Catfish Tournament Trends
June 26, 2014
Catfish tournament anglers today are wrestling to the surface enormous animals that for years almost no one knew existed. Yet as systems for pinpointing and presenting baits to giant blue catfish continue to evolve, five-fish tournament limits are ballooning to ever-increasing weights. At the 2013 Cabela's King Kat USA event on Lake Tawakoni, Texas, it took a 46-pound average to place in the top three, and 239 pounds of blue cats to win. Ditto for the 2013 Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest National Championship on the Mississippi River at Tunica, Mississippi. Brothers Daryl and Jason Masingale weighed a near 48-pound average, but still finished second. A month earlier on the Mississippi at Crystal City, Missouri, the team eclipsed a 53-pound average, weighing 268 pounds and winning the Bass Pro Shops qualifying event by 118 pounds.
Relative to the competitive pursuit of 5-pound bass, consider a weigh-in where 50- to 100-pound catfish emerge from livewells with regularity. When timing and a fruitful fishery unite, 100s are more than a possibility. At the 2007 Big Cat Quest Championship on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tennessee, 100-plus-pound blues came to the weigh-in on two consecutive days. And at the 2010 River Bend Classic near St. Louis, Missouri, Ryan Casey and Jason Jackson boated a 105-pounder that anchored a 330-pound limit.
Given the rising skill of participating anglers, the possibility of a new world record caught during competition remains good. Whether you follow these increasingly popular events in earnest or disapprove of them completely, you can't discount the discovery of new catfishing techniques, trends, and technology.
Catfish events are growing and improving the sport in positive ways.
Tourneys and Catfish Management
If there's a singular hopeful trend emerging from tournaments it's the attitude regarding the release of larger catfish. Both the Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops circuits have total catch-and-release rules. Any fish brought to a weigh-in site dead or deemed to be dying aren't merely penalized a percentage of their weight — expired catfish are disallowed and erased from a team's total weight. As a result, anglers go to great lengths to keep fish healthy with oversized livewells and special aeration systems to assure a lively limit.
"When event onlookers see giant catfish not only weighed in but also released healthy back into their local waters, it's a huge positive, not only for public relations within the community, but for catch-and-release catfishing as a whole," says Darrel Van Vactor, president and CEO of Cabela's King Kat USA circuit. "We keep our weigh-in sites open all day, so anglers can weigh big fish at any time, without worries over fish health. If you weigh two fish at noon, they're tallied and go toward your total limit of 5. It's a system that works well for all parties, and assures the highest live release rates possible."
Ken Freeman, director of the Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest reports that tournaments are also shaping statewide management plans. "We worked hard to push through the new rule in Tennessee that restricts harvest of trophy cats to only one fish over 34 inches per day. Virginia has a similar 32-inch rule for blue cats. And we're also lobbying for parallel regulations in Arkansas and on Santee-Cooper in South Carolina, where tighter restrictions have become sorely needed."
Van Vactor says Texas has legislation coming up for a vote on slot limits at several top lakes, including Tawakoni near Dallas, where record-breaking limits continue to be weighed. Meanwhile, at Lake Texoma, only one blue cat over 30 inches is allowed in a total bag limit of 12 fish. Statewide, Texas currently allows the harvest of 25 blues or channels (or 5 flatheads) per day with minimum size limits only.
"In a lot of the communities that host King Kat tournaments, people and businesses are realizing that the catfish's importance as a sportfish outweighs its value as a commercially harvested species," Van Vactor says. Anglers seeking catfish in many of these communities add tremendous revenue streams, which are just beginning to be realized.
"Catfish are everywhere — in nearly every state. And we're finding that catfish anglers are everywhere, too. We jumped from 12 to 18 King Kat events in the past year, and could have easily hosted 30. That's how much interest we're now seeing from anglers and community partners," he says.
As a result of both the rising interest in catfishing and catch-and-release regulations, Van Vactor, Freeman, and top catfish tournament teams, such as the Masingales, acknowledge that catfish caught in tournaments seem to be getting bigger each season. "These days, an 80-pound fish isn't extravagant," says Jason Masingale. "Spectators love to see these giant fish, and at many events, hundreds of people show up to see the show."
"It might take 40 years to grow a 100-pound fish," Freeman says. "It's hard for them to get that big in a state where trotlines are everywhere and length limits don't apply. But with new attitudes and catch-and-release regulations, we're optimistic about the long-term outlook for big catfish, all across the country."
While tournament-inspired regulations protect larger catfish, anglers and tournament directors concur that technology has played a big role in turning up these increasingly heavy cats. "Minn Kota's iPilot has revolutionized the way we fish," says Daryl Masingale. "This past year, we only anchored about 10 percent of the time. The iPilot allows us to keep fishing precisely, while the motor does the work. We can rig, watch electronics, monitor rods, and even fight and net fish, all without touching the trolling motor."
Regarding technology and its advantages, Freeman said Bass Pro Shops recently polled tournament anglers to name the one piece of equipment they wouldn't fish without. The unanimous answer? iPilot.
Van Vactor claims this tool has been key in the rise of a popular boat control tactic adapted from crappie and walleye tournaments. "The controlled drift method holds the boat along a specific contour or channel edge. Using iPilot, anglers can stay in exactly 30 feet of water, plug in a speed of say .3 or .4 mph, and then move along at the exact speed of the current. With rods in rod holders, rigs hang vertically below the boat, where the anglers can monitor everything that's happening on sonar.
Legendary tournament angler Phil King extols the advantages of teaming Humminbird sonar with Minn Kota iPilot. "Boat control has been greatly eased with the iPilot remote control. It's essentially like having an extra 'man' in the boat, so to speak. Set it and let the trolling motor do the work. The tool also shines for repeating productive drifts. Simply record a productive GPS route and set the iPilot to automatically duplicate the same run. Amazing piece of equipment that, along with properly used driftsocks, results in more fish in the boat."
At the Crystal City Bass Pro Shops event, the Masingales likewise gave props to their iPilot. "The current was ripping along at 3 mph," Daryl says. "We positioned the bow upstream, engaged the Auto Pilot function and cut our drift speed to about half the velocity of the current. As a result, our rigs tumbled more slowly along bottom, giving catfish more time to react and eat our baits. It was a huge factor in our win there."
Regarding sonar, Van Vactor adds: "We've seen a tremendous recent movement toward anglers adopting side-imaging. On many occasions, anglers have located big cats on side-imaging, entered a waypoint, and anchored up-current of the fish. Then they check the distance to the fish's waypoint and use a line-counter reel to direct the bait back to where the fish was located. Hundred-pound fish have been caught this way."
Fresh off multiple wins on the 2012 King Kat circuit, Ohio anglers Carl Morris and partner Sean Martin offered similar sentiments, crediting side-imaging for much of their success. "During prefishing, we don't do much actual fishing," Morris says. "We like to run long stretches of the river or reservoir, probing with side-imaging. With the unit set to scan 250 feet on both sides, you can eliminate a lot of water fast. Current breaks such as stumps, rockpiles, or subtle bottom depressions show up clearly on screen. We mark them with GPS, then drive back over these spots with down-imaging, which gives an even clearer picture of the terrain."
While many competitors now make effective use of side-imaging, the Masingales note that sonar isn't always a fish-finding panacea. "During prefishing on the Mississippi, big blues were along revetment banks, but on tournament day, we quickly realized the fish had moved off these ledges and into the main channel. We kept running standard sonar and side-imaging over the deep channel, but never marked a single catfish."
Not convinced the units were telling the whole truth, the Masingales turned to intuition and experience and continued fishing the area, eventually catching an incredible limit of blue cats. "In heavy river current, fish glue themselves to the bottom and hunker down into divots and crevices. Sonar doesn't always show these cats, so if we have a good feeling about a spot, we fish it regardless."
Justin Cook, winner of the 2014 King Kat event on Lake Tawakoni, typically uses his Humminbird more for its GPS mapping than its sonar. "Depth is a major consideration on any catfish water," he says. "The contours on my mapping screen often tell me much more than fish arcs on sonar. Too many anglers pay too much attention to fish marks when they should be looking at depth, structure, and specific contours. On Tawakoni, we focused on certain 5- to 10-foot flats where fish were constantly moving through. We set up on a key section of a flat and anchored where we could intercept the highest numbers of fish."
Cook also sees many anglers drifting aimlessly over fishless water, paying little attention to sonar or maps. "I've also seen anglers at tournaments catching fish on bottom one day, but then the bite suddenly seems to die, and everyone starts scrambling. Often, the fish are still there, but have shifted upward and suspended 5 or 10 feet or higher off bottom. Instead of watching their sonar and adjusting their presentations, anglers often continue fishing on bottom. We've won by getting our baits off bottom, putting them right in front of suspended cats. In these cases, the Spot-Lock function on our iPilot is critical. With the proper adjustments to your sonar, you can also watch individual catfish move in and eat your bait on screen."
As winning presentations have become increasingly intertwined with sonar, boat control, and precise sections of underwater turf, technology has become synonymous with technique. Among top anglers, even anchors have to some degree been relegated to musty storage compartments. For the Masingales, ditching the anchor has been one of their biggest keys to success.
"Early in our catfishing careers, we spent a lot of time anchored on select spots on the Mississippi River, says Jason. "When we started fishing tournaments, we realized we'd have to become much more versatile if we were going to take our game to the next level. A lot of great anglers helped us with advice and tactical know-how. Pioneers in the sport like Phil King, Matt Bingham, and David Coughlin; each one of them stressed moving, staying active to catch active catfish."
"A few years ago, we took the anchor out of our boat," Daryl says. "That forced us to try other techniques. We didn't want to specialize in any one presentation. Now, at each event we try to keep an open mind and adapt to the conditions, and to fish and make decisions based on intuition. We call it 'smart fishing,' using the evidence we've gathered on the water to make the right call. One of the biggest mistakes we see anglers make is that if they catch fish a certain way before the tournament, they try to force fish to bite that way every day. Usually, the catfish have other plans."
Whether the Masingales are anchoring, trolling, or controlled-drifting, they usually rely on active approaches to contact cats, particularly blues, which can be as energetic as striped bass or any other predator. "Most of our wins have resulted from active approaches," Daryl says, "drifting, dragging, or walking baits. An actively feeding fish is a moving fish, so we try to keep baits moving as much as possible."
"Anchoring can be a great approach, but during the same time many anglers sit on a single spot, we might have moved and repositioned 15 to 20 times," Jason says. The intensity of their approach is often related to water temperature. In winter when surface temps climb barely into the 40s, they often move along at less than 0.5 mph. In summer tournaments, they've had great success trolling at up to 2.5 mph.
Morris and Martin, who won the 2012 King Kat Team of the Year title, plus wins on the Chattahoochee River and Alabama River, prefer to drift anytime the water breaches 50°F. Often, they drag three-way rigs 50 to 100 yards behind the boat, adding a cigar float just ahead of the hook for extra buoyancy.
Trends in Tackle and Equipment
Beyond advancements in on-the-water approaches, anglers and tournament directors both point to a rise in the quantity and quality of catfish-specific tackle. Much of the new gear has been designed or at least inspired by competitive catfishing. Progressive companies, such as Team Catfish and Rippin Lips, offer advanced rods, hooks, tools and manufactured bait, thanks to input from top tournament anglers. The Masingales extol the virtues of lighter carbon graphite rods, such as the Team Catfish iCat. John Jamison, who has returned to the national tournament scene following a two-year hiatus, helped Rippin Lips design their SuperCat rods, as well as a new scent additive called Scent Trail, which is formulated with omega-3 fish oils.
Van Vactor adds that long-time crappie specialists B'n'M Poles have jumped into the catfish rod market with four new models in their Silver Cat line. Frabill and Ego have both developed landing and cast nets with catfish applications. Freeman and others also emphasize the expanded use of line-counter reels, such as Shimano's Tekota, which have become as important to precision cat presentations as they are for Great Lakes salmon trolling.
On the business end of things, circle hooks remain winners, with Daiichi Circle Chunk Lights, Rippin Lips Tournament Grade, and Team Catfish Double Action hooks all attracting loyal followings, joining Eagle Claw and Gamakatsu. Tandem hook rigs — two circle hooks snelled 4 to 8 inches apart on 50- to 80-pound test fluorocarbon — has increased hook-up rates in recent years. New Santee-Cooper-style float and attractor rigs also have emerged. Whisker Seeker offers a line of Catfish Float Rigs, including versions with rattles, buzz blades, and an array of intriguing float colors.
Not to be lost are innovations in the manufacture of cat boats. SeaArk's ProCat series is one of the first to offer a standard 80-gallon livewell — or an optional 100-gallon well — plus more powerful livewell pumps for keeping fresh water constantly pumping through the system. The Masingales, who run these boats in tournaments, say that SeaArk also offers a custom rail system for easily mounting and repositioning rod holders without drilling holes. Cook and Jamison, who both use a Lund Pro Guide tiller, say the expansive open layout offers the utmost in catfishing functionality.
Tournament Trending Fisheries
On big waters, larger 20- to 24-foot boats and fast motors are another noticeable trend. Surveying and fishing greater expanses of big rivers and reservoirs has contributed to the rise in tournament weights. Thanks to recent performances by topnotch anglers, numerous phenomenal waters have entered the spotlight. It's not so much that fishing has turned excellent overnight; it's that great anglers employing efficient new tactics are discovering pockets of previously untouched catfish.
When the King Kat circuit visited Calamus Reservoir, Nebraska, in August of 2012, the results were astounding. The winning team of Josh Koll and Mat Helm weighed 118.75 pounds of channel cats, for a nearly 24-pound average. During a return visit in August 2013, the winning team boated 128 pounds, including a 33.45-pound kicker. Calamus hosts an abundant gizzard shad population and like other Nebraska reservoirs, such as Merritt and McConaughy, grows giant channels.
Another bombshell rocked the catfishing community when massive limits of blue cats came to the scales at the March 2013 King Kat event on Lake Tawakoni — a 37,000-acre impoundment just an hour east of Dallas, Texas. Three teams weighed 5-fish limits exceeding 200 pounds. Winners Paul and Dan Miles registered nearly 240 pounds, anchored by a 61-pound blue. Fishing deep water near the dam with cut shad, the team caught so many big fish they lost count.
This past March, Justin Cook and Roger Gerloff weighed 217 pounds at Tawakoni, winning by over 36 pounds. The Missouri anglers caught their cats on the reservoir's shallow, windblown north-end flats, rigging with 1- x 1-inch squares of cut shad.
When asked to name their top tournament venues, the Masingales, Morris, Jamison, and other anglers answered: Lake Fork, Texas; Lake Barkley, Kentucky; Ohio River near Henderson, Kentucky; Santee-Cooper, South Carolina; Missouri/Mississippi rivers near St. Louis; Missouri River upstream into Kansas; and Wheeler Lake, Alabama.
With the emergence of so many discoveries and game-changing tactics, the next world record should be bottoming out tournament scales any time now.