Finding and Catching Reservoir Catfish
June 09, 2014
Anyone who has read about catfish knows about Santee-Cooper. And what they say is true; it is a place every serious catfisherman should visit. Many things contribute to making this place special — a long growing season, warm water, abundant forage fish, and loads of freshwater mussels. No place is quite like it. Still, the same techniques used to catch catfish at Santee-Cooper should work on your hometown reservoir, too.
A full-time year-round catfish guide for almost 10 years, Shipley has experimented enough to know what works. His methods are not meant to fill a stringer with pan-size cats; he's after big fish. And his stack of photographs of smiling clients holding giant catfish reveals that he usually is successful.
Shipley started catfishing the hard way. He pulled his first boat out of a junkyard, rebuilt it, and started guiding. He knows catfish. And right now, Shipley says he's ready to open up about something: "People need to know about fishing shallow, and they need to know about using suspension rigs."
Rigging For Reservoir Catfish — One Size Fits All
Shipley's techniques start with his rig. And he uses the same rig in almost every situation, whether he's after flatheads, blues, or channels during the day or night. Components include 50-pound Berkley Big Game line, a 2-ounce egg sinker, a piece of airline tubing (an inexpensive and effective substitute for a bead), a swivel, a 3-foot leader, and a 7/0 Eagle Claw Kahle hook. He ties a partially inflated balloon (about the size of a golf ball) to the leader a foot or two above the hook. The balloon floats the bait (live or cut) off the bottom. This makes cutbait easier for cats to find and a live baitfish continually struggles against the buoyancy of the balloon.
Shipley says that balloons are less expensive than the panfish floats many guides use, and because they're soft, cats don't mind crunching down on them. "Sometimes cats will even hit the balloon first," Shipley says, "before going for the bait. I used floats for a while, but got too many bumps that never resulted in a hookup. When I retrieved my bait I'd often find teeth marks in the float."
Top Bait Options — Native And Fresh
Shipley is fanatical about bait and stresses that good catfish bait must be native and fresh. "I use native baitfish species almost exclusively," he says. "I always try to use whatever the fish are eating. I catch all of my bait on hook and line in the area where I intend to fish for cats, especially during summer."
For blues and channels, Shipley cuts the bait into pieces. He keeps the baitfish fresh and lively in a baitwell until he cuts them, though fresh-caught bait also can be kept fresh on ice. When targeting flatheads, Shipley uses live baitfish. And while he prefers large livebaits for trophy flatheads, he uses small baits, too. "The condition of the bait is more important than the size," he adds. "If any baitfish swims around enough, it will attract flatheads."
And Shipley changes his baits more often than most catfish anglers. "With every cast, I at least make a new cut on the fish, to get it bleeding again," he says. "Once I've cast out a time or two and waited a half hour or so, it's time for a new bait."
Check local laws to see what fish can be used as bait. Many states allow any legally caught species. Fishing with baitfish is not as convenient as using commercial baits. It's time consuming to catch your own, and expensive to buy bait. But in any reservoir, particularly one not familiar to you, native baitfish give you the best shot for both numbers and size of catfish.
Spring Patterns — Spawning Blues And Channels
"I start fishing shallow for big blue cats as soon as the water warms and the fish start thinking about spawning," Shipley says. "And on Santee-Cooper that can happen as early as February, when egg-laden females move onto shallow structures. At Santee-Cooper, that means cypress tree roots, flooded weedbeds, or stump fields — anyplace that can hide a cluster of eggs."
Spawning often occurs at the upper end of a lake, near where a river enters the reservoir. "I've seen blues spawn on the lower end of the lake, too," Shipley says, "but they always move into shallow water, say from less than a foot to about seven feet deep."
Locating spawning cats — even on unfamiliar water — is easier during spring. Look for shallow cover-laden water. "I might anchor off a rocky beach," Shipley says, "and fan casts down the bank. Or I might anchor near an island of cypress trees and cast each bait toward a stump or root wad — any shallow structure that might attract a spawning cat."
Once catfish move shallow, they remain there until they finish spawning. The key is to move around in search of warmer water, cover, and forage. Fronts or other weather conditions, however, could always drive them into deeper water. "When the fish are this shallow, a severe cold front can shut them down for a couple days," Shipley says.
To find eager cats, Shipley moves often. He likes to anchor and use as many as 10 rods, usually with baits cast in a semicircle around the stern of the boat. If nothing happens or if the bite slows, he moves. He rarely stays anchored in one spot for long. "If I haven't gotten bit in 30 minutes, I'm gone," he says. "Even if I know fish are there, if they aren't hitting, I don't wait around." In spring, especially, some cats will be active somewhere. Move and find actively feeding fish. "Start shallow and gradually move deeper, if you need to," Shipley continues. "Don't make any drastic changes. If you're fishing from two to four feet, move on down to the 4- to 6-foot zone."
The best shallow-water bite follows a week or two of warm, stable weather. What most folks just call nice spring weather. That's enough to increase the water temperature several degrees and draw cats and baitfish into the shallows.
Summer Patterns — Follow The Food
After spawning, catfish tend to move out of the shallows and fall into predictable patterns. "As the season progresses, gradually make your way deeper," Shipley says. The fish may drop down to a point, or shift out to a ledge or drop-off near a channel, but they always stay near an area where they can find food. The key is to know what the reservoir catfish are feeding on in a particular area.
While structure is always important, and cats will move into deeper water relating to some kind of structure (such as a point or ledge), a food source can lead them into other, sometimes surprising places. This drive for food is clearly evident when observing blues feeding on mussel beds in Santee-Cooper. "I don't really follow schools of baitfish," Shipley says. "Instead, after the spawn, I start to concentrate on mussel beds."
As water levels drop from May until September, mussel beds are exposed to the hot sun. These dying mussels make easy prey for blue cats. Catching even one blue will reveal its stomach bulging with mussel shells, and if the fish is kept in a livewell, it will pass the shells. Analyzing this one example will reveal the important strategy for reservoir fishing of following the food to the catfish.
"Find out what baitfish are native to the reservoir," Shipley says, "or if the lake has mussels. This will determine where the cats will be and how you should be fishing. If a lake has mussels, the practice is to go shallow. And lakes with mussels grow bigger blue cats in less time than those without strong mussel populations."
Because mussels often group on shallow flats such as the edges around an island, it's easy to predict where blue cats will be foraging. Even though the cats are feeding on mussels in this situation, however, a fresh piece of cutbait often is the most effective bait. And even in shallow water, Shipley uses his suspension rig.
As a general rule, catfish move deeper in summer, but they remain within striking distance of their preferred food source. One could guess that blue cats do not prefer to be in water that shallow, but how can a food source so readily available and easy to get be ignored? Because mussels do not need to be chased, cats expend little energy eating them.
"Summertime is also time to start thinking about flatheads at night," Shipley says. "When June rolls around, we work on flatheads with live white perch and bluegills." Shipley fishes deeper water for flatheads, but again, only if bait is present. "Flatheads won't roam much all year, provided bait is around. If the bait leaves, the flatheads wait only a day or two before following them." Shipley looks for deeper holes near edges and drop-offs when he's targeting flatheads.
Fall And Winter Patterns — Plumbing The Depths
As the reservoir cools in fall, all catfish group in deeper water, often around edges and holes in the channel. Shipley catches blues and flatheads at this time, usually around stands of submerged timber, and often in water exceeding 20 feet. "Anytime the water temperature drops below 55°F, catfish will be in the deepest parts of the lake," Shipley explains.
Anchoring near cover or on a drop-off, Shipley fishes cutbait or live baitfish. "All the baitfish, as well as the catfish, are in these holes," Shipley says. "As a rule, blue cats and flatheads don't use the same habitat. But in winter, everything they need is right there. They stay until the water warms in spring." Flatheads also more likely take cutbait at this time, making fresh cut baitfish an ideal bait for all three catfish species.
Selective Harvest — Sustaining Fine Fishing
I fished with Shipley one evening during late summer last year. We anchored in a foot of water near some exposed mussel beds and caught blue cats up to 40 pounds in water so shallow the fish would explode the surface when we set the hook. We probably caught 20 or so fish, while most people reported a slow night. We sat and watched the other boats cruising around, out in the deeper water, looking for fish. "They don't believe what we're doing in here," Shipley said. "But the blue cats don't care; they're going to the food.
"All reservoir fishing — all fishing, really — is about noticing what is going on around you and being willing to try something different," Shipley concludes. A guide has the advantage of fishing one body of water all the time, but catfish in any reservoir follow predictable patterns. Once you determine these patterns, you're on your way to catching more fish.
It wouldn't be right, though, to discuss Shipley's tactics without stressing his catch-and-release policy. His clients must release any fish over 50 pounds, and he encourages them to release any cat over 30. He even gives them ten dollars back for every big fish they release. "If we want to keep catching big cats for a long time, we have to think about these things," he says. "Catch and release is the way to go for big fish."