Precision Catfish Bait Placement
May 22, 2014
I lofted a fresh gob of bloody chicken liver into the deepest, darkest hole along the cutbank, upended an empty 5-gallon bucket, and sat down. "The catfish will find the bait," I said confidently, this scene playing out decades ago. Dad shrugged at my 20-something, know-it-all attitude and bee-lined for a riffle at the upper end of the hole. Over the next hour he put twice as many 2- to 3-pound channel cats on the stringer as I did. During one of the long periods when there was nothing going on with my line, I half-turned and watched Dad repeatedly cast into the riffle.
I noticed a pattern — if his gob of chicken liver didn't land precisely within a swirling, 3-foot-diameter eddy in the middle of the riffle, he'd hurriedly retrieve his bait and cast again. And if he landed his bait in that eddy, he'd lift his rod tip high, wait about two minutes, then set the hook and pull up a glistening channel cat. Swallowing my pride, I reeled in and trudged up the sandbar.
"What am I doing wrong?" I asked.
"Nothing," he said, carefully lifting his rod tip and eyeing his line as it slowly swirled out of the eddy. "It's what I'm doing right. Catfish eventually come to your bait if you just toss it out there." He set the hook on another 3-pounder. "But you catch more and bigger fish if you put your bait right on the end of their nose." That was my first lesson in precision catfish bait placement.
My most recent conversation about precision presentations was with catfish guide Denny Halgren of Dixon, Illinois. His home water is the Rock River in northern Illinois, where he guides clients to flatheads in the 30- to 50-pound-plus range. "I can catch flatheads day or night because I target them in their sanctuaries, not just when they're feeding," he says. "From May until late September, big flatheads follow a pretty strict pattern. They have their sanctuaries (holding areas) and they have feeding areas. The two places may be miles apart on the river. When they're in their feeding areas, they're aggressive and come to a bait. But they don't feed often. The big ones might not feed more than once a week.
"When they're not feeding, they're holding in the deepest, nastiest snags or holes they can find," he says. "These fish only move to defend their territory, bumping or intimidating bigger fish. If they can't intimidate smaller fish, they just eat them. It's not because they're actively feeding, but eating the smaller fish is just more efficient than chasing them. When flatheads are in that mode, a bait 3 feet from them is too far away. You've got to put it right in front of them and annoy them into biting."
The spots flatheads favor when they're in a reclusive mood vary in size, depth, and detail, but Halgren says they have similarities. "Spots can be as shallow as 8 or 9 feet, or as deep as 20," he says. "I'm looking for cover, from a single big tree in a deep hole to a monster logjam. If it's a single tree, a big tree that's been in the water for awhile is best, and all that's left is the rootball, the main trunk, and a few big branches, all of it underwater so I know there's some depth associated with it. If it's a big logjam, I identify how the current moves through it, where the biggest tree trunks and rootballs are.
"If it's a single tree that I've fished before and I know it's a sanctuary-type spot, I anchor just upstream from the rootball and put my baits precisely in four places: One right behind the rootball, one on each side of the main trunk, and I suspend one over the rootball. I'm constantly moving and adjusting baits to trigger that big flathead into biting. I get baits as close to the fish as I can until it's provoked into striking."
Big logjams are more complex and eat more tackle than single trees. "You need the courage to toss your baits right into the ugliest part of the logpile," Halgren says. "I don't plan on getting a hook back unless there's a fish on it. We worry about how to get the fish out once we get it hooked."
Halgren lands a high percentage of flatheads he hooks deep within logpiles, yet he's using only 20-pound monofilament. "Twenty-pound line keeps me from horsing them," he says. "Nine times out of ten, if you get their head up as soon as you stick them, and keep a steady pressure on them, the current helps you get them out of even the nastiest woodcover. You may have to use your motor and move on top of the fish, but if you're patient and let the current help you, you can get them out of some real messes."
Attention to the size and location of flatheads helps Halgren avoid wasting time on structure that doesn't harbor the biggest flatheads in the neighborhood. "If I catch a couple of small flatheads out of the middle of a big logpile, I pull anchor and move on. Those small ones wouldn't be there if a big fish were around. If I pick up a couple of small flatheads on my outer rods, but nothing's happening in the prime spots in the middle of the logpile, I buckle down and get ready, because that tells me there's a big boy in there pushing the smaller ones out. I just need to put a bait right on his nose and annoy him into taking it."
Halgren changes his tactics when he fishes for flatheads in feeding areas but still practices precise bait placement. "Feeding areas can be hard to find, but if you find one, you've found a place where there are always feeding flatheads, day or night. Those spots are usually open-water current-breaks, associated with a drop-off from a sandbar in a couple of feet of water down into a hole, maybe 7 feet or more. Feeding areas also contain a lot of sticks, small branches, rocks, or some other cover associated with the current break holding invertebrates that attract forage fish. Flatheads can move for miles from their sanctuaries to feed in those specific spots."
When fishing feeding areas, Halgren anchors his boat so the stern is just over or slightly upstream from the drop-off into deep water. He says that the biggest flatheads associate with the most dramatic current break along the drop-off. "Flatheads in feeding areas are aggressive. Put a bait over the edge of that drop-off and it's like ringing a dinner bell. You don't need to be casting all over the hole or drifting baits into certain spots. Just put it right over the edge and let it fall to the base of the drop-off."
Bait placement is also critical to Halgren's tactics for big channel catfish. "Flatheads are in logjams to hold, but channel cats are in there to feed. So channel cats are in different spots in the cover than flatheads are, and channels are more aggressive. Every logjam has a biggest boil, one spot where the current is really working. It may only be 2 feet deep where the water is churning, but that's the spot where the biggest channel cats tend to be. I put my bait right in that boil and if a channel cat doesn't grab it right away, it won't be a minute or two before the current takes it to where a fish is waiting. You can fish the entire logjam, fishing any smaller boils or behind the boils, but you won't catch bigger or more channel cats than if you put your bait exactly into the main boil."
In recent years, most of the fishing trips that Joe Drose has guided on South Carolina's Santee-Cooper lakes have been for blue catfish. But in 2008 he plans to return to his first love — flatheads. "I fished for flatheads every day for 7 years," Drose says. "Lately I've been working on blues pretty hard, but it's time to see how big the flatheads are getting to be."
Whether fishing for blues or flatheads, Drose is particular about bait placement. "When I'm after flatheads, I set out a marker float where I see them on sonar, then go back and set my anchors." (Drose says that blue cats show up on his sonar as a "sharp V," while flatheads mark as "cannonballs" or a "broad V.") "I use anchors to position my boat directly over them. I've got 300 feet of rope on my front anchor, and 150 feet on my rear anchor. I set the anchors a good distance away from where I marked the flatheads so I don't spook them, and I let out or wind in the anchor lines until I'm right beside that floating marker. If I can't reach over the side and touch that marker, I'm not close enough. Then I drop my baits right down on top of those flatheads. They won't swim far sideways to get it — you need to drop it right on their heads."
Drose says that he often marks three or more big flatheads in a relatively small area when fishing the submerged timber at Santee-Cooper. It's critical to catch the first flathead of the group that bites. "If you catch that first one, there's something about him fighting that turns the others on," he says. "Be sure to have your other baits down there close to it, because a lot of times I hook the others right away. But if you miss the first one and he takes off, you might as well pull up the anchors because once they're spooked, that spot is done."
Blue catfish also require precision at Santee-Cooper, especially in the spring. Drose says that early-season blues congregate in shallow water around cypress trees. "You've got to put your baits right up on that wood," he says. "If your sinkers don't knock on the wood, about half the time you're not close enough. From February through early June, I look for clam beds around those cypress trees because that's where the blues are."
Once the water warms, Drose drifts for blue cats in deep water. His drifts are focused and fast. "I won't even put a line in the water unless I've marked a school of baitfish," he says. "You just don't find blues unless there's a school of baitfish. Then I put my baits just below the edges of the baitfish school. If you're not within a couple feet of the baitfish, you're not going to get bit. It's work to stay on top of the baitfish as they move, but that sort of precision is what puts blue cats in the boat."
Schools of baitfish are also the targets that allow Oklahoma fishing guide Albert McBee to fish precisely for blue cats in Robert S. Kerr Lake on the Arkansas River in Oklahoma from December through mid-spring. "Even if a blue cat is working a school of baitfish, it isn't going to travel far to take a bait," McBee says. "They've got hundreds, maybe thousands of baitfish to choose from in that school, so you've got to place your bait so blues don't have to move far to eat it.
"I set a float on the leader of a 3-way rig so that even though the sinker is on bottom, the float holds the bait 2 feet below the school of baitfish. Then I work that bait around like I'm vertical-jigging. I warn my clients that fishing with me isn't restful, but it's fun because we work at catching fish."
Warmer weather sends McBee to windward shorelines to fish for both blues and channel cats. He searches for driftwood trees lodged in 2 to 3 feet of water and tosses his baits against the logs or under the rootballs. "When the waves are crashing in over those logs and rootballs, I work baits as close as I can to that wood.
"My clients are amazed at the number of channel cats and the size of blue cats we pull out of maybe only 2 feet of water. Daylight or dark, it doesn't matter, as long as you get the bait right against the wood on that windy shoreline. Catfish are in there feeding on the baitfish that are foraging on the little critters that the wave action churns up. The trick is not to worry about how shallow it is and to focus specifically on any woody structure. I've taken 10-pound channel cats and 30-pound blues from water so shallow that you'd think their backs would be sunburned."
McBee, like Drose and Halgren, never shotguns baits in the general direction where catfish might be. Every cast is rifle-precise, carefully aimed to land as close as possible to a waiting catfish, because in the end, precision pays.
Refining Location — -Yesterday and Today
Decades ago, few catfish anglers realized how many more fish they could catch if they applied some basic theories about catfish behavior and location. It was about that time when regular coverage of catfish began in In'‘Fisherman magazine, and later in Catfish In-Sider magazine and the annual Catfish In'‘Sider Guide. Articles brought about revolutionary ideas, leading to a landslide of more advanced catfishing principles.
Editor In Chief Doug Stange pioneered various catfishing theories and applications, particularly related to the subject of this article in terms of spot-on-the-spot presentation strategies. Early writings covered riffle-hole-run theory, current seams and tunnels, feeding lanes, and various aspects of fishing cover and structure, often with a keen eye for presentation precision. We also tapped a handful of other seasoned, independent catmen ahead of the curve at the time, who contributed to the catfish information explosion of the 1980s and 1990s.
Later, Steve Hoffman, now In'‘Fisherman Publisher, shared his expertise and catfishing refinements in In-Fisherman and as editor of Catfish In-Sider Guide. Today, along with Stange and Hoffman, Rob Neumann, In-Fisherman Managing Editor and also Editor of this guide, brings his background as a fishery biologist and former fishery professor to help decipher the nature of catfish and catfishing.
Many more good catfish anglers are out there today than ever before, in part from knowing the fish they seek and following strategies to narrow location, with further refinements in presentation precision. Sitting in a lawnchair under a bridge waiting for catfish to come by is as nostalgic to catfishing as are chicken livers, campfires, and a six-pack of suds. We won't forget where we came from. But we're all about catching more fish and having fun, so we'll keep moving to find catfish, rather than wait for them to come by.