To thousands of fishermen, catfish have always been the “top dog,” so to speak. But lately, they’ve even become the favored quarry of a whole new population of anglers. Could it be the fact that the four North American cat species—channels, blues, flatheads and whites—are accessible to more anglers today than any other freshwater favorite? Or, perhaps it’s that the past decade has delivered no fewer than five world record blue cats—the third largest freshwater fish in North America.
According to Tanner Tabor, director of the Cabela’s King Kat tournament circuit, the popularity of catfish angling has reached a fever pitch, with competitors and spectators, alike, crowding river and reservoir venues across the country.
“It’s not just the size of the catfish that’s grown,” says Tabor, “It’s the number of anglers targeting these monsters. One big difference between bass and catfish tournaments is that spectators come to a bass tournament to see the anglers.
“At a catfish tournament the rock stars are the fish themselves, many of which are the size of an 8th grader. If Kevin VanDam held up a 70-pound catfish, the crowd wouldn’t even hear his name being announced because of everyone cheering for the fi sh.”
What’s also refreshing is that the focus has shifted toward preserving these amazing animals, which can easily grow to more than 100 pounds and live beyond three decades. “Many anglers and catfish groups,” he says, “work hard to protect the fish by practicing CPR (catch-photo-release).
“States like Alabama and Tennessee protect big fish by enforcing trophy regulations that limit anglers to keeping just one fish over 34 inches per day. These efforts ensure that more catfish will live longer and grow bigger, increasing the odds of even more world records in the future.”
Tabor believes that many fisheries today hold record-class fi sh. Major U.S. rivers—the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, the James in Virginia, as well as many others—host prodigious numbers of goliath blues and monster flatheads. And in numerous reservoirs, from California’s Diamond Valley Lake to Wilson, Wheeler and Pickwick reservoirs on the Tennessee River and Kerr Lake, Virginia (where the current 143- pound world-record blue was caught), catfish fishing has never been better.
Competing For Cats
Combine historic fishing, burgeoning catfish populations and a major uptick in the level of available fishing information and it’s no wonder that interest in fishing cats is peaking. The two major U.S. catfish tournament circuits— the Cabela’s King Kat and Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest—each visit popular venues across the Midwest, South and Midsouth. The King Kat season culminates each October with the King Kat Classic, while the Big Cat Quest National Championship occurs in September—a period when waters cool off and cats heat up.
Hundred-pound fish have been weighed at several competitions, most notably at the 2007 Big Cat Quest in Memphis, Tennessee. Catfishing legend Phil King and partners weighed a 103- pound blue, which King wrenched from behind a boulder in 49 feet of water. Although King’s team went on to crush the field with a massive 291 pounds of catfish, a second monster (108 pounds) was caught by Cary Winchester and Harold Dodd on the last day of the event.
Tackling Colossal Cats
Without suitable heavy-duty gear (rod, reel and line) to pry giant cats from their underwater lairs, there’s no conceivable way King could have landed his 103 during the tournament.
“If you attempt to boat a giant blue or flathead on traditional catfish tackle,” he says, “the fish will break your heart and crush your gear.” Even the masterful King failed to land twelve other giant fish that he simply could not budge before finally landing the blue cat he now calls his Lucky No. 13.
Today, a handful of manufacturers produce super-duty 7- to 9-foot graphite and E-glass rods capable of handling up to 20 ounces of lead weight and fish exceeding 100 pounds. King and fellow tournament champion John Jamison each rely on rods that are custom-made by Tom Knox, owner of The Rod Shop in Kansas City, Missouri. Other outfits, such as Catfish Connection and Rippin Lips, specialize in providing appropriately sized gear, including rods, reels, line, terminal tackle and more, to anglers who hunt trophy-class fi sh.
Tackle suppliers with more recognizable names are well in the mix, too. Berkley, for example, offers 7-, 8-, 9- and 10-foot Glowstik rods (both spinning and casting versions) made of heavy-duty E-glass that will manage up to 5 ounces of lure weight. Plus, the blanks glow-in-the-dark—a real benefit when chasing trophy cats at night.
Reels such as Abu Garcia’s Ambassadeur 7000 Big-Game and Shimano’s Tekota 600LC line-counter offer the linecapacity and high-strength gearing needed to subdue oversize catfish, and are standard equipment for precision presentations.
Most top tournament anglers also spool with 50- to 80-pound braided line, particularly Sufix 832, SpiderWire or Power Pro, because they’re abrasionresistant and stand up to the sheer power a double- or triple-digit catfish exhibits during a toe-to-fi n battle.
Sturdy rod holders are an absolute must! DriftMaster and Monster both offer heavy-duty models that can take the pressure when a heavy fish picks up the bait.
Finally, bring aboard a beefy net that can handle giant cats. Frabill’s Big Kahuna, Loki’s The Beast and Beckman’s Husky Musky landing nets Phil King has been guiding catfish anglers to big fish on Wilson, Wheeler and Pickwick lakes for 25 years. all feature oversize hoops and highcapacity bags.
Undoubtedly you have your own favorite brands when it comes to tackle and gear. Whatever you choose, just be sure it has enough backbone and/or capacity to subdue big cats. If you come to a knife-fight armed with a knitting needle, you will be sorry.
Skipjack Is King
While it’s easy to catch lots of small to average-size catfish on dipbaits or chunks of cutbait, such a strategy rarely results in attracting truly trophyclass fi sh. Obtaining prime trophy-cat bait, such as large, fresh skipjack herring, is critical for catching oversize fi sh. Jamison and other top anglers travel with a large freezer in their pickup beds, and stock them with bags of vacuum packed whole skipjack.
“Skipjack herring is the lifeblood of our success,” he says. “It’s a large extraoily baitfish that big blues absolutely devour. Without it, you’ll rarely be competitive in most tournaments. We work with friends who catch our bait prior to each event; they use Sabiki Rigs in the tailrace below dams where skipjack congregate, often catching two or three fish at a time.”
These baitfish can grow to 14 inches or better, and to prepare them, Jamison simply scrapes the scales from one side to allow the fish’s powerful juices to flow. Then he removes the fillet from that side. Standard rigging includes a 5/0 to 8/0 tournament-grade circle hook snelled on a 60-pound fluorocarbon leader about 24 inches long. A chain swivel is tied into the leader at its midpoint to allow the bait to spin in the current without twisting the line. The hook goes through the thick, meaty end of the fillet and is left exposed for a sure hook-set.
The leader is tied to one eye of a 5/0 3-way swivel, while the second eye holds a 1- to 3-foot dropper line of 30-pound mono. The dropper terminates with a snap to allow for quick sinker changes. “I can go from 3 ounces to 5 or 8 in a matter of seconds,” he says.
Finally, the 3-way’s third eye connects to a size 6 McMahon snap that’s tied to the terminal end of his 50- to 80-pound braided main line. If a large cat breaks the leader or a tough snag devours the dropper weight, Jamison simply unsnaps the ruined setup and replaces it with one of the many pre-tied rigs he carries in the boat.
Sometimes Jamison opts to simply use the baitfish’s head, or the entire body, minus the tail, of the herring. He pins the body to a tandem-hook rig that features two big circle hooks snelled four to eight inches apart. The lead hook goes through the baitfish’s lips while the second is passed through the lower body— again, they’re left exposed to facilitate a solid hookup.
As a final touch, Jamison applies Scent Trail, a powerful fish-oil based attractant he says strengthens the odor trail that washes downstream from the bait. With minor adjustments Jamison can use the same basic 3-way rig for reservoir trolling, bottom-walking a river or vertical “drop-shot” fishing.
Locate Untapped Fish
Bait and tackle notwithstanding, King and Jamison readily admit that no other tool has accelerated their learning curves more than side imaging coupled with GPS mapping technology.
“Side imaging is vital to our success in big-water tournaments,” says Jamison, who has won multiple national events and schooled countless catmen in precision catfishing. “Our Humminbird units find fish in spots that most other anglers just can’t see. Really, it opens up the entire river or reservoir system, rather than just the visible cover near the bank. We’re fishing untouched mid-river spots—channel breaks in 50 to 100 feet of water, sand dunes, unknown wood and rock piles. It’s amazing to think that just a few years ago, a ton of great spots couldn’t be properly fished because there was no reasonable way to find or identify them.”
“These huge cats have always used these deep structures,” King continues. “But lacking the sonar technology and detail to find these spots, such as the deep Mississippi River ledge that produced my 103-pound blue, we’d have probably never known about their existence, let alone possessed the confidence to fish them.”
King adds that if he zooms in close, he can often spot big fish lying inside dense cover, such as drowned trees. He further notes that with a Navionics or LakeMaster map chip, he can sit in his driveway, and punch in potential hotspots, which he investigates once on the water.
Precision In Practice
While sonar and GPS aren’t prerequisites to catching cats, top tournament anglers today wouldn’t think to operate without them. Jamison and King often spend hours during prefishing simply scanning long stretches of a river or reservoir. When side imaging shows a sizeable tree, rock pile or other cover, they simply slide the cursor over and punch in a waypoint.
In big rivers, such as the Ohio, each angler has won big by bottom-bumping a 3-way rig and skipjack fillet. The tactic, which Jamison also calls bait-walking, uses the current to move the rig naturally downstream into appealing catfish lairs. It also enables him to slide his bait beneath floating cover, such as an overhanging tree or moored barge. By combining a GPS waypoint with a line-counter reel, Jamison can walk his rig downstream, placing it precisely onto a key spot marked on-screen.
For example, while pointing the nose of his boat directly into current, he’ll use his trolling motor to hold the boat in place, or slip slowly downstream. This allows him to slowly “walk” the bait rig a set distance downstream to potential big-fish spots that he has previously marked. By monitoring both the GPS and line-counter reel, he can walk the bait precisely to the spot. Like flipping a jig to bass in a brush pile or trolling a crankbait on a downrigger, precision catfishing is radically effective, and in practice, easier to learn than most other advanced fishing tactics.
In reservoirs, similar ploys apply. Tournament anglers use a similar 3-way rig to place a bait at the specific level where blue and flathead cats suspend within submerged trees. They first note the depth of suspended fish on sonar, then position the boat directly overhead before dropping the rig over the side and lowering it to the exact depth using a line-counter levelwind reel.
On larger reservoir or river flats, many anglers cover large territories by drifting with the current or wind, or by using an electric motor to slowly troll baits .3 to 1 mph. Rod holders are key. When a cat takes the bait the rod doubles over under the pressure and buries the point of the self-setting circle hook. Presently, select anglers on Santee- Cooper Reservoir, South Carolina, are even utilizing planer boards to spread multiple lines over wider swaths of underwater real estate.
There will always be a time and place to set out a lawn chair, and prop a rod or two into a couple forked sticks along the bank. The roots of catfishing run deep and ring true. But today, a whole new level of catfishing fun awaits those anglers adventurous and competitive enough to hunt monsters.