Mid-day high sun, almost 90 degrees, and calm—not great conditions for catfishing in lakes in Minnesota. In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt and I were out recently after channel cats, taking in one of the last bouts of summer weather. Neither of us had fished this lake before, but Cory’s research looked promising that channel cats were here.
We both have fished with Marlin Ormseth, catfish guide on Santee-Cooper. I fished with Ormseth for a TV segment a few years ago highlighting the trolling tactics he’s developed to catch blue and channel cats. We’ve also covered his strategies in In-Fisherman magazine. Marlin’s methods stem from his roots as a walleye angler. Hence the incorporation of planer boards, driftsocks, and an electric trolling motor into the setup.
I’ve wanted to try trolling in northern natural lakes since seeing how effective it can be at Santee-Cooper. So Cory and I packed rods set up with three-way rigs, consisting of a 1-foot dropper and a 1/2-ounce walking sinker off one eye of a three-way swivel. Off the other eye is a 16-inch section of mono tied to a barrel swivel, followed by another 1-foot section of mono, ending in a 4/0 Trokar Octopus hook. These Trokars are extremely sharp. There’s little chance it won’t stick once it finds tissue. Completing the rig is a small in-line foam float installed just above the barrel swivel on the leader, to keep the bait riding up just above bottom, or at least bouncing with a bit more buoyancy. One of Cory’s rods also sports a spinner rig.
The lake we’re at on this trip has a simple basin with sand and silt bottom and scattered rock and little rooted vegetation. Looks to be an ideal candidate for trolling cats. Most natural lakes up this way tend to have clearer water with well-developed weedlines and deeper basins, which makes them less suited for this sort of trolling. This lake has more reservoir-like characteristics, and we’ll be able to cover a lot of water effectively. It looks like a promising test run.
The rest of the setup is simple: rod holders and trolling motor. The conditions were calm so we didn’t need the driftsock, just the trolling motor to pull us along from 0.4 to 0.8 mph, averaging about 0.5 to 0.6 mph, with rods in holders and hooks baited with strips of fresh cut sucker. In windy conditions, deploy a driftsock off the back of the boat and troll with the wind. Troll into light winds. Troll with heavier winds and deploy a driftsock to slow the boat. Set a second driftsock off the back if one isn’t doing the job. The autopilot on the Minn-Kota motor makes boat control hands- and foot-free, allowing you to tend rods and cut bait. Set a course, adjust speed, and you’re all set. If your bait isn’t bouncing bottom, you’re either moving too fast or you need to add a bit of weight. Try to stay in the 0.5- to 0.7-mph range. If that doesn’t pan out, adjust speed a bit to experiment.
We start fishing on a transect that crosses the deeper main basin, baits set about 100 feet back, but we don’t connect. Next we trolled baits along shallower shoreline areas. Again, still in process-of-elimination mode. The next stop is a large bay with an expansive flat ranging from 3 to 5 feet deep.
Here’s where the planer boards come out. Cory installs a board on one line while I longline my rig about 175-feet back without a board. Another option on the longline behind the boat is to install a release float as an indicator. Ormseth makes what he calls a Herbie float.
Now we’re covering a 50-foot swath, straining water away from the boat to target fish that might not be spooked by passing over them in shallow water. Moving constantly along in shallow water at 0.5 mph, the first rod goes down, the Trokar finds home, and we boat a nice channel cat. Cory’s planer board flips and flops. A hit on that one. More nice channels on the longline, all the while moving along at a constant slow troll.
Trolling was effective for catching catfish on the large, shallow flat of this natural lake, considering the bright, calm, and hot conditions. Constantly moving and covering water with trolling was a good way to contact fish scattered over large areas. What works at Santee can work here, too, and likely in waters near you. Find the right lake for the job. You might need to adapt the setup a bit to match local conditions.