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Catfish Week: Catfish Sticks: Form and Function

The right rod is critical to win continuous catfish battles

Catfish Week: Catfish Sticks: Form and Function

From the pages of the 2022 In-Fisherman Catfish Guide The right rod is critical to win continuous catfish battles

Asking a group of catfish anglers about what makes a “good” catfishing rod is like the old story where a group of blind men encounter an elephant. An argument ensues, because each blind man’s opinion about the elephant is based on whether he bumped into a leg, a tail, a trunk, or some other body part. In the same way, every catfish angler has opinions about catfishing rods based on their personal experiences.

Some anglers slow-troll for catfish, some drift, some still-fish, some use a float. Others cast long distances below spillways, while growing numbers of catfish hunters lift and drop baits in the current of large rivers to “walk” baits to trophy cats they’ve located on sonar. For all the different ways there are to catch different species of catfish, it’s important to emphasize that under the right circumstances, any fishing rod can catch any catfish.

chad ferguson catfish guide
Catfish guide and rod designer Chad Ferguson says there’s confusion among anglers about rod ratings.

Fundamentals

The two most basic aspects of a fishing rod are its action and power. Both terms relate to the way a fishing rod’s blank reacts when downward force is applied to the tip of the rod. A rod’s “action” is a result of how much of its length bends under pressure, which affects how fast it straightens when pressure is released. Action ratings range from extra fast (EF) to fast (F), moderate (M), and slow (S). For example, if a rod bends under pressure only in the upper third of its length, its action is fast because it returns to straight more quickly when pressure is released. A rod that flexes farther down into the blank takes more time to straighten when pressure is released and is therefore rated as a slow-action rod. In between are rods that flex into the midsection of the blank, and these are moderate-action rods. So action is a continuum, from extra-fast to slow.

A rod’s “power” rating relates to the amount of force needed to develop a bend in a rod. Power is rated with terms light (L), medium (M), and heavy (H). If a rod bends under only 1 pound of force it could be rated as a light-power rod. If it takes significantly more weight, say 5 pounds, to develop the same amount of bend in a different rod’s tip, that rod could be rated as a heavy-power rod.

The interaction of power and action can be confusing. For example, if only 1 pound of force bends just the outer third of a rod, it would be rated as a light-power rod with fast action. If a different rod requires 20 pounds of force to develop a bend and the rod flexes more toward the handle, it would be rated as heavy power with slow action.

“There’s a lot of confusion about rod ratings,” says Texas catfish guide and rod designer Chad Ferguson. “I hear guys say they’ve got a medium-heavy action rod, but there’s actually no such thing as a medium-heavy action rod. “Medium-heavy” is a description of a rod’s power. “Moderate-fast” or “fast” is its action rating. All of the Chad Ferguson Signature Series (CFSS) catfish rods I designed for Whisker Seeker Tackle are rated for both power and action. The more power a rod has, the more backbone is has for controlling fish. Faster-action rods bend quickly at the tip, but don’t bend far down into the rod bank. Slower action rods bend at the tip and farther down into the blank.”

A complicating factor is that there are no uniform standards for rating the power and action of rods. “Manufacturers aren’t very consistent when it comes to rating rods,” says part-time custom-rod builder Craig Burulich of Kansas City. “I was trying to establish some consistency in the rods I build and got a CRB Products rod deflection board from Mudhole Custom Tackle that lets you rate the power and action of rods. I started testing rod blanks and found that one manufacturer’s heavy may be another manufacturer’s medium-heavy. It’s difficult to compare apples to apples between different brands of rods.”

Anglers trying to select the right rod for the way they fish can use manufacturers’ ratings as generic guidelines. Hands-on testing in the aisles of Walmart or Bass Pro is the next step in rod selection.

“I see guys in the aisles at Walmart whipping a rod like a buggy whip,” Ferguson says. “That really doesn’t tell you much. It’s better to put the tip of a rod under a shelf or ledge and slowly lift up on it. Watch where it bends, and judge how much effort it takes to make it bend. Then compare that to other rods. Selecting a fishing rod is like buying a pair of shoes. Several shoes may be the same size according to the manufacturer, but you never know how they’re going to actually feel and fit until you try them on and see which one feels right for you.”

The General-Purpose Catfishing Rod

General-purpose catfishing rods generally have adequate power (medium to medium-heavy) to control catfish from 2 to 30 pounds, and with an action (moderate to moderate-fast) to allow the rod to flex so circle hooks perform well, without so much flex that it’s difficult to set J- or treble-hooks.

“All our Ugly Stik catfishing rods are rated medium to medium-heavy power and have fast to moderate-fast action,” says Mike Welsh with Pure Fishing. “Once anglers understand the nuances of power and action they can select a rod that has the best characteristics for the kind of fishing they do. Anglers who are dragging or power trolling probably want a moderate-action rod that loads and lets their circle hooks rotate and work like they’re supposed to but may need medium-heavy power in their rod’s blank to handle 20-pound channel cats. A guy who’s bait-walking on the Mississippi River for 80-pound blue cats probably wants a stiff, responsive rod, something like a heavy-power rod with fast action.”

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Bait-Walking Requires Backbone

Kansas City’s John Jamison pioneered many aspects of bait-walking, a technique that uses high-tech sonar to locate trophy-caliber blue or flathead catfish in large rivers before “walking” baits with the current to the exact location of the targeted fish. He says bait-walking favors graphite rods that are light in weight, with heavy backbones and fast actions.

“You’re going to be lifting and dropping those baits in the current all day long,” he says, “so you want the lightest rod you can get to reduce wear and tear on your arms and shoulders. You need a rod with good backbone, probably a heavy-power rod, to handle big blues and flatheads, but with a fast action and lots of sensitivity because the secret is to be able to feel the bottom and know what your bait is doing.

“I like a 7-foot 10-inch graphite rod with a blank-through reel seat handle that lets me feel the blank with my fingers under the reel. Being able to feel every little vibration is a big deal. Graphite gives me that sensitivity, but it makes the rod less durable. Graphite can’t handle much abuse. Any little nick can help them crack. I’ve learned that when I’m moving on the river between fishing spots, I can’t have my lead sinkers clicking and knocking on the rod because of the wind and waves. Even a little nick from a weight bouncing against the rod can be enough to crack a graphite rod the next time a big fish applies pressure.”

Jamison says bait-walking favors attention to small details. “I use longer rods than a lot of guys because a longer rod helps me keep more line off the water, which reduces drag. Once you get good at walking a bait, you can target a fish that’s 300 to 500 feet away, so line drag becomes important. Longer rods with a faster action not only allow you more precise control of a bait, but they’re easier on your arms and shoulders. If you’re out there all day, lifting and dropping a slow-action flexible pole will wear you out more than a fast-action, stiff-tipped pole. It takes more movement, more effort, to get the flex out of a slow-action rod and lift that bait than it does with a fast-action rod.”

Casting for Distance

Long-distance casting in spillways below large dams or from the banks of expansive reservoirs is another catfishing technique that benefits from specialized fishing rods. With the right rod, participants in casting competitions have cast more than 260 yards—more than 1/8 mile.

“Unless you watch them, it’s hard to comprehend how far you can sling a bait if you have the right rod and know how to use it,” says Jason McDuffie with B’n’M rods. “In that situation you want a heavy-power rod with slow action that has a lot of backbone but bends all the way to the handle during the cast to build a lot of energy before you release the bait. Our 10-foot-long B’n’M Silver Cat Magnum is a 90 percent fiberglass, 10 percent carbon-fiber composite rod rated for 25- to 50-pound line and 2- to 8-ounce weights. It’s got the backbone to handle big cats below dams along with the action to sling baits a long way. Some guys use them in midwinter to go after big blues, casting 50 or more yards into reservoirs from shore.”

Pure Fishing’s Welsh says Ugly Stik’s 7- to 12-foot-long two-piece “Catfish Special” rods with medium-heavy power and moderate action work well for long-distance casting. “The longer Ugly Stik Catfish Specials are as good as saltwater surf-casting rods for throwing baits a long way, but are lighter in weight,” he says. “One of the important things with long-distance casting is to match the line and weight of bait you’re using with the rod’s line and lure rating. For example, the Ugly Stik Catfish Special rods work best with 15- to 40-pound-test line and weights of 2 to 8 ounces. All fishing rods have their line and lure/bait rating for each particular rod printed on the rod just above the handle.”

Reservoir Techniques

Drifting or slow-trolling for channel or blue catfish from boats on reservoirs is the method of choice for many catfish anglers. While it would seem to require separate tackle when drifting for 5- to 10-pound channel cats compared to drifting for 20- to 40-pound blue cats, many modern catfish rods are up to both tasks.

02-cat-rods-support

“I could go out tomorrow with a set of 7-foot 6-inch medium-heavy-power rods with fast to moderate action and catch catfish all day long, from 5-pound channel cats to 50-pound blues,” Ferguson says. “Those are almost universal rods for catfishing, rods you can use for multiple species and multiple techniques. Those rods work great for drift-fishing with cutbait, anchoring, and casting cutbait or dipbait, or fishing under floats with dipbait or punchbait.

“Anytime you’re using circle hooks you need that soft, flexible tip to let the rod pull down when fish start to bite, to give that circle hook time to turn and get into the corner of the fish’s mouth. They work just fine if you’re using J-hooks and having to set them, though if all you ever use is J-hooks, it might help to have a rod with a slightly faster action, so you get a firmer, quicker hook-set. And if I’m going to be horsing flatheads out of timber, I use a rod with more backbone, a rod that’s rated heavy power.”

Ferguson says a mistake many catfish anglers make is to overestimate the size of the fish they will catch. “A lot of guys select rods for the biggest catfish they ever hope to catch,” he says, “and I think that actually reduces their success. I’ve done a lot of rod testing, and I noticed that I didn’t catch as many fish when I used a stiffer rod. I do a lot of drifting, and I experimented with stiffer rods versus flexible rods. I noticed I caught more fish on the more flexible rods. The stiffer rods would pull down, but then come back up like the fish had felt the resistance, while the more flexible rods would just keep pulling down and I’d eventually have a fish. I mentioned that to some friends who fish on rivers, and they thought I was nuts because they believed they needed stiff rods to fish in the current. But a couple months later they came back and said, ‘You know, once we started paying attention, you’re right. We catch more fish on the flexible rods (light to moderate action) than on the stiff rods (heavy action).’”

“In the end,” Ferguson says, “Any rod will catch any catfish if everything goes right. Catching a big catfish is less about the equipment than it is about the angler. But having a rod that’s the right power and the right action for the way you fish will help you hook and land more fish.”

Understanding Rod Action and Power

A rod’s “action” is a result of how much of its length bends under pressure, which affects how fast it straightens when pressure is released. Action ratings range from extra-fast (EF) through fast (F) to moderate (M) and slow (S), and also ratings in between, such as moderate-fast (MF). If a rod bends under pressure only in the upper third of its length, for example, its action is rated as fast because it returns to straight more quickly when pressure is released, compared to a rod that flexes farther down into the blank, which has slow (S) action.

03-cat-rod-actions-and-powers
Applying equal weight to each rod results in different amounts of bend, with the light-power rod bending more than a heavy-power (stiffer) rod.

A rod’s “power” rating relates to the amount of force needed to develop a bend in the rod. Power is rated with terms light (L), medium (M), and heavy (H), and also ratings in between such as medium-light (ML) and medium-heavy (MH).

A Note on Line Guides

“A surprising amount of the cost of a quality rod is in the line guides,” says Jeff Williams, founder of Team Catfish. “Lower-priced rods often have some kind of insert in the guides, usually ceramic. The inserts can pop out, or if you use braided line the braid can wear grooves in the inserts. I think the best, most durable line guides on quality rods are stainless steel.”

04-cat-rods-line-guides
Team Catfish rods have heavy-duty stainless-steel guides reinforced for braid and monofilament.

Getting a Handle on Handles

Design and composition of catfish rod handles varies depending on the situation and angler. Long handles work better in rod holders and give anglers more leverage to control large fish. Materials depends on personal preference.

“Cork absorbs catfish slime and bait odors less than EVA foam handle material,” says Kaleb Page, co-owner of Catch the Fever rods. “Some guys say that cork gives them better feel for light-biting fish. But cheap cork can break down if you use rod holders. We use AA-grade cork, which has smaller pores and is more durable. Foam is nice in winter, and it gives you a better grasp, especially with the non-slip grooved foam handles on some of our rods.”

05-cat-rods-handles
Catch The Fever’s Big Cat Fever Rods come in options with EVA or cork handles.



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