Livebait Tactics for Blue Catfish
April 08, 2014
Our friend Bruce Midkiff became something of a celebrity among catfish anglers when he caught a 104-pound blue catfish from the Ohio River. When folks started to fuss about his angling prowess, heÊ¼d reply that catching one big fish was half luck, half skill, and a bit more luck thrown in for good measure.
It did earn Midkiff a place in the International Game Fish Association and Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame record books, listed next to the 50-pound line-class record. Kentucky and Indiana also recognized the 55-inch blue catfish as state records, as the fish was caught in the middle of the river that divides the states.
Those who fished with Midkiff — either on the Ohio River for catfish or Indiana farm ponds for bass and bluegills — know that his angling accomplishments resulted more from skill than luck. In fact, few of his friends were surprised by his record catch.
Midkiff's approach to catching big blue cats on livebait — a presentation that remains overlooked on many lakes and reservoirs across the country. After reviewing the pages of notes from numerous conversations, we think that topic still is the best use of this space.
The Proof's In The Pudding
Midkiff had been fishing for a few hours without a bite. He was pondering a move upriver to a spot that had produced a few nice fish the week before when he saw the tip of one of his three rods start to twitch. "Nothing too aggressive," Midkiff said, "just a light tap-tap. I picked the rod up from the holder and set the hook hard. The fish didn't budge."
Midkiff immediately knew that he had hooked a nice fish, but he couldn't have guessed how big. As he started to gain a bit of line, things started to get interesting. "All of a sudden another rod folded over," Midkiff said. "I thought my fish had crossed the second line, but then realized it was another fish. I held the first rod with one hand and set the hook on the second rod with my other hand."
Placing the second rod back in the holder, Midkiff turned his attention to landing the first fish he had hooked. "I fought the fish for a long time before it surfaced behind the boat," Midkiff said. "As soon as I saw it, I knew my net wasn't going to be big enough. I slipped on a rubber glove and grabbed the fish's lower jaw. Soon as I had a firm grip, I dropped my rod and grabbed hold of a gill plate with my other hand."
Midkiff wasn't a small man — over six feet tall and pushing 260-pounds — but he still struggled to pull the fish over the side of the boat. "Soon as I got a good look at the fish, I knew it was huge, but I still didn't know how huge," Midkiff said. "I put him in my big baitwell and started to get the boat back in order. That's when I noticed that the second rod was still doubled over."
By the time Midkiff retrieved the second rod from the holder, the fish already was tired. He netted the fish and swung it aboard. "I put the second fish in the livewell, too, and he later weighed just over 50 pounds," Midkiff said. "Then I pulled anchor and went looking for a certified scale. Still wonder, though: What would I have caught if I'd stayed on that spot a bit longer?"
Midkiff knew that most blue catfish anglers prefer to use cutbait, but he insisted that livebait consistently produced more big fish on his favorite stretch of the Ohio River. "If cutbait works better somewhere else, use it," Midkiff said. "Just don't take somebody's word that livebait doesn't work. If the proof's in the pudding, as they say, I've got a lot of pudding on my side."
Bigger Is Better
Midkiff used almost any baitfish species, so long as they were big. Like most catfish anglers, though, a couple of baits gave him more confidence than others. "Big gizzard shad and skipjack herring are my favorite baitfish," Midkiff said. "And bigger usually is better. Big livebaits usually don't account for a lot of action, but when a fish bites it's probably a good one."
Big livebaits usually aren't available from bait shops, and even wild bait can be difficult to keep healthy. "I catch shad in a castnet, then keep them in a baitwell built from a 100-gallon horse trough," Midkiff said. "For several years I used a homemade aerator built from an automotive smog pump and a blower motor from an old van. It worked well, but a Catfish In-Sider article on cutting-edge baitwells recommended a better solution."
Midkiff began using an oxygen bottle and flow meter connected to a diffuser with several feet of surgical tubing. Before catching bait he filled the baitwell with a bilge pump hung over the side of the boat, then turned on the oxygen. "When I plan to keep bait for a day or two, I usually add a bag of salt to calm the baitfish and remove parasites," Midkiff said.
Turns out that Midkiff's baitwell doubles as a fine livewell for trophy catfish, too. "I kept my big blue catf in my tank for more than six hours before it was weighed and released," Midkiff said. "It's a great system for keeping big fish alive and healthy. Anyone interested in weighing and releasing huge catfish should invest in this type of system, even if they don't use livebait."
When Midkiff first began targeting big cats more than a decade ago, he favored 4- to 5-inch shad. "Baitfish this size usually are abundant, so I figured that's what the fish were accustomed to eating," Midkiff said. "On a trip several years ago, though, I caught only shad that were more than a foot long and weighed almost a pound. I didn't have much confidence, but went fishing anyway."
Anyone who has ever been in a similar situation probably can guess how that story ended. Midkiff caught bigger fish than ever before and used big livebaits almost exclusively after that. "Small fish still are possible with big baits, though," Midkiff said. "I've caught lots of small blues and flatheads, fish in the 5- to 10-pound range, on baits weighing close to a pound."
Midkiff's biggest fish was taken on a live skipjack herring, which he usually caught on plastic twistertails on 1/8- or 1/16-ounce jigheads. "I cast the jig into the fast water beneath a dam and retrieve it about as fast as I can," Midkiff said. "When skipjack are active you can't crank a lure too fast for them to catch it. When they're holding deeper, I usually catch them on a multihook Sabiki rig weighted with a lead shot or two."
Simple Rigs & Sturdy Tackle
Midkiff used a three-way rig tied with a 24-inch leader and a six- to eight-inch sinker-dropper. He always used a 7/0 Kahle hook, but the size of the sinker varied considerably, depending on current speed. I tie a small snap swivel to the end of the dropper to make sinker changes easier," Midkiff said. "I might use a five-ounce weight in slack water, then step up to a 14-ouncer in faster flows. Using the lightest possible sinker minimizes snags."
Keeping his rigging as simple as possible, Midkiff used 50-pound mono for his main line, leader, and sinker-dropper. "I use fresh line for leaders, but save old line stripped from reels to tie sinker-droppers," Midkiff said. "I used Berkley Big Game for years before switching to Ande Tournament. My big blue cat, though, came on the only reel I hadn't respooled with Ande. That line was three years old, but still tested within limits."
Midkiff's favorite rods were 7-foot Shakespeare Sturdy Stiks that the manufacturer described as moderate-action and medium-power. "These rods probably are underrated, though, since they easily cast an 8- to 14-ounce sinker," Midkiff said. "They're as tough and durable as any rod on the market, but cost much less. I probably paid $20 apiece for mine."
Another value, Midkiff said, is the Penn 330 GTi: "These reels are as tough as any saltwater reel on the market and have the best drag I've ever used. It also holds a fair amount of 50-poundline and costs only $80. I can buy a complete rod and reel combination for about $100. Actually, that allows me to buy several outfits, so I'm always rigged and ready."
Midkiff added that a big, stable boat is necessary to fish big rivers like the Ohio safely and efficiently. "I have a 19-foot Roughneck johnboat equipped with many homemade accessories," Midkiff said. "In addition to the livewell, I built my own rod holders from a piece of angle iron and 11â„2-inch pipe. They're not pretty, but they're stronger and more functional than any commercial holders I've seen."
Midkiff also fashioned a custom anchor from a coal-crushing hammer and four pieces of heavy rebar. It wasn't a joy to lift, but it did what few commercial anchors could do. "Not only is my anchor the best one I've used," Midkiff said, "it's the only one I've used that can pin my boat in a fast tailrace. I don't recommend that anyone fish in dangerous turbid water, but when you've made up your mind to fish, your anchor needs to do its job."
Presenting Livebait Right
Winter has become a prime time for big blue cats in recent years, but Midkiff didn't begin fishing much before April and usually stowed his catfish gear by early November. "From spring through fall," Midkiff said, "if I'm not at work, I'm probably looking for a big blue cat."
Late August and early September was Midkiff's favorite time for blue cats, while October usually was best for flatheads. "Late summer usually is the time when the water first begins to cool and the flow through the dam starts to increase," Midkiff said. "I caught my big blue cat at the end of a long drought. Little water had been released from the dam all summer, but in late August, the dam operators opened 12 gates and the water poured."
Increasing water levels and current speed usually draws baitfish toward the dam, and hordes of hungry catfish follow. "Large concentrations of baitfish almost always attract catfish," Midkiff said. "And when you find schools of big baitfish like gizzard shad and skipjack herring, you'll likely find some of the biggest catfish in the system."
When the fish weren't biting in the tailrace, though, Midkiff didn't hesitate to move downstream. "There's a stretch a couple miles below Cannelton Dam that contains a lot of water in the 45- to 65-foot range," Midkiff said. "The area has lots of steep rock ledges and big boulders that make great blue cat habitat almost any time of year."
Midkiff moved constantly, catching an active fish or two from each spot before moving again. "If I'm fishing at the dam, I might cover water from 25 to 100 feet deep," Midkiff said. "I'll start at 75 feet, near the edge of a big eddy where cats wait for wounded baitfish to drift by. Then I move closer to the dam and anchor sideways so I can throw a bait right to the edge of the fast water. Big blues move a lot, and you should too if you want to catch them."
On a good trip during any part of the season, Midkiff said he usually caught five or six nice cats, including at least one in the 40-pound class. And on his best day, in terms of total weight, he caught 16 blue cats ranging from 20 to 57 pounds. "Together those fish weighed more than 300 pounds," Midkiff said. "And like all the big fish I catch, I released them to grow even larger."
Midkiff's hope was to catch one of those fish again, preferably after it had surpassed his 104-pound benchmark. Truth is, though, he wouldn't have minded a bit if you caught that fish instead. "I'd really like someone to catch my fish when it's gained a few pounds," Midkiff said. "Heck, someone might already have done that for me when the fish was much smaller."