Of all the ways to boost your chances of catching catfish by the carload, few are as easy, affordable, and effective as spooling up with high-quality line that matches your preferences and meets the demands of the conditions at hand.
Soaking the hottest baits in prime locations won't put fish on the bank or in the boat if your fishing line fails. But it's not just about spooling string that can handle the wrath of big fish, because line plays a critical role in success from start to finish. Whether you're chunking punchbait from shore, dipping sunfish next to a logjam, or drifting skipjack on reservoir flats, your line is a key ally at every step, from presenting your bait to detecting bites, setting the hook, and fighting the fish.
Early catfish fans tackled their quarry with crude string spun from cotton, silk, and other natural fibers. Thankfully, modern cat lovers have a host of lines at their disposal, crafted from a variety of Space Age materials, each with performance properties designed to fit specific situations, species, and techniques. There are so many options that choosing the right line for the job can feel a bit intimidating. Walk into a well-stocked baitshop or surf the web for suitable string, and the sea of choices can make your eyes glaze over.
In Praise of Mono
Long a favorite of catfish anglers for its ease of use, shock strength, abrasion resistance, low cost, and forgiveness, monofilament line is, as the name implies, spun from a single strand of material — typically nylon. To produce varying degrees of key attributes, line makers often combine different varieties of nylon to form co- and multi-polymers. Plus, coatings such as those on Vicious' new X-A.C.T. can boost abrasion resistance while limiting stretch.
While mono took a backseat when superlines first took the market by storm, continual improvements in mono have helped it remain a popular option on the catfish scene. "I absolutely love mono for fishing channel cats up to 20 pounds on small to medium-sized rivers," says In-Fisherman friend James Lindner, who leans on 20- to 30-pound-test Sufix Siege, a smooth, supple, and extremely abrasion resistant monofilament. "It's my line of choice. I don't like braids as much because when you get them hung up on bottom, it can really be a workout to break the line."
He also favors mono for its uncanny ability to encourage cats to hang onto the bait, at least in normal circumstances. "Catfish are weird about tension," he explains. "If they feel erratic tension when they grab your bait, they dump it." Conversely, he continues, there's something about the even tension premium mono produces when you tighten it up just enough to put a little bow in the rod that puts catfish at ease.
Lindner adds that high-vis mono makes detecting such bites a snap. "I use neon tangerine Siege when line-watching," he says, explaining that the gaudy color is easy to see against common riverine backdrops such as the shoreline or surface of the water. Billed as the most visible line on the market, new Stren Catfish Mono is also easy to spot. Available in 10- to 40-pound test, the strong, abrasion-resistant line glows in daylight and under a black light.
Lindner says there are times when braid gets the nod. "Braids are beneficial fishing bottom rigs in deep, fast water, because you don't have as much bow in the line and can feel the fish better," he says. "And there are times when I've seen braid outfish mono six to one, primarily with moody fish that spit the bait and won't come back if you don't set the hook the second they pick up the bait." In such scenarios, he says braid's ability to telegraph strike information faster than mono gives it an edge.
When spooling braids, Lindner opts for lines offering exceptional shock strength, such as Sufix Performance Braid. "It's a key feature when you're putting a lot of pop on the line throwing heavy baits and sinkers," he says, adding that abrasion resistance is also critical when, "you're beating the line up against wood, rocks, and other types of cover."
Lindner also opts for heavy pound tests. "I don't use light braid even when I could get away with a lighter breakstrength," he says. "Extremely thin diameter lines tend to bury into themselves on the spool under pressure." For this reason, he considers 30-pound-test his minimum catfish braid.
Bravo for Braid
Jeff Williams, owner of Team Catfish and a diehard catman, is solidly in the braid brigade. "We sell a few different types of line, but my favorite mainline is Tug-O-War braid, fished in conjunction with a heavy mono leader," he says.
"Braid's lack of stretch results in rock-solid hook-sets," he continues. "That's critical because catfish have really hard mouths. Whether you're executing a hard sweep set with a big flathead on a J-hook loaded with livebait, reeling down with a modified circle like our Double Action wide-gap offset, or simply letting the fish hook itself, I believe the stretchiness of mono results in fewer hookups."
Williams also appreciates braid's thin diameter. "First, this lets you spool up with heavy pound tests that won't break under severe conditions, without going to an oversized reel or experiencing common, thick-mono headaches such as kinks and memory," he says. To allow for easier break-offs when snagged, he downsizes leader test. "My favorite setup for channels and smaller blues is 65-pound braid mainline with a 30-pound mono leader," he says. "For big blues in reservoirs, I boost the leader strength to 50 pounds, and for blues or flatheads in big-river situations, I step up to 80- or 100-pound mainline, with a 50- to 60-pound mono leader."
As Lindner noted, braid's thin diameter is a plus when faced with deep water or fast current. "A lot of people overlook that braided line allows you to use roughly half the weight to hold a rig on bottom than mono of the same test," Williams says. "For example, if you're anchoring in 20 feet of water on the Mississippi and it takes 12 ounces of lead to hold your 80-pound mono, you can most likely get by with 6 ounces or less by switching to braid."
Williams also likes braid's longevity, thanks to a combination of durability and lack of memory. "You can use it a season, let it sit all winter, and get another season out of it by reversing it on the spool, so the weathered line is on the inside and the fresh line is on the outside," he says.
Legendary catfish hunter and chief of Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest tournament circuit, Ken Freeman also leans on superlines. When driftfishing big rivers and reservoirs bump-fishing skipjack for giant blues, for example, he commonly spools 80- to 100-pound-test Berkley Trilene Braid, with a 50- to 60-pound Berkley Big Game mono leader rigged with a circle hook as large as 14/0. "Match leader length to the application," he says, noting that a 3-foot tether may be ideal in hot weather during the summer, while 2 feet is better in cooler conditions.
When considering superlines, keep in mind that manufacturers use a variety of methods to join fibers together. Take Dyneema, for example. A gel-spun polyethylene that's 15 times stronger than steel by weight, it offers zero stretch at typical fishing loads, plus low memory and great tensile strength. Berkley uses it for FireLine, Trilene Braid, and NanoFil. In the case of FireLine, Dyneema fibers are thermally bonded to create a tough, smooth-casting superline. Trilene Braid is woven into strong yet easy-to handle radial configuration, while NanoFil is molecularly linked to form a supremely thin, strong superline that shines for making long casts on spinning gear.
Superlines also suffer little to no spool memory, and ward off twist far better than mono. And, while camo braids may give line-watchers eye strain, high-vis superlines are widely available, such as Spiderwire's Glow-Vis Braid, which sports a UV-reflective coating that makes it fluoresce above the surface.
On the flip side, superline offers the poorest shock strength of the three line categories, making it the least able to absorb sudden impacts from violent headshakes, boatside thrashing, and extreme hook-sets. Mono rules, while fluoro falls somewhere in the middle. Still, loosening your drag can greatly reduce the chance of catastrophic superline failures.
"Set your drag according to the conditions and type of catfish, but never crank it down so there's no give or you might break some equipment," Williams says. "Most times, a little slippage gets the job done." When it comes to rod selection, he recommends E-glass options with a soft tip and parabolic bend. "When the rod's in a holder and a 60-pound blue grabs the bait, you need some kind of shock absorber," he says.
Braids and other superlines are also far less forgiving in terms of stretch or careless knot tying, and when you get a backlash, it's a doozy. Worse, severe bird's-nests can cause kinks that weaken the line. However, sticking to trusted knots like the Palomar help ward off slippage, and a mono leader makes a fine shock absorber. To join the two, try a three-turn surgeon's knot or use a heavy-duty swivel.
"There can be a little learning curve for anglers not used to braid," Williams says. "But I've never met anyone who gave it a shot and then went back to using mono, including 300-days-a-year diehard catmen who made the switch and never looked back."
Once relegated to extreme duty as saltwater leader material, fluorocarbon has come of age in many fishing circles. On the bass and walleye fronts, for example, many savvy guides and touring pros favor it for a variety of casting and rigging applications. Catfish anglers have been slower to embrace fluoro, but it remains a fine option for leaders and mainlines alike.
Polyvinylidene difluoride is extruded in a single strand similar to monofilament, but since its molecules are more tightly packed, fluoro is denser and heavier by size. These clustered molecules also transmit more energy than mono, thus better telegraphing telltale ticks and taps when a cat mouths the bait. Further fueling feel, fluoro also sinks faster than mono, reducing bows in the line.
While fluorocarbon is famously low-vis, a benefit for line-shy species in clear water, this attribute is rarely an issue for catfish anglers facing murky and low-light conditions. Diameter is also a wash, since fluoro is about the same thickness as mono of the same break strength. But fluoro is more abrasion resistant than standard nylon mono of the same diameter, and shrugs off the sun's harsh ultraviolet rays. If your line is exposed to sunshine for long periods, this can be a big factor. Since it lacks the low-end stretch of mono, fluorocarbon also yields gains in hooking power, making it a great choice for rock-solid sets at the end of a long cast.
To be sure, there are tradeoffs. Fluorocarbon has come a long way in recent years, but is still a bit stiffer and more prone to memory issues than mono and superlines, making it the least-manageable of your catfishing line options. However, when you pair a top-shelf, spoolable fluoro with an appropriately sized reel — and don't overfill the spool — the difference is relatively minor.
Fluorocarbon's propensity to sink can be a drag when bobber fishing, but a boon when you want to pin livebaits close to bottom. Its knot strength suffers if you don't wet the line prior to cinching, yet a well-tied and properly moistened Palomar or Trilene Knot offers stellar holding power. As we noted earlier, fluorocarbon offers better shock strength than superline, but not as much as mono. Here, too, dialing back the drag can prevent parted lines when a big cat goes off the rails.
Notable fluorocarbons include Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon, which is engineered for the highest shock strength in any fluoro, plus admirable abrasion resistance and knot strength. Berkley Vanish Transition is also strong and durable, with the added benefit of changing color above the surface, offering a high-vis look above the waves that's ideal for line-watching applications. Sufix Invisiline also earns accolades for ease of use and high performance.
In the end, choosing lines suited to your styles of fishing is a personal matter. Given the amazing options available to the catfish faithful, and the huge differences choosing the right line can have on your success, it's best viewed as an ongoing process, as you experiment with various options and test new arrivals on the market to keep pace with everything the wonderful world of line has to offer. â–
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.