September 25, 2015
When I was a young catfisherman in my 20s, my dad consistently outfished me 2 to 1, fishing side-by-side, using the same baits and tackle. Ours was a friendly competition, but unmerciful in bragging rights. One day I noticed him slowly cranking the handle on his reel. When I turned and looked in his direction, he stopped cranking. When I faced the water, he started slowly cranking again.
"I saw that," I said. "You're moving your bait."
"Now you know my secret," he said. "Catfish are like barn cats. They like to chase and catch things."
Since then I've always caught more catfish with a bait that's moving than if I let it sit and soak. Slow, erratic movement seems to tantalize and trigger catfish of all species. I've also hooked catfish as I rapidly reeled in a bait to reposition it, so they're not intimidated by fast-moving targets. Fast or slow, movement is often the key to triggering catfish.
In 1998, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange wrote about his experiences of trolling for catfish, dating back to the early '70s when anglers drifting bottom bouncers with spinner rigs trailing nightcrawlers caught walleyes and channel cats on Missouri River reservoirs in South Dakota.
He also wrote about his success with a spinner and 'crawler rig for channel cats while drifting down the upper Mississippi River, and by anchoring and allowing the swift current of the Missouri River near Sioux City, Iowa, to provide the "motion" to propel spinners and draw the attention of channel cats.
The concept of trolling for catfish has been around for decades, but its popularity has grown with the rapid expansion of catfishing tournaments. Competition encourages experimentation with alternative tactics that can give anglers an edge. More anglers added drift-fishing strategies to their repertoire, which allowed them to cover more water and show baits to more fish. Drifting at the mercy of wind and waves proved too imprecise at times for tournament anglers, and slow-trolling quickly became a primary tactic. Trolling has become a precision technique that uses sophisticated electronics to identify catfish-friendly structure, GPS-guided trolling motors to follow specific bottom contours, and specialized bait rigs to more efficiently deliver baits to catfish.
Troy Hansen of Oxford, Iowa, is a tournament angler who skipped the "drifting" phase, opting for anchoring and trolling to keep his baits in high-percentage spots. "I used to be the 'anchoring' guy," he says. "The first year I fished competitively, the reservoirs were high, and I was anchoring and flipping baits into flooded willows. I caught tons of catfish and thought I had things figured out. But I couldn't understand why the veterans were fishing out in the lake. Then we had some years with normal water levels and those guys trolling out in the lake kicked my butt. Ken Miller finally had mercy on me and showed me how to troll. On that first trip we caught 20 catfish in 4 hours, and now I troll almost exclusively."
Hansen uses topo maps and his electronics to look for drop-offs, old river or creek channels, points, and submerged humps. With a target in mind, he sets up three rods in rod holders. One Whisker Seeker 7½-foot medium-heavy rod runs off the side of the boat, its bait tickling the bottom directly under the boat. A second, identical Whisker Seeker rod positions a bait 20 to 30 yards behind the boat. The third rod, a Tangling with Catfish 10-foot medium-heavy stick pulls a bait set back 100 yards behind the boat.
"The bait under the boat moves up and down with the movement of the boat on the waves," Hansen says. "The other two baits have different actions because of their distance behind the boat. The rod that produces fish helps me decide how I'll fish for the day."
Trolling speed is critical, so he uses his GPS to troll at .5 to .7 mph. "I usually start at .5 mph, but increase speed to .7 mph if I'm not getting bites," he says. "People can't believe that two tenths of a mile an hour can make a difference in whether or not you catch catfish, but I've seen days when speeding up or slowing down just that much made the difference."
Early in his trolling days, Hansen focused on a chunk of cutbait pulled on a slipsinker or three-way rig, often with pegged floats to raise the bait off bottom. More recently, he's switched to Whisker Seeker catfish lures on three-way rigs. The lures have a large in-line float with a circle hook on one end and propellers on the other. Threading a chunk of fresh cutbait onto the hook combines vibration, color, and noise with the scent and flavor trail cutbait.
"Whisker Seeker MP Seekers and PP Seekers have either a metal or plastic prop. They emit different kinds and amounts of sound and vibration," he says. "Whisker Seeker Rattlers produce another kind of vibration and noise. These lures do a great job of getting the attention of catfish. Color definitely makes a difference. They come in red, orange whitish-gray, green, pink, black, and combinations of those colors, and they all catch fish, but when the water is muddy, green out-catches the others 2 to 1. I have no idea why. It pays to have different colors on your rigs when you start out each day and let the fish tell you what color they want."
Dave Studebaker, a tournament angler from Burlingame, Kansas, agrees that speed control is critical when trolling for catfish. He says anglers without GPS can watch their rod tips to judge speed.
"I use medium-heavy 10-foot Tangling with Catfish rods, and adjust my trolling motor speed so rod tips are slowly bending down and then easing back up as the rigs work along the bottom," he says. "If the rod tips are jerking up and down, you're moving too fast. I use either 65-pound-test Sufix or Power Pro braided line because it's sensitive and I can tell what my baits are doing and whether they're on sand, gravel, or mud.
"You need a rod with a soft tip because of braid's lack of stretch, so I depend on the rod tip for the action. That's important when using circle hooks. With braided line, the rod slowly loads and sets the hook. If you're using monofilament, there's enough stretch in the line so you can use a stiffer rod."
Studebaker says that randomly trolling across a lake or reservoir is unproductive. "You have to understand the species you're fishing for and know where they're going to be at that time of year," he says. "If I'm after channel cats in the summer, I look for mid-depth flats with drop-offs into old river channels. If I'm after blues, I fish deeper water but still look for significant changes in bottom structure.
"With blues, sometimes all it takes is a change from sand to gravel or mud. Lately I've found that small pockets or ridges on flats hold them. I look for flatheads along submerged cliffs with lots of nooks and crannies, or submerged logpiles. Flatheads are associated with cover during the day, and at night they roam on flats adjacent to that cover to feed."
Moves from Shore
Many walleye and bass anglers in the Midwest and South have stories of arm-wrenching encounters with big flatheads while casting or trolling lures. Daryl Bauer, fishery outreach program manager with Nebraska Game and Parks, developed a tactic that uses crankbaits. He stalks flatheads along riprapped shorelines at Branched Oak Lake and other reservoirs in Nebraska.
"I go out for the hour or two before and after sunset, fish from shore, and cast a lure like a #12 or #14 Husky Jerk parallel to the rocks," he says. "I pull them rather quickly. My goal is to get them down banging on the rocks. The faces of riprapped dams are good, but I really like riprapped jetties or breakwaters, especially if they're close to deep water. I think flatheads hold in the deep water during the day then come up around sunset and prowl along the riprapped shorelines. I don't catch a bunch of flatheads in a trip, but I can usually catch at least one or two 8- to 15-pounders in a couple hours of fishing. My biggest is a 50-pounder."
Some anglers in Nebraska have transferred Bauer's methods to trolling from a boat. It's difficult to pull details from those specialists because the behavior of flatheads in reservoirs creates a competitive atmosphere for anglers targeting those notoriously finicky feeders. Flatheads are creatures of habit that set up in specific locations in lakes and can be nearly immobile for up to 20 or more hours a day. Trollers have worked hard to determine those exact locations. When word of those locations leaks out, there can be problems with interlopers either anchoring over and plundering those spots, or with competing trollers interfering with precise trolling paths and bait presentations necessary to put baits in front of recalcitrant flatheads.
Nebraska's secretive flathead trollers admit their strategy focuses on identifying precise locations where flatheads spend their days, then systematically combing those drop-offs, rock ledges, or woodpiles with deep-diving crankbaits. Rapala DT series crankbaits on braided line are effective in getting down to the 15- to 20-foot depths where flatheads lurk during the day.
The goal is to use repetitive trolling patterns with pinpoint lure delivery to pester resting but highly-territorial flatheads into attacking lures. The program takes extensive research of lake topography, a healthy understanding of flathead behavior, and the ability to mark and return to precise waypoints. But the results, in the words of one tight-lipped troller are, "almost scary when you get all the variables right."
Trolling for catfish would seem to be the province of only boat anglers, but Bauer's success casting crankbaits proves that catfish anglers fishing from shore can adapt trolling strategies and benefit from tactics that keep baits moving. The key from shore is to identify areas in lakes or reservoirs where bottom topography or structure attractive to cats is within casting distance of shore, then presenting baits in ways that draw their attention.
"Catfish feed throughout the day, but tend to feed deeper during the day than at night," Studebaker says. "Shore fishermen should look for spots like a narrow flat along the shore that drops into an old river channel or deeper water, or where the drop-off into the old channel is right against the shore. Blues and channels often suspend just above the drop-off, or along the face of the drop-off."
Bauer says subtle currents that develop along shorelines in lakes and reservoirs attract all species of catfish and are prime for both shore anglers and their trolling brethren. "Always fish the windward shore," he says. "Either fish from shore and cast into the waves, or work your bait parallel to that shoreline. If the wind has been blowing all day parallel to a shoreline, currents develop around the tips of points, jetties, and breakwaters that are perpendicular to the wind and waves. It's not much current, but to cats, it's significant. I always fish the windward side of a jetty, breakwater, or point, but I make an effort to fish right at the tip, where the waves and current curl around that end on the back side."
Whether you're fishing from the tip of a windswept jetty, or trolling from a boat over a bend in a submerged river channel, baits in motion often catch more fish than stationary baits. Natural baits and commercial catfish baits release more flavor into the water when they're moving and leave "trails." Artificial lures in motion create noise, flash, and vibration that attract catfish.
Movement produces the high-speed commotion that helps Bauer catch flatheads. It may be the tantalizing bottom-bumping that puts channels and blues in the boats of Hansen and Studebaker. It may be the slow drag across the bottom that helped my dad outfish me from shore all those years ago. –
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications, often covering the catfish scene.