July 27, 2020
Catfish are commonly described as “bottom feeders,” but that’s not always accurate. Flatheads, blues, and channel cats do spend a lot of time resting on or near the bottom, and aren’t above nibbling easy meals such as aquatic worms, mussels, or dead baitfish from the substrate. But when they’re hungry and forage is free-swimming or drifting higher up, cats tend to rise to the occasion. Anglers using good sonar units often find the most catchable catfish are the ones creating marks higher off the bottom.
In that situation, what bait presentation has the highest potential for success: anchoring a bait in the mud on the bottom of a lake or river, or presenting it some distance above the bottom where catfish are actively feeding? Several modifications of vertical rigs that present baits at specific depths work in this situation. For some anglers, float rigs are their favorite way to dangle baits where catfish are feeding.
A Professional Way to Catch Catfish
Billy Blakley guides from Blue Bank Resort on Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, and specializes in using floats to connect his clients with lots of catfish. Not all of his clients are initially enthused about the technique.
“Some folks resist using floats,” he says. “I’ve had some who insisted on fishing on the bottom. When somebody thinks they have to fish on the bottom, I rig their rods to fish on the bottom, and the other rods with floats. Within an hour they’re asking to switch over to floats so they can catch as many catfish as everybody else is catching. By the end of the trip those same folks are asking what size and kind of floats to buy so they can start fishing that way when they get home.”
Blakley targets cats with floats at distinct locations on Reelfoot. Staring in June and through the summer, he uses side-scanning sonar to locate submerged logs, then positions his boat within casting distance of the submerged timber. Using his sonar to determine the depth of the logs, he sets bobber stops on his lines to suspend baits just above the logs.
“I look for logs that are a foot to maybe 6 feet off the bottom,” he says. “I use fresh cutbait or nightcrawlers and dangle them under floats, just above the log. It doesn’t take long for channel cats near those logs to start pulling the corks under.”
Sunlight penetration also determines how deep he dangles baits. If a log is angled from shallow to deep under water, catfish are typically under shallower portions on cloudy days and associate with deeper parts of the structure on sunny days.
Sunlight penetration is also a factor when he fishes his other hotspot where he favors floats—cormorant roosts. Cormorants, aka “water turkeys,” roost on standing trees in lakes, often “painting” the trees white with their fish-flavored droppings. Channel catfish, and to some degree smaller blue cats, love those droppings and gather below the roost trees to feast.
“On Reelfoot, water turkeys usually roost in cypress trees,” Blakley says. “Early in the day I quietly get close to one of those trees and cast float rigs baited with either cut shad or nightcrawlers all around the base. I set my corks from 12 inches to 3 feet above the baits. The catfish are generally shallow because they want to grab droppings right after they hit the water, before they start to dissolve. I tune the depth a little bit, depending on whether it’s cloudy or sunny. If it’s cloudy, I set the float shallower, maybe 6 to 12 inches above the bait. If it’s clear and sunny, I set the float from a foot to 3 feet above the bait.”
He also uses floats to pull 25- to 60-pound blue catfish from the Mississippi River. He converted to using floats after spending a day with friends who were jug fishing on the big river. “I saw how many big blue cats they caught with their baits 6 to 10 feet under the jugs, and I got to thinking,” he says. “Those jugs aren’t anything more than great big floats. So I started experimenting to figure out how to use floats with a rod and reel to catch blue cats.”
He tried different sizes and styles of floats, tinkered with depth and baits, and came up with a system that’s deadly for blue cats. “I rig baits 6 to 8 feet under floats on the Mississippi,” he says. “Rarely deeper, sometimes shallower. I’ve caught a lot of blues with baits set 6 feet down in 60 feet of water. I have three or four graphs running all the time, and I consistently see big blues at that 6- to 10-foot depth, even if there’s 70 feet of water. There may be big blues down on the bottom, but when they get hungry they move up toward the surface and are easier to catch.”
Blakley uses the same rig whether fishing on Reelfoot Lake or the Mississippi River. A bobber stop on his mainline (30-pound-test Vicious braid on lakes; 80-pound Vicious braid on the Mississippi) establishes bait depth below balsa bobbers sized to match the weight of his baits. He pinches a 1/4-ounce weight 6 to 8 inches above a #1 Eagle Claw hook for catching channel cats on Reelfoot, or a 6/0 circle hook for blue cats on the Mississippi.
While nightcrawlers and cutbait are his choices for channel cats on lakes, his favorite for blue cats on the Mississippi is hog spleen.
“I go to the sausage plant and get a bunch of hog spleens, put them in plastic bags, and freeze them,” he says. “I pull out a bag the morning I’m going after blue cats, and the fish go nuts over it on the Mississippi. I’ve had customers who were die-hard about using cutbait, so I baited their rigs with fresh-cut skipjack and the rest of the rods with hog spleen. They caught fish, but within a half hour they switched to hog spleen so they could catch as many blues as everybody else.”
Blakley also uses floats to oblige customers who want to catch big flatheads on the Mississippi River. “I have good luck catching flatheads with floats drifted over rocks on the Mississippi,” he says. “Set the float so a live, 4-inch bluegill is about 10 to 15 feet deep over rocks. I use a driftsock, log chains, whatever it takes to slow my boat to about half the current speed. We catch 4 to 10 flatheads between 25 to 60 pounds in a day’s fishing. Flatheads love big rocks, and floats are the way to get them without snagging up all the time.”
Floats on the Fall Line
David Brayman of Mechanicsville, Virginia, says floats are the best way to fish for flatheads over rocks. He and several friends specialize in pulling flatheads from the rocks of the fall line in the James River near Richmond, Virginia.
“Above and below the fall line, the river’s bottom is more sand and silt,” Brayman says, “but the fall line is roughly 4 to 6 miles of nothing but rocky bottom. There are lots of pockets and deep holes, and we wade from hole to hole. We wade ankle to waist deep, and drift floats across the top of a 3-foot-deep hole, or over a hole that’s 10 or 12 feet deep.”
He uses floats to dangle 6- to 10-inch bluegills, creek chubs, or bullheads just above the bottom of rocky holes in the James. Because he doesn’t have to deal with the tangled logjams where most anglers target flatheads, he can use lighter tackle that allows him to present baits with more finesse.
“We call it light-tackle fishing for flatheads,” he says. “I caught 18 flatheads in one day that ranged from 25 to 40 inches long, all on 4-pound line. Most of the time I use 20-pound Power Pro braid mainline, which is lighter than most guys in the Midwest or South use for fish that size.”
Regardless of line weight, he uses a Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris medium-heavy 7-foot 2-inch baitcasting rod with a Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Signature Series size-20 baitcasting reel. At the business end of his mainline he generally uses a 6- to 61/2-foot leader of 40-pound monofilament. At the end of the leader he uses a blood knot to attach 8 to 10 inches of 50- to 60-pound-test mono. He slips a 1/2-ounce egg sinker onto the heavy mono before snelling an 8/0 circle hook.
“I use the 40-pound mono leader as a slide for my 3-inch pear float, plus the mono has good abrasion resistance for all the rocks I fish around,” he says. “The 8- to 10-inch section of 50- to 60-pound mono ahead of the hook is insurance against the grinding of the flathead’s teeth. I used to use 9/0 and 10/0 circle hooks, but after my friends and I started noticing we were re-catching flatheads with damaged eye sockets, we realized that the bigger hooks were rotating up into their eye socket and damaging their eyes. So we’ve downsized to 6/0 or 8/0 hooks. We haven’t had any problems hooking big flatheads, and the smaller hooks reduce the amount of damaged eyes we’re seeing.”
Brayman stresses the importance of snelling circle hooks correctly. Now employed by Bass Pro Shops in Ashland, Virginia, and having worked at Red Drum Tackle Shop in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, he’s often asked to diagnose a common complaint he hears about circle hooks.
“Guys come in complaining that they’re losing fish because of circle hooks,” he says. “I have them show me how they’re snelling them, and invariably they’ve got them snelled wrong. If you don’t have the line coming into the eye of the hook on the same side as the barb, it makes the hook rotate improperly and you miss a lot of fish. You don’t have to snell a circle hook—a regular knot works. But if you snell a circle hook, you have to snell it right.”
Brayman uses live bluegills and creek chubs as baits, but prefers 8- to 12-inch bullheads that he calls “flathead seeds.” If you put a bullhead on a hook in a hole (in the river) it turns into a flathead,” he says. How he hooks livebaits depends on where he’s fishing.
“Hook placement controls what you want the bait to do,” he says. “If I’m fishing a shallower hole, maybe 5 to 6 feet deep, I hook a bluegill in the lips. I drift the float over the upper edge of that hole, the sinker takes the bait down, and the lip-hooked bluegill follows it in a somewhat normal position. But if I’m fishing a deeper hole, especially with a bullhead for bait, I hook it in the back. Bullheads dive for the bottom and stay on the bottom if they can, so it works well to have the float dangling the weight and the bait just off the bottom so the bullhead or bluegill is swimming normally, but can’t get down into the rocks to hide.”
He says that floating baits for flatheads is not a passive technique. Between wading from hole to hole across the rocky bottom, and repeatedly drifting, recovering, then re-drifting baits through holes, he compares his style of flathead fishing with fly-casting.
“You’ve got to learn to read current and adjust where you cast and the way you float the bait through a hole,” he says. “You’re constantly casting, floating, retrieving, and re-casting. It’s a lot like fly-fishing, except you’re using 3/4- to 1-pound baits instead of flies.”
Brayman and his friends sometimes fish below the fall line in the James River. Downstream, the river deepens and returns to a sand and silt bottom. When fishing in that stretch of the river, he uses a “float” that’s 14 feet long and several feet in diameter. “We kayak that stretch of river and use the kayak as our float,” he says. “We drift with our rigs vertically, right under the kayak, and raise or lower the line to adjust for changes in depth. With sonar units on the kayak, you can do a good job of keeping your bait just above the bottom and out of any logs or structure.”
The James River above the rocky fall line is also sand- and silt-bottomed. An area of the river above the Pony Pasture Rapids features a pool popular with catfishermen. That pool was the site of one of Brayman’s most convincing displays of the advantages of using floats compared to still-fishing. On one outing, he and other anglers decided to do a comparison. Seven anglers fished with baits anchored to the bottom. Brayman and another angler used floats.
“We caught 30 to 35 catfish that day,” he says. “Twenty were caught on float rigs by me and the other guy. Every time we’ve compared float-fishing for flatheads to other techniques, float-fishing consistently caught more fish. Anybody who doesn’t have floats in their backpack or tackle box when they’re fishing for flatheads, or any other kind of catfish, isn’t catching as many catfish as they could.”
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications.