Slipbobbers and Doodle-sockers
For decades, anglers at Grand Lake, Oklahoma, have plied riprap areas, where they have caught significant numbers of channel catfish. In early May, large congregations of longnose gar spawn along the riprap of causeways, and the channel catfish are there, too. The channel cats are positioned directly under the spawning gar, consuming the gar’s fertilized eggs as they descend towards the rocks on which they’re designed to adhere.
To catch these cats, anglers traditionally employ a small slipbobber set about 5 feet above a shiner minnow. The rig is cast at the spawning gar, and slowly retrieved. Some anglers opt for gar eggs, wrapping them inside a square of gauze and using a treble hook.
When the gar spawn diminishes, a large percentage of Grand Lake’s channel cats leave the riprap. A nightcrawler or an earthworm, rather than a shiner, is fished to entice cats that remain. The bobber-and-worm combination is set at 5 feet and retrieved slowly, allowing the worm to slide into and out of crevices between the rocks.
Toward the end of May, Grand Lake’s channel cats return to spawn in the cavities and crevices of the riprap along causeways. After a male cat selects and prepares the mating site, he coaxes a female to deposit her mass of eggs on the floor of the nesting chamber, fertilizes them, and then stays with the eggs to protect them from predators, funguses, and oxygen depletion.
During the spawning season, Grand Lake anglers switch from bobber rigs to 9- to 12-foot rods spooled with 40-pound-test Spiderwire, using a 3/4-ounce bullet weight as a slipsinker and a 3/0 Gamakatsu Octopus nickel hook. Some old-timers call this setup a “doodle-socking rig,” and others call it a “dabbling pole.” Shrimp is the favorite bait of Grand Lake’s doodle-sockers. They bury the entire hook inside the shrimp, using the tail to protect the point of the hook. Besides being an effective piece of bait, the shrimp acts as an efficient weedguard, keeping the hook from snagging weeds between the rocks.
Because the bulk of nests are in 3 to 6 feet of water, doodle-sockers seldom extend more than 7 feet of line from their rod tips, which they hold just a few inches above the water’s surface. Some anglers prefer not to use braided line, but a growing number contend that braids like Spiderwire allow the bait to sink into the spawning cavities more quickly than monofilament. This faster fall allows anglers to probe a larger area in less time, which translates into more catfish hauled across the gunnels.
And Spiderwire’s sensitivity quickly transmits to the angler’s hands the location of sinker, hook, and bait, important when trying to locate the entry to a channel cat’s den. Braids also resist abrasion, an asset when tugging a belligerent catfish from its spawning-hole between sharp-edged boulders.
Once a large crevice in the riprap is detected, the sinker and bait are allowed to plummet into the hole. The intensity of the strike can sometimes be bone-jarring—at other times, merely a nibble.
Sometimes channel catfish shun shrimp, preferring a wad of nightcrawlers, which seasoned doodle-sockers embed on a 2/0 hook. But nightcrawlers don’t do a good job of keeping the hook from lodging in the crevices.
Most channel catfish caught near riprap weigh from 2 to 5 pounds, but now and then a 10- to 15-pounder or an occasional flathead is extracted, rarely weighing more than 15 pounds and usually less than 5.
Split-shotting the Stone
A split-shot rig with a nightcrawler is also an effective device for exploring riprap during the channel cats’ prespawn and spawning periods. The most effective outfit for a split-shot rig is a medium-light-action spinning rod at least 7 feet long, fitted with a spinning reel and a large-diameter spool filled with 10-pound-test Berkley Trilene Big Game. A 3/0 split shot is placed 8 to 12 inches above a #2 Eagle Claw Kahle (L141) hook to complete the setup.
Despite the buoyancy of thick mono, there will be times when the 3/0 split shot with a #2 hook repeatedly snags in the crevices, so anglers should also try a BB-sized split shot with a #4 hook. Injecting a little air into the nightcrawler adds just enough flotation to keep the split-shot rig snag-free. A piece of shrimp or a shell-less crayfish can thwart snagging.
If the bulk of fish are in 5 feet of water, savvy anglers situate their boats at the same depth, then execute 40-foot casts parallel to the riprap. After the rig reaches bottom, the rod is dropped with the tip pointed at the split shot for the duration of the slow retrieve. When a bite is detected, set the hook.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when Grand Lake anglers began pioneering their methods for catching catfish, they just probed the riprap while cautiously walking along the shoreline. Today, trolling motors are used to maintain correct depth position and boat speed.
Some riprap sections are more than a mile long, but only certain locales on these large tracts of rocks will hold substantial numbers of catfish. To locate these, explore a lot of water methodicallyand with thoroughness. A trolling motor is a big help to plumb a large area efficiently. Split-shot and bobber rigs are good for locating fish along extensive sections of riprap. After pinpointing where the fish are, doodle-sock to your heart’s content.
In the 1990s, anglers began trolling crankbaits on long stretches of reservoir riprap, probing various depths in search of giant flatheads. Though some beefy specimens were caught, such catches were too sporadic to make trolling a consistent method for catching big flatheads. Anglers concluded the flatheads were just too large to spawn and live in the riprap’s crevices. Most reservoir flatheads caught on riprap are in fact accidentally caught by channel-cat fishermen using split-shot catfish rigs and nightcrawlers. The quest to catch big flathead on riprap was one of those important lessons in futility that make us, in the end, better and wiser anglers.
River Riprap Rewards
The Missouri River contains more miles of riprap than any other freshwater waterway in the world. Critics say the riprap—still placed there by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers— has altered the ecological balance of the river, but catfish use the riprap for feeding, refuge, and spawning. Wise anglers follow where the fish lead, and that’s into the riprap. They’ve also devised unique ways to catch catfish along river riprap.
Seventeen years ago LeRoy Kadel, an ardent walleye angler, wrote to In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange explaining his new passion for catching flatheads in riprap along 30 miles of the Missouri River between Council Bluffs and Missouri Valley, Iowa. Kadel wrote that he never fishes around wing dams any more, nor probes other traditional catfish hideaways. He now fishes riprap on the outside bends of the river, in currents of 10 mph and water depths from 50 to 75 feet.
To fish these deep, fast stretches, Kadel ties his boat to a piling near the head of the bend and wields a 9-foot rod with a heavy-duty reel and 20-pound-test line. To this he attaches a three-way swivel with a 2-foot leader of 17-pound-test line fixed to one eye of the swivel. On the other eye, he ties an 8-inch piece of 8-pound-test mono sporting a hefty bell sinker. For bait, a 4- to 6-inch chub placed on a 3/0 Mustad 92671 hook is key.
Kadel makes long casts aimed at the mainstream of the river. After the bait hits the water, the swift current is allowed to carry it to the riprap, where it bobs among the rocks. He catches flatheads weighing 4 to 8 pounds with regularity, but once in a while he catches a 20-pounder.
Half a state away, many miles downstream from Kadel’s honey holes, are John Jamison’s favorite riprap lairs. He’s spent more than a decade exploring the ways of Missouri River catfish, from St. Joseph to Jefferson City. Along the way and at specific times during the year, he’s found blues and flatheads milling around riprap.
In late March or early April, when the water temperature reaches 55°F, Jamison finds blue catfish haunting the riprap along the outside bends of the Missouri. Near the end of May, when the water temperature climbs into the upper 60°F range, he locates blues searching for spawning sites in the same riprap. But once they start spawning in June, it’s so difficult to catch these blues that he switches his attention to small flatheads, instead, most weighing 1 to 3 pounds. He plumbs riprap along riverbends, using lightweight tackle baited with fillets of fresh shad, which in June they can prefer over livebait.
From early July through the end of November, Jamison moves away from the riprap for the big blue cats, and instead fishes the flats between wing dams. But some of his fellow fishermen focus on riprap along outside riverbends in fall. After an autumn cold front the riprap periodically yields a cat or two.
Despite the quantum leaps fishermen have made in deciphering the ways of the Missouri River cats these past 15 years, Jamison contends that what’s known about the habits and whereabouts of these catfish is still rudimentary. But if the revelations keep unfolding, he suspects that anglers in 2020 will know a lot more than we know today about how catfish relate to riprap in rivers and reservoirs.
River Riprap Rigging for Flatheads
To rig a chub or bluegill, run the hook through the body 1 inch ahead of the tail and pull line through. Run hook through ahead of the dorsal fin and pull line through. Pass hook through gill and mouth about 1 inch. Pull line tight, pull loop over tail, and pull loop tight.
The Ozark’s Weightless Chicken-liver Rigs
There is not a lot of riprap at Lake of the Ozarks for cat fishermen to exploit, but along many of the lakeʼs bluffs are small pockets that
contain concentrations of boulders and big rocks. Some folks call them rock slides, and others call them “Natureʼs riprap.” During early June, channel cats spawn in the larger cavities between these rocks and boulders.
For plying rock slides, many Ozark anglers use spinning outfits spooled with 8-pound-test monofilament. A palomar knot secures a #2 interlock snap to the line. Push the eye of a #6 treble hook through a chicken liver folded
in half, then affix hook and liver to the snap. Pitch the liver into the water carefully and allow it to descend slowly, following the contour of the rock slide. Because itʼs weightless, it seldom snags in crevices. After the channel cat spawn ends, they leave the rock slides, but now the flathead arrive at the same rock slides to procreate.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde, Lawrence, Kansas, a longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications.
- Pictured: Basic Sliprig.
Many catfishing situations call for a livebait or piece of cutbait to be stillfished on the bottom. The most popular bottom rig for all catfish species is the simple sliprig. This rig consists of an egg sinker sliding on the mainline, held in place above the hook by a lead shot. The objective is to anchor the bait near the bottom, and then allow a catfish to swim off with the bait without feeling too much tension. The idea is sound, but this rig doesn’t accomplish either objective well.
The success of trotlines and limblines illustrates that catfish—particularly big cats—aren’t timid feeders. Let a trout or walleye run with the bait before you set the hook, but don’t wait for cats. When a decent-size cat picks up the bait, he has it. Most of the time, you could set immediately without giving any line. But your chances of a solid hookset increase if you let the fish turn first. When you feel the thump of a fish grabbing the bait, follow him with your rod tip for a foot or two, then set.
Another problem is the egg sinker. These sinkers work well when pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current. When cast across current, though, they tend to roll along the bottom and snag more often than other sinker designs like bell, bank, or flat sinkers. Slip your mainline through the top of a slipsinker and replace the split shot with a swivel to improve the effectiveness of this popular rig.
Leader length is another concern, especially for novice anglers. Don’t use a longer leader just because it separates the bait from the sinker. Rather, adjust the length of the leader to vary the amount of action and movement imparted to the bait. A piece of cutbait tethered on a 12-inch leader may lie motionless on the bottom of a lake or pond, but would flail about wildly in heavy current.
Use just enough leader for your bait to attract fish without hanging up. That might mean a 3- or 4-foot leader for drifting cutbait across the clean bottom of a reservoir for blue cats; a 6-inch leader for holding big livebaits in front of a snag for flatheads; or no leader at all for probing the broken bottom of a tailrace for channel cats.