Classic Catfish Rigs

Classic Catfish Rigs

The simplicity associated with catfishing may be the most compelling reason for its popularity. Doesn't take much of anything tacklewise to be an adequate cat angler. Certainly doesn't take a loan from your friendly local banker to finance it all. Doesn't take a bass boat the size of the Queen Mary to carry it all, either.


Indeed, most of my cat tackle has for more than 20 years been stored in a big-old discarded ladies shoulder bag, tattered and torn and smelling just as gruesome as expected. It's all in there, from rigs to floats and sinkers, hooks, flashlight, knife, bug stuff, and more. I can sling the bag over my shoulder, grab a rod or two, and be gone, worry free, in minutes.



Catfish rigs don't take much room because most of them are made on the spot from stuff we have on hand — hooks, line, sinkers and lead shot, perhaps swivels, and perhaps floats and float stops. The simplest cat rig of all was favored by my friend Oddie-Van-Toadie (alias Otis-The-Toadis, alias Otis "Toad" Smith, alias The Toadmonster) when we down-anchored his wee-river boat above a snag in a river that could have been winding anywhere in Catsville, North ­America. He'd usually run a 1/0 hook and a piece of cutbait at the business end of 17-pound-test line, then pinch on a lead shot or two, 6 to 12 inches above the hook.

The weight of the cutbait coupled with the shot allowed adequate distance on a cast into position just above or somewhere alongside the snag. Light to modest current let the bait sink and settle gently on the bottom, natural juices from the cutbait drifting downcurrent, calling all cats. Back boatside, the mighty Toad, ever anticipating a run — wishing it, willing it, and pouting when it didn't happen — would sit with his rod at about a right angle to his bait. Eventually, a cat would grab the bait and do as all mighty catfish do, slide to the side and downcurrent.


Zero great catmen that I know let a cat run far with most baits, so the mighty Toad would simply ease his rod tip back maybe two feet toward the cat as it slipped downcurrent, then lift firmly to set the hook. Now if Toadie was a might busy, having an intimate relationship with a bag of Oreos and a cup of coffee, given his being a two-fisted Oreo eater, he'd hit his freespool and slip on the clicker button alongside his reel, then brace the rod on the gunnel with the rod tipped up at a 45-degree angle back toward the bait. He'd allow for a little slack in his line so he could monitor his bait.


Break off this rig and you aren't even out a nickel if you buy hooks by the hundred and shot by the bulk. Better to save your money for Oreos and a thermos of good Colombian brew.

This simple rig also is the original "drift rig" favored by most beginning cat anglers. In other words, the angler casts this rig slightly upstream, then allows current to drift the rig downstream, bumping bottom as it goes, hopefully through the lair of Wiley E. Catfish. The seasoned catman, however, knows this rig tends to snag more often than several other options.

One way to modify this rig so it drifts well is simply to add a float. Before adding a hook and shot to your line, tie a five-turn Uni-knot around your main line, using the same or slightly heavier line. This serves as a sliding — that is adjustable — float stop. Many anglers prefer the ease of slipping on a nylon float stop or using a pretied bobber-stop knot instead of tying a stop knot. Up to you there, Sweet Pea.

After tying on the stop knot, slip on a small bead and then the slip float of your choice, usually a cigar-style float. Now slide the stop knot and slip float up your line so the float suspends the bait near bottom. Of course, rivers rarely run the same depth for more than 16 inches, so the bait will also tumble along the bottom. Although this rig occasionally hangs up, the float positioned perpendicular to the moving bait minimizes problems.

Float rigs are particularly deadly in several situations. In rivers, they work well drifted (1) through the tail end of a riffle and into the beginning of a hole, (2) along and around cover such as a snag, and (3) over flats such as the run at the tailout of holes. In all of these situations, livebait works well during early and late season, cutbait all season, and stinkbaits during summer. In deep slack areas in rivers and in reservoirs, ponds, and lakes, use floats to suspend cutbait for channel cats and blue cats running shad, or to suspend big livebaits for flathead cats.

To anchor a big livebait properly for flatheads, tie in a swivel about 20 inches above your hook, which might range from a 3/0 to 7/0 or larger. The Eagle Claw 84, Mustad 92671, or similar hook design is functional and inexpensive. Add a 1- to 4-ounce egg sinker, depending on the size of the livebait, above the swivel. You need a big float to hold up this rig.

Toadie was the one who taught me how deadly drifting cutbait below a float in a small river was for channel cats. So it struck me as odd that he had a hard time believing me when I first told him how deadly a big livebait suspended below a float was for flatheads in rivers and reservoirs. No need to get the bait extra deep. Indeed, just about 5 feet down often does it, even when the water's over 10 feet deep. Flatheads spend a lot of time attacking fish riding right near the surface. They can feel the vibrations from the struggling bait.

Although just a hook and shot is the simplest of all cat rigs, surely the all-time classic bottom rig is the egg-sinker slip rig, consisting of an egg sinker (with a hole in it) sliding on the main line, which is tied to a leader consisting of hook, line, and swivel. The object is to keep the bait on the bottom (vary the size of the egg sinker) and (supposably) be able to give line so the fish doesn't feel tension once it picks up the bait.

This is the most widely used and misunderstood rig in catfishing. The basic idea behind the rig is right, while the application of the basic idea usually is wrong. Catfish just aren't namby-pamby little timid troutlike fellers that need to run on a free line most of the time. Indeed, they actually usually prefer limited and controlled tension. Rarely, too, as mentioned before, do they need to run far before you set. When a decent cat picks up a bait, he usually has it right now. Most of the time you could set right now — right after the first solid "thump," without giving any line.

You up your odds for a hookset in the corner of the cat's mouth, however, when you give a little and allow the fish to turn to the side before setting. The "give" to the fish, though, should be gradual and include controlled tension against the moving fish. So the fish goes "thump," he has the bait, and you can feel him with your rod tip. Helps to have a little play in the rod tip — not a super-stiff rod. As he begins to move away, follow him with your rod tip. Just ease it back, gradually dropping your rod tip toward the fish. When your rod tip has dropped about two feet, set the hook.

Egg sinkers work best when they're pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current. Otherwise, egg sinkers tend to roll easily along the bottom and snag. To minimize snagging, replace the egg sinker with a standard bell sinker, often called a "bass casting" sinker. Slip your main line through the swivel on top of the sinker. Then add a bead to your main line to protect your knot connection from the sliding sinker.

I want to tell you that by using the right weight, you can pitch this rig into some pretty heavy current and walk it through prime cat-holding areas. But before doing so, it's necessary to grasp one other concept that's important to using this rig.

Too many novice cat anglers worry about snell length, that is the length of line separating the hook from the weight. Look, cats don't care about sinkers. They don't poke along the bottom searching for something to eat, saying to themselves, "Ah, that's a rock, another rock, oh there's a sinker." In current, the longer the snell, the more likely it is to get snagged. Use the shortest snell you can get away with. In heavy current, I usually slide my bell sinker right smack against my bait, almost like fishing a big leadhead jig. Still, cats always grab the bait without taking the sinker.

This "snug style" of rigging has proven deadly for me for going on 20 years. Yet I hardly ever see anyone using it. I'm not saying, of course, that there's never a time to use a little bit longer leader. Many times, once your slip rig has been pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current, you want the bait to move a little in the current, so long as your sinker is anchored in a good spot.

Never, though, let your bait just sit for more than five minutes. You never know where your bait settles on bottom. Maybe it settles in a crevice or below a log where a cat will have a difficult time finding it. Move your rigging every so often.

Three-way rigging is preferred by small groups of old river boys who fish the mightiest rivers, the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, plus major tributaries like the Wisconsin and Illinois rivers, and the White in Arkansas, to mention just a few. This style of cat rigging is suggested in writings from Mark Twain's time, so I always smile when some walleye writer reports that the rig was first used on the Wolf River in Wisconsin in the 1950s, and should therefore righteously be called the Wolf River Rig, all in capital letters, of course. Before walleyes was, cats were, and therefore so was cat rigging.

In recent times, three-way rigging often is assumed to require a three-way swivel. With a three-way swivel as the heart of the rig, the leader is tied to one loop in the three-way swivel, a dropline with a sinker to another loop, with the main line connected to the remaining loop. Originally, however, this rigging was almost certainly tied with a standard two-loop swivel. The dropline was tied to one of the two rungs in the swivel.

This is a fulcrum rig. Picture the rig in current, with the dropline perfectly perpendicular to the rest of the rig. Drop your rod tip with the current and the leader drifts (pivots back with the current). Ease your rod tip forward and the leader and bait move forward, all without the sinker moving. The longer the dropline, the more the pivot.

Given no need to let a cat run far on a free line or slip line, this rig is easily as versatile as the classic slip rig. Indeed, often it is far easier to fish in heavy current, because a heavy bell sinker tends to stick well to a sand or gravel bottom. It also shines in static water, however, and is perhaps the finest rig for trolling a crawler harness for cats in reservoirs, or drifting along while bottom bouncing a piece of cutbait in big rivers.

Say we're after channel cats from shore and are set up at the mouth of a creek arm where it enters the main reservoir. Say the water depth on the flat runs 8 to 12 feet deep. One option would be a piece of cut bait on a #1/0 hook, connected to a leader 12 inches long. An adequate dropline would be 12 inches. Just cast the rig out, then tighten and set the rod in a bank stick or rod rest with the rod tip at an angle away from the rig. This allows you to "give" rod tip to the cat once it takes and begins to move off.

In this situation, you might also use a large floating jighead to hold the cutbait just above bottom. Crawlers work well, too. And leeches often are the most overlooked option of all. Leeches, by the way, also produce well near wing dams in big rivers, or along rip-rapped banks in side channel areas off big rivers.

One nifty adaptation of this rig is to add a big float and use the rig to present livebait, say a bluegill, for flatheads. But then the modifications of this and other classic cat riggings are legion, limited only by the imagination of the cat angler in question. Look for articles in In-Fisherman magazine and in future Catfish Guides for the best modifications of these standard riggings for situations covered in each article.

Adjustable Three-Way Rig


The three-way rig is an option so versatile that it should at least be considered in most catfishing situations. It'™s an effective rig for presenting static baits in the heavy current of a tailrace or the still waters of a lake or pond. But it'™s unparalleled for slipdrifting on big rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, and for drifting windblown flats in big reservoirs like Santee-Cooper.
The three-way rig consists of a dropper line 6 to 24 inches long, anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the bait near bottom. A half-ounce sinker might be sufficient in still water, but 3 to 8 ounces are needed to drift around the tips of wing dams for blue and channel cats. The leader should be slightly longer than the dropper line — usually 2 to 3 feet, depending on current velocity.
Three-way rigs also excel at extracting fish from areas where other rigs can'™t hold or return from. Say you'™re fishing for channel cats over a broken-rock bottom below a lowhead dam. Use a three-way rig with a 20-pound mainline and a 17-pound leader. Secure a 2- to 4-ounce bell sinker to the remaining rung of a three-way swivel with 6-pound line. When cast into place, the sinker hangs, anchoring the rig until a fish strikes. Big cats sometimes grab a bait hard enough to hook themselves and break the light dropper line. When a smaller fish strikes, a sharp snap of the rod tip breaks off the sinker and sets the hook.
Another versatile rig is an (pictured here) that doesn'™t require a three-way swivel. Instead, tie on a standard barrel swivel between your mainline and leader. Next, thread a long dropper line through one of the swivel rungs and clamp a lead shot somewhere on the dropper opposite the sinker and swivel.
The lead shot functions like a bobber stop. Where you set it determines the distance the swivel rides above bottom, and thus the depth the bait runs. To adjust the distance from bottom, simply slide the shot up or down the dropper. Should you snag, a firm pull slides the shot off your dropper line, once again losing only the sinker and saving the rest of the rigging.

Sliprig

Pictured: Basic Sliprig.
Many catfishing situations call for a livebait or piece of cutbait to be stillfished on the bottom. The most popular bottom rig for all catfish species is the simple sliprig. This rig consists of an egg sinker sliding on the mainline, held in place above the hook by a lead shot. The objective is to anchor the bait near the bottom, and then allow a catfish to swim off with the bait without feeling too much tension. The idea is sound, but this rig doesn'™t accomplish either objective well.
The success of trotlines and limblines illustrates that catfish — particularly big cats — aren'™t timid feeders. Let a trout or walleye run with the bait before you set the hook, but don'™t wait for cats. When a decent-size cat picks up the bait, he has it. Most of the time, you could set immediately without giving any line. But your chances of a solid hookset increase if you let the fish turn first. When you feel the thump of a fish grabbing the bait, follow him with your rod tip for a foot or two, then set.
Another problem is the egg sinker. These sinkers work well when pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current. When cast across current, though, they tend to roll along the bottom and snag more often than other sinker designs like bell, bank, or flat sinkers. Slip your mainline through the top of a slipsinker and replace the split shot with a swivel to improve the effectiveness of this popular rig.
Leader length is another concern, especially for novice anglers. Don'™t use a longer leader just because it separates the bait from the sinker. Rather, adjust the length of the leader to vary the amount of action and movement imparted to the bait. A piece of cutbait tethered on a 12-inch leader may lie motionless on the bottom of a lake or pond, but would flail about wildly in heavy current.
Use just enough leader for your bait to attract fish without hanging up. That might mean a 3- or 4-foot leader for drifting cutbait across the clean bottom of a reservoir for blue cats; a 6-inch leader for holding big livebaits in front of a snag for flatheads; or no leader at all for probing the broken bottom of a tailrace for channel cats.

Double Barreled Float Rig

As much as floats aid strike indication, their true worth lies in the unique ways they present baits to catfish. Given that catfishing remains a game of delivering the right bait the right way, float rigs ought to play a major role in every angler'™s lineup. This is increasingly true as we discover how well cats respond to drifting, as well as to off-bottom presentations. A float is simply a bait-delivery tool similar to a sinker, and catfishermen ought to consider it just as important.
Regardless of which catfish species you'™re fishing for, the basic slipfloat rig is constructed in the same way. Before tying on a hook, cinch on a pre-made stop-knot, or tie a five-turn uni-knot around your mainline with the same or slightly heavier line to serve as an adjustable float stop. Sliding the stop-knot up the line makes the bait run deeper, while sliding it down allows for a shallower drift. Next, slip on a 5-mm bead followed by the slipfloat. Anchor cutbait and smaller livebait rigs with a few lead shot about a foot above a hook, ranging from a #2 for small baits to a 3/0 for bigger baits. To anchor larger livebaits for flatheads, add a swivel about 20 inches above a 3/0 to 7/0 hook. Slide a 1- to 2-ounce egg sinker on the line above the swivel to balance the float.

Double-Barreled Sliprigs

Pictured: Double Barreled Rig.
These rigs are a combination of a sliprig and a three-way rig. They'™re worth the extra time they take to construct — particularly for presenting livebaits to flatheads. The low-frequency vibrations emitted by a struggling baitfish attract catfish by stimulating their sensitive lateral lines. Baitfish of all sizes must first be wild and super lively, and second be presented in a way that allows them to advertise these seductive qualities. Keep a wild bait suspended over cover and it feels exposed, vulnerable, and will panic.
Begin with a terminal leader as you would for a sliprig: A 12-inch section of monofilament or braided line with a hook on one end and a barrel swivel on the other. Before tying the swivel to your mainline, add a sinker dropper consisting of a lighter piece of monofilament with a bell sinker on one end and a swivel on the other. Thread the dropper swivel on the mainline so it slides above the leader swivel. The length of the bottom dropper determines how high the bait is held above the bottom.
This rigging is most effective when you maintain a 30- to 90-degree angle on your line, from rod tip to sinker. Fishing the head of a hole from a boat anchored slightly upstream, or fishing the edge of a flat from the sandbar on an inside river bend, or fishing the scour hole behind a bridge abutment from the top of the bridge are all top situations for double-barreled sliprigs.

Drifting Rigs - Bottom Bouncer Rig


Fixed sinker rigs usually are favored for steady drift speeds or heavy current, since active cats tend to hit moving baits fast and hard. Fish often are hooked on the strike, but always set anyway to ensure a good hookup — unless you'™re using a circle hook. Another advan- tage of fixed-sinker rigs is that the leader slackens and tightens as the weight pivots along the bottom. When pulled behind a boat moving at a steady speed, the bait slows then darts for- ward, often triggering a neutral fish to strike.

Slinky Rig

Slipsinker rigs usually are a bet- ter choice for slower drift speeds and lighter current. Stan- dard slipsinkers like the walking sinker are fine over a relatively clean bottom, but more snag- resistant designs like the Lindy No-Snagg or Slinky sinkers are better in heavy cover. No sinker design is completely snag-free, but these designs glide through tan- gles that would devour egg and bell sinkers. Adding a panfish- sized float to the leader and using weedless hooks make the rest of the rig more snag-resistant, too.

Pop Up Paternoster Rig

The paternoster is a wonderful rig in areas of relatively consistent depth. The problem is, as depth changes with cast placement, you need to adjust stop-knot position to keep the rig running properly. To some extent, the float acts like a sail, too, catching wind and riding current at speeds exceeding that of water moving below the surface. In significant current or wind, the float may drag the top of the rig into trouble spots or, occasionally, dislodge the entire rig from its position.
Again, we need to change the way we regard floats on a fundamental level. Floats aren'™t only bite indicators, just as they don'™t necessarily have to remain on the surface. Consider the pop-up paternoster rig. Rather than presenting the float above the rig on the surface, slide the float onto the dropper line between the swivel and weight, typically a 1- to 5-ounce bell sinker. Streamlined floats, such as Betts'™ Billy Boy or Little Joe'™s Pole Float, catch less current, reducing down- stream drag. By submerging the float, you'™ve eliminated worries about adjusting stop knots to changing depths. At rest, the float 'œpops up' the dropper line, holdingthe rig erect above bottom. The depth is a function of dropper length. Finally, by running back-to-back barrel swivels rather than a single three-way swivel, strik- ing catfish run free with the line, similar to the action of a slipsinker rig.

Slip Float Rigging

Pictured: Slip Float Rigging

Splitshotting

If the weight of the bait alone isn'™t enough to keep it near bottom — either because the bait is moving too fast or the water is too deep — a lead shot or two pinched on the line may be the best solution. This is especially true in lakes and reservoirs, where tentative cats often reject a bait when too much pressure'™s on the line from a heavy sinker. A single 3/0 or #7 shot usually is enough to keep the bait in the strike zone, but not so heavy that a cat rejects the added weight.
This rig also is a top choice for river fishing situations that usually would call for a slipfloat rig. Pinching lead shot on the mainline about 6 to 12 inches above the hook results in a rig that can be drifted through riffles, shallow holes, and even around the edge of visible cover like snags and boulders. Round shot, as opposed to the removable type with ears, tends to drift better in current and doesn'™t twist as much while drifting in still water. Soft lead shot also is less damaging to lines than lead substitutes like tin or shot poured from hard lead alloys.

Standard Three-Way Rig

Pictured: S
The three-way rig is another option so versatile that it should at least be considered in most catfishing situations. It'™s an effective rig for presenting static baits in the heavy current of a tailrace or the still waters of a lake or pond. But it'™s unparalleled for slipdrifting on big rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, and for drifting windblown flats in big reservoirs like Santee-Cooper.
The three-way rig consists of a dropper line 6 to 24 inches long, anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the bait near bottom. A half-ounce sinker might be sufficient in still water, but 3 to 8 ounces are needed to drift around the tips of wing dams for blue and channel cats. The leader should be slightly longer than the dropper line — usually 2 to 3 feet, depending on current velocity.
Three-way rigs also excel at extracting fish from areas where other rigs can'™t hold or return from. Say you'™re fishing for channel cats over a broken-rock bottom below a lowhead dam. Use a three-way rig with a 20-pound mainline and a 17-pound leader. Secure a 2- to 4-ounce bell sinker to the remaining rung of a three-way swivel with 6-pound line. When cast into place, the sinker hangs, anchoring the rig until a fish strikes. Big cats sometimes grab a bait hard enough to hook themselves and break the light dropper line. When a smaller fish strikes, a sharp snap of the rod tip breaks off the sinker and sets the hook.
Another versatile rig is an adjustable three-way that doesn'™t require a three-way swivel. Instead, tie on a standard barrel swivel between your mainline and leader. Next, thread a long dropper line through one of the swivel rungs and clamp a lead shot somewhere on the dropper opposite the sinker and swivel.
The lead shot functions like a bobber stop. Where you set it determines the distance the swivel rides above bottom, and thus the depth the bait runs. To adjust the distance from bottom, simply slide the shot up or down the dropper. Should you snag, a firm pull slides the shot off your dropper line, once again losing only the sinker and saving the rest of the rigging.

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