Historians of freshwater angling trace the origins of bait-walking back to England at the time of Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton in the 17th century, when trout fishermen walked nymphs through riffles and holes. Since then, versions of bait-walking have evolved, including those of legendary angler Harry Van Dorn of the Nisswa (Minnesota) Guides’ League. He pioneered backtrolling for walleyes in the 1960s—first with a split-shot rig and then with the Lindy Rig developed by Ron and Al Lindner, which incorporated a boot-shaped sinker designed for walking baits along bottom.
In 1975, Dan Gapen of Becker, Minnesota, created his Bait-Walker sinker, a shoe-shaped design for walking baits over rocky bottoms. Besides employing the Bait-Walker for walleye, he used it to catch a variety of species, including channel catfish on the Mississippi and Red rivers in Minnesota.
After the creation of the Lindy Rig and Gapen’s Bait-Walker, many other bottom-walking creations emerged, such as Lindy’s Walking Sinker Jig, Bottom Cruiser Kit, and No-Snagg Sinker, plus Lazy Ike’s Floating Walking Stick and the Apex Jig-A-Cat Dipping Jig.
Anglers have developed a number of ways to walk baits—some troll, others drift with the wind, controlling speed and direction with a windsock and trolling motor. Some make use of current in rivers or manipulate baits solely with their rod and reel. Whatever the method, catfish bait walking today plays a central role in the tactics of a growing number of catfish anglers.
Maneuvers for Flatheads
Denny Halgren, a multispecies guide from Dixon, Illinois, fine-tuned his method of walking a green sunfish into and through flathead catfish lairs. He describes it as drifting and jigging a bait using current and rod manipulations to guide baits to desired spots, along with upstream jigging.
He mostly fishes during the daytime, which goes against the grain of conventional thinking about flathead fishing; yet he catches and releases an impressive number of flatheads using his bait-walking methods. He and his clients caught and released 37 flatheads—the biggest weighed 38 pounds—on the Rock River in Illinois during a four-day span in mid-June of 2006. Four fish were caught with baits suspended in the limbs of a submerged tree, 4 others while jigging upstream, and the rest of the bites occurred after baits were walked and paused along or under a submerged tree.
For catfish bait walking, he uses a 71⁄2-foot heavy-power Team All-Star rod (a bass flipping stick) and a Pflueger PFL Trion 66 reel spooled with 20-pound-test Cajun Red Lightnin’ monofilament. His slipsinker rig consists of a 5/0 or 6/0 Tru-Turn Catfish Hook, a #5 split-shot, and either an egg sinker or a Do-It No Roll flat model weighing 2 to 4 ounces depending on current speed, so that the sinker falls straight to bottom on the cast.
He uses the split shot as a stop for the slipsinker, in snaggy areas setting the sinker about 6 inches above the hook (14 inches, otherwise). Halgren also uses the longer-leader setup in slower current, and says he hasn’t seen any good reason for using a barrel swivel because the soft lead shot doesn’t damage his line.
Halgren’s flat sinkers are poured around large chunks of colored glass, which he suspects attract flatheads, provoking them to strike the green sunfish that trails the glittering sinker as he jigs upstream. Also, a flat sinker gives the bait more movement than does an egg sinker when jigging upstream—good bait movement being critical. Flat sinkers also are easier to extract from a snag than egg sinkers. Despite the advantages of flat designs, he still works with egg sinkers fairly often, he says.
Halgren opts for Tru-Turn’s PermaSteel #723 hook but also has found success with the 733 blood-red Tru-Turn, noting that the red hook is similar to the flash of the colored glass in his flat sinker, periodically eliciting strikes when the Perma-Steel hook isn’t producing. He suspects that the color factor works on the Rock River because its waters are relatively clear, normally with 11⁄2 feet of visibility. He thinks that in clearer waters color may be even more important.
A feisty 5-inch green sunfish is integral to his presentation. He hooks it near the end of the dorsal fin, making sure that the hook doesn’t interfere with the tail so it can actively swim about. To present a green sunfish, Halgren anchors his boat 2 to 20 feet upstream from a flathead lair (often a submerged tree). He doesn’t cast directly at the tree, but at a 45-degree angle. If the lair is 15 feet downstream from the boat in 10 feet of water, for example, a 25-foot cast compensates for water depth and distance to the tree.
Once the sinker hits bottom, he raises his rod, lifting sinker and bait off bottom, allowing the current to carry the rig downstream and across towards the lair. The lift-drop routine is repeated until the bait and sinker are properly situated.
Halgren finds that current speed dictates where flatheads hold. If the current’s slow, they can be within a 20-foot radius from the center of a submerged tree. When the current’s brisk they’re usually at the heart of a tree, near the biggest part of the trunk. He rarely catches a big flathead near a tree’s rootwad in fast current, because the rootwad normally faces upstream and takes the brunt of the current. The biggest fish are found behind the rootwad and near the trunk.
Single trees shelter the river’s biggest flatheads, he notes, while bigger logjams usually hold smaller fish. He describes a tree that lies in 8 to 20 feet of water and has been submerged for many years as a “treasure trove.”
First fishing the perimeter of a tree, he focuses on the front of the rootwad. If his bait sits for a while without a strike, he starts his upstream jigging routine by lifting the rod from 3 o’clock to 12 o’clock, dropping back to 3 o’clock. Once the sinker hits the bottom, Halgren quickly reels up the slack, repeating the lift-drop until the bait reaches the boat.
Flatheads rarely strike when he’s walking baits downstream, he says. It’s essential to give the bait and sinker substantial action while jigging, rather than dragging them along bottom. After checking the perimeter areas, he walks his bait to find the “sweet spot” located behind the rootwad around the trunk.
In area without cover, strikes occur when he’s jigging rather than when the bait is stationary. At a flathead hole, Halgren uses current to walk the bait down a ledge into the hole. If a bait sits without a strike, he retrieves it with his jigging routine. Strikes occur when the bait is jigged upstream, approaching a flathead from behind, and tend to happen when the sinker hits bottom.
John Thompson of Ottawa, Kansas, began walking baits down the riffles of the Marais des Cygne and Neosho rivers about the same time Harry Van Dorn and his cohorts began bait-walking for walleyes in Minnesota. As Thompson perfected his methods, he revealed them to Royce Stiffler of Eudora, Kansas, and several other eastern Kansas catmen. In the late 1970s, Thompson showed John Jamison of Spring Hill, Kansas, how to entice channel catfish by walking bloodbait on the Neosho. Stiffler taught him how to catch flatheads by walking redhorse minnows through riffles and holes on the Marais des Cygne.
Thompson, Stiffler, and Jamison call bait-walking “fluffing.” Jamison finds that it works not only on the Neosho and Marais des Cygne, which are relatively small streams, but also on the Missouri, Kansas, Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi rivers. The only difference is that heavier tackle is needed on bigger rivers.
The key to Thompson’s method is knowing when a bait has settled or found a dead spot in the current. This might be a rock, log, or even a slightly deeper area into which baitfish naturally settle, and where catfish seek shelter from the current.
When Thompson, Stiffler, and Jamison fish smaller rivers like the Neosho, they like 8-foot light-power fiberglass rods and spincast reels spooled with 8-pound-test monofilament. They prefer not to use sinkers, but if necessary, they use a small split shot. When they work with bloodbait, they wrap a thin strip in layers around a #2 Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp wide-bend hook—wrapped tightly, it’s durable. With other bait, they opt for #2 Eagle Claw 84 hooks.
For the Kansas River, they choose 8-foot medium-power fiberglass rods and spincast reels spooled with 17-pound-test mono. They choose the same hooks as on smaller rivers, but a larger split-shot is needed in the stronger current of the Kansas River.
Traditionally, Thompson, Stiffer, and Jamison have fished the Kansas River between Lawrence and Eudora, which has many logjams. For decades this segment of the river contained an abundant population of channel catfish. Years ago on this stretch, Jamison caught 70 channel cats weighing from 7 to 12 pounds during a 21⁄2-day siege. Recently, however, the channel catfish population has declined, but anglers who walk bloodbaits still catch good numbers of fish.
Jamison explains that the best way for anglers to fluff bloodbait on the Kansas River is to anchor about 15 feet upstream from a logjam. Make a gentle cast, he says, aiming it directly downstream from the boat, allowing the bait to settle to bottom at the front edge of the logs. Raise the rod to about 12 o’clock to lift the bait and split shot off bottom. The current propels the bait downstream. Slowly drop the rod so bait and split shot drop to the bottom; strip a foot of line off the reel and lift the rod to noon, repeating the process.
Ultimately, the current walks the bait under the logs. Some of the most skilled bait-walkers, he says, can maneuver their bait completely under a logjam and past the downstream side.
When fishing on the Missouri River, he uses two casting outfits: a 71⁄2 foot extra-heavy Fenwick CT76XH-T graphite rod and Abu Garcia 7000 reel spooled with 80-pound-test McCoy braided line; and an 8-foot John Jamison Signature Series Blue Cat Number 4 rod made from E-glass, paired with an Abu Garcia 7000 reel spooled with 40-pound McCoy co-polymer line.
He walks baits on a slipsinker rig consisting of an 8- to 12-ounce flat sinker, a #1 barrel swivel, and an 8/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook on a 12- to 18-inch leader of 60-pound Berkley Big Game mono. He baits with a piece of gizzard shad.
When fluffing on the Missouri with his graphite rod and braided line, he can quickly detect when the bait settles into a dead spot, but prefers his stouter E-glass combo to manhandle the Missouri’s big blue catfish. Jamison’s been bait-walking for 30 years, so he no longer relies on the sensitivity of the graphite-braid setup, but says novice bait-walkers might want to use graphite and braid for its sensitivity.
Thompson, Stiffler, and Jamison admit that fluffing isn’t an easy technique to learn. The mistake that most beginners make, Jamison says, is using a sinker that’s too heavy, which doesn’t let the current carry the bait downstream. Instead, the sinker and bait stay on bottom, just the line flowing downstream—misread by the angler as the bait properly fluffing.
Bait-walking is an effective method for delivering baits to catfish holding in specific spots, whether it’s the tight quarters of a logjam or a snag-free hole. It’s also a good way to cover more ground to seek out catfish over larger areas.
(Note: This fish was delivered dead and on ice to Doug Stange. Dead fish can’t be bled, thus the quantity of blood in the flesh as this fish is cleaned.)