Every catfish hunter worth his or her weight in No-Roll sinkers has one — a secret fish-catching recipe, strategy or hot bite that bears fruit when nothing else will. Could be a magic fishin' hole, safeguarded by a trusted clan of confederates. For others, catching a boatload cats revolves around ancient family bait recipes; perhaps something concocted with rotten cheese and other "interesting" elixirs best left un-described.
Formulas for aged stinkbait aside, part of the joy of catfishing is that success mostly distills down to time on the water figuring things out for yourself — exploring, experimenting and fishing where and when few other anglers dare to venture. Catfish play by their own rules, eat what they want to eat and don't feign apology to those who fail to understand their sporting qualities or their beauty. Nor should they.
Like fine wine and the very aged cheese that lies at the heart of good dipbait, secrets to catching catfish often take their time trickling down to the angling public. For the truly great cat-catching tips also require years of trial, error and fine-tuning before sneaking past angler inner-circles and becoming bona fide catfish classics. Consider the top 10 list of catfishing ideas to follow; some, simple refinements to tackle or technique; others offering a broader approach or outlook on the process of finding and hooking cats.
1) High Water Hijinks
In rivers, high water has a tendency to intimidate us with its power and the sheer volume of potential catfish-holding spots it creates. Actually, high, fast water can offer some of the most fantastic catfishing of the year because fish stack into predictable areas, such as below dams, behind bridges, or even in feeder rivers, cuts of other land-connected current breaks. You'll often find legions of hungry blue or channel cats in these locales. In fact, the fish can be so concentrated and aggressive that, at times, even artificial lures work well — crankbaits, soft plastics or other experimental offerings.
When high water coincides with the protracted pre-spawn period — which can last all spring into early summer — it's often possible to put over one hundred catfish in the boat or on the bank in a single day's fishing. Remember, though, high water requires caution and safety at all times. Wear a live vest. Keep a sharp knife handy, should the need arise to quickly cut the anchor rope. Beyond that, have fun! Bring plenty of heavy No-Roll or bank sinkers for holding bottom in swift current. Or, for fishing slack water, such as behind a concrete pillar or bridge abutment — a slip bobber and a chunk of cutbait can yield delightful fishing.
2) Marinated Meat
Most folks know that catfish are capable of sniffing out choice morsels of food even at great distances, and even in highly turbid water. But cats can also be highly sensitive — and selective — to the tastes of the baits they choose to bite. It's why many anglers choose to enhance their presentations with a favorite scent additive. Particularly when rigging cut baitfish, the addition of scent can re-invigorate a chunk that's been in the water for a while, replacing the powerful juices that attract fish and trigger bites.
Professional guides and tournament anglers go a step beyond spraying baits with scent. Using a bait cooler, such as a Keep Kool, serious catmen often pre-cut a dozen or so baits, and soak them in a fish-oil based scent product, such as Scent Trail or Pro-Cure Catfish Cocktail. Baits can be marinated for an hour or more, or simply dipped into the solution for a quick scent recharge. Further, larger cutbaits or whole dead baitfish, such as skipjack and suckers can be injected with scent for a powerful infusion of juices. Bottom Dwellers Tackle offers a special Bait Injector, which can be filled with any scent and carefully shot into thicker sections of bait.
3) Line-Counting Cats
A critical tool for trout, salmon and walleye trolling, line counter reels can equally augment catfish presentations. Depth, position and duplication equal success. And often, the angler who's able to quickly repeat each element at play when a catfish bites is the most successful — and that's where a line counter reel shines.
For drifting or slow trolling with 3-way or Santee-Cooper style rigs, line length can be critical, and a line counter reel lets you instantly return to a magic depth or line length after a fish is caught. If your last bite occurred when the dial read "75," releasing 75 feet on other rigs will likely result in additional bites. Further, when walking bait in a river, these precise line winders reveal exactly how far downstream your last bite occurred. Even for casting stationary rigs, a line counter reel can help tell you exactly where to place a bait, in relation to cover, drop-offs or other fish-holding locations. When fishing flatheads with the rod in a holder, the reel will tell you exactly how far a fish has run with your bait. And when battling a big cat, the counter dial shows you how far the fish is from your landing net.
Among numerous manufacturers, a few of the more popular line-counting reel options include Shimano's Tekota, Daiwa AccuDepth and Abu Garcia Ambassadeur.
4) High Vis Line
Before you rip on your buddy for his obnoxious chartreuse fishing twine, stop to consider the merits of high visibility line for catfishing. Except perhaps in ultra clear water, catfish couldn't care less about the presence or color of fishing line. And even if they do detect your line, the right bait usually trumps other potentially negative cues by a wide margin. Fact is, high visibility mono lines in yellow, orange, green and pink, such as Stren Catfish and Ande Monster, serve as effective bite indicators. When slack, monofilament floats on the surface, signaling subtle bites and bait movement, no matter the water clarity. For presenting multiple lines in current, high vis line allows you to read the relative position of each rig, helping you avoid tangles. Bright lines also show you which direction a biting catfish is running with your bait. And for reading the river, moving mono lines provide clues on current breaks, seams and other secondary currents, which can key catfish position. Some anglers even employ different colors, such as yellow versus pink, to keep track of individual rigs and bait placements.
5) Side Imaging Sweet Spots
If you've never witnessed the amazingly lifelike imagery rolling across the screen of side imaging sonar, you're likely missing out on some of the most productive, often overlooked catfish spots in your lake or river. Displaying a near picture-perfect view of the underwater terrain up to 250 feet of either side of your boat, side imaging sonar allows you to discover offshore wood snags, rockpiles, and otherwise unseen big catfish. Zoom in, drop a GPS waypoint on any object on the screen and go fishin'.
Prices for side imaging equipped sonar have recently come down to earth, with units such as the Humminbird Helix 5 SI GPS now priced at or below $500.
6) The Quick Change Program
Snags and broken lines are standard side effects of fishing in spots catfish prefer — rip-rap, gnarled root wads, sunken trees, etc. So to combat this potential time waster, many topnotch catmen have adopted "quick-change" rig and sinker systems, allowing them to re-rig and get baits back in the water in a snap.
Downtime between trips can be spent tying a dozen or more of the rigs you use for everyday fishing. Might be a 12-inch leader made with 20-pound test fluorocarbon, a barrel swivel and a 5/0 circle hook. String up a bunch and wrap them around a piece of cut foam; the cheap ones used as swimming pool noodles are ideal. If you're running a 3-way rig, tie a simple McMahon snap to the end of your mainline so you can quickly attach a new rig. Same deal with the dropper line — add a snap for quickly changing sinker weights. Or for running a slip sinker rig, employ a sinker slide, which allows for instant sinker changes, so long as you're using a bank or bell sinker. Keep a tub of various sinkers at your feet to match current and depth conditions, any day or night. Hooks, line, sinkers and swivels are cheap. Your fishing time is priceless.
7) Do the Jig
Active approaches for catfish are trending. Trolling, drifting, and strolling all continue to gather momentum among serious catfish hunters. Meanwhile, the most universal of all fishing presentations — the unassuming yet deadly jig — is probably sitting in your tackle box right now, patiently awaiting a chance to prove itself. As an alternative to standard catfish rigs, which you cast and often forget about, the jig actively engages the angler in the process. It allows you to cover water, searching out active catfish. It keeps your bait nice and close to bottom, where catfish often feed. And a jig is also less prone to snags than standard rigs, keeping you directly in touch with your bait at all times.
Fishing a jig couldn't be simpler. Choose any jighead style you prefer, although stand-up style heads often shine for catfishing. Pick one with a nice strong hook with an open gap. Impale your favorite bait — cut baitfish, nightcrawler, crawfish, etc. — and make a cast. Often, simply letting the jig sink to the bottom and then retrieving and dragging it slowly along works best. Pause occasionally to let fish find the bait. When you feel a bite, drop back momentarily before setting the nice solid hook.
8) Go Native
The best bait is usually the same critter catfish are currently eating. Often, these species are readily available right in the lake, river or reservoir you're fishing. Could be skipjack herring for Missouri River blues, goldeye for Red River channels, or brown bullheads for small lake flatheads. If you find yourself fresh out of bait, or the local baitshop falls short of expectations, it could be time to catch your own. It's as close to a catfish-catching guarantee as you'll ever get.
Where legal, a cast-net is an invaluable (and standard) piece of catfishing equipment. It's great for gathering live shad, shiners, and the occasional small skipjack. An ultralight rod and reel outfitted with a Sabiki or multi-hook rig works wonders for catching larger skipjack below dams, as well as goldeye, small sunfish, and creek chubs. In smaller rivers, working a seining net is a two-person operation, perfect for catching bullheads, suckers, and other species. A crayfish trap baited with chicken liver or dog food will collect a ton of 'mud bugs,' while a butterfly net and flashlight is great for scooping frogs at night.
9) Catch 'Em in the Cold
Although many cat folks temporarily trade rods for guns, fall through winter can yield spectacular fishing for both blue and channel catfish. By contrast, flatheads spend the winter in large lazy congregations, where they rarely bite. In reservoirs and major rivers, however, giant blue cats feed heartily in fall, flocking to main channel areas, as well as any interesting structure associated with the primary flow. Points, rock ledges, and deep holes also attract biting blues, especially as the water dips below 60 degrees.
In northern climates, lakes and reservoirs hosting large populations of channel catfish can deliver fantastic fishing, as well. When water temps drop into the mid 50s, major congregations of channels settle into basin holes, often hovering between 20 and 40 feet of water. It's not that coldwater channel cats are so aggressive as their brethren blues, but that they remain competitive and active enough to lightly bite a variety of vertical presentations. Whether on a boat or on solid frozen water, anglers often do well with leadhead jigs tipped with pinkie-sized baitfish chunks, jigging spoons tipped with minnow heads, or even tube jigs filled with scent. Use a depthfinder to locate fish, and often, to watch them react to your presentation.
10) Attractor Rigging
Beyond the power of scent and taste in the presentation puzzle, more and more anglers are discovering the benefits of adding color, sound and vibration to their catfish rigs. Santee-Cooper style rigs, used primarily for drifting and slow trolling, have long employed a cylindrical float for keeping baits above bottom and out of snags. Guides on the popular South Carolina lake have also added spinner blades, propellers and rattles to their rigging, upping the attraction power of their presentations. Even for presenting bait in moving water, walleye-style spinner rigs coupled with cutbait have in recent years produced terrific catches of channel cats. Placed behind a 3-way rig or wire bottom bouncer, such river rigs can be drifted or placed stationary in current, which keeps blades turning and thumping with vibration. Whisker Seeker offers several interesting attractor rigs, or you can easily build your own custom configurations with inexpensive tackle accessories.