Have you ever taken on a major jigsaw puzzle and really labored to find a few specific pieces, only to learn that those pieces weren't in the box at all? Whether lost to the dog or the vacuum cleaner, missing pieces can be a real source of frustration, and that truth isn't unique to puzzles. To do a lot of things properly, you need the proper pieces.
Many catfishing situations are best approached with specific techniques and rigs, and those rigs are composed of assorted pieces of terminal tackle. Much is often said about where to find the catfish and set up for them and even about the rigs to use. We're going to focus on the pieces, because if you don't have the right pieces to tie the best rigs, your ability to present baits effectively and to hook and land the fish that do bite can be seriously hampered.
It matters little if you have the ideal bait placed in the perfect position if you are unable hook a catfish and keep it hooked until it is in the boat or on the bank. With that in mind, the hook may be the most critical component of your terminal tackle, and hooks vary in shape, thickness, materials and size.
For starters, you can leave the fine-wire hooks at home for most catfishing applications. Cats are tough customers, and many catfish baits are thick and meaty, making heavy-duty hooks the best tools for the job in almost all cases. Given today's factory hook-sharpening processes and the stoutness of rods and line normally used for cats, you don't need fine wire to get good hook penetration.
Many hooks commonly used for catfishing use the most basic "J hook" shape, with no fancy bends for weedless rigging, extra long shanks, bent eyes for snelling, weed guards or other special features. Some anglers do prefer a small barb or two well up the shank to help hold bait in place, but that is about it. A good J hook for catfishing is strong, sharp and simple.
In addition to basic J hooks, circle hooks have gained tremendous popularity in catfishing circles. These odd-looking hooks, with extreme bends that almost turn full circle, were first touted for their conservation value. They rarely get swallowed and most commonly hook fish in the corner of the mouth, making for much easier releases. It wasn't long, however, before many catfish anglers determined that they hooked and landed more fish when they used circle hooks and began favoring them for many applications, whether or not they intended to release the fish.
From a practical fishing standpoint, the major difference between traditional hooks and circle hooks is that with a circle hook, no hookset is involved. When the line is reeled tight or the fish pulls it tight, the hook naturally turns into the fish's lip. Trying to set the hook actually snaps the whole thing out of the fish's mouth. For some anglers and some approaches that's considered a disadvantage. Many anglers, however, believe they hook and land more fish with circle hooks once they get used to the approach.
The Team Catfish Double Action Hook was designed specifically with catfishermen in mind and offers a "best of both worlds" appeal. This modified circle hook is still designed to hook most fish in the mouth, but anglers can effectively hook fish by setting the hook or by simply tightening the line and letting the hook point turn into the fish's mouth.
Whether a hook is traditional, circle-style or something in-between, size is an important consideration, and catfishermen fairly commonly use everything from No. 4 traditional hooks for presenting night crawlers to 10/0 circle hooks for big chunks of cut bait or live baitfish. The size and the type of bait and the size of cats you expect to encounter are the two most important factors for determining the right hook size.
Treble hooks also have an important catfishing application. Chicken livers and most dip baits are quite soft and very difficult to keep on single hooks. The configuration of a treble hook helps hold a liver bait in place, making it much easier to cast without flinging the bait farther than the rig. For dip-bait fishing, a treble hook is commonly coupled with a piece of sponge or a specially designed "catfish worm" to help hold the gooey bait in place.
A major disadvantage of a treble hook and one reason they normally are used only by necessity is that they are much more difficult to remove from fish, especially fish that are hooked deeply. An additional disadvantage is that you can't get away with as large a hook gap when the total hook size is multiplied by three.
Any weight or sinker has the simple function of getting a rig down in the water column (often to the bottom), so it might seem like the amount of weight would be the only major variable. Not so. The best design varies quite a bit depending on the configuration of a rig, the slope of the bottom, the amount of current, the technique being used and other variables.
One major way that various sinkers differ from one another lies in how and where they are attached to the line. Some are designed to be rigged "in line," meaning the line slides through the weight itself or an attached eye. Others are made to be tied to the line, either at the end of a leader or to the weight and to the leader, at opposite ends of the sinker. Some work either way. Still others (such as split shot or rubber core sinkers) crimp to the line or are affixed in some other way.
Shape makes a big difference, too. Some weights naturally roll or slide along the bottom easily. Others are intentionally made with flattened surfaces so they hold in place on the bottom even along slopes or in the current.
The actual materials used for the weights varies, too. Tungsten weights are smaller than lead for the same amount of weight, and that can be helpful for getting through cover and for getting a rig down in current; however, they are also substantially more expensive. Brass weights are larger. The No. 1 catfishing application for non-lead weights is for fishing in areas where lead weights are not permitted.
Among the most common specific weight styles used for catfishing is the egg weight, which is egg-shaped and has a line hole through it, length-wise. The most popular use is a simple sliding bottom rig, with the main line running through the sinker, to a swivel, a leader and a hook.
Bell and pyramid sinkers also work for similar rigs, except the line runs through an eye that's affixed to the end of the sinker. These weights, which are shaped as their names would suggest, are less apt to roll down slopes or get washed out of place in the current, but they also get hung more readily.
Bell sinkers, pyramid sinkers and bank sinkers (which are similar to bells except that they have flattened edges and eyes that are cast into them) also work nicely as anchors for three-way rigs, with a weight simply tied to the end of a leader for that application.
Drift-fishermen use what are perhaps some of the most specialized types of weights. Drifting weights come in various shapes and forms that range from cylindrical lead weights to cloth or rubber tubes with shot inside them. All have the intended purpose of being unlikely to snag in rocks, brush or other cover when they are dragged across the bottom of a river or lake.
For very simple catfishing, like you might do from the shore of a pond or a creek, all a sinker needs to do is add casting weight and carry the rig to the bottom. In such cases just add a few large split shot or possibly a rubber-core sinker to the line.
Swivels of various sorts serve a few important purposes. First, they spin when leaders spin. That can be critical for preventing line twist and a potential mess when a piece of cut bait starts spinning like a helicopter blade in the current. Second, they serve as stoppers for sliding sinkers and floats. Finally, they attach elements of rigs.
Although swivels come in many forms, often with special leaders already attached, catfishing applications mostly call for basic barrel swivels and three-way swivels. A barrel swivel has line tie loop at each end and a barrel in the middle. Both ends spin freely. A three-way swivel has three eyes instead of two, and it is triangular shaped. It's normally the center of a three-way rig, with the main line tied to one eye leaders to the hook and weight tied to the others.
The most important consideration for picking a suitable swivel is strength. Swivels are rated for the pressure they can withstand, so be sure to use a sufficiently strong swivel for your line and leader and for the cats you expect to find. Swivel size and strength don't always correlate, by the way. Some swivels are formed from super alloys and are rated for weights that seem to defy their size. That said, at times you need a little bigger swivel to keep a weight from sliding too far or simply for manageable rigging with heavy line.
Because catfish do much of their feeding on or very near the bottom, many anglers don't think about floats as catfishing terminal tackle. Although it's true that most catfish rigs don't require floats, at times a float proves useful as a strike indicator. And at times, floats are actually used to intentionally suspend baits either just off the bottom or at a pre-determined place in the water column.
Most catfish applications call for a slip float of some kind. Cats are usually more than a few feet deep, so casting a set float would be difficult to impossible. Often, because of the size weight that is needed to keep a line hanging straight in the current, the float needs to be a large "pole float" that can hold up several ounces of weight.
One other type of float that fits into the catfishing scene is a small, cork in-line float that can be pegged. Unlike anything else in this category, this float actually has a subsurface application. When added to a drift rig leader, 6 inches or so from the hook, it keeps the hook just off the bottom as the weight drags along, and the result will be far less snags. The float only needs enough buoyancy to elevate a hook and a chunk of bait; however, the hole thought the center must be large enough to accommodate sometimes-heavy catfish leader.
Scent feeders for the most part, catfish don't tend to be line shy. Therefore, if you find yourself torn between a couple different sizes of line, err on the heavy side. Catfish are hard fighters, and they can grow to large sizes. Adding to the call for stout line, they tend to stay near the bottom, where jagged rocks, tangles of sunken trees and other line-damaging debris abounds.
Various formulas of monofilament and copolymer line have different characteristics. Some are made to maximize castability or manageability or to minimize diameter or memory. Tops on a typical catfisherman's list of desired line characteristics is toughness. Trilene XT (Extra Tough) is a traditional favorite line for catfishing, and Berkley's more recently developed Trilene Big Cat is designed for maximum shock and abrasion resistance.
In recent years, braided line and other super lines have made tremendous gains in popularity among catfishermen. Along with providing tremendous sensitivity for feeling the bottom when drifting and for detection every light bite, braid keeps line diameter down, even in waters that call for very heavy line sizes. Any mono that's more than about 50-pound test becomes somewhat difficult to manage, and only so much fits on a spool. In river settings, large diameter line also catches a lot of current, making it very difficult to keep baits where they need to be in many cases.
Fluorocarbon line offers excellent abrasion resistance, making it outstanding for leader material. Because fluoro tends to be expensive, most anglers don't use it as a main line on large-capacity catfish reels. Instead they use mono or braid for the main line and fluorocarbon for their leaders, which are the parts of the rigs most subject to rubbing rocks and the cats' sandpaper-like teeth.
Assorted gizmos that don't fit neatly into any tackle category also play a part in some anglers' catfish rigs. Beads, normally put between sliding weights and swivels to protect knots, are among the most popular extras, and Team Catfish actually offers Sinker Bumpers, which were designed with the specific purpose of protecting knots in catfish rigs.
Other popular extras include pieces of sponges and "dip worms," which are used to hold dip bait in place. Most worms are either short sections of tubing with holes in the walls to let the dip bait seep out or l- to 2-inch sections of thick and deeply ribbed plastic worms.