One of the best species to pursue during the fall season is catfish, especially really big catfish. Here's how to hook a fat cat.
By Terry Madewell
To the untrained eye, it looked like three guys blissfully drifting along, pulling multiple rods with hopes they'd get lucky that a catfish would bite.
But the reality was quite different. I was fishing with Zakk Royce, who maneuvered the boat with the electric motor to fish a very specific underwater target along a channel ledge. He traveled at a specific speed using carefully selected bait. Our course was tracked on a GPS graph, and Royce made continuous course corrections to keep our baits in prime catfish country.
We'd already caught multiple hefty catfish when an 8-foot rod snapped almost double, drag screeching from the reel with a huge blue catfish hooked. With considerable effort by two grown men, we finally pulled the big toad aboard.
While many would consider that to be luck, the truth is the above scenario had nothing to do with luck. Royce is a professional catfish guide, specializing in big catfish, with two triple-digit-weight catfish to his credit, along with multiple catfish in excess of 80 pounds.
"Catching big catfish during the fall, or anytime, is about getting the details right and accepting that everything is a detail," Royce said. "The first thing is get on a lake or river that has big catfish. Some places simply have water and forage conditions that grow larger catfish. Do your research, check with the state fisheries agency and find out where the big catfish are in your area."
The Big Bait Equation
The next tip is spending time on the water. Royce goes fishing often, whether he is guiding a party or not, with the goal of learning something new every time. Being on the water and catching catfish of all sizes allows him to learn how fish react and adapt to weather, water and seasonal changes. After that, it's all about having the right bait for big fish.
According to Royce, big baits for big fish is more than just a theory; he believes it's a fact. However, nothing is 100 percent in regard to catfishing.
"I certainly use huge baits for big catfish, but I'll use smaller bait as well," Royce said. "I've caught huge catfish on both, but overall I've caught a lot more on big baits. And what constitutes big bait is dependent on the top-end size of the fish in the water you fish."
Jeff Manning, a professional catfish tournament angler, claims that baits are "all about the details and everything is detail."
"I have caught big catfish on small strips of cut bait," Manning said. "But I use big baits most of the time. I don't believe that a big catfish swims by my 8-inch gizzard shad thinking, 'Nah, I think I'm gonna eat light today.' They don't have human thought processes, they simply find forage, eat it and during spawning time they make more catfish. That's their story. I try not to overcomplicate it."
ELECTRONICS ARE KEY
Manning and Royce agree that catching big catfish can be as simple as locating a promising site, proper bait and boat positioning, and being patient. Exactly where to fish is a day-to-day patterning process, on which Royce relies heavily on a graph to find the right spot.
"I key on specific spots on the bottom of the lake," Royce said. "I rely on my graph to depict targets, such as creek junctions, edge of a channel ledge, humps and long points. But every setup begins with having forage in the area because big catfish are eating machines. I want to see some unique features on the bottom, forage and usually some big fish marked on the graph. That's the setup I look for and will devote time to fishing."
Small depressions or holes, which are just a little deeper that the surrounding area can be a prime target, such as current flow and eddies in rivers or lakes that create current changes.
Finding these targets requires good electronics and the ability to interpret what is seen.
— Terry Madewell
Catfish tournaments limit the number of catfish weighed, so professional tournament anglers have learned to target big cats. On the waters Manning fishes, he encounters huge blue and flathead catfish and he'll enhance success by refining both baits and rigs.
The first consideration is to use natural baits from the lake or river being fished. Big catfish are at the top of the food chain and literally pick and choose what they eat.
For many of the waters Manning fishes, the top forage species include large gizzard shad, threadfin shad and smaller sunfish species.
"After I select the bait, I further refine it by the specific catfish species I'm targeting on that lake, on that day," Manning said.
While blues, flatheads and even large channel catfish will eat the same baits, presentation modifications can enhance success. Big flatheads generally prefer live baits, while blues like big, bloody chunks of cutbait. Channel catfish will take either offering. If a strong bite exists for big flatheads, Manning uses more whole, live baits. If blues offer the best odds for big fish, he'll use primarily fresh cut bait.
"On lakes with plenty of blues and flatheads, I'll deploy live and cut bait until I get a pattern for that day," Manning said. "Success on big catfish absolutely gets that detail-oriented."
The preferred bait presentation technique differs but both quickly adapt. Royce favors drift-fishing, while Manning is a staunch anchor-down-for-big-catfish advocate. But a key to consistent big-fish success for both is being quick to change based on current fishing trends.
Royce's drift-fishing techniques target very specific places, not general areas. When drift-fishing he'll use an electric motor to work along the edge of a creek channel, rather than drifting random areas. He works specific targets, with the thought of presenting baits in very specific areas. Royce even has his own model of planer board he developed to enable him to drift baits farther from the boat.
"Often, the really big fish will bite on the planer board rigs away from the boat," Royce said. "Drift-fishing enables me to cover more water, but I closely monitor the speed. During late summer and fall, water is warm and the speed can be faster. But speeds from 0.4 up to 0.8 offer a good range and it can change daily or seasonally."
Manning typically tries spots for 45 minutes, or a little longer when he anchors, taking care to anchor both the front and back of the boat securely before casting baits to places that he marked for fish and forage.
"It's a personal preference whether you drift or anchor, but this produces big catfish for me," said Manning. "The key is getting the right bait in the right spot."
Both experts have strong similarities in their rigs, preferring 7- to 8-foot rods with baitcasting reels loaded with 20-to-40-pound main line, with a 50-pound-test or heavier monofilament leader. They prefer 8/0 or larger circle hooks, and if drifting they'll place a 2 1/2-inch float about 18 inches up the 3-foot leader. When anchor fishing, the weight needed varies with depth and current, as long as it is enough to hold the bait in place.
This fall, have a game plan to target the biggest catfish in your area. Study maps, spend time on the water, rely on the graph, use the right bait and trust the process.
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