Dropping the Bomb on Blue Catfish
August 21, 2011
What for many decades was an imprecise, sometimes random quest for catfish has, for the finest anglers, evolved into a game of precision presentation and pinpoint accuracy. Precision boat control and presentation make sense, especially for big blue catfish because they so often hold near specific cover objects.
John Jamison, Spring Hill, Kansas, travels throughout the Midwest and Midsouth, preaching "precision, precision, precision" at every tournament and seminar stop. In recent years, he and a few others have perfected a new generation of precise presentations. He instructs anglers how to use sonar to find fish, then how to stay on them using boat control, GPS, and mapping software. Time to change your thinking, he says. Stop regarding your boat only as a means of transportation, instead utilizing it as "part of the presentation."
Many of the rivers and reservoirs today are digitally mapped with accurate depth contours, but individual submerged trees, boulders and other features must be discovered and saved on GPS one at a time. In deepwater reservoirs, such as Wheeler, Wilson, and Pickwick reservoirs on the Tennessee River, and Kerr along the North Carolina-Virginia border, most of the goliath cats hold tight to individual cover objects. Particularly during midday, blues hunker near wood and rock, requiring baits to be delivered directly into their cozy quarters.
In fall, as big fish move into 60- to 100-foot reservoir sections near the main river channel, current and wind can test even a boat-control pro like Jamison. And, as he says, if you can't keep your bait close to cover, or stationed within the small patch of turf that's holding fish, you'd best save that bait for later.
The term drop-shot rig has never really entered the catman's vocabulary. "When we travel to tournament sites on deep reservoirs," Jamison says, "we know some of the best local anglers catch some big blues in deepwater using a form of dropper rig that presents baits set a distance above a 6- to 10-ounce 'drop' sinker. So anglers have been using a form of drop-shot rig for a long time. The main problem is that most anglers aren't presenting baits with the precision needed to score fish consistently, especially in lakes like Wheeler which has a lot of 80- to 90-foot water. "
The thing that sets Jamison's methods apart from those of local anglers was the application of electronics. "Most guys blindly drifted deepwater. Some anglers had sonar but didn't seem to pay close attention to it.
"I started scrutinizing drop-offs, and the brushpiles and other cover found there, dropping GPS waypoints onto any interesting objects, particularly the ones positioned close to a ledge — and any cover that showed signs of baitfish or larger arches. Using my Minn Kota Terrova 101 bow-mounted trolling motor, I forced myself to become proficient at holding the boat directly above key spots. You must stick on a piece of deep cover almost like an anchor. The only way to consistently stay on bigger fish is to target specific cover or constricted zones on a larger structural element, such as a small patch of boulders lying along a deep channel ledge."
Over time, Jamison has built up libraries of waypoints on several reservoirs. At last count, he has 75 waypoints on Wheeler Reservoir alone, an impoundment of the Tennessee River where William McKinley caught a previous 111-pound world record. Many of these waypoints are close to one another. In tournaments the object is to locate one or two key zones that have multiple waypoints and move from one to another, rather than drifting an expansive area that may or may not be holding larger fish.
Some of his waypoints are small cover objects — piles of timber, old submerged bridges, roadbeds — on a broader structural feature, such as a river channel edge, submerged hump, or even a broad flat. Other waypoints mark attractive portions of structure, such as a ditch running across a flat.
"Most people go way too fast," Jamison says. "Random drifting works during early morning and evening, as fish move away from cover to feed, but during tournament times (typically banker's hours) the biggest blues hold close to cover, whether tight to the base of a boulder or suspended 20 feet off bottom in particularly dense tree branches."
Jamison adapts his rigging to place baits directly on individual cover objects. Working from the bow of his Xpress X24 Catfish boat, he uses the trolling motor to hover straight above the zone, placing his rig beside, above, or at the base of the cover, depending on the depth of the fish. He uses Shimano Tekota 500LC line-counter reels coupled with 8-foot Rod Shop Driftmaster #2 rods. When cats are on bottom, line-counters aren't critical; but for delivering bait to blues holding in tree branches 74 feet down over 95 feet of water, they are.
In most settings, Jamison places at least one rod in a Monster Rod Holder with the rod set parallel to the water. He hand holds a second rod.
"We get strong current and have to deal with strong winds on big impoundments," he says. "It's tricky just keeping the boat in place over a waypoint, let alone trying to avoid snags. The main thing is to keep rigs straight below the boat."
If it's calm, or in water shallower than 40 feet, he sometimes picks up the sinker and slowly jigs the bait up and down with the rod tip. The up and down flutter motion transmitted to the bait by waves moving rod tips in holders also helps trigger shallower catfish. In deeper water he just tries to put the bait in front of catfish; this requires minimal rod movement.
To maintain the critical vertical position, Jamison relies on 6- to 10-ounce bank sinkers clipped to the base of the rig with a #6 McMahon snap. The snap allows for instant sinker changes as wind, current, and depths vary. He has a tub of weighted sinkers at his feet right next to a Keep Kool Bait Cooler stocked with fresh-killed skipjack herring.
Jamison's drop rigs have a drop line of at least 3-feet above a 5/0 three-way swivel. To this he ties a 12- to 24-inch section of 60-pound test Cabela's Fluorocarbon Leader to a tandem of Daiichi 7/0 Circle Chunk Light hooks, snelled 5- to 7-inches apart. The entire rig clips via three-way swivel onto another McMahon snap affixed to his 80-pound Power Pro mainline.
In a large Cabela's Utility Binder, he stores dozens of spare rigs. When a rig is lost, he clips on a new one and is back in business in seconds. Some of his spare rigs are tied with a second three-way swivel and leader 6 to 10 feet above the standard rig. These tandems are for working cats suspended at different depths above bottom.
I asked John about leader length, making the case that a shorter snell would help prevent snags and offer more vertical control. I also suggested that fishing a heavy leadhead jig in place of the drop weight would offer supreme control and even greater snag resistance. An 8-ounce jighead sounds outlandish to freshwater anglers, but in saltwater, 12-, 16- and 20-ounce bullet-shaped leadheads matched with 12/0 O'Shaughnessy hooks are regular fare. Kalin's Big'n Jig is perhaps the best example with weights from 2 to 20 ounces.
Jamison: "Jigs are on my 'to do list' for the coming year. I think they might work well in vertical situations. More to the point of your question about shortening the leader, though, you can certainly do this, and might even prevent a few snags. But leader length mostly relates to our use of circle hooks, which are superior for hooking blues in deep water. I think you need a bit longer leader so fish can move off with the bait and allow the hooks to work their magic."
Having fished the tandem circle hook rigs firsthand, they are indeed the answer to many catfishing situations. Which, of course, is also true for Jamison's choice in bait.
"Whenever possible, we catch our skipjack the day or two before a tournament," Jamison says. "Our friend Tom Knox, who owns The Rod Shop usually gets tapped for skipjack duty — he's the best skipjack herring angler I know."
To maintain baits at constant cool temperatures, Jamison and the boys use Keep Kool Bait Containers, which separate baitfish from ice and melt-water with an internal bait chamber. This is key for keeping precious fish oils and blood intact, rather than letting the juices leach out or dilute within the melting ice.
Technology In Action
Jamison put his system in action in an October 2006 tournament at Wilson Reservoir, Tennessee. He and his partner, Thompson, had found a pack of large blues on the backside of a 90-foot saddle that rolled off into a 110-foot channel. Early on both days, cats held tight to a small piece of turf on the saddle, but by late morning on day two, they vanished.
By systematically slow-trolling in increasingly wide circles around his original waypoints, he eventually marked a pod of scary big arcs, suspended 90 feet down over 115 feet of water, well away from the saddle. "The fish were still relating to the structure, but when the baitfish moved, so did the cats," he says. Using their line-counter reels, Jamison and Thompson precisely delivered skipjack to the suspended blues, finishing in second place, with 14 cats that weighed 491 pounds.
Jamison describes the strategy: "The 'bullseye' function on our Humminbird 1197C unit draws circular trolling paths around the perimeter of any waypoint. The more you zoom out, the farther the path lies from the waypoint. In the tournament, this let us systematically work beyond our original waypoints, helping us reestablished fish contact.
"Most of the time, we take the opposite approach. Early and late in the day, cats often bite better 20 or more feet away from cover, so we like to start making slow, wide trolling paths around cover. As the sun rises higher we zoom in on the waypoint, and the graph draws a smaller circumference around the spot — a narrower trolling path that we follow as cats draw back toward cover. By midday, I often hold the boat right over the trees, while we hover baits in place until a cat decides to eat."
Hovering over a tree or other cover, Jamison is adept at reading hidden catfish on the down-imaging screen of his Humminbird 1197C. He does the same thing while side scanning for new waypoints. "On Lake of the Ozarks I'm good at seeing fish lying in trees in 30 to 40 feet, but you really have to study the monitor." By zooming in and freezing the screen on trees, he can usually give a thumbs-up or down. It's an important fish-finding advantage.
High-tech tools are key elements in Jamison's precision program, but he doesn't just shut the units off in other seasons, or when he travels to rivers. "In southern impoundments, this system is probably best August through October. But you can actually do the precision thing any time of the year — so long as fish are on structure, it works. In spring, we use the presentation to catch loads of smaller cats on boulders in shallow water."
He's also taken flatheads to 45 pounds with the rig, most of these fish striking as he works super slow, tight to cover. Meanwhile, in rivers, fishing precisely shines in two instances.
"When current slows in summer, fall, and winter on big rivers like the Ohio, I go to one of my favorite banks and start dropping vertical rigs on each of my 50 some waypoints," he says. "These are all big root-wads, and every one of them can hold fish. We go from tree to tree, right down the bank. Especially midday, it's much more precise to work individual targets than to slowly drift the whole bank. That's what most anglers do — their baits are only in front of fish a fraction of the time."
Slow or no current can also cause blues to suspend. "In an August 2006 tournament on the Ohio, the current dropped to zero and we fished a vertical drop rig at the base of a bridge peer in 45 feet of water with riprap on the bottom," he says. "After striking out on day one, we began marking cats 20 feet off bottom. Winding their line-counter reels to the 20-foot level, Jamison and Thompson immediately started boating big cats. After a frustrating first day, they finished day two with five blues weighing 140 pounds and a second-place finish.
A final river pattern, perhaps the ultimate precision bite of all, occurs when waves of blues make prespawn runs up tributaries of major rivers. A huge current seam of dead water forms right at the mouths of the opposing rivers. Jamison sets up on these seams and fishes vertically, picking off fish as they move up into the feeder river. It's just a matter of putting precision into practice with the right tool.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Nisswa, Minnesota, has been writing for In-Fisherman publications for more than two decades.