November 23, 2022
By Dan Anderson
Drifting is a great way to catch catfish. Drifters on the Mississippi River might suggest a stiff and sensitive graphite rod held in-hand, while an angler who drifts big reservoirs in South Carolina might prefer moderate-action E-glass rods fished in rod holders. Many anglers say it’s critical to have lines trailing at 45-degree angle behind the boat, while others drift with lines perpendicular and baits directly under the boat. Drifting for cats means different things around the country, but certainly, each of these setups are efficient cat-catchers.
“There’s back-bouncing, dragging, and vertical drifting,” says Jason Masingale, who with his brother Daryl used drifting to win dozens of tournaments, including the Mississippi River Monsters event at Memphis. “Back-bouncing is a river technique, usually in strong current, where you use a trolling motor against the current to slow the boat’s drift speed. Rig with 2- to 8-ounce weights, cast downstream from your boat, and then use a lift-and-drop technique to walk baits downstream with the current as you drift.”
Daryl says “dragging” works best on smooth-bottomed reservoirs and lakes, while vertical drifting works well in snaggy lakes, reservoirs, and slow-moving rivers. “If we’re fishing a smooth-bottom reservoir or a slow-moving river, we drag baits along the bottom,” he says. “If it’s snaggy, we vertical drift with baits directly under the boat, either suspended in the water column or just off the bottom. Back-bouncing, dragging, and vertical drifting accomplish the same goal—catch more catfish by moving baits so they cover more water and contact more fish.”
The Masingales specialize in back-bouncing baits in strong currents of the Mississippi River. They favor heavy weights, stiff but sensitive rods, and braided lines. “The trick is feeling the bottom and knowing what you’re feeling,” Daryl says. “We use the trolling motor to reduce boat speed to half the current speed, then lift and drop baits to walk them downriver ahead of the boat as it drifts. A beginner should use heavy weights, 6 or 8 ounces, but switch to 3 or 4 ounces once they learn to feel the bottom.
“We use medium-heavy to heavy-power Team Catfish I-Cat graphite rods and Team Catfish Tug-O-War 65-pound-test braided mainline tied to a ball-bearing swivel. We’ve tried three-way swivels and had trouble with them tangling in strong currents. We make the single swivel into a three-way by tying both the mainline and monofilament dropper line, which holds the sinker, to the front eye. A mono leader to the hook is tied to the rear eye of the swivel.”
Dropper and leader length is critical. “The length of the dropper controls how high off the bottom the bait runs,” Jason says. “We learned that when Daryl was catching more fish by keeping his rig higher off the bottom, lifting and holding for a moment before letting the sinker re-contact bottom. I tied on a longer dropper, which raised my bait, and I started catching fish. We often start fishing with one of us using a short dropper and the other a longer one, to see which works better.”
Back-bouncing is perhaps the most difficult drifting technique to learn because it requires sophisticated boat control and close attention. Mississippi’s Phil King has won three national catfishing championships, 40 big-fish titles, and dozens of tournaments using drifting techniques, especially back-bouncing. He learned the basics from old catfishermen below Pickwick Dam more than 40 years ago.
“The old boys used a 5-gallon bucket of cement to anchor below the turbines, and then walked their baits downriver in the current,” he says. “Then they got the idea of using small motors to control their speed as they drifted their boats backward. They were catching fish left and right, so I decided to fish that way. The first day I tried drifting, I only caught two fish. But the guys all around me were catching lots of fish, so I kept at it. I eventually learned to lift and drop the bait and weight with a fluid motion. You don’t want to drop your rod tip any farther once the sinker touches the bottom. You want the hook leader to stay stretched out in the current over the weight. It takes a slow, fluid motion with the rod, and you’ve got to keep the line tight so you’re constantly in touch with what the weight is doing, because the weight controls the bait.”
For back-bouncing, he favors one of two rods bearing his signature, Phil King Driftmaster Fishing Rods, built by Tom Knox in Kansas City, Kansas. “In current 2 1⁄2 mph or slower, I use my Heavy-Action Graphite Rod #2,” he says. “If I’m in Mississippi River-type current, I use my Phil King Rod Extra-Heavy Action #3H. I like Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500 and 5500 reels because they’re strong but light. I’ve learned that using heavy rods and reels all day for back-bouncing can be painful. My shoulders would be in a lot better shape today if I had lightweight graphite rods back when I started out.”
King’s reels are spooled with 80-pound-test Spiderwire Ultracast braid tied to three-way swivels with a 60-pound mono leader. He likes Daiichi 5/0 or 7/0 circle hooks, and ties a 30-pound mono dropper to a 3- to 8-ounce bank sinker, depending on current.
Many believe dragging originated on the Santee-Cooper system, and guide Ricky Drose gives credit to old-school anglers on Lake Moultrie. “My family has guided on Santee-Cooper since the late 1940s,” says the three-time national catfishing tournament champion, including the National King Kat Tournament. “We picked up dragging from Jackie Jones on Moultrie. Who knows where he got it from. It’s a weighted rig with a float on the hook leader that keeps the bait off the bottom. I make my own 1/2- to 1-ounce pencil sinkers, with a swivel on one end and an eye at the other end. I tie them in-line to 130-pound-test Spiderwire braided mainline, with the same 130-pound-test Spiderwire as a leader to an Eagle Claw 5/0 #85 or #84 hook.
“I’ve tried three-way swivels and they get tangled up too much,” he says. “With the pencil sinker tied in-line, if I get snagged I can usually let out line and give it a jerk to bounce it over the snag. Plus, the pencil sinkers rigged in-line cast a lot better than three-way rigs.”
He says that dragging requires specific rods and techniques. He uses 7 1⁄2-foot, light Shakespeare Wonderods, discontinued but still his favorites. Shakespeare ATS-20 reels are loaded with 130-pound Spiderwire, the heavy line allowing him to pull free from snags by straightening hooks.
A 2 1⁄2-inch cigar-shaped float is threaded onto the leader ahead of the hook. A bobber stop is used to position it 4 to 6 inches above the hook, to keep baits off the bottom. In winter, when catfish are less active, he uses a shorter leader, around 6- to 12 inches. In summer, when fish are more active, or when he’s fishing in stumps and timber, he uses a leader up to 3 feet long so the cork floats baits higher off the bottom.
He drifts over ledges and submerged channels, but says the technique shines on large flats. “There are miles of flats on Santee-Cooper that are 27- to 33-feet deep, and the cats roam around on them feeding on baitfish, mussels, and snails,” he says. “Drifting flats covers a lot of water and exposes your baits to lots of fish.”
Tennessee’s James Patterson bottom-bounces on rivers with strong currents, and drags in lakes or reservoirs. He favors vertical drifting for flowing reservoirs with subtle currents like Wheeler or Wilson, or in slow-moving rivers such as the Ohio River in midsummer. Strategies vary, depending on depth and water temperature. At times, he gently bumps rigs across the bottom under the boat, with long sinker-droppers allowing baits to run several feet off the bottom, or with sinkers completely off the bottom but holding the baits vertical.
“For vertical drifting, I fish baits directly below the boat and put rods in rod holders,” he says. “I use light- to medium-power rods with soft tips and good backbone. You don’t want fish to feel resistance from the rod when they take the bait. With circle hooks, leave the rods in the holders until they bend over and the tips are in the water. Touch the rod sooner and they spit the bait when they feel resistance.”
Vertical drifting excels in lakes in midsummer when thermoclines are developed. Patterson uses his trolling motor to drift between .5 and 1.0 mph, keeping baits under the boat and just above the thermocline, where baitfish and catfish are. Vertical drifting also works well in winter when baitfish migrate to deep holes. Blue catfish follow, making vertical drifting a great way to pinpoint clusters of blues.
More Drifting Tips and Tricks
- Sinker design is critical when back-bouncing. “Cannonballs or bell sinkers are best,” James Patterson says. “They have more surface area to help you feel the bottom. Bank sinkers aren’t the best for bouncing because they have tapered bottoms and don’t give you immediate, solid feel of the bottom.”
- Don’t confuse rod sensitivity with rod flexibility. “When I’m back-bouncing, I want a rod that’s stiff at the tip,” Patterson says. “Not a pool cue, but a graphite rod that’s sensitive, so I can feel little bumps and vibrations as I move my rig along the bottom. For dragging, however, I want a fairly limber tip but strong backbone, so I can put the rod in a rod holder and let the tip pull down and hook the fish before I touch it.”
- Angle matters. “There’s a sweet spot when you’re back-bouncing, where the bait is between 100 and 200 feet behind the boat,” Jason Masingale says. “Depending on depth and speed, the line is usually at a 15- to 45-degree angle. That’s a flat enough angle so there’s no bow in the line, you’ve got a good feel for what’s going on, and you can walk a bait precisely.”
- Hook baits with care. Hook whole baitfish through their lips so their mouth is closed to minimize bait spin. Phil King uses two hooks, one in the front of a baitfish and a stinger hook near the tail. Ricky Drose sometimes fillets gizzard shad and hooks the slab of meat once through the leading edge. “If you thread a fillet on the hook, it bunches up and windmills,” he says. “Hook it once at the front and it may twirl a bit, but not so much that it bothers catfish.”
Jim Moyer, Clarksville, Tennessee, says “slow” is the name of the game when drifting, whether in summer or winter, and whether back-bouncing, dragging, or vertical drifting. “You want to move slowly, especially for blue cats” he says. “Ol’ Fat Alice, that monster blue cat you dream about, isn’t going to expend much energy to chase bait. You’ve got to move it past her nose slowly so she has plenty of time to decide if it’s worth the effort to go after it. I like vertical drifting for this, because I know exactly where my bait is—as long as you don’t move the boat too fast. If you do, you get a bow in your line and you’re not as precise as you need to be. That’s important when you’re fishing over a thermocline in the summer. I catch a lot of fish over thermoclines. I like a 7 1⁄2-foot E-glass rod with a fast tip so the fish don’t feel resistance until it’s too late for them.”
Don’t give up when learning to drift. “It was tough learning how to drift,” Jason Masingale says. “We’d have four or more lines snagged and tangled up at the same time. We’d get frustrated and go back to anchoring because we knew we could catch fish that way. Finally, Daryl left our anchor at home so we had to drift, and we figured it out. Drifting, whether it’s back-bouncing, dragging, or vertical drifting, is probably the best way to put big catfish in your boat, but you’ve got to be patient until you figure out how to do it right.”
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.