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Catfish Biology Tips & Tactics

Unorthodox Tactics for Reservoir Catfish

by Ned Kehde   |  June 6th, 2014 0

Ned-Catfish-Boat-Hold-Overcast-In-FishermanIn the dawning of this millennium, the folks who regularly pursue catfish often are the most inflexible, rear-guard anglers around. But some of this hardheadedness is beginning to crack.

For years Cat Daddy Shumway of Topeka, Kansas, proudly called himself “a full-bodied chummer and blood slinger.” And until his recent enlightenment, Shumway wouldn’t fish any other way. So when Cat Daddy Shumway steps into the ranks of the vanguard, something new and even revolutionary has to be in the offing.

Here’s what unfolded on this November outing when Shumway plied a 400-acre community reservoir in eastern Kansas. The water temperature registered 43˚F, and for more than an hour, Shumway caught two-pound channel cats at nearly a hand-over-fist pace from 16 to 18 feet of water by employing his old tricks of chum and blood. After the fishing naturally petered out, Shumway made an odd and uncharacteristic adjustment. He began wielding a crappie jig. And to his utter surprise, the cats waylaid that jig while ignoring his standard offering of a treble hook laden with blood.

That Shumway happened to have a crappie jig on hand was a miracle. Apparently he had one onboard because he had just read Steve Hoffman’s “Guaranteed Tactics For Cold-Water Channel Cats” in the December-January In-Fisherman magazine. Immediately after Shumway read Hoffman’s article, several of his fellow catmen noticed that he had become a dramatically different sort, somewhat taciturn and bemused.

For about three years, Hoffman has been known in rear-guard cat circles as the savant scribe of unorthodoxy, writing about catching cats on jigs and other contraptions not fit to be in a cat boat. Doug Stange, In-Fisherman’s Editor In Chief, also has pushed the cutting edge by writing about trolling, klonking, and other off-kilter approaches to catfishing. What’s more, Hoffman and Stange have penned thousands of words and exposed many feet of videotape on how to catch catfish when the water turns ice cold.

But until November 2000, Shumway had steadfastly refused to subscribe to any of those newfangled notions about lures and trolling for catfish that Hoffman and Stange propounded. Then on a whim, and perhaps motivated by Hoffman’s most recent words about out-of-the-ordinary tactics, Shumway went fishing on this unseasonably cold November day. And just in case Hoffman and Stange really knew something about cold-water channel cats, he tossed some jigs in his boat.

Immediately after his epiphany, Shumway was hesitant to talk about it, fearing the brotherhood of catmen would ostracize him for being so unorthodox. But he did call Hoffman to report that he had finally read something in a magazine article that actually helped him catch fish. After a bit of bandying, Shumway eventually confessed that he caught the catfish on a crappie jig in cold water, but warned Hoffman not to breathe a word about this revelation.

Hoffman, though, told Shumway that there’s something magical about a crappie jig for catfish, pointing out that the world-record flathead was caught on one, as was a 981⁄2-pounder taken from Lake Palestine, Texas, in December 1998. Shumway became a convert.

Success By Design Or Accident?
Catfish-Surfaced-Crankbait-In-FishermanShortly after that conversation with Shumway, Hoffman learned through the great piscatorial grapevine that Bill Ward of Warsaw, Missouri, and several friends were serendipitously catching flatheads that broached 20 pounds on 1/8-ounce crappie jigs. Ward and company actually were pursuing hybrid striped bass with jigs on medium-action spinning gear at night by walking the riprap shoreline several hundred yards below Truman Dam. They caught wipers and at least one flathead every night for a week during ­mid-November.

Ward is no stranger to catching catfish on lures below Truman Dam. During the high-water spells in the 1990s, he and his father, fishing legend Virgil Ward, regularly fished with Spooner Gentry of Deepwater, Missouri, and this threesome caught and released an impressive array of big blues on two- and three-ounce spoons.

For decades, Hoffman says, the use of lures and trolling for catfish has been the providence of the serendipitous angler. And since it’s such an accidental endeavor, it tends to offend many ardent catmen.

For instance, John Thompson of Ottawa, Kansas, finds it a touch irksome. Thompson is a veteran and talented logline setter who has caught scores of flatheads weighing as much as 80 pounds from the flatland reservoirs of eastern Kansas. And when someone tells Thompson about catching flatheads by trolling a crankbait across a mudflat or along the face of a dam lined with riprap, Thompson’s eyes glaze over and he shakes his head incredulously and says under his breath that trolling isn’t the way to fish for flatheads.

Of course, many old-guard blue cat anglers react the same way. In their minds, a freshly filleted carp, shad, or sucker, dripping with blood and amino acids, affixed to a 7/0 circle hook and pinned to the bottom with a three-ounce sinker is the picture-perfect bait to a reservoir catfish. The only thing a flathead fishermen would do differently would be to use a lively carp or green sunfish.

But after more than several decades of extraordinary catches by trollers, Hoffman and I thought there was more to this pattern than mere happenstance. Hoffman had talked to anglers at Santee Cooper who caught big blue cats by trolling the face of the dam with a Manns Stretch 20+. In addition, we had talked to Virgil Tagtmeyer of Sedalia, Missouri, and watched his l989 videotape titled Trolling with Tag, which illustrates how he catches big blue cats and flatheads by trolling crankbaits in Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake in Missouri.

Trolling With Tag

On cloudy and rainy days, Tagtmeyer will troll flats as shallow as 12 feet and as deep as 15 feet.

On cloudy and rainy days, Tagtmeyer will troll flats as shallow as 12 feet and as deep as 15 feet.

Tagtmeyer readily admits that learning how to catch cats was a serendipitous journey that encompassed 13 years of nonchalant trolling. It began in 1974 before Truman Dam was completed. Initially, Tagtmeyer trolled for white bass with hopes of tangling with a walleye or two. By the time Truman Lake was impounded in July 1977 and reached normal pool in November 1979, Tagtmeyer had caught impressive numbers of catfish, including several of grand proportions. But he continued to target white bass and walleyes.

Despite his continuous success at enticing catfish to take a swipe at a crankbait, Tagtmeyer didn’t become a dedicated catman until 1987 when he replaced his Lowrance flasher with a Lowrance X-40 graph. That graph rendered a better view than the flasher of the watery environs of the upper reaches of Lake of the Ozarks. For example, the graph would periodically pinpoint a large fish about a foot or two off the bottom in 18 to 25 feet of water. And while that image was still scrolling across the screen, the creature would engulf Tagtmeyer’s crankbait and a hellish battle would commence. He called this activity a graphic revelation.

As Tagtmeyer’s graph expanded his vistas, he began experimenting with several deep-diving lures. He wanted to penetrate that 20-foot zone, which is where the graph often portrayed big fish and pods of baitfish. After much experimentation, the Manns 20+ became his favorite lure.

During that long testing period, Tagtmeyer worked with several bottom-bouncing rigs, thinking they would allow him to present a variety of lure styles and sizes at the appropriate depth. He caught some cats on those rigs, but came to the conclusion that catfish in that part of the Lake of the Ozarks prefer a deep-diving crankbait that digs into the bottom. Therefore, once Tagtmeyer broached the 20-foot zone with a rattling and bottom-digging crankbait, he began waylaying big flatheads and blues with astonishing regularity.

On May 10, 1997, for example, Tagtmeyer boated a 77-pound blue that attacked a green-and-chrome Manns 20+. On that same outing, which began at 7:30 a.m. and lasted till 4 p.m., he and a friend tangled with three 40-pound flatheads. And by day’s end, they had wrestled 209 pounds of catfish over the gunwales of Tagtmeyer’s vintage Ranger bass boat. Furthermore, they caught a large buffalo and a big walleye.

Then in late May l999, Tagtmeyer caught a male flathead that was 51 inches long and weighed 64 pounds. That brute engulfed a chartreuse Manns 20+ in 18 feet of water.

Customarily, Tagtmeyer begins trolling for cats during the second week in May and continues trolling until the cats begin spawning in early July.

A Day In The Boat
A normal day of trolling begins at 8 a.m. and ends around l p.m. During that five-hour span, Tagtmeyer usually catches five cats between 10 and 30 pounds. Over the past 27 years, he has found that afternoon and twilight hours are seldom fruitful. And nighttime trolling is even less productive. Tagtmeyer speculates that most cats vacate deep drop-offs and holes at night, probably moving into shallower water that’s too snaggy to troll effectively.

During his days afloat, Tagtmeyer works from mile marker 91 to the ­electric-power lines between mile markers 88 and 89. His best trolling areas are holes situated near bends. A big limestone bluff is present on one side of many of these holes. Tagtmeyer doesn’t troll along the bluff, preferring instead to work along the edge of the hole adjacent to a mud or gravel flat. The bluffs are the domain of catmen who anchor and probe the ­rock-rubble and brushpiles with livebait.

On rainy or extremely cloudy days, he trolls the flats in water as shallow as 12 to 15 feet, opting for a Manns 15+. If that shallow tactic fails to garner a cat, he moves to the drop-off and probes 18 feet of water. On bright, sunny days, he has been known to work a Manns 30+ as deep 30 feet, but he primarily concentrates on areas that are 25 feet deep. Tagtmeyer calls the Manns 30+ a beast. It dives so deeply and pulls so hard that it’s difficult to use. So he employs it sparingly.

Tagtmeyer always has several rods rigged and ready. One rod sports a Manns 15+, another a 20+, and a third rod is extremely stout for handling a 30+. When trolling the deep edge of a hole, Tagtmeyer often uses two different rods and lures. On the deep side of the boat, he employs the 30+, and on the shallower side, he works a 20+.

Except for the heavy-action 30+ outfit, his rods are long-handled, 6l⁄2-foot, medium-heavy-power graphite bass rods with Abu Garcia 5500C reels. He spools the reels with 24-pound-test SpiderWire Fusion. To the Fusion line, he attaches a 12-inch steel leader that has a barrel swivel on one end and a heavy-duty snap on the other. He then attaches the snap to the split ring on the crankbait.

As Tagtmeyer trolls the flats and drop-offs, he constantly monitors his graph. When he sees fish at a particular depth, he keeps his crankbait at that depth. At times, however, sonar doesn’t spot cats, but Tagtmeyer still catches them. At those times, Tagtmeyer suspects that the cats are lying directly on the bottom, taking a whack at the lure as it digs its bill into the bottom nearby. He assumes that the cats become enticed by the noise the crankbait makes as it hits bottom.

Plenty of times, he’s trolled a crankbait through or just under a big school of gizzard shad congregated along the drop-off of a hole and has caught an impressive array of cats. So he’s always on the lookout for schools of shad.

If the graph reveals a large group of shad and some big fish nearby, and Tagtmeyer fails to entice a catfish to strike the crankbait, he makes several passes through that spot, working it from several angles and at several speeds. Sometimes the cats prefer the crankbait worked upstream, sometimes downstream. He even uses a diagonal approach when the upstream and downstream presentations fail.

Dealing With Current

When a massive flow of water is running out of Truman, Tagtmeyer makes his best catches at the tail of a deep hole.

When a massive flow of water is running out of Truman, Tagtmeyer makes his best catches at the tail of a deep hole.

When a massive amount of water is coursing through Truman Dam, Tagtmeyer says the only direction he can effectively troll is downstream. He accomplishes this by keeping the outboard motor running in neutral as he drifts with the current, shifting into forward only when the crankbait fails to dig into the bottom. Once the lure begins digging into the bottom again, Tagtmeyer shifts into neutral and continues to drift. He also uses the motor to keep the boat drifting in the proper direction and along the edge of the drop-off.

If Tagtmeyer has his druthers, he prefers to troll during short intervals when no water is running out of the dam, because it’s easier to put the crankbait in the most productive spots. But when there’s a long cessation of water coursing out of Truman Dam or just a minute flow every now and then, Tagtmeyer says the fishing turns trying. He, therefore, ranks current as the most critical component for formulating a successful strategy for catching fish in the vicinity of a tailrace. Habitats many miles downstream from the tailrace also are affected. At Lake of the Ozarks, Tagtmeyer suspects that a heavy current flow attracts some blue cats from miles away, whereas a mild flow merely stimulates resident cats to become active and feed. Consequently, current always affects how, when, and where Tagtmeyer trolls.

For instance, during the floods of 1993 and 1995, the flow coursing out of Truman Dam overwhelmed Tagtmeyer. Even four and five miles below the dam, the current was too brisk for Tagtmeyer to troll. He spent the late spring and early summer of those years trolling on Truman Lake. There he found trolling for cats easier than he’d anticipated. He caught several blues and flatheads weighing from 15 to 30 pounds on each outing. Moreover, the lake above the dam is often a more fruitful area to ply when current has been slack for several days below the dam. Now for a change of scenery, Tagtmeyer spends several days each spring trolling ­Truman for cats.

He employs the same methods he uses below the dam. He trolls the mudflats devoid of flooded timber about three miles above the dam. Thus it’s easy to the probe those flats into 25 feet of water with a Manns 20+.

To get the Manns 20+ into 20 feet or more of water and bouncing across the bottom, Tagtmeyer works with 75 to 90 feet of line. Normally he runs his 115-horsepower outboard as slow as it will run, with the speed determined by how often the crankbait digs into the bottom. Of course, current speed affects the way a crankbait works, and trollers must constantly gauge the effects of the current. Tagtmeyer is fond of saying that the crankbait will tell a fisherman if he’s trolling at the correct pace and rhythm. According to Tagtmeyer, observant cat trollers eventually discover on some outings that a particular rhythm of the lure bouncing off bottom allures more cats than other rhythmic bounces.

Most anglers know that catfish possess an acute sense of smell, but for a number of years, ichthyologists have maintained that catfish also have intense abilities to see and hear, rivaling even the most sensitive species in freshwater. And by employing rattling and bottom-bouncing crankbaits, Tagtmeyer became one of the first fishermen to appreciate the ability of flatheads and blue cats to detect a bait by sight and sound.

The biggest cat ever caught in the area that Tagtmeyer trolls was a 117-pound blue that Azel Goan and his sons hauled ashore on July 25, 1964. That was 10 years before Tagtmeyer made his first trolling pass through the headwaters of Lake of the Ozarks. He, of course, has daydreams about subduing a cat of large proportions, even surpassing Goan’s titan. And his reveries have been spawned by entanglements with some humongous creatures that he hasn’t been able to lay an eye upon.

One of those monsters was so big and strong that Tagtmeyer couldn’t, even after a long battle, get it off the bottom. Another long and grueling tussle ended when the unseen behemoth ripped the hooks off Tagtmeyer’s lure.

Tagtmeyer readily admits that his unorthodox approach to catfishing isn’t, day in and day out, the most fruitful method, but it might be the best way to grapple with a humongous flathead during daylight. And during May and June in the Ozarks, he doesn’t do it any other way.

A Trip During Trying Times

On sunny days, Tagtmeyer trolls the edge of the hole.  He works the crankbaits as deep as 30 feet and as shallow as 18 feet.

On sunny days, Tagtmeyer trolls the edge of the hole. He works the crankbaits as deep as 30 feet and as shallow as 18 feet.

After hearing Tagtmeyer’s tales and pondering his methods for a season or two, Hoffman and I decided to give them a whirl last May. At the same time, we unleashed a couple nontraditional tactics for flatheads and blue cats that Hoffman had been concocting for a couple of years.

Unfortunately, our trip corresponded with the beginning of the drought that had begun afflicting much of the heartland between the 38th and 39th parallels during the spring and summer of 2000. Therefore, little water had flowed through Truman Dam that spring, and not a drop flowed during our three day visit.

We soon found, as Tagtmeyer had discovered many times over the past 27 years, that current is an essential ingredient to bountiful fishing on the upper end of Lake of the Ozarks. A measure of how difficult the fishing can be was witnessed by our not seeing another catman during out first six hours afloat.

But for two and a half days, totaling about 35 hours, Hoffman and I trolled from mile marker 91 to mile marker 79, working with Abu Garcia muskie rods and Quantum reels spooled with 50-pound Berkley FireLine and a 50-pound Big Game mono leader attached with a Bimini twist and a braid-leader knot, and terminated with muskie and bass lures such as a Believer or Manns 30+. We trolled in water as shallow as 15 feet and as deep as 35 feet. When probing some of the shallower areas, we fished a Manns 20+, but ultimately decided that the deeper environs provided the best opportunity for enticing our sullen quarry.

As we trolled, we constantly monitored sonar and were astonished at the huge numbers of fish in some coverts. Hoffman called it an incredibly rich biomass.

Occasionally, the Manns 30+ became snagged on rubble on the bottom. To free it, we motored above the snag, wrapped the FireLine twice around the reel frame, and used the outboard and boat to apply pressure to free the lure. In the course of our many miles and hours of trolling, we became snagged about 40 times but lost only one lure.

To break the monotony of trolling, we occasionally probed drop-offs into the base of the holes with two-ounce jigheads sporting 6- to 9-inch ­soft-plastic shad bodies, a tactic that Hoffman and some fellow catmen use for lethargic flatheads on the Mississippi River during winter in Minnesota. Even though the flatheads at Lake of the Ozarks were inactive, none of them responded to our deftly-manipulated jigs.

We also drifted flats and channel edges with cutbait rigs sporting such unconventional paraphernalia as Scott Enos Sand Bag sinkers and Spin N Glow attractors, which added a couple of blue cats to the catch.

Midway through the second day, we were trolling down the middle of the river channel, the Manns 30+ pounding the bottom and bouncing across assorted pieces of debris in about 27 to 35 feet of water. Then the lure stopped as if snagged in a massive root wad. We stopped the boat and shifted the motor into reverse. As we began to back up to retrieve the lure, the root wad moved. Thereupon a whale of a donnybrook ensued, and eventually we hauled a 60-pound flathead over the gunwales of the boat. It had a ­crawdad-colored Manns 30+ in its jowls. Two hours later, a 25-pounder engulfed the same lure as it bounced along the edge of a drop-off in about 25 feet of water.

By catching those two flatheads during the most trying of times, we proved to ourselves that trolling isn’t a fluke reserved for the serendipitous anglers. And if the fishing turns white-hot, we suspect it may be the best method for covering a lot of water to trigger the most active brutes.

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