Catfish Electronics Edge

Catfish Electronics Edge

Sonar strategies and catfish electronics for reservoirs.


During the great bass and walleye booms of the last years of the 20th century, catfishing remained a simple endeavor. In fact, throughout the entire 20th century, America's finest catmen fished by the seats of their pants rather than with the aid of state-of-the-art contraptions, and they were proud of it.

Their wisdom and intuitions about the ways of catfish were extraordinary. Some observers, for instance, remember that the late Tom Burns of Lawrence, Kansas, possessed a transcendental grasp on the catfish that abided in the Kansas River from 1929 through 1990. Likewise, the late Guido Hibdon Sr. of Gravois Mills, Missouri, had a supernatural understanding of the blue, channel, and flathead catfish that roamed Lake of the Ozarks from 1931 into the late l960s. And it's unlikely that any fisherman will have a keener mastery of the ways of riverine catfish than Burns or reservoir catfish than Hibdon.


Guido Hibdon Jr. said that much of his father's piscatorial wizardry stemmed from the fact that he "fished to live and lived to fish." Thus he was afloat nearly everyday of his adult life. From those many days in pursuit of a variety species, he developed an instinctive sense of fish behavior. And some of the same words have been uttered about the origins of Burns' understanding of the flathead catfish that swam in the Kaw during his many days afloat.


Sonar Momentum

The late Carl Lowrance began manufacturing and peddling the first sonar units for fisherman in 1958, when Hibdon and Burns were in their prime. Even though Lowrance's first headquarters were in Joplin, Missouri, just a 3-hour drive south of Burns' and Hibdon's home waters, they never ventured there to examine Lowrance's contraption because they didn't need one to catch fish.

Back in the early 1990s Burns said that he could conceive of no reason why anyone would need sonar on the Kaw. The only time that he saw one at work there was in the late 1990s, and that experience didn't change his mind.

Besides Burns and Hibdon, there still are some catfish anglers who don't cotton to the value of a sonar unit. Young anglers such as Jake Smith of Leoma, Tennessee, and Chris Lindsey of West Point, Tennessee, regularly ply Wheeler Lake in Alabama, for blue catfish of gargantuan proportions without the aid of sonar. According to Lindsey, they have discovered nearly every nook and cranny of Wheeler's topography by drifting large swaths of the lake and bouncing 1-ounce sinkers across its bottom twice a week for two years. Therefore, they can't rationalize the expense of a sonar unit.

Despite the fact that Smith and Lindsey are perpetuating the grand tradition of fishing by the seat of their pants, the mad dog of modernity has begun making its mark on catfish anglers across the nation. Angling historians contend that the recent allure of sonar in the catfishing world is a byproduct of the tournament culture. Until catfish tournament circuits began cropping up with fits and starts about four years ago, few catmen talked about using sonar to find cats.

But nowadays, such ardent anglers as Jeff Williams of Warsaw, Missouri; Phil King of Corinth, Mississippi; and John Jamison of Spring Hill, Kansas, often are heard trumpeting the manifold virtues of sonar, claiming that it opens scores of new vistas for catfish anglers to explore.

Williams, for instance, says that his Lowrance LCX-104C has solved countless mysteries and pointed the way to numerous blue catfish lairs at Grand Lake, Oklahoma, and Truman Lake, Missouri. He also says that Smith and Lindsey are committing a major tactical error by not employing a topnotch sonar unit while plying Wheeler for record-size blue cats.

Likewise, King suspects that Smith and Lindsey would have learned a lot more about the coverts they probe and would have caught more and perhaps bigger fish if they had employed sonar. Even though King admires the boys' tenacity, he notes that a sonar unit is a timesaving device. He says that most of today's anglers, unlike Smith and Lindsey, don't have time to spend two years learning the subtleties of a lake, especially if they fish tournaments.

Jamison, who is often saluted as one of the savviest anglers ever to grace the Missouri River, says he began experimenting with sonar for reservoir and river catfish in 1981. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he found it to be, as did Burns, a useless contraption on the Kansas River. But on the Missouri River, it has become an invaluable tool. Jamison, in fact, recently proclaimed that he would be lost on the Missouri without his Lowrance X-97 sonar unit.

In Jamison's eyes, the ­old-fashioned and simple ways that many catmen are proud of and still cultivate have many virtues. But he says that some of those classic ways don't fit into the new world order of catfishing as epitomized by Phil King and Stacey Thompson's victory at the Cabela's King Kat Classic on Pickwick and Wilson Lakes near Sheffield, Alabama, last September.

King is a fishing guide who regularly tests his angling prowess in the tournament world, and Thompson of Paris, Texas, is King's regular partner on the tournament circuit.

After learning how King and Thompson used a sonar unit to extract 233.75 pounds of blue catfish from 80 to 90 feet of water, Jamison predicts that their methods will have a revolutionary effect on the way anglers across the nation pursue catfish in reservoirs.

Sonar Tactics

At this event, King employed a Garmin 162, which is a combination GPS-sonar unit, and a Garmin 240 sonar unit. But Jamison says that King's use of his sonar units played only a minor part in his success.

In contrast, Jamison and his partner relied on their sonar as much as King and Thompson did, but they fished as if they were plying the heavy-current lairs of the Missouri River rather than Pickwick and Wilson reservoirs. And when the current failed to materialize, Jamison and his partner were checkmated.

According to Jamison, King won because of his ability to properly and precisely present his baits to blue catfish abiding in extremely deep water along the edge of the submerged ­Tennessee River channel.

Jamison also says that many of the blues were adversely affected by a cold front and by sporadic current flows coursing through the dam at Wilson Lake. On top of that, the contestants often were plagued by a brisk wind and ranks of whitecaps.

In regard to the sporadic current flows, Jamison notes that he and his partner found and caught plenty of blue catfish in Pickwick Lake when the current flowed out of Wilson Lake into Pickwick, but when the current ceased, they looked at their sonar screen in vain for clues on how to decipher the whereabouts of their quarry.

To contend with these adversities, Jamison said that King fished more like a walleye fisherman than a typical catman. For example, successful walleye fishermen have long known that the art of boat control is one of the most critical elements in the presentation formula. By carefully and exactly maneuvering a boat with an electric trolling motor, a walleye angler probes the lairs of his quarry from a variety of angles, trying to determine which direction and speed entices the most and biggest fish. As a walleye angler uses his trolling motor to slowly dissect a lair with his bait, he continuously monitors his sonar unit, looking for a visual key to unlocking a piscatorial trove.

At the King Kat tourney, King employed an 82-pound-thrust, 24-volt, bow-mounted MotorGuide trolling motor to hover and slowly troll his 20-foot Triton aluminum-hull boat along the edge of the submerged Tennessee River channel. To prevent the heavy waves from lifting the boat's bow out of the water as they trolled into the wind, he and Thompson filled a 100-gallon livewell with water. The weight of the livewell kept the boat relatively stable and level as it slowly traversed the lake's rough surface. By keeping the boat level, King said that they were able to present their baits, which were affixed to a three-way rig and 5/0 or 7/0 Daiichi circle hooks, more precisely.

When pursuing sullen and deep-water blue cats in Wilson Lake, King finds that a vertical presentation, assisted by slowly trolling his boat across a lair, is the most fruitful approach. During this tournament, however, the wind and waves often prevented him and Thompson from slowly trolling across an area and precisely dissecting it with a vertical presentation. Instead, they hovered on top of a lair, using the trolling motor to keep the boat in a stationary position above it. This tactic kept their lines and baits as vertical as possible.

But when the pair were able to troll into the brisk wind, they seldom exceeded 1/2 mph, and as they moved, their sonar reflected the radical contours of the bottom. It pinpointed the whereabouts of several massive crevices in the limestone bedrock that parallels the submerged river channel, and as King's boat slowly crossed one these crevices, his sonar revealed a depth change from 82 feet to 112 feet and then back to 82 feet.

As the tournament unfolded, King discovered that some of these crevices sheltered several big blue cats of significant size. King says that all the fish they caught were on the bottom, against some structure, such as a pile of logs, or cloistered in one of the crevices of the bedrock; thus, his sonar didn't mark any of the fish they caught. He suspects that the fish were on the bottom because the TVA had generated large quantities of electricity throughout the summer, causing a lot of current to run through the lower end of Wilson Lake. When this has happened in summers past, King has consistently found blue cats in the crevices and along the deep contours of the bottom.

During those summers when the TVA doesn't generate a lot of power and the current seldom flows, though, some of the blue cats exhibit a propensity to suspend. When that occurs, King says it becomes necessary to keep a critical eye on sonar and maintain exacting boat control with the help of an electric trolling motor. But the most important element for catching suspended blue cats is presenting the bait at the proper depth.

Since the bulk of the blue cats were situated on the lake's bottom, making them difficult to spot on sonar, King used his sonar to search for peculiar or subtle changes in the lake's topography. For instance, he found one lair that dropped merely a foot. From this slight dip, he and Thompson extracted a 32- and a 46.75-pounder. Upon spotting a submerged log pile adjacent to the river channel edge, they enticed a 50.25-pound blue cat within this labyrinth of logs to engulf one of their baits.

After the tournament, King said that the key to their trolling technique revolved around keeping one eye on the Garmin 240 sonar unit and one hand on the trolling motor. By properly controlling their boat, they kept it positioned directly above the lairs of the blue cats most of the time. Consequently, at least one of the six baits he and Thompson simultaneously used was in the correct spot most of the time. Moreover, by strategically placing their six Phil King Signature King Kat rods in rod holders around the boat, the trolling path of their six baits combed a 22-foot-wide swath along edge of the submerged river channel.

Boat Control

As Jamison reflects upon the magnitude of King's methods, he concludes that the boat-control repertoire for many top-of-the-line catmen begins and ends with two anchors. And anchoring, of course, wouldn't work at the spots King fished. For other catmen, their means of boat control is centered solely on drifting and employing a drift sock or two, but drifting wouldn't work at the depths and with the harsh wind that confronted King and Thompson at Wilson Lake.

From Jamison's perspective, one of the obstacles hampering most catmen's boat-control abilities is that their boats are woefully ill suited for the task. Most catmen use johnboats, and even though these flat-bottomed riverboats can be modified, like King's Triton, they will never be as efficient and versatile on reservoirs, and even big rivers, as the boats that walleye anglers typically use. At the same time, Jamison hopes that catfish anglers can resist the temptation of getting saddled with the candy-colored, metal-flaked, fiberglass, and high-dollar boat phenomenon that has beset many bass and walleye fishermen.

Upon examining Jamison's analysis of the King Kat Classic, several veteran observers of walleye and catfish tournaments concluded that catfishermen could dramatically improve their techniques by joining the ­In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail as amateur anglers for a season or two. From experience on the walleye circuit, catmen would gain a better understanding of how to maneuver and control a boat with an electric trolling motor and the aid of a sonar and a GPS unit. At the same time, catmen would begin to learn a thing or two about the art of precisely presenting baits to their quarry.

Jamison also says that the precise way that King vertically presented his baits to blue catfish in 85 feet of water was similar to the exacting and delicate ways western bass anglers present their drop-shot rigs to deep-water largemouth and spotted bass. In addition, cat anglers can even glean some valuable tidbits from the way crappie anglers use a trolling motor and a sonar unit to hover over a submerged tree or brushpile in 20 feet of water to catch their quarry.

Jamison realizes that the tactics that King used at Wilson Lake won't work at every waterway and in every tournament. Therefore, catfishermen should be versatile, relying on such standard tactics as anchoring and drifting, as well as the methods perfected by walleye, bass, and crappie fishermen. King seconds Jamison's ideas about versatility, saying that cat anglers need to learn a variety of techniques, including anchoring, controlled drift fishing, vertical trolling, and his favorite reservoir tactic of "running and gunning," which is a motif that bass anglers have employed for decades.

Jamison suspects that the exigencies of tournament fishing will provoke many changes in the way catfish are caught during the next two decades. It will be similar to what bass and walleye tournaments wrought during the past two decades.

But not every catman is enthralled with the burgeoning trend of their brethren to emulate some of the tactics of the nattily dressed participants at walleye and bass fishing tournaments. Renee "Catdaddy" Shumway of Topeka, Kansas, who is a ­cat-fishing guide and an occasional tournament contestant, recently uttered his laments about this new fashion, saying, "It ain't dirty. You can't smell it. They don't wear bib-overalls. Instead, they are suited up with shinny shoes, well pressed pants, and shirts that are studded with patches of tackle and boat companies. Their boats also shine just like they are sitting on a showroom floor. And that ain't catfishing."

Jamison's River Sonar Tactics

During summer on the Missouri River, John Jamison fishes 4- to 8-foot deep sandbars and flats situated between wing dams above outside river bends. To determine which sandbar to fish, he uses sonar to search for blue catfish in the scour holes near the tips of the wing dams during the day.

Some wing dams contain two scour holes: one above and one below. The wing dams that have two scour holes often shelter greater numbers of blue cats than dams that have only one hole. When Jamisonʼs sonar indicates the presence of blue cats in a scour hole above a wing dam, they usually are resting on the bottom in the center of the hole.

The scour holes below a wing dam are larger than the ones above the wing dam, and Jamison uses his sonar to search for blue cats lying near the bottom in the center of the hole and near the back edge of the hole.

According to Jamisonʼs vast experience, blue cats donʼt susend in a scour hole. He suspects that the current above the bottom of the hole is too intense; thus, the blue cats seek the slower current along the bottom of the hole. Although Jamisonʼs sonar unit regularly reveals suspended fish in a scour hole, he says they arenʼt blue cats. So if his sonar doesnʼt reflect fish on the bottom in the center or in back of the scour hole, he travels farther upstream in search of the perfect configuration.

In the heat of summer, Jamison describes the mood of the blue cats that abide in these holes as negative. In fact, he says that they are so sulky during daytime that he has a difficult time enticing one of them to engulf a baited hook.

But itʼs a different story at night. After the sun sets, some of the blue cats leave the scour holes and meander across the sandbars, foraging on shad, carp, and other prey.

Thus at night, Jamison anchors his boat on a sandbar above the scour hole or holes that contain the biggest population of blue cats. He also turns off his sonar, fearing that the sound emitting from the sonarʼs transducer will cause the blue cats to become wary and more difficult to catch.

electronic-mapping

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