March 16, 2018
By David Harrison
From Kansas to Northern Texas, the size and abundance of blue catfish has skyrocketed in the past decade along with the expertise put into chasing them. The Kansas record topped 100 pounds in 2012, and lake records in the region are being toppled every year. In some cases, wildlife managers are experimenting with blue catfish to control zebra mussels. In others, the large fish work wonders for tourism. When one species starts to thrive, anglers cross over from other species to experience new adventures, bringing with them confidence in techniques rooted in their past.
Tactics and traditions of one species can seem light years away from another, but rarely do the core fishing skills, strategies, and tactics differ. In all cases, for all species, options exist to fish structure, cover on structure, or open water. Then, in each situation, the next choice is whether to anchor, drift, troll, cast, or vertically jig. For catfish especially, there exists another choice to use livebait, cutbait, or artificial lures.
Catfish tournaments drive knowledge and techniques to the limits. When anglers are forced to fish on specific days (or nights) amidst howling winds, hot and cold temperatures, and a growing set of competitors, new techniques emerge. Meanwhile, guides take new clients out every day introducing them to the sport, but also highlighting advances in electronics, seasonal patterns, and presentation details to stay ahead of an ever-growing pack.
Mudflats, Structure or Both?
Confident the circle hook will hold, Dallas-Fort Worth Guide Chad Ferguson hits the mark button on his Humminbird Helix unit before reaching for the surging rod. Marking the location of the bite allows him to return and inspect the area after the fight. Utilizing multiple features of his sonar as well as Humminbird 360 imaging, the underwater landscape emerges. "Most often, my largest blue cats strike near some sort of structure on an otherwise featureless flat," Ferguson says. "It doesn't take much for fish to orient to something. People think I'm crazy, but silted-in river channels and former roadbeds still attract fish. Even when I find suspended fish, they're near a tree, old road, rockpile, or slight drop-off."
In Texas reservoirs, blues hold deeper (15 to 30 feet) in January and February and move shallower to warming waters in April through June. This is the key time to start developing drift paths on "barren" flats. Ferguson uses the Follow-the-Contour and AutoPilot features on his Minn Kota Terrova iPilot-link trolling system to set an initial path for his Sea Ark 240. With that line established, he can program the system to offset from that route by 50 to 100 feet and systematically cover an area. By the time 3 to 5 parallel lines exist on his GPS map, enough catfish have been caught and positions marked to develop a pattern for the day.
Like any good guide, the day isn't over when clients depart. He goes back out and inspects that day's spots to learn more about the lake. "Generally, structure is easy to find and target," he says. "Lakes that don't have obvious structure are a challenge." A few extra minutes retracing the day's drifts with a split-screen of side-imaging and standard 2-D sonar tells the tale.
Productive structure doesn't mean that a fish will be caught there on every pass — it means that when fish are in an area, they're most likely to be on that spot. Further examination with an underwater camera might reveal a clam bed, rocks, deadfall, or a mussel bed, but an angler may never know for sure. The key is that all of these areas, and the silt around them, hold insects, crayfish, and minnows. Along with mussels, all these items are catfish food. While a big blue cat might focus on chasing schools of larger shad, it might also consume other items. For Ferguson, connecting key waypoints into a high-confidence path and then using his electronics to retrace that path, sets him ahead.
Tournament Prefishing at 5 mph
The 12-event catch-and-release Catfish Chasers Tournament Series in Kansas keeps anglers focused on big fish and current trends. Starting in February, the events occur during the day (7 a.m. to 4 p.m.) until June, then at night (7 p.m. to 8 a.m.) until late August. A couple of additional late-fall daytime tournaments round out the schedule. The series allows five fish to be weighed for a total weight which, on blue-cat reservoirs, often exceeds 150 pounds.
Blue cats wander the lake in search of food. With this in mind, Catfish Chasers Tournament Series founder and tournament angler David Studebaker has seen the habits of catfishermen change as technology improves. "It used to be that everyone had to drop baits to locate fish, but more and more boats are idling around at 5 mph using sonar to locate fish."
Studebaker explains that the first task of 5-mph "fishing" is to find bait. Not just to catch and use, but knowing where bait is helps in locating cats. Prefishing for the March 2017 Cabela's King Kat tournament on Lake Tawakoni near Dallas, Texas, he spent over 4 hours driving around the reservoir's 60,000 acres looking for bait. Gizzard and threadfin shad show up on sonar at both 5 mph and 20 mph, highlighting areas of the lake where the search should start and quickly eliminating potentially unproductive water.
"Anglers seem to be divided into ledge fishermen, brushpile fishermen, and flats fishermen," he says. "All types have improved their success by driving around and using sonar before dropping a line."
Anglers fishing brush benefit by using down-scan to identify fish between limbs of deadfalls and brushpiles. It used to take 30 minutes to anchor and drop baits into a brushpile to find out if it had fish or not. Now, you can drive over the cover and, if there are no marks between the branches on sonar, keep driving to the next waypoint, greatly increasing the area covered in a day of fishing.
"Ledge fishermen always were able to find fish, but now, with Lowrance Structure Scan 3D and Navionics lake maps, ledges are easy to find on the map, and just as easy to visualize in 3-D," he says. Knowing if there's a nearby brushpile, boulder, or chunk rock on a ledge helps identify where to anchor and how to present baits. Taking 10 minutes to map a drop-off at 5 mph during prefishing greatly enhances a visual of the area while also identifying potential snags and other obstacles.
For fishing large flats, Studebaker wonders, "how did I ever survive without Structure Scan?" Being able to find a pack of fish in shallow water and target them has greatly increased tournament catches in spring events.
"I can find fish faster than before, but that doesn't mean they'll bite," he explains. "If I get bit in the first 30 seconds, I'm not surprised, but just as often it takes 30 to 45 minutes for fish to react and feed." The fish may be there but might have recently gorged on shad, so after an hour without a bite he moves to the next spot.
Fall Structure & Blue Cat Basics
Josh Failes guides on blue-cat hotspot Milford Reservoir, Kansas, and follows his quarry off shallow flats and down to deeper channel bends and drop-offs from August through December. He maneuvers his boat through proven areas where fish have been marked while idling. At speeds of 0.3 to 0.7 mph, he pulls Santee-Cooper rigs at depths of 30 to 60 feet behind 4 to 8 Berkley Glowstik rods with Abu Garcia 7000-series reels spooled with 40-pound Berkley Big Game monofilament. He attaches Whisker Seeker WST-Stinger rigs baited with fresh cut shad sides. Two- to 6-ounce sinkers keep the front rigs nearly vertical while those off the stern are farther behind the boat.
His recommendation for an angler fishing a new lake in fall is to use the Follow-the-Contour feature of the Humminbird iPilot-Link, keeping baits as close to the channel drop as possible. "Mark each fish you see or catch with a waypoint," he says. "After a couple of days on the water, hotspots become apparent."
Most often blues are near where a rocky point crosses the channel, or a big deadfall is nearby, or at a bend in the drop-off. While 2-D sonar accurately identifies fish, side-imaging (especially the new Humminbird MEGA imaging, Lowrance Structure Scan 3D, and Garmin SideVu) highlights hard-bottom areas missing from traditional 2-D sonar. Looking closer, drop-offs pop out, helping anglers identify hotspots.
Anchoring, Drifting & Jigging
Avid multispecies angler Craig Barulich of Kansas City, Missouri, applied his walleye and white-bass-honed vertical fishing mastery to blue cats in fall of 2016. After fishing with Josh Failes for a day in 2015, and then another day in 2016, Barulich followed Failes' advice, spending a week at Milford on specific pieces of structure found during initial drifts near the channel. On the second day out, his wife's 3-ounce saltwater jig snagged a deadfall at about the time he marked fish on his Lowrance HDS sonar. Using his Motor Guide Xi5 in anchor mode, he continued fishing the spot, vertically presenting cut white bass and shad on 3-ounce jigs. Three 30-pounders came from that brushpile that day.
Although guides who work with clients of varying abilities tend to drift-fish most of the time, anchoring or vertical jigging may be more efficient for experienced anglers. Barulich uses 2- to 4-ounce jigs and St. Croix Musky rods (TRM76HF) in his approach. Heavy jigs can be pulled behind the boat in typical drift/troll fashion, but when catfish are marked, they can be quickly pulled up under the boat after holding position with electronic anchoring. Targeting specific fish, even if it takes an hour to get a bite, is often more effective than giving the fish one shot at the bait during a trolling pass. Another advantage to vertical jigging is that continuous sonar contact with lures and fish directly under the boat helps anglers track fish movement while staying focused.
Positioning over active fish has other advantages. Different baits (live and artificial) can be cycled until a pattern emerges. Setting a 20-minute timer on a cell phone or sonar unit reminds anglers to change baits or bait styles. If the fish leave, returning to trolling can be as simple as canceling the electronic anchor and setting cruise control to 0.5 mph.
Barulich often has live- or cutbait rods in holders while working a 1/2- to 1-ounce Bink's Pro Series Spoon on an active rod. The spoon is his go-to bait. "In Kansas, feeding areas of multiple species overlap and the spoon helps identify who's home," he says. "When I find fish on sonar, I electronic-anchor and drop the spoon first. If the area pans out, I supplement with a dead rod rigged for the species present. For blue cats, I cut up a recently caught white bass or bait with a large shiner or goldfish from an Engel Live Bait Cooler." The quick-drop spoon allows him to probe more areas in limited fishing time while still utilizing bait to supplement the catch.
Artificial Lures or LiveBait in Winter
Multispecies angler Gary Dollahon starts every discussion about winter blue cats with, "Let me guess, the fish were at 40 feet?" As a public relations director for multiple outdoor brands (including Gene Larew and Lew's), Dollahon hears lots of stories. In the catfish-rich area of central Oklahoma, many of them involve blue catfish, and all winter stories seem to start at this key depth.
One pattern emerged when he started catching blue cats that maxed out his light tackle. He was using a 9-foot crappie rod when he first encountered suspended blues near the dam at Tenkiller Lake. While crossing the reservoir, he spotted a giant group of threadfin shad 55 feet down over 100 feet of water. Strangely, since most anglers think fish feed upward, blue cats were stationed above the shad at 40 feet. "This open-water winter bite lasted for several weeks and has been predictable, especially in the coldest winters," Dollahon says. Its predictability prompted him to do research online and that's when he discovered 40 feet seemed to be a "magical" depth for catching blues across the country from November through mid-January. Presumably, there's a temperature and light effect at this depth that's universal to blue catfish comfort in winter.
Maintaining boat position over massive schools of baitfish was easy, so Dollahon and guests, (including In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde), dropped 3-inch Gene Larew Long John soft-plastic minnows on 3/16-ounce jigheads. Dollahon used metered line (Berkley FireLine Metered or Sufix Metered Performance Braid would work, as would line-counter reels) to consistently present lures at the right depth. Catfish responded to jigs worked with minimal movement in the 40-foot zone.
A second and somewhat similar winter pattern has emerged elsewhere in Oklahoma. Lake Eufaula has many long-sloping points that intersect creek channels in 35 to 50 feet of water, as well as similar areas near the dam. Multiple arcs on sonar in the area initially attracted anglers. To probe the activity, Dollahon used 1/2-ounce white jigging spoons and Bobby Garland 3-inch Slab Slay'R crappie baits on 3/16-ounce jigheads.
"Gamefish held on either side of that point using the slight rise to ambush bait," he says, "Standard spoon jigging presentations caught mostly white bass. We found that violently shaking the spoons inches off the bottom regularly caught blue cats in the 8- to 20-pound range." For working spoons, Dollahon used a 7-foot Lew's medium-heavy-power rod with a Lew's Speed Spool casting reel and 10-pound-test fluorocarbon line.
In shad-based reservoirs from Kansas to Texas, each day brings new decisions on fish location, boat control, and presentation. The limits of presentations are pushed on the tournament scene, while multispecies anglers develop crossover tactics from uniquely Midwestern multispecies experiences. In all cases, the sport of chasing blue catfish expands and improves.
*David Harrison, Lawrence, Kansas, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Guide contacts: Chad Ferguson, 817/889-4402, catfishedge.com; Josh Failes, 913/209-4481.