Big cats, especially flatheads, often prefer big meals. Offering big catfish baits may tempt the largest fish around and eliminate bites from smaller cats. Presenting live baitfish weighing a pound or more, though, presents problems. More physical demands are on put on tackle, and saltwater rigging techniques usually are required.
When To Fish Big Baits
When targeting flatheads, I usually fish one magnum bait weighing a pound or more. Realistically, though, a bait this size doesn’t get much action. Anglers are allowed two rods on the St. Croix River between Minnesota and Wisconsin, where I do most of my flathead fishing. I tip my second line with a smaller livebait or a fresh piece of cutbait. Even when fishing with a partner, we generally only deploy one large bait.
The Prespawn Period is the only time I fish as many big baits as the law allows. Flathead metabolism is near peak levels, and the fish often feed around the clock. I’m usually on a sandbar on an inside bend, adjacent to a big snag. I’ll catch a few baitfish in shallow water, then deploy the largest baits and wait for sunset when the biggest fish usually prowl. From midsummer to early fall, I sometimes fish two big baits from first light till the sun hits the horizon.
Rods and Reels
Off-the-shelf rods rarely are capable of casting huge baitfish. Even the heaviest rod in St. Croix’s Classic Cat series feels light under the load of a heavy sinker and two-pound carp. Most heavy-power freshwater rods also have small guides, limiting the use of some saltwater rigs. Once I popped half the inserts from a rod by casting a Bimini twist and Albright special combination through the guides.
Many saltwater rods designed for trolling or bottom fishing have suitable guides, but don’t cast well. Inshore rods are better suited to casting, but often are finished like high-end catfish sticks. Top-of-the-line surf rods like St. Croix’s Ben Doerr series are fine for one-pound baits, but not much larger. Anglers who are serious about using oversized baits should consider a custom rod.
For heavy-duty reels, it’s tough to beat star drag conventional reels like the Penn Senator 113 series. For about $100, this reel is one of the best values available—simple and rugged. Several upgrades also are available. Catfish In-Sider Guide Editor Steve Hoffman recommends the Yellowtail Special from Tiburon Engineering, which features a narrower spool for easier casting and an enhanced reel clamp that eliminates the need for a reel seat on custom rods.
Anglers with fewer budget restraints may want to consider Shimano’s Trinidad TN-30. This rugged reel features an adjustable bait clicker, a capacity of 350 yards of 30-pound line, and a 6.2 to 1 gear ratio. The reel weighs less that 21 ounces, but carries a suggested retail price of $400.
An Ambassador Morrum 7700 or Shimano Calcutta 700 is about as light as I’d recommend for big baitfish. With a level-wind reel, you’re also restricted to a leader that’s roughly the same length as the rod. The level wind can be removed to accommodate wind-on leaders, and might improve casting distance.
Lines and Leaders
For heavy-duty work I prefer a braided main line like 200-pound Berkley Whiplash. Begin by tying a Bimini twist on the end of the main line, then connect a 10-foot length of 125- to 200-pound mono with an Albright special. The heavy mono protects the main line from abrasion and adds a bit of stretch to protect against shock. A longer leader can be used, but makes casting more difficult.
For baits up to 11⁄2 pounds, I use a 50-pound-mono main line ending in a Bimini twist as a leader. Thread a sliding sinker snap or fish-finder on the main line, tie the Bimini twist, and then attach a hook to the end of the double line.
Large, active baitfish require a modified bolt rig. Slip a large bead ahead of the sliding sinker clip on the mono leader and anchor the sinker by tying a float stop from one to three feet above the hook. When a baitfish surges, the weight of the sinker limits how far it’s able to move. Use a short leash near heavy cover, a longer leader in open water.
Sinker snaps allow weight changes without retying the rig. I usually use bank sinkers weighing from 4 to 16 ounces, depending on bait size, depth, and current speed. Multiple sinkers, say three 4-ounce weights instead of one 12-ouncer, create more drag.
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Raise the main line to 12 oʼclock and keep the tag end at a 90-degree angle. Continue to maintain pressure on each part of the line.
My hook box is one of my most treasured possessions. As most trophy hunters know, finding big hooks can be difficult. My favorite model is the Gamakatsu Octopus from 6/0 to 10/0. Gamakatsu Circle Octopus hooks are another good choice. Both models are strong, but have thin enough wire to minimize bait damage. For nostril rigging, a 10/0 hook is large enough for any baitfish. For tail hooking a three-pound carp, though, it’s too small.
For the biggest baits, I use 14/0 to 16/0 hooks designed for marlin and tuna. With a 11⁄2-inch gap and welded eyes, they’re easily strong enough for the largest cats you’ll likely encounter—in North America or beyond. These hooks feature huge barbs, though, which should be almost filed off to make baiting easier and hook sets more effective.
Saltwater-style circle hooks from 14/0 to 20/0 are excellent for bridle rigging big carp. This requires the use of a bait-rigging needle. On big circle hooks, I usually file off the entire barb. As a rule, I usually use a hook with a gap as large as the widest part of the baitfish.
Delivering and keeping giant baits where cats can find them is tricky. I fish two distinctly different sections of the same river with big baits at different times. One section is a classic riffle-hole-run stretch, while the other is a big open area with several neck-downs and huge holes as deep as 100 feet.
In the upper section I usually fish snag-strewn bend holes adjacent to sandbars. During the high-water period of late spring and early summer, I often park the bow of the boat on the bank on the outside of the bend, or tie the bow to a tree if the bank’s too steep. I especially like clean-bottom areas between snags at the head of the hole. This allows baits to be placed near the core of the hole and avoids most snags. Using only one large bait minimizes tangles.
During normal to low-water periods, I usually set up on the sandbar on the inside bend, and fish from shore. Sometimes I’ll wade out on the bar and lob the baits into place. Don’t neglect shallow sand flats near major holes, though, as these are prime feeding areas for big flatheads after dark. This is a good opportunity to use the largest baitfish you have on hand with the modified bolt rig setup.
During stable water conditions, I sometimes present a big bait near the surface over the core of the hole. I drop an anchor several yards upstream, attached to 50 feet of rope and a boat bumper. Next I attach one end of a 100-foot neoprene rope (it floats) to the bumper, and I add a smaller bumper and a release clip to the other. To deploy the rig from shore, I cast a small weight over the neoprene rope and reel it in. I attach the release clip several feet above my baited hook and let the current take it to the middle of the river.
I fish the lower river section most often during peak migration periods—early spring and late fall. Necked-down areas are a prime target and are best approached from a boat that’s anchored or tied to a bridge piling. When I’m fishing vertically, I usually use two magnum livebaits—one on each side of the boat.
Tail-hooking is the most common method of rigging live baitfish for cats. It works, but other methods work as well or better for oversize baits. Hooking between the anus and tail fin on the bottom side of the tail keeps a bait alive longer than when hooked on the topside of the tail. And with some baits, like freshwater drum, it may be the only way to keep them alive other than nostril hooking.
Nostril hooking is an underused method of hooking large livebaits in freshwater. Soft-fleshed baits like gizzard shad tear easily and die quickly when hooked through the tail, but they live all night when a thin-wire hook is inserted through the nostrils. There’s also little chance of the hook point turning back into the bait when hooked through the nostrils, as sometimes happens when the baitfish is hooked through the tail.
If you want to use big carp or redhorse suckers, try a bridle rig. This technique is commonly used for marlin and other saltwater gamefish, but rarely if ever used in freshwater. Run a two-foot length of Dacron through the eye of a bait needle, and then run the needle twice through the fish’s nostrils. This forms a loop over the fish’s nose, with a Dacron tag coming from each nostril. Place the bend of a large circle hook through the loop and tie a tight overhand knot with the tag ends. Put your finger on the knot and tie a couple more overhand knots. Finish with a drop of superglue on the knot, and carefully place the bait into position.
When a bait is too powerful and continues to pull line against the freespool clicker, try using a release clip. Secure the clip to the rod or reel with a short length of Dacron, then attach the clip to the main line between the reel and the first rod guide. Adjust the tension so the clip releases when a fish grabs the bait, but the bait is unable to take line on its own.
If you’re more interested in sleep than in catching small cats, try fishing only one large bait. After placing the bait in position, place the rod in a secure holder and secure the line with a release clip as previously described. Only a big fish usually will engulf a huge bait. Provided you don’t sleep too deeply, the clicker should awaken you from your nap when the action happens. And provided you’re in a spot that holds a big fish, the action will happen.
The Bimini twist creates a double line that maintains 100 percent line strength. The resulting loop can be tied to a hook or swivel, or to a leader with a line-to-line connection such as the Albright special. If youʼre serious about catching big cats, especially on big baits, the Bimini Twist should be a part of your arsenal.
This is a difficult knot to learn, but once learned can be tied quickly. Donʼt try to learn this knot while fishing, though. Practice with a length of 20- to 30-pound mono during the off-season.
*Brook Martin is a freelance photographer and avid catfish angler from Lakeland, Minnesota.