Most catmen are obsessed with heavy sinkers and heavier anchors, but a small cadre of reservoir catmen insist that drifting is the most efficient way to catch a boatload of channel cats during summer.
Steve Hoffman: For Tom Lawrence and thousands of other reservoir catmen, catching cats from a moving boat is every bit as natural as fishing from anchor. And for the upper echelon of their ranks, drifting is much more productive than stillfishing.
I know from experience, though, that the anchor habit is tough to break. Most catfish anglers learn early-on that location is critical to catching fish. Switching baits or rigs might mean another fish or two on some days, but presentation never makes up for fishing the wrong spot. Choose your anchor position with care, and you’ll catch fish.
Drifters take a different tact. They know that cats often spread out over large flats or along channel ledges, where anchoring is inefficient. They know, too, that they can cover more water by drifting, putting their bait in front of many more fish during the course of a day.
Learning the basics is easy. Most anglers will learn enough in a day or two afloat to start catching cats. But like any other endeavor, the more you do it the easier it becomes. I’ll wager that if you follow Lawrence’s 6-step process this season, you’ll catch more and bigger channel cats than ever before.
STEP 1: PICK THE RIGHT LAKE.
The mechanics of drifting are fairly simple, but it takes time and planning to put together a winning program. Your first decision is where to fish, which isn’t as simple as it sounds. Maybe there’s a lake close to home filled with 2-pound channel cats, but you’re more interested in catching trophy cats. Before you pick a place to fish, decide what size fish you want to catch and how far you’re willing to travel.
Perhaps the best way to find the most productive lakes in your area is to call your local fishery department. Most states administer a trophy fish award program that recognizes anglers who catch fish over a certain benchmark. Ask the program administrator to name the top two reservoirs in your region, or in the whole state if you’re willing to drive a bit further. Most administrators are happy to share the information, and you’ll be better prepared to catch the size fish you’re after.
Another source of trophy catfish information is In-Fisherman’s Master Angler program. To qualify, Midwest anglers must catch a channel catfish heavier than 18 pounds or at least 30 inches long. Anglers fishing in the southeast and on Canada’s Red River of the North must exceed even larger minimum sizes. The largest fish entered during the previous year are published in the April-May In-Fisherman, and the entire list is available on the Web site, www.in-fisherman.com.
If you still can’t identify a lake or two in your area with trophy catfish potential, it’s time to widen your scope. Talk to the guy behind the counter at the bait shop. Talk to the guys unloading their boat at the ramp, especially if their boat contains catfish gear. Log onto an Internet fishing site and ask for recommendations. Keep in mind, though, that none of the information you receive should be considered 100 percent accurate. Bait shop owners, catfishermen, and Internet junkies all have been known to stretch the truth.
STEP 2: GET THE RIGHT GEAR.
If you’re after big channel cats, make sure you have the equipment to handle a fish that size. I’m not suggesting that you rush out and buy a heavy-duty saltwater combo, but your favorite walleye rod probably won’t work, either. Choose something that’s comfortable to use, but don’t use gear so light that the fish are completely exhausted by the time you get them to the boat. The more time it takes to land a fish, the fewer fish you’ll likely catch. Plus, fish that are landed quickly usually are in better condition when they’re released.
When I’m fishing for channel cats over about 10 pounds, I use medium-heavy power casting rods matched with Quantum IR420CX reels. A durable E-glass rod is a better choice for drifting–and most other catfishing applications–than a stiff, sensitive graphite rod. Consider rod actions carefully; you need a rod with a fairly light tip section so cat’s don’t feel too much pressure when they engulf the bait, and a powerful butt section to pull big fish off the bottom and away from cover.
All of my reels are spooled with 20-pound-test Trilene Big Game Solar line, which is easy to see in any light condition. The line also is incredibly abrasion resistant, so it holds up well in wood, rock, and other cover. Some anglers worry about fish seeing high-visibility line, but I’ve never seen evidence that it makes any difference. If it bothers you, though, use a clear leader. I prefer an 80-pound Dacron leader, which is more visible than monofilament, but because it’s softer, it probably feels more natural to cats.
I tie a large snap swivel to the end of my main line, tie a barrel swivel to the end of the leader, then attach the barrel swivel to the snap swivel. This might seem like a cumbersome connection, but it virtually eliminates line twist and provides enough weight for drifting moderately deep water in calm conditions. For hooks, I favor #2 Eagle Claw trebles that are 4X strong. These hooks are small enough to catch smaller cats, but strong enough to land big ones, too.
STEP 3: PICK THE RIGHT AREA.
Your next step is to obtain a hydrographic map of the lake. Good maps usually are available from local bait shops, and sometimes can be downloaded free of charge from the state fishery department’s Web site. Commercial maps sometimes include notes and tips from local guides and fishing experts. These notes can be helpful, so long as you don’t put too much stock in the advice. Remember that few guides give away their best spots, and some anglers are experts in title only.
Once you’ve obtained your map, study it carefully. Use a highlighter to mark all the 15- to 25-foot flats that are close to the deepest portion of the lake basin. Mark the main river channel, too, along with long sloping points that jut into deep water. These are the areas that usually attract the most and biggest channel cats from early summer through early fall. Some adjustments might be necessary for extremely deep or shallow lakes, but this depth range has proven successful for me at reservoirs across the Midwest and Midsouth.
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Due to the light weight of this rig, itâ€™s usually fished in water shallower than about 20 feet, and most often shallower than 8 feet, with a 6- to 7- foot slow to medium action, medium-light power spinning rod with 4- to 8-pound-test monofilament line. The split-shot rig can be gently cast and slowly retrieved, fished stationary, or allowed to drift. Follow the drift with your rod tip to be sure it drifts naturally and doesnâ€™t snag.
The slipsinker rig can be cast and slowly retrieved, slowly trolled, or used as a stationary presentation, so the depth of the water, bottom terrain, and how fast the bait is being moved by the boat, current, or during retrieval, all play a part in determining the weight of the sinker. The sinker usually is a boot-shaped walking sinker or egg- or bell-shaped sinker for gravel and sandy bottoms, or a bullet sinker in weeds and wood. Beads or blades are sometimes added to the leader in front of the hook as an attractant.
Because the mainline slips through the sinker, anglers often find it to their advantage to let a fish â€śrunâ€ť with the bait, fishing the presentation with an open spool and letting the fish pull line off the spool with the least resistance possible. This gives the fish more time to get the bait further in its mouth or throat, which can cause moreâ€”often lethalâ€”injury to fish. If you can set the hook quickly, or fish on a tight line, itâ€™s often better to do so, especially if you intend to release your catch.
There are two primary types of float rigsâ€”fixed-float and slipfloat. The fixed float is just that, when the float is fixed to a certain point on the line, and is best fished in situations where the fish are feeding shallow, say four feet or less. The slipfloat rig allows the float to slide up and down the line so you can fish in deeper water. A small bobber stop is fastened on the line somewhere above the bobber to limit how far up the line the bobber can slide, determining how deep the bait is fished. When the rig is reeled in, the stop goes through the rod guides and onto the spool of the reel to allow for casting and retrieving.
While the fixed-float rig is a good way to target shallow fish like crappies, bass, sunfish, catfish, and trout, the slipfloat rigâ€™s ability to go deep broadens the potential species list to include pike, walleye, muskie, striper, and more. A longer light-to-medium action spinning rod, about 7 feet long, with a slow to moderate action, spooled with 4- to 8-pound monofilament, is a good choice for a float rig. Hooks should be matched to the bait, such as a #4 to #8 baitholder hook for angleworms and nightcrawlers, for example, although a jig also can be used.
Fishing a float rig often is a case of not doing anything at all, letting the bait do the fish-attracting work, as the float is slowly moved by wave action on the surface. Both rigs should be cast by gently swinging the rig sideways and behind you, then thrusting the rod toward the target with a slight upward motion as you release the line. You want to lob the rig to a specific spot as gently as possible. If the wind is blowing, or youâ€™re fishing in current, target your cast so that the wind or current moves the rig into your target zone. In other instances, a little bit of action added by quick twitches of the rod tip or even substantial pulls that move the bait up in the water column and then let it settle, induces strikes. The float signals when a fish is on the line, a visual experience that remains exciting to anglers no matter their age or fishing experience.