My experience with North American catfish species is limited to the Kansas River where I managed to land a few blue and channel cats, and handle several flatheads. But I have plenty of experience with their European cousin, the wels. Rigs are similar for both species, but few anglers in the United States employ catfish rigs designed for wels cats. Flatheads appear closest in behavior and feeding habits to wels cats, but the predatory nature of large blues and channels can be exploited with European rigs, too. The European catfish rigs described below have worked for me in many situations and could prove effective alternatives to the standard sliprig, especially for presenting livebaits.
Fishing From a Boat
Float Fishing—Float fishing is one of my favorite presentations. Apart from the versatility and effectiveness of floats, I enjoy watching them dancing in the current and the anticipation of a run when a livebait gets frantic. When float fishing, I look for good current coupled with decent depth—I always try to find deep water, regardless of the rig I’m using. I locate holes, depressions, and drop-offs with a sonar unit, and then position my boat immediately upstream.
Don’t worry if the hole is close to the bank. If it’s deep and has adequate cover, it usually holds fish. Unlike many rigs, it isn’t necessary to quietly slip into your chosen spot. Catfish often respond to the sound of an outboard engine, and although I try not to make a lot of banging noises in the boat, I’m perfectly happy to fish water I’ve just been over. I’m certain that it does little harm and, in many cases, may actually encourage catfish to investigate.
To set up a float rig, I attach a small swivel to the bottom of the float, which I then slide onto the main line. Floating braided line is a good choice, since it allows more control when drifting the bait away from the boat. Next I thread an egg sinker onto the line, followed by a a rubber shock bead. Then I tie on a strong swivel to the end of the main line using a palomar or uni-knot. I attach a short leader of about 18 inches to the bottom of the swivel, usually 20- to 40-pound mono or heavy Kevlar. I don’t use a standard braid with a large bait, since it’s prone to tangling as the bait swims. A strong hook of a size that matches the bait—usually 2/0 to 8/0—completes the setup. I set depth by tying a sliding stop knot with a short length of braid above the float.
Floats can be dropped over the side of an anchored boat and allowed to drift with the current into likely looking areas. If I’m fishing alone, I generally use three rods. If I’m sharing the boat with a partner, two rods each usually is enough. I set my baits at different depths, including at least one extremely shallow. Wels catfish are quite happy to rise to the surface to snatch a bait—especially if it’s a big, active livebait—North American cats might behave likewise.
Drifting baits away from the boat at various depths also covers more water. After an hour or two of fishing, I usually lift the anchor and allow the boat to drift downstream 20 to 30 yards before starting again and covering fresh water. The only time I stay put is if I’m confident that a fish is present where I’m fishing, but not feeding. If I’m spending the night afloat, I sometimes stay put and try to grab some sleep, relying on the bait clicker to signal a take.
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Rods designed for float fishing from a boat always are a compromise. A long rod, perhaps nine or ten feet, is needed to mend the line and to spread the baits around the boat. The extra rod length also helps cover more water without tangling other lines—something that can easily happen in fast current. On the other hand, long rods are more difficult to handle and rig in confined spaces. The main problem,though, occurs when you actually hook a catfish. The ideal boat rod probably is between six and eight feet long and built to fight fish rather than cast. They generally feature a short butt and plenty of power. Playing a big cat on a long rod in heavy current isn’t fun. You may eventually land the fish, but the effort required is far greater than with a short rod.
Perhaps the biggest mistake anglers make when float fishing with livebaits, is trying to use floats that are too small. I often use livebaits up to two or three pounds, which require a substantial float. A standard pike cigar-style float isn’t adequate. Consider, too, that in heavy current the bait may rise up in the water unless plenty of lead is used to hold it at the appropriate depth. I often use floats that suspend 70 to 150 grams (approximately 21⁄2 to 5 ounces). It’s amazing how buoyant a two-pound livebait is in water. For night fishing, floats should be fitted with a Starlight or other chemical light stick. Attach the stick to the float with a length of silicon tubing held in place with electrical tape.
Static Legering—Legering from an anchored boat can be an effective way to present baits in areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. Like flatheads, wels cats often are found close to snags, and a bait placed close to cover usually will produce a few extra fish. Watching rod tips for long periods of time usually sends me to sleep, so it’s not a method I often employ, but it can be highly productive in many situations.
Rigs for boat legering are variations of the standard sliprig. Use cutbait, worms, or dipbaits, and by matching the size of lead to the current, it’s possible to slowly bump the bottom in search of active fish or to nail a bait firmly in place when sit-and-wait tactics are called for. When I’m using livebait, I prefer to anchor the bait, but I encourage it to keep moving as much as possible. Little point in fishing a livebait that sits lifeless on the bottom.
In England and many other parts of Europe, the most common legered rig is the poly-ball rig, which incorporates a dense polystyrene or cork ball (varnished to stop water logging) about 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter, which I slide on the leader, then hold in place a couple inches above the hook with two sliding stop knots. When large baits are used, two smaller poly balls may be better than one large one, which may hinder a cat from taking the bait. Wels cats sometimes attack a large poly ball, and flatheads may exhibit a similar tendency.
Some American catfish anglers have taken the poly-ball rig one step farther by using balsa floats that are streamlined to reduce water resistance in strong current. A variation of this setup is the Bob Baldock Poly Rig, which allows the bait to be fished higher in the water column with little fear of tangles. The length of the leader on either rig is critical and dependent on depth, current velocity, and the amount of cover. In moderate current with few snags, a long leader—up to about three feet—is fine. Where heavy brush or other obstacles are present, though, use a 10- to 12-inch leader. Again, heavy mono or Kevlar generally is the best leader material.
I prefer a sliding lead rather than a paternoster style rig, and I always tie my weight to a large swivel or nylon run ring with a length of 6- to 10-pound mono. A snagged lead will lose fish if it cannot easily break free. Using a weak link may cost you a few weights, but is considerably better than losing a fish and leaving it tethered to some underwater obstacle. Don’t be afraid of going heavy with the lead if conditions require, such as casting across strong current.
Klonking—I’ve briefly covered this method in In-Fisherman, but it’s worth mentioning again here as it’s the most successful method for wels catfish in Europe. For those of you not familiar with this method, it’s a way of attracting catfish to your baits by using a hand tool known as a klonk. The klonk makes an unusual and deeply resonant sound in the water that wels cats respond to. I don’t know whether North American cat species respond to this sound, but considering how successful it is across the pond, it surely cannot be ignored.
The klonk or butschalo, as it is sometimes known as in eastern Europe, is fashioned from a piece of wood. It has a hand grip at one end of a slender shaft and a convex or concave head on the other end. Commercial models usually are made by laminating pieces of wood, a process considerably easier than whittling them out of a single solid piece of wood. The shaft is tapered front and back to easily cut through the water. The head of the klonk is about 1 to 2 inches in diameter and, although the head shape is not particularly important if you’re proficient in the art of klonking, a basic round and concave design is the easiest for beginners to master. Most experienced wels anglers carry a selection of three of four patterns that produce different sounds and tones. Certain models are easier to use in high winds or strong current. Everybody has his favorite klonk, but most anglers would agree that the loudest ones generally are best, if only for the confidence they generate.
Handmade and commercial klonks are available from the Catfish Conservation Group, 44 (0) 1256-421490.
To teach someone to klonk without actually demonstrating the technique isn’t possible, but the idea is to sit at the edge of the boat with your klonking arm hanging over the gunwale and your hand within reach of the water. Push the head of the klonk quickly into the water and swing your arm backwards while lifting the klonk from the water with a flick of the wrist. A bubble of air is released from the head of the tool, producing a loud noise if you’re klonking correctly. If not, you’ll just get wet. Time is necessary to learn how to produce the correct noise.
Why catfish are attracted to the sound of a klonk is uncertain. I used to think that it imitated the sound of other catfish feeding at the surface, but now I don’t believe that to be true. Wels cats have a fantastic sense of hearing, using their well developed weberian apparatus as well as the lateral line which is said to be especially sensitive to low-frequency sound waves. Klonking has been employed for centuries and, although the method itself isn’t new, it only recently has been rediscovered. The origin of the klonk also is uncertain, but its use has been documented in eastern Europe, especially on the River Danube, where I first witnessed it on an exploratory trip to the delta in Romania in 1993.
Rigs for klonking are perhaps the simplest of all, consisting of a 3- to 10-ounce egg sinker, depending on depth and current, sliding on 80- to 150-pound braided line. By marking the braid every yard with a waterproof marker, I can instantly tell how much line I have out and the depth of my bait. A couple of large rubber shock beads cushion the lead when it slides down to a 1/0 swivel. The lead is held in place with a stop knot. I generally use a 30-inch leader constructed of 200-pound Kevlar, a little over the top perhaps, but the action can be both explosive and prolific. I don’t want to change damaged leaders after every fish, and the heavy Kevlar is perfect for the job. A 4/0 to 12/0 hook completes the setup. My favorite patterns are Maruto, Eagle Wave Wels, and Gamakatsu Octopus models. Mustad Siluro and Partridge Z60s also are popular.
Hooks can be baited with whatever is available, but I try to use something lively or that has a good fresh smell. My favorites are livebaits like eel or carp, whole squid, and gobs of nightcrawlers. Don’t think worms are only for small fish—I’ve taken plenty of wels up to 105 pounds on worms.
It is possible (and sometimes desirable) to fish with a klonk from an anchored boat, but you won’t contact as many fish. And if they aren’t in the vicinity, you obviously reduce your chances of catching one. In windy conditions, when drifting is virtually impossible, though, tying up to a tree or anchoring over deep water can put a bonus fish in the boat and turn an otherwise disastrous day into a successful one. But klonking is best practiced from a drifting boat, using the current to cover water.
A sonar unit is essential to klonking, since finding the deepest water is important—usually on outside bends in a river, though sometimes farther out where barge traffic is heavy. If the current is strong or conditions are windy, you will need either an electric motor or a mate on the oars to keep the boat over the deeper water. Don’t worry about the boat spinning around; it doesn’t matter and, in fact, may add to the enjoyment. It also allows you to fish toward the bank at times and out into the river at other times. Hang the baits over the side of the boat while keeping an eye on sonar.
Organization is essential, especially when you’re fishing fast water. Covering up to 20 miles a day isn’t uncommon, and depths may change rapidly. This is hands-on fishing, not for those who prefer dozing behind a set of bank rods. Assuming you don’t have the luxury of two sonar units, it’s necessary for the angler viewing the screen to constantly read out the depths, so alterations can be made rapidly.
Don’t forget that while all this is going on, you’re continually klonking. The faster the current, the faster the klonking (usually about one cycle per second). It’s physically demanding, but you’re moving fast, and the cats will hear you coming only if you continue klonking. Get used to it; you may have to klonk more than half a million times during a two-week trip.
Strikes can be anything from a full snatch that nearly rips the rod from your hand to a gentle pluck. It is amazing how big cats can nip at the tail of a livebait or gently remove a single worm from a gob. Whatever you do, keep klonking. It doesn’t matter if your partner is playing a fish, because double headers aren’t a rarity when klonking. This method can be so effective that you can spend more time playing fish than doing anything else. My best klonking experience produced 23 catfish for two anglers in about four hours.
Fishing From The Bank
For most wels anglers confined to bank fishing, the standard approach is livebaits, usually presented on poly-ball rigs of one type or another. The nature of river fishing, however, seldom offers perfect conditions. More often you have to battle flooding, boat and barge traffic, and floating debris like weeds, logs, dead animals, and other rubbish. A few tricks can overcome these problems, but you need to work harder to keep an attractive bait in the desired position.
Floating obstacles such as trees or weeds sometimes can be avoided by fishing with your rod tip as high as possible so less line is in the water to catch passing debris. Good observation can also help; when you see approaching flotsam, lower the rod and sink the line underneath it as it passes. In some cases, especially when a river is carrying extra water and rubbish may be flowing through the area at all depths, try keeping your rod tip far beneath the surface. A large weight known as a backlead slid down the main line after casting can pin the line firmly to the bottom.
In heavy current where you have little slack water to fish, replacing leads with bricks or rocks tied to light dropper lines and dropped from a boat often will hold bottom where normal weights are useless. You risk the chance of dropped baits, but better to have a chance than to have your bait washed several yards downstream against shore.
Distance Fishing—Effectively presenting a livebait at a distance in current and at variable depths calls for a specific kind of rig. The best by far is known as the Buoy or Bottle Rig, and has been one of the most popular methods in Europe for the last three or four years. Variations to this method are vast, and all are effective in certain situations. Experimentation is the key. The idea is, with the aid of a boat, to set out a buoy, bottle, or other floating container on an anchored rope slightly longer than the depth of the water in a likely looking spot. One end of 8- to 12-pound mono is tied to the buoy, and the other end is attached to your rig, usually at the leader swivel. The depth of the bait depends on the length of the leader. For fishing a little deeper or in stronger current, a sinker helps keep the bait down. For fishing much deeper or to enable quick depth changes, a slipfloat is used.
The rod is placed upright, using a suitable rest, and the reel is set with a lot of pressure on the line. The effect is to have your bait virtually suspended from your line—a bit like flying a kite underwater. The buoy rig enables you to fish at greater distances and to use much larger baits than could otherwise be presented from the bank. I’ve seen 3- to 4-pound carp used on many occasions. By fanning rods around the area and fishing at a variety of ranges, it’s possible to cover lots of water from a single shore location.
Correct tackle is critical to buoy fishing. The rod should be 10 or 11 feet long with a fast action and plenty of backbone. I prefer a baitcasting reel, but a spinning reel like the Shimano 6500 Baitrunner with an aluminum spool also will suffice. Nylon produces too much stretch for all but short range fishing, so a good braid is essential. Fifty- to eighty-pound test will cover most uses, but remember, most braids are not abrasion resistant. Braids of at least 130-pound test should be used around cover. Again, leaders are tied from 200-pound Kevlar. Hook choice is largely personal, but make sure it suits the size of bait, and use two hooks if necessary.
Once you’ve fixed your bait to a buoy and tightened everything down, you’ll have a skyward-pointing rod with the tip pulled nearly to its maximum, and a braided line singing to you in the breeze. Bite indication is not an issue, but a bell attached to the rod tip provides an audible alarm if you aren’t watching your rods. The take cannot be mistaken. The rod usually pulls down slowly until you think it will explode. Then, when the breakline goes, the tip springs back upright and the line goes slack. The cat often is hooked at this point, but wind down and set anyway, just to be sure.
If you’re fishing at night, recovering your buoys is far easier if they’re fitted with light sticks. Or use battery-operated LEDs wired to tiny photo cells that switch on automatically at dark. Lighted buoys can be easily seen by boaters, which keeps boats from going through your lines and avoids an accidental garroting if a boat travels at high speed through a taut line.
Subsurface Fishing—When fishing in slack or shallow water such as bays and back eddies, I usually present baits close to the surface, using a popped-up poly-ball rig. This is similar to the Bob Baldock version but with a much longer tail on the poly ball, which also is larger. The depth of the bait is determined by the length of this tail and can be modified to suit conditions. I prefer to fish deeper when the water’s cold, or during the day. Windy conditions also warrant a deeper set. The poly ball can be fitted with a Starlight for night fishing, which gives a visual indication of what’s going on and helps ensure that your bait remains lively throughout the night. This rig usually works best with smaller baits up to about 1/2 pound or so.
The popped-up rig is fished by paying out line after casting. The buoyancy of the poly ball will bring the bait up in the water column. When the ball is on the surface, the line can be tightened and the rod placed on rests with the bait clicker engaged or the bail arm opened and the line clipped up. A take is indicated by the poly ball darting about before disappearing from view, coinciding with line peeling off the spool.
It’s not always easy to get the poly ball to pop up properly without becoming tangled. In this situation, I would use a rig that I devised myself and has accounted for many catfish in England, including several lake records as well as the British record. The Cat-O-Copter Rig is a form of paternoster that can be used at any depth. Unlike other paternoster rigs, it also can easily be cast from the bank. Key points when assembling this rig are to use a large lead to hold everything in place—6 ounces or more—and a short, stiff leader. Even for large catfish, I generally use a one-foot leader, usually 30-pound Amnesia or 40-pound stiff mono, with a 4/0 to 8/0 hook to match the size of baitfish.
The polystyrene balls should be large and buoyant. The rods also should be fixed in an upright position with the line tight to the lead. The typical run is magnificent. The fish usually moves steadily away, often swirling on the surface if baits are presented shallow. This is exciting fishing and guaranteed to get the heart racing; just imagine a 2-meter fish with a mouth like a bear trap feeding at or just below the surface. The line fished under tension coupled with aggressive takes generally results in the cat hooking itself, though, on occasion, slightly tentative takes or even the odd slack liner may occur.
*Keith Lambert, Hertfordshire, England, is editor of Whiskers, the magazine of the Catfish Conservation Group, and a frequent In-Fisherman contributor.