Catfish Gear Basics
April 10, 2014
E-mail, as many of you have discovered by now, can be a wonderful thing. I use it to assign and receive articles from freelance writers, keep in touch with guides and expert catfish anglers around the country and around the world and, of course, to answer reader questions.
Perhaps the most common question I've received in recent months concerns the tackle and equipment needed to catch cats. That depends, I usually respond, on where and how you're fishing and which catfish species you're after. To avoid another barrage of e-mails, though, we thought it time for a more thorough examination of this important topic.
For the purpose of this discussion, we'll assume that you're starting from scratch. We'll walk you through the process of selecting a rod and reel combination, terminal tackle, and a few accessories that make fishing more efficient and fun. Most of our selections will be suitable for tackling channels, blues, and flatheads, though we'll note specific selections for each species where appropriate.
Since many catfish anglers also complain about not being able to find the right catfish gear in local tackle shops, we'll rely on a mail-order catalog. Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops offer most of what we're after, but neither catalog is as comprehensive as Catfish Connection (800/929-5025, www.catfishconnection.com). These folks offer as complete a selection of catfish tackle as you'll find anywhere, and they deliver it right to your mailbox.
Rods designed for bass and walleye fishing continue to become lighter, stiffer, and more sensitive. None of these attributes, though, are applicable to most catfishing applications. We need sticks that are tough and durable, with enough backbone to drag big fish away from heavy cover. A slower action also is better suited to casting soft natural baits, while a soft tip section allows cats to engulf your offering without feeling much resistance — particularly important with circle hooks.
So let the bass and walleye boys have their high-modulus graphite; you should be looking at fiberglass blanks, or those constructed of a fiberglass and graphite composite. Fiberglass is heavier and slower reacting than graphite, but also is more powerful and durable. Composite blanks are a good compromise, offering most of the strength of fiberglass with some of the lighter weight and sensitivity of graphite.
Rod length is largely a matter of personal preference, but most catfish anglers favor longer rods. Long rods allow longer casting distance, stronger hooksets at long range, and usually are more forgiving during a battle with a big fish. Shorter rods, meanwhile, offer more power with less torque, especially during a no-give contest with a big cat in tight quarters. A seven-footer is a good compromise for boat or bank fishing.
We usually favor one-piece rods, but some anglers prefer two-piece blanks for their ease of storage and transport. If a one-piece rod's an option, look for a medium-heavy rod like the Abu Garcia Workhorse AGWH70C or the Shakespeare Ugly Stik UCCA 1101. Both rods work well with 15- to 30-pound-test line and rigs ranging from one to four ounces.
If you'd rather have a two-piece rod, check out Berkley's Reflex BRC7M or the HT Enterprises Ol' Whiskers HT0W7. Both rods are slightly less powerful than the one-piece models, but are well suited to 10- to 20-pound lines and rigs weighing up to about two ounces. All of these rods are suitable for channel cats and mid-range blues and flatheads, but heavier sticks may be needed for larger cats.
Bass and walleye fishermen also are driving reel manufacturers to produce reels with higher gear ratios, more bearings, and smoother performance. And once again, most catfishermen couldn't care less. We need reels with more powerful (slower) gears to winch in big fish; reels that are durable enough to be bounced around in the back of a pickup truck or the floor of johnboat; reels that are reasonably priced, but provide years of dependable service. That's a tall order.
You need to first decide whether you want a spinning or baitcasting reel. Spinning reels excel for long casts with light baits, but casting reels offer more cranking power in a lighter weight and more compact package. Spincasting reels seem to be an ideal compromise at first glance, but few models are tough enough to withstand the rigors of catfishing.
If you're a spinning fan, look for a reel with a large line capacity. Two models that catch our eyes are the Shakespeare Alpha SH2560 (230 yards of 15-pound line), and the Quantum Big Iron ZIR5 (200 yards of 14-pound line). Both reels have proven to be tough and durable in saltwater, and should serve well in most medium-duty catfishing situations.
More options are available in the baitcasting category, but we'll limit our choices to the models we're most familiar with. The Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500 C3 has achieved legendary status with catfish anglers and works well with 15- to 30-pound line. Penn's 310 GTi is a better choice for lines at the heavy end of this range and is capable of handling all but the biggest cats you'll likely encounter. With proper maintenance, both reels should last a lifetime.
The Line On Line
The basic rule about line also applies to catfish: Use the lightest line possible, not because cats are wary of heavy line, but because lighter line is more manageable and allows for longer casts. A soft 14-pound-test monofilament line like Berkley XL or original Stren is fine for smaller cats in lakes and ponds without much cover.
For larger channel cats in rivers and reservoirs, step up to 17- or 20-pound-test abrasion-resistant lines. Big flatheads and blues might call for 30-, 40-, or even 60-pound test, depending on the amount of cover present and the top-end size of the fish.
For our general-purpose outfit, we recommend an abrasion-resistant 20-pound-test line like Berkley Big Cat or Stren Catfish. Both are saltwater-grade lines, which means they've proven themselves in places that probably are tougher on line than where you fish. They also are stiffer and slightly thicker than softer lines of the same breaking strength. They're less manageable than thin lines, but are more abrasion resistant.
You also might consider superlines. Braided superlines like Spiderline Braid offer tiny diameter with a high breaking strength. Fused superlines like Spiderline Catfish Fusion are larger in diameter than braids of comparable strength. Fused lines are easier to cast, hold knots better, and hold up better in cover. Braids may be a better choice, though, in heavy current or in other situations calling for a strong, thin line.
Superlines also are a good choice for leaders. In most situations, particularly in rivers, you needn't worry about cats seeing your line. They're probably more line shy by feel than by sight. Stiff, wiry monofilament is more likely than a soft superline to abrade a cat's sensitive mouth. Where snags — especially rock — and finicky cats are a problem, consider spooling with a heavy monofilament main line and using a superline leader.
When selecting superlines, though, go with a heavier breaking-strength than you would with monofilament. We usually try to use a superline with roughly the same diameter as the mono line we'd use in the same situation. That means using 30-pound Spiderline Fusion or 50-pound Spiderline Braid instead of 20-pound mono on our general-purpose outfit.
Hooks — Standards & Circles
Hook size and style also should be tailored to the situation. Any hook, large or small, must be sturdy enough to match the rod, reel, and line. The light-wire hooks used by panfish anglers, as an extreme example, quickly bend straight as a pin when coupled with heavy-duty catfish tackle. But in tight quarters with stout gear, other popular hook designs might straighten, too.
We've long recommended the Mustad 92671 and Eagle Claw 84, modified sproat designs that are sturdy and inexpensive. A 2/0 hook is a good choice for presenting small strips of cutbait to channel cats, while a 5/0 is better suited to the larger portions often used for blue catfish. Switch to a 7/0 hook for larger deadbaits and medium-size livebaits, and a 10/0 for baitfish over a pound. A box of 3/0 hooks is a good compromise for many situations.
Circle hooks remain the hottest hook designs happening for catfish. The most important thing to remember about circles is that they can't be set like J-hooks. Instead, the fish drives the hook home as it pulls steadily away from an anchored line. That's the reason circle hooks work so well on limblines and loglines for catfish or on longlines for sailfish, halibut, and other saltwater species — no meddling angler to pull the hook away from the fish.
After the fish engulfs the baited hook and begins to move away, the hook slides up the gullet and along the inside of the mouth without catching. Once the eye of the hook clears the corner of the mouth, though, the hook rotates and the point begins to penetrate the soft tissue at the corner of the fish's jaw. As the fish continues to struggle, the point penetrates past the barb, and the fish rarely escapes.
Wire diameter remains an important consideration, affecting bait action and hook penetration. Even the largest catfish in North America don't require the heavy-wire hooks used for large saltwater fish, except possibly on setlines. Look for circle hooks fashioned from wire that's roughly the same diameter as the standard hooks you'd use in the same situation.
The hook gap also is important. It must be wide enough to accommodate the fish's jawbone. Big flatheads and blue cats may require hooks a size or two larger than standard hook designs to ensure consistent hookups. Wide-gap hooks also are easier to bait and remove from fish. This is particularly important for catch-and-release fishing since survival rates decrease when fish are kept out of the water for long periods or handled excessively.
The Eagle Claw L197BK is fashioned from light wire, features a reasonably wide gap, and has proven to be effective for channels, blues, and flatheads in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. We recommend the 3/0 size if you're primarily interested in channel cats, or 5/0 if you're also after larger blues and flatheads.
Other Terminal Tackle
Lead is an essential part of most catfish rigs, from balanced slipfloat rigs to heavy bottom rigs. The type and size of sinker you select should depend on the type of rig, depth and current speed, and bottom composition. Some sinker styles anchor well on hard, clean bottoms, while other models are better on soft mud or broken rock. And some sinkers keep baits skipping along the bottom as you slip along a river channel or across a reservoir flat.
Water Gremlin Dipsey Swivel sinkers anchor bottom rigs better than egg sinkers and drift baits across moderately clean bottoms almost as well as walking sinkers. One-ouncers usually are sufficient for anchoring sliprigs in smaller rivers and lakes, while two-ounce weights are needed for stronger current. Buy a bulk box of each size, and you'll be ready for most situations.
Swivels are an effective sinker stop for sliprigs and reduce line twist when using large baits in heavy current. For smaller fish, #7 Berkley McMahon swivels — rated at 60-pound breaking strength — will suffice. For larger fish and heavier rigs, #1 or 1/0 swivels — 150 and 200 pounds respectively — may be necessary. A bulk pack of #5 swivels is a good compromise.
Slipfloats can be used to suspend baits above the thermocline for suspended cats in lakes and ponds, or to drift baits in the wind or current in rivers and reservoirs. Lindy's Big Fish Slider is a top choice for larger livebaits, while their Center Slider model is a better choice for cutbait and other small offerings. Buy a few of the largest Center Slider (THCS4) to use with cutbait and smaller livebaits.
Tools & Accessories
Don't get carried away with fishing paraphernalia — a few basic accessories are all you need. Buy a pair of generic needlenose pliers, then use the money you saved to get a better knife. The Rapala Fish-N-Fillet knife has a 6-inch blade that's perfect for cutting bait or cleaning cats. The Frabill Fillet Board is a nice option for both chores if you don't have a cutting board.
Rod holders also are a handy option for fishing from shore or a boat. Berkley's Quick-Set rod holders are our favorite for boats, while the Horizontal Pole Holder looks to be a functional bank stick. Blacklights, clip-on bells, and electronic bite indicators are available for night fishing, but seldom are necessary. The freespool clicker feature on the baitcasting reel you select should offer sufficient warning when a fish eats your bait.
You'll need some kind of tacklebox to store and organize your tools and terminal tackle. If you favor traditional tray boxes, then Plano's 3200 box is tough to beat. The two trays have 18 fixed compartments for terminal components, while the bottom of the box offers plenty of room for line spools, knives, and other bulky items.
We like plastic utility boxes like the Plano 3600. These compact boxes have movable dividers for a custom configuration that matches your tackle inventory. Stuff the boxes in a duffle bag or boat storage compartment and everything you need stays out of the way, but within easy reach. As your tackle inventory expands, buy more boxes to keep everything organized.
The more you learn about catfishing, the better you're able to customize your tackle to match your favorite presentations. Until then, though, the selections we've outlined are enough to get you started. You might not be equipped to deal with record-class cats, but you'll be ready to tackle average-size blues, channels, and flatheads virtually everywhere they swim.