The lure connection to catfishing isn't new. It's like so many other topics in catfishing, where most stories over the years have gone largely unreported nationwide. So how could every average Cat Joe know?
Catfish lures aren't necessarily better than livebait, deadbait, or prepared baits. Sometimes, though. And therein lies the beginning of a story that continues to develop. Lures make sense for catfish. When it comes to processing messages from their environment, catfish are one of the most sensitive of all freshwater fish. Their sense of smell rivals that of salmon, which routinely travel hundreds of miles back to native streams to spawn, following only the tiniest molecular hint in water.
Of more practical application to our fishing is that injured fish — and other baits like crawlers, grasshoppers, and crawfish — give off a distinctive molecular aura that catfish, using their sense of smell, detect and then home in on. Catfish also can taste at long distance, using their highly refined gustatory capability. Catfish, after all, have taste buds located over their entire bodies, not just on the tongue, lips, and barbels.
Then, too, catfish possess a range of hearing more than quadruple that of fish like bass, pike, and walleye — in large part, because of an unusual set of tiny bones called Weberian ossicles, which connect the inner ear to that resonator of sound, the air bladder. Hearing, though — and this is important to the theme of this article — works in combination with the lateral line sense, which detects low-frequency vibrations (below about 200 cycles per second) that can't be heard.
The lateral line in catfish also is more sensitive than that of most other fish, perhaps in large part because it's enhanced by the electrically sensitive sense that sharks possess. Catfish can sense electrical impulses from the muscular movement of other fish. So far as we know, catfish are the only freshwater sportfish with this ability.
Vision, too, plays keenly in this topic. Cats often get a bad rap in the vision department, even though every bit of practical evidence suggests they can see well. Cats, once again, are just more versatile than other predators. They feed effectively in dingy water where other fish might starve. But when waters clear, they also use vision to run baitfish, to corner crayfish, to pick at surface insects, and much more. Science suggests, too, that they have limited color vision.
How well catfish see color, though, is incidental to our course. The idea is that catfish can see well and use vision in conjunction with their other super senses to thrive in most waters. That's one reason they're so widespread, so adaptable, and therefore so successful in North America and as a group around the world. It's also the reason that catfish sometimes respond to lures as well as and sometimes better than many other popular predatory species.
Better than, say, walleyes? Sometimes. Certainly as well as walleyes in many instances. And again, that isn't hard to figure, for when the two fish square off in a sense-for-sense showdown, the catfish wins in every category except vision — and, truth be told, we're not really sure about that one. Let's just say that it's uncanny how relatively similar the two species are in their response to lure presentations. They both relish combo lure and livebait presentations — like spinner-livebait and jig-and-bait combos. And they both are extremely sensitive to vibration patterns and noise produced by crankbaits.
Admittedly, though, these super senses of catfish also make them much different from walleyes and other predators. Anglers interested in improving catches always have to factor in the possibility that livebaits, deadbaits, and prepared baits might, in the situation at hand, be a better option than artificial lures for catching cats.
That's not quite so much the case with most other fish, although, of course, livebait can be a vital option for walleyes and most other predators. And pike, to pick only one example, sometimes relish deadbait. My objective isn't to convince you to fish with artificial lures so much as to awaken you to the option.
THE COMBO CONNECTION
One of the finest lures for catfish is a combo lure plus livebait that, again, just makes sense and has long been catching catfish in certain areas of the country. Catfish are extremely vibration-sensitive. The essence of spinner rigging is to attract fish via vibration, along with visual cues (flash). Add a crawler or a leech, though, and powerful scent and taste are added to an already potent visual and vibratory package.
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Classic Spinner Rig for Cats
The classic tandem-hook spinner rig (or harness) tipped with a crawler or leech. Typical blade sizes: #2 or #3. But #4, #5, or #6 blades are an option for cats in warm water, especially the open-water portions of large lakes and reservoirs. The spinner rig is most often presented behind either a bottom bouncer or a two- or three-way swivel rig.
Leadhead Jig Option A
Classic bucktail jig tipped with a strip of cutbait, an option for cats feeding on shad, minnows, or other baitfish.
Leadhead Jig Option B
A 3-inch strip of cutbait fish fillet — one of the best all-around options for channel and blue cats in almost any situation, whether the fish are on bottom or suspended.
Leadhead Jigs, Cranks, and Spin Options
Leadhead jigs can be fished as a classic lure for catfish, as when a bucktail jig (with or without bait) is cast into a tailwater area teeming with catfish. Or they can be used as a tool (a sinker) to anchor livebait or deadbait in position so a catfish can eat it.
One of the most prominent jig options was written about by In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde, who described how some Kansas anglers flip jig-and-crawler combos for flatheads spawning in holes in riprap habitat along causeways and at the face of dams. This tactic is a potent option anywhere cats hole up during spawntime, not just in reservoirs, but in rivers once cats move into holes in either snags or cutbanks.
A jig also can be coupled with a slip of cutbait or a livebait. Doug Stange sometimes uses a 2-, 3-, or 4-ounce saltwater jighead to anchor a big baitfish (hooked in the tail) right below the boat when he's anchored near a snag that holds flatheads. This rig also provides good control when you're flipping and dipping a big bait right into a snag for flatheads, a tactic that sometimes even works during the day when flatheads are really cranked during Prespawn, once water temperatures have shot up into the 70°F range for the first time in the year.
Leadhead Jig Option C
A livebait anchored by its tail, so it struggles away from the weight of the jig.
One Hot Combo For Cats?
A combination of crankbait tipped with a portion of 'crawler, a common choice for walleyes during the 1950s and 1960s, has enjoyed a recent rebirth of popularity in some areas.
Spin-Drift Rig for Big Blues
Especially during late spring, summer, and early fall, the same style of spinner-rigging popular for walleyes is one of the better setups for channel catfish in many waters. I refer to crawler-harness-style rigging with two or three hooks in tandem following the spinner. This rigging developed as an adjunct to the popular 1960s Red Devil spinner style composed of a spinner and a single hook.
I first used a coarse version of the tandem rigging after finding them in Red's Tackle Shop at Big Bend Dam, South Dakota, during the mid-1960s. Then, during the early 1970s or so, when this rig was beginning to catch on, I fished with a dandy version of it, the Bena Rig, made by Greg Bena of Sutherland, Iowa. The Bena Rig was, even at that early date, tied fine enough to compare with the best commercial spinner rigs on the market today.
I offer dates relative to this issue because already back then, anglers fishing on Lake Sharpe and Lake Francis Case in South Dakota were routinely bagging combo stringers of walleyes and channel catfish as they drifted spinner rigs and crawlers behind early-day bottom bouncers. See? This is no recent deal. Too, one of the finest stringers of big channel cats and big walleyes I've ever witnessed was caught in the mid-1970s by longtime In-Fisherman, Iowa's Fishing Professor, Jim McDonald, using the Bena Rig and crawlers on Storm Lake, one of Iowa's shallow, fertile, natural lakes.
This rigging and an almost endless variety of modified rigs produces catfish (or could produce catfish) for those who apply it in the right situations. It's a superb rig, for example, for walleyes and channel cats in portions of the Great Lakes during much of summer and early fall. Use a larger blade (#5 or larger) in this instance, though. More thump to call fish roaming vast portions of open water.
Meanwhile, on large rivers like pools of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the rigging works for walleyes and cats holding on or near wing dams. During summer, though, walleyes often prefer a crawler presented without a spinner, whereas catfish seem to prefer the spinner combo. When things get difficult along wing dams and closing dams, by the way, don't forget to try leeches. Catfish love leeches. And often they can find your leech presentation easier when it's trailing behind a spinner.
During summer, I've also caught channel cats with a spinner-crawler combo, using a controlled boat drift while bottom bouncing the spinner rig and bait combo along the deep channel lip in pools #3 and #4 on the Mississippi River. And it's been a productive rig fished on a static line behind a boat anchored just off riprap banks buffeted by heavy current on the Missouri River near Sioux City, Iowa. Use crawlers in conjunction with the spinner rig to catch channel cats. Fish a dead chub or a strip of cutbait, and flatheads also happen along. Again, when things get tough, don't forget to try leeches. Hold the rod so the tip is at a right angle to the main current, occasionally lifting it in order to keep the spinner spinning and attracting cats.
Some semblance of this spinner-rigging should work almost anywhere cats swim — trolled, cast, or drifted in natural lakes, reservoirs, and large rivers across North America. As an addition to the drift rigs used by Santee-Cooper, South Carolina, catfish guides, for example. Instead of a crawler, I'd use a strip of cutbait behind a big spinner to call big blue cats and an occasional fat flathead. Again, spinners call cats and the addition of bait intensifies and focuses catfish reaction.
Other combo connections? A spinner in conjunction with dipbait, you ask? A guide from Wisconsin (I lost his card and therefore his name) has confided that he adds a spinner ahead of a dipbait worm during summer. He anchors in current above a snag or a hole. Then he dips the dipworm portion of the spinner-dipworm combo into his favorite dipbait and flips the rig out so it holds in place just in front of the snag or at the head of a hole — calling all cats with vibration, scent, and taste.
Really, the opportunities with spinner combos are limited only by your imagination.
CLASSIC ARTIFICIALS — CRANKS FOR CATS
No surprise, given how sound- and vibration-sensitive catfish are, that they crunch their share of crankbaits all across the country — crankbaits of various styles in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, mainly during summer and into fall, but also throughout late spring on some waters.
In Wisconsin, guide John Kolbeck (Stevens Point) keys on a crankbait pattern for channel cats on the Wisconsin River. He flatlines Rebel Crawdads and Storm Wiggle Warts as he trolls along and over appropriate rock lips and humps where channels are searching for crayfish. Lipped baits with an intense wiggle carom off rocks and get hung less often than baits with shorter lips. Not surprisingly, he likes crab-colored lures, brown and orange being his favorite combo.
The best areas are those with mild current and plenty of rocks. By consulting his sonar, Kolbeck keeps lures running shallower than about 8 feet. Let only enough line out, he advises (usually 50 to 75 feet of 10-pound test), to keep lures barely ticking bottom. No need to worry about keeping lures away from the boat. Cats aren't boat-shy. An occasional snap of the rod tip in crack-the-whip fashion often helps to trigger them.
Meanwhile, in Missouri, Virgil Tagtmeyer since the early 1980s has been using cranks to catch cats from the waters of the Osage River. At first, he used Natural Ikes and Bombers weighted to get down into river holes lying 20 to 30 feet deep. Today, he relies on the Manns 20+ to troll deep in the waters below Truman Dam, at the headwaters of Lake of the Ozarks. One day during May, Tagtmeyer boated a 77-pound blue cat that had engulfed a Mann's 20+. Then, as the day progressed, a friend added three 40-pound-class flatheads to their bag.
Tagtmeyer suspects that the catfish he targets leave deep holes at night and spread over shallow flats as they search for food. During the day, the fish concentrate in holes, particularly holes at bends in the old Osage River channel. The drop-off can be from 4 into 30 feet of water. On sunny days, though, the cats usually lie from 20 to 26 feet deep. Of course, if Tagtmeyer marks a big fish on sonar, he moves his lure to that depth. And if baitfish schools are running at a given depth, he trolls lures at that depth.
During 1993 and 1995, the current in the Osage was too brisk to work lures into good spots, so Tagtmeyer fished the big water of Truman Lake, where he trolled over expansive mudflats mostly devoid of timber. Those years, he caught flatheads and blue cats up to 30 pounds.
Tagtmeyer prefers to troll with a superline, 28-pound-test Spiderwire Fusion, but he always employs a wire leader to protect this thin line near the lure. It takes about 90 feet of line to take the Manns Stretch 20+ into 20 feet of water, where one day not long ago he hooked a fish he couldn't move off the bottom. Once anglers begin to troll lures in similar situations across the country, Tagtmeyer believes catches of monster catfish on lures will become common.
And then in Kentucky, guide Jerry Keown catches dozens of flatheads and blue cats in the 40-pound class, along with lots of stripers, during summer, as he drifts minnowbaits below the Cannelton Dam on the Ohio River. Keown prefers floating baits like the Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue because they exhibit an erratic action in current. He uses a Carolina rig to keep this bait on or near the bottom — a 2-ounce egg sinker above a #5 barrel swivel and 18-inch leader with a snap and the minnowbait.
Regulations prohibit boats from entering the 100-foot zone below the dam, so Keown uses a flippin' stick and 20-pound line to fire long casts at the face of the dam. Letting the lure drop to the bottom, he then slips his outboard into neutral and lets the current carry the boat downstream. As the boat drifts, he snaps baits forward a few feet, then lets them work on their own in the current before he snaps again. After drifting 200 or 300 yards down the river channel, he motors back to the dam.
Most of the flatheads are caught in the first 100 yards of the tailrace — from the face of the dam to the tail of the scour hole, where relatively slack water builds along the bottom before boiling downstream. When the first dam gate is open and the current's ripping along the retaining wall, though, some of the biggest flatheads also hold tight to the wall in water almost too fast to fish. Meanwhile, most of the blue cats hold in faster water along the channel ledge downstream from the first hump below the scour hole.
According to Keown, you can throw out the book on location when striped bass are rampaging on the surface — a half-acre mass of 7- to 15-pound stripers smashing into massive schools of gizzard shad. The bait's flying, the stripers are slashing, and the cats — both blues and flatheads — are gorging on the dead and dying baitfish that drift down. The only drawback is trying to decide whether to cast unweighted baits for stripers or weighted baits for cats.
And so the defense rests for now. We offer, as evidence, dozens of contacts with hardcore catfish anglers who, over the years, have discovered patterns that rely on artificial lures. Evidence from anglers North, South, East, and West. Anglers using combo systems that couple bait with lures. Anglers using jigging spoons, rattlebaits, traditional crankbaits, streamer flies, leadhead jigs — even surface baits. Anglers catching catfish,
not just by accident, but by design. Because, given the super-tuned senses of catfish, lures just make sense at certain times, during certain seasons.
As is so often the case with catfish today, we just have to be willing to open our minds to the possibilities.
This article, appearing in In-Fisherman magazine in 1998, is retold in Life & Times In Catfish Country, in the In-Fisherman Presents book series. When originally written, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Stange was hoping to convince catfish anglers that fishing with artificial lures is more than passing fancy — a sturdy option, at times better than fishing with live, dead, or prepared baits. He also is needling lure manufactures to take note:
Catfish anglers 7 million strong, according to a national survey, represent a large, untapped market. Only bass, trout, and panfish anglers surpass catfishermen in numbers. Walleye anglers number about 3 million. No other groups come close — and all the noted market groups are already tapped.
Change comes slowly at times in catfishing. Stange notes that today most catfish anglers are still just beginning to ponder the possibilities — and many major manufacturers, true to past performance, largely ignore catfishermen.