One of the earliest articles in In-Fisherman focusing on floats for catfish appeared almost 30 years ago. Then fresh-on-board Editor Steve Quinn, along Editor In Chief Doug Stange, wrote about floatin' for cats, recalling a trip they took on the Red River of the North where they waded for giant channel cats with long rods and slipfloat rigs. Stange describes the slipfloat system for cats, how floats work to suspend baits and serve as bite indicators, and how they keep baits moving along to find active catfish.
On the way to the Red, Stange commented, "A few fishermen have been using floats for ages," he said. "But most folks don't know about floats because there just aren't that many informative catfish articles being written. Plus, how many catfishermen get invited like bass pros to give seminars. Floats are so effective — a catfisherman without floats is like a bass fisherman without spinnerbaits or plastic worms. Floats help you find catfish."
Since then In-Fisherman has extensively covered floats for catfish in a variety of situations — fixed and slipfloats in reservoirs, pits, ponds, rivers, and creeks, and specialty systems like European paternoster rigging, as well as systems for channel cats, flatheads, and blues. Over a decade ago, for instance, In-Fisherman covered the pioneering methods of Captain Marlin Ormseth, a former South Dakota bait-and-tackle store owner who moved to Santee-Cooper Country and developed float and planer board systems to target the world-famous blue cats there.
Today, more anglers are realizing the advantages of floats for catfish, experimenting with systems and covering a wider array of situations.
North Carolina Guide Zakk Royce is no stranger to giant blue cats. He broke the North Carolina state record for blue catfish with a 91-pounder from Lake Gaston in 2015. Eighteen hours later, he topped his own record with a 105-pounder from the same lake. Like many anglers, he once held the misconception that catfish are always bottom feeders. That was before a trip he and his dad took to Lake Gaston about 15 years ago.
"We'd been clobbering blues around a main-lake point for a couple days, but that morning we couldn't get a bite," he recalls. "We were bottom-fishing off the deep side of the point, and noticed a big blue roll on the surface not far from the boat. I got to thinking, 'If there's one blue up on the surface, maybe there's more,' so I found a float in the boat we'd used when we were fishing in the tailwater below the dam earlier in the year. That's a good way to fish cats below the dam — toss a bait under a float into an eddy or back-current and let it slowly swirl around in the current.
"I tied a knot in my line to hold my cutbait 10 feet below the float, and cast it to where we'd seen that blue. I don't think that float ever stopped moving when it hit the water — it just kept going straight down and disappeared. A 15-pound blue must have been there with its mouth open. We scrambled and found another float, and wore those fish out for the rest of the day with just two floats on two rods. That was the day floats became a standard part of our tactics for reservoir catfish. It's unbelievable how our catch rates improved once we started using floats."
Experimentation helped Royce determine the best times and ways to use floats. He says hot weather — mid-May through late September where he fishes — is prime time to use floats to slow troll for catfish. Speed is critical. Anything over 0.5 mph is too fast; anything less than that is too slow. He uses a trolling motor in combination with driftsocks to maintain that magic speed, even on windy days.
"The depth we run baits varies by day, but we rarely fish deeper than 20 feet because that's where the thermocline sets up in Gaston," he says. "We set baits from a couple feet to 10 or 15 feet below the floats in water from 25 feet to as deep as 80 feet. When blues are out in open water they're aggressive and come up to baits. They tend to be shallower at night and deeper during midday. Oddly, the biggest blues we've caught have been during the hottest part of the middle of the day. We tend to catch more fish at night, but bigger fish during midday."
While monster blue cats are Royce's mid-lake target, he's noticed that his float rigs and strategies score channel cats when bottom topography changes. "We catch lots of channel cats in shallower parts of the lake," he says. "If we're drifting over a shallow point, or up and across a shallow flat, we start catching channel cats. If I was targeting channel cats I'd use smaller hooks and smaller baits than I use for blues, but the same basic rigs apply in shallower water."
His slipfloat rig starts with a rubber float stop on 30-pound-test Berkley Pro Spec Chrome monofilament mainline followed by a 3-inch-diameter bright-orange Comal styrofoam ball slipfloat. Then he threads on a 3-ounce egg sinker, bead, and swivel, and attaches about a 1-foot leader with an 8/0 Reaper circle hook baited with cut shad or bluegill. He uses Abu Garcia 6500 reels mounted on 71„2-foot medium-heavy Big Cat Fever rods.
"If I'm in an area where I'll be drifting over shallower areas I use a Santee Rig under the float," Royce says. "That way when the rig starts dragging on bottom, the hook and bait are above the weight and snag less." A Santee Rig is constructed by threading an egg or drift sinker onto the mainline. Then a swivel is attached followed by a 2- to 3-foot leader, small sliding float threaded onto the leader, and hook. The float is pegged onto the leader and serves to keep the bait above bottom.
Success with floats encouraged Royce to experiment with other ways to suspend baits and entice catfish. Planer boards proved so effective that he developed his own line of Zakk Royce Big Cat Planer Boards. You can buy them online at Bottom Dwellers Tackle (bottomdwellerstackle.com). "They're awesome for big blues," he says. "Sometimes I let baits hang straight down below the planer boards. Hook on your bait, install the board on the line above the bait at the depth you want the bait to fish, and then let out the desired length of line so that the board pulls your bait out to the side of the boat, say 30 to 50 feet.
"When fishing a heavier presentation, the boards tend to get pulled down, so I use the slipfloat rig and then clip the planer board on the line about 5 feet ahead of the float. The float helps hold the bait up while the board gets it off to the side. Lake Gaston is relatively clear, and I noticed I wasn't getting many bites below or close behind the boat. With planer boards I can cover a 60-foot-wide swath, getting baits away from the boat, and I'm getting more fish because of it."
Anglers interested in fishing planer boards for catfish also can check out the 2017 In-Fisherman Catfish In-Sider Guide, where St. Louis based guide Ryan Casey reveals his system for reservoir blue cats. You can read about Marlin Ormseth's system at in-fisherman.com/catfish/planer-boards-for-catfish.
RediRig release floats are another option for fishing large baits. They have a release clip that detaches the float from the line when a fish pulls or the hook is set. Once detached, the float rides freely on the line as the fish is reeled in.
Some anglers worry that the resistance of large floats or planer boards can spook blue cats. Royce believes the opposite. "I think blue cats like a little resistance," he says. "We used to leave our reels in free-spool so the cats wouldn't feel much resistance and we missed a lot of bites. When we started locking down reels, it seemed like it made the blues mad when they felt resistance and they'd pull harder. With the reels engaged, they rip that float under water and double over the rods."
Rivers & Barge Pits
David Ashby, owner of Bottom Dwellers Tackle, echoes Royce's experiences with floats and planer boards. "Floats and especially planer boards have exploded in catfishing in the past year," he says. "Last year some friends and I were catfishing, fishing on bottom, and not having any luck. After two days we decided to switch tactics and put out a spread of floats and planer boards. We hadn't gone 100 yards with that setup when three rods went down. There are times when getting the baits up off bottom is the way to catch catfish."
Ashby says springtime migrations of American shad and other baitfish into rivers on the East Coast are one of those times. As schools of baitfish move up main channels each spring, blue catfish abandon their normal patterns and follow the baitfish. "Blues are out in the main channel feeding on those baitfish," he says. "They're not associating with drop-offs or flats as much as they're out in open water following schools of baitfish. Floats are a great way to put baits in front of them. Put out a spread of floats at various depths to intercept them."
Barge pits — shallow ponds excavated along the shoreline of the James River and other eastern rivers — also can be prime spots to use floats for catfish in cool water during fall, winter, and spring. "These barge pits or gravel pits were areas excavated for commercial purposes," Ashby says. "They range from small ponds of a couple acres to small lakes that cover large areas. They're generally 5 to 10 feet deep and have a relatively smooth bottom. They have current, but not much, and they're generally silted in with a couple feet of black muck.
"Those ponds can be good fishing anytime the main channel is cool," he says. "The water in the barge pits warms fast because of the black bottom. On a sunny day, there can be a 10°F difference in temperature between the pits and the main channel. Baitfish move into that warmer water and blue cats follow.
"The problem is you can't fish on the bottom with typical weighted catfish rigs because the rigs sink into the muck," he says. "So we use 3-inch ball floats or 3- by 9-inch shark floats as slipfloats — just a float with a bobber stop, and maybe a small weight above the hook to keep the bait straight under the float. It's like slipfloating for crappies, but it's slipfloating on steroids. There's a video of a guy fishing by himself in a barge pit on one of those cool, sunny days when the blues had followed baitfish up into that warmer water, and he used floats and cutbait to catch 800 pounds of blue cats in less than six hours."
Ashby says it's important for anglers experimenting with float fishing for catfish to understand there are two different strategies for using floats. "Big floats like the 3-inch styrofoam balls and shark floats are for controlling the presentation of cut- or livebaits," he says. "You use them to keep baits at specific depths for blues and sometimes flatheads.
Everybody thinks you have to fish for flatheads on the bottom in the middle of brushpiles, but flatheads get out and roam flats at night. Dangling a big livebait under a float on a shallow flat at night can be deadly. The other reason to use floats is as strike indicators. A lot of channel catfish guys are using pencil or cigar floats for that reason, and it's working well for them."
Floats from Shore
One of those anglers, Oklahoma City's Charles Jones, has quietly caught scads of channel and blue catfish for years using floats. Jones owns CJ's Bait Company €¨(cjsbait.com), and says floats are the perfect presentation for catfish in lakes. "We call this area the Capital of Floats when it comes to catfishing," he says. "Everybody uses floats because they work so well. I make and sell my own floats that are a special kind of wood and a special design, so I think they're the best, but any float can work well if you fish it right."
Floats from several manufacturers make outstanding catfish floats. Thill (thill.com) offers the Center Slider and beefier Big Fish Slider, and Thill and Little Joe pole floats.
They're outstanding options covering a range of sizes and presentation weights. For holding even larger baits, Premier Plastics Catfish Stalker is made of tough EVA and comes in 5 sizes from 4 to 8 inches that support 1 to 5 ounces of weight. Comal makes a variety of shapes and sizes of styrofoam floats. Bottom Dwellers Tackle sells Catfish Stalkers and many other styles of floats.
Jones' float rig is simple but effective. He installs an adjustable bobber stop or stop knot on his line, then threads on a plastic bead ahead of one of his CJ's Slip Corks, which are long, thin, wood floats from 10 to 24 inches long. He slides an egg sinker onto the mainline and ties a barrel swivel to the end of the mainline. A monofilament leader connects the swivel to a #4 treble hook or a 1/0 single hook he designed to be used with CJ's Catfish Punch Bait.
"We use floats a couple different ways," Jones says. "I like to fish on a point with wind blowing into my face. There's usually a drop-off on the sides or off the tip of points, and catfish like drop-offs. Plus, the wind blows insects and other small food items into the shore, baitfish move there to feed, and bigger fish follow. I set my float so the bait is around 12 feet deep, then cast into 15 or 20 feet of water. The wind and wave action slowly bring the bait into shallower water, spreading the bait's flavor along the way, until the bait eventually hits bottom and stops moving.
"After the bait's on bottom and stops drifting, the float acts as a strike indicator. If you're bottom-fishing without a float, I guarantee you're missing bites. Floats help you see the lightest bites. With the way I use floats, you get the best of both drift- and bottom-fishing. You can tinker with the depth of the bait to drift it closer to shore if you don't get bites in deeper water. The catfish tell you where to set the float."
Another float technique Jones uses involves larger floats, fished from shore with the wind at his back. When targeting blue cats suspended in deep water near shore, he attaches a large float to his line, casts, and then lets wind and wave action drift his bait away from shore across open water. "You can get your bait out there more than 100 yards," he says.
"It depends on how much line your reel holds. The challenge is getting a good hook-set when you've got that much line out. It's tricky, but that's a good way to catch nice fish from shore."
Float tactics for catfish have come along way in the past 30 years. More anglers are finding them effective in a variety of situations from rivers to reservoirs for all species catfish. Whether you're floating for small channel cats or using bobbers on steroids for bruiser blues, the fundamentals stay the same — a presentation for the ages.
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is an avid catfish angler and regularly contributes to In-Fisherman and Catfish In-Sider Guide. Guide contact: Zakk Royce, 919/724-2474, bluesbrotherscharters.com.