October 28, 2020
For years, the 7-foot 10-inch Driftmaster and Bait Walker Catfish bumping rod series produced by the Rod Shop in northern Kansas City was the only game in town. It was a specialty rod optimized for light weight with a power and action that allows an angler to lift and control 3-ounce weights and bait in current up to 700 feet from the boat.
Not all catfish hunters live near major rivers and, at the time of the rod’s release, even fewer practiced the art of bumping (aka, slipping and baitwalking). It was appropriate for a small shop just off the Missouri River to produce the sticks on custom order for nearly all of the catfish community. Starting with muskie blanks, Tom Knox sourced the materials and built the rods while veteran anglers John Jamison and Phil King perfected the presentation.
Times have changed. The Rod Shop greatly lowered production levels the past few years while the overall catfish tackle business boomed. New catfish rod manufacturers pop up every few months to compete in a market where trophy anglers pour money into the system for catfish-specific boats and now regularly compete in tournaments across the country.
The crux of the bumping-rod design is the need to both sense the weight on every lift, feel a take, and then fight fish that regularly exceed 30 pounds. A traditional broomstick-style catfish rod misses the mark for feel while also being too heavy to lift up to 13,000 times in an 8-hour fishing day.
The choice of reel is just as important because each of those lifts requires clicking the spool release on and off. In addition, it requires a drag strong enough to tire a big blue or feisty flathead. Each of the new rod suppliers has approached the problem differently, making the choice a tough one for anglers.
What the Rod Shop Found Out
A sinker weight of 3 ounces is enough to drop a skipjack fillet 20 feet into the Missouri river at average flows, so the original #2 Driftmaster rod was designed to function perfectly at this level. The #1 rod was designed for lower current flows typical of the Ohio river and leaner years elsewhere. These situations call for weights of less than 3 ounces. The #3 rod was the Mississippi River heavyweight where Jamison and King use sinkers up to 24 ounces.
Personal preference for rod action required four rods in total. The Driftmaster rods (preferred by Phil King) had a stiffer tip and the Bait Walker (preferred by Jamison and only offered in the all-around #2 weight) had more of a full-flex design.
The 7-foot 10-inch length allows an angler to sit in the bow casting seat and control the line away from walk-through windshields and potential tangles at the transom. The length keeps enough line out of the water to avoid slack and maintain control of the weight. Longer rods become unwieldy to lift and control while shorter rods work for some.
A split-grip design reduces weight while allowing the exposed rear blank to lay across the forearm, providing additional sensitivity. A fighting butt generates leverage to wrangle larger fish. Keep in mind that a split grip design can skew the overall length of the stick; the length of rod above the reel is what controls the line.
When combined with an exposed-blank reel seat and a trained angler, the feel from the weight bouncing in mud, rock, silt, and boulders comes through loud and clear. Unlike bass and walleye rods, sensitivity is not to feel the crushing bites from blues, but to learn as much as possible about where the bait is fishing and to make sure it’s bumping and not dragging in current.
Finally, signaling their importance in the equation, the graphite hooded guide train on The Rod Shop versions costs more than the blank. Guides help with feel by contacting the line and affect the overall bend in the rod’s action. Different inserts protect the guides from heavy braided line and every manufacturer seems to have a specific guide design strategy.
The Science of Weight Savings
Pure graphite fibers come from only a handful of suppliers. These fibers must be combined with a resin (often Cyanate Ester) to develop a graphite rod’s action. With an atomic weight of 12, the mass of carbon does not change. But, the length of the fibers, their interaction with the resin, the amount of resin (known as the fiber volume fraction), and the density of the resin all add up to material stiffness along with significant weight savings over fiberglass. Stiffer fiber/resin systems need less material to produce an effective rod action, so stiffer fibers equals less weight in the end.
You might not know the key suppliers by name but, after a decade of working in a testing lab, I know Toray, Solvay, and Hexcel all make fibers from carbon pitch or polyacrylonitrile (PAN). Some companies focus on one method; others produce fibers from both methods. Pitch-based fibers are typically more expensive due to higher stiffness values.
A major caveat to carbon fiber stiffness: if the stiffness is too high, the rod becomes brittle. Everyone knows that catfish (and catfish anglers) are rough on equipment and most mid-modulus fibers optimize durability and stiffness with the eventual weight of the final rod build. Also, light weight comes from using less material. Rods with the thinnest walls provide the best feel, but might not have the strength to survive a battle with a trophy fish. Finally, it’s up to the rod designer to put the material in just the right location and generate the action most preferable to the greatest number of anglers—a tough job indeed.
Customers pay attention to blank material but most of the rod weight comes from the guides, grips, and reel seat. A trigger handle helps with rod control while bumping. The foregrip and reel seat needs to fit your hand as well as your personal choice for reel. Titanium guides reduce weight, especially at the tip top where the effect is multiplied by the length of the rod but have a high price tag.
Just like any other part of rod design, the devil is in the details. Each individual choice works together to generate the final product. Using a high-end material doesn’t guarantee a great rod, it just guarantees that the expense will be higher. Don’t overlook a rod without a brand-name carbon fiber or that is lower modulus, because craftsmanship and accessory choices usually make up the difference.
Clyde Caldwell started Shattered Cat rods in 2014 but only started selling rods to the public in 2017. Those three years saw his garage fill with rod designs, tweaks, and changes before releasing his three overall models to the public. His bumping rod highlights the choices a rod designer must make for a successful product.
Caldwell took his time perfecting the action of the 7-foot 6-inch rod to his liking. He lost count at 15 blanks that he custom ordered from his supplier to dial in the performance of the bend. In the end, the current rod has more of a medium-fast action where the tip bends more into the rod than other designs. He likes that the even bend transmits small vibrations and variations in the fall of the weight to his hands clamped around the exposed-blank reel seat design.
Guides were the next choice. A high-priced titanium guide system would reduce weight, but this would be out of proportion to his selling price of $100. In the end, he chose low-height stainless-steel guides that keep the line closer to the blank with slightly less weight overall. A trigger reel seat along with an EVA handle and butt keep the overall weight at an industry-leading 7.0 ounces.
B‘n’M Pole Company
For 60 years, the B‘n’M rod company focused on crappie. In 2011, they added catfish tackle and never looked back. The lineup started with the Original Silver Cat rod but it took two additional years of development for their Pro Staff Bumping Rod and it shows.
“A bumping rod is the unicorn of fishing rods because building the right rod for bumping feels impossible at times,” says B‘n’M owner Jason McDuffie. You’re trying to build a rod that can handle 80- to 100-pound fish in 5-mph-plus current and it has to be light enough to hold all day.” His development crew included Jeff Dodd, Roy Harkness, Ben Goebel, and George Young, all of whom fish the Mississippi River.
The trigger reel seat is surrounded by premium cork front and back with a split-grip handle. Offered in two lengths (7 and 7.5 feet) the rod has been stiffened this year from the original version. The shorter length also has less power for finessing lighter bumping weights while the 71/2-footer can handle almost any conditions. Like Shattered Cat, full stainless-steel guides were chosen for longevity when working with heavy braided line.
While most Whisker Seeker rods were developed by Chad Ferguson, their bumping rod was developed by the rest of the company’s pro staff over multiple years. For the final design, the eight pro staff that worked on the Bump‘n Stick ended up with a 7-foot 6-inch blank using Toray IM8 graphite. The rod is designed to handle 1 to 8 ounces and has a blank-through GFX trigger design reel seat with Hydrogrip foam. At 7.7 ounces, it has the right weight to fish all day.
As for the design, owner Matt Davis says, “We didn’t want the most expensive rod, nor the least. It had to be light and sensitive; anything that improved sensitivity was a focus for us.” A key item is the guide train. “Older guide inserts used to pop out easily and would wear when using braided line,” he says. “Those days are gone, and a rod can last a lifetime of bumping with decent silicon carbide guides. The silicon carbide adds sensitivity along with the blank-through handle.”
He received a call from an individual last month about bumping rod details. This person wanted a rod to use on smaller spillways. The one in mind had a jetty where an angler can stand on the bank and bump down the current. Another caller last year inquired about which rod would work to bump smaller tributaries like the Iowa and Raccoon rivers. Davis explained, “We built this rod for the traditional situation of a larger boat in a big river, but the technique is expanding quickly. Sales of our current rod help define the opportunity for more specific lengths and actions.” The bumping rod market is small, but a critical part of the growing catfish industry.
Catch the Fever
The reel seat sticks out in the Catch the Fever rod design. To increase sensitivity, the traditional cork or modern EVA grip was replaced by solid 3k carbon material. Cork and EVA both have some give so the solid touch points have a unique feel for these rods. Along with the standard trigger and exposed blank, a locking nut holds the reel in place for the long haul.
Kaleb Page worked with Jason Jackson of Two Rivers Guide Service to develop the action. “We worked with a supplier to dial in the rod build and action over multiple designs,” he says. “In the end, we added a carbon belt on the backbone of a sensitive blank for hook-sets and fighting strength.
“The tough part of this rod design is balancing all of the details. It’s easy to make a light rod for species such as walleye, bass, and panfish, but to adjust to the potential of landing a 100-pound trophy pushes rod design to the limits.” Like others, Page says that anglers used to handling rods with stainless-steel guides and bulletproof E-glass or S-glass construction aren’t accustomed to paying for carbon technology, as well as handling it in the boat around heavy sinkers and crowded rod lockers so, for now, expect a few additional ounces of weight in the rod design for longevity.
Tangling with Catfish
The development of bumping rods highlights more issues related to this presentation method. The Tangling with Catfish pro staff working on the bumping rod development varies from 6-foot 6-inch Jason Bridges to 5-foot 6-inch Dawn Gaston. Some anglers sit in a seat to bump, others stand. Absolutely all of them have a personal favorite action that differs from everyone else.
Tangling With Catfish owner Jerry Cline says, “The bumping market deserves four and maybe up to eight different rod designs, but the number of people bumping that require a specialized bumping rod is tiny.” Cline’s company will release its bumping rod later this year.
The interesting end to the bumping rod story is that muskie rods are rarely 7 feet long anymore. To cast farther and facilitate an effective figure-eight, muskie rods now are commonly 8 or even 9 feet long.
Pure Fishing rod manager Michael Welsh (who also handles the catfish rods for Berkley and Ugly Stik) recommends the Elite Tech Predator 7-foot 4-inch medium-heavy for bumping. With a weight of under 8 ounces, this rod competes well with other designs.
Alternatively, the World Class series has three heavy-power rods in the 7- to 8-foot range. After choosing a top-rated fiber, Fenwick also incorporated the 3M Powerlux resin system to further reduce weight while gaining strength in this lineup. If you prefer faster-action rods with more choice in rod lengths, these are great options to try.
John Jamison used line counters for walking baits to pinpoint the location of a strike downstream. At the time, the best line counters for big fish were the Shimano Tekotas. The Tekota 300LC weighs about 14 ounces and can hold 205 yards of 50-pound braid. Slightly larger, the Tekota 500LC and 600LC weigh a few ounces more and hold up to 350 yards of 65-pound braid. Tekotas have a well-earned reputation for strength and quality so there is no wonder that the presentation started here.
Another good traditional line counter is the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500LC. Similar in size to the standard Abu Garcia C3 catfish reel, the line-counter version shares many of the same details. At 11.3 ounces, it holds 450 yards of 50-pound braid. The smaller design is easily palmable and the push-button for disengaging the spool differs from the flip-lever design on other options. The new Ambassadeur S version has a digital counter. Anglers who ignore line counting look to the Revo Toro Beast series for higher drag values, larger capacity, and stronger gears than traditional bass-focused low-profile reel designs.
The Okuma Cold Water 350 low-profile line-counter reel was a first of its kind in 2016. Developed specifically for walleye and salmon anglers looking to save room in already-crowded rod boxes, the reel now fits well into the bumping scene. The thumb-bar spool release is probably the best feature, saving anglers from having to snap a lever back and forth all day. New for this year is the lower price Convector series with many of the same features. All editions have drags that reach 25 pounds or more, making them perfect for the catfish market.
Longtime line-counter stalwarts Daiwa also entered the low-profile line-counter market. Their original Sealine and Accudepth models cover the round design, and the new Lexa LC300 and LC400 versions fit in the palm of your hand. The 300-series reels start at 10 ounces and hold 280 yards of 40-pound braid, while the 400-series weigh a bit more and hold 200 yards of 60-pound braid. Similar non-line-counting Lexa-HD options have become popular for bumping as well due to the same 25-pound drag performance in a lightweight package.
Buying a Bumping System
Who really has time (and the money) to figure out which rod is for them? If the eight people on the Tangling With Catfish Bumping Rod Development team can’t decide on one action, and the original Jamison and King rods had two different flexes, how can you pick a rod off the shelf and know it will work for you?
First, many of these rods aren’t on a shelf. The bumping market is small so few stores stock such a specialty product. Also, like any rod, it needs to be tried on the water for an angler to make a good decision.
Starcraft Pro David Shipman from St. Joseph, Missouri, went about it his way, “Catfishermen are used to buying four or more rods at a time so that is what I did. I fished with four rods from four different companies throughout the year and ended up keeping my favorite.” While costly up front, opportunities now exist to demo rods while prefishing at major tournaments or to sell the rods that don’t work for you on eBay or at a tournament swap meet.
The Rod Shop had it right. Relying on word of mouth, hand-built quality, and a small payroll, it was profitable to support a lineup of four rods. Companies trying to compete these days seem limited to one design, but with more companies entering the larger market, anglers enjoy more choices than ever.
*David Harrison, Lawrence, Kansas, is a frequent contributor to Catfish In-Sider Guide and other In-Fisherman publications.