Catfish Lessons From A Big-River Catman
July 22, 2014
Some of the most coveted catfish lessons comes from "river rats" — hardcore catfish anglers who are born and raised along a riverbank. They have river water coursing through their veins, and scars on their hands serve as testament to the giant fish they've battled.
Most river rats wear the moniker with honor. Former catfish guide and big-river expert Paul Willet is no exception. He recognizes the effect that the Ohio River has had on him and a family tradition of fishing that has been handed down for generations. He may have started out as a pack mule hauling his grandfather's, uncles', and father's gear to the river for weekly fishing outings, but what he learned from them has shaped him as an angler. While his fishing success has been enhanced by using the best possible gear and refining seasonal patterns for blues, he credits his grandfather for instilling in him the fundamental principles that every big-river cat angler should know.
"Most of us have that special person who shared their knowledge and inspired us as fishermen" Willet says. "My grandfather, Sam, was that guy. There's no doubt I've caught hundreds of catfish bigger than the largest he ever held. But early on he shared with me an important piece of information and proved it time and again — big fresh baits produce big catfish. As a kid, I'd be fishing with worms and chicken livers and catching one-pound cats and yell out, 'Hey Grandad, look, I caught another one!' Then it would happen. He'd call out to me, 'Hey bub, get that net ready' and he'd proceed land the biggest fish of the trip. He used nothing but fresh skipjack herring, mostly heads. If he couldn't use that you wouldn't see him fishing for blue cats."
Willet has expertise on some of the country's finest blue catfish waters including the Ohio, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Cumberland rivers, and for years has shared his fishing knowledge with his clients. His guiding days behind him, he's converted his website (camofishguideservice.com) into a blog, The Guide Chronicles, in which he writes about his trials and tribulations as a guide, along with tips, tactics, and stories of his fishing adventures with other guides from around the country.
"I chose to guide for blues on the Ohio because you can fish for them year-round there," he says. "They're an apex predator and create an awe factor when people wrap their arms around one. When a fish strikes, a client just needs to pull the rod out of the holder, hold on, and keep reeling. At that moment you know that the fish has made its mark in the memory of another angler. It's awesome to see my customer's profile pictures on Facebook smiling and holding a fish that you put them on. With the right gear and a deep knowledge of the fishery, the ability to connect anglers with big catfish became second nature."
Picking up on the lessons from his grandfather, Willet is convinced that the most important element to being a successful blue cat angler is choosing, catching, and keeping bait. "One of the first things to learn is the need to fish with the right bait. Without the right fresh bait (not spoiled or rotten) you won't have success, even if you do everything else right."
A common question catfish guides get asked is what is the best month to catch a trophy blue? Willet's answer isn't so much based on the calendar but rather water level and flow. This information is available for most major rivers across the country on the U.S.G.S. website (waterdata.usgs.gov/usa/nwis/rt). He suggests that whenever you have a good day on the river, check the website and note water levels and flows at the nearest gauging station to where you're fishing and plan trips around prime conditions. Soon you learn the water conditions for consistently catching blues on your home waters.
He says that any time of the year can yield big blues if water levels and flows are ideal. "We've caught blues topping 50 pounds in every month of the year when conditions were right," he says. "Under certain current conditions, baitfish congregate and are easy to catch. With bait concentrated, big blues won't be far behind, and most locations that historically hold fish produce quality blues.
"You hear those old stories about scuba divers who repair dams who won't go back down because they saw a catfish the size of a Volkswagen. In all the years I've been fishing I've caught tons of fish at dams, but the biggest were all caught over a mile from a dam. Mega blues are more nomadic, solitary, and more territorial than 10- to 20-pounders that concentrate in tailraces immediately below dams. Exceptions happens twice a year. For a brief period during the April-May and November-December timeframes, the largest skipjack herring make runs to tailraces and this attracts groups of trophy blue cats. They don't stick around long but when they show up, I've had days with 30 fish over 20 pounds more times than I can count."
During summer, Willet finds that blues scatter in small groups and tend to use the deepest runs of the river. He advises using your electronics to spot individuals and small groups of fish, which often hold in 20 to 40 feet of water. "Blue cats in summer are like people standing in line at a buffet," he says. "Side-imaging on my Humminbird 1198 shows one fish in front of the other, parallel to current. They seem to avoid each other's space. Look for this scenario when searching for feeding fish.
"If you set your side-imaging correctly, you can see the outline of large catfish, which show as marks shaped like maggots, or you see the dark shadows they create. You can move the cursor over a fish, zoom in, mark it, and get a GPS fix. Then you can set a course with your trolling motor and fish your bait across the face of that fish. I start my search by finding isolated structure near ledge drop-offs. If I don't see any cats, I search other structure areas. It takes a trained eye to identify catfish on side-imaging, but once you catch a few that you see, it starts coming together."
TACKLE, RIGS, TECHNIQUES
Willet suggests a quality levelwind reel with a minimum of 30 pounds of drag and a fast retrieve speed, 71â„2- to 10-foot heavy-power rods with stainless-steel guides, 80- to 100-pound braid, and 7/0 to 12/0 circle hooks like the Mustad Circle Hook (39954). This octopus-circle design is similar to the Lazer Sharp L7228, another good choice. His 24-foot Sea Ark Big Easy boat is outfitted with a dozen 1/2-inch-diameter Monster Rod Holders. Each cradles a heavy-power rod matched with an Abu Garcia baitcast reel with 80-pound-test braid.
He uses basic rigs that work in multiple situations. "With a supply of 2/0 barrel swivels, three-way swivels, and 60- to 80-pound monofilament leader, I can make just about any rig," he says. The simplest is the slipsinker rig, which he uses when he's anchored. When water temperatures are below 55°F, he primarily anchors and finds blues relating to structure and current. His slipsinker rig consists of an egg sinker and bead sliding on an 80-pound-test braid mainline tied to a 2/0 barrel swivel. It's finished with an 18-inch to 4-foot monofilament leader (60- to 80-pound-test) tied to the swivel and a circle hook tied to the end of the leader.
In late April when water warms to over 55°F, he switches from anchoring to drifting and bottom-bouncing presentations. When there's minimal current in summer, he finds the most productive approach is a controlled drift, using his trolling motor to fine-tune speed and direction of the drift. With the boat steered to precisely trace the edges of ledges, he suspends baits from rods in holders.
If this method isn't productive, he switches to bumping baits, or bottom-bouncing, which is essentially jigging with a bait rig as you drift in a controlled fashion. He finds that the vibration and scent trail created by a moving bait allows catfish to more easily sense it. At times, he bumps baits while hovering in place when current is reduced during dry periods of the summer.
Many types of structure and cover hold blues including bridge pillars, sand humps in the river channel, timber, ledges, sandbars, rock, and submerged barges. These areas can be fished precisely by bottom-bouncing. The most successful catfish tournament anglers are the best at doing this. This is where big blue cats live and feed.
"With bottom-bouncing, you can cover a lot of water and pick off the most active fish," he says. "For this technique I prefer a three-way rig. It separates the bait from the bottom, and if the sinker gets snagged, I can break it off and the rest of the rig remains intact. Avoid jerking the rod up and down too fast. Steadily and slowly lift the rod up and down as you occasionally make contact with the bottom.
"There's no feeling like having something grab the bait and try to rip the rod out of your hands. You also need to be ready when a big blue comes off the bottom and rockets upward to take the bait. When it swims up there's no resistance and it feels like something cut your line. This is when you want to quickly reel to tighten the line so the circle hook embeds in the corner of the fish's mouth. That's why I like a fast reel. If you don't tighten up quickly, the fish spits the bait as the sinker comes back down and tattoos his nose.
"Pencil sinkers resist snagging so I tend to use them most for bottom-bouncing. I tie a 2- to 5-ounce sinker to a 6-inch, 30-pound-test mono dropper tied to one of the eyes of a three-way swivel. On another eye of the three-way I tie on a 60- to 80-pound mono leader from 12 inches to 4 feet in length, using shorter lengths in thicker cover. This rig also can be fished with a bank sinker."
When fishing in areas free of cover, Willet uses a double-dropper circle-hook rig for both anchoring sets and drifting. Without the risk of snagging, this rig presents two baits at different depths to target suspended blues, which tend to feed off bottom more when current is slow.
CATCHING AND KEEPING BAIT
Willet's favorite baits are skipjack herring, mooneye, and gizzard shad. Skipjack and mooneye need to be caught with hook and line and it's like fishing for white bass. Watch for surface activity in tailrace areas as these fish chase minnows on the surface. Focus on current seams, slicks in the middle of boils by dams, and along concrete lock-and-dam walls that serve as ambush points.
I find one of the most effective rigs for catching skipjack and mooneye is a tandem tube jig rig, with two jigs spaced 8 to 16 inches apart on loop knots. I fish this rig quickly and erratically just under the surface. Double hookups are common, but fish are constantly moving, so fish quickly when you find them. Gizzard shad are easy to catch in large numbers once they're located, and it's a matter of learning how to throw a cast net. To keep baits as fresh as possible, keep them alive in an oval bait tank with circulating water and ideally, an oxygen infuser, or pack them fresh on ice. If you study the baitwells of striper fishermen, you learn a lot about how to keep bait alive. For cutbait, a 120-quart cooler full of ice and regularly drained of meltwater keeps bait fresh.
"When the water temperature exceeds 80°F, I switch to mooneye because it seems to slowly release particles and scent in the water like a melting bouillon cube," Willet says. "Skipjacks still work and gizzard shad are plentiful at this time of year, but mooneye are the fillet mignon of baits for big blue cats in July and August. It's best to keep mooneye alive until you use them. Knock their scales off and cut them in two below their dorsal fin. The bleeding bait triggers the laziest of giant blue cats. The double circle hook rig excels in summer when blues tend to suspend more in slack water."
For catching giant blue cats in big rivers this summer, start with big, fresh bait and focus your efforts during periods that offer good current flow and ideal water levels. With simple rigging approaches and an eye for locating individual fish on structure with electronics, summer can be prime time to drift and bounce your way to a trophy of a lifetime.