Drifting Up Channel Catfish

Most catmen are obsessed with heavy sinkers and heavier anchors, but a small cadre of reservoir catmen insist that drifting is the most efficient way to catch a boatload of channel cats during summer.

Steve Hoffman: For Tom Lawrence and thousands of other reservoir catmen, catching cats from a moving boat is every bit as natural as fishing from anchor. And for the upper echelon of their ranks, drifting is much more productive than stillfishing.

I know from experience, though, that the anchor habit is tough to break. Most catfish anglers learn early-on that location is critical to catching fish. Switching baits or rigs might mean another fish or two on some days, but presentation never makes up for fishing the wrong spot. Choose your anchor position with care, and you'll catch fish.

Drifters take a different tact. They know that cats often spread out over large flats or along channel ledges, where anchoring is inefficient. They know, too, that they can cover more water by drifting, putting their bait in front of many more fish during the course of a day.

Learning the basics is easy. Most anglers will learn enough in a day or two afloat to start catching cats. But like any other endeavor, the more you do it the easier it becomes. I'll wager that if you follow Lawrence's 6-step process this season, you'll catch more and bigger channel cats than ever before.


The mechanics of drifting are fairly simple, but it takes time and planning to put together a winning program. Your first decision is where to fish, which isn't as simple as it sounds. Maybe there's a lake close to home filled with 2-pound channel cats, but you're more interested in catching trophy cats. Before you pick a place to fish, decide what size fish you want to catch and how far you're willing to travel.

Perhaps the best way to find the most productive lakes in your area is to call your local fishery department. Most states administer a trophy fish award program that recognizes anglers who catch fish over a certain benchmark. Ask the program administrator to name the top two reservoirs in your region, or in the whole state if you're willing to drive a bit further. Most administrators are happy to share the information, and you'll be better prepared to catch the size fish you're after.

Another source of trophy catfish information is In-Fisherman's Master Angler program. To qualify, Midwest anglers must catch a channel catfish heavier than 18 pounds or at least 30 inches long. Anglers fishing in the southeast and on Canada's Red River of the North must exceed even larger minimum sizes. The largest fish entered during the previous year are published in the April-May In-Fisherman, and the entire list is available on the Web site, www.in-fisherman.com.

If you still can't identify a lake or two in your area with trophy catfish potential, it's time to widen your scope. Talk to the guy behind the counter at the bait shop. Talk to the guys unloading their boat at the ramp, especially if their boat contains catfish gear. Log onto an Internet fishing site and ask for recommendations. Keep in mind, though, that none of the information you receive should be considered 100 percent accurate. Bait shop owners, catfishermen, and Internet junkies all have been known to stretch the truth.


If you're after big channel cats, make sure you have the equipment to handle a fish that size. I'm not suggesting that you rush out and buy a heavy-duty saltwater combo, but your favorite walleye rod probably won't work, either. Choose something that's comfortable to use, but don't use gear so light that the fish are completely exhausted by the time you get them to the boat. The more time it takes to land a fish, the fewer fish you'll likely catch. Plus, fish that are landed quickly usually are in better condition when they're released.

When I'm fishing for channel cats over about 10 pounds, I use medium-heavy power casting rods matched with Quantum IR420CX reels. A durable E-glass rod is a better choice for drifting--and most other catfishing applications--than a stiff, sensitive graphite rod. Consider rod actions carefully; you need a rod with a fairly light tip section so cat's don't feel too much pressure when they engulf the bait, and a powerful butt section to pull big fish off the bottom and away from cover.

All of my reels are spooled with 20-pound-test Trilene Big Game Solar line, which is easy to see in any light condition. The line also is incredibly abrasion resistant, so it holds up well in wood, rock, and other cover. Some anglers worry about fish seeing high-visibility line, but I've never seen evidence that it makes any difference. If it bothers you, though, use a clear leader. I prefer an 80-pound Dacron leader, which is more visible than monofilament, but because it's softer, it probably feels more natural to cats.

I tie a large snap swivel to the end of my main line, tie a barrel swivel to the end of the leader, then attach the barrel swivel to the snap swivel. This might seem like a cumbersome connection, but it virtually eliminates line twist and provides enough weight for drifting moderately deep water in calm conditions. For hooks, I favor #2 Eagle Claw trebles that are 4X strong. These hooks are small enough to catch smaller cats, but strong enough to land big ones, too.


Your next step is to obtain a hydrographic map of the lake. Good maps usually are available from local bait shops, and sometimes can be downloaded free of charge from the state fishery department's Web site. Commercial maps sometimes include notes and tips from local guides and fishing experts. These notes can be helpful, so long as you don't put too much stock in the advice. Remember that few guides give away their best spots, and some anglers are experts in title only.

Once you've obtained your map, study it carefully. Use a highlighter to mark all the 15- to 25-foot flats that are close to the deepest portion of the lake basin. Mark the main river channel, too, along with long sloping points that jut into deep water. These are the areas that usually attract the most and biggest channel cats from early summer through early fall. Some adjustments might be necessary for extremely deep or shallow lakes, but this depth range has proven successful for me at reservoirs across the Midwest and Midsouth.

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Now get out on the water and run over these areas in the boat. Watch the bottom carefully on your sonar unit, and use a GPS unit to mark distinct holes, channel edges, or any other structural element that might hold fish. Rate these spots on your map, from those with the most potential (1), those with moderate potential (2), to backup spots to try when everything else fails (3). This systematic approach eliminates much of the guesswork when you're fishing. Spend more time scouting and evaluating than fishing during the first trip to unfamiliar water.

During summer, channel cats usually hold in deeper water during the day, then move onto shallower flats at night to feed. You might be able to catch fish during the day by slowly drifting baits through deep-water holding areas, but your odds of getting bit substantially increase after dark when the fish are more interested in feeding. The best feeding flats usually are close to the best daytime holding areas.


The key point to remember is that the speed and direction your boat will drift is determined by the speed and direction of the wind. A good drifter never fights the wind, but usually works hard to make it work in his favor. If the wind is blowing harder than about 3 mph, for example, you'll probably need to deploy a drift sock or sea anchor to slow the speed of your drift. If there's no wind at all, you'll probably need to use an electric trolling motor to keep your boat moving.

The correct speed depends largely on the activity level of the fish. If you're night fishing a lake with a large channel cat population during midsummer, when the weather is stable and the fish are actively feeding, you can and should move much faster than you would earlier or later in the season. With experience, you'll learn to gauge the correct speed as soon as you hit the water. Until then, though, experiment. Err on the slow side until you gain confidence in drifting.

The direction of the drift is equally important. Look over your map before you launch your boat to determine which areas will provide the longest drift based on the prevailing wind direction. A few days of steady wind blowing into one section of the lake might concentrate fish in a small area, but this does little good if you can make only a short drift before running into shore. Especially during your first few trips, plan the longest possible drifts. This will allow you to learn drifting mechanics as you learn the lake.

One last point on this subject: leave your anchor at home. I've talked to many anglers who tried drifting for a few hours, didn't catch a fish, and went right back to fishing the way they always had. If you want to learn this method--and if you fish reservoirs, you should learn it--stick with it long enough to learn to do it correctly. Once you start catching fish, your confidence will dramatically increase.


The biggest mistake novice drifters make is trying to fish directly beneath the boat. The depth of the bottom often varies, even on a fairly uniform flat. If you drop your bait to the bottom on a vertical line, the bait loses contact with the bottom as you drift across the flat. Since channel cats hold on or near the bottom most of the time, a bait riding above the bottom spends a good portion of the drift out of the fish zone.

At the beginning of a drift, let out enough line to maintain a 45-degree angle from the rod tip to the point where the line enters the water. The precise length of line varies according to the depth you're fishing and the speed you're moving, but 100 feet or so is about right for most conditions. A slightly shorter line is better for shallower water and calm winds, while a longer line is needed for deeper water and a faster drift speed.

Your goal is to tick the bait along the bottom with as little added weight on the line as possible. In most situations, I don't use a sinker. The weight of the bait--for me that usually means a big chunk of congealed beef blood--and perhaps the weight of the snap swivel connecting my main line and leader, is enough to achieve the proper depth. But for deep water and strong wind, a bit of lead sometimes is necessary.

Last year while fishing Merritt Reservoir in Nebraska, a friend and I found channel cats in 50 to 65 feet of water in the main river channel. Thankfully there was almost no wind so we used the trolling motor and the sonar unit to stay on top of the fish. We also added a 1/2-ounce sinker to our standard drift rigging to maintain bottom contact. With this combination, we caught and released 12- to 18-pound channel cats all night at a depth that most drifters would think beyond their reach.


The final and perhaps most important part of the process, and a step overlooked by most anglers. After you make the first drift through an area, answer the following questions: Did you catch fish? If not, it might be time to head to your next spot or try another drift across a different portion of the flat. If you did catch fish, try to determine where they were holding. How deep was the water? How big were the fish?

I hope you saved a waypoint on your GPS each time you hooked a fish, allowing you to work back through the same spot again. When you first begin fishing a new lake, fish as many spots as possible during your first few trips. Record a waypoint each time you catch a fish, and in a short time, you'll accumulate a milk run of productive spots that should continue to produce fish all season.

Once you gain experience--on the lake and with the technique--it's often better to hone in on small areas that hold good numbers of the size fish you're after. Sometimes I'll zero-in on a section of a flat that's only 100 yards long, drifting this short run again and again and ignoring the rest of the flat. Sometimes I might even drop the anchor and fish static baits on the bottom, but not as often as you might think. Even when fish are fairly concentrated, drifting usually is more productive than stillfishing.

Evaluation really is a never-ending process in itself. Successful drifters constantly monitor their sonar units, checking the depth and looking for catfish or baitfish. They consider, too, how the spot they're fishing differs from the surrounding area; where the cats should be and what they should be doing based on weather conditions and time of day; and how the wind speed and direction is affecting their drift. It's a lot to think about, I'll grant you, but when you're catching fish it all seems worthwhile.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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