Trolling Channel Catfish For Trophies
September 25, 2016
You have to wonder if there's something in the water. Perhaps the fertile prairie farmland? Or could it be healthy Midwest living that cultivates corn and channel catfish of corpulent proportions? Whatever the case, a handful of lakes and reservoirs have lately been coughing up 20s and even 30-pound channel catfish with regularity. Moreover, new techniques, in some cases adopted from the pursuit of other species, have proven highly efficient at putting cats in the boat. For the fourth year in a row, the Cabela's King Kat circuit will visit Calamus Reservoir near Burwell, Nebraska. During each of the first three events, all held during August, this 5,123-acre impoundment produced catfish from 20 to 33 pounds.
At the 2012 event, Josh Koll and Matt Helm weighed five fish for 118.75 pounds, nearly a 24-pound average. Last August, Darrin Meseke and Arian Miller won the tournament with 128.4 pounds, including a 33.45-pound whale.
At Calamus and other reservoirs across the Great Plains — from Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska into Iowa, Kansas, and beyond — the water nearly boils with massive populations of gizzard shad. Ironically, the radical fluctuations in water level recharge these reservoirs when heavy rains arrive. New vegetation that sprouts on exposed slopes provides sanctuary for baitfish and spurs invertebrate growth when water eventually inundates it.
Everything trickles down from there, benefiting fish of all species and sizes. Yet the current climate at places like Calamus is drought-like, with low water levels and crops thirsty for moisture. When the year's hottest weather arrives in July and August, successful anglers head toward the center and lower reaches of these shallow impoundments, drifting and trolling with unusual catfish rigs.
John Jamison, perhaps the most traveled catman in America, visited Calamus last August, and found that the key to catching fish was to drift in areas lacking brush and timber, in 20 to 30 feet of water. This proved slightly more difficult than it sounds, as much of the upper and lower ends of the reservoir harbor dense standing timber.
Recalling strategies he'd found successful on forested reservoirs in Arkansas, Jamison began running broad swaths of the Nebraska impoundment with Humminbird side-imaging. His objective was to locate 100-yard or longer trolling paths where the bottom was clean and free of snags. At the same time, he tried to stay as close as possible to the river channel, which often dropped into 28 or 29 feet of water.
On one reservoir that held blue cats, Jamison ultimately keyed on submerged farm fields, which afforded clean trolling runs with three-way rigs and cutbait. These areas had ultimately produced numerous 30- to 70-pound blues.
Meseke and Miller, who won last year's Calamus event by a landslide, had spent eight years dissecting the reservoir, dropping waypoints at key spots to create clean drifting routes. The day of the 2013 tournament, the team caught nearly 30 fish and sorted through many 20-pounders, fishing a series of subtle humps in 19 to 20 feet near the main river channel. Meseke noted that the first year they fished Calamus, they lost nearly 30 rigs to snags, but during the 2013 tournament, never snagged once. "We had all four rods doubled over at once so many times we lost count," he says.
Meanwhile on Saylorville and Coralville reservoirs in Iowa, tournament angler Troy Hansen zones his trolling passes on old river and creek channels, as well as steep ledges and minor humps nearby. "Big channel catfish love sharp slopes," Hansen says. "You might not catch tons of fish on these sharp ledges leading into the channel, but you catch big ones there.
"I also look for hairpin turns in the river channel. With a partner, I pull up to six lines across the area — off the flat, into the channel, then back onto the flat. I run this pattern until I hit fish. I drag rigs down the ledges, then turn around and drag them back up.
"I take the same approach with humps. I like spots that have a few humps in a row, where I can drag baits up them all. Or if there's an extensive flat with one or two humps on it, those are prime spots for monster cats, too."
Elsewhere, on natural lakes, such as Mendota in Wisconsin, and others in the Midwest, 10- to 30-foot flats remain fertile ground for trolling and drifting. On Mendota, a hot channel cat fishery near Madison, anglers work deep weedlines in summer instead of the shallow flats or river channels targeted by anglers in reservoirs. On many of these waters, successful trolling and drifting tactics have been borrowed from walleye anglers who complain about hooking whiskerfish.
Rise of the Attractor Rig
Matt Davis, owner of Whisker Seeker Tackle, credits walleye tournament anglers for development of trolling rigs for catfish. "Fifteen years ago, some walleye anglers came to me complaining about all the big channel catfish they were catching on various trolling rigs — nightcrawler harnesses, spinner rigs, and floater rigs.
There's nothing folks fishing a walleye tourney hate more than catching catfish, and they were upset about it. As a lifelong catman, it touched off lightbulbs in my head and got me thinking about developing a line of trolling/drifting rigs for cats."
Interestingly — and most seasoned catfish trollers/drifters know this — it's usually not the sinker that becomes snagged, but rather the hook or rig that catches branches. Without some form of float on the leader, most trolling rigs sag and plow bottom, even when moved along at 1 to 2 mph. Longer leaders drag even more.
"With our Whisker Seeker rigs we wanted to achieve elevation and snag resistance," Davis says. "I learned long ago that if I added a buoyant float to the leader, not only did I significantly reduce snags by getting the rig off bottom, but my catch rates also improved."
When he added a cylindrical float several inches above the hook, however, Davis found that catfish often bit the float and missed the hook. At this point he developed the first Whisker Seeker "lure," a compact bait-delivery system with the float, attractor blades, and hook in a single package.
Tie the Whisker Seeker Catfish Lure to the end of the line, with whatever sinker array you have. "When we began using the new lures, our catches improved dramatically, and we hooked most of our bites by bringing the float close to the hook and bait."
Included in Davis' current designs are additional features, such as propellers, blades, beads, and a quick-change clip system for replacing hooks. Adorned with a 2-inch highly buoyant float and a three-blade prop, PP-Seeker Catfish Lures work well for active summer catfish at speeds from .5 to 1.25 mph. MP-Seeker Catfish Lures have a larger 2.5-inch float body and a polished metal prop. Lures also feature a 5/0 (PP) or 6/0 (MP) WST Offset Octo-Circle hook and a Fast Clip for changing hooks.
Davis also offers three Catfish Float Rigs, each with 65-pound-test stranded nylon coated wire. Variations include a rig with rattling beads, and a stinger rig with two 6/0 or 8/0 hooks in tandem, for use with larger baits or two individual pieces of bait. His favorite combo for big channels is to impale two shad heads, each on a separate circle hook.
It's safe to say that most top channel cat drifters these days employ some sort of attractor — floats, spinners, beads, blades, or rattles — in their rigging. At Calamus, Meseke relied on hand-tied float rigs for his tournament win, coupled with large chunks of cut gizzard shad. He used a 3-foot leader with a cylindrical foam float and an 8/0 circle hook to tag loads of jumbo cats.
Also a top-flight channel catman and tournament angler, Hansen employs Whisker Seeker rigs while fishing Coralville and Saylorville reservoirs in Iowa. "MP-Seekers give off a bit of noise and have a blade that produces turbulence," he says. "The rigs are durable, too. Even after big cats crush 'em and twist 'em, they're as good as new."
Hansen adds that similar to targeting big blue cats, he prefers big baits for outsize channels. "My favorite setup for big channels is a whole 8-inch gizzard shad, impaled onto a double-hook rig, one in the lips and another in the back." Hansen often chooses a 6/0 circle hook and an 8/0 for the "stinger." He runs a 12- to 24-inch leader of 50-pound-test or heavier mono (with a 40- to 80-pound braid mainline), choosing longer float rig leaders when he wants baits to ride higher. A three-way swivel connects to a 6- to 8-inch section of lighter mono and a 1.5- to 2-ounce homemade slinky-style sinker, made from lead shot inserted into parachute cord.
"Slinkies run over rocks and snags better than any other design I've used. If I do snag, the lighter mono breaks and I keep the rest of the rig." He adds that fresh bait is best. "I don't use anything older than a day, whether it's chub, sucker, or gizzard shad. With an 8-inch shad, I remove the tail and cut three slits on each side to get the juices flowing. I've caught my biggest channels with this setup."
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Like master trollers, such as Santee-Cooper's Captain Marlin Ormseth and tournament ace John Jamison, Hansen pays strict attention to his Humminbird electronics. He employs LakeMaster digital maps, holding precise depth contours and structures with his trolling motor. His Minn Kota's AutoPilot keeps him on track, regardless of wind or waves. In bigger blows, he hangs a large driftsock off the stern, secured with ropes in both corners of the transom.
In normal conditions, he prefers to move at .5 mph. Yet when prevailing wind creates current in one direction down the reservoir, Hansen has noticed that he can troll with the wind and current up to 1.2 to 1.5 mph and get bites. On the other hand, moving that fast in calm conditions or into the wind or current usually won't produce nearly as well as typical speeds of .4 to .6 mph. "I've also noticed that when fish are finicky, a minor adjustment from say .5 to .6 mph can be all it takes to trigger bites. I believe channel catfish often follow baits, but won't strike until we hit a certain key speed."
Meseke notes that during his win on Calamus Reservoir, many anglers struggled in big prairie winds because they failed to slow their speed sufficiently. "We ran four driftsocks," he reports. "It was critical in those gusty winds to slow our drifts to .8 to 1.2 mph. Every time we caught a fish, we'd enter a waypoint, and we kept drifting back through these areas until we had them dialed in."
Borrowing another tactic from walleye fishers frustrated by catfish catches, Hansen started using planer boards several years ago. "We use Water Bugz boards. They're inexpensive and rather small yet they stay buoyant and run true with a big bait and at least 2 ounces of weight." As in other applications, planer boards expand horizontal coverage, blanketing wide swaths of real estate with multiple rigs and baits on a single trolling pass. Rigged with circle hooks, cats usually hook themselves on boards, although it's still a good idea to give the rod a powerful sweep forward once the rod loads with weight.
For most trolling or drifting approaches, anglers choose a 7-foot 6-inch or longer casting rod and reel loaded with 20- to 80-pound braid (some anglers prefer mono with circle hooks). A few among a growing list of fine affordable rods include the Rippin Lips medium-heavy SuperCat and the 8-foot medium-heavy Shakespeare Ugly Stik Catfish Rod. Line-counter reels, such as the Shimano Tekota, are standard equipment and provide precision and repeatability with line length.
The Great Plains and midwestern fisheries mentioned above represent some of the finest trophy channel cat fisheries on the planet. Perhaps never before have so many awesome opportunities been available to catfishers, including exciting new and active methods to catch them. As we travel to these catfish crown jewels, take a moment to consider the Red River of the North, and the reason it continues to produce channel catfish of mammoth proportions. Almost nowhere else do special regulations limit harvest of trophy channel catfish. But without angler restraint and selective harvest, these relatively small waters won't continue producing numbers of 20-pound fish, let alone 30s if anglers carry out sacks of 15s. If we can swallow our pride and follow the tackle and tactics of walleye anglers, we can do the same with catch and release — letting bigger fish swim — and continue to enjoy incredible fishing for channel catfish.