Years ago, no catfish angler worried about fishing in 114 feet of water. Probing depths of 100 feet or more was too difficult to even contemplate. But after Phil King of Corinth, Mississippi, and Stacey Thompson of Paris, Texas, won the 2003 Cabela's King Kat Classic tournament at lakes Pickwick and Wilson near Sheffield, Alabama, by catching 233.75 pounds of blue catfish in 80 to 90 feet of water, some catfish fishermen began to change the way they fished.
John Jamison of Spring Hill, Kansas, participated in that tournament and was impressed by King and Thompson's feat. After befriending King and learning about his methods, Jamison returned to Kansas, vowing to expand his tactics. He began by practicing King's controlled-drifting tactics on the Missouri River and various reservoirs in Kansas and Missouri. He continued to master the techniques of successful tournament anglers, including anchoring, drifting with windsocks, bait-walking, sonar and GPS, and manipulating an electric trolling motor.
Since then, Jamison and Mark Thompson of Williamsburg, Kansas, have won or placed near the top of the leaderboard at several tournaments by using those techniques. Their crowning achievement occurred at the Cabela's King Kat Classic at Pickwick and Wilson lakes on October 13-14, 2006, when they finished in second place with 14 blue catfish that weighed 490.75 pounds, catching them out of water as deep as 114 feet.
Locating Deep Blues
Four months prior to the tournament, Jamison and Thompson began preparing for the event by studying topographic maps of Wilson and Pickwick lakes, searching for deep-water drop-offs with structural variations along the floor of the lake. The spot where they subsequently caught 490-plus pounds was one of the primary locations that they isolated on the maps.
It was the first place they fished on the first practice day at Wilson, but on that occassion they didn't get a strike. Disappointed, they decided to work areas that were adjacent to the shoreline, plying 60 to 80 of water along a bluff. For the next two days, they fished deep-water bluff areas, but their catches were paltry.
On the third day of practice, they moved a quarter mile offshore and explored a submerged creek channel in 80 feet of water, catching lots of 5- to 10-pound blue cats. So they revisited the area they'd fished on their first day of practice. As they arrived, a group of large striped bass erupted on the surface, attacking a school of shad. Jamison and Thompson immediately began fishing, with hopes that the blue cats would be foraging on some of the injured shad that striped bass failed to engulf.
Within 20 minutes of slowly trolling across the hump, they released seven blue cats totaling about 250 pounds. Every time they hooked one, they marked the exact location on their GPS, and all of those spots were located along the edge of the hump where it dropped off into 100 feet or more of water. They spent the last days of practice searching other deep-water areas, catching nothing over 30 pounds.
On the first day of the tournament, they returned to the deep-water hump, fishing it for the duration of the event. Twenty-eight of the 30 blues that they caught from this spot during the tournament weighed from 18 to 62 pounds.
Jamison and Thompson fished from a Lund Pro-V 2025 matched with a 225 hp Evinrude E-TEC outboard, a bow-mounted Minn Kota Maxxum trolling motor, and two Lowrance LCX 19 color units with Navionics Gold chips. Their tackle consisted of four John Jamison Bluecat Signature Series No. 2 E-glass rods (8-foot) with Shimano Tekota 600 line-counter reels, and two Fenwick 7'6" HMXT76MHC, IM7 graphite rods with Abu Garcia 6500 line-counter reels. Reels were spooled with 80-pound McCoy braided line.
The Jamison E-glass rods were placed in Driftmaster Duo-Pro rod holders and set at the zero-degree setting, positioning the rods parallel to the water. Jamison sets the E-glass rods in rod holders because he finds that they're smoother than graphite, making blues less likely to detect resistance on the strike.
Two rods were set on the port side and two on the starboard, positioned near the bow and at the transom. Jamison and Thompson each held a Fenwick rod to bounce baits on bottom. The rod setup covered an area of about 30 feet by 18 feet, a rigging system similar to spider-rigging for crappies.
For bottom-bouncing with the Fenwick rods they used a three-way rig. It consisted of a 1/0 Crossline three-way swivel tied to the mainline. An 18-inch leader of 60-pound-test Berkley Big Game monofilament was affixed to the side eye of the swivel. To the end of the leader, Thompson used snell knots to attach a 7/0 and 5/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks spaced four inches apart. Jamison used the same rigging but opted for Daiichi wide-gap circle hooks. A 6-ounce bell sinker was tied to a 36-inch 20-pound-test monofilament dropper, which was tied€‚to the bottom eye of the swivel.
On their E-glass rods, they placed a six-ounce egg sinker above a #1 barrel swivel that was attached to the braided mainline. An 18-inch leader made of 60-pound Big Game monofilament was tied to the swivel. The leader sported a 7/0 hook and a 5/0 stinger hook spaced four inches apart. Other than snell knots for tying on hooks, rigs were tied with Palomar knots.
The primary bait was 6- to 8-inch skipjack herring. They worked some bloodbait, but caught only 4 fish on the beef blood, so they ultimately used only skipjacks, noting that bloodbait normally is a better option when the water and weather are hot.
Relieving Bloated Blues
lue catfish, among other species of fish, are physostomus, meaning their gas bladder is connected to the gullet by a duct. This differs from physoclistous species, like walleye and perch, which lack that connection.
The duct in physostomus species allows air to pass directly between the gullet and air bladder, while in physoclistous species, gas volume is a longer-term process controlled through bloodstream mechanisms. Physoclistous species caught from deep water often have distended abdomens because the gas bladder swells from reduced pressure closer to the surface. Because the gas bladder can't release air quickly, these fish struggle at the surface and in some cases perish. Some anglers have learned to properly "fizz" these fish to improve survival.
In 2005, we reported in In€‘Fisherman that, when caught from deep water, blue catfish often have a swollen gas bladders, with the gut protruding into the mouth in some cases. Even for this physostome, the bladder can expand from pressure reduction faster than the fish can compensate naturally. A caught fish might "burp" to alleviate pressure on its own, but if its belly is stretched and it struggles at the surface after release, the duct or gullet is blocked, perhaps by tissues surrounding the expanded area.
In our report we suggested a method to alleviate this problem. The remedy calls for inserting a section of soft plastic tubing (5/8-inch diameter, about two feet long) down the throat area and into the gullet. Continue to insert the tube until you hear a "whoosh" of air out the pipe as the belly deflates. If you feel resistance on the pipe from tissue, don't force the tubing deeper, which can cause injury. If necessary, push gut tissue back down the gullet gently with your finger. Release the fish after it regains normal swimming ability.
Jamison and Thompson used this technique to relieve bloated blues caught from deep water. They found that a 1/2-inch diameter section of PVC pipe about 24 inches long was suitable for burping the blue cats, adding that it's important to sand down and smooth the end of the pipe that's inserted into the gullet to prevent injury to the fish. They found that in some cases carefully moving the inserted pipe around the gullet a bit helped release air. All of the fish they caught were able to submerge and swim away without apparent injury.
To present their baits, Jamison and Thompson used their trolling motor to slowly move around and across the midlake hump that sat in 92 to 114 feet of water. The hump is about 50 yards long and lies about a half mile from the shoreline and two miles from the dam.
During the tournament, water coursed through the dam until 11 a.m., creating a substantial current in the lower portions of Wilson Lake. When the current flowed, most blue cats at this hump were near bottom. So, they bounced two of their baits along the bottom, and placed the other four baits within two to four feet off bottom.
When the current flow subsided on the first day of the tournament, the blue cats remained along the bottom, and bottom approaches remained productive. But after the current flow ceased during the second day, the bottom bite slowed. They studied their sonar and found that some of the blue cats were suspending as much as 20 feet off the bottom, so they adjusted their rig depths to the depth of the suspended fish.
Throughout the tournament, their most productive depth was 96 feet, which marked the edge of the drop-off into a creek channel that reached depths of 120 feet. By using their trolling motor to slowly move the boat and constantly monitoring their sonars and GPS units, they found that they could present their baits with precision.
Their trolling speed never exceeded 0.3 mph, and when the wind blew, they always trolled into the wind. Jamison emphasizes the importance of maintaining a slow pace. He notes that on several occasions, another boat either trolled through this area or drifted through with the aid of a windsock, never seeing them catch a fish. They were always moving too fast.
Besides the slowness of their approach, they worked their boat quietly. In contrast, they could hear waves slapping against the hulls of the flat-bottomed boats of the other competitors, but not on their boat's hull. And even though they were plying water deeper than 100 feet, they believe that being quiet helped them catch more fish.
They had every nook and cranny of this 50-yard hump marked with their GPS units. As they fished, the front LCX 19 displayed the map, allowing them to continually pinpoint and work the most productive spots. The back LCX 19 was in fish-finding mode — they didn't use the split-screen because they wanted to see as many of the bottom contours as possible.
Periodically they turned on the front unit to sonar mode, enabling them to see their baits. If they'd left it on constantly, they suspect that they could have seen blue cats approaching and striking their baits.
As they slowly trolled, they constantly monitored the GPS and sonars, talking to one another about what they were seeing and whether they were approaching a potential hotspot. Several times at one of those hotspots, four blue cats engulfed their baits and they managed to boat three.
Whenever the bite slowed, the duo studied their sonar on the 2X-zoom setting, finding that this setting had a better image than the 4X-zoom. From their experience, Jamison and Thompson believe that a signal return from a catfish is weaker than one from a scaled fish such as a striper or carp — scaled fish show up with an orange or yellow tint in the arc, while catfish form a weaker signal showing only black. This helped Jamison and Thompson pinpoint Wilson's blue cats.
Jamison says that the blue cats were confined to such a precise locale that he and Thompson wouldn't have been able to catch them without the aid of their electronics, and he's thankful indeed that he took the time to learn about the art and science of deep-water fishing with a sonar and GPS.
At the tournament's end, they acknowledged that they'd never fished with such precision. Some knowledgeable observers contended that they have taken catfishing into a new realm.
Jamison plans to apply their precision at Milford Lake, Kansas, this winter. He believes that the deeper-water approach should work well on many waters from late fall through winter, as catfish often follow baitfish deep this season.
Berkley Gulp! Catfish Shad Guts
Sporting random intestinal shapes, realistic bloody colorations, and patented Gulp! fish-attracting scent, these fake guts put an end to scooping the innards out of hapless shad to sucker hungry cats. Just glom a gob around a 1/0 to 4/0 treble or baitholder, secure it on the barbs, and you're set. Available in 1.2-ounce, re-sealable packs. Click Here to View Product!
Berkley PowerBait Catfish Chunks
Studies in simplicity, these cubes are easy to fish. But more importantly, they're formulated by Berkley's scientists to tempt catfish three times faster than standard doughballs. Available in liver, blood, and fish flavors, in 6-ounce packages. Click Here to View Product!
Bowker's Catfish Bait
A staple of diehard catmen for decades, Bowker's dip excels on dip worms, tubes, and sponge strips, which the company also carries. You can also coat natural baits such as shrimp with it for extra flavor. It's available in original, blood-, shrimp-, and shad-added versions, which let you tailor taste to season and conditions. The blood bait, for example, is deadly on dog-days channels, while the shad scent shines in cool water after ice-out. Click Here to View Product!
Catfish Charlie's Dip Bait
An extra-sticky dip, Charlie's molds on and sticks to hooks, tubes, worms and other baitholders with ease. Available in 12- and 36-ounce tubs, in cheese, blood, and shad variations. As with other dip baits, Charlie's shad flavor is particularly productive in cool water. 641/673-7229
Doc's Catfish Bait
On the cat scene since 1927, Doc's knows a thing or two about stinkbait. Which explains why the company offers three temperature-driven dips — an extra-stiff blend for hot weather, an original mix for temps of 70 to 90 degrees, and a cool-weather concoction for temperatures below 70. All are available in 12-ounce, 40-ounce, and gallon-sized containers, in cheese and blood flavors, while liver is an option with the original, in 12-ounce cans only. Click Here to View Product!
Magic Bait Hog Wild Catfish Dip Bait
Cat fans seeking traditional thin, fast-oozing stinkbait will appreciate Hog Wild's ability to quickly infiltrate the water column with cheese, blood, and shad-based aromas. Available in pint-sized jars, it's a natural for tubes, sponges, netting, and similar delivery systems, but also shines for giving dough baits an upgraded coating. Click Here to View Product!
Rippin Lips Leakin' Livers
Pinch one of these all-natural chunks to activate its scent-dispersal system, and it oozes a fine flavor trail for about an hour. Easily skewered on a 1/0 treble or single baitholder, Leakin' Livers are available in original chicken liver, blood, garlic, and fish oil options, all sold in re-sealable, 15-bait packs. Click Here to View Product!
Strike King Catfish Dynamite
Better known for bass baits, Strike King also whips up this dandy kitty dip. Available in 12-ounce tubs, in cheese and blood flavors, it works well with a number of cat baits, including the company's ribbed Dipping Worms. strikeking.com
Team Catfish Secret-7 Dip
Nearly 20 years of tinkering went into the recipe for this sticky, cat-calling dip, which the company purchased from a retired chemist. Rich in fish attractants, the bait bonds with a variety of cat lures, but Team Catfish says it's especially deadly on its Furry THaNG dip holder. Available in 12 to 64-ounce jars and buckets. Click Here to View Product!
Uncle Josh Little Stinker Dip Bait
Famous for pork rinds, Uncle Josh also offers the Little Stinker line of prepared catfish baits, plus rigs for presenting them. Available in blood, chicken, and rotten shad formulations in 16-ounce allotments, the dip is a doozy for delivering a scent trail in flowing water situations, particularly when paired with the company's Sticky Worm. unclejosh.com Click Here to View Product!
The Kermit Factor
The unwary mouse that falls from a vine over a catfish hole has made its last mistake. We sometimes find rodents and snakes, as well as water-dwelling amphibians like frogs and salamanders, in the guts of catfish.
Frogs are locally popular and usually productive baits. They can be hooked through the nose or through one leg. Some anglers cut off the lower legs to make a more compact bait. Dead frogs usually work as well as live ones. As with fish and crayfish, cutting or crushing them allows the attractive amino acids to flow toward the catfish's sensitive olfactory and taste organs. Forget tadpoles, though. They apparently secrete a substance or aroma that's noxious.
The leopard frog is one of the most widely distributed frog species and the one most commonly used for bait. Leopard frogs mate in early spring, leaving clutches of eggs clinging to submerged vegetation in ponds and river backwaters, before moving to adjacent meadows and other grassy areas for the summer. With the exception of occasional visits to lakes and rivers, catfish rarely encounter leopard frogs during summer.
As the days become shorter and air temperatures cool in early fall, leopard frogs begin to congregate and prepare for winter. They gather in staging areas adjacent to water, particularly during periods of cool, rainy weather. One clue that this fall migration is underway is increased numbers of road-killed frogs. Once nighttime temperatures approach the 50ËšF range, frogs begin moving toward lakes and rivers where they'll spend the winter.
Such an abundant food source rarely goes unnoticed, and catfish often cruise shallow flats where leopard frogs make brief forays into the water during the first few hours of darkness. As the water continues to cool, frogs gradually spend more time in the water than on land, providing increasingly better feeding opportunities for prowling cats. Fish continue to consume other live or dead prey when the opportunity arises, but using frogs makes sense when they're so abundant.
Catfish take advantage of any food seasonally available, though there's no denying the appeal of human food like hot dogs. Still, wild-grown baits natural to the system and familiar to the fish, or commercial baits that duplicate them, work best most of the time.
Flathead catfish share with bass an innate love of crayfish. Often just rubbing a cat's belly reveals their lumpy remains. Tail-hook live craws and bottom rig them. But as flatheads grow, they're less likely to take these smaller baits, or maybe they have a harder time beating their 5- to 10-pound kin to the forage.
Crayfish are easy to catch, and the best time to collect them may coincide with the best catfishing. Crayfish usually hold under rocks or other cover during the day, then emerge to consume whatever living or dead prey they can find after dark. Chub creeks and bullhead ponds usually hold good numbers of craws, which are easily located and captured with the aid of a headlamp and long-handled dipnet. Wire minnow traps baited with a piece of dead fish are excellent craw catchers on any water with a decent crayfish population.
For channel cats, craw tails make a fine bait for bottom drifting or float-fishing in summer. When using a whole craw, try crushing the head a bit to release those tasty brain morsels that Cajun crawdad fans can't resist.
Catfish eat clams — freshwater mussels, Asiatic clams, snails of various sorts, even zebra mussels. Blue cats are notorious for foraging on mussel beds. Shake their bellies and you can almost hear the shells rattling. Food habits studies suggest that blue catfish feed on mussels more readily from spring through fall, especially in more southerly reservoirs, with blues turning almost exclusively to shad when they become more lethargic and vulnerable in cold water.
Across North America, white suckers are a can't-fail bait, as this most common species is suitable in size for yearling channel cats and up to 40-pound flatties. Slice 'em and dice 'em for float or bottom rigging for blues and channel cats, or tail-hook a 2-pounder to lure a mother flathead from her lair.
Note the difference, though, between pond-raised bait suckers and wild ones. Cultured baits don't flee, a movement that often triggers a lethal attack from a predator. Seine baits or catch suckers on live worms, instead. We've found that keeping pond-raised suckers in a tank with a big flathead quickly trains the suckers in survival, making them better baits.
Smaller members of the catfish clan — stonecats, madtoms, and bullheads — make excellent baits. Indeed, studies of catfish show these species can be cannibalistic. In some waters where flatheads have been introduced, bullhead populations have plummeted.
Young carp, for example, are gourmet fare for big flatheads, who may follow them onto flooded pastures at night.
The closely related exotic goldfish also makes a fine bait on setlines or rod and reel. Surprisingly, cut carp doesn't rank nearly as high for channel, white, or blue cats. As a caution, be sure to check state regulations on which baits are legal and how they may be obtained. Rules vary.
Wherever gizzard and threadfin shad abound, catfish prey on these aromatic, abundant species. Catfish guides on Santee-Cooper and many other southern reservoirs use cast nets to gather a tank full of livebait to start the day. Skewering several 4-inch threadfins through the eye socket provides a tasty bait for channel cats, blues, and flatheads. Cutting larger gizzard shad in half and rigging them on the bottom also brings action.
In early spring and fall, 3-inch shiners and redtail chubs from bait shops make fine baits for channel cats. These selections follow the general rule: Smaller baits in colder water, big stuff for summer nights.
Sunfish make great baits, remaining lively on the hook and attractive when cut. Toughest and liveliest of all is the green sunfish, a prime flathead bait on line or rod and reel. Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, redears, and the rest of their clan are appetizing, too.
Nightcrawlers remain a great bait for all cats, sometimes unequaled for channel cats. Even the biggest cats can't resist worms. Drift 'em, float 'em, or bottom rig 'em. A ball of about six crawlers on a 3/0 hook is a fine bait for flatheads early in the season. The aroma and wriggling action seem to attract the big cats. In Kansas reservoirs, catmen dabble treble hooks adorned with several juicy crawlers for spawning flatheads, targeting undercuts and rock crevices along riprap walls where cats have holed up.
Catalpa worms are a highly regarded bait in parts of the South, where they're common. These meaty green worms apparently become a focus for many fish species, where they feed on lakeside trees and tumble into the water. Freeze them for future use. The worm's flavor is said to be so irresistible that the essence of catalpa or crushed worms is added to some commercial pastebaits.