Sometimes, simple really is better. All through high school and into college, friends and I focused a lot of catfishing energy on a series of semi-private ponds stocked with bass, pike, and crappies, as well as channel and flathead catfish. While the fishing was exclusively catch and release, by permit only, an abundance of anglers wetting hooks in these ponds caught a majority of the cats each year. In one of the deeper ponds, we’d met three big flatheads on multiple occasions, naming them Larry, Curly, and Moe. We realized, however, that these fish weren’t like the Three Stooges at all. Rather, most of the larger flatheads and channel cats here were pretty sharp, having been caught before, and soon began to drop baits upon feeling any resistance from slipsinker or float rigs. Frustrating.
After being frequently thwarted by cats dropping baits and eluding hook-sets, we shed the sinkers from our rigs entirely, instead fishing freelined cut and live baitfish. Switching from heavy casting combos to Shimano Baitrunner spinning reels and 9- to 11-foot medium-heavy power rods, we maintained the ability to pitch weightless baits sufficient distances, while wielding ample power to subdue big flatheads in these mostly cover-free waters.
We immediately experienced a major boost in channel cat bites, and hook-sets rarely missed. During flathead outings at night, we found that even though the lack of a sinker allowed our live green sunfish to swim anywhere they wanted, including on the surface, strikes actually increased. Cats rarely dropped their sunfish meals, and our bite-to-hook-set ratio jumped from 50 percent to nearly 100. We were also treated to occasional heart-thumping surface blasts.
In shallow lakes and ponds today, freelining remains among the most effective and simple riggings I’ve used. So long as excessive winds or snags aren’t a problem, it’s the rig I nearly always employ first in these waters. And on clean, shallow flats, offshore or quartering winds can sometimes turn freelined baits into drift rigs.
With your back quartered into the wind and rod tip near the water, slowly feed low-diameter braided line through your fingertips, allowing the bait to be carried gently across the flat. Maintain as much direct contact as possible while the bait drifts. With the right wind, you can drift 30- to 50-yard swaths of water this way, often walking down the bank, as the bait moves and you maintain contact with a 9- to 12-foot rod. When a cat bites, you feel the line jump and quickly peel away. Reel down to the fish, and when the line tightens, sharply lift the rod tip into the bulk of a hefty cat.
Expert Catfish Rigs: The Quick-Change Advantage
Simple rigs are one thing—easy to tie and replace. Expert catfish rigs, however, can be simplified by using certain interchangeable parts. Most veteran anglers carry spare rigs and replacement parts, keeping everything within arm’s reach. Snagged and lost rigs happen everywhere, but time spent retying can be reduced. It’s one of the chief lessons I’ve taken from champion tournament anglers Phil King and John Jamison.
In reservoirs and large rivers, these top catmen drift or walk baits a large fraction of the time, and in tournaments, the clock is ticking. Jamison prefers a modified three-way drift rig, but he’s customized each of its components for immediate replacement. Weighting Jamison’s rigs are 3- to 8-ounce bank sinkers, each fastened to the end of a 1- to 3-foot 30-pound-test monofilament dropper line with a large cross-lock snap, as opposed to tying direct. At the foot of each angler in Jamison’s boat sits a plastic tub filled with spare bank sinkers. As current, depth, or boat speed changes, Jamison can instantly remove a 3-ounce sinker and clip on a 5-ouncer without skipping a beat.
So it also goes with the rest of this rig. Tied to the end of his 60- to 80-pound Power Pro or Spiderwire Stealth mainline is a #5 or #6 McMahon snap, which lets him immediately clip on a fresh rig.
Jamison employs an ingenious rig storage solution that all catmen should consider: Cabela’s Advanced Anglers Tackle Utility Binders house entire rigs, or individual droppers each within transparent, zippered pockets. A lost rig is replaced instantly, as he quickly retrieves a fresh one, attaching its three-way swivel to the McMahon snap rather re-tying a new knot or re-fashioning an entire rig. He’s back to fishing in seconds instead of minutes, which means keeping bait in the water almost continuously.
Pro Rig Profiles
The Bait-Walker: One of the finest tailrace and river cat rigs ever devised, the bait-walker rig allows an angler to “self-drift” bait downstream through extended river stretches. Drop the rig to the bottom. Then, while anchored, or working slowly upstream, or slowing your drift with a bowmount trolling motor, begin feeding line to maintain bottom contact. Frequently thumb the spool and slowly raise the rod tip to lift the sinker slightly off bottom, allowing current to propel the rig several feet further downstream. Drop the rod tip until you feel the sinker touch the river bottom once more. Repeat.
King and Jamison use line-counter reels to dial in and duplicate the precise locations of sinker-transmitted cover and bites. Walking bait is an old-school catman secret—one of the deadliest river approaches of all time.
The Suspender: Top performing tournament angler Jeremy Leach of Madison, Indiana, hunts suspended blue cats with a form of Carolina rig. “Most anglers overthink their rigging when approaching suspended blues,” Leach says. “Simpler is better for these fish. Keeping bait in front of their mouths is key, and a simple Carolina-style rig is the best way to do that.
“We use 100-pound-test Fins Original PRT braid as a mainline, and run about a 6-ounce egg sinker ahead of a large barrel swivel. The leader consists of an 18-inch section of 80-pound test Cajun Red Lightnin’ monofilament and a 10/0 in-line Mustad Demon Circle hook.”
Monitoring fish position on sonar, Leach lowers rigs to hover baits just inches to a foot above the depth level of the fish. Using the iPilot feature on his Minn Kota trolling motor, he keeps his SeaArk catboat stationed directly above, monitoring rod tips clutched in Monster Rod Holders. Most of the blues he targets lie 2 to 6 feet above bottom, and he’s often able to watch on sonar as fish rise and grab Carolina-rigged baits—typically strips of skipjack herring or gizzard shad.
The Pop-Up Paternoster: During the nearly 10 years in which I’ve used this adapted European float rig for flatheads, it’s never failed to garner odd looks and bemused skepticism. Nor has it failed to call flatheads from specific cover objects to which the rig can be precisely pinned. This customized three-way rig uses a submerged float to suspend live or cutbaits at precise depths above bottom, while a depth and current-matched sinker anchors the bait tight to a cover object.
Suspender-rigging is often a superior way to call flatheads from cover, as a lively baitfish kept well above bottom sends out tireless tail-thumping signals. Rigs with longer droppers can be somewhat unwieldy to cast, so we often set this rig into precise locations with a boat, then back off a distance to wait for action.
The Pebble Rig: Spend time pursuing carp in the U.K. or wels catfish in Spain and you begin to appreciate the need to rethink traditional rigging. The pebble rig is the creation of wels catfish specialist Stephen Buss, who several years ago began rigging large stones (up to about 5 pounds) as an alternative to lead weights. The Pebble Rig breaks free from its “pebble” on a hook-set, allowing the angler to battle large cats in heavy current completely unencumbered by excess weight. As most anglers who’ve caught large cats know, a heavy weight can cause slack line or even pull hooks loose as it swings during a fight.
Stones up to about a pound cast fairly well with medium-heavy to heavy catfish rods, while heavier pebbles up to 5 pounds are placed by anglers in boats. They carry the rig to a spot, then return to shore or an anchor position.
Two to four rubber bands encircle and secure the stone, while a cross-lock snap swivel clutches each rubber band at a central crossing point on top of the rock. Thick rubber bands, such as those used for bundles of broccoli or asparagus, work well. Various rigs work with a pebble weight, including three-ways and traditional sliprigs.
When a fish strikes, or if the stone snags, a sharp tug or hook-set usually pops the weight free, allowing for a direct connection to the fish. Flat, smooth stones hold river bottom quite well and are the most desired pebbles for this rig. Europeans on heavy fished waters even use discarded pebble weights to build their own fish-attracting rockpiles.
The Rattler: Santee-Cooper, South Carolina, guide Captain Marlin Ormseth has become a believer in rattles for attracting channel catfish. Not only has Ormseth devised an entire slow-trolling method employing his own radical rigs, he also handcrafts his own leader snaps and a unique snag-resistant sinker. By the way, Ormseth catches crazy numbers of big cats. And as he’ll tell you: “This rig is a fishing machine on Santee-Cooper.”
Simple? Not always. Tailor made to match the catch? You better believe it, bubba.
Due to the light weight of this rig, it’s usually fished in water shallower than about 20 feet, and most often shallower than 8 feet, with a 6- to 7- foot slow to medium action, medium-light power spinning rod with 4- to 8-pound-test monofilament line. The split-shot rig can be gently cast and slowly retrieved, fished stationary, or allowed to drift. Follow the drift with your rod tip to be sure it drifts naturally and doesn’t snag.
The slipsinker rig can be cast and slowly retrieved, slowly trolled, or used as a stationary presentation, so the depth of the water, bottom terrain, and how fast the bait is being moved by the boat, current, or during retrieval, all play a part in determining the weight of the sinker. The sinker usually is a boot-shaped walking sinker or egg- or bell-shaped sinker for gravel and sandy bottoms, or a bullet sinker in weeds and wood. Beads or blades are sometimes added to the leader in front of the hook as an attractant.
Because the mainline slips through the sinker, anglers often find it to their advantage to let a fish “run” with the bait, fishing the presentation with an open spool and letting the fish pull line off the spool with the least resistance possible. This gives the fish more time to get the bait further in its mouth or throat, which can cause more—often lethal—injury to fish. If you can set the hook quickly, or fish on a tight line, it’s often better to do so, especially if you intend to release your catch.
There are two primary types of float rigs—fixed-float and slipfloat. The fixed float is just that, when the float is fixed to a certain point on the line, and is best fished in situations where the fish are feeding shallow, say four feet or less. The slipfloat rig allows the float to slide up and down the line so you can fish in deeper water. A small bobber stop is fastened on the line somewhere above the bobber to limit how far up the line the bobber can slide, determining how deep the bait is fished. When the rig is reeled in, the stop goes through the rod guides and onto the spool of the reel to allow for casting and retrieving.
While the fixed-float rig is a good way to target shallow fish like crappies, bass, sunfish, catfish, and trout, the slipfloat rig’s ability to go deep broadens the potential species list to include pike, walleye, muskie, striper, and more. A longer light-to-medium action spinning rod, about 7 feet long, with a slow to moderate action, spooled with 4- to 8-pound monofilament, is a good choice for a float rig. Hooks should be matched to the bait, such as a #4 to #8 baitholder hook for angleworms and nightcrawlers, for example, although a jig also can be used.
Fishing a float rig often is a case of not doing anything at all, letting the bait do the fish-attracting work, as the float is slowly moved by wave action on the surface. Both rigs should be cast by gently swinging the rig sideways and behind you, then thrusting the rod toward the target with a slight upward motion as you release the line. You want to lob the rig to a specific spot as gently as possible. If the wind is blowing, or you’re fishing in current, target your cast so that the wind or current moves the rig into your target zone. In other instances, a little bit of action added by quick twitches of the rod tip or even substantial pulls that move the bait up in the water column and then let it settle, induces strikes. The float signals when a fish is on the line, a visual experience that remains exciting to anglers no matter their age or fishing experience.