By Brian Ruzzo
St. Louis area Guide Captain Ryan Casey typically averages more than 50 catfish over 50 pounds each year and he’s caught five blue cats in the 90s and three more over 100 pounds. South Texas Guide Captain Michael Littlejohn also boasts his share of 50-pound-plus blues every year and he guided a client to the Lake Tawakoni record blue of 87.5 pounds. Guide Zakk Royce of Murfreesboro, North Carolina, caught a 91-pound blue cat from Lake Gaston, setting the state record. Just 18 hours later he beat his own state record with a 105-pounder caught from the same lake. Here they share their strategies for boating the biggest blues a water has to offer.
According to In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde, “Historians of freshwater angling trace the origins of bait-walking back to England at the time of Izaak Walton and Charles Cotton in the 17th century, when trout fishermen walked nymphs through riffles and holes.” Since then, versions of bait-walking have evolved for walleyes and other species, including catfish. In a previous article in In-Fisherman, Kehde writes about Kansas anglers such as John Thompson, Royce Stiffler, and John Jamison, who were early adopters of bait-walking for channel catfish and flatheads in smaller rivers. Jamison, who eventually became renowned for his baitwalking skills, found that it works not only on relatively smaller rivers, but also for blues on big rivers like the Missouri, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The only difference is that heavier tackle is needed on bigger rivers.
Baitwalking is highly effective, and many successful catfish anglers, such as Casey of ShowMe Catfishing Trophy Guide Service, have adopted and refined this presentation technique as part of their seasonal tactics. According to Casey, who plies the waters of the Mississippi River in the vicinity of St. Louis, the biggest blues associate with structure and cover. He looks for rootballs, ledges, rockpiles, or current seams, and marks fish on his electronics. If he marks multiple big fish, he usually anchors and walks baits back to the structure. He finds this tactic effective when water temperatures are above 50°F, especially in the fall.
Walking baits allows him to spend more time working specific targets. He begins by anchoring about 150 to 200 feet upriver from the fish. In strong currents, he might anchor even farther upriver. He always keeps his bow pointed into the current when anchored.
Once anchored, he begins walking baits to the structure. “Lift your rod tip and bounce your weight off the bottom, letting it drift back to the target,” he says. “Then let the bait sit for about five minutes. In warmer water, sometimes blues hit the bait while your walking it back to the target. If you don’t get a strike, set the rod in a rod holder and start walking a second bait back. If you’re fishing with a partner, position even another bait short of the structure. Sometimes repositioning the bait after about five minutes triggers a strike, especially if the blues are finicky.”
Casey says that this presentation relies on precise boat position and bait placement. He uses electronics and line-counters reels to target the front of the structure. Electronics let you know how far away the structure is from your boat position, and line-counter reels show how far your bait has traveled downstream to the structure. He utilizes multiple functions on his sonar, including side-scan, down-scan, and 2-D, to give him the best picture of the areas he’s fishing.
Line-counter reels help you accurately deliver a bait a known distance to the front edges of structure. For this technique, he favors Shimano Tekota 600 line-counter reels paired with 7-foot 6-inch Tangling With Catfish Back Bouncing Rods.
He says it can be difficult to fish into structure because the bait often gets hung up. By setting baits at the upstream edge of the structure, however, current carries the scent of the bait to big blues in the structure or cover and draws them out. That’s why it’s important to let the bait sit for a while once it reaches the intended location in front of the structure. “When fish are deeper in the cover you have to draw them out,” Casey explains. “During summer, I reposition if I don’t get strikes within about 20 minutes. In colder water I give it longer.”
For rigging, he starts by sliding one eye of a barrel swivel onto 80-pound-braid mainline. To the end of the mainline he attaches another swivel followed by an 80-pound Ande monofilament leader with a Team Catfish Double Action 8/0 hook. On the other eye of the sliding swivel, he attaches a lighter dropper line with a bank sinker. He uses just enough weight to keep the rig on the bottom. The hook leader averages 3 feet and the sinker leader ranges from 6 to 12 inches. He adjusts lengths of both leaders to find what works best on a given day.
“I vary both leader lengths depending how far off the bottom the fish are on the graph and how fast the current is,” he says. “If the fish are off the bottom I lengthen both the hook leader and dropper line. If there’s heavy current and fish are on the bottom I shorten both.”
If he wants to cover more water, and especially if he marks only one fish in a piece of structure, he often doesn’t anchor and back-bounces instead. It’s similar to walking baits. First, he positions his boat upriver of the target. Instead of anchoring, he uses his trolling motor, which is pointed into the current, to slow his progress downriver, keeping drift speed less than 1 mph.
He uses the same rig as he does for baitwalking and a nearly identical presentation. He begins by walking baits back, but since you’re not anchored, both angler and bait drift through the target area. In this case you hold the rod and keep the bait in the target area for 5 or 6 minutes.
For baitwalking and back-bouncing, Casey recommends cutbait, including shad, mooneye, skipjack, and Asian carp. He likes to fillet one side and expose the backbone. “Hook the bait so its not spinning, which is unnatural and creates line twist,” he says. “Don’t hook it more than 1/4 inch from the edge. I hook it straight up under the chin through the snout.”
Royce likes to chase big blues in creek arms that feed the big eastern reservoirs that he fishes. He typically fishes in shallow water, usually less than 20 feet deep. But, this pattern is only viable when water levels are relatively high and the water is muddy. This tactic is especially effective in spring, but can be deployed all year if conditions are right.
“This whole year I’ve been fishing creeks,” Royce says. “Even this past summer, because of the combination of high, muddy water. But you can’t just fish any creek arm when water conditions are right. Not every creek arm holds big fish.” He explains that it’s easier to pattern blues during spring and winter because they follow baitfish to warmer water. So you need to find warmer creeks and baitfish. He recommends the backs of creeks during spring and winter.
In summer, however, all of the creeks have baitfish. You need to use your electronics to find blues. He hints that he looks for freshwater mussels, which are an important food source for blue cats.
Royce tackles creek cats by control-drifting with three-way rigs behind planer boards. He has designed his own planer boards, but you can use any brand, as long as you choose a large board.
“I mostly use planers to get the biggest spread and to avoid getting tangled,” he says. “You could run more, but I run six rods. I noticed in shallow water that boards also help with boat-shy fish.”
His setup includes two longline rods off the back of the boat, with the farthest line about 100 yards out and the second line 50 to 60 yards out. Neither of these lines has planer boards. He also sets two planer-board rods off each side of the boat. On the back corner rods, baits are usually set 50 yards back before attaching the planer board. For the side rods, he cast baits out about 25 yards before clipping on the boards. He fishes baits on the back corner rods as far out as conditions allow—factors like how wide the creek is, boat traffic, and creek depth.
He uses three-way rigs. To 30-pound mono mainline he attaches a three-way swivel. To the second eye of the swivel he ties on a 1- to 4-foot hook leader of 60-pound mono, and to the third eye he ties on a 15-pound-test mono dropper line to a 1.5- to 2-ounce slinky weight about 6 inches long. Hook type and size depends on bait size. Usually he fishes average- to large-size bait chunks on 9/0 Charlie Brown octopus circle hooks on four rods, and smaller baits on 7/0 Reaper circle hooks on two rods.
He fishes planer-board setups using a combination of his trolling motor and driftsocks. He prefers to troll into the wind if there’s a light breeze. He also trolls into current because it’s easier to control the boat and to spread planer boards. If the current and wind are working against each other, he troll into the current if possible. He keeps his speed at 0.5 to 0.7 mph in summer and 0.3 mph in winter. Current and wind can be tricky, especially if they’re going in the same direction. This is when he uses a driftsock to slow his speed. He usually deploys a driftsock off the stern and trolls forward, but sometimes he drifts sideways with the wind. To do this he deploys one driftsock off the front and one off the back of the boat on the same side.
He uses medium-power 7-foot 6-inch Big Cat Fever rods, preferring the medium power because it won’t trip and release the planer when the rig hits a snag, as it often does when using a heavy-power rod. He uses Abu Garcia 6500 reels and baits with cutbait, adjusting bait size to determine what fish prefer.
Stalking on Mud Flats
In fall, many blue cat anglers follow baitfish and blue cats to deeper water. This fall migration is hard to resist. The bite is hot. But resist the temptation. When Littlejohn is looking for the biggest blue cats, he fishes shallow, cold water. This tactic is his favorite for clients who are willing to go after giants later in fall and into winter.
“I go to a mudflat with water 4 to 8 feet deep that’s freezing cold, often in the high-30°F range,” Littlejohn says. “I use my Humminbird Helix-12 to side-image and locate isolated large fish.” He finds that mudflats with standing timber may hold big fish, but they’re difficult to side-image. Instead, focus on flats near standing timber or with silted-in timber.
He leaves deep water behind, instead searching for big fish flats in upper-lake areas. Once he finds a fish, he approaches it using his trolling motor so he doesn’t spook it. He usually sets up 100 to 140 feet away from the fish. Then he anchors his boat from the front and back. This allows him to cast up to 12 baits, surrounding the fish. He then gives the fish about 30 minutes to bite. If it doesn’t take by then, he locates another fish and repeats the process.
He uses a slipsinker rig, favoring a bell sinker less than 2 ounces, since he’s fishing in shallow water. He slides the bell sinker onto his 30-pound mono mainline, followed by a swivel and a 20-inch 60-pound mono leader with a snelled 8/0 circle hook. He says fresh cutbait is important, and likes to use large gizzard shad heads or coppernose bluegill heads.
“The tactic depends on side-imaging with electronics,” Littlejohn says. ”I might cover areas the size of three or four football fields before I find the fish I’m looking for. We look and look. Then we put a plan together to go get her.”
For these blue cat anglers, it’s all in the plans, whether on a river or reservoir. Pick a plan, and go get your big blue catfish.
*Brian Ruzzo, Centerville, Ohio, is a frequent contributor to Catfish In-Sider Guide. Guide contacts: Captain Ryan Casey, showmecatfishing.com, 314/477-8355; Zakk Royce, bluesbrotherscharters.com, 919/724-2474; Captain Michael Littlejohn, tawakoniguideservice.com, 903/441-3937.