Transition Blue Catfish in Rivers
June 04, 2014
Don Wirth: Let's talk about the period from early April through early June, when a great many anglers nationwide will be chasing blue catfish in rivers. In the southeastern rivers where you guys guide, what's going on with blues in the initial part of this time line?
Phil King: The water in the Tennessee River where I fish usually is between 65°F and 70°F by the first of April. Blue cats will be in a prespawn mode and will be feeding heavily, trying to pack on as much body fat as possible while their eggs are nearing maturity.
In March, I find many blues in the lower and middle sections of the river, relating to humps that rise out of 60 to 70 feet of water to around 40 feet on top. But once the water starts warming to around 65°F, I notice a major movement toward the upstream dam. How fast and how far the blues move depends on the frequency and intensity of the current flow.
Somewhere between 65°F and 75°F, large numbers of blues will be by the dam. I'm fairly certain that most of these fish still are in a prespawn mode.
Don Wirth: How do you go about catching these fish?
Phil King: Three methods work, depending on current flow. With little generation, I target slackwater areas behind current breaks and anchor with cutbait or use my trolling motor to present a combination of livebait and cutbaits directly beneath the boat, about 2 to 6 feet off bottom. When current is substantial, drifting usually works better. I drift downstream, using multiple rods to present baits off bottom.
Don Wirth: Jim, how does the blue cat spawn shape up in the Cumberland River system?
Jim Moyer: Cumberland River blues go through pretty much the same scenario, although the timetable may shift a week or two later because the water I'm fishing is north of Phil's water, so it's generally a little colder in early April. The important factor to note is that regardless of where you live, prime spawning temperature for blues is 73°F.
On the Cumberland, this usually corresponds with Memorial Day weekend. By then, many blue cats have traveled to the upstream dam, but once there, they turn around and head back downstream because there's no good place for them to spawn directly below the dam. The bottom of the tailrace has been scoured down to bedrock by decades of current generation.
Blues can tolerate some current when spawning, but tailrace current is typically too intense for nesting. Plus, they need some cover, especially wood cover, when spawning, and any wood present directly below a dam usually doesn't stay there long before heavy current sends it downstream.
Don Wirth: So where do blue cats spawn?
Phil King: Most blues in the Tennessee River spawn deep, say 15 to 20 feet. I get this information from grapplers (hand fishermen) who dive down on steep rock banks and see blues nesting in crevices and holes. Personally, I've had little experience catching spawning blues. When on beds, they're reluctant to bite, so I don't target them.
As most serious catfishermen know, though, not all fish are on beds at the same time. When the water temperature is in the low 70°F range, some blues will be getting ready to spawn, some will be spawning, others will have finished spawning. The fish I'm gunning for are either in prespawn or postspawn; these fish are far easier to catch than spawning fish.
Jim Moyer: In the Cumberland, blues spawn 5 to 15 feet deep in a slack-water area or any place with a slight current flow. Often a great many spawning fish are around the first major bend of the river below the dam. On the Cumberland, this generally occurs within a mile to a mile and a half downriver. Here, blues gather in slow-moving eddies, in slack water below gravel bars, and in other areas with slow or no flow.
Cover in the form of stumps, sunken trees, or large rocks is a major part of the spawning equation, because it forms a current break that creates a favorable nesting area immediately downstream. Wing dams, bridge abutments, and other manmade structures also provide current breaks for spawning, if they're in the right depth zone.
Don Wirth: Jim, have you had luck catching spawners in the Cumberland?
Jim Moyer: Spawn time is a lot better time to play the numbers game than to catch a trophy. Males move into spawning areas first, sometimes when the water is as cool as 68°F. They look for a gravel or clay bottom suitable for nesting, then fan the silt away with their tails. These fish will bite any livebait that presents itself as an egg predator. I've caught them on leeches, salamanders, small bluegills, and shiners fished beneath corks or jugs.
Sometimes 50 bedding males can be caught in a single morning; most will be from around a pound to 4 pounds. The females come in at temperatures right around 73°F, but they don't stay on beds long. They hit it and quit it, leaving the males to guard the fertilized eggs and fry. So from a time consideration alone, you're lucky to encounter a spawning female on any given bed. Incidentally, I've talked with biologists who believe females may deposit eggs on several nests, not just one.
Don Wirth: Obviously you guys and our readers are far more interested in catching jumbo blues than eating-sized fish. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that your best shot at a monster fish would be in the prespawn period, when the big females are even heavier with rolls of body fat and thousands of ripening eggs. Where do you look for these trophy-class blues?
Phil King: No question that prespawn, specifically the 65°F to 70°F water temperature range, is a great time to rack up some of the biggest blues of the year. I find that big females move upstream at this time, often running the deepest part of the river channel. In a normal spring when current flow remains moderate, they travel mainly at night, then spend the day holding around cover such as rockpiles, trees, and stumps. But the Southeast is a region where heavy spring rains can cause rivers to reach flood stage, and when the river is cresting and current is intense, blues travel upstream 24 hours a day and may take interesting side trips along the way.
Don Wirth: Such as?
Phil King: Blues stay deep much of the time, but during spring floods, many blues leave the river channel and travel upriver into flooded tributaries, especially one that has left its banks and inundated surrounding fields. I've caught big blues in a couple feet of water by running trotlines across these flooded fields. Many of these fish were gorged to the max on earthworms; some on soybeans or corn.
Jim Moyer: Channel ledges are my bread-and-butter structures now. In the Cumberland, prespawn females move upriver via the main channel, usually along sloping ledges between 30 and 40 feet deep. Anchoring on these structures and fanning out cutbait on the bottom, taking care to cover the 15- to 40-foot zone, is my most consistent prespawn strategy. I use fresh-cut skipjack exclusively for bait.
Don Wirth: Any other specific prespawn spots to target for big blues?
Jim Moyer: Inside channel bends, and also the downriver ends of points, bridge abutments, and big logjams hold fish. Drop your bait downstream from any significant current breaks you pinpoint on your graph.
Don Wirth: Let's talk specifically about postspawn. How do your location and presentation tactics differ from prespawn?
Phil King: A lot of catmen in my area like to fish around the dam until well into June because it's a time to catch lots of fish. A fresh hatch of shad and skipjack are in this area, and smaller cats appear in large numbers to gorge on these immature baitfish. But I've always had more luck at this time catching big cats 10 to 30 miles from the dam. I think the biggest females leave the nest soon after spawning and move back downriver. This is a time to cover a lot of water efficiently, and drift-fishing is my favorite method now.
Jim Moyer: Postspawn also is a good time to try night fishing. Big blues run those long, sloping ledges after dark. Anchor on a channel bend or near a logjam or sunken tree in the 20- to 40-foot zone to intercept big females heading downstream.
Don Wirth: Any parting thoughts?
Phil King: Be prepared to cover a lot of water. Prespawn and postspawn blues may be spread out over a wide area.
Jim Moyer: Handle those prespawn females with care, and release the big ones to replenish the resource.
Joining Lines with Different Diameters
Among a host of alternatives, two knots best known to surf casters, the Albright knot and the shock-leader knot, both provide strong connections between mainline and leader. The common scenario in saltwater involves a lighter mainline tethered to a heavy monofilament shock leader. While some catfishing situations call for a similar set-up, other instances may necessitate a thinner superbraid leader. Both of these knots work well in either case. The shock-leader knot is the easiest to tie, while the Albright may offer a slightly higher break strength.
1. Form a loop in the leader and run the mainline through the loop, parallel to the leader, giving yourself 10 inches of extra line to work with.
2. Wrap the mainline back around itself and the leader.
3. Wrap 10 turns of the mainline over the other three strands and run back through the loop.
4. Pull the tag end of the mainline tight, then pull the standing end of the mainline tight.
5. Pull standing lines of mainline and leader and cinch tight.
6. Trim close to knot.
Joining Lines of Nearly Equal Diameter
Yet another variation of the uni-knot system, the double uni-knot, connects two lines of similar or equal diameter. This knot tests at around 90 percent break strength and is one of the strongest, most reliable connections between two lines of similar diameter.
1. Place two lines together, ends running in opposite directions. Form a loop in one line.
2. Wrap the end 5 or 6 times around both lines, through the loop.
3. Tighten by pulling on the tag end.
4. Repeat the process using the second tag end.
5. Finish the knot by moistening the lines between knots, sliding both knots together, and snugging in place.
Superline to Hooks and Swivels
Line manufacturers agree that the Palomar knot is one top option for tying braided and fused superlines. Slipping the hook through a loop locks the knot in place, preventing line slippage. This knot also works with fluorocarbon lines. Moisten the line before gradually cinching knots tight.
1. Double approximately 4 inches of line and slide the loop through the eye.
2. Tie an overhand knot in the doubled standing line.
3. Slip the hook through the loop.
4. Moisten and pull both ends of the line to snug the knot in place.
This is similar to the double uni-knot, except you form just one uni'‘knot connection in the mainline, wrapped around the leader.
1. Form an overhand knot in the leader, pass the mainline through the knot, then form a 6-turn uni-knot atop the leader.
2. Snug down the overhand knot, then tighten the uni-knot against the overhand leader knot.
Forming Leader Loops for Trotlines, Juglines, and Limblines
In building rigs, catfish setliners (also rod and reel anglers) commonly employ loops at the ends of their leaders for convenience. Although the Bimini twist is a great knot for heavy duty applications, the spider hitch does big fish nearly as well, and it's much easier to tie. In a pinch, the surgeon's end loop also forms a reliable loop connection point.
1. Double the line, forming a 10- to 12-inch loop. Form a small loop in the doubled line near the base of the large loop. Pinch the small loop between your thumb and index finger.
2. Wrap the large loop around the base of the small loop 3 times.
3. Hold the tag end and the mainline secure while you pull on the large loop until snug. Clip the tag end.
Surgeon's End Loop
Surgeon's End Loop
1. Double the end of the line to form a loop. Make an overhand knot in the doubled line, tied to the desired loop size.
2. Pass the doubled line back through the loop, forming a second overhand loop.
3. Pull the doubled line and standing line in opposite directions to tighten.
Monofilament to Hooks and Swivels
The Trilene knot provides a reliable connection that tests at about 95 percent break strength. Although this knot works best with monofilament, threading the tag end back through the large loop also secures superlines.
1. Run the line end through the eye, reinsert the line back through the eye, forming a double loop.
2. Wrap the tag end around the standing line 5 to 6 times.
3. Pass the tag end through the double loop at the eye.
4. Moisten the knot, hold the tag end firm, and draw the mainline tight.
The Uni-Knot: One Fine Alternative
The uni-knot is a knot system, encompassing several variations, all of which secure different portions of your rigging. The basic uni-knot remains an excellent option for tethering mono or superline to terminal tackle.
1. Insert the tag end through the eye. Double the line and form a loop with the tag end toward the hook eye.
2. Wrap the tag end around the doubled line through the loop 6 times for light monofilament, 3 to 5 times for heavy mono, and 3 times for superlines.
3a. Grip the tag end, pulling slowly to draw the knot up semi-tight. Moisten the line, pulling gradually on the mainline to snug the knot tight against the eye.
3b. To leave a loop, grip the tag end firmly with pliers, tightening the knot down in place. This option works well with straight-eye circle hooks.
Hooks with Upturned Eyes
Snelling hooks that have upturned eyes keep hookset pressure straight in line, while providing an exceedingly strong connection. The uni-snell knot works just like the standard uni-knot, except the tag end is wrapped around the shank of the hook, as well as the doubled line. The uni-snell works well with all line types.
1. Thread the line through the hook eye, pulling through at least 6 inches. Form a loop and hold it tight against the hook shank with your thumb and finger.
2. Make 4 or 5 turns around the shank and through the circle.
3. Pull on the tag end to draw the knot almost closed, and moisten. Finish by holding the standing line in one hand, the hook in the other, and pulling in opposite directions.