Thawump-kerplash—the rusty manhole cover hit the water with the authority of a sledge on a blacksmith’s anvil.
“Never seen a mushroom cloud made of water,” Skip said, wiping the fallout from his sunglasses. “Current’s strong and we’re driftin’ fast. Feed ’er out.
“Would if I could. Bet you’ve never seen a snarl like this, either. What’d you do, run over the anchor line with your Lawn-Boy?”
“Okay, Skip. I think it stuck. Yep, it’s holdin’.”
“Pull ’er up, pull ’er up!” Skip barked. “Big barge comin’!”
Situations like this are enough to give anyone a case of anchoring anxiety. You spot the symptoms right away: Avoidance of the front seat in the boat and complaints about a sudden onset of lumbago. Anchoring’s not the most glorious part of catfishing, but it’s crucial to success and doesn’t have to be difficult. Put together the right anchoring system and you’ll spend less time weightlifting and more time fishing.
Fishing Anchor By Design
There are two schools of thought about what makes the best anchor. Some anglers use the heaviest weight they can find, while others bank on design and functionality without the backbreaking weight.
For many years, legendary catfish guide Jim Moyer used a 68-pound section of rail iron to hold steadfast in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Moyer says, “That heavy anchor worked great. It taught me how to fish a hole really well, because I didn’t want to pull it so often. When it snagged and broke off several years ago, I felt like I was losing an old buddy.” Moyer’s rail-iron days are over, and today he opts for a lighter, more modern design—a homemade grapnel-style that weighs only 12.5 pounds. More on his anchor design shortly.
While deadweight works, be it iron, concrete, or lead, modern designs provide more holding power per pound of weight. No single anchor, though, works best in all instances.
Mushroom Anchors—Shaped like an inverted mushroom, these hold best in softer substrates like silt and sand. A length of chain connected to the tie end tilts the anchor on its side before it becomes buried. Mushroom anchors are available starting at about 10 pounds.
Mushroom anchors don’t match the holding power of some other designs of similar weight. Heavier versions are necessary to hold larger boats, especially in current; mushrooms of manageable weight anchor smaller boats in lakes or slacker current, or serve as supplemental anchors to control boat swing. Their compact design makes them easy to store.
The river anchor combines the benefits of a mushroom anchor with deep flukes for better bottom penetration. This relatively weighty design holds fairly well on softer substrates as well as on chunk rock and wood, making it a good anchor for fishing small to medium-sized rivers. The bulkiness of mushroom and river anchors makes them easier to work free of snags.
Fluke Anchors—Fluke anchors are lightweight and designed to dig, so they have good holding power in the right substrates. Designed for soft bottoms—mud, sand, and pea-gravel—their flukes penetrate when under pressure at the proper angle. Fluke anchors require longer rope than heavier designs for achieving the proper set angle.
Two good fluke anchor options are the Guardian and Fortress from Fortress Anchors (fortressanchors.com). Made of lightweight aluminum-magnesium alloy, the Fortress has a two-position angle adjustment between the flukes and shank to match bottom conditions. The standard 32-degree angle can be changed to 45 degrees for better holding in soft mud bottoms. The Fortress and Guardian have performed well in independent anchor tests and are available to match various boat sizes and loads.
Carl Roberts, a catfish guide who fishes the Missouri and Mississippi rivers near St. Louis, Missouri, relies on the Digger Anchor (diggeranchor.com) to hold in swift current conditions. The Digger, available in 10, 12, and 15 pounds to match different boat lengths, is a fluke-style anchor featuring grabber cleats. The diggers put constant downward pressure on the flukes to set fast and hold. A jerk on the rope from above triggers a mechanism allowing the flukes to freely swing on a hinge point, making retrieval easier.
Some fluke anchors have a free-sliding ring on the shank, which serves as the attachment point for the anchor line. On retrieval, pulling on the anchor line from overhead or slightly past vertical moves the ring up the shank, so the flukes can be “backed out” of substrate for easier hoisting.
Navy anchors have been a long-standing favorite among owners of smaller craft. Combining the functionality of a fluke anchor with added weight, the navy is a solid choice for smaller boats anchoring over a variety of substrate types. For larger boats and especially in current, though, the weight needed for this anchor to work can make it unwieldy compared to other designs.
Grapnel Anchors—The true grapnel anchor, like those used in saltwater and to hold on reefs, has a heavy center shaft and soft metal tines. When it lies over, the anchor tines hold onto rock or wood. The tines grab at working loads; but if the anchor snags, pulling harder straightens the tines, releasing the anchor from bottom. The tines need to be bent back into shape before the next set.
Moyer’s homemade anchor is a grapnel-style version, modifying an idea given to him by catfish guide Dale Broughton. Moyer builds his anchor with steel he finds at salvage yards, starting with a 10” long x 2” wide section of steel stock that serves as the shank. To one end of this he welds on a 2” eye for a link point. To the other end, he welds on four 51⁄2” x 2” tines made of 1/4”-thick steel, with each tine end cut to a point. When the anchor snags, he ties the anchor line to a boat cleat and moves until the tines straighten and the anchor breaks loose. The tines are then bent back into position for the next set. Moyer says he needs to replace tines about every four years.
The Richter Anchor (richteranchors.com) is another grapnel design that also acts as an aggressive fluke anchor. Available in 14, 18, and 25 pounds, the Richter is a popular choice with walleye anglers for anchoring in large, windswept lakes. It features stout tines and a bar with a sliding link, making it easier to release when pulled from straight overhead or slightly past the vertical.
Drift Bags—Drift bags, also called driftsocks and sea anchors, are used to reduce drift speed in large, windswept lakes and reservoirs. They consist of a cone-shaped bag that’s tied to the bow or a side cleat. As the boat moves, water resistance in the bag slows drift speed; the larger the bag, the more drag. To control drift speed, some bags have adjustable openings at the pointed end to fine-tune the volume of water passing through.
In-Fisherman Publisher Steve Hoffman recommends using a drift bag to reduce the swing of an anchored boat in current. He suggests that after anchoring the bow, tie a drift bag off the stern (downcurrent side). The drag pulls on the stern and reduces swing. Hoffman says he often finds this a better option than using a secondary anchor off the stern.
Finding the right anchor is just one component in an effective anchoring system. Also critical are the links, the length, thickness, and material of the “rode” (anchor rope), the “scope” (ratio of rode length to depth), the mechanics of setting and retrieving, and safety.
One of the most common anchoring mistakes is trying to use anchor ropes that are too short. Each anchor style is designed to operate properly within a specific scope range. And even within anchor styles such as fluke anchors, manufacturers recommend a specific scope that works best with their product.
In general, anchors in the fluke family require the longest ropes to achieve the necessary angle to get them digging. Deadweights and bulkier anchors can require less rope at the same depths. For all-around purposes, plan on a scope of 10:1—meaning, 10 feet of rope for each foot of water depth. For 15 feet of water, that’s 150 feet of rope. Some anchors operate best at a scope of 3:1, some at 5:1, others at 7:1. Check the anchor manufacturer’s instructions for proper scope.
It’s better to have the right length of rope than not enough. For his Digger Anchor, for instance, Roberts says he upped his rope length to 300 feet, finding that 100 feet wasn’t long enough for the anchoring situations he encounters.
Most anglers use ropes with diameters from 3/8” to 1/2”—3/8” is a good size for most catfishing situations. For material, braided nylon is a good choice; it’s strong and it stretches. Some elasticity is important to absorb shock so anchors don’t break free during pressure surges caused by, say, strong gusts of wind. But using rope too thick reduces the benefits of stretch and shock absorption. Moyer recommends a cotton-poly blend rope of 1/2” diameter.
Store ropes neatly and without any tangles to avoid headaches later when setting the anchor. A plastic bin to hold anchor line keeps the deck clear and safe. To avoid losing an anchor accidentally, tie the bitter end of the rope (the end opposite the anchor) to a boat cleat.
Most designs call for a length of chain to be attached between the anchor and the rope, the chain acting as a counterweight, setting the anchor in the proper digging position. Chains also reduce rope abrasion caused by bottom contact. A 3’ to 5’ section of chain suits most needs, but some anchors require longer sections. Check the anchor manufacturer’s instructions for the appropriate length of chain.
Knowing the effective scope at which to set your anchor tells you how far upstream from a fishing spot you’ll want to set the anchor, to be in proper position for fishing. Caution: Before setting the anchor, be sure your feet are clear of the rope and chain. Wearing a life vest is a good idea when performing anchoring duties. Lower the anchor slowly as the boat drifts downstream. Close to the desired spot, tighten the rope to be sure it sets, then adjust the distance slightly, if necessary, and tie off the anchor to a bow cleat.
To retrieve the anchor, leave the line tied to the cleat and slowly move upstream as you feed the line into the boat or its storage bin. When the rope is vertical or slightly past vertical, pull up the anchor. If it’s snagged, secure the rope to a boat cleat and slowly pull upstream to break the anchor loose. Caution: Be careful not to catch the rope in the prop.
After retrieving an anchor, Moyer suggests leaving the anchor line tied to the cleat, keeping the rope at the appropriate length for the next set. “It saves a lot of time when resetting anchors, especially if you’re resetting in an area with a similar depth,” he says. “Just release the anchor and let the rope out—it should already be at the right length. I see guys move from spot to spot,” he says, “repeating the entire process of feeding, getting the right length, and tying off. If you keep it tied on, you can save maybe an hour or so of fishing time on a trip.”
Many anglers on big rivers attach a float buoy near the bitter end of their anchor line. A short length of rope with a clip at the end is attached to the buoy; then, if you need to move from an anchored position fast because of an oncoming barge or to fight a big catfish, just attach the buoy clip to a loop on the rope near the bitter end. Release the rope from the boat and return later to retrieve the anchor. Caution: If you hear five horn blasts from another boat or barge, heads up! That’s the danger signal. Identify the danger and take appropriate action immediately.
No anchor is perfect. Each operates best under a certain range of conditions. Once you find the ones that suit your needs, you can put together an effective anchoring system. It’s the best prescription for good, consistent sets.
Anchor Lift System
Ironwood Pacific’s AnchorLift Anchor Retrieving System is a popular setup for Pacific Northwest anglers who fish for salmon and sturgeon on big rivers like the Columbia. Catfish anglers plying the larger rivers in other parts of the country should find it useful, as well.
This system floats your anchor to the surface so you don’t need to pull it up by hand. Slide the AnchorLift over your anchor line, anchor normally, then drop the AnchorLift into the water. To raise the anchor, motor forward around your line, break the anchor free, and keep motoring until the anchor reaches the buoy at the surface.
A sliding bolt in the mechanism locks the anchor at the surface for easy retrieval. To retrieve it, shift into neutral and pull in your slack line. The buoy also acts as a marker float for quick anchor release. Three sizes of AnchorLifts are available, to float anchors up to 30, 60, or 80 pounds.