July 26, 2016
Boat control is critical to success and safety in many forms of fishing, but particularly important to catfish fans dealing with powerful currents and unforgiving water hazards.
For decades, traditional anchoring methods ruled the waves for pinpoint positioning. "I've carried a pair of 28-pound navy-style anchors, each with 100 feet of rope, for more than 30 years, and rarely have not been able to anchor and hold in classic fashion," says In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange. "But today, such methods are only part of the story."
Indeed, a variety of boat-positioning aids are taking the catfish scene by storm, including spike-style shallow water anchors and high-tech systems tied to your trolling motor and GPS plotter — all of which begs a closer look at anchoring today.
Traditional anchors have their merits, including cost and reliability. Drawbacks include the need to wrestle them in and out of the boat, along with the possibility of slipping in extreme conditions such as heavy seas and strong current, which can boost anchor anxiety into the stratosphere. John Jamison, widely traveled catman and decorated competitor in national events including the Cabela's King Kat trail, factors old-school tactics into his ever-expanding arsenal of anchoring methods.
"Boat positioning has changed a lot over the years, and I use four different techniques now," he says. "Standard anchors are part of the program, but typically reserved for heavy current in big rivers like the Missouri or Mississippi, especially in deep water."
Jamison explains that traditional anchors shine in powerful current because, "The flow keeps the boat from swinging." Once deployed, anchors hold the boat in place with little additional tending.
While a number of styles are available, he favors a 30-pound, homemade lead anchor he pours himself. "It has a round, bowl-like bottom with an 18-inch steel post coming up with a loop on the end for attaching rope," he says. "I prefer lead because it concentrates a lot of weight in one spot. Plus, when you pull the boat away after dropping anchor, the 18-inch post tips the anchor over, forcing it to dig into the bottom. I haven't found any commercial anchor that holds as well in heavy current."
Other common choices include the mushroom anchor. Shaped like an upside-down mushroom, it holds well in silt, sand, and other softer bottoms. Typically, a length of chain linked to the tie point tilts the anchor onto its side before it becomes buried. While mushrooms can't equal the holding power of some other styles, they're easy to store and handle, foolproof to deploy, and remain a solid choice for smaller boats in slow flows and on lakes. You can also use them for controlling boat-swing.
Fluke-style anchors offer good holding power for their weight in soft substrates such as mud, pea gravel, or sand. Sporting thin flukes that dig into the bottom when pressure is applied at the right angle, they tend to need more rope than other designs to obtain purchase.
The Digger Anchor is a fluke-style option armed with grabber cleats, and guides like Carl Roberts, who fishes the Missouri and Mississippi rivers near St. Louis, swear by it for holding your ground in fast current. As a bonus, a release mechanism allows you to disengage the flukes — so they swing freely and release their grip on bottom — by simply jerking the anchor rope.
Whichever style you choose, Jamison reminds us not to get stingy when it comes to letting out enough rope to do the job. "I always carry a minimum of 100 feet of rope, to get the right angle for holding the boat in the conditions at hand," he says.
Like Jamison, you can also fashion your own old-school anchor out of just about anything. Legendary Guide Jim Moyer, for instance, for years relied upon a 68-pound section of rail iron to hold his position in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. He recalls the heavyweight anchor worked so well that it, "taught me how to fish a hole really well, because I didn't want to pull it so often."
Trolling-motor advancements have brought new options in boat positioning, particularly those paired with GPS-based positioning systems like the Minn Kota i-Pilot, MotorGuide Pinpoint GPS, and ProNav Angler. i-Pilot, for example, uses built-in GPS to let you lock onto specific coordinates no matter the current, waves, or wind conditions. It offers a Spot-Lock feature which serves as an electronic anchor to hold the boat in place by firing up the trolling motor if you drift more than 5 feet out of position. You can also record and retrace drifting or trolling passes at the speed of your choice with the Record-A-Track feature.
Catfishing legend Phil King favors trolling-motor-based boat positioning for a variety of presentations. "It's perfect for controlled drift-fishing through holes and along channel edges, where you use the trolling motor to slowly slip downriver while walking your bait along the bottom," he says.
This past March, I joined King on the iconic Tennessee River below Pickwick Dam, a short cast from his home in Corinth, Mississippi. My sons Jake and Josh joined us on the trip, and worked the lines while King gave me the lowdown on the technique.
With a wireless remote for his Minn Kota Terrova firmly in hand and an eye on his Humminbird plotter screen, he retraced productive passes along a key current edge just below the turbines. "Start by cranking up the trolling motor and letting your line out at an angle," he began. "When the sinker hits bottom, back off on the bowmount and slowly walk the bait downstream, lifting the sinker three to six inches off bottom." The approach was deadly on hungry channel cats, which struck our cut shad and Berkley PowerBait DipWorm baits.
When King wanted to work a prime blue cat lie at prime time — sundown — he upsized our baits and dropped a fluke-style anchor over the bow, paying out rope until we were in position above a major main-river evening feeding area. Once past the sunset peak for this area, he weighed anchor and headed for a large flat close to the dam, where beefy blues often cruise throughout the night.
To locate scattered fish, he shifted to a slow-trolling program, again relying on his Terrova to trace proven passes. In the dim glow of the dam lights, he pointed out spots that had produced broad-shouldered blues in the past, and though we didn't connect with any giants on that trip, the evening produced a bumper crop of eaters and a golden education on the ins and outs of boat positioning.
Jamison, too, is a fan of such strategies, though he utilizes Minn Kota's new Ulterra bowmount for complete hands-free operation. "It automatically stows and deploys so you don't have to get out of your seat," he says. Jamison leans heavily on the unit's Spot-Lock feature in low-current situations common on the Ohio River and many other systems in summer and fall.
"In these conditions I rarely use a traditional anchor because there's no reason to," he says. "Spot-Lock holds me in position while I walk baits away from the boat by lifting and feeding line. I used the technique to catch a 50-plus blue on the Ohio with 650 feet of line out. I never deployed an anchor, just the Ulterra."
"Precision bait placement is another major benefit," he adds. "For example, I can use my Humminbird to set a waypoint on a brushpile or other feature I want to fish. Then when I'm in position upstream with the Ulterra, I move the cursor back to the waypoint and it tells me exactly how many feet I am away from the target area. With a line-counter reel, it's a simple matter of paying out the correct amount of line to put your bait right in the strike zone, every time."
Jamison notes that mobility is also streamlined. "When you want to try a new fishing area, simply push a button and the trolling motor puts itself away," he says. "No wrestling with a rope or heavy traditional anchor. It's an easy way to fish."
After quickly gaining favor in the bass fishing world, shallow-water anchors are also coming on strong among cat fanciers. Commonly mounted on the back of the boat, such devices quickly drive a sturdy spike down to the bottom, to hold the boat in place. When not in service, they retract or fold up; some models assume an even lower profile by tilting down to a horizontal position for transport or passing under low-hanging bridges and other obstructions.
"They're awesome in shallow water, or when nosing your boat up to a sandbar or bank," Jamison says, who favors the Minn Kota Talon.
Benefits abound, including ease of use and rapid, surefire deployment, but many shallow-water anchor fans say the biggest gain is being able to quickly lock the boat in position, with the push of a button, and keep it there without touching the trolling motor or fiddling with an anchor rope. Such simplicity allows catfish anglers to focus on fishing, not on boat control.
Jamison also notes the stealth factor, explaining that shallow-water anchors are quieter than traditional anchors, and keep the boat in position without occasional bursts from the bowmount trolling motor. "You can ease your way into a shallow feeding area, such as when blues or channel cats roam shallow bays early in the season, and drop the spike without alerting the catfish to your presence," he says.
Thanks to such quick and quiet anchoring, shallow-water anchors encourage catfish anglers to fully dissect potential areas with efficiency traditional anchors can't match. "When working a flat or the edge of cover, for example, you can stop and probe different areas and quickly reposition the boat if need be, all with the push of a button," he says.
In contrast, anglers using the wind or a trolling motor to fuel drifts or scouting passes without pausing to pick apart prime areas may miss productive sweet spots. "And when you hook up with a fish, shallow-water anchors lock the boat in place so it doesn't drift out of position or, worse, over the area where the fish are," he adds.
Make no mistake, shallow water anchors aren't just for still water. They work wonders in current, too, on everything from larger boats like Jamison's Lund 2075 Pro Guide to small flatbottoms. Imagine working a wing dam, shoal, or head of an island and being able to drop a spike to position your boat upstream of the hot zone — with the bow facing the spot you want to fish. As a bonus, with a single spike deployed, you can use a trolling motor to spin the boat 360 degrees to work a wider area without repositioning.
Jamison says that added benefits extend beyond fishing into routine chores such as beaching, docking, loading, and unloading. "Forget tying up to a dock or the bank," he says. "Shallow-water anchors hold the boat in place, and are particularly handy when helping seniors or physically challenged anglers get in and out of the boat."
Shallow-water anchor options expand every year. Industry stalwart Minn Kota offers its Talon in 8-, 10-, and 12-foot models, all with a slick, three-stage deployment system with a trio of distinct anchoring options. For sand or mucky substrate, Soft Bottom mode tones down anchoring force and taps bottom just once, to prevent the spike from plunging too deep. The Auto-Drive option knocks three times, with increasing force, to gain a foothold. And for big waves, Rough Water mode performs three Auto-Drive sequences to hold fast.
While mounting a pair of shallow water anchors on the stern helps immobilize your boat, Jamison likes to deploy a "mud pole" from the bow. "It's perfect for keeping the bow from swinging in wind or waves, without putting undue strain on the rear-mounted spikes," he says.
Commercial models like the Stick It Anchor Pin are readily available. Stick It's lineup includes a 5½-foot kayak version, along with 7-, 8-, and 10-foot pins geared to larger vessels, plus various brackets and lanyard tethering options.
Jamison makes his own mud pole by sharpening one end of a 12-foot section of 2-inch-diameter PVC pipe. "Shove the sharp end into the mud and lash it to a bow cleat," he says. "In rough water, I use one on each side of the bow, plus a Talon in the back of the boat."
All of which proves that no matter how technologically advanced our anchoring options become, there's always room for good old-fashioned ingenuity to craft clever cat gear that puts more whiskers in the boat. –
Dan Johnson, Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Contact: Guide Phil King, 662/286-8644.