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Catfish Gear & Accessories Line

Classic Catfish Rigs

by Doug Stange   |  April 10th, 2014 0

This is the most printed and reprinted article in catfishing, a classic that will never go out of style, for it ­captures the essence of building rigs to catch those old cats.

The simplicity associated with catfishing may be the most compelling reason for its popularity. Doesn’t take much of anything tacklewise to be an adequate cat angler. Certainly doesn’t take a loan from your friendly local banker to finance it all. Doesn’t take a bass boat the size of the Queen Mary to carry it all, either.

Indeed, most of my cat tackle has for more than 20 years been stored in a big-old discarded ladies shoulder bag, tattered and torn and smelling just as gruesome as expected. It’s all in there, from rigs to floats and sinkers, hooks, flashlight, knife, bug stuff, and more. I can sling the bag over my shoulder, grab a rod or two, and be gone, worry free, in minutes.

Catfish rigs don’t take much room because most of them are made on the spot from stuff we have on hand—hooks, line, sinkers and lead shot, perhaps swivels, and perhaps floats and float stops. The simplest cat rig of all was favored by my friend Oddie-Van-Toadie (alias Otis-The-Toadis, alias Otis “Toad” Smith, alias The Toadmonster) when we down-anchored his wee-river boat above a snag in a river that could have been winding anywhere in Catsville, North ­America. He’d usually run a 1/0 hook and a piece of cutbait at the business end of 17-pound-test line, then pinch on a lead shot or two, 6 to 12 inches above the hook.

The weight of the cutbait coupled with the shot allowed adequate distance on a cast into position just above or somewhere alongside the snag. Light to modest current let the bait sink and settle gently on the bottom, natural juices from the cutbait drifting downcurrent, calling all cats. Back boatside, the mighty Toad, ever anticipating a run—wishing it, willing it, and pouting when it didn’t happen—would sit with his rod at about a right angle to his bait. Eventually, a cat would grab the bait and do as all mighty catfish do, slide to the side and downcurrent.

Zero great catmen that I know let a cat run far with most baits, so the mighty Toad would simply ease his rod tip back maybe two feet toward the cat as it slipped downcurrent, then lift firmly to set the hook. Now if Toadie was a might busy, having an intimate relationship with a bag of Oreos and a cup of coffee, given his being a two-fisted Oreo eater, he’d hit his freespool and slip on the clicker button alongside his reel, then brace the rod on the gunnel with the rod tipped up at a 45-degree angle back toward the bait. He’d allow for a little slack in his line so he could monitor his bait.

Break off this rig and you aren’t even out a nickel if you buy hooks by the hundred and shot by the bulk. Better to save your money for Oreos and a thermos of good Colombian brew.

This simple rig also is the original “drift rig” favored by most beginning cat anglers. In other words, the angler casts this rig slightly upstream, then allows current to drift the rig downstream, bumping bottom as it goes, hopefully through the lair of Wiley E. Catfish. The seasoned catman, however, knows this rig tends to snag more often than several other options.

One way to modify this rig so it drifts well is simply to add a float. Before adding a hook and shot to your line, tie a five-turn Uni-knot around your main line, using the same or slightly heavier line. This serves as a sliding—that is adjustable—float stop. Many anglers prefer the ease of slipping on a nylon float stop or using a pretied bobber-stop knot instead of tying a stop knot. Up to you there, Sweet Pea.

After tying on the stop knot, slip on a small bead and then the slip float of your choice, usually a cigar-style float. Now slide the stop knot and slip float up your line so the float suspends the bait near bottom. Of course, rivers rarely run the same depth for more than 16 inches, so the bait will also tumble along the bottom. Although this rig occasionally hangs up, the float positioned perpendicular to the moving bait minimizes problems.

Float rigs are particularly deadly in several situations. In rivers, they work well drifted (1) through the tail end of a riffle and into the beginning of a hole, (2) along and around cover such as a snag, and (3) over flats such as the run at the tailout of holes. In all of these situations, livebait works well during early and late season, cutbait all season, and stinkbaits during summer. In deep slack areas in rivers and in reservoirs, ponds, and lakes, use floats to suspend cutbait for channel cats and blue cats running shad, or to suspend big livebaits for flathead cats.

To anchor a big livebait properly for flatheads, tie in a swivel about 20 inches above your hook, which might range from a 3/0 to 7/0 or larger. The Eagle Claw 84, Mustad 92671, or similar hook design is functional and inexpensive. Add a 1- to 4-ounce egg sinker, depending on the size of the livebait, above the swivel. You need a big float to hold up this rig.

Toadie was the one who taught me how deadly drifting cutbait below a float in a small river was for channel cats. So it struck me as odd that he had a hard time believing me when I first told him how deadly a big livebait suspended below a float was for flatheads in rivers and reservoirs. No need to get the bait extra deep. Indeed, just about 5 feet down often does it, even when the water’s over 10 feet deep. Flatheads spend a lot of time attacking fish riding right near the surface. They can feel the vibrations from the struggling bait.

Although just a hook and shot is the simplest of all cat rigs, surely the all-time classic bottom rig is the egg-sinker slip rig, consisting of an egg sinker (with a hole in it) sliding on the main line, which is tied to a leader consisting of hook, line, and swivel. The object is to keep the bait on the bottom (vary the size of the egg sinker) and (supposably) be able to give line so the fish doesn’t feel tension once it picks up the bait.

This is the most widely used and misunderstood rig in catfishing. The basic idea behind the rig is right, while the application of the basic idea usually is wrong. Catfish just aren’t namby-pamby little timid troutlike fellers that need to run on a free line most of the time. Indeed, they actually usually prefer limited and controlled tension. Rarely, too, as mentioned before, do they need to run far before you set. When a decent cat picks up a bait, he usually has it right now. Most of the time you could set right now—right after the first solid “thump,” without giving any line.

You up your odds for a hookset in the corner of the cat’s mouth, however, when you give a little and allow the fish to turn to the side before setting. The “give” to the fish, though, should be gradual and include controlled tension against the moving fish. So the fish goes “thump,” he has the bait, and you can feel him with your rod tip. Helps to have a little play in the rod tip—not a super-stiff rod. As he begins to move away, follow him with your rod tip. Just ease it back, gradually dropping your rod tip toward the fish. When your rod tip has dropped about two feet, set the hook.

Egg sinkers work best when they’re pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current. Otherwise, egg sinkers tend to roll easily along the bottom and snag. To minimize snagging, replace the egg sinker with a standard bell sinker, often called a “bass casting” sinker. Slip your main line through the swivel on top of the sinker. Then add a bead to your main line to protect your knot connection from the sliding sinker.

I want to tell you that by using the right weight, you can pitch this rig into some pretty heavy current and walk it through prime cat-holding areas. But before doing so, it’s necessary to grasp one other concept that’s important to using this rig.

Too many novice cat anglers worry about snell length, that is the length of line separating the hook from the weight. Look, cats don’t care about sinkers. They don’t poke along the bottom searching for something to eat, saying to themselves, “Ah, that’s a rock, another rock, oh there’s a sinker.” In current, the longer the snell, the more likely it is to get snagged. Use the shortest snell you can get away with. In heavy current, I usually slide my bell sinker right smack against my bait, almost like fishing a big leadhead jig. Still, cats always grab the bait without taking the sinker.

This “snug style” of rigging has proven deadly for me for going on 20 years. Yet I hardly ever see anyone using it. I’m not saying, of course, that there’s never a time to use a little bit longer leader. Many times, once your slip rig has been pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current, you want the bait to move a little in the current, so long as your sinker is anchored in a good spot.

Never, though, let your bait just sit for more than five minutes. You never know where your bait settles on bottom. Maybe it settles in a crevice or below a log where a cat will have a difficult time finding it. Move your rigging every so often.

Three-way rigging is preferred by small groups of old river boys who fish the mightiest rivers, the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, plus major tributaries like the Wisconsin and Illinois rivers, and the White in Arkansas, to mention just a few. This style of cat rigging is suggested in writings from Mark Twain’s time, so I always smile when some walleye writer reports that the rig was first used on the Wolf River in Wisconsin in the 1950s, and should therefore righteously be called the Wolf River Rig, all in capital letters, of course. Before walleyes was, cats were, and therefore so was cat rigging.

In recent times, three-way rigging often is assumed to require a three-way swivel. With a three-way swivel as the heart of the rig, the leader is tied to one loop in the three-way swivel, a dropline with a sinker to another loop, with the main line connected to the remaining loop. Originally, however, this rigging was almost certainly tied with a standard two-loop swivel. The dropline was tied to one of the two rungs in the swivel.

This is a fulcrum rig. Picture the rig in current, with the dropline perfectly perpendicular to the rest of the rig. Drop your rod tip with the current and the leader drifts (pivots back with the current). Ease your rod tip forward and the leader and bait move forward, all without the sinker moving. The longer the dropline, the more the pivot.

Given no need to let a cat run far on a free line or slip line, this rig is easily as versatile as the classic slip rig. Indeed, often it is far easier to fish in heavy current, because a heavy bell sinker tends to stick well to a sand or gravel bottom. It also shines in static water, however, and is perhaps the finest rig for trolling a crawler harness for cats in reservoirs, or drifting along while bottom bouncing a piece of cutbait in big rivers.

Say we’re after channel cats from shore and are set up at the mouth of a creek arm where it enters the main reservoir. Say the water depth on the flat runs 8 to 12 feet deep. One option would be a piece of cut bait on a #1/0 hook, connected to a leader 12 inches long. An adequate dropline would be 12 inches. Just cast the rig out, then tighten and set the rod in a bank stick or rod rest with the rod tip at an angle away from the rig. This allows you to “give” rod tip to the cat once it takes and begins to move off.

In this situation, you might also use a large floating jighead to hold the cutbait just above bottom. Crawlers work well, too. And leeches often are the most overlooked option of all. Leeches, by the way, also produce well near wing dams in big rivers, or along rip-rapped banks in side channel areas off big rivers.

One nifty adaptation of this rig is to add a big float and use the rig to present livebait, say a bluegill, for flatheads. But then the modifications of this and other classic cat riggings are legion, limited only by the imagination of the cat angler in question. Look for articles in In-Fisherman magazine and in future Catfish Guides for the best modifications of these standard riggings for situations covered in each article.

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