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Catfish Week: The Golly Whopper: Big Predators, Small Boat

Where there's a will there's a way—the total customization of kayaks across all genres allows kayak fanatics to do exactly what they want.

Catfish Week: The Golly Whopper: Big Predators, Small Boat
Kayak Catfish is Justin Johnston and Justin Johnston is Kayak Catfish. The Tennessee angler blazed a kayak catfishing trail along Tennessee River impoundments and took the experiences to YouTube to educate and entertain like no other.

Tennessee native Justin Johnston saw no barriers when jumping into kayak fishing, and his sights were set on the largest predators that swim in the rich, upper Tennessee River impoundments—catfish. With abundant water access, plenty of blue cats and numbers of large flatheads, Johnston soon realized there was a tremendous amount of fun to be had at the helm of a kayak while tempting a hefty whiskered foe.

“Chasing catfish wasn’t a new thing for me, I loved catching them for many years, but the kayak thing really intrigued me,” he said. “Once I hooked into one from a kayak, it was pretty much over at that point—I knew what I wanted to do. Plus, the big-fish-in-a-small-boat thing is hard to explain to people—it’s truly the best fun to be had on the water.”

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Big flathead swim where Johnston spends his days.
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Big-time battles at boat side demand balance, muscle and determination. And lifelong memories are complimented by a mega sense of accomplishment when the beast is subdued.

He admits catfish are a simple creature that don’t discriminate when it comes to meals. You don’t really need much gear or technology to be successful, but if you want to be consistent and target the larger fish, you do need to consider a few tools and techniques. As he learned to be consistent, he also began filming his fishing trips, which eventually turned into a very popular YouTube channel: Kayak Catfish. (You’ll not regret a subscription—he does a tremendous job.)

“Just like anything, it’s easy to overcomplicate things,” he said. “You can get by with quality rod holders, a sturdy rod and a big reel with adequate drag, and fresh bait. That’s all you really need to get started and be successful. As you begin to put together the pattern, maybe add more gear to your arsenal, a quality set of electronics—and the big fish will come. It’s a lot like deer hunting in my mind: Put your time in on quality structure, and it’s only a matter of time before you hook into a giant.”

Rig Right

Interestingly, Johnston doesn’t carry a net, rather he prefers a glove. That may seem extreme, but as he just explained, simplicity is key. A net requires hands and extra movements that could compromise your seat while trying to successfully land the beast—angry cats can be quite pugnacious. It’s just easier to grab them by their lower lip and drag them over the kayak gunnel to remove the hook and take pictures. Just be sure to keep your balance while adding that much weight to your position.

While catfishing rods and reels are also pretty simple, there are some considerations to make when combining rod action in a kayak. Traditionally, a medium-action rod that absorbs shock might be the choice of many anglers, however when battling a big one from a kayak, putting more control in the angler’s hands is important.

“My opinion has changed over the years, and now I prefer a heavy rod for kayak catfishing,” he said. “Obviously, you need to keep your center of gravity over your hips in a kayak and a softer rod can affect that position, especially when a big fish makes a power run next to the boat. The last thing you want is to be battling the fish of a lifetime and accidently tip your kayak.”

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A glove and a lip-grip is the best method to consummate the catch and prepare for a sweet pic.

Not only is he an innovative kayak catfish angler, but Johnston has his own Kayak Catfish Signature Rod known as the Golly Whopper from Catfish Sumo. He designed the rod to solve a number of issues cat and kayak anglers typically encounter.

“We designed the rod to work under numerous scenarios, including fishing from the bank, a big boat or a kayak,” he explained. “The rod features the action I prefer, but the unique part is the rod can be adjusted to three lengths by swapping out the handles. There’s a 6-inch handle for kayak fishing, a 12-inch handle that’s ideal for use in a boat and an 18-inch handle for bank fishing that allows for long casts and keeps the reel out of the mud. The combinations measure 7 feet, 7 feet, 6 inches and 8 feet, respectively.”

You can learn more at catfishsumo.com and see the rod in action on Johnston’s YouTube channel Kayak Catfish. He pairs the rod with a Shimano Tekota in a 600 size that picks up approximately 38 inches of line per turn of the reel handle. He said a high-speed retrieval rate is important to staying mobile. The reel is often filled with 40-pound monofilament, and on the working end he ties on a 10/0 Mustad Demon Circle hook held down by various weights, depending on current, wind, etc. Generally, he prefers about 8 ounces for suspended-bait presentation. He’ll drop it down to the bottom and raise it up several feet.

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The right rod, reel and line combination, solid rod holders and a never-say-die attitude will set you up for success.

While catfish are certainly hearty critters, conservation is an important component to keeping the populations vibrant. He not only considers circle hooks the most productive, but also the safest option.

“You don’t want to deal with a gut-hooked fish in a kayak—it’s far more difficult to perform that type of surgery in a small space,” he said. “The vast majority are hooked in the corner of the mouth making for an easy removal. A decent set of pliers and a firm twist of the wrist pops the hook free with minimal tearing. Circle hooks make sense for catching catfish. Plus, if you consider that simply reeling down and lifting is the motion needed to drive a circle hook home, it’s safer to perform the motion from a seated position in a kayak.”

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The Meat

Catfish are apex predators, and they prefer meat. Johnston occasionally uses live bait and said a 12-inch crappie is one of the finest presentations you can use. But dead bait will also produce bigtime results, and it’s easier to manage. He carries a cutting board and fillet knife to cut baitfish into chunks—cut bait is a traditional producer for big cats all across the country.

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Large pieces of cut bait have been a traditional catfish catcher for a very long time—and it’s especially productive on Tennessee River blue cats and flatheads. (Yes, flatheads will absolutely eat dead bait!)
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A large piece of meat is the most consistent way to capture large catfish, and the rig Johnston uses features a dropper fly for added attraction—a proven rig in his kayak.

Let the forage base determine what type to take along. And be aware of local regulations as some states don’t allow game fish like a crappie to be used as bait. He prefers yellow bass, bluegills, crappies and shad, which are abundant throughout the Tennessee River. In the case where he carries live bait, he’ll often uses a modified 5-gallon bucket to keep the bait lively. Johnston catches his own bait, which he said only adds to the satisfaction of a big kayak catfish catch.

Stability On Big Water

Johnston fishes the Tennessee River impoundments, and that means boat and barge traffic kicking out sizable wakes on the regular. He believes in a large, stable kayak to not only navigate the lakes on windy days but also confront boat wakes.

“I started out in a paddle kayak, but I’ve gone the full progression to having a pedal kayak with an auxiliary trolling motor,” he said. “The trolling motor allows me to cover more water, and that simply means more time on good structure. A larger kayak loaded with gear often requires a boat ramp or an easily accessible shoreline. Sure, I’ve complicated the rig somewhat over the years, but having all the modern amenities makes for a more enjoyable and productive trip.”

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Johnston’s primary catfishing rig is a Hobie Pro Angler 14 decked to the nines with a MotorGuide trolling motor, Garmin Panoptix electronics, dual Power-Pole Micros among other cutting-edge amenities.

His primary rig is a Hobie Pro Angler 14 rigged with a bow mounted MotorGuide Xi3 trolling motor powered by lithium batteries, and he also runs an Old Town Bigwater 132 PDL. Both offer unique applications he finds handy, but the key difference is weight. If he plans to launch at a boat ramp the Hobie gets the nod, but in cases where a more remote launch is required, he’ll often defer to the Old Town—but both get major playing time when hunting big cats in his backyard.

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Johnston often prefers to angle his baited rods 45 degrees to the front of the boat to provide added balance when a big fish eats.

Location, Location, Location

The Tennessee River is a diverse and extensive fishery that offers kayak cat anglers countless options. But Johnston said to keep it simple.

“All day, every day, the most productive spots for catfish are creek mouths,” he said. “Deep points, rock humps, channel edges and so on are all catfish-holding structures worth fishing. If you’ve got quality electronics and a contour lake map card, it’s not hard at all to find productive locations. The bait always congregates near creek mouths and if you can find the bait on your graph, you’ve found the spot you need to begin fishing.”

Like any species of fish, patterns can be determined and duplicated across the fishery. But don’t stop if the fish aren’t biting, try changing locations, and keep moving until you find active fish. Catfish are indeed predictable, and the more time you spend on the water, the more productive your trips will become.

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When a fish eats, the right rod and line combination actually adds forgiveness and keeps the angler in control.
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While catfish are undeniably durable and hearty, they still deserve their freedom. Enjoy the battle and put the predator back as soon as possible.

“As you build confidence in finding bait and catfish, you’ll enjoy increased success,” he said. “I like to be in position to intercept fish that are swimming through my location. I’ve found that to be more common on complex structure where multiple components come together, such as channel swings, creek mouths, submerged humps and so on. Areas that attract more bait will naturally attract more catfish. And I can’t say it enough, time on the water learning how to find the structure and bait will trump all. Other than learning how to read a contour map, there isn’t a secret sauce. Just go fishing.”

Kayak Catfish YouTube University

The great thing about what Johnston does on the water, is he takes you along daily through his YouTube videos at Kayak Catfish. He’s not shy about sharing his mistakes, and you certainly get to enjoy his success. He makes it easy to learn how to successfully target and catch giant catfish from a kayak anywhere in the country. And you can learn by experiencing it with him through the lens of his camera.

Not only can he teach you a bunch, but it’s extremely entertaining to watch him do what he does best.

There’s something primal about catching catfish. Maybe it’s because it was a fish you targeted during your early developmental years, or maybe because catfish were the most readily available species. The bottom line: big catfish are a ton of fun to catch regardless of where you may be in your fishing career. Factor in the kayak angle and you’re bound to enjoy a unique experience that is quite addicting.

I’m in.

Preserve The Memory

While Johnston has become quite proficient at capturing his experiences on film and then sharing with his extensive YouTube subscriber list, he still takes care of the fish and immediately releases it after a quick interview and a few pictures. Catch and release works across the board. He doesn’t weigh any of his fish for a few reasons, but most of which it’s better for the fish to not add that extra time out of water to garner a statistic that will motivate most keyboard warriors to question the results. He believes in the mystery of a bear-hugged blue kitty cat, and the pictures seriously speak for themselves.

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GoPro’s Hero 10 is loaded with lots of features that make filming and photography super easy—and engaging footage.

All of his work is produced on several GoPros, which not only captures awesome footage, but they also provide awesome screenshots and images large enough for print—as you can see in this story. Want to preserve your memory with awesome photos? Read on.

With a modern GoPro, I’d suggest a Hero 8 or 9, select the timelapse feature via the touchscreen on the back of the camera, and make sure it’s capturing two photos per second until you hit the button to stop the sequence. The pictures will be candid and awesome. This way you won’t have to wave down a nearby boater to snap likely crappy pix. Trust me on this.




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