May 23, 2012
By Dr. Rob Neumann
Fishing catfish with jigs. That makes a good catfish rig? Most catmen would say it depends on the situation — you're better off with a fixed-sinker rig for this, a slipsinker rig for that, a drift rig here and a float rig there. Take it a step further: What are the most important considerations for any rig? The top responses would surely include the right size and type of hook, the proper sinker weight, and just the right leader length.
Of course, no single rig is best for all styles of catfishing. But at least this gets you thinking about the components of rigs and what makes them effective. Let me add to that list. A rig should also give you good control over a presentation and a high degree of feel for what's happening on the business end of things. A rig that's simple and easy to tie is a bonus.
A basic rig needs a hook and a weight, but consider leaders and the reasons fishermen cite for using them. Livebaits have more room to swim and thump, attracting catfish from greater distances; cats are less likely to shy away from or drop a bait the farther it is from a bulky sinker; cutbaits and deadbaits have wider swing angles in current and when driftfished, allowing them to move more naturally and send out more visual and vibration signals to catfish.
So much has the thinking about leaders been pored over that it's become a habit to use leaders in just about every situation. For reasons described above, long leaders tend to be used more than short ones, yet there are many scenarios when going shorter can be better, even to eliminating the leader altogether. Zero it out — and you're left with a rig called a jig.
Jigs in Theory
"Few catfishermen use jigs, but there are situations when they can be just as or more effective than traditional rigs with leaders," says In€‘Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange. He was among the first to experiment with jigs for catfish, praising their effectiveness in In€‘Fisherman books, magazines, and television. In Stange style, then, you first should understand the theory behind the thinking, to put it to best use.
"There's a fundamental relationship that exists between leader length and how connected you are to your presentation," Stange explains. "A long leader results in less feel and less-precise bait positioning. The longer a leader is, the more control you sacrifice. Shorten the leader from 2 feet to 6 inches and the presentation becomes a tighter package, giving you a more direct connection to the bait. Eliminate the leader altogether and you're in direct and constant contact.
"Anglers generally don't equate a jig to a rig," he says, "but a jig is really nothing more than a fixed sinker rig, with the weight directly molded on the hook, rather than positioned somewhere above a leader. It's the most compact a rig can get."
One of the reasons more catfish anglers don't consider using jigs is that they fear the added weight of the head might cause a fish to drop the bait. Most jigheads, though, weigh less than the items catfish usually eat; and if walleyes and other discriminating species from panfish and bass don't mind the added mass, neither do cats.
Worrying about catfish being cautious around a jig is often unnecessary. Rarely does a catfish nose up to a bait and sample it with a pick-pick-pick. More often, a cat grabs it quickly. Flatheads like to mouth a bait before they run — that's typically the initial thumps you see or feel with the rod. Channel cats tend to grab and run right away. Strikes on moving baits tend to be aggressive, which is why drifted baits are usually hit hard. With jigs, often enough you can set right away, but you sometimes need to let cats mouth the bait to allow time for the hook to get in the right spot for setting.
"The greater feel and control you get with jigs is important across all water types," Stange says. "Considering water clarity alone, the ability of jigs to work on a catfish's visual sense is greatest in moderately clear to clear conditions. Most anglers don't realize how well catfish can see. Stationary rigs work across clarities, including big muddy rivers, because they tempt cats with scent and vibration. Jigs become a better visual trigger in cases where sight plays a larger role in feeding, which is mostly in the clearer conditions of bigger reservoirs and some small- to medium-sized rivers."
Jigs in Practice
The same sliprigs, float rigs, and other rigging approaches you've been using for years might be good ways to approach given situations. But add jigs to your list of possible rigs and you might find them a better match.
Tailrace tactics: A three-way rig baited with a piece of cutbait is a common presentation for plying tailrace areas for cats. The rig consists of a three-way swivel, with the leader (usually 18 to 24 inches) connected to one eye of the swivel and a 12- to 18-inch breakaway dropper with a sinker tied to the other eye.
"One of the biggest mistakes catmen make in this situation is worrying about the length of leader between the hook and sinker," Stange says. "This is needless worry because no leader is necessary. Too much leader causes a loss of feel, lack of control, and subsequently snags. A better option is to let the sinker slide right up against the hook. The resulting rig looks, casts, and fishes almost like a leadhead jig, which is exactly what you want.
"Use current to move the jig along the bottom," he says. "If your jig's just heavy enough and you hold your line just tight enough to stay in constant contact with current, your jig moves through prime current spots so you can feel everything down there. Lift the jig over rocks and slide it through sand and gravel pockets. Snags are minimized, presentation maximized.
"The most important part of this process, though, is the acquired ability to judge more than bottom content. Bottom content is secondary to current in determining where fish are. Current's the key, and you can use a jig to judge current conditions — specifically, to feel for current tunnels catfish use."
Vertical jigging: Slipsinker rigs and three-way rigs are often used to catch channel and blue cats from deeper structure in reservoirs. Baits are presented vertically from an anchored boat or while slowly passing over structure with an electric trolling motor.
"Again, jigs are a good option in this situation because you have precise control over your presentation," Stange says. "A lot of times catfish are on or just off bottom. With a jig you're in direct contact with the bottom, so it's easy to adjust depth and stay in a productive zone.
"Get the jig down to bottom. Take up slack so the rod tip's at the water's surface: When the rod tip's lifted to a specific height, you know exactly how far off bottom the jig is. You can't get that precise with a leader. Drop and lift as you move along, constantly checking for depth as you move up and down slopes of humps and channel edges. Watch for depth on your electronics. Anticipating depth changes lets you adjust accordingly."
Vertically jigging a heavy leadhead jig dressed with a shad plastic like a Berkley Power Swim Shad or Lunker City Shaker often entices big flatheads when they won't respond to a baited sliprig. We've had good success with this tactic during fall when flatheads begin concentrating in wintering areas.
Move slowly downstream, using a trolling motor against the current, and drop the jig to bottom. Pop it off bottom, then follow it down with your rod tip on a semi-tight line. When it touches bottom, pop it again. The jig coupled with braided line gives you great feel for bottom content, cover, and strikes.
Ice fishing is an overlooked option for catching channel cats. Limited to vertical tactics through a hole, an aggressively worked jig attracts catfish, while a slice of fresh cutbait on the hook triggers them to strike. The same type of presentation works from a boat anchored over a deep wintering hole in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.
Small streams: A day spent on a small river can provide a fine day of catfishing, much of which can be done using jigs. "Most of my small-stream fishing is either wading or walking the bank," Stange notes. "Find a productive spot like a deeper bend hole, and it's hard to beat a baited hook weighted with a splitshot a foot up the line. But often, a jig is more productive and easier to use in tighter quarters.
"With a 9- or 10-foot pole, vertically dabble a roundhead jig baited with cutbait, nightcrawlers, or crickets around woodcover — or make a short cast and allow the jig to drift along bottom next to cutbanks and through neckdowns. Jigs also work great on float rigs," he says.
Cats around cover: A lively baitfish on a long leader is like a dog on a long leash. They both tangle in whatever they can find. When fishing livebaits around logjams and fallen trees for flatheads, it's better to be shorter than longer, as far as leaders go. I never use leaders longer than 6 to 8 inches around wood, and often just let the sinker slide right up to the hook.
"Jigs are another option for flatheads around heavy cover," Stange says. "The best situation would be working jigs in an area clear of timber within a logjam or along the perimeter. A big livebait on the strong hook of a heavy jig could be fished stationary or worked along bottom. Cut-up deadbait like chunked shad or sucker also works on a jig. As a largely untried alternative, dress jigs with soft plastics."
Although I haven't tried this, a big weedless jig like the J-mac or Lil' Hustler Musky Jig paired with a livebait or soft plastic could be effective for flatheads around wood, as long as the current's not too strong. They have a stiff brushguard to reduce snags while probing around wood.
Jigs sporting weedguards take channel cats around snaggy cover. In€‘Fisherman Publisher Steve Hoffman had good success with Lindy's No-Snagg Timb'r Rock Jigs on the Red River of the North, fishing them with a piece of cutbait around wood. The stranded wireguard resists snags when it's pulled through wood, brush, rock, and weeds.
This is just a short list of situations to prime your willingness to experiment with jigs. Others might include using a football-head jig for dragging baits over bottom, as your boat's propelled by wind or an electric trolling motor. If stillfishing's your game, try jigs with stand-up heads with a cutbait or small livebaits. For dipbaiters, there's the Jig-A-Cat by Apex, a dipworm on a stand-up jig head.
Consider how jigs can make your presentations simpler and more effective. Try a zero rig, and you might find yourself on deck dancin' a jig to more catfish.
Jigs have a variety of baiting options, perhaps more than plain hooks. Tip jigs with standard options like cutbait, live baitfish, dead minnows, nightcrawlers, grasshoppers, and more.
Doug Stange, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief, finds that a single piece of cutbait or a single minnow always slides down a jig's hook, preventing it from fishing effectively. To remedy this, he cuts a minnow into thirds. The midsection is added first so the long axis is perpendicular to the hook. The tail section is added next, followed by the head, which keeps the pieces from sliding down the hook. This baiting method gives the jig a larger profile and enhances its swaying action on the drop.
Jigs also open the door to using soft plastics such as curlytail grubs, shad-bodied baits, and creature designs. Scent- and flavor-enhanced softbaits provide added attraction. Try Berkley's biodegradable Gulp! lineup, such as a Gulp! Shrimp threaded onto a jig with a baitkeeper — or FoodSource lures, which are made from all-natural ingredients.
Fishing For Catfish With Jigs