March 15, 2022
Catfish are simple creatures. Catching them is simply a matter of putting a good bait in the right place at the right time, using the best catfish rigs that can deliver and hold your bait in a location where active cats can find it. The least number of components in the rig means fewer components to fail and knots to break, and less weight to interfere with a natural presentation. Simple catfish rigs also are easier to construct on the water when rigs are lost to snags or abraded leaders need replacing. And sparsely tied rigs cast farther and tangle less often than more complex rigs designed to accomplish the same task.
All of this is not to say that simplicity is more important than function. Consider how the bait can best be presented to the fish, then choose the simplest, cleanest rig that will put the bait in the right location. The simplest rig of all consists of nothing more than a hook and bait, a setup used by Florida bass fishermen to freeline big live shiners under dense weedmats for trophy largemouths.
This also is the rig favored by Al Lindner for big pre-spawn channel cats on the Red River of the North. Slip a 2/0 hook through the corner of a freshly cut piece of sucker and cast it into the center of a shoreline eddy. The bait drops slowly through the water column, then tumbles along bottom in the slow current.
Most situations, though, call for a bit of weight for better casting distance and more accurate bait placement. A lead shot or two pinched on the line 6 to 12 inches above the hook casts farther and drops to the bottom faster than a plain piece of bait, for fishing deeper water. Cast alongside a snag in light to moderate current, and the bait moves slowly across the bottom, around the perimeter of the snag. This rig also is a good choice for drifting across shallow flats in lakes, ponds, or reservoir creek arms. Use fresh cutbait and let the wind or current push the boat across the flat toward deep water to intercept channel cats that prowl the shallows at night from late spring through early fall.
Float rigs also keep baits moving along the bottom at current speed, but snag less often than shot rigs. Cigar-shaped slipfloats are more sensitive than round bobbers, allowing cats to swim a short distance with a bait without feeling much resistance. Small, thin designs like the classic Thill Center Slider are perfect for drifting small to medium-size portions of cutbait for blue and channel cats, while the larger and more bulbous Thill Big Fish Slider suspends big livebaits for flatheads.
Regardless of which catfish species you're fishing for, the basic slipfloat rig is constructed in the same way. Before tying on a hook, tie a five-turn Uni-knot around your main line with the same or slightly heavier line, to serve as an adjustable float stop. Sliding the stop knot up the line makes the bait run deeper, while sliding it down allows for a shallower drift. Next, slip on a 5-mm bead followed by the slipfloat. Anchor cutbait and smaller livebait rigs with a few lead shot about a foot above a hook, ranging from a #2 for small baits to a 3/0 for bigger baits. To anchor larger livebaits for flatheads, add a swivel about 20 inches above a 3/0 to 7/0 hook. Slide a 1- to 2-ounce egg sinker on the line above the swivel to balance the float.
As versatile and effective as drift and float rigs often are, many catfishing situations call for live or dead bait still fished on the bottom. The most popular bottom rig for all species of catfish is the egg sinker slip rig. The object of this rig, which consists of an egg sinker sliding on the main line held in place above the hook by a lead shot, is to keep the bait near the bottom and allow a cat to swim off with the bait with little tension. While the basic idea behind this rig is sound, it doesn't accomplish either objective well.
The success of limb lines and pole lines makes it obvious that catfish aren't timid feeders like trout or walleyes who need to run a short distance on a freeline before engulfing the bait. When a decent-size cat picks up the bait, he has it. Most of the time, you could set immediately without giving any line. But your chances of a solid hookset in the corner of the cat's mouth increase if you let the fish turn to the side before setting. Just be sure to keep constant tension on the line after the fish picks up the bait. When you feel the thump of a fish grabbing the bait, follow him with your rod tip for a foot or two, then set. If your rod's in a rod holder with the bait clicker engaged, let the fish take a foot of line, then engage the reel and set.
Another problem with the egg sinker rig is the egg sinker. Egg sinkers work well when pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current. When cast across current, however, they tend to roll along the bottom and snag more often than sinker designs like bell or bank sinkers. Slip your main line through the top of the the sinker and replace the split shot with a swivel to vastly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the slipsinker rig. Instead of a swivel, use a Speedo Bead from U.S. Tackle (618/997-5049) as a sinker stop to make an adjustable slip rig that allows for varying the length of the leader without retying. If you opt for a swivel, add a small bead to your main line to protect the knot connection from the sliding sinker.
Leader length, by the way, often is a subject of concern for novice catfish anglers. Don't use a longer leader just to separate the bait from the sinker. To catfish, a sinker is just another rock. Rather, adjust the length of the leader to vary the amount of action and movement imparted to the bait. A piece of cutbait tethered on a 12-inch leader may lie motionless on the bottom of a lake or pond, but would flail about wildly in heavy current. Use just enough leader to let your bait attract fish without hanging up. That may mean a 30-inch leader for drifting cutbait across the clean bottom of a reservoir for blue cats; a 6-inch leader for holding large live baits in front of a snag for flatheads; or no leader at all for probing the broken bottom of a tailwater for channel cats.
Poly Ball Rigs
In some situations, you want the bait anchored in place, but off the bottom. Live baits that are kept up and swimming attract more fish than baits that cower under cover. And deadbaits suspended above bottom debris are easier for fish to locate. The floating jig heads used by walleye anglers work well for crawlers, leeches, and small pieces of cutbait, but no jig head is buoyant enough to lift larger baits. That's the idea behind the English poly ball rig. Simply slip a 1- to 2-inch styrofoam (poly) ball on the leader and rig it in slip float fashion so the ball can be moved closer or farther from the bait. Tie your own rigs with poly balls from EuroTackle (203/874-7107).
The three-way or Wolf River rig is one of those rigging options that's so versatile it should at least be considered in most situations for all catfish species. It's an effective rig for presenting static baits in the heavy current of a tailrace, or the still waters of a lake or pond. But it's unparalleled for slipdrifting on big rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, and for drifting wind-blown flats in large reservoirs like Santee Cooper.
The three-way rig consists of a dropline some 6 to 24 inches long, anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the chosen bait near the bottom. A half-ounce sinker is sufficient in still water, but 3 to 8 ounces may be needed to drift around the tips of wing dams for blue and channel cats or for anchoring livebaits in a heavy tailrace for postspawn flatheads. The leader should be slightly longer than the dropper line” usually 2 to 3 feet, depending on current velocity.
Three-way rigs also excel at extracting fish from areas where other rigs can't hold or return. Let's say you're fishing for channel cats over a broken-rock bottom below a low-head dam. Use a three-way rig with a 20-pound-test main line and a 17-pound-test leader. Secure a 2- to 4-ounce bell sinker to one ring of a barrel swivel or the bottom ring of a three-way swivel with 6-pound-test line. Cast this rig into place, and the sinker hangs on the bottom and holds the rig in place until a fish strikes. Big cats often grab a bait hard enough to hook themselves and quickly break the light dropper line. When a smaller cat hits the bait, a sharp hookset will break off the sinker so the rig and fish can be landed.
The paternoster rig is a sort of three-way slip rig well worth the extra time needed to tie it in many situations, particularly for presenting livebaits to flatheads. The low-frequency vibrations produced by a struggling baitfish attract catfish by stimulating their sensitive lateral lines. Livebaits of all sizes must first be wild and super lively, and second be presented in ways that allow them to advertise these seductive qualities. Keep a wild bait suspended above cover and it feels ”rightly so” exposed, vulnerable, and panicked.
Begin with a terminal leader as you would with an improved slip rig a 12-inch section of monofilament or dacron with a hook on one end and a barrel swivel on the other. Before tying the swivel to your main line, though, add a lead dropper consisting of a slightly lighter piece of monofilament with a bell sinker on one end and a swivel on the other. Thread the dropper swivel on the main line so it slides above the leader swivel. The length of the bottom dropper determines how high the bait will suspend off the bottom.
Paternoster rigs are most effective when you can maintain a 30- to 90-degree angle on your line, from rod tip to sinker. Fishing the head of a hole from a boat anchored slightly upstream; or fishing the edge of a flat from the sandbar on an outside river bend; or fishing the scour hole behind a bridge abutment from the top of the bridge all are top situations for paternoster rigging. Breakaway Tackle (512/729-0777) offers a pre-tied paternoster rig called the Long Ranger. Designed for surf casting, this rig includes an impact shield, a small plastic clip that holds the hook during the cast. This, says Breakaway's Nick Meyer, keeps the leader from tangling and increases casting distance by 10 to 25 percent. The rig is ideal for tailraces and other distance-casting situations.
This rig is a top choice when the situation calls for placing a big bait in the lair of large fish and waiting them out. Editor-In-Chief Doug Stange credits this rig with the biggest flatheads he's caught during the last several seasons. The fish were taken from large eddies just behind huge piles of snaggy timber lining deep river holes. With either a 7-inch bullhead or 12-inch wild sucker as bait, Stange tosses the offering into the middle of the eddy, just away from any snags. It also is effective when you're set up on a shallow point in a reservoir, in the corner of a big pond, or somewhere in the back end of a creek arm. Prod the float from time to time to keep the suspended baitfish swimming.
Float-paternoster rigging employs a slipfloat, so to make the rig, begin as you would a standard slipfloat rig slipknot, bead, then slipfloat. Unlike a standard slipfloat rig, however, the sinker rests on the bottom, and the float need only suspend the weight of the bait and keep it swimming. This allows for the use of a smaller, more-sensitive float. Next, add the lead dropper, bead, and leader. Adjust your floatstop for a little play in the leader, allowing the bait to swim a big circle and slightly off to the side. A tightly tethered bait doesn't swim so vigorously as a bait that believes it's going somewhere.
Release rigs aren't terminal rigs, but a way to deploy terminal rigs based on the limbliner's approach. Master catman Ed Davis has used this system to catch the North Carolina state record flathead and blue cat, and several line-class world records. Davis uses multiple rods to cover several areas and experiment with different baits. At least one line is a brush hook a release clip tied to a branch hanging over the water. The line is attached to the clip so the bait swims freely (livebait) or drifts (cutbait) in the upper half of the water column. Davis usually uses a slipfloat rig, but a three-way or paternoster rig may be more effective for presenting livebaits. Tie a bell on the limb to signal strikes after dark. When a cat takes the bait, the bell rings and the line pulls free from the clip.
Davis also catches big blues and flatheads near the surface over deep holes in the river channel. Instead of parking his boat over the top of the hole and fishing straight downstream, Davis employs a release jug, which consists of a two-liter bottle with a large barrel swivel glued to the cap. A length of 50-pound line is attached to a heavy bank sinker or decoy weight to anchor the jug in current. Another shorter line is tied to a release clip. Once the jug's in position, a baited rig is attached to the clip. Use a float rig to suspend baits near the surface, or a paternoster rig to keep baits swimming a foot or two off bottom.
Other boats on the river after dark present a problem when lines are spread across the river. A band of reflective tape makes the jug visible to boaters, but lines running just beneath the surface remain a problem. Instead of retrieving lines when a boat approaches, attach a clothespin or clip-on weight with a one-ounce sinker to the lines and disengage your reel. The weight is enough to drop the line below the surface to let boats pass, but not enough to trip the release on a jug or limb set.
There are, of course, endless refinements to these and other terminal rigs to help you catch more and bigger cats in a particular situation. Consider the conditions you encounter on the water and modify standard rigs to improve your presentation. Let us hear about your successes. And look to future Catfish Guides, the Catfish In-Sider, and In-Fisherman magazine for refinements to top riggings.
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