With the bow-mounted trolling motor on autopilot, I stood at the back of the boat watching the blaze-orange boards veer to their outside positions. Then Captain Marlin Ormseth and I fed two more baits off our line-counter reels behind the boat. "Eighty feet, that's good," Ormseth announced, clipping on a homemade inline float. "Rob, let yours go to 100 and clip on a Herbie, then feed out another 100 feet and lock it down."
With our rods set in rod holders, the planer boards and Herbies worked a wide swath of water behind the boat. We trolled downwind — the wind blowing about 15 mph. The speed on our GPS read 1.2 mph. "I need to slow us down a bit. One bag oughta do it," Ormseth said, deploying a drift bag off the transom. We slowed to around 0.6 mph. He gave a thumbs-up and adjusted the autopilot's direction to track us over one of Santee-Cooper's huge flats.
One of the board rods bent over and I yanked it from the rod holder. "That didn't take long, Marlin," I said, "and it feels like a good fish." He removed the planer board from my line and I worked the big blue into the net alongside the boat. Not long after that fish was released, one of the Herbie rods went down, and Ormseth boated a respectable channel cat. That's how the day went — blues, channels, and fast-action catfishing. Some big fish, and a nice bonus flathead, too.
Ormseth's setup would seem perfectly in place on big walleye waters Up North, where planer boards are a staple for walleye trolling. Planer boards are in-line devices used to guide trolled lines and baits off to the sides of the boat, rather than being pulled directly behind in its wake. Ormseth likely gets his share of doubletakes on Santee as he's pulling board setups for catfish. It's something you just don't see catfishermen doing.
"Planer boards are a natural fit for catfish. It just took a guy who's part of the larger angling world to make it work," says In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange. Ormseth, a former bait-and-tackle-store owner from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is an accomplished multispecies angler for walleye, pike, perch, and other species. Now retired and living in Bonneau, South Carolina — Santee-Cooper Country — he's a licensed captain guiding for big blue cats on this famous catfish factory.
"There are many similarities between walleye fishing and catfishing, although there are obvious differences, too," Stange says. "But the fundamental mechanics of delivering baits are very much the same. Today, more multispecies anglers like Ormseth are getting into catfishing and adapting their tactics to catfishing situations. They're more apt to develop new presentation wrinkles to consistently catch more fish."
Drifting is a popular way to catch catfish on Santee and across North America. Many anglers drift-fish with the wind in pontoon boats. Some anchor and fish stationary baits. Ormseth tried these methods, but his experiences with walleye fishing told him there might be a more effective way to present baits, one with more boat control.
Thinking like a walleye angler after catfish, he knows that he can use boards to spread baits and cover a lot of water to contact more fish. Good boat control is essential, too, so he incorporates the autopilot feature on his Minn Kota trolling motor and uses driftsocks to regulate his speed. All the while he's reading the wind, making adjustments to his trolling-motor speed, or adding or removing drift bags as needed.
"I typically fish with four rods, two planer board rods that position baits on the outside, and two others that position baits in a narrower path behind the boat," Ormseth says. "I use 8-foot Berkley Glowstik medium-heavy casting rods and Okuma 30 DX linecounter reels. They're tough reels and they cast well to save time, getting baits to catfish faster.
"On the two outside rods, I use Church Tackle TX-12 Planer Boards — the smaller boards work well and have less water resistance. I let out about 100 feet of line before clipping on the board, followed by another 110 to 130 feet of line before engaging the reel and setting it in a rod holder." One board rod is set on the port side, the other starboard.
On each of the inside rods, he uses a Herbie release float, an invention he devised for fishing walleyes on Lake Erie. The Herbie clips to the line with a line release. "I let out about 100 feet of line before attaching the Herbie, followed by 100 more feet on one rod and 150 more on the other, so baits are set back different distances," he says. "These also go into rod holders. I set a light-to-moderate drag on all the reels because of the impact of hard hits on near-zero stretch braid. To start my setup, I move downwind with the trolling motor until all the lines are set with boards and Herbies."
Ormseth's reels are spooled with 80-pound-test monofilament backing, followed by 80-pound Stren Super Braid. Then to the 80-pound braid, he loop-to-loop connects about 80 feet of 60-pound Super Braid, and on the end of that he ties a loop for attaching to the loop on his leader.
Leader line is 40-pound Berkley Big Game mono. One end he connects to the braided mainline. He slides a float on the leader, pegging it in place, and attaches a swivel to the terminal end with a loop knot, followed by a final section of mono leader about 10 to 12 inches long, sporting an 8/0 Gamakatsu Circle Hook. Having the swivel close to the hook and below the float eliminates line twist resulting from the bait swirling as it's trolled.
Ormseth makes his own breakaway weights and attaches one to the loop on the braid above the leader, using a cross-lock snap. "I cut a 3- to 4-inch section of shoestring, insert #4 buckshot, and seal the ends," he says. "Fifteen shot make about an ounce, and I use up to 25 shot for deeper fishing. If the weight snags, I pull until the snap opens and the weight breaks off, but I usually save the rig. If the hook snags, the rig often breaks nearer the hook, so I can salvage the rest of the rig. I use a section of broom handle, wrap the line around it 8 or 10 times, and pull hard until it breaks. When the rig's trolled, the weight should drag over bottom with the float, keeping the bait up about a foot or so." He baits hooks with 1- to 2-inch skin-on chunks of mullet, shad, or white perch.
Mechanics and Location
Ormseth uses a 70-pound-thrust Minn Kota AutoPilot trolling motor for pulling rigs. "This motor is the heart of my system," he says. "I set it and forget it. I also use drift bags to help control my speed. If the wind's calm, I don't use any; but if it's windy, I use up to four drift bags to get the speed right. I like 0.6 to 0.8 mph in warmer water and 0.3 to 0.5 mph during the colder seasons. Once you get the speed right, just sit back and have a cup of coffee.
"I always pull with the AutoPilot against the bags to get the propelling motion that the planer boards need to move them outward. In heavy wind, the boards don't go out quite as far. I often troll with the wind, unless it's light, then I troll into the wind. Calm conditions are perfect for this system for following breaklines and structure. The key is getting the boards out at the right speed," he says.
Ormseth mostly fishes at night, especially in summer, as it gets uncomfortably hot during the day. "To see the boards and Herbies at night, I attach an inexpensive chemical glowstick. I drill holes at the top of the boards and Herbies and insert the glowsticks, then attach a 1-ounce weight to the bottom side of the Herbies so the glowstick stands upright. I can see every move the lights make with snags or bites. When a big blue pulls it down, it only takes a second for the light to disappear. Grab that rod and hold on, and you're in heaven at Santee-Cooper."
Working his board spread primarily on Lake Moultrie, the depths and locations he fishes differ by season. He focuses on edges of structural elements, particularly the edges of creek channels and where they end on flats, and drop-offs associated with the Cooper River channel. He also works over interiors of flats.
Ormseth keeps a log of each trip, recording the numbers and sizes of fish caught, plus water temperature and depths. During spring and fall, he often finds blues on shallow flats. "I've seen a few nice, warmer days in mid- to late February when blues moved into about 10 feet of water," he says. "Then as the water continues to warm, they can be even shallower, and I'm typically fishing in 3 to 4 feet of water at that time. The shallow pattern tends to start once the water temperature reaches about 52ºF.
"From spring into summer, once the water temperature reaches the low 80ºF range, blues move progressively deeper. In summer, I start by fishing the mid-20-foot depth range to find fish, heading deeper if I need to, following structural contours. In fall when water temperatures cool, blues start to relocate shallower, with 52ºF typically signaling their movement to shallow flats. After spending a period shallow, they go to deeper water as water cools into winter, eventually to 40 or 50 feet."
Ormseth's trolling setup works great on Santee-Cooper, and it should be a hot ticket in just about any lake or reservoir system where catfish swim. Buy some boards and a drift bag and get the trolling motor down. It'll likely change the way you catfish.
Add a Night Light
Trolling for walleyes at night with planerboards is very popular across the Midwest. Guides and serious anglers have come up with some creative ways to light a planerboard. The light is required in order to detect strikes, keep tangles to a minimum and realistically keep other boats from driving over them. Flashing Halloween lights that are meant to pinned to your kids costumes are popular, but they can be expensive and short out easily due to not being completely sealed. Cyalume light sticks work, but they are expensive and once activated can't be reused. Attaching Cyalume sticks can be difficult, their weight can actually change the way the board runs. A simple solution is to drill a 5/32'' hole down approximately 3/8'' from the top of the planerboard. This will allow you to insert a bobber light. These relatively inexpensive bobber lights are sealed, can be reused and are so light they don't affect the way the board runs. An added benefit is that you don't need to worry about having any extra gear if you do decide to night fish last minute.
Eliminate Line Getting Caught
Murphy's law in fishing usually means that if your fishing line can get caught in something, it will. The small screw eyes that typically holds the rear clip of a planerboard are very susceptible to getting line caught in the small gap of the closed eye. A simple solution is to cut a 1/16'' to 1/8'' long piece of heat shrink tubing that is slightly larger in diameter than that of the screw eye. Using an adhesive heat shrink tubing will ensure it will stay in place better than traditional heat shrink tubing.
Adjust the Weight
Chances are what is perfect for a salmon fisherman isn't going to be ideal for a walleye angler. Experienced planerboard fisherman often move the weights when switching from crankbaits to spinners as a way of fine tuning. Church walleye board are the only board that features an external weight that is meant to be moved. This can be very helpful when switching from a light pulling stickbait to a hard pulling deep diver.
On a Church TX-22 cutting a ½'' off of each end of the lead ballast weight allows it to run much better in rough water or with hard pulling lures and large fish. Simply remove the screw holding the weight in place and cut the weight at each end with a hacksaw. In areas where strike detection is critical due to small fish, trash fish or lingering weeds try moving the weight all the way back to the rear of the board. This will allow the board to run higher in the nose and make detection of anything out of the normal much easier. This will make the board more susceptible to going under. In areas that have larger fish this may not be the best adjustment, since boards going under can spell disaster. A way of combating this is to lighten the pressure on the front clip. Church Super Clips have a Phillips head for quick tension adjustment. Loosening the tension on the front clip will allow it to 'break free ' on a strike and you will not have to fight a circling board that will have you thinking a shark is attached. If the front clip is set to release, look to use a rear clip with an internal pin to make sure that the board doesn't come completely off due to a wave or hard pulling fish.
Add a Swivel
Anyone that has ever used a planerboard has had it tangled in the line. This typically takes place when the line slips between the clips. Getting this untangled isn't difficult in the garage, but when bouncing around in the boat with the weight of a fish it can spell disaster. An easy fix is to install a swivel between the flag wire and the rear clip. Much like the screw eye, this connection is susceptible to line being caught, so a piece of heat shrink over all but just the last piece of the swivel will eliminate future problems. Use a razor blade to trim the heat shrink so the swivel rotates freely.
Flag Wire Upgrade
A majority of anglers add an aftermarket 'flag kit ' in order to detect light bites, weeds, or junk fish easier. The problem is that the wire included in these kits from the major manufactures easily becomes bent or broken. A bent wire means the flag won't run upright and can make strike detection more difficult. A simple solution is to replace this wire with a closed loop bucktail leader designed for musky with a diameter of approximately .051. You can buy wire and bend your own, but it is likely easier and less expensive to purchase a few musky wire bucktail shafts. The only modification that is required is a pair of pliers to bend the open end around the flag. Make sure to not bend the wire short or the flag will not stand up straight. Use the manufacture supplied wire as a model.