Strolling for Mobile Catfish
October 10, 2019
Catfish are on the move after baitfish in the early fall.
Decades ago, I caught catfish in certain spots I’d stumbled upon at my favorite local lake, but got horribly, disgustingly skunked any time I ventured away from those honeyholes.
Eventually I got my hands on a topographic map of the lake, and—surprise—there were good reasons those honeyholes produced fish. The quickest way to figure out where to catch catfish, especially during the transition to early fall, is to analyze and use bottom topography to your advantage.
“In the fall, I start looking for catfish after sunrise along shallow shorelines,” said professional catfishing guide Dave Wyner. “They’ll be in there feeding, enjoying the sunshine-warmed water. I use topo maps and Navionics and look for long shorelines that taper into deeper water. I slow-troll parallel to the shoreline at .5 to .7 mph. I rarely go over 1 mph, and when the water cools below 60 degrees, I’ll drop down to .1 to .4 mph.”
Wyner uses planer boards to spread up to six Santee-Cooper-style rigs behind his boat. His first pass is close to shore, with the shallowest board over 1-3 feet of water. The next board covers water slightly deeper. The rest of the boards behind his boat cover the descending bottom.
“If I get fish on that first pass, I mark them, then turn around and make another pass beside the first pass, just deeper,” he explains. “After two or three passes, I’ve covered the area from deep to shallow, can look at my marks to see where we caught fish, and then I focus on that depth. Typically, I can figure out the pattern in an hour or less. Once I figure out what depth they’re at, we can stay busy handling 5- to 12-pound channel cats for the rest of trip.”
>Catfish Archive: Flatheads, Blues, Channels; they’re all here
Chris Souders, the 2016-2017 Cabela’s National King Kat Angler of the Year Champion, fishes deeper lakes. However, he follows a similar strategy.
“I love 30 feet,” Souders said. “I fish for a lot of blue cats in lakes that drop down to 70 feet. I’ve caught them as shallow as 5 feet, and I’ve caught them just off the bottom at 70 feet. I usually start shallower and work through that 30 feet range into deeper water just to see if they’re in a different mood on a given day.”
Both Wyner and Souders spend a lot of time “pre-fishing” lakes by studying topo maps or Navionics https://www.navionics.com/usa/ to identify prime places to begin their search.
“If I can find an old river or creek channel, I’ll zigzag back and forth across it,” said Wyner. “That lets me cover the cats that are out aggressively feeding on the flat beside the old channel as well as the less active ones that are lying just over the edge waiting for an easy meal.”
Souders targets humps and bowls on large flats, knowing blues and channels favor irregularities in large, smooth expanses. He said blues and channels often intermingle over minor changes in topography. “Both blues and channels are schooling fish,” he said. “The bigger ones, 10- to 12-pound channels, and blues over 20 pounds, don’t school as tightly, but they still travel in loose groups. If I see [on a topo map] a big, empty flat with an isolated hump or bowl that’s maybe only 5 feet different from the surrounding flat, I’m going to work back and forth over that spot.”
>Find the best day and time to fish for catfish in your zip code
Both Wyner and Souders are largely daytime anglers, though Souders is convinced the moon influences midday fishing success. “I’m big on moon phase,” Souders said. “I think it influences their behavior 24 hours a day. When a full moon hits, they feed more aggressively. I’ll fish any time I get a chance, but I definitely try to be on the water during a full moon phase.”
As a guide, Wyner often divides his days into morning trips and afternoon trips, and he says both trips overlap his optimum time for catching cats.
“Everybody knows it’s good catfishing in low-light conditions around sunrise and sunset,” he said. “But there are always catfish feeding, any time of day. Some of my best fishing is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.”
TACTICS AND TACKLE
Wyner uses 7-foot, 6-inch Chad Ferguson-series medium-heavy Whisker Seeker brand rods bearing Abu Garcia C3 6500 Catfish Special baitcasting reels. When fishing for his own entertainment, he prefers 40-pound-test braided line, but his clients use reels spooled with 40-pound-test monofilament line.
“Braid doesn’t handle abrasion well, so I have to constantly cut off worn line and retie,” he said. “Clients are there to catch fish, not sit and watch me retie lines, so I use mono with them.”
>Click to subscribe to Game & Fish Magazine
Both anglers use Santee Cooper rigs with floats on the leader ahead of the hook that keep their baits 6 inches to 2 feet off the bottom. Wyner favors 1- to 3-ounce egg sinkers slipped onto the main line ahead of a bead, then a swivel tied to a 9- to 18-inch leader. He believes flat “no-roll” sinkers live up to their name and get wedged in crevices, while rounded egg sinkers roll or bounce across snags.
“I’ve also had real good luck with slinky-style weights,” said Wyner. “The trick is to avoid the economy-priced ones that have their swivel attached to the cloth of the tubing. You need to have them so that when you snag, you’re not pulling on the fabric.”
Fishing for deep-water blue catfish sometimes encourages professional fishing guide Jason Bridges to use a vertical presentation. On calm days when the water is flat, he slow-trolls vertically under the boat. His main line is 40-pound-test Ande monofilament tied to a straight swivel. To the other end of that swivel, he ties a 2- to 3-foot leader of 80-pound Ande mono, snelled to an Eagle Claw 2022 circle hook. He also ties to that swivel eye a 1- to 2-foot loop of 15-pound-test mono line that’s tied to a 6- to 8-ounce bank sinker.
“What I do is drop that rig straight down to the bottom,” said Bridges, “then lift it up a foot or two. If the blues are suspended, I may run them a lot higher than that. That much weight keeps the rig vertical under the boat, even when I troll at .5 to .7 miles an hour. The leader trails out behind with a chunk of fresh cut bait. One thing I’ve learned when I’m vertical trolling is to keep my rods horizontal. You’ll get more bites with the rods laid flat than if you’ve got the tips up in the air.”
It is widely accepted that the best baits when slow-trolling for blue and channel catfish are fresh cut baits. That’s fine for professional guides and tournament anglers who have time, equipment and expertise to quickly gather bait, but it presents a challenge for amateurs who just want to catch catfish after they get off work or on a Sunday afternoon. Fortunately, Wyner noted there are several good alternatives to fresh shad, and they’re easier for the average angler to obtain.
“Shad are definitely catfish candy,” said Wyner. “But, depending on state regulations, bluegills and sunfish are almost as good. One problem with shad is they’re soft and don’t stay on the hook very well. Bluegill and sunfish are a lot tougher.”
Most bait shops offer minnows, chubs or suckers, and those baits work well when cats are already in the mood to eat. Fresh is always better than frozen, and cut, cubed or sliced baits put more flavor in the water than whole baitfish.
Wyner, Souders and Bridges all use circle hooks, from 6/0 for 5- to 15-pound channel cats to 7/0 and 8/0 for bigger blues. There is a temptation among amateur anglers to load circle hooks with large chunks of cut bait, which can actually reduce hookups.
“You have to be careful to not clog the throat of circle hooks with bait,” said Wyner. “There has to be room for the hook to rotate and engage the point in the fish’s jaw.”
Above all, Wyner emphasizes mobility, both in slow-trolling to keep his baits moving across more water, and in switching locations until he finds fish.
“I don’t even have an anchor in my boat,” he said. “You’ll catch lots more fish by fishing with moving baits and changing locations until you find fish.”
Anglers fishingfrom shore can fish in places and with techniques that mirror the success of slow-trolling boat anglers.
Windward shorelines are best. Professional catfishing guide Dave Wyner believes waves drift microorganisms toward windward shorelines, which attracts baitfish, which attract catfish.
“[Catfish] may not be real shallow during the hottest, brightest part of the day in summertime, but they’ll be in that area,” he said. “In the fall, channel cats like the warmer water in the shallows, so they’ll be there all day. They may move a little deeper during the middle of the day in the fall, just deep enough to minimize sun penetration, but they’ll still be along those windward shorelines within casting distance of shore.”
Wind and waves moving perpendicular to a point on a shoreline create a double attraction for catfish. Wave action against the windward side of the point, combined with currents that spill around and across the tip of the point, create prime places for shore anglers to cast baits. Cast into the wind a cut bait or favorite glob of stinkbait rigged under a float. Allowing wind and waves to drift the bait into shore or across the submerged tip of the point is a shore angler’s version of slow-trolling.