One of the more attractive aspects of catfishing is it's relative simplicity. Many elements of catfishing tradition are well grounded in the "keep it simple" philosophy. No worrying about what color of lure, what depth and speed to troll at, or any of that kind of stuff. While I'm no catfishing expert, I'm learning as much as I can. I enjoy catching fish of all sizes, although I've become more captivated by chasing the big ones lately (which is about anything over 10 pounds to me.)
Any discussion of what catfish gear to use is a personal matter, and likely to spark debate among anglers favoring one type of hook over another, etc. I like a few different combos, for different situations. Nothing too fancy - one of my fishing mantras has always been "If I can't buy it at "Wally World", I don't need it!" Of course, I do still order occasional items from places like Catfish Connection or Cabela's.
I use a few firmer rods (medium heavy) for flathead catfish, and a few softer (mediumn) rods for channel cats. My favorite ones are medium-medium heavy composite or graphite (IM-6 etc) rods about 7-7 1/2 foot long. I will use more flexible fiberglass rods at times though. To fish baits below floats, a long rod (8-11) feet works a little better. If you're fishing live baits near heavy cover, you'll want something with enough backbone to apply some real pressure on a fish. But, I still like a softer tip section - no pool cue rods! The heavier action also makes it easier to cast larger baits bait
I like the ease of spinning gear. They're handy for long casts and easy to use. Like many fisherman when it comes time to throw heavier live baits I prefer bait-casting gear. In fact, the more I've gotten used to bait-casting reels - the more I like 'em. I think they tend to be sturdier, and having the fish pull in a direct line with the spool may be better for handling bigger fish. I use a free-spool model, with a star drag. A few ball bearings improve smoothness and casting distance. The more expensive reels generally have a better drag. Speaking of drag, set it light enough to allow a fish to be able to pull drag. You can always tighten or thumb the spool, but once you're broken off you're out of business! Get a reel with a clicker if you like, but it's not an essential feature for me. If you're really attached to spinning gear, you can get bait-feeder spinning reels too. I love mine!!!
I mostly use "limp and castable" monofilament line - the stuff that's been around for years. Of course it is cheaper when you buy it in 1000 yard spools. I use mono line weights up to 25# test. Also, since mono has a little stretch built in, it allows a little more room for error fighting a fish. Besides mono, I occasionally use PowerPro braided line (80 lb test). It's great around heavy cover for flatheads, has no "memory", but can be a challenge to break off once you're hung-up in the inevitable snag. I generally use a mono leader to make that part easier...
You'll need some sinkers (I prefer the sliding types) and hooks. Some swivels, too. As far as hooks go, I use a few basic types. I'll use J, extra-wide, and occaisionally circle hooks. The size varies depending on the bait, and the hook type. You can hook a small bluegill on 4/0-5/0 Tru-Turn hooks, or a 1/0-2/0 extra-wide. The modified circle hooks are becoming ever popular; go with the lighter wire ones to allow easier penetration.
One final thing about fishing gear - use what's comfortable. I think you're most confident with the gear you have a comfort level with, and confidence is definitely a key to success.
OK; you're geared up and ready to head into battle some cats. But, you won't get too many fish without some bait. I like to spend more time fishing than collecting bait, so I keep things simple. Mostly, I catch small sunfish and bluegills (I use a spike worm below a tiny float on a #8 light wire hook) or get shiners from the bait shop. I like green sunfish and bluegill the best, as they appeal to channel catfish and flatheads. If shad are available, toss a cast-net and get some of those. Baits like shiners, shad, larger minnows, and suckers also make good cut bait for channel cats. You can keep 'em alive and cut them up later, or just keep them on ice. Fresh cut baits definitely stay on the hook better. If you're chasing channel cats, nightcrawlers and prepared dip/paste baits are also options. Many anglers use dip baits almost exclusively for summer channel catfish. Ultimately, you don't need to worry too much about bait types to use. Use an oily bait like shad, shiners, or suckers to make cut bait for channel cats. Or just use a quality dip bait. Nightcrawlers are effective at times, and readily available. Use healthy, active live baits when targeting flatheads. Flatheads are primarily attracted to the vibration and activity of the live baits...they don't rely upon scent nearly as much as channel catfish do.
Fish are fish, and whether they're shad, bluegills, or shiners water quality is a top priority to keep baits lively. In order to keep baitfish happy, give them fresh water with adequate levels of dissolved oxygen. Cooler water will generally absorb more oxygen, and some type of aeration will help. (So if you ever wondered why your baits went belly-up so fast on that hot day...not enough oxygen.) Other factors impacting oxygen levels include the surface area of your container (more surface=more air), and the levels of contaminants/ammonia in the water. As fish respirate, they remove the oxygen from the water; at the same time adding ammonia to the water through their waste. Once you catch or buy baits, you'll want to change their water within about 45 minutes. Once caught most fish quickly empty their waste adding nitrogen and particle matter to the water. Overcrowding along with rising water temperatures will also cause a rapid decline in the health of your baits. So keep your baits happy and provide them with good quality water.
If you're camping out, you can use "strainer buckets" and just soak baits right in the river. In a boat, I use an aerated cooler so I don't have to keep moving a strainer bucket in and out of the boat to keep baits fresh. (Plus, have you ever taken off with the bucket still in the water?) Depending on the number of baits, I use a 5 gallon bucket or 48 quart cooler (even better - keeps the water temperature more consistent) to hold baits. I use cool tap water treated with aquarium water conditioner to remove chlorine. River water works fine in the spring, but as summer goes on the river water gets too warm and "dirty" to use for extended periods. I use a 12 volt powered pump/spray bar set-up to keep the water oxygenated. This unit has a pump which forces water through a tube with holes/jets to spray back down on the surface.
The combination of circulation and spray increases the oxygen level of your water, which allows you to keep more baits healthy for a longer period. There are a number of commercial aerator units available, or you can buy a small bilge pump and easily make your own. Other options include traditional aerators which release air bubbles under the water. The rising bubbles help circulate the water, and also add oxygen. If you have aquarium gadgets lying around, powerheads work great if you need to keep baits fresh at home in between trips.
Even though I've fished for catfish intermittently for a long time, it's only more recently that I've started to become more confident about locating catfish. I've had the good fortune of getting a lot of good advice, hopefully it's starting to sink in. I won't get into too much "how-to" information, though. One key point - if you're not getting bites, try moving. I generally wouldn't sit more than 15-20 minutes with baits in the water before moving if I'm fishing for channel cats. On flathead catfish, you may need to wait a little longer but during the best times in mid-summer I generally move after 30 minutes if my live baits aren't seeing any flathead action...
Bait placement is essential
When you're fishing for catfish, especially flatheads, work for precise bait placement. In general, you're better off fishing less rods with your baits in a precise locations, than just fishing a bunch of rods. In addition to baits positioned close to cover, a bait off to the side or closer to the boat can pick-up an occasional roaming fish. If the bait can't be placed where you want it, use an easier to cast rod or anchor
closer! (for an example of what I mean, see the picture above - that's up close and personal.)
And, did I mention to move when you're not getting bit???
On larger streams, selecting appropriate spots will usually involve more boat travel. Take time to survey a wider area before choosing to stop and fish. You can look for sections where the current is different; the area where the river narrows and gets a little swifter is often a good spot. And of course, wood cover is a prime area to target in the summer. Especially, wood in areas with more current or when snags are in or close to deeper water. A big old snag with moss growing on it and current up against the face is a beautiful thing indeed.
Zen and the art of catfishing
It's important to stay focused. Don't experiment with too many things at once. And when things go wrong, take it in stride. On a recent outing, I had a motor issue and since it occurred near a spot I was considering checking out anyhow I decided to give it a try. First bait out yielded a 30" flathead. Also, I think a lot of times guys fish for flatheads with some live baits with no action and get easily bored. After a slow afternoon, it's easy to switch baits just to get some quick bites. However, if you're targeting big fish it's best to resign yourself to the fact you might not catch fish. If you stay focused and stick with your game plan, you'll learn more and eventually see the rewards. Even if you're learning where the fish aren't, at least you can eliminate spots. Big fish eventually have to eat! And if your bait is in the right place when they do, it will pay off.
Hooking up with a catfish can be tricky at times. When the fish grabs your bait and heads south in a hurry, it's hard to go wrong. But, when fish are tentative, it's another thing altogether. It's good to try and allow the cat to move off a little bit against steady light tension before setting the hook; especially in the case of flatheads. If you hold the rod at a 45-50 degree position, unlock the spool and wait for the fish to move away. But, don't give them slack line. If the fish starts to move, let him take a foot or so then click in the reel and tighten the line, and give em heck! There are many different ways the fish can bite, so you'll just have to use your intuitiveness. If the fish is more aggressive, you usually can act quicker. Sometimes, I don't even take the rod out of the holder on an agressive bite. Just start cranking, similar to the guys who are using circle hooks. One last suggestion, if you're in a boat watching your rods, try not using a clicker. I think the clicker has caused me to miss more fish.
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