May 21, 2014
By Ned Kehde
The virtue of multispecies angling has always been a primary tenet of In-Fisherman. The gist of this principle is that an angler's knowledge expands exponentially by pursuing a variety of species. This is in large part how In€‘Fisherman stays on the cutting edge, bringing new insights as the discovery process of fishing unfolds. Strategies developed by In-Fisherman for suspended walleyes and smallmouth bass, for instance, were discovered by trolling for steelhead on the Great Lakes. Likewise, breakthroughs for weedbed walleyes were uncovered by fishing for largemouth bass. Fishing for deep-water lake trout unveiled some of the deep-water habits of northern pike. These are just a few of many examples.
Catmen, too, become wiser and more skillful anglers by routinely pursuing the three major catfish species — channels, blues, and flatheads. Some of the best and most versatile catfish anglers can successfully tangle with the big three, often catching all three species in a single outing.
Nathan and Barb Witherell of Santee, South Carolina, contend that the Santee-Cooper reservoir system is ideal for catmen to hone their multi species catfishing skills. Since 1999, they've guided there year-round for catfish, crappie, and striped bass, and their logs reveal that one of the best times to consistently tangle with a trifecta of blue, channel, and flathead catfish is during the first three weeks of April.
The Witherells say that during the warm nights of late March, when the water temperature is in the low-60ºF range in northern portions of lakes Marion and Moultrie, some blue and channel catfish invade northern areas to forage on mussels and snails among the cypress trees in water as shallow as a foot. After the sun rises, both species leave the shallows and move into 5 to 10 feet of water on points and adjacent drop-offs where they spend the rest of the day. The same pattern sets up in southern areas of the lakes when the water temperature surpasses 60ºF, which is about two weeks after the catfish start to move into the northern shallows.
Wind is an asset to the Witherells' springtime fishing. They anchor their 25-foot pontoon boat along a mudline on a windblown shoreline. Anchoring on a hard clay bottom is difficult, so they secure their boat to one of the cypress trees that are plentiful in 1 to 5 feet of water. They use the wind to guide the boat stealthily within a few feet of a tree, being careful not to move across the area that they want to fish. Once the boat is several feet downwind from the tree, they back the boat towards it by using the outboard motor and place a large steel hook, which is attached to an 8-foot pole hook, into the tree. A rope attached to the opposite end of the pole is tied to the rear of the boat. Once the hook is in place, they let the boat drift downwind 20 feet and quietly set a bow anchor. The system is finished by tightening the rope that is attached to the tree hook.
For catching blues and channels, the duo wields 7-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stiks (BWC1120) matched with Abu Garcia 6500C reels spooled with 40-pound-test Berkley Big Game. To the line, they affix a 13„4-ounce bullet-shaped slipsinker, #3 swivel, 3-foot 40-pound-test leader, and a 5/0 circle hook. The hook is attached with a snell knot; the swivel is attached with a palomar knot. Freshly cut threadfin shad, gizzard shad, and herring are their baits of choice. Because the catfish are feeding on thumbnail-sized snails and mussels, the bait is cut to the size of a mussel shell.
The Witherells fish with 16 rods, fancasting to cover a large area. Long casts neutralize some of the noise that occurs when fishing from a pontoon boat anchored in shallow water. They place the baits around the roots of the cypress trees, between the trees, and along the mudlines created by wind and waves. Each rod is set in zero-degree rod holders situated along the sides and bow of the boat. Drags on reels are set tightly as possible. When a catfish strikes, the Witherells don't remove the rod from the rod holder until the circle hook is firmly implanted into the flesh of its mouth.
Some of the most productive areas to fish in the spring on Lake Marion are the Cow Pasture, Nelsons Cut, Brickyard, Sixteen Island, Eutaw Creek, and Jack's Creek, as well as the shallows east of Rocks Pond and around the state park above the I-95 causeway. On Lake Moultrie, blues and channels regularly mill about Russelville Flats, Buckhall Bay, and Duck Pond Flats.
When the weather is balmy with a 15- to 20-mph wind blowing consistently for several days, the Witherells regularly catch 25 blue and channel catfish in three hours. The size of the channel catfish range from 2 to 20 pounds, with blue cats stretching from 2 to 60 pounds.
As the water continues to warm in the early weeks of spring, Santee-Cooper's flatheads make nighttime forays into the same shallow-water areas that the blues and channel cats inhabit. Rather than foraging on snails and mussels, the flatheads prefer to eat shad and sunfish.
Santee-Cooper's bowhunters are seeing more flatheads than they have ever seen before, the Witherells note. The flatheads the Witherells catch in April range from 2 pounds to over 50 pounds, and in April of 2007, they tangled with a 53-pound 10-ounce fish that they caught in two feet of water.
At Lake Marion, some of the most productive locales for catching flatheads are Griffins Hole, Cuddo Lake, Sullivan Lake and marker 52 at Irvings Lake, as well as channel markers 61, 62, and 63. In addition, a goodly number of flatheads can be found in certain areas in Horse Creek and Little River. At Lake Moultrie, the best areas are around deeper coverts that are graced with ledges and drop-offs, such as the Old Santee Canal, Ophir Canal, and the canal between channel markers 1 and 3. Over the years, anglers also have caught scores of flatheads from the canal that links Moultrie and Marion.
Most of Santee-Cooper's flatheads are caught at night on live panfish, shad, and herring, and the Witherells advise clipping one of the baitfish's side fins and a portion of its tail to make it swim erratically. Their 53-pounder, however, was caught on cutbait while fishing for blues and channels. Barb Witherell says this proves that you don't have to use livebait for flatheads or just fish deep holes.
Jeremy Leach, an angler from Madison, Indiana, says the best time to catch blue, channel, and flathead catfish on the same outing on the Ohio River is in the spring when the water temperature hovers in the low-60ºF range. He fishes the river from Cincinnati, Ohio, to the Illinois border, where he finds blue catfish prefer areas that are buffeted by a lot of current. €‚The best spots are ledges along the outside bends of the river's main channel in 30 to 40 feet of water.
The Ohio's channel cats inhabit logjams, brushpiles, and other cover elements that are near the shoreline in 5 to 20 feet of water. Many of these spots are located immediately downstream from the mouth of a feeder creek. Flathead mill about in slackwater areas around the river's inside bends in 5 to 20 feet of water.
When the river is high and flowing fast, Leach plies manmade objects such as bridges, piers, and concrete walls that create current breaks and eddies, which attract all three species of catfish. At times, he finds some channel cats in spots traditionally used by blues and flatheads. He rarely encounters a flathead in the fast-water haunts of the blues, but if he does, it's always small. Some blues forage in the calm and shallow coverts of the flathead catfish at night.
Leach seldom fishes at night, preferring to be afloat during the early morning hours. Even though the flathead is reputed to be a nocturnal species, he readily catches them around the first ghost light of dawn into the first hour or two of twilight.
An ideal day on the Ohio, according to Leach, is cloudy with a light breeze from the west or south, a storm front in the offing, and the river clear and slightly rising. Under these conditions, Leach says a talented angler can tangle with 20 blues from 15 to 20 pounds, 30 channels from 4 to 7 pounds, and a dozen flatheads averaging 15 pounds.
Leach anchors his boat upstream from a spot and fishes with 71„2-foot medium-heavy rods and Abu Garcia 7000i reels spooled with 80-pound-test PowerPro braided line. He uses a three-way rig when he's fishing for blue and channel catfish, and a Carolina rig when he's after flatheads.
On one eye of a three-way swivel, he attaches a 15-pound-test monofilament sinker dropper line from 10 to 20 inches long, depending how far off the bottom the catfish are feeding. To another eye, he ties on a section of 40-pound-test Big Game for a hook leader, opting for a 6-inch leader when the current is heavy, and 18 inches in slacker water. He uses the same line and length selections for his Carolina rig. Leach likes a bank sinker from 4 to 18 ounces, and Gamakatsu Octopus Circle hooks (5/0 channel catfish and 8/0 for blues and flatheads).
Leach always has a supply of gizzard shad and skipjack herring in his boat for blues and channels, as well as some live shad for flatheads. He also has caught enough flatheads on cut skipjack, concluding that they prefer the heads.
John Jamison is an accomplished tournament angler from Spring Hill, Kansas, and a large part of his success is due to his skills at catching blue, channel, and flathead catfish. He says that€‚tangling with all three species can be a relatively easy task along the Kansas and Missouri€‚border of the Missouri River once the water temperature exceeds 60ºF in mid-May and until it cools down in October. It's a more difficult task during the spawning season, which occurs in June and July, but he's found that fishing for all three species is still the most successful strategy.
For instance, during the Cabela's King Kat Tournament Trail event at St. Joseph, Missouri, on July 14, 2007, Jamison and his partner, Mark Thompson of Williamsburg, Kansas, plied an area along the Missouri River where they caught all three species. They caught enough blues, channels, and flatheads to finish in fourth place, catapulting them into the lead of the anglers-the-year race.
At the St. Joseph tournament, they anchored their boat on a 20-yard-wide ledge along an outside bend of the river channel. The 3- to 10-feet deep ledge was covered in riprap from the shoreline to the river channel edge, with the channel running 20 to 30 feet deep. The boat was positioned so that one angler could fish the channel for blue catfish, and the other could pursue channels and flatheads on the riprap.
Miles of riprap line the banks of the river. Several years ago Jamison discovered that channel cats and flatheads are attracted to the riprap along the outside bends. What's more, the electrofishing surveys conducted by fishery biologists of the Missouri Department of Conservation have identified the same phenomenon. Riprap, however, isn't where the big flatheads normally abide. Riprap flathead weigh from 2 to 5 pounds. The big ones, Jamison explains, prefer to inhabit logjams behind the many wing dikes that bedeck the river.
Mid-July is a difficult time to fish the Missouri River around St. Joseph. The big blue catfish are recovering from the rigors of the spawn, and big flatheads are in the midst of spawning. Jamison and Thompson worked hard at the St. Joseph tournament to catch 3 channel, 4 flathead, and 1 blue catfish. The biggest fish in their 5-fish limit was a blue weighing only 14 pounds.
Across the years, Jamison and Thompson have determined that when the fishing is trying for one or two catfish species, it's best to fish locales that all three species inhabit. When they fish a tournament this way, they usually place in the top 10 and have won several of those tough events.
They use a variety of baits to lure the three species, with skipjack herring heads, gizzard shad heads, and bloodbait best for blue catfish, and small pieces of cut shad and bloodbait for channels. For small flatheads along the riprap, a 2- to 4-inch fillet of fresh shad is much more effective than livebait, but for the big specimens around the logjams, they like to use a 6- to 8-inch chub or green sunfish.
For blues and flatheads from an anchored boat, Jamison and Thompson use Number 2 and Number 3 John Jamison Signature Series E-glass rods and Shimano Tekota 600 reels spooled with 80-pound-test McCoy braided line. Rigging is either a 5/0 or 7/0 Daiichi Circle Chunk hook teamed with an egg sinker, from 2 ounces in slack flow to 16 ounces in heavy current. During the St. Joseph tournament, they used a 2-ounce sinker and 5/0 hook for flatheads, and for blue catfish, one rod had a 12-ounce sinker and 7/0 hook; the second rod had a 10-ounce sinker and 7/0 hook. Channel catfish tackle consists of an 8-foot 3-inch heavy Shakespeare Ugly Stik (CA1186), Abu Garcia 6500 reel, 20-pound-test Big Game line, a 2- or 3-ounce egg sinker and #2 Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp (LO42) wide-bend hook.
Jamison always uses monofilament line when fishing for channel cats, finding that it excels over braid when channels are tentative. Braided line, however, has improved Jamison and Thompson's hooking percentage on blue cats; nowadays they hook 94 percent of the fish that bite.
As Jamison pondered the difficult fishing the competitors faced at the St. Joseph tourney, it reminded him that such events reveal the virtues of multispecies angling.
Abu Garcia 7000i
- No flatheader worth his salt hits the river without one of these classic round bait-casters. Armed with a synchronized levelwind system, brass gears and dual anti-reverse, the old 7000 is as tough and reliable as reels get. An oversized power-handle supplements the reel's muscular 6-washer drag system — enough torque to drop the hammer on the planet's toughest catfish. The 7000 has one other unforgettable feature — an extra loud line-out alarm; what catmen call a 'clicker. ' When a big fish grabs the bait and bolts, the reel grudgingly yields line while audibly alerting you that something awesome is about to happen. Load it with 300 yards of 20-pound mono or 600 yards of 30-pound braid and brace for impact. Retail price is $150.
Bass Pro Shops CatMaxx
— Another fine no-frills spinning reel, the CatMaxx CM80 features an aluminum long-spool design that holds almost 300 yards of 25 pound test mono. Built on a tough graphite body, the reel's guts include a 4-bearing system with PowerLock instant anti-reverse. At 26-ounces, this big fish brawler dishes out almost 40 pounds of drag pressure, or enough to winch small trees out by the roots. An oversized paddle reel handle offers comfort and leverage over big cats. Retail price is $45.
Daiwa Black Gold
— What can you say about a reel that's been with you through small fish and monsters, thick and thin, for over a quarter century? If you're smart, you call it one of your favorite catfish reels. A classic saltwater tool, the Black Gold is a throwback — a simple collection of reliable components and proven parts that perform so well that the company simply can't retire it, despite the reel's slightly old-school facade. It's not the prettiest, nor the lightest reel you'll ever own, but buying one is like making a longterm can't-miss investment. All metal construction envelops three stainless steel ball bearings and a high performance drag built with Teflon and stainless steel drag washers. The BG 30 and BG 60 hold plenty of 14 to 25 pound test line and pick up 36 and 39 inches of line per handle turn, respectively. Retail price is just over $100.
— A tremendous value in line-counter reels, the Convector sports a lightweight, corrosion resistant frame with a machined aluminum anodized spool. A ratcheting star drag allows the angler to dial into precise drag settings. A patented Mechanical Stabilization System maintains parts alignment over the long term, while a self-lubricating gear system enhances smoothness and overall performance. The reel's mechanical line counter function measures in feet, perfect for drifting, trolling and bait-walking applications. Six reel model sizes include both left and right handed retrieves. Retail price is $85.
Okuma Epixor Baitfeeder
— Featuring affordability and high level performance, the Epixor Baitfeeder is a tremendous tool for light to medium duty catfishing situations. Nine stainless steel ball bearings and 1 'quick-set ' anti-reverse roller bearing provide seamless operation. A waterproof drag seal and a 30-percent larger drag system bolster the reel's stopping power, despite it's dainty weight. The Epixor's special on/off auto trip bait feeding system provides measured resistance to biting fish, and disengages simply by turning the reel handle. Spools are extra wide machined aluminum and are topped with a titanium coated lip for smooth casting. Four models from a size 30 to 80 are available. Retail prices range $100 to $110.
— Any reel labeled 'workhorse ' more or less describes those intangible elements catfishers seek. Built with 6 stainless steel ball bearings and weighing much less than you'd expect, the Trion provides years of no-frills performance. Cast, set hooks, and deliver catfish beat-downs — period. An aluminum handle and spool is complemented by a smooth multi-disc drag system and instant anti-reverse. Trion 135 and 140 sizes match most medium catfish scenarios. Retail price is $40.
Quantum Bill Dance Big River
— Built to tackle freshwater monsters, this tough reel torques hard pulling cats with its powerful 4.2:1 gear ratio. Two stainless steel ball bearings keep things running nice and smooth, while a synchronous levelwind prevents line from 'piling up ' on the spool. The high-capacity aluminum spool (360 yards / 20-lb test) holds plenty of line to outlast even the most extreme drag screamers. While an extended power handle gives you extra leverage over your quarry. The reel's selectable bite-alert rounds out a list of fine features, making this reel a good value — iconic Bill Dance baseball cap not included. Retail price is $55.
Shimano Baitrunner OC
— Perfect for set rigging from shore or in a boat, the Baitrunner OC allows cats to strip line freely from the spool without disengaging the spool. This saltwater-approved reel offers ample power, durability and toughness to tame any catfish. Key features include a fully repairable bait-clicker, stainless steel ball bearings and Shimano's amazing Varispeed Oscillation. Baitrunner models 6000 and 8000 provide 20-pounds of drag and retrieve up to 36 inches per revolution. An essential tool for every serious cat-head. Retail price is approximately $130.
— Palm-sized line-counter reels may be the best kept tackle secret in catfishing, and Shimano's Tekota tops the list of proven performers. This tough-as-nails, full metal weapon is loaded to the gears and beyond: diecast aluminum frame, sideplates and spool, an oversized clicker button and anti-rust bearings. The TEK300LC and TEK500LC are perfectly suited to medium to heavy-duty catfishing situations, boasting max drag ratings of 18-pounds and 3 +1 ball bearings. Line counter mechanisms are smooth and work with all types of fishing line. Hundred-plus-pound blues have fought these reels and lost. Retail price is $180.
Team Catfish Gold Ring 400
— Putting power and smoothness at your fingertips, this specialized catfish reel performs reliably while proudly trumpeting your passion for barbels and adipose fins. Custom specs include one-piece aluminum frame and side plates, 5 stainless steel bearings and a dual magnetic cast control with a special dial for tossing extra heavy baits. A recessed, low-profile bait clicker prevents accidental activation. Extras such as an aluminum power handle and extra heavy reel foot ensure seasons of flawless operation. Retail price is $140.