Blue Catfish Triple Threat
September 06, 2016
Apologies to the places that follow, but if and when I retire, I won't be moving to Orlando. Phoenix is a nice escape from winter, but fishable water is a little scarce. If golf were my style, Myrtle Beach might be nice. But I'm not a golfer — and Santee-Cooper' would still be a two-hour road trip. I've been holding off on asking my wife's opinion of places like Buras, Louisiana, Chester, Virginia, or Wills Point, Texas — towns she might describe as "fishy." Then again, thank goodness for places like Memphis, Tennessee.
Not only is this sweet city famous for its dry-rub BBQ, there's lots of stuff here Susan calls "culture." All that and the fact that Memphis has the world's only tackle shop disguised as a pyramid — and the nearby Mississippi River harbors some of the world's biggest blue catfish. Heck, "blues" are synonymous with the city. No idea whether B. B. King or Donald "Duck" Dunn were catmen, but I choose to believe it's no accident that this epicenter of the South hosts the best of both blues — mood music and awe-inspiring catfish.
Bass Pro Shops is headlining Mississippi River Monsters this September, a first annual catch-and-release tournament that's already attracting the sport's top anglers. On September 10, over 100 boats will launch in and around Memphis, each one weighing their bags of blues right in the Bass Pro parking lot. The last time an event of this magnitude happened here, a pair of 100-pounders came to the scales.
Walking IN Rivers
Among the competitors will be the legendary Bill Dance, as well as perennial tournament winners Phil King, Daryl and Jason Masingale, and John Jamison. One of the best river anglers in the game, Jamison is renowned for his prowess with walking bait — a method also referred to as bumpin'. For big fish in strong current situations like the Mississippi, walking bait is the most natural presentation of all. So while vertical drifting with rods in rod holders consistently scores numbers of 5- to 20-pound blues, walking bait bags big fish.
Bumpin' is precise and allows you to move your rig and bait with the current speed at the bottom, which can vary greatly from current speed at the surface. It also puts your bait into little nooks and crannies along bottom; the sinker follows the river's contour, rather than moving along at a set distance above, such as with drifting. "If you're not walking bait," Jamison says, "you're missing all those little current breaks that can hold a big fish. Even a 1-foot rise or dip in the bottom can be enough to hold a monster."
Although anglers have been walking bait for generations, the method has exploded onto the scene this past year, generating interest from anglers of all types. In big rivers such as the Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi, Jamison has bumped his way to incredible catches — a few I've been lucky enough to witness.
From the bow of his boat, he employs a Minn Kota Terrova trolling motor to position the bow into the current. He alternately nudges his Lund boat upstream, slipping back and holding dead still with the i-Pilot's Spot-Lock function. From the stern, tournament partner Mark Thompson guides his rig downstream. Jamison does the same from up front, using the trolling motor's foot pedal or remote to control the boat.
Jamison also can use the motor's autopilot to maintain a specific drift path and speed, such as .5 mph, even while the current may be running at 2 mph. Using a custom 7-foot 10-inch graphite Rod Shop Bumpin' rod with a Shimano Tekota 500LC line-counter reel with 80-pound braid, he drops a three-way rig to the bottom. He immediately engages the free-spool and allows the current to pull the bait along. He waits until the rig, anchored by a 3- to 8-ounce bank sinker, stalls on bottom before gently lifting the rod tip while thumbing the free-spool. As the current drags the rig along, he continues lifting and dropping the rod tip, letting out line as current necessitates.
Jamison works surprisingly fast, often covering several hundred feet in short order. "When you feel the sinker contact bottom, drop your rod tip until it's nearly parallel to the water," he says. "Note the texture of the bottom with your sinker — this sense of feel is key. Hold the rig still for several seconds so the bait's scent can work its magic — then lift your rod tip from 9 to about 11 o'clock. Let the current sweep the sinker downstream 2 feet or so, releasing line from your spool, then engage the reel and drop the rod again. When the sinker touches down, slowly lift the rod tip to regain contact, and hold in place. This is when a big blue usually strikes."
While a standard three-way rig suffices, he customizes his version for efficiency. Sinkers are fastened to the end of a 1- to 3-foot 30-pound-test mono dropper via a large cross-lock snap. Tied to the end of his braided mainline is a #5 McMahon snap for speedy rig changes. Each rig begins with a 5/0 three-way swivel. He then adds a 10-inch section of 60-pound fluorocarbon tied to a 5/0 barrel swivel (further reducing line twist), and finally another short section of the same leader tied to a tandem-hook rig. The hooks are twin 5/0 to 8/0 Rippin Lips Tournament Grade Circle Hooks spaced 3 to 5 inches apart with snell knots. He uses Cabela's Utility Binders to store pre-tied rigs, for quickly swapping out a busted rig.
Jamison lugs a large freezer in the back of his truck, which contains large quantities of vacuum-sealed skipjack herring. In recent years, he's also used Asian carp fillets with great success. Both baits are filleted into large 6- to 12-inch strips, hooked once through each end.
Meanwhile, Guide Phil King, who has won numerous Mississippi River events at Memphis, also believes in the power of walking baits for contacting giant fish. "Later in fall is probably the best time on this stretch of river, but it's good anytime from mid-July through December," King says. "So long as the river stage is at or below zero, the river is manageable. When the water is over 5 feet above zero, however, especially with a rapid rise in water level, it can get dangerous."
On an average day, he says that if you find a few good spots, you can expect to catch 10 to 20 blues, including a tremendous shot at fish 50 pounds or heavier. In the Memphis stretch, King keys on any object or structure that obstructs current, regardless of depth. "If fish are using sandbar points, you might be fishing from 15 to 45 feet deep. Behind manmade dikes are good spots, too, particularly at depths from 40 to 100 feet or more. I also like buckled revetment banks that create holding areas for big cats. And if you can find boulders, you find big blues there in most cases.
"In slower current speeds from 1 to 2.5 mph, you can drift this river or walk baits with great success," he says. "Faster current makes it more difficult to manage the boat. This is where anchor-fishing is good, particularly on drop-offs and ledges."
Trends on Tawakoni
A quaint catfishing community by comparison, the little town of Wills Point, Texas, lies near amazing Lake Tawakoni. Just over an hour from Dallas to the west and Lake Fork to the east — it's an outstanding trophy catfishery.
Tawakoni has been the acknowledged catfish capital of Texas since the early 2000s, with mind-boggling numbers of blue cats caught by rod and reel as well as longlining (trotlining) — even though it's only recently gained national acclaim, thanks to tournament catches. Justin Cook won Cabela's King Kat events here in 2014 and 2015 and took second place during a tournament here in February 2016. The Missouri-based catfish pro says he fishes Tawakoni similar to how he fishes Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri or Wheeler Reservoir in Alabama.
"When it's cold and water temps drop into the 40s, blue cats move into deeper water — off creek channel edges or along the old river channel," Cook says. "This past February, Cook and partner Gary Ryan were met with cool daytime air temps in the 40s, which dropped surface temperatures back into the 40s, after a warm, stable period that had generated 55°F water.
"This year, they had a lot of rain, which caused the lake to rise 15 feet," he says. "That flooded a lot of trees, brush, and grass on shallow flats, making these areas harder to fish." Given the cooler water, Cook found that the bigger blues had moved from the shallows to the old river channel, where he anchored at key locations and fished in 10 to 22 feet of water.
"Whether the fish are on 5- to 10-foot flats where we normally fish, or on deeper ledges, we anchor on key spots, mostly identified with electronics. I don't need to mark 20 fish on my graph, but instead I like to find places where cats can easily attack or pin baitfish — a flat beside a ledge or river channel or in an area with brush."
Once he identifies a key location and sees baitfish or a few big marks on his sonar, he double-anchors and staggers six rods around the boat. He also monitors fish moving through on his side-imaging sonar, which helps determine which side of the boat to place rigs.
"Most folks who fish here target 3- to 10-foot flats," he says. "Those can be great spots for eaters — especially once the water warms above 50°F. But for a big blue, I fish slightly deeper. That's probably been one of the keys to our success."
In cooler months, he's done well with small chunks of shad. Sometimes, a bigger bait, such as a shad head and a big middle section on a 7/0 Rippin Lips circle hook has shined. He prefers a Carolina (slipsinker) rig, with a sinker slide and a 6-ounce flat bank-sinker to keep baits pinned in place in strong winds. A 24-inch leader of 50-pound-test Big Trilene Game is connected to a mainline of 80-pound-test braid.
"Good, fresh bait is important. We spent 12 hours at the last tournament checking different spots and even different lakes before finally obtaining enough live shad. Bait prep is key. I want my baits fresh and alive when I cut them; they bleed more freely. I also think new, freshly cut bait puts out a smell and taste that's more appealing to big fish than frozen stuff."
Tidal River Techniques
Cook says catching cats on one lake or river isn't much different than strategies on another. Which is mostly true, until you find yourself on water where tides become a factor. Feeding Chesapeake Bay, the James River system fosters a blue cat population that's nearly bursting at the seams. Introduced to Virginia tidal waters in the 1970s, this blue cat fishery continues to evolve in scope and size, even though catfish growth may be slowing in recent years. Still, fish in excess of 100 pounds are caught almost every year, including a 102-pounder boated by Stephen Miklandric, while fishing with Captain Neil Renouf in December 2014.
Renouf, who targets James River blues much of the year, prefers winter for big fish, when water temperatures hit 43°F. He says when surface water hits 35°F during cold snaps, fishing slows considerably. Regardless of Calendar Period, he reports the best bite always occurs one hour either side of the high or low tide. When water's moving, blues station in somewhat predictable locations, including specific pieces of cover on a shallow flat, such as a tree or large brushpile. Wing dams also can be good, as can the same cover objects along channel edges.
Depth isn't always as important as structure or cover, Renouf says. Moreover, he catches cats from less than 5 feet or as deep as 70, particularly on rockpiles. He adds that deep undercut ledges on outside riverbends can be good in the right current, as well as the downcurrent side of an inside bend where a small depression has formed behind a build up of sediment. Fish also f move into feeder streams and shallow bays at times, if bait is present. This winter movement especially occurs on warmer days in bays with flat, mud bottoms.
On spots he knows well, he says he expects his first bite within five minutes of anchoring. He rarely stays longer than 30 minutes on a spot without a bite, unless he's anticipating fish to move through on a new tide. "On an average day, we catch and release at least six catfish over 30 pounds, and 50s are common."
Renouf employs a sliprig with a 10/0 Mustad Demon Circle hook and a 6- to 10-ounce bank sinker for stronger currents. He ties on a short leader of 80-pound-test Berkley ProSpec Chrome mono, connected to 40-pound-test Big Game mainline. Baits are fillets of gizzard shad, cut into three sections, while the tail is discarded. Like Cook, Renouf fishes only freshly castnetted — never frozen — shad. White perch can also be great during warmer months and into fall, he says.
With so many great options for a blue cat vacation, or even a new "fishy" place to settle down, the best decision of all might be to convene the Blue Cat Bus Tour. Gas up the Winnebago and hook up the boat!