Years ago, no catfish angler worried about fishing in 114 feet of water. Probing depths of 100 feet or more was too difficult to even contemplate. But after Phil King of Corinth, Mississippi, and Stacey Thompson of Paris, Texas, won the 2003 Cabela’s King Kat Classic tournament at lakes Pickwick and Wilson near Sheffield, Alabama, by catching 233.75 pounds of blue catfish in 80 to 90 feet of water, some catfish fishermen began to change the way they fished.
John Jamison of Spring Hill, Kansas, participated in that tournament and was impressed by King and Thompson’s feat. After befriending King and learning about his methods, Jamison returned to Kansas, vowing to expand his tactics. He began by practicing King’s controlled-drifting tactics on the Missouri River and various reservoirs in Kansas and Missouri. He continued to master the techniques of successful tournament anglers, including anchoring, drifting with windsocks, bait-walking, sonar and GPS, and manipulating an electric trolling motor.
Since then, Jamison and Mark Thompson of Williamsburg, Kansas, have won or placed near the top of the leaderboard at several tournaments by using those techniques. Their crowning achievement occurred at the Cabela’s King Kat Classic at Pickwick and Wilson lakes on October 13-14, 2006, when they finished in second place with 14 blue catfish that weighed 490.75 pounds, catching them out of water as deep as 114 feet.
Locating Deep Blues
Four months prior to the tournament, Jamison and Thompson began preparing for the event by studying topographic maps of Wilson and Pickwick lakes, searching for deep-water drop-offs with structural variations along the floor of the lake. The spot where they subsequently caught 490-plus pounds was one of the primary locations that they isolated on the maps.
It was the first place they fished on the first practice day at Wilson, but on that occassion they didn’t get a strike. Disappointed, they decided to work areas that were adjacent to the shoreline, plying 60 to 80 of water along a bluff. For the next two days, they fished deep-water bluff areas, but their catches were paltry.
On the third day of practice, they moved a quarter mile offshore and explored a submerged creek channel in 80 feet of water, catching lots of 5- to 10-pound blue cats. So they revisited the area they’d fished on their first day of practice. As they arrived, a group of large striped bass erupted on the surface, attacking a school of shad. Jamison and Thompson immediately began fishing, with hopes that the blue cats would be foraging on some of the injured shad that striped bass failed to engulf.
Within 20 minutes of slowly trolling across the hump, they released seven blue cats totaling about 250 pounds. Every time they hooked one, they marked the exact location on their GPS, and all of those spots were located along the edge of the hump where it dropped off into 100 feet or more of water. They spent the last days of practice searching other deep-water areas, catching nothing over 30 pounds.
On the first day of the tournament, they returned to the deep-water hump, fishing it for the duration of the event. Twenty-eight of the 30 blues that they caught from this spot during the tournament weighed from 18 to 62 pounds.
Jamison and Thompson fished from a Lund Pro-V 2025 matched with a 225 hp Evinrude E-TEC outboard, a bow-mounted Minn Kota Maxxum trolling motor, and two Lowrance LCX 19 color units with Navionics Gold chips. Their tackle consisted of four John Jamison Bluecat Signature Series No. 2 E-glass rods (8-foot) with Shimano Tekota 600 line-counter reels, and two Fenwick 7’6” HMXT76MHC, IM7 graphite rods with Abu Garcia 6500 line-counter reels. Reels were spooled with 80-pound McCoy braided line.
The Jamison E-glass rods were placed in Driftmaster Duo-Pro rod holders and set at the zero-degree setting, positioning the rods parallel to the water. Jamison sets the E-glass rods in rod holders because he finds that they’re smoother than graphite, making blues less likely to detect resistance on the strike.
Two rods were set on the port side and two on the starboard, positioned near the bow and at the transom. Jamison and Thompson each held a Fenwick rod to bounce baits on bottom. The rod setup covered an area of about 30 feet by 18 feet, a rigging system similar to spider-rigging for crappies.
For bottom-bouncing with the Fenwick rods they used a three-way rig. It consisted of a 1/0 Crossline three-way swivel tied to the mainline. An 18-inch leader of 60-pound-test Berkley Big Game monofilament was affixed to the side eye of the swivel. To the end of the leader, Thompson used snell knots to attach a 7/0 and 5/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks spaced four inches apart. Jamison used the same rigging but opted for Daiichi wide-gap circle hooks. A 6-ounce bell sinker was tied to a 36-inch 20-pound-test monofilament dropper, which was tied to the bottom eye of the swivel.
On their E-glass rods, they placed a six-ounce egg sinker above a #1 barrel swivel that was attached to the braided mainline. An 18-inch leader made of 60-pound Big Game monofilament was tied to the swivel. The leader sported a 7/0 hook and a 5/0 stinger hook spaced four inches apart. Other than snell knots for tying on hooks, rigs were tied with Palomar knots.
The primary bait was 6- to 8-inch skipjack herring. They worked some bloodbait, but caught only 4 fish on the beef blood, so they ultimately used only skipjacks, noting that bloodbait normally is a better option when the water and weather are hot.
Relieving Bloated Blues
lue catfish, among other species of fish, are physostomus, meaning their gas bladder is connected to the gullet by a duct. This differs from physoclistous species, like walleye and perch, which lack that connection.
The duct in physostomus species allows air to pass directly between the gullet and air bladder, while in physoclistous species, gas volume is a longer-term process controlled through bloodstream mechanisms. Physoclistous species caught from deep water often have distended abdomens because the gas bladder swells from reduced pressure closer to the surface. Because the gas bladder can’t release air quickly, these fish struggle at the surface and in some cases perish. Some anglers have learned to properly “fizz” these fish to improve survival.
In 2005, we reported in In‑Fisherman that, when caught from deep water, blue catfish often have a swollen gas bladders, with the gut protruding into the mouth in some cases. Even for this physostome, the bladder can expand from pressure reduction faster than the fish can compensate naturally. A caught fish might “burp” to alleviate pressure on its own, but if its belly is stretched and it struggles at the surface after release, the duct or gullet is blocked, perhaps by tissues surrounding the expanded area.
In our report we suggested a method to alleviate this problem. The remedy calls for inserting a section of soft plastic tubing (5/8-inch diameter, about two feet long) down the throat area and into the gullet. Continue to insert the tube until you hear a “whoosh” of air out the pipe as the belly deflates. If you feel resistance on the pipe from tissue, don’t force the tubing deeper, which can cause injury. If necessary, push gut tissue back down the gullet gently with your finger. Release the fish after it regains normal swimming ability.
Jamison and Thompson used this technique to relieve bloated blues caught from deep water. They found that a 1/2-inch diameter section of PVC pipe about 24 inches long was suitable for burping the blue cats, adding that it’s important to sand down and smooth the end of the pipe that’s inserted into the gullet to prevent injury to the fish. They found that in some cases carefully moving the inserted pipe around the gullet a bit helped release air. All of the fish they caught were able to submerge and swim away without apparent injury.
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