Of all the ways to deliver bait into the catfish strike zone, the diving planer just may be the most overlooked and least frequently used. When Catfish In-Sider Guide Editor Rob Neumann asked me to tackle this topic, I found just one YouTube video devoted to the entire subject. Naturally, salmon-related trolling videos dominated the search results. But for crying out loud, there was more footage dedicated to catching paddlefish on diving planers than there was information about using these ingenious little devices for catfish.
The creator of the catfish diving planer video is enterprising catman and fishing guide Steve Green of Spring Hill, Kansas. It’s not surprising that he would buck convention in such a bold manner. After all, he threw catfish convention a curve when he created the Topcat system for fishing livebait at the surface in areas offering standing timber but lacking overhanging branches suitable for limblining.
To be sure, Green cut his teeth on traditional methods. “I started fishing catfish with my grandfather when I was five years old,” he says. “We fished with rod and reel, limblines, and trotlines.”
He drifted away from the sport as he got older. But, eventually, the Kansas native worked his way north to Alaska. There, he reconnected with fishing and learned the ropes of diving planer trolling for salmon. “On places like the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, I was introduced to relatively foreign concepts like backtrolling, Jet Divers, Spin-N-Glos, and wrapping plugs with baitfish,” he says. “I saw firsthand how efficient and productive these tactics can be, and when I went home, I was eager to apply the same principles and tackle to the catfish scene.”
He found that diving planers work well for catfish when paired with hard-wobbling plugs or baitfish rigged to swim naturally while slow-trolled through prime lies. “This type of trolling is an outstanding technique for covering water and putting your lure or bait in front of active fish,” he says. “A lot of catfish anglers throw out the anchor and wait for something to happen. I prefer to be moving, on the hunt for fish-holding areas that I can hit hard, then roll downriver to find the next mother lode.”
Diving planer systems work in still waters, and Green has used them successfully in a variety of natural lakes and impoundments around cat country. But his true love is trolling them in current. Before wetting a line in either scenario, he first scouts potential fishing areas with sonar—both to look for fish and to get a feel for the lay of the underwater landscape.
“Unless I’m targeting suspended fish, which can be the case with blue cats but not so much flatheads and channels, I like to run diving planers and baits as close to the bottom as possible. So it’s a huge advantage to know what’s down there,” he says. “I also typically look for current-breaking structure where catfish can hold out of the current waiting for food to wash by, like boulders and the upper edges of holes.”
He also fishes visible sweet spots that are easily spotted at the surface. “Scum lines that form where fast and slow water meet indicate current seams where catfish can move more easily than on either side of the slick,” he says.
With the exception of diving planers, no special equipment is required for Green’s catfish trolling system. “I use an 8½-foot heavy or extra-heavy power Berkley Buzz Ramsey Air Series casting rod paired with a 6500 series Abu Garcia reel,” he says. “My mainline is 65-pound braid tied directly to a Luhr-Jensen Jet Diver, followed by a 3- to 6-foot leader of 35- to 50-pound monofilament. Leader length varies by presentation.”
Jet Divers aren’t the only diving planers on the block, and anglers might be tempted to use other time-tested options from the still-water salmon scene, such as a Pink Lady, Deep Six, or Dipsy Diver. In riverine trolling situations, however, these choices’ lack of buoyancy can lead to snags, as sinking divers eventually settles to bottom.
Thanks to a buoyant chamber at the tail end and diving wings on front end, a Jet Diver only dives when pulled through the water or held against the current—giving water a chance to hit the forward-mounted wings and push the diver down. When this pressure is relaxed, the air chamber raises the diver off bottom, allowing it to clear any obstacles in its path before diving again when the current forces it back downward. Because the Jet Diver is easy to use, even newcomers to the presentation quickly become adept at backtrolling baits tight to uneven bottom contours.
Jet Divers come in five sizes: 010, 020, 030, 040, and 050. The last two numbers correlate to maximum dive depth. It’s generally best to choose a diver size capable of exceeding your target depth. For example, if you want to troll at 13 feet, choose a model 020 rather than trying to force a 010 outside its comfort zone.
You can also rig a Jet Diver on a free-sliding dropper. This is common practice with the larger Jet Diver models—particularly when fish are holding slightly off bottom in deep water, but you can also try it with the smaller sizes. Dropper rigging is easy. Slide a #5 or #7 barrel swivel onto your mainline, then add four 6-mm beads. Tie a second barrel swivel to the end of the mainline, and attach your leader to it. Tie a short (8- to 12-inch) dropper to the free-sliding swivel and affix the tag end to the snap on the Jet Diver. Another benefit to rigging the diver on a dropper is it’s easier to feel the light bites of smaller fish without the dropper throbbing away in between you and your bait.
“When trolling a baitfish, I typically add a 1-inch or larger Spin-N-Glo on the leader,” Green says. “If it’s a really big bait, I add two Spin-N-Glos to the leader. The Spin-N-Glo adds attraction by creating commotion, plus it helps keep your bait up off the bottom. It’s way more effective than a simple peg and float, and in my opinion sends out 10 times more vibrations than more expensive in-line rattling catfish floats.”
A bead separates the Spin-N-Glo from the business end of Green’s rigging. He favors a two-hook setup over single-hook configurations. “Your hooking percentage and ability to get fish in the boat skyrockets when you add a second hook,” he says. “I use Gamakatsu 4X Strong Octopus Circle hooks because they hook most fish in the roof or corner of the mouth, which is ideal for catch-and release. Throat- and gut-hooked fish are rare.”
Green tailors hook size to bait size—always keeping the trailing hook at least two sizes smaller than the lead hook. A 7/0 followed by a 5/0 is my go-to setup,” he says. “I go smaller with petite baitfish and upsize to an 8/0 for the lead hook if I’m trolling a foot-long carp. I use a no-knot snell knot, which makes it easy to quickly tie up rigs to match bait size.” Since the diving planer pulls the bait down to the strike zone, no additional weighting is required.
Baitfish are threaded onto the lead hook by running the point upward from the lower jaw just behind the mouth, then out through the nose. The trailing hook is impaled in one side of the bait and out the other an inch or so ahead of the tail.
Trolling natural baits is effective, but he also pulls large diving crankbaits wrapped with baitfish fillets. “Big-lipped plugs like the #14 Luhr-Jensen Kwikfish and T55 Worden’s Flatfish—which have a hard, wide-wobbling action—are deadly on catfish,” he says. “The added scent and flavor of baitfish fillets wrapped to the lure helps attract catfish and seal the deal.”
Although plug-wrapping is a foreign concept to most catfish anglers, Green assures us it’s a simple and straightforward process. “It’s easy,” he says. “Simply take the fillets off a shad or herring and wrap them tightly to the sides of the lure like you would for salmon. I use Atlas Magic Thread, a thin stretchy string designed for plug wrapping. Just make a couple wraps around the plug, place the fillet on it, wrap it, and do the same on the other side of the lure. Ten to 20 good tight wraps are all it takes.”
Plugs work wonders behind Jet Divers, but Green may run the plug solo in shallow water. He often extends the leader out to 5 or 6 feet with a plug.
Once Green is in position and ready to start fishing, he carefully releases his lines into the flow while idling the boat in place, bow into the current. “Don’t cast the lines out,” he says. “Put the lure or rig and diving planer in the current beside the boat and let the flow take them out whatever distance you want them to fish, engage the reel, and let the current take them down.
“While letting lines out I count to keep track of the letback,” he says. “That way I can stagger the depth of my lines and replicate productive running depths. You can also count the number of times the levelwind mechanism goes back and forth across your reel.”
Green typically runs multiple lines, rods placed in holders. When all the lines are out, he begins slowly backtrolling downriver. “I typically keep my trolling speed from slightly less to half the speed of the current; it looks like I’m going upriver, but I’m actually moving slowly downstream,” he explains. “However, I often hover in place against the current, allowing the scent from my rigs or wrapped lures to wash downstream. This is a great way to get the attention of catfish holding in a hole or around the other cover or structure along my eventual trolling path. As I start moving downstream, the scent gets stronger—and by the time I get to the fish, they’re fired up and ready to eat.”
When a catfish takes the bait, Green springs into action with a measured response. “When they hit, you don’t have to set the hook,” he says. “They usually hook themselves. The fish have been waiting for the bait or lure to get to them; they come out of their hiding place, hit hard, and try to head right back where they came from. So just put pressure on the fish.”
Once a fish is hooked, its size determines his fight plan. “With a big fish, it’s important to get your other lines out of the water or you’ll have problems if you try to follow the fish downriver,” he says, explaining that lines left in the water have a way of drifting up and creating hellish tangles once the Jet Divers stop diving. “With a small fish, you’re usually okay holding your position or slowly backtrolling while you bring it to the boat.”
After boating the fish, he often gives the spot that produced it several more tries to give up additional cats. “Keep working the hole until you quit getting bit,” he says. “Then keep moving down the river until you hit the next strike zone.”
*Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and Public Relations Manager for the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance. Contact: Steve Green, Top Cat Fishing Tackle, topcatfishingtackle.com, 913/449-9128.