April 17, 2014
By Kirk McKay
Finesse Tactics For Reservoir Cats
Folks in southern California have a reputation for doing things a little differently than people in other parts of the country. And when it comes to catching catfish, we've discovered a few tricks to overcome the unique conditions we face in this region. Some of these methods might prove useful in other areas, too, especially when conditions are tough.
Southern California Fisheries
With the exception of the Colorado River, the lower Kern, and the California Aqueduct, most catfishing in southern California is done in still water. And with few natural lakes in this arid region, most catfish waters are manmade reservoirs, typically dammed foothill and highland canyons with seasonal creeks that provide runoff from surrounding watersheds. Public waters fall into two categories: pay lakes and reservoirs managed for irrigation, flood control, and urban consumption.
Some of the pay lakes scattered throughout the region, most notably in the Orange County area, provide excellent catfishing opportunities for both numbers and size. Some lake managers stock several tons of catchable-sized channel catfish in addition to specimens topping 30 pounds. Some fisheries also contain giant blue cats that might weigh over 50 pounds.
Public waters, though, are a different story. The emphasis here is mostly on trout; state hatcheries plant rainbow trout during winter in many local streams and reservoirs. Catfish stocking is becoming increasingly rare, usually limited to 1-pound-class channel cats in urban lakes.
The catfish populations in many public reservoirs are comprised of fish that were stocked years ago. With few exceptions, channel and blues cats rarely spawn successfully in these impoundments due to poor habitat, a lack of flowing water, and severe water-level fluctuations.
That leaves a population of older, wiser specimens in the 8- to 30-pound range — fish that are catchable, but often more difficult to fool than their country cousins. There are several reasons for this, the first being habitat. Catfish are adaptable creatures, and make themselves at home even in deep, clear reservoirs. But rapidly fluctuating water levels prevent or limit aquatic weed growth and emergent shoreline vegetation. Shorelines are typically barren mud or broken-rock banks with little wood or brush. With minimal shallow structure, channel catfish spend most of their time in deeper water. Add heavy recreational boating traffic and fishing pressure, and finding catchable catfish becomes even more challenging.
If you live somewhere between Lake Livingston, Texas, and Santee-Cooper Reservoir, South Carolina, then water access probably isn't a problem. In southern California, though, most public and pay lakes are fenced and gated, with day use often the only option. There are exceptions — some reservoirs close to urban areas offer occasional night fishing, often coinciding with full moons during the summer months — and night fishing is legal at some venues, especially at remote pay lakes.
But most of the fishing is a daytime affair. Rules and regulations determine what's allowed in the way of baits, tackle, and methods, which are more restrictive than in other states. Only one rod is permitted — two with an extra license stamp. Chumming also is forbidden, and the only live baitfish allowed is threadfin shad, but anglers must catch their own. Live shiners are permitted in San Diego County, but nowhere else. Similar regulations apply to cutbait: only cut shad and saltwater fish species are allowed.
Cutbait is the most popular bait option for channels and blue cats, and most veteran anglers prefer cut mackerel or bonito, especially for big fish. Chunks or strips cut from these species are strong-scented and oily. Anchovies, either whole or cut, also are popular. Live or frozen threadfin shad, being natural forage, always are an excellent choice when they're available.
Live nightcrawlers and crawdads can be good anytime, with nightcrawlers especially productive in spring and early summer. Another livebait that's often effective is live saltwater bloodworms; they're hard to find and expensive, but channel and white cats love 'em. They can sometimes be found at bait shops near lakes that contain striped bass. Frozen baits that work well include shrimp, clams, sardines, and cut barracuda.
Catfish anglers seeking numbers of fish should focus on pay lakes. Public reservoirs are a better choice for larger cats, but populations are limited. The natural forage in both pay lakes and reservoirs consists mostly of threadfin shad, crawfish, and sunfish, though bigger cats also feed on the trout that are stocked during winter.
Most southern California impoundments don't start producing significant numbers of fish until late spring or early summer. Fish can be caught earlier in the season, but the action's considered slow. The major exception occurs during and immediately after late-winter thunderstorms. Current from large tributaries, which normally are dry during winter, draws cats to the upper end of the lake. The action often is incredible if you hit the right spot at the right time.
Fishing gets increasingly better through summer and peaks during fall, especially for trophy cats. Still plenty of exceptions, though — some lakes produce fish 10 months of the year and others are good only for a few weeks during late summer. As in other regions, it's always possible to find catchable fish during the off-season, but tradition prevails and few local anglers are willing to experiment.
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California Bite Indicator
Cut Mackerel Presentation
Fish location depends on time of year, reservoir depth, water clarity, and the level of boating traffic and fishing pressure. Most lakes in this region are somewhat clear with steep, rocky banks and few shallow bays or mud flats. Shallow areas begin to produce in late spring, when the water gets a bit darker and the shad move into shallower, warmer water. With the exception of overcast days the best shallow fishing times are early and late in the day, especially on lakes with heavy boat traffic.
After the sun gets higher, the next best active fish location is the first drop-off ledge near a shallow bay. During daylight, catfish seek out deeper water whether they're feeding or not. Shady shoreline areas are almost non-existent but sometimes the base of bluffs or steeper boulder-strewn shorelines provide shady conditions at certain times of day. Creek channels also hold fish and are used as migration routes by cats moving from deep to shallow water.
Boat anglers seeking reservoir cats typically fish shallow areas early in the day then move to offshore structures that hold fish during midday. Creek channels near bluff banks, deep ledges, underwater humps, and long tapering points all hold fish. When searching deeper areas with sonar, look for baitfish and the thermocline. Structural elements that top out above the thermocline and hold baitfish almost always hold catfish.
Remember, too, that deep water is relative. In highland or canyon impoundments, water up to 30 feet deep is considered shallow. At any time of year, concentrations of cats often spend the day at depths ranging from 40 to 100 feet. At one of my favorite local lakes, some of my best catches have come from spots 55 to 60 feet deep. At another area lake, local anglers have caught numbers of 20-pound-plus channel cats from a hump near the dam in water 95 feet deep.
Deep-water fishing is more difficult than fishing shallow, but the cats also tend to be less spooked by boat traffic. Fish in these waters tend to be shy and bite tentatively, even on a good day. Fish that have adapted to living in deep lakes with little shoreline cover tend to use the depths as a form cover and prefer the low-light conditions found there. If forage is deep as well, that's where they'll spend most of their time and feel most secure.
The one thing that sets southern California cat anglers apart from anglers in other regions is their unique approach to presentation. A general rule of thumb is to use the lightest possible sinker. Here, it's how many ways can you present a bait with no sinker at all. Known as flylining or freelining, this is a common technique for serious catfish anglers, especially those targeting trophy channel cats.
Catfish in these parts seem especially sensitive to weighted offerings and instantly reject a bait if they detect any resistance. That reputation is well deserved and holds true whether they're in 6 feet of water or 60. So three-way rigs are less effective than sliprigs and freeline rigs. Three-way rigs work when the fish are aggressive, but most anglers couple them with light-wire circle hooks so the fish hook themselves on the strike.
Shore Fishing Strategies
During the warmer months when the fish feed in shallow water, fishing from the bank can be as productive as boat fishing. Choice of spots often is determined by local access restrictions or by how far you're willing to hike from your car. The closest, best-looking points and coves probably are the most popular and hardest fished areas. Choose spots based on proximity to deep water, shoreline weedgrowth, and water clarity.
When things get crowded, especially at night, I've found that the chances of connecting with bigger cats are greatly improved by fishing places most anglers consider second- or third-rate spots, but where things generally are more peaceful. At popular day-use lakes, the peak time often is the last hour of daylight, when boats are headed for the ramp and the lake quiets down.
Shore-fishing tackle begins with 15- to 20-pound-test spinning or baitcasting outfits capable of casting 1/2- to 2-ounce rigs. Heavier tackle might be necessary for big blue cats if snaggy cover is present or if longer casts or heavier sinkers are required. Standard rigs and techniques apply; when the fish are in an aggressive mood, they work here as they do everywhere else.
When you're getting few bites with standard riggings, though, or the fish tend to pick up the bait, run 2 or 3 feet, and spit it out, then it's time to break out the finesse gear.
Sometimes downsizing in line diameter, hook size, and sinker weight is necessary to trigger more bites or allow the fish to hold on to the bait long enough to set the hook. The move to lighter line, in this case 10- to 14-pound test, has less to do with line visibility than increased casting distance.
A medium-power 61„2- to 71„2-foot spinning outfit works for most fishing situations. A similar rod with a narrow-spool baitcasting reel spooled with 10-pound line also is an excellent choice. Longer rods, such as light-power surf rods or steelhead rods are a better choice for maximum casting distance with freelined baits.
Hook style and size are critical. One trick is to use a wide-gap, light-wire, small-barbed bass hook such as the R-bend style used for rigging soft-plastic baits. A light-wire Kahle hook is another good choice. Threading small pieces of cutbait on the hook creates a heavy, compact, and aerodynamic bait that can be cast far with no added weight. The advantage of large light-wire hooks is that the fine point and short barb allow good hooksets on light line.
Some days, the angler who can cast an unweighted bait past the first drop-off or weededge will be the only one catching fish. Further improvements include using small-diameter superline such as Berkley FireLine in the 14- to 20-pound-test range for more distance, less stretch, and the ability to use heavier hooks. Saves lots of rigs when fishing near snaggy cover, too.
Another way to improve casting distance with freelined baits is to add a second hook using a three-way swivel. Use a 14-inch leader on one hook, and make the other one about a foot longer. By using a bigger hook or a heavier hunk of bait on the longer leader, the rig will cast reasonably well and give you a little more distance. You can simultaneously experiment with two baits.
An important part of finesse fishing for cats, whether using a sliprig or a freeline rig, is bite detection. A standard practice on the West Coast is to prop the rod on a forked stick, open the bail on a spinning reel, and loop the line over the raised tab of a beverage can set at a right angle to the rod. Same deal with a baitcasting combo in freespool. When set up correctly, the slightest pull knocks over the can and alerts you to a bite. On windy days, add pebbles, sand, or water to the can for added weight.
When fishing from a boat, the same tackle and rigging used for shore angling — minus the surfcasting gear — works fine, especially in shallow water where more casting distance is required. Drift fishing probably would work here but is rarely practiced, since many lakes have limited areas, such as large flats, where that style of fishing works well. Instead most boaters choose to anchor on likely hotspots.
When targeting fish in deeper water — in the 30- to 100-foot range — choice of tackle depends more on bottom structure and potential snags. Outfits that handle 15- to 25-pound-test line are fine for most situations, though rods with a softer action get the nod for circle-hook presentations. Hook style and size depends more on bait type and line strength. If the fish are in a touchy mood, alter leader material, diameter, and length. And it still pays to use the lightest sinker you can get away with.
The optimum setup is to double anchor over a hotspot to minimize boat movement. On calm days, it's possible to freeline a small chunk or strip of cutbait in 80 feet of water with a split shot or a 1/8-ounce slipsinker.
Those who specialize in using finesse techniques have found them to be effective in most situations found in the region, from hard-fished public reservoirs to small private lakes. Even at popular pay lakes, many anglers have discovered that the fishing isn't always as good as it's portrayed in brochures. Trophy cat specialists have long used weightless techniques. Give these tactics a try in your region — you might be surprised at how well they work.
*Kirk McKay is an avid catman and saltwater fisherman from Winnetka, California.