April 14, 2020
By Doug Stange
The photos that accompany this article tell of the quest for the wels catfish by English anglers fishing in England, France, and other parts of Europe—catfish anglers, all of us, who connect with the world around us just a little better because we find passion in pursuit of catfish.
Catfishermen share a bond that traverses the many miles between continents and the many differences in species of catfish found worldwide. Letters from a missionary in Peru keep me abreast of their camp's spare-time quest to catch giant catfish of the Amazon. Several other fine contacts in South America, from Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, also correspond about their catches. For your information, I have pictures of catfish surpassing 200 pounds, but no evidence yet verifies those 500- or even 1,000-pound creatures that supposedly exist. The South American scene is one of intrigue, however, a story worth telling again one of these days. Yes, letters from Asia, too—from Thailand. And many letters from Africa, particularly Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Many of the best shore anglers in the world continue to write from England, where techniques for carp, catfish, and other species have all been refined over the past decades. Since the early 1980s, in a spirit of friendship and fellowship among seasoned fishermen, In-Fisherman has borrowed from their ideas about rigging. The English fishing scene, in turn, has been somewhat influenced by our approaches to fishing with lures.
Of course, many of the rigs that might be termed English rigs have had concurrent development of one sort or another here. One of my favorite rigs for flathead cats, for example, the English call the float-paternoster rig. I first saw this rig used in the early 1960s by that old reprobate, Zacker, of whom I've often written.
Zacker's rigging, while effective, wasn't so refined as the English version. Zacker would have been the first to admit, given his abiding interest in catching cats, that the float-paternoster rig (and variations thereof) is a better rig in many instances.
The float-paternoster rig is just one of many ways to keep a livebait up and moving, a vital element in fishing for flatheads, which much prefer livebaits most of the time. Livebait can also be the key to big channel cats in some waters. Big blues, on the other hand, usually go best for a big piece of dead something, even sometimes when they're schooled and chasing live shad. Such observations are generalities, of course.
The point remains, however, that the low-frequency vibrations produced by a struggling baitfish attract catfish by stimulating their sensitive lateral lines. Livebaits of all sizes must first be wild and super-lively, and second be presented in ways that allow them to advertise these seductive qualities. Keep a wild bait suspended just so and it feels exposed, vulnerable, and panicked, and rightly so.
Slipfloat Rigging—The simplest suspension system, of course, is just a bait tethered below a float—today, usually a depth-adjustable slipfloat. Lindy-Little Joe/Thill offers cigar-shaped float designs of sufficient size to handle livebaits ranging from 3 to over 12 inches. The classic cigar shape like the Thill Center Slider is more sensitive than the slightly more bulbous Thill Big Fish Slider, which should be reserved for bigger, wilder baits. I also prefer the classic cigar design for drifting cutbait for channel cats or blue cats, or for fishing a lighter-line livebait rig for channel cats in cold water during early spring.
Whichever float you choose to suspend your bait, the rigging goes like this: Before adding a hook and shot to your line, tie a five-turn uni-knot around your mainline, using the same or slightly heavier-test line. This serves as a sliding—that is, an adjustable—float stop. Some anglers prefer the ease of slipping on a nylon float stop or using a pretied bobber-stop knot instead of tying their own stop knots.
After tying on the stop knot, slip on a 3-millimeter bead (lines to about 14 pounds), or a 4-mm or 5-mm bead (heavier line), and then the slipfloat of your choice. Then slide the stop knot, bead, and slipfloat up your line so the float suspends the bait at the chosen depth. Anchor lighter rigs with several shot about 12 inches above a hook, ranging from a #2 for smaller baits to a 3/0 for larger baits.
To anchor a big livebait for flatheads, tie in a swivel about 20 inches above your hook, which might range from a 3/0 to 7/0 or larger. The Eagle Claw 84, Mustad 92671, or a similar hook design, are functional and inexpensive. Use a file to sharpen them. Add a 1- to 2-ounce egg sinker, depending on the size of the livebait, above the swivel. The largest Thill Big Fish Slider works with a 2-ounce sinker.
Float rigs are particularly deadly in several situations. In rivers, they work well drifted through the tail end of a riffle and into the beginning of a hole, then along and around cover such as a snag. A big bait suspended and drifted through a big, slow-flowing eddy near or part of a deep hole (particularly if downed timber is present) is also a good tactic for flatheads. In ponds and reservoirs, where catfish often swim suspended, use the wind to drift a livebait through potential areas, into position from shore, or behind an anchored or drifting boat.
Float-Paternoster Rig—This rig is a top choice when the situation calls for placing a bait in the lair of big fish and waiting them out. Each of the biggest flatheads I've caught the last two years have been with this rig, placed in a big eddy just behind a huge pile of snaggy timber lining a deep river hole. With either an 8-inch bullhead or a 10-inch river redhorse sucker as bait, I toss the offering into place in the middle of the eddy, just away from any snags. Then I light a small fire and settle in for part of the night. Livebait calls in roaming fish. Every so often, prod the float to keep the baitfish dancing.
This also is a deadly rig when you're set up on a shallow point in a reservoir, in the corner of a big pond, or somewhere in the back end of a creek arm. The idea is to set baits on shallow flats near deep water—somewhere big cats roam, usually after dark.
Float-paternoster rigging employs a slipfloat, so to make the rig, begin as before with the slipknot, bead, and slipfloat. The terminal leader consists simply of a 12-inch section of monofilament or Dacron with a hook on one end and a swivel on the other. Now, add a bottom link, a piece of monofilament with a bell sinker on one end and a swivel on the other, the swivel running free on your mainline just above the leader swivel.
The length of the bottom link determines how high the bait suspends above bottom. Run the float perfectly tight to the lead below, and an 18-inch bottom link suspends a bait 6 inches above bottom (18 inches minus the 12-inch leader). Rarely, though, should this link be tight. A little play down below allows the bait to swim in a big circle and slightly off to the side.
A tightly tethered bait tends not to swim so vigorously as a bait that believes it's going somewhere. In most situations, I run about a 24-inch bottom link. The combination of 24-inch bottom link and bait remains easy to cast with the 7 1/2- to 10-foot casting rods I use for big fish.
The float need only suspend the bait and keep it swimming below; it doesn't have to suspend the lead (which is resting on bottom), so the float can be smaller than with slipfloat rigging. The bottom link should test slightly less than the mainline and leader. If it snags, it can be broken free without breaking off the main rigging.
Poly-Ball Leger Rigging—This is a new one for me, suggested by our English friends, Simon Clarke and Keith Lambert, membership secretary and assistant editor, respectively, of Whiskers, the magazine of the Catfish Conservation Group, an English organization dedicated to the cause of the mighty European catfish, the wels. Noting our Catfish Guide, the first catfish magazine in North America, Clarke and Lambert were kind enough to send along the latest of Whiskers, in which I noted explanation of the poly-ball leger rigs that are destined to work for North American cats. As you've also noted by now, the photos gracing this article are from Lambert, who is both a fine angler and photographer.
Lambert suggests that the original poly rig was developed by one of England's best catfish anglers, Bob Baldock. "Legering," by the way, is presenting a static live- or deadbait on the bottom. Our classic leger is similar to the classic English leger, and consists of a weight (egg sinker or bell sinker) running on the mainline—the mainline tied to a leader consisting of a piece of mono or Dacron, with a hook on one end and a swivel on the other. The English are as likely to fish a "fixed" lead as they are a free-running (or semi-fixed) lead, but that's a story for another day.
The idea here is simply to add a Styrofoam ball (poly ball) to the hook end of the leader in order to keep the livebait up and bobbing, as opposed to cowering on the bottom. To the end of his leader of some 20 inches, Baldock adds a 2- to 7-inch-long piece of 2- or 4-pound line with a one-inch diameter poly ball on the end.
I gather, though, from reading Lambert's comments, that this rig has a tendency to tangle. Lambert suggests, as an alternative, a rig much like some of our suspender rigs for walleyes—only the float or poly ball is larger. Simply slip the poly ball on the leader and rig it in slip fashion so the ball can easily be moved closer or farther from the bait.
A final poly-rig modification is based on the hair rig as suggested by Trevor Pritchard. The hair rig has often been referred to in In-Fisherman for carp, catfish, walleyes, and pike, but is far from widely used in North America and therefore requires a brief explanation.
The hair rig was developed as a rig for wary carp. A light line (originally hair) was tied to the shank of a hook, and baits were held on the hair instead of the hook, allowing the hook to ride free just below the bait. Carp inhaled the bait along with the hook, which, riding free, much improved hookup percentage. It also ensured that carp were lip-hooked instead of throat-hooked and could be released.
In carp fishing, baits usually are held in place on the hair (light line) with a tiny plastic cylindrical stop. Pritchard replaces the stop with a tiny hook, which he slips through the tail of the bait to hold it to the rig. Again, the actual hook rides free just behind. The poly ball is placed between the hook and the bait, prodding the bait to move, as it must swim to keep the poly ball from tipping it.
In England, leaders often are of Dacron because it's softer and less objectionable to carp and catfish, with their sensitive mouths. Monofilament—particularly heavier mono—also more likely alerts wary fish by hindering bait movement. English fish are, however, more heavily fished and more likely to have been caught and released, and thereby are educated. Mono remains sufficient in most North American waters.
I look forward to the coming season, which I'm sure has already begun for some of you, because last season was not a good one for me. Oh, we did a grand bit of early scoring on a TV filming trip to the Red River near Selkirk, Manitoba. The fishing there can be so outlandishly easy and the fish so consistently large that it continues to amaze me, even after almost 10 years of trips there. Everyone should experience such furious fishing for huge channel cats at least once.
Should you decide to go, the hot fishing lasts from mid-May through June, then slows somewhat as fish finish spawning in July and slip downriver to hold in deeper holes. The fishing remains good all summer, though, and usually picks up again in fall when fish average several pounds larger than in spring.
The rest of my season past? Sometimes things just go way awry. We get busy at just the wrong time, so trips have to be canceled. Or, we're just about to leave and it rains 8 inches and the river goes wild. Not this year, though. I have that feeling. New rigs to try. Things just slipping into the long-ball groove.
The story goes that the famous manager of the Yankees during the Babe Ruth glory years of the 1920s, John McGraw, wandering through a restaurant where the team was eating after a game, happened past the table where a promising rookie was dining on chicken. "Son," he said, removing the plate of chicken, "better you do like Ruth over there—eat a big steak, do a big do-do (a paraphrase), and hit a big home run."
I just have that feeling. New rigs for catfish to try. Old rigs to run again. Things just slipping into that long-ball groove. Keep in touch from 'round the country and 'round the world.