouble precisely establishing and keeping such slow boat speeds. Studebaker says the right types of fishing rods can help gauge trolling speed.
"I use 10-foot-long rods with medium-heavy actions and adjust my trolling motor’s speed so those rod tips are slowly bending down and then easing back up as the rigs work along the bottom," he says. "If the rod tips are jerking up and down, you’re moving too fast."
A slightly more high-tech option for gauging boat speed is to use GPS-based apps on smartphones. Anglers can use speedometer apps designed for joggers or walkers to accurately track ground speeds below 1 mile per hour.
Studebaker uses GPS-based Navionics lake-mapping software loaded into his boat’s sonar unit to accurately locate the environments and structures favored by both blue and channel cats. Every time he catches a catfish, he marks a dated waypoint on his system. His maps of favorite lakes are now spotted with clusters of waypoints identifying the places he most frequently finds catfish during various times of year.
"If I'm after channel cats in late summer, I’m looking for mid-depth flats associated with old river or creek channels," Studebaker says. "For blue cats I’m still looking for mid-depth flats, but more for changes in the bottom. If I can find transitions from sand to gravel or mud, [blue cats] will be around that transition. Sometimes there doesn’t have to be an actual change in bottom [composition]—in the past year or two I’ve had good luck catching blues associated with little depressions or humps I find on a big flat. Maybe only a foot or two of change, up or down. Any change in the bottom on a big flat is a good place to slow troll for blues."
Again, precision is the key in a slow-trolling presentation. The angler must cover the right water at the right speed. The final component, then, is the rig.
Presentation is critical when slow trolling. In water less than 15 feet deep, most slow trollers use some sort of Carolina Rig. A weight holds the catfish bait on the bottom, with a leader 16 to 24 inches long trailing cut bait on a circle hook. Cut catfish baits made from gizzard shad, threadfin shad, chubs or suckers work well; the gut section of gizzard shad is preferred.
Traditional J-hooks catch catfish while slow trolling, but circle hooks excel with this technique. When a catfish picks up a bait on a slow-trolled circle hook, the movement of the boat pulls the bait toward the corner of the fish’s mouth. The design of the circle hook rotates its point to snag the fish there. The more the hook rotates with the movement, the deeper the hook penetrates. The boat’s movement essentially hooks the fish without need for any hookset.
That’s why slow-trolling catfish anglers prefer long rods with relatively flexible tips placed at a 45-degree angle in rod holders. When a catfish picks up the moving bait, the soft rod tip slowly bends down until its tip is near the water. As the slow-bending tip increases pressure, the circle hook rotates and hooks the fish. All the angler has to do is pull the rod from its holder and start reeling.
In the past decade, some slow trollers started using modified Santee Cooper rigs. Carolina rigs use a weight to keep the bait along the bottom. Santee rigs add a foam cigar float pegged on the leader between the weight and the hook to lift the bait a foot or more off the bottom.
"Smaller channel cats, the 1- to 5-pounders, tend to stay right on the bottom and feed on anything they can find," says Hansen. "Bigger cats, 5 pounds and above, are often the biggest predators in a lake—more interested in eating baitfish—and tend to cruise a little higher. If you’re slow trolling with cut bait, lifting that bait a foot or so off the bottom increases your chances of catching more and bigger catfish."
TOP LAKES FOR SLOW TROLLING
Try the technique in these five Midwestern waters.
1. CARLYLE LAKE, ILLINOIS
Fish Here: Several existing ponds and lakes were flooded when this reservoir was impounded. The flats associated with drop-offs into those submerged lakes, along with flats along the old river/creek channel, are prime spots for slow-trolling catfish anglers.
Do This: Instead of pulling baits behind the boat, try hanging baits directly under the boat while slow trolling over drop-offs under 15 or more feet of water. Lower baits to the bottom, raise them 12 to 16 inches and allow wind and wave action to lightly jig them under the slow-moving boat.
2. RED ROCK LAKE, IOWA
Fish Here: The huge mud flats along the old Des Moines River channel above the Highway 14 bridge are the places to slow-troll in late summer.
Do This: Contrary to the tradition of catfishing at night, mid-afternoon on the hottest days of summer has proven to be the best time to slow troll for Red Rock’s 5- to 15-pound channel cats.
3. MILFORD LAKE, KANSAS
Fish Here: Milford has become a midwestern hotspot for blue catfish up to 50 pounds. Its featureless bottom is perfect for slow trollers targeting blues suspended on flats in 15 to 20 feet of water.
Do This: Focus on minor bottom irregularities or areas where the bottom transitions from mud to sand or hard bottom. A 1-foot bump or pothole is enough to attract and hold Milford’s big blue cats.
4. TRUMAN LAKE, MISSOURI
Fish Here: Look for steep, deep drop-offs associated with the outside bends of the old river channel. Or, on big flats in 6 to 10 feet of water, look for minor humps and bumps that concentrate both blue and channel cats.
Do This: When fishing submerged drop-offs, concentrate on the flat immediately adjacent to that edge. Radio-tagged catfish in studies at Truman rarely hovered over the deep-water side of structure.
5. BRANCHED OAK LAKE, NEBRASKA
Fish Here: Fishing jetties bracket the mouths of two bays on the lake’s northeast corner. If a summer wind blows hard from the south, currents curl around the tips of those jetties and into those bays, attracting channel catfish up to 15 pounds.
Do This: In low-light conditions, quietly fish the edges of moss-edged shorelines along the dam and near drop-offs along shorelines in the northwest and southwest arms. Catfish lurk along those mossy edges to feed on frogs and baitfish attracted to invertebrates in the slop.