April 16, 2014
By Steve Hoffman
What kind of catfishing terminal tackle do you need? Depends on how, when, and where you're fishing, and what you're fishing for. If you fish primarily for channel cats in small rivers, you may be able to stuff everything you need — a box of hooks, a handful of sinkers, and a film canister of swivels — in a gallon-size Zip-Loc bag. On the other hand, if your catfishing agenda includes flatheads in small rivers like the Skunk in southern Iowa, blue cats in large reservoirs like South Carolina's Santee Cooper, and channel cats everywhere in between, you'll need a range of tackle components to match conditions. And you'll need a big bag to carry it all.
The same rule applies to selecting catfish hooks as to selecting hooks for other species — use the smallest hook you can get away with. Cats have plenty of soft flesh around their mouths, and small hooks penetrate quicker than big hooks. Big cats also have powerful jaw muscles. When a cat clamps down on a bait, a smaller hook is easier to move on the hookset. Smaller hooks also allow a more natural bait presentation.
Of course, hook size and style must be tailored to the situation. Any hook, large or small, must be sturdy enough to match your rod, reel, and line. The light-wire Aberdeen-style hooks so popular with crappie anglers, to use an extreme example, bend straight in an instant when coupled with heavy-duty cat tackle. But then in tight quarters with stout gear, other popular designs may straighten, too.
Once you've selected a sturdy hook design, match the size of the hook to the type and size of the bait. Blue cats and channel cats often go for a single strip of cutbait with the hook slipped once through the skin and the hook point exposed. This usually doesn't require a large hook.
Big flatheads, on the other hand, are best tempted with a large livebait, like a one-pound sucker or a two-pound carp. In this situation, a small hook may set back into the bait on the hookset, failing to find catfish flesh. Large baits generally require a bigger hook, one with a large enough gap to prevent the hook from setting into the bait.
Perhaps the sturdiest and most versatile hook design for catfish, particularly big cats, is the O'Shaughnessy — the same design used by catmen generations ago. Classic hooks like the Eagle Claw 254N and Mustad 3406, and new designs like the VMC 9255, Daiichi 2451, and Gamakatsu O'Shaughnessy are available in sizes from less than 1/0 to 10/0 to cover any catfishing situation you'll likely encounter. A 2/0 hook is a good choice for presenting a 2-inch strip of cutbait, while a 5/0 is necessary for bluegills and other live baits up to about seven inches. Switch to a 7/0 for bait in the one-pound class, and a 10/0 for still larger baits.
The Mustad 92671 and Eagle Claw 84, modified sproat designs with a shorter shank than the O'Shaughnessy and a beaked point, are another simple, inexpensive, sturdy design Catfish Guide Editor In Chief Doug Stange often recommends. Both are available to 10/0 and are suitable for all but the heaviest duty. Another hook Stange favors, especially for presenting strips of cutbait, is the Eagle Claw L042, with a wider gap that improves odds of a good hookset in the corner of a cat's mouth.
The Kahle design is a top performer for blue and channel cats when you want to pack small chunks of baitfish on a hook to make a big package out of small offerings. Models like the VMC 9800, Eagle Claw L741, Mustad 37140, and the Gamakatsu Shiner Hook fish well in current, but likely would bend out when coupled with the heaviest tackle in tight quarters. A 1/0 to 6/0 Kahle-style hook, however, may be a fine option for channel cats in heavy current and the relatively open water frequented by blue cats in reservoirs and rivers.
The Octopus design, popular with steelhead and walleye anglers, is another general-purpose option. For the past few years I've used 1/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks to present portions of sour bait to channel cats during the early season, and in other situations that call for smaller baits. The Mustad 92568BLN, Eagle Claw L226BK, VMC 7299, Owner 5311, and Daiichi D16Z also are deadly for smaller fish. Step up to 3/0 and 4/0 sizes to present bigger baits to larger channel cats, and 5/0 to 9/0 for bigger blues and flatheads.
Most hooks are designed with the hook point more or less parallel to the shank, allowing the point to penetrate quickly on the hookset. On Kahle-style hooks, the point is turned inward toward the eye, increasing the gap and putting the point in line with line pull. The point of a circle hook, though, is perpendicular to the shank. Hooks like the Owner Muto, VMC 9788, Eagle Claw L2004, and Mustad 39960ST are popular with setliners because the angled hook point penetrates a cat's mouth as it struggles against the tension of a limb, pole, or trotline. They're equally effective for rod and reel presentations, but only if the hook is set without a powerful sweep — just point your rod tip at the fish, reel in slack line until you feel the fish's weight, then slowly lift the rod tip as you continue to reel.
A major drawback to some circle hook models is the small gap between the hook point and the shank. With a 1/2-inch gap between the tip of the point and shank of some 12/0 circle models, hooking large livebaits or unhooking big fish can be difficult. Modified circle designs like the Owner Texas Bend, VMC 9768, and Eagle Claw L197 feature a larger gap and also are available in sizes more suitable to smaller baits and smaller cats.
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Assortment of Sinkers
Carry an assortment of sinker sizes and styles to construct rigs on the go.
Individual components pack neatly in plastic storage boxes or resealable bags. Stash them in a durable sack and you're ready to catch cats wherever they swim. The GateMouth Gear Bag shown here is from Portable Products.
General Purpose Lines
Light, manageable lines work for small cats and small waters, but tougher lines with higher break strengths are needed to pull bigger fish from snaggy conditions. General-purpose lines that are both tough and easy-to-handle are a good choice for most conditions.
Use superlines when you need a small-diameter line to reduce drag in heavy current or when high break strength and low stretch are needed to manhandle big cats in tight quarters.
Lead is an essential part of most cat rigs, from balanced slip-float rigs to heavy bottom rigs. Lead is the reason Doug Stange's catbag weighs 49 pounds (I weighed it). Doug walks with a permanent stoop. The type and size of sinker depend on the type of rig being fished, depth and current velocity, and bottom conditions. Some sinker styles anchor well on hard, clean bottoms, while other models are better on soft mud or broken rock. And some sinkers keep baits skipping along the bottom as you slip along a river channel or across a windswept reservoir flat.
Many catmen still rely on egg sinkers to anchor bottom rigs, even though they're one of the least effective sinker designs; they don't sit well on bottom, but roll and snag. They're a good option, though, for pitching rigs directly behind a boat anchored in current. And they're the best choice for balancing large slip floats used to suspend big live baits for flatheads.
Bell or bass casting sinkers with swivel tops anchor bottom rigs better than egg sinkers and drift baits across moderately clean bottoms almost as well as a walking sinker. From 3/4- to 1-ounce sinkers anchor slip rigs for channel cats in smaller rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Snags are an inevitable part of catfishing, so carry lots of sinkers. To anchor baits in strong current, 2-, 3-, and 4-ounce sinkers are needed. And for specific trips, carry 5- to 8-ouncers, though consider the option of bank sinkers, which usually are available in larger sizes.
The Breakaway Sinker resembles a round bank sinker with a wire line- attachment eye on top and 4 wire arms sticking out the side. According to Breakaway Tackle's Mark Edwards, the weight casts as well as a bank sinker, holds on hard bottoms better than a bell sinker, and anchors in soft substrate better than a pyramid-style sinker. The heavy-wire legs dig into the bottom, but pivot 180 degrees on a hookset to release the sinker's grip. The long-stemmed version also accommodates the Breakaway Lead Lift, a plastic vane designed to plane the sinker up and over snaggy bottoms during the retrieve.
Three-way rigs are popular for drifting baits along channel ledges in big rivers or over huge flats in flowing reservoirs. The heart of the rig consists of a 12-inch dropline anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the bait near the bottom. In snaggy conditions, though, the favored sinker is a piece of parachute cord filled with lead shot, then tied off at the top and bottom. We suggest the cat crowd borrow a bit from the walleye boys and start adapting Missouri River-style bottom bouncers to their drifting techniques. Some popular commercial bouncers include the Lindy-Little Joe Bottom Cruiser, the Quick Change Lite Bite Slip Bouncer, the Bait Rigs Pro-Bottom Bouncer, and the Rock Runner from Northland Tackle.
Don't forget lead shot. BB and 3/0 are the most useful sizes. Use the BB shot with small hooks to catch bait when your aerator fails and 4-dozen chubs go belly up en route to the flathead hole. Use the 3/0 shot to balance slip floats, weight drift rigs, and as a make-shift sinker stop on bottom rigs. Two qualities to look for in your shot are softness and a round shape. Soft shot can be pinched on or removed without pliers. And while removable or eared shot is handy, it may drift oddly in current and snag more easily.
The same rule that applies to other components applies to line — use the lightest break strength possible. Not because cats are wary of heavy line, but because lighter line is more manageable and allows for longer casts. A soft 14-pound-test monofilament line like Berkley XL or the original Stren is fine for smaller cats in ponds and small rivers. For larger channel cats in bigger rivers and reservoirs, step up to a 17- or 20-pound-test abrasion-resistant line. Big flatheads and blues call for 30-, 40-, or even 80-pound test, depending on snags present and top size of the fish.
In tough conditions, we usually rely on lines proven durable in saltwater — Ande Premium, PRADCO Silver Thread AN40, Berkley Big Game, or Stren High Impact. They tend to be stiffer and slightly thicker than soft monofilaments with the same breaking strength. They're less manageable than thin lines, but also transmit vibrations better and are more abrasion-resistant.
Some of the new lines try to capture the benefits of hard and soft formulations in a single line — where toughness is required, along with longer casts. PRADCO Excalibur is a thin, flexible, abrasion-resistant line. Excalibur tends to stretch more than stiff mono lines, but is tougher than other supple lines. It's available in 6- to 25-pound-test break strengths. Stren Easy Cast, another nylon copolymer line, available in 4- to 20-pound test, offers a fine blend of flexibility and toughness.
Stren Sensor was designed as an alternative to braided and fused superlines. Sensor is slightly stiffer than original Stren, improving the line's sensitivity and reducing stretch. The result is a line with the handling characteristics of monofilament and the low-stretch performance of superlines. Stren Sensor is available in 4- to 20-pound-test breaking strengths. SpiderWire Super Mono offers good knot strength, abrasion-resistance, and low stretch, but is available only in 6- to 12-pound test.
Superlines, which fall into two categories, are an option in most catfishing situations. Braids like SpiderWire Spectra 2000 and Berkley Gorilla Braid offer tiny diameter with a high break strength. Second-generation fused superlines like SpiderWire Fusion and Berkley FireLine are larger in diameter and offer less strength than the original braids. Companies suggest that fused lines are easier to handle — to tie knots and to cast. Although fused lines are easier to handle, most anglers agree that the original braids perform better in situations that call for a thin, strong line.
The most significant misinformation concerning superlines versus monofilament involves comparative stretch. Monofilament is often said to stretch as much as 25 percent, while superlines stretch only 4 percent — therefore the superior sensitivity of superline. But the stretch characteristics of monofilament have been exaggerated. A 10-inch section of monofilament doesn't stretch 21„2 inches, nor does a 100-foot section stretch 25 feet. In fact, monofilament doesn't stretch at all until it's put under pressure.
We've experimented with superlines in enough situations to know they're a solid option for cat anglers. Their small diameter decreases line drag in heavy current like tailwaters. The strength of these lines offer more pulling power for turning fish away from snags. A lighter drag setting or rods with a little more give might be necessary to keep a record-class cat from snatching the rod from your hands.
Superlines also are a good choice for leader material. In most situations, particularly in rivers, don't worry about cats seeing the line. They're probably more line-shy by feel than by sight. Stiff, wiry monofilament will more likely than a soft superline abrade a cat's sensitive mouth. The original braids are thinner and more supple then fused lines, making them a better choice for leaders. Where snags, rock, and finicky cats are a problem, consider spooling with a heavy abrasion-resistant monofilament and using a braided leader.
Swivels and beads
Before selecting a swivel for a particular rig, consider whether you need a swivel at all. For fishing in current or using a bait like pond-raised suckers that tend to spin, a swivel may be necessary to reduce line twist. Swivels also are an effective sinker stop for slip rigs and heavy float rigs. For smaller fish, #10 swivels — rated at 30-pound breaking strength — will suffice. For bigger fish and heavier rigs, a #1 or 1/0 swivel may be necessary — 150- and 200-pound test, respectively. Berkley and Sampo make the best barrel swivels we're aware of.
Never be tempted, though, to attach a hook to a snap-swivel. For that matter, snap swivels have little use in catfish rigs except with snelled hooks or dip worms for small cats. The snaps supplied with the swivels become the weak link in the connection, giving out before line tension approaches the swivel's breaking strength. And a three-way swivel is seldom so strong as a good barrel swivel of comparable size. Make three-way rigs by tying the sinker dropper line to one of the rings on a barrel swivel.
Toss some 5-mm beads in your tackle bag to thread between a sliding sinker and barrel swivel to protect knots on slip rigs. Instead of using neoprene float stops, tie a five-turn uni-knot around your main line with a few inches of scrap line and add a bead to create your own adjustable stop. Beads are available in an assortment of colors from craft stores or from Stamina Tackle. Or get some Speedo Beads from U.S. Tackle. Speedo Beads become an adjustable sinker stop, allowing you to easily vary leader length on a slip rig.
Matching your terminal tackle to the fish and the conditions improves the catch and makes fishing more enjoyable. Don't try to offset the cost of a new rod and reel by buying inexpensive components. Stick with known brands, spool new line on your reels once in a while, and sharpen those hooks. The best catmen I know catch fish because they pay attention to details.