"Big catfish take a lotta findin^ a lotta stickin" and a lotta tackle to hold them, South Carolina guide Joe Drose advises would-be catfish anglers.
"Little catfish are like little bass. You can catch them just about anywhere on any kind of bait and tackle, When it comes to catchin" the bigger ones (catfish that might go 30 pounds or more) you had better be in the right place. I don^t guide for largemouths, but those who do use their depthfinders to locate structure and bass. The smart catfisherman does the same.
"Most of the people who fish on my boat think all you have to do is to set the hook in a big catfish is to give the rod a jerk. Usually, all they do is take the slack out of the line and pull the bait out of the fish^s mouth. If they let me, I will set the hook for them. Sometimes I will walk the entire length of my boat to get the slack out of the line. Then I swing the rod with the largest arc possible. That swing will usually start at my backside and go over my shoulder to the gunnel of the other side of the boat unless it^s stopped by a big fish.
"And I don^t have a rod on my boat with less than 40-pound test line. Most of them are rigged with 50-pound test. If you hook into a fish over 60 or 70 pounds, you had better be ready for them."
If you think of catfishing as tossing a bottom rig baited with worms in a river or pond, propping up your rod and laying back against a tree sipping a beverage while waiting for something to happen, it is obvious Joe is talking about a different game. He^s talking about going for big catfish.
There are three species of catfish that reach tackle-busting size in the Southeast. They are channel, blue and flathead catfish.
The species most widely distributed is the channel catfish.
While the world record is a 51 pounder taken from Santee-Cooper in South Carolina, commercial trot liners have taken channel cats that exceeded 60 pounds.
Blue catfish, called Arkansas blues in some areas, are the next most widely distributed. The world record for 20-pound test line class is 60 pounds and was taken from Clark Hill Reservoir in Georgia. The all tackle record is 95 pounds. Commercial catches of blue cats that exceeded 100 pounds have been recorded.
Flathead catfish, called yellow catfish in some parts of the Southeast, are also widely distributed. The all tackle record, taken in Lake Lewisville, Texas, is 90 pounds 6 ounces. The world record for 12-pound line class is 40 pounds and came from Enid Reservoir in Mississippi. Commercial catches of flatheads have exceeded 100 pounds, also.
None of these big catfish are native to most of the Southeast. They are native to the Mississippi River drainage.
Channel catfish have been around the longest. Even some biologist think of them ad native to the Southeast because they have been introduced in all of the states where they were not native sometime back in the Nineteenth Century, when it was a common practice for fishermen to move fish from one body of water to another. Of course, these amateurs kept no record of the fish they relocated. Blue and flathead cats have been moved to the eastern states by fisheries biologists in the last 30 years.
Blue catfish, in particular, have responded well to the easy living in the eastern part of the Southeast. An 88-pound-5-ounce blue caught on a trot line recently was aged at only 10 or 12 years old by South Carolina fisheries biologist Milles White. That is a tremendous rate of growth.
Most anglers think of catfish as garbage eaters that will gobble up anything dead, laying on the bottom. That is true, but all three of the big catfish are also predators that will feed on any live fish they can catch.
This predacious characteristic of the big catfish adds some dimensions to the methods of fishing for them. Using live fish baits is a welcome relief from fishing dead or stink baits and under some situations using artificial lures is a reasonable way to go after them.
As Joe Drose says, big catfish take a lot of finding. One does not have to use electronic gear to find big catfish. Of course, one could use a horse and buggy to go to the super market rather than an automobile, too.
Using electronics is faster and easier. Whether one uses a flasher, a chart recorder or liquid crystal recorder is not important if the operator knows what he is looking at and looking for.
Reading a depthfinder is a skill that is acquired just like feeling the tap of a light hitting fish or playing a big fish on light tackle. You have to know your equipment and know how to use it.
I know some fishermen that set the sensitivity up so high on flasher depthfinders that they look like a fireworks display on the Fourth of July. However, they will pick fish and structure out of that mass of flashing lights like they had an underwater television camera. Others will have the sensitivity cut down to the minimum, and most anglers will have their setting somewhere in-between the extremes. The important thing is that you become familiar with your depthfinder and can interpret what it tells you.
Knowing what to look for is just as important as being able to read the depthfinder. In lakes, you want to look for holes, creek beds, rock formations, submerged logs and other structures that interrupt the flow of the water. You also want to look for a hard bottom because all of the big catfish prefer hard bottoms.
In rivers, look for holes, rock formations, and submerged log jams that slow the river flow.
If the environment was perfect, the big catfish prefer a subdued water flow. Channel cats will tolerate the fastest moving water. Blues are not quite so tolerant and flatheads prefer long, deep sluggish pools. Naturally, conditions are not always perfect. However, if you can find the water flow preferred by the species of catfish in the water you are fishing, you increase your chances.
Individual large catfish can be read on all types of depthfinders and most of the time they will show just off the bottom. A flasher will show a thin line just barely separated from the bottom reading for a second or two when the boat is moving. Charts and LCRs will display straight lines of inverted V^s just off the bottom.
Don^t start fishing when you read a single fish, but if you read three or four fish within a 50 yard circle you could be in the right area.
Sometimes big striped bass will give the same reading as big catfish, particularly in late summer. However, the stripers have a tendency to hang close to s edge or other structure while catfish will more than likely be scattered some distance from the edge of structure.
An angler can save himself a lot of boat riding and depthfinder watching if he spends a half an hour or so studying a topo map, particularly when fishing new water. Also, try to get any fishing information that is available. Blind searching with electronic equipment can eat up a lot of fishing time.
I would not say that some veteran fishermen who knows the bottom of a river or lake from years of experience can not catch as many or more catfish than anglers using modern equipment as long as they stay in familiar territory. However, the angler who takes on a strange body of water without electronic aids is bucking some long odds.
When Joe Drose says big catfish take a lot of setting, he means just that. When he sets a hook, he looks like a man trying to split a seasoned oak stump with one mighty swing of an ax.
When he has a pickup of a bait, he takes the rod and points it at the fish. Then he turns his back on the fish and walks as far as he can while taking up the slack. When he feels the fish, he begins his over the shoulder swing much like a surf caster trying to reach the other side of the ocean. It^s a wonder he doesn^t stretch the necks of the fish he sets the hook on.
Joe believes he has the perfect tackle for handling big catfish. He uses nine-foot bait casting rods that are thick in the butt, but taper down quickly towards the tip end. The graphite rods don^t come close to having a buggy-whip action, but are limber enough that the rod does a lot of the fish fighting.
Like the old saying, a watched pot never boils, Joe believes a held rod never catches catfish. He fans his rods out around the boat and places them in holders with the reels set on click drag.
When the click announces a catfish is mouthing the bait, Joe has his fisherman wait several seconds before they grab the rod and set the hook.
When fishing from a boat for big catfish in reservoirs, it is usually better to drift when conditions are right. Wind is the main factor in the conditions being right. A light breeze that pushes the boat slowly over the area to be fished is ideal. No breeze or too much wind will make anchoring necessary.
When fishing rivers it is usually more productive to fish from an anchored boat because the current will move the boat too fast and the fish are more likely to be concentrated in smaller areas.
Whether one fishes reservoirs or rivers will dictate the most effective terminal rig for big catfish.
For reservoirs or lakes, place a sliding sinker on your line. Usually, one ounce will be enough. Tie a two-way swivel on the end of the line and then add 18 inches of 60-pound test leader. Tie a heavy 5/0 or 6/0 steel hook to the leader.
For river fishing, tie a three-way swivel to the end of your line. To one of the eyes, tie one foot of 20-pound test line and tie a bank sinker on the end of the line. The weight of the sinker will depend on what is needed to insure the sinker holds bottom. The sinker line that is lighter than the line on your reel will allow you to break off sinkers wedged in rocks and at least save part of your rig. Tie 18 inches of 60-pound leader to the other eye and add a 5/0 or 6/0 hook.
The last but perhaps the most important consideration is the choice of bait. The best bet is to select a bait that the catfish normally feed on in their natural habitat. It can be thread fin shad, bream, crappie, sunfish, or anything else that they can catch.
Your best bet is to catch with hook and line or nets their natural live baits and fish them live. In the event, you are not equipped to keep bait alive, the next choice would be to use the dead fish, either whole or cut into good size chunks. The third choice would be shiner minnows, which are available in most bait stores in the Southeast. Use the largest ones you can buy.
For those anglers who don^t think they are fishing unless they are using artificial lures, it is possible to catch big catfish, particularly blue and channel cats on jigging spoons and jigs with some consistency in late summer and fall. Both of these species follow the schools of stripers and/or white bass that are chasing schools of shad. They will feast on the stunned or injured fish and can be caught near the bottom on the artificials. Of course, you are going to catch the stripers and white bass, also.
Big catfish are plentiful throughout the Southeast. Until recent years, they were left to the commercial fishermen because the tasty flesh had market value. Now sports anglers are realizing they can have a tackle straining experience and fill their freezer with one or two fish.