As selective as catfish might be about where they live and what they eat, theyʼre seldom choosy about catfish rigs. So most catmen favor simple rigs, which are easy and inexpensive to construct and have fewer components to interfere with a natural presentation.
Indeed, some catfishing situations require nothing more than a baited hook. Cast this rig onto a shallow flat in a lake or reservoir or into a quiet eddy in a river, and allow the bait to slowly drop to the bottom. Unweighted baits also can be drifted in moderate current, tumbling slowly across the bottom until catfish find them.
Most conditions, though, call for a bit of weight to aid casting distance or to anchor baits in current. A lead shot or two pinched on the line six to 12 inches above the hook might suffice for cats in shallow, still water, but a bank sinker weighing six ounces or more is needed for some big-river tailraces.
Point is that no single rig is suitable for every application. The best catmen—those who consistently catch fish when others complain about poor fishing—adapt their rigging to conditions. Learning to do the same will help you catch more and bigger cats.
Many catfishing situations call for a livebait or piece of cutbait to be stillfished on the bottom. The most popular bottom rig for all catfish species is the simple sliprig. This rig consists of an egg sinker sliding on the main line, held in place above the hook by a lead shot. The objective is to anchor the bait near the bottom, and then allow a catfish to swim off with the bait without feeling too much tension. The idea is sound, but this rig doesn’t accomplish either objective well.
The success of trotlines and limblines illustrates that catfish—particularly big cats—aren’t timid feeders. Let a trout or walleye run with the bait before you set the hook, but don’t wait for cats. When a decent-size cat picks up the bait, he has it. Most of the time, you could set immediately without giving any line. But your chances of a solid hookset increase if you let the fish turn first. When you feel the thump of a fish grabbing the bait, follow him with your rod tip for a foot or two, then set.
Another problem with the egg-sinker rig is the egg sinker. These sinkers work well when pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current. When cast across current, though, they tend to roll along the bottom and snag more often than other sinker designs like bell or bank sinkers. Slip your main line through the top of a bell sinker and replace the split shot with a swivel to improve the effectiveness of this popular rig.
Leader length is another concern, especially for novice anglers. Don’t use a longer leader just to separate the bait from the sinker. To catfish, a sinker is just another rock. Adjust the length of the leader to vary the amount of action and movement imparted to the bait. A piece of cutbait tethered on a 12-inch leader may lie motionless on the bottom of a lake or pond, but would flail about wildly in heavy current.
Use just enough leader for your bait to attract fish without hanging up. That might mean a 3- or 4-foot leader for drifting cutbait across the clean bottom of a reservoir for blue cats; a 6-inch leader for holding big livebaits in front of a snag for flatheads; or no leader at all for probing the broken bottom of a tailrace for channel cats.
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The three-way rig is another option so versatile that it should at least be considered in most catfishing situations. It’s an effective rig for presenting static baits in the heavy current of a tailrace or the still waters of a lake or pond. But it’s unparalleled for slipdrifting on big rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, and for drifting wind-blown flats in big reservoirs like Santee-Cooper.
The three-way rig consists of a dropper line some six to 24 inches long, anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the bait near bottom. A half-ounce sinker might be sufficient in still water, but three to eight ounces are needed to drift around the tips of wing dams for blue and channel cats. The leader should be slightly longer than the dropper line—usually two to three feet, depending on current velocity.
Three-way rigs also excel at extracting fish from areas where other rigs can’t hold or return from. Let’s say you’re fishing for channel cats over a broken-rock bottom below a lowhead dam. Use a three-way rig with a 20-pound main line and a 17-pound leader. Secure a 2- to 4-ounce bell sinker to the remaining rung of a three-way swivel with 6-pound line. When cast into place, the sinker will hang, anchoring the rig until a fish strikes. Big cats sometimes grab a bait hard enough to hook themselves and break the light dropper line. When a smaller fish strikes, a sharp snap of the rod tip will break off the sinker and set the hook.
The ultimate in versatility begins with a rig we’ve been playing with for several years. It’s an adjustable three-way that doesn’t require a three-way swivel. Instead, tie on a standard barrel swivel between your main line and leader. Next, thread a long dropper line through one of the swivel rungs and clamp a lead shot somewhere on the dropper opposite the sinker and swivel.
The lead shot functions like a bobber stop. Where you set it determines the distance the swivel rides above bottom, and thus the depth the bait runs. To adjust the distance from bottom, simply slide the shot up or down the dropper. Should you snag, a firm pull slides the shot off your dropper line, once again losing only the sinker and saving the rest of the rigging.
Double Barreled Sliprigs
Sort of a combination sliprig and three-way rig that’s well worth the extra time it takes to construct—particularly for presenting livebaits to flatheads. The low-frequency vibrations emitted by a struggling baitfish attract catfish by stimulating their sensitive lateral lines. Baitfish of all sizes must first be wild and super lively, and second be presented in a way that allows them to advertise these seductive qualities. Keep a wild bait suspended over cover and it feels exposed, vulnerable, and panicked.
Begin with a terminal leader as you would for a sliprig: a 12-inch section of monofilament or braided line with a hook on one end and a barrel swivel on the other. Before tying the swivel to your main line, though, add a sinker dropper consisting of a lighter piece of monofilament with a bell sinker on one end and a swivel on the other. Thread the dropper swivel on the main line so it slides above the leader swivel. The length of the bottom dropper determines how high the bait is held above the bottom.
This rigging is most effective when you can maintain a 30- to 90-degree angle on your line, from rod tip to sinker. Fishing the head of a hole from a boat anchored slightly upstream; or fishing the edge of a flat from the sandbar on an inside river bend; or fishing the scour hole behind a bridge abutment from the top of the bridge are top situations for double-barreled sliprigs.
Adding a slipfloat is a good option for fishing big livebaits close to cover. To construct this variation, begin as you would a standard slipfloat rig—stop knot, bead, and then slipfloat. Unlike a standard float rig, though, the sinker rests on the bottom, and the float need only suspend the weight of the bait and keep it swimming. This allows for the use of a smaller, more sensitive float. Next, add the sinker dropper, bead, and leader. Adjust the float stop for a little play in the leader, allowing the bait to swim in a big circle. Tightly tethered baits don’t swim as vigorously as one that believes it’s going somewhere.
Potential refinements to these and other rigs are endless. A minor modification made at the right time in the right place might mean the difference between not catching fish and catching lots of them. Begin with the basics, but don’t hesitate to make a change when it improves your presentation. We’d like to hear about your modifications, so we can share them in future Catfish In-Sider Guide issues.
Fixed sinker rigs usually are favored for steady drift speeds or heavy current, since active cats tend to hit moving baits fast and hard. Fish often are hooked on the strike, but always set anyway to ensure a good hookup—unless you’re using a circle hook. Another advantage of fixed-sinker rigs is that the leader slackens and tightens as the weight pivots along the bottom. When pulled behind a boat moving at a steady speed, the bait slows then darts forward, often triggering a neutral fish into striking.
Slipsinker rigs usually are a better choice for slower drift speeds and lighter current. Standard slipsinkers like the walking sinker are fine over a relatively clean bottom, but more snag-resistant designs like the Lindy No-Snagg or Slinky sinkers are better in heavy cover. No sinker design is completely snag free, but these designs glide through tangles that would devour egg and bell sinkers. Adding a panfish-size float to the leader and using weedless hooks make the rest of the rig more snag resistant, too.