The last couple decades have seen significant advances in catfish angling tactics, with applications of newer technologies seen in modern sonar, trolling motors, and other equipment. Some of the most innovative anglers have adapted strategies from other species to catfish. Refining these borrowed methods and applying them to specific situations has helped accelerate catfishing success.
About a decade ago, we reported on the catfishing innovations of multispecies angler Captain Marlin Ormseth, who applied his walleye fishing experiences in the Midwest to catching behemoth blue cats in the Santee-Cooper lakes, now his home water where he guides. His use of planer boards and Herbie floats to present cutbait on Santee rigs proved effective for Santee's cats. He's also developed other trolling tricks, including an innovative surface-fishing method to connect with nighttime giants feeding on the lake's vast flats.
Catfish Guide Ryan Casey also has figured ways to crossover his multispecies experiences to catfish. The Missouri angler learned to use planer boards while fishing with his father on the Great Lakes. They targeted suspended walleyes and salmon in open water. Fast-forward to the present and you find Casey deploying planer boards to target suspended blue cats.
The adaptation was a natural transition. If planer boards were effective for suspended, open-water walleyes, why not deploy them when blue cats suspend during the summer? Casey believes big blues suspend during summer to stay above the thermocline where the water is rich in oxygen. Baitfish location also may be a factor. Planer boards allow him to effectively keep his baits in the strike zone when the fish suspend.
"Look at the guys who jug fish," he says. "They're fishing 3 to 4 feet below the surface and catching cats. They do that a lot in the summer. They also fish rivers, which don't have thermoclines, but it works."
Casey recalls a recent trip to Wheeler Lake in Alabama where he was fishing near a large underwater island that rises from 40 feet to 8 feet. On the back side in about 40 feet of water, catfish were holding 30 to 37 feet down. "One day, we were catching several fish with stacker rigs just off the bottom. Then the starboard planer board started to head back and it buried," Casey says. "That fish weighed 78 pounds."
Casey's system often involves two planer-board rigs in addition to stacker rigs and Santee-Cooper rigs (a modified slipsinker-style rig), when he fishes for blues on reservoirs in summer. Planer-boards provide several benefits. First, he can cover a wider area — boards spread rigs off to the sides of the boat to cover more water. During summer, blue cats often are more dispersed and covering more water improves catch rates.
Secondly, planer boards allow more coverage of the water column, which is critical because blues often suspend this time of year. While he was catching fish on the backside of the island at Wheeler Lake on bottom rigs, planer boards allowed him to contact fish higher in the water column. Without planer boards, suspended cats were out of reach. Finally, planer boards provide two additional presentations, and they fish different and look different enough to trigger bites.
His system involves six rods, with two rods pulling Santee-Cooper or modified Santee-Cooper rigs off the back of the boat. These rigs are designed to bounce along bottom 100 to 200 feet behind the boat. Casey prefers 7-foot 6-inch Tangling with Catfish Extreme or Whisker Whip rods for fishing Santee Rigs. He also runs two rods with stacker rigs off the sides of his boat, near the stern. Stacker rigs also contact bottom, but unlike Santee-Cooper rigs, they're fished near-vertically. He uses 10-foot Tangling with Catfish Extender or Whip Excel rods for stacker rigs.
He fishes two planer board rods — 7-foot 6-inch Extremes — off the sides of the boat, pointed toward the back at a 45-degree angle. He matches them with Shimano Tekota 500 and 600 series line-counter reels, preferring a high line-retrieve ratio.
In addition to carrying baits out away from the boat, planer boards also hold rigs up in the water column. The amount of line needed to achieve a rig's desired depth is affected by line type, rig weight, wind, current, and drift or trolling speed. Casey starts by letting out enough line to reach the bottom while in motion to account for what he calls "blowback" — the angle of the line beyond vertical as you travel. Geometry tells us that you will have more line out than the depth you are fishing when you're in motion. The faster you're moving, the more blowback you have to account for. Once you reach bottom you can crank up to the desired depth.
If he's fishing in water 30 feet deep, for example, and he wants to reach fish suspended 4 to 5 feet off the bottom, he lets out 28 to 30 feet of line before clipping on the board. He then lets another 40 to 50 yards of line out before engaging the reel.
"When you're drifting or trolling for suspended cats, slower is better," Casey says. He fishes at .3 to .4 mph and pulls even slower or engages Spot-Lock on his trolling motor when marking suspended fish. This allows his baits to remain in the strike zone as long as possible. "When you stop and the baits fall, catfish often follow your baits. You can watch them on a fish finder.
"At times, catfish group on humps and other structure, but often they're scattered along wind-blown banks where shad are pushed up," he says. "Suspended blues might be in 25 feet of water just above the thermocline in water over 40 feet deep."
According to Casey, there's no right or wrong way to set up your drift. Sometimes he points his bow into the wind, which gives him the most control. Other times he uses driftsocks and drifts with the wind. He sometimes sets driftsocks out off one corner of his boat and drifts sideways down a ledge. Everything depends on wind direction and the structure you want to fish.
When running boards, there's a lot of line between you and the fish. Casey uses circle hooks so a traditional hook-set isn't effective. He approaches strikes patiently and methodically. "When the board starts to go back and bury, grab the rod, hold it steady, and reel until it loads," he says. "Then take the rod out of the holder smoothly and put pressure on the fish."
Boards, Rigs & Bait
Choosing a planer board depends on factors such as its flotation and how well it tracks at slow speeds. For catfish anglers, flotation is important because rigs can be heavy. You also want a board that can get your rig out off to the side of the boat, even at very slow speeds. Some boards do this better than others. Casey grew up using Offshore Tackle planer boards, but this season he's considering switching to Trophy Ridge boards because of recommendations by several friends.
He fishes two rigs behind planer boards — Carolina (slipsinker) and tube rigs. His Carolina rig starts with 80-pound braid mainline on which he threads a 4- to 12-ounce no-roll sinker and Team Catfish Sinker Bumper before tying on a 150-pound swivel. To the other end of the swivel he attaches a 24- to 48-inch 80-pound mono leader terminating in an 8/0 Team Catfish Double Action circle hook. He prefers shorter leaders, but in rough water he lengthens them to help reduce "choppy" bait movements.
He says a Carolina rig is the most versatile rig for suspended catfish because it can be used to catch fish that are holding just a few feet off the bottom to midway in the water column. So you can fish a variety of depths with this rig behind a planer board.
Casey says that the tube rig, which he learned from catfish tournament pro Bill Parfitt, is more effective for fish suspending closer to the bottom. He recommends this rig when catfish are no more than 4 to 6 feet above bottom or holding on structure or cover such as humps, ledges, or treetops. The dropper tube contacts the top of the structure and can triggers strikes.
The tube rig is a form of three-way rig that uses surgical tubing filled with shot as a dropper. The dropper tube can be from 24 to 36 inches long depending on the structure you're fishing. Most anglers make their own droppers by filling tubes with reload shot and sealing the bottom with hot glue and creating an eyelet at the top that can be clipped to a three-way swivel.
Besides anchoring the bait at precise depths, Casey also believes the weight hitting the bottom triggers bites. He prefers a 36- to 60-inch 80-pound mono leader with an 8/0 Team Catfish Double Action hook. Near the center of the leader he ties in a swivel to prevent line twist and bait spinning.
He prefers native baits, often shad. He also likes skipjack if available because it's oily and bloody. He also likes mooneyes for their shininess. Fillets, three-quarter sections, and small pieces are all options for suspended blues, he says. He generally has at least one big bait out, but if the fish start to mouth baits, or they grab and run and drop them, he switches to smaller baits. He also downsizes after a cold front, especially in spring or fall.
"It's important to hook your bait to avoid twist," Casey says. "You don't want baits to spin. To hook a head I insert the hook under the chin and out the top of the nose to pin the mouth shut. To avoid spin on fillets, I hook through the wide part of the flesh but not too far back."
Add planer boards to your traditional trolling spread. You might find you've been fishing "under" many more cats than you realized.
*Brian Ruzzo, Carlisle, Ohio, is a frequent contributor to Catfish In-Sider Guide. Contact: Captain Ryan Casey; 314/477-8355; showmecatfishing.com; Captain Marlin Ormseth, 843/825-4713, santeecoopercatfishunter.com.