Accurate slow-speed control and precise bait presentation make slow trolling a fast way to catch catfish.
The days of drifting aimlessly and allowing the vagaries of wind and current to control boat speed and direction are history for anglers serious about catching catfish. Slow trolling--aka controlled drifting, or "dragging"--for channel and blue catfish is now the norm. Call it whatever you want, because its terminology is secondary to its technique: use a trolling motor and maybe a drift sock to move the boat with, against, or across the wind at very slow speed to present baits in specific locations in a lake or reservoir.
"Slow" is the operative word. Maximum forward speed rarely exceeds 1.5 miles an hour. Optimum speed varies with the mood and activity of the fish, which is tied to seasonal variations in water temperature. Catfish in cool, early season water are often lethargic and reluctant to chase baits moving faster than .2 to .5 mph. Catfish in late summer, energized by 80-degree water temperatures, are more inclined to pursue baits moving above 1.0 mph. But the starting point and often the sweet spot for most slow trolling catfish hunters is .5 to .7 mph.
"The fish tell me how fast to run," says Matt Davis, owner of Whisker Seeker Tackle. "During the hottest months they'll sometimes bite better if I'm above 1 mile an hour, occasionally up to 1.5. When it cools down in the fall I'll slow down to .5. Year in and year out, .7 mile an hour seems to be the sweet spot. To make it really work, the one thing you need beside a trolling motor is some sort of accurate speedometer. Anything less than 1 mile an hour seems impossibly slow the first time you try it, but sticking with that slow speed is absolutely critical to make slow trolling work."
Most GPS-linked sonar units offer speedometers accurate enough to report fractional miles per hour. Many anglers unknowingly have the same accuracy in their pockets. Smartphone apps use the phone's GPS system to accurately calculate speed. Anglers can shop among online smartphone speedometer apps designed for joggers and walkers to download an app precise enough to report in fractions of a mile per hour.
Smartphone apps can also put low-tech slow-trollers on-par with professional anglers who have thousands of dollars invested in sophisticated on-board navigation and mapping technology. Davis uses LakeMaster maps in his Humminbird Onyx 10 sonar to identify, locate and troll over specific structure. He considers it a major advantage to be able to chart in real time the location of his boat in relation to underwater structure depicted on maps. Smart phone owners have similar technology in the palm of their hand if they download Navionics apps that allow them to "see" their boat's position on their smart phone in relation to topographic maps of a lake's bottom structure.
"Trolling motors and GPS (technology) just make fishing so much more productive," says Davis. "They allow you to be precise with your speed, and help you stay on the structure that holds fish. I use my iPilot to stay right on the edge of a submerged creek channel or dropoff. Or, if I'm catching fish in 8 feet of water on a particular day, I can push a button and my unit will highlight all the water in that lake that's at 8 feet. But you don't have to have all that super high-tech stuff. Simply using a trolling motor to stay over a dropoff you see on your sonar or paper map is way, way better than aimlessly drifting across a lake until you get a bite."
One of the challenges of slow trolling is maintaining the necessary slow speed despite wind, waves and currents. Most serious slow trollers have one or more drift socks on board and deploy them as needed to control their boat's forward progress. Jason Bridges, professional catfishing guide and champion tournament angler based on Wheeler Lake in Alabama, uses a combination of techniques to control his boat on windy days.
"Other guys cuss on windy days, but I say, let the wind blow," says Bridges. "I've got a couple 48-inch drift socks I can deploy, and I've been known on really windy days to overfill my 100 gallon livewell. The extra weight helps slow down the boat."
Drift socks come in a variety of sizes and designs, at a variety of prices. Some anglers dislike not only the price, but the clumsiness and mess associated with pulling a drift sock into the boat when it's time to move to another location. A number of catfish anglers have adopted a low-tech approach by using as drift socks 5-gallon buckets with holes drilled in their bottom. The number and size of the holes determines the amount of drag each bucket provides. The plastic buckets rinse easily and stack neatly for storage.
One area of debate among veteran slow trollers is which way to drift in strong winds and currents. Most anglers prefer to slow troll into the wind because it allows them better better boat and speed control. Davis says sometimes it's more productive to turn the boat around and go with the flow.
"There are time when I just can't get the fish to bite when I troll into the wind," he says. "But if I turn the boat around, put out a drift sock and use the trolling motor just enough to provide steering, they'll hammer my baits."
Jackie and Jonathan Cooksey, a father and son catfish tournament team from Corinth, Mississippi, agree and have a theory why drifting with the wind puts fish in the boat.
"We've got a 24-foot Sea Ark and use a 78-inch drift sock," says Jonathan. "In shallower water, less than 20 feet, strong winds and waves will create a current in a lake, and fish tend to face into any current. By running with the waves and that current, you're pulling the baits toward the fishes' heads, and we seem to get more bites that way. What gets tricky is in reservoirs on river systems, where the wind may be blowing one direction but the current down below the surface is running a different direction. Then you have to figure out what direction and what speed to run your boat for the current at the depth where the fish are that day."
As always, there are no absolutes in catfishing. Bridges says he sometimes goes against conventional wisdom and fishes against the wind or current so that his baits approach catfish from behind.
"It's always about controlling speed, but if I'm not getting bit trolling with the wind and I'm confident I'm over fish, nine times out of ten I'll get bites if I turn the boat around and go against the grain," says Bridges. "If the fish are facing into whatever current there is, I think I'm getting reaction strikes as the baits come up from behind them. Here on Wheeler (Lake), the current is generally from east to west, and if I'm not getting bit dragging (his term for slow trolling) with the current, I can generally turn the boat around, run into the current, and they'll wear me out landing fish. If they aren't biting when you slow troll a certain way, you've got to try something different and figure out what will trigger them."
Bridges rigs and slow trolls based on water conditions. On calm days when the water is flat he uses three-way rigs and fishes vertically under the boat. His main line is 40-pound-test Ande monofilament tied to a straight swivel. To the rear eye of that swivel he ties a 2- to 3-foot leader of 80-pound Ande mono, snelled to an Eagle Claw 2022 circle hook. He also ties to that rear swivel eye a 1- to 2- foot loop of 15-pound-test mono line that's tied to a 6- to 8-ounce bank sinker.
"That's a lot of weight," says Bridges, "but what I do is drop that rig straight down to the bottom, then lift it up a foot or two. If the blues are suspended I may run them a lot higher than that. That much weight keeps the rig vertical under the boat, even when I troll at .5 to .7 miles an hour. The leader trails out behind with a chunk of fresh cut bait. One thing I've learned when I'm vertical trolling is to keep my rods horizontal. You'll get more bites with the rods laid flat than if you've got the tips up in the air."
On windy days, when wave action would cause rigs presented vertically to "jig" excessively, Bridges switches to a Santee Cooper rig, rigged no shorter than 4 foot and usually longer, and "drags." He ties from the rig's swivel a 1- to 3-ounce bank sinker on a short, 15-pound-test monofilament dropper, and runs four rods across the back of his boat. One bait is at 400 feet behind the boat, one is at 250, another at 350 feet and a final bait at 225 feet to cover without tangling lines the greatest swath of water possible.
"On those windy days, a lot of time I'm crabbin' the boat," he says. "The drift sock is slowing me down from what the wind and waves want to push me, but I'm running the trolling motor at an angle to the wind to keep me on the dropoff or channel edge I want to fish. It's a trick to keep everything pointed in the right direction, but that's what it takes to catch fish."
In describing his rigging a few paragraphs earlier, Bridges casually mentioned that he snells his hooks. The Cookseys explain that HOW hooks are snelled can make difference.
"If the snell comes off the same side of the hook as the hook point, it increases the leverage when the circle hook rotates, improves the penetration and you get better hooksets," says Jonathan. "If the snell comes off the side of the hook away from the hook point, it changes the rotation if the hook hits a snag or brush, and reduces the chance of snagging. It also reduces the hookset if a fish takes it. If you're fishing in really snaggy water snelling that way may reduce your hook-up ratio, but you'll spend less time messing with snags."
While such attention to detail with how hooks are tied is a subtlety that influences fishing success, rod selection is critical for successful slow trolling.
"You want a rod with a soft tip so the fish won't feel resistance when they first pick up the moving bait," says Davis. "You want that rod tip to load up until the hook rotates and sets itself, then you want enough backbone to land however big of a fish you've caught."
Davis favors Whisker Seeker Tackle's 7-foot, 6-inch medium-heavy "Chad Ferguson" series rods. The Cooksey's use an array of 7-foot, 6-inch and 9-foot Abu Garcia medium-heavy Volatile-series rods out the back of their boat. Bridges uses Tangling With Catfish's medium-heavy 7-foot, 6-inch Extreme rods to ensure hooksets.
"I don't like a real soft tip like some of the guys," says Bridges. "But I'm a mono(filament) guy. You've got to factor in whether you're using braided line or mono line to match the rod's tip action. Us mono guys have the "give" of the line to help load up and set the hook, so we don't need such a soft rod tip. Guys that use braid need a softer rod tip because there's no give in their line."
Some final tips to improve slow trolling success:
Keep the baits off the bottom
Davis uses a special "catfish lure" he developed with a built-in float that keeps his fresh cutbaits a foot or more above the bottom. The Cookseys use "slinky" weights to hold their rigs down in snaggy conditions, and peg styrofoam floats or use Whisker Seeker catfish lures to cruise their cutbaits above the bottom. Bridges often pegs a cigar float 4 inches ahead of his fresh cutbait with either his 3-way or Santee Cooper rigs.
Noisy baits catch more catfish
Research has shown the lateral line of catfish is even more sensitive to vibration than that of largemouth and smallmouth bass.
"I don't care if it's a rattle added to the line, or a propeller that spins and thumps as the bait moves through the water, but a noisy bait will catch more catfish than a silent bait," says Davis. "When you think about it, catfish generally live in murky water, so it only makes sense that noise and vibration would be a big deal for them when they're looking for food."
Drift in the daylight
"I did that whole night fishing thing, and catfish definitely feed aggressively after dark," says Bridges. "But they're also scattered all over the place and you spend a lot of time looking for them. If you fish in the daytime they're more concentrated. In the spring they'll be looking for warmer water, so on sunny days they'll be on shallow flats in less than 25 feet of water. But when it's hot in August, in the middle of the day they'll be concentrated in the deepest water they can find. Dragging in specific locations during the daytime is the high-percentage way to catch catfish, as long as you know where and how to drag."