May 23, 2012
For anglers fishing from shore below dams and along the banks of big reservoirs, the ability to cast long distances can be a prerequisite to catching more fish and upping the odds for some truly giant specimens. In some situations, it might take delivering baits 100 yards or more to reach areas that long distance catfish are holding — in a break in a reservoir creek channel, slightly deeper water on a vast tapering flat, or the sweet spots in a tailrace.
Casting 100 yards (300 feet) or more is typical for an experienced long-distance catter, achievable for most anglers with the right equipment, good guidance, and practice. Skilled casters abandon the more traditional catfishing rod-and-reel setups, relying on longer surf-style spinning or casting combos. Competitive casters refine their equipment and casting styles even further, achieving distances of 600 to 700 feet or more.
Putting these kinds of distances into perspective takes comparing it to something tangible. Let's go to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. Standing at home plate, 100 yards is about the distance to the left-field wall, directly down the third-base line. The numbers on the wall say it's 310 feet (although that's been debated over the years), but close enough. A 300-foot cast along that line puts you to the warning track. Not sure what it would take to reach beyond the wall. Nicknamed the Green Monster, it stands 37 feet high. Maybe a 340- or 350-footer?
Mark Edwards of New Castle, Delaware, is a 10-year veteran of surf-casting tournaments. He's earned master-class status, averaging more than 725 feet, and holds numerous titles and records. He's also one of the few tournament casters who fishes for catfish.
Edwards was fishing for cats long before he entered the casting tournament scene. He grew up fishing the surf, shorecasting for stripers and channel cats along the banks of the tidal Delaware River. He also spent 6 years catfishing and developing casting skills below Bagnell and Truman dams in Missouri while in the Army. He got into competition casting after returning to his home state, and continues to fish the Delaware for channel catfish.
"Casting is the most misunderstood part of fishing," Edwards says. "Beginning anglers are overwhelmed with the various styles, and in a nutshell, it's just too complicated for a beginner to follow. They give up and develop a style of their own that fails to capitalize on a few simple rules that can dramatically improve distance with a few hours of practice. Learning the basics of casting makes the progression to more powerful techniques a smooth transition."
Although many tournament casters use highly specialized and expensive equipment, Edwards says he doesn't use any setup that he typically wouldn't fish with. Here he offers recommendations on rods, reels, and riggings, and a relatively simple casting method which, with some practice, can get you to the Green Monster or beyond.
Edwards uses mostly spinning gear for fishing and in competition, but baitcasting is also well suited to long-distance casting. In fact, baitcasting can often outdo spinning in competition. According to Edwards, bad weather is the great equalizer between the two. Unlike spinning gear, baitcasting demands adjustment of equipment for weather, even as much as changing the type of lubrication used on the reel. Although Edwards talks spinning here, the same general principles apply to baitcasting.
Rods: "Rods used with spinning reels generally need to be softer," he says. "A fast-taper tip is better suited for the Brighton (a cast that starts with the bait laying on the ground), which I'll describe in a bit. A medium or medium-slow taper is better when the cast starts off the ground.
"Look for rods with guides close to the size of the reel's spool you're using. Five or 6 guides are enough — more than that reduces distance. Rod length is personal preference; however, I recommend 10- to 12-foot rods as all-purpose options.
"Whether you use fiberglass or graphite is up to you," he says. "Fiberglass rods, such as Shakespeare's Ugly Stik surf rods, work well, and glass is good for the beginner because it's less expensive and more forgiving than graphite. It's like crawling before you walk, progressing to graphite as you gain experience, but expensive graphite rods aren't necessary.
"After you've decided on price, length, and action, you need to find a rod that fits you," Edwards says. "Hold the rod with your right hand on the reel seat and place the butt of the rod under your right arm. If the end of the rod doesn't at least reach your armpit it doesn't fit, so keep looking. There are plenty of great rod makers — Penn, Breakaway, Shakespeare, All Star, Okuma, and Daiwa — just to name a few, so there's a rod to fit you out there."
Reels: "I like a reel with a free-spool feature when catfishing. For years this meant using only the Shimano Baitrunner. But now, Penn, Daiwa, and Okuma all make good free-spool reels. I've had to modify some. A design flaw in the 6500 Baitrunner, for example, made it difficult to get good distance because the bail would trip and cause a break-off. The solution was to cut the bail off and make it a manual pickup. For spinning, the larger 50 and 60 sizes with aluminum spools are best for distance casting," Edwards suggests. For those who don't need a free-spool feature, most all-purpose saltwater spinning reels are fine. Some good ones are several models in Penn's lineup and those in Shakespeare's Tidewater SS and Prius Bigwater series.
Line: "Which line to use is always a big debate," Edwards notes. "Some fishermen want no stretch and others want abrasion-resistance. Rarely do you need anything over 20-pound test, except for your leader, which I'll get into later. Because line diameter of the same pound test varies by label, I've gone to selecting line within certain diameter ranges; 15 pound is around .31 mm to .33 mm, and 20-pound is about .36 mm to .39 mm.
"My rule is don't skimp on the only connection between you and the fish. I like Yo-Zuri Hybrid, and lately I've been using Sufix Performance Braid in 20-pound test. I like the greater sensitivity compared to mono, and I'm getting increased distance as well.
"The procedure I use to fill a reel is to first polish the spool with a car wax containing Teflon," Edwards says. "Then, using a leather glove under heavy tension, pack on as much line as you can. Once the line is flush with the spool, I slowly add more until it almost touches the inside of the rotor. This is what I call my insurance — extra line that can mean a few more feet on the tournament field or a few more yards on the beach.
"To finish, I tie on a shock leader to the mainline. The shock leader gives you more line for extra distance, and because it's heavier, it increases abrasion-resistance. I suggest 10 pounds of line-test for every 1 ounce of sinker, so if you're casting 5 ounces, use a 50-pound shock leader. For most of my fishing, I use between 40- and 80-pound-test leader. Using a shock-leader knot, tie in a leader long enough to run from the butt of the rod to the tip and then down to the reel, with at least 5 wraps around the spool. That usually gives you enough shock leader to use all day," Edwards says.
Rigging: "My go-to rig for long distance catting is a clipped-down or pully rig. The beauty is its versatility. It can be tied any length you'd like, and you can change hooks in seconds. I hook 75 percent of the fish that hit on this rig. To build one, start with a length of line, say 30 inches. To one end tie a cross-lock snap to which the sinker's clipped. On the line above the snap, add an impact shield (available from Breakaway). Thread on a bead, a crimping sleeve (but don't crimp), and another bead; then thread on a swivel and another bead. Tie on a second swivel to the end of the line.
"To the end swivel attach a 6- to 24-inch section of line, and tie the hook to the end of that line. Aerodynamically shaped sinkers like bank, bass-casting, beach bomb, or grip-styles offer the greatest distances," Edwards says. His preferred baits are whole chubs and cut shad on Gamakatsu and Matzuo circle hooks.
Before casting, clip the baited hook onto the hook shield. This holds the bait tight in line with the leader during the cast and lets the sinker lead the cast. When the rig hits the water, the force on the hood of the impact shield pops it up, releasing the hook. Edwards also makes an inexpensive bait clip by bending a section of coat-hanger wire and attaching it to the line with heat-shrink tubing. After you cast, just give the rod a snap and the clip releases the hook.
Edwards has made other modifications to the pully rig. Instead of using a snap to hold the weight, tie in a loop at the end and add a section of lighter line, forming a weak link to the sinker. If the sinker becomes snagged, you can break the weak link, losing the sinker but saving most of the rig. Another adaptation is to add a second hook a couple of inches above the end hook. This quick-strike variation can increase hook-ups and reduce deep-hooking.
Casting: "A cast that's easy for beginners to master is the Brighton," he says. "It's also called the unitech or high-inertia cast. It's a good cast to use on crowded banks." Edwards uses a clock face to describe the mechanics of the cast. (If you're left-handed just reverse these steps.)
"Say the target is at 12 o'clock. Stand with your left foot pointing at 12 o'clock and your right at about 3 to 4 o'clock, with the sinker hanging halfway down the length of the rod. Swing the sinker in towards your foot and place it on the ground behind you at 6 o'clock. Move the rod tip behind you near the ground, slightly towards 5 o'clock. At this point, raise your left hand (on the rod butt) to head-high or higher, with your right arm bent.
"Without moving forward, look high above your target and execute the cast with a punch-pull (punch out with your right hand, pull in with your left hand towards your torso), increasing the speed of the cast until the stop-and-release. If it's done correctly you should have just dropped your bait 100 yards offshore with no problem," he says.
A note about setting the hook: The rig Edwards uses is technically a slip-set rig. When a fish takes the bait, the line slips freely until the second swivel stops at the impact shield. Edwards says that this is the point at which the hook sets. "Many anglers don't realize how difficult it is to manually set the hook at those kinds of distances," he says. "I've tested this by having someone hold the rod while I walk down the beach with the hook, say 100 yards or more. Then I'll ask another buddy to hold the hook by just pinching it in his fingers. The person setting the hook can't even pull it from the guy holding it in his fingertips."
Practice is key to improving distance. Edwards: "Don't worry about achieving long distances overnight. Get the technique down and in time distance comes. You might get some odd looks casting on an empty football field in the dead of winter, but no one sees you for who you are — a dedicated enthusiast honing your skills, not just for the upcoming season but for the rest of your life."
Distance Blues Now
Across the South, fishing for blue cats is in prime season in reservoirs, such as famed Lake Texoma on the Texas-Oklahoma Border. Action picks up in fall and lasts through spring, with winter being as good as it gets for big fish. Texoma has given up untold numbers of trophy blues, none so recognized as the former 121.5-pound world record, caught by Cody Mullennix of Howe, Texas, in January 2004.
In winter, boat anglers regularly catch blues in deeper areas in the lower sections of reservoirs. Yet, while they're catching fish, other anglers like Mullennix make good catches fishing from shore. He was bank-fishing in the Big Mineral Arm of Texoma when he caught his record blue. A lesser-known story unfolded across the lake in November 2004, when B.J. Nabors of Madill, Oklahoma, caught the Oklahoma state record 98-pound blue from the upper Washita Arm. He was shorefishing, too.
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange fished with Mullennix and wrote about his shore tactics. When water cools into the 60°F range, even down to the 50s and 40s, shad move into the headwaters of river arms and shallower portions of creek arms. Some blue cats stay deep, but lots of fish also follow some shad shallow. The area where Mullennix caught the record is mostly less than about 10 feet deep.
Mullennix says that where he fishes in the Big Mineral Arm, most fish follow a gradual drop-off line somewhere off the shoreline. Long casts aren't always necessary, but it still pays to be able to make them. Sometimes he's catching fish 50 yards from shore; other times 100-plus-yard casts are necessary to reach good spots.
The wind doesn't have to be blowing in when you fish, but it's best if it has been blowing in for several days before, Mullennix says. His fishing partner Jason Holbrook, former holder of the Texas state record blue cat, says that other good spots are deeper, shorter creek arms directly connected to the main reservoir, and points where creek arms enter the main lake or those within the creek arms.
The team uses surf tackle: 12-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik Custom Graphite Surf Rods matched with Shakespeare Prius Bigwater Spinning Reels spooled with 20-pound Berkley Big Game. They find that the graphite Ugly Stiks help to cast 8 ounces of lead farther than can be done with longer fiberglass rods.
Their rig consists of a dropline of about 24 inches tied to the eye of a two-way swivel. The weight is added to the end of the dropline. The mainline is tied to the other end of the swivel, as is a hook dropper about 18 inches long. They use 8/0 Lazer Sharp L7228 circle hooks. Shad is the favored bait.
After casting, they set rods in rod holders at about a 45-degree angle to the water. The drag's set just enough to keep the line tight, but loose enough to let a big fish surge off without the rod pulling from the holder. Using circle hooks, there's no hard hook-setting. Just let the rod load, point it at the fish, and reel as you lift the rod.
Long-distance casting also can pay off during the Prespawn Period, when catfish consolidate in tailwaters below dams. If you add some yardage to your casts, more of the productive current seams and eddies are within reach. Edwards says this was particularly useful below Bagnell, where anglers were prohibited from getting within 100 yards of the dam.
You don't need to become a master-class caster, hurling baits 725 feet to catch more catfish. To put a typical competition cast into perspective, 680 feet is the diameter of the dome on the Louisiana Superdome. Few anglers can ever achieve those distances, and for fishing, it just isn't practical. But if you can reach the Green Monster or beyond, more catfish are within your reach.