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Catfish Drift Rigging: Drifting for Catfish

by Doug Stange   |  April 14th, 2014 0

The problem most catfish anglers have with the pronouncement that it’s effective to move along in a boat with baits bouncing below or baits trailing way back yonder is the “moving” part of this plan. Stillfishing is a rock-solid tradition for cats. Gotta fish a stationary rig right there, set just so, and wait for those whiskered devils to come to us. Gotta set up in front of that snag, at the base of that wing dam, in the corner of that pond, and call those cats in with a bait that smells like a hound dog rolled in llama doo.

Yet drifting—or trolling—often is the most effective way to find and catch cats, for the same reason it works for other species. That is, it’s often more efficient to go to the fish instead of waiting for the fish to come to you. Covering mucho more territory ups your odds for finding the whiskered hordes. This approach is an option during any season, even during winter for big blue cats in midsouthern and southern rivers. But, as you might guess, the tactic shines brightest during early summer and into and throughout summer, when catfish are most active.

For channel cats, blue cats, and flatheads? Yes. Particularly on bigger rivers, such as those major shipping thoroughfares like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio. But also on medium rivers—really, any rivers with deeper channels or basin flats. Particularly, too, on sections of flowing reservoirs where modest current sweeps over huge flats and along drop-offs into deeper water. And in shallow reservoirs like famous Santee-Cooper, where catfish drop into basin flats and deep channels during late spring, summer, and fall. In lakes, too, when cats are plentiful enough to run in schools or loose groups, chasing baitfish, just as other predators do.

About the only place drifting doesn’t sometimes make sense is on small waters, where maneuvering in a boat over relatively shallow water spooks fish. Even on small rivers, though, I’ve used drift tactics to present baits through holes in those infrequent river sections that are larger and deeper than the rest of the river. Not only do I catch cats, but I quickly learn the layout of major structural elements in those holes, surmising where big cats might lie and where to set up to do night-long duty when it’s time for a big-cat wrangle.

It’s not like drifting is something new, either. Top cat anglers began using drift techniques on Santee-Cooper, soon after catfish began catching on in the 1960s. Anglers plying the Tennessee, Cumberland, and other mid-southern rivers have also been drifting since the 1960s. Little known is that Mabry Harper was drifting for catfish on Old Hickory reservoir when he caught the world-record walleye, a record that has (until recently) stood for almost 40 years. Yet while drifting and trolling remain effective today, various drift techniques probably aren’t as popular today as they were back then.

Drifting techniques also generally have not become popular in most natural lakes and large reservoirs. To use an example from just one area of the country, it soon became apparent in the mid-1960s, when anglers first began drifting crawlers on spinner rigs, ­hoping to catch walleyes from Missouri river reservoirs in South Dakota, that channel catfish were as likely to bite these baits as were walleyes. That remains so today. I might interject here, although it’s a topic for another day, that channel catfish are particularly attracted to spinner rigging. That is, they are attracted by the flash and thumping of spinners. Adding spinners while catfish drift rigging (or to trolling rigs) almost never repels catfish; it almost always attracts them.

So too is this apparent in dozens of natural lakes where cats swim. My first experience with spinner rigging in lakes was at the hands of that cagey old “fishing professor,” Jim McDonnell, of Royal, Iowa. He and some friends were, in the 1970s, the first to take big strings of walleyes and channel catfish from Storm Lake, Iowa, again using spinners and crawlers. In more recent times, one need look only to results from the In-­Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail tournaments on Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay, where anglers trolling primarily with spinner rigs and crawlers (but also with crankbaits) often catch almost as many cats as walleyes.

Primary Tactics
While many opportunities exist to apply drifting tactics, and while these tactics remain mostly overlooked, in many areas of the country they have caught on. Gary Schrock runs the Mighty Miss Guide Service (309/582-5268) from his home in Aledo, Illinois. Once summer sets in, Schrock drifts the channel edge in the Mississippi River pools running along the Iowa-Illinois border from Muscatine, Iowa, south to Ft. Madison. The pools, though, are incidental to the fact. It’s the technique that’s applicable in cat waters across the country.

On Mississippi river pools, channel edges are marked with buoys to aid barge navigation. An angler can pretty much drift the channel edge by staying just outside the buoys. Schrock, however, uses sonar to stay right on the drop-off edge into the main channel. Channel cats can be found on the shallow part of the edge, up and down the edge, or at the base of the edge. During summer, though, most of the fish are along the deep portion of the edge.

Schrock drifts with his boat perpendicular to the main current, running his lines, set in rod holders, on the upstream side of the boat. He uses a stern-mounted electric trolling motor to keep the boat drifting just so, but two small sea anchors or two five-gallon buckets positioned on opposite ends of the boat accomplish the same purpose. The buckets or sea anchors ride with the current, out of the way on the downstream side of the boat.

To begin each day, Schrock gathers gizzard shad with a cast net, then places them on ice to keep them firm for the day’s fishing. His terminal rigging is the same classic setup most of you use for still fishing: He slides a 1/2- to 1-ounce egg sinker on his main line and then adds a swivel on the end of the main line to hold the sinker in place. He most often spools 17-pound-test line on his reels, then adds 24 to 36 inches of 14-pound-test leader to the end of the swivel. He chooses a 3/0, 4/0, or 5/0 Eagle Claw Kahle hook, or a Mustad or a VMC wide-bend hook, depending on the size of the shad gathered that day.

From left to right, popular bottom ­bouncers include the Northland Rock Runner; Bait Rigs Bottom Bouncer; Quick Change Lite Bite Slip Bouncer; and Lindy-Little Joe ­Bottom Cruiser;. The final option is the Angling Jenny.

Schrock says his method for hooking the shad is important. He slides the wide-bend hook into the mouth of a shad, carefully runs it along but not through the backbone, then finishes by leaving the point of the hook inside the shad near the tail. The shad bent in a semi-circle by the shape of the wide-bend hook tumbles seductively in current, yet remains debris-resistant. A cat grabs hold of the bait bouncing along the bottom, the tip on a limber rod dips down, the angler lifts the rod from a rod holder and sets, bringing the hook point from the shad into the mouth of the catfish.

The potential modifications to this system are many, indeed. We have for years practiced a similar approach, on portions of both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, relying on three-way rigging to present portions of cutbait for channel cats and blues. And we use this same system for drifting wind-blown flats in lakes and reservoirs.

The three-way rigging consists simply of a dropline of some 12 inches anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the chosen bait in the fish zone, usually near bottom. For drifting along with the heavy current of the Missouri river, usually at least three ounces of lead are required. The leader line should be slightly longer—say 30 inches—and we again choose a hook size based on the size of the bait. A 3/0 hook like the Eagle Claw 84 or Mustad 92671 is a good all-round choice for 11⁄2-inch-long portions of cut bait.

We drift along long sections of riprapped bank, around the tips of wing dams, and through the boil water behind wing dams. The best wing dams on both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers aren’t silted in and offer at least 3 and better 4 feet of water running over the top of the dam. The mouth of an incoming feeder river is another top spot to drift for cats. These tactics also work well in tailwater areas. Don’t forget to try 5-inch livebaits (hooked through the lips) once flatheads start working the heavy water in the tailwaters about a month after they spawn. In southern waters, flatheads move into many tailwater areas by early July. Give them a week or two longer in the North.

A 20-pound channel cat is a top-of-the-heap fish anywhere in North America. Better to release the big ones to continue to thrill anglers and sustain good fishing.

Santee-Cooper Style
Several years ago, Dutch Salmon wrote a story for In-Fisherman magazine about how catfishing often proceeds at one of the world’s best catfisheries, ­Santee-Cooper in South Carolina. He astutely observed that fishing for big cats in reservoirs most often involves either (1) bank fishing at night where the deep water of coves and creek arms meets the shallows off a point along the bank; or (2) fishing during the day in deep water where big cats sometimes can be spotted on sonar and then stillfished.

In the first case, active catfish, cruising the shallows at night in a search for food, find baits; in the second, baits are taken to big cats, which can’t resist the temptation. A third option is to drift for cats Santee-Cooper style, which, as you’ll see, really isn’t much different than drifting for cats anywhere else in North America.

Guide Jerry Whitfield (803/351-4226), who Salmon featured, often just makes slow drifts for many miles across the flooded flatlands (20 to 30 feet deep) that make up much of the bottom of lakes Marion and Moultrie, which comprise Santee-Cooper. He uses medium-heavy rods with 25-pound-test line on Abu-Garcia 6500 reels. His terminal rigging is basically the same three-way rigging that we discussed a moment ago—with modification as follows.

The favored sinker is a long thin homemade thing that looks like a green bean filled with lead shot. Salmon suggests that the “Angling Jenny” is a better snagless option. I suggest the cat crowd borrow a bit from the walleye boys and start adapting Missouri-river-style bottom bouncers to their drifting or trolling techniques. Some of the more famous commercial bouncers include the Bottom Cruiser (Lindy-­Little Joe), Lite Bite Slip Bouncer (Quick Change), Pro-Bottom Bouncer (Bait Rigs), and Rock Runner (Northland Tackle).

Whitfield’s leader running from the swivel is 24 to 36 inches long and includes a small float positioned about a foot above a 5/0 hook. As the weight tags along the bottom, the float helps to keep the cut shad (or whole shad) floating above snags. The leader also is five pounds lighter test than the main line, so if it snags, it can be broken without losing the entire rigging.

On Lake Moultrie, which is largely cleared of stumps, Whitfield sets his reels on clicker mode. A fish grabs the bait, the rod is lifted from the holder, the free spool engaged, and the hook set. On Lake Marion, where stump fields are the rule, he locks his reels and sets the drag tight. A fish grabs hold and sets the hook as it pulls against the action of the rod.

The options highlighted here are just the beginning. The point is that with slight modification based on catfish species, catfish size, and where the cats are holding, drifting often is one of the most efficient means for contacting fish. Consider it, whether your quest is for monsters or a mess for the pan.

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