The goal of every catfisherman is to land that one giant trophy. That fish thatís so big you carry a picture of it in your wallet to show everyone. After showing pictures of the kids of course.
When first starting out it can be quite challenging. There are a million questions you want answered to ensure your success. With a few simple tips, time on the water, and a bit of patience you can land that fish of a lifetime.
The first order of business is your tackle. You have to be prepared for that fish to take your bait and head for cover. No one wants to think back about that one that got away.
Rod: Your rod must be powerful enough to bring in the biggest fish in your waters. You have to be able to bear down when you need to and drag the fish away from cover. I would recommend no less than a heavy action rod. A rod with a line class rating from 25-50lbs is a good start. Rod length is subject to your tastes but in the world of big fish, rods from 7' to 8'are recommended. My rods of choice are 7'6" Heavy 20-40lb class rating.
Reel: Once again your reel must be tough enough to horse a fish away from cover. Most serious catfisherman use a saltwater reel, which is designed to take punishment and dish it out too. You have to be prepared to tighten down the drag and reel! Saltwater reels have the line capacity and low gear ratios needed for bringing in big fish. My reels of choice hold 320 yards of 20lb test with a gear ratio of 4.3:1.
Line: Line choice is very important. If you choose a pound test rating thatís too low, youíll be looking at a broken line. On the other hand, choosing a pound test thatís too high could mean you will be fixing backlashes all day. You may ask, "Should I use mono or braid?" This is more personal preference but each has its pros and cons. I use braid for my main line and a heavy mono for my leader. It combines the better qualities of both for me. Braid doesnít stretch and therefore is easier to keep a fish out of cover. I feel it also gives me a better hook set with circle hooks. The mono leader absorbs the shock of sudden jerks and runs from the catfish and gives the quality of abrasion resistance. My braid of choice is Fireline XDS 65 or 80lb test. For mono I use Ande in 60 or 80lb test.
Hooks: The majority of blue catfisherman use circle hooks. They have very high hookup percentage combined with very little damage to the fish. Your hook must be big enough to leave a gap between the hook point and shank, while accommodating a very large bait (Which I will demonstrate below). Donít get carried away buying big hooks. All manufacturers and hook types are different but normally hooks from 7/0 to 12/0 work great. Buy a few different sizes to experiment with. Most importantly use what works best for you. My hook of choice is the Daichii Chunk Lite Circle in 7/0.
Weight: How much is enough? It depends on what river your fishing. On the James when the tides are ripping, 8oz weights should keep you on the bottom. In lesser currents, 4-6oz weights should be fine.
Swivels: Your going to need some swivels to connect your main line to your leader line. Donít skimp here with little bass swivels. Buy some rated at 80lbs or higher for saltwater fishing. Also, donít forget to pick up some beads to protect your knots from those enormous weights!
Rig: The rig I use is a sliding rig. Slide the weight up the main line, followed by a bead. Tie it off to the swivel. Tie your leader line to the other side, and hook to the hanging end. This rig allows the fish to pick up the bait and move a little without feeling the resistance of the weight.
Camera: Donít forget this! Youíre going to need a picture of that trophy!
Now that weíve covered the basics of tackle, the next most important item is bait. The best thing you can use is something indigenous to the area youíre fishing that the catfish eat daily. If the river is full of bluegill, use bluegill. If the river is full of shad, use shad. The preferred bait of choice on the James is big oleí gizzard shad. Get yourself a cast net (and permit) and learn to throw it. Shad can be pretty easily found in creeks and side channels nearly all year long.
The phrase" big baits catch big fish"is true. Sure you may catch a big one on a small piece but bigger baits will keep the small fish away. Using bigger baits is also a good idea because bigger fish want to spend as little energy as possible to eat. A bigger meal is the ticket theyíre looking for.
A big shad head or a 6 to 10-inch piece of cut shad is the way to go. Make sure to hook it so the hook point is exposed and the gap is not blocked by the bait. Smaller shad in the 6-10 inch range can also be used by cutting off the tail so it bleeds, and hooking it through the eyes. It may look too big to you but to that trophy, itís just the right size.
Hook a head in from the mouth and out through a nostril.
Hook a larger piece such as this through a corner leaving the gap clear and the hook point fully exposed. Make sure to remove all scales from the hook point.
Here is a shad cut up and ready to be put on hooks. The head and larger midsection should be cast out to the main deeper target such as a boulder or deep end of a wing dam. The smaller pieces should be cast to a shallower shoreline target and the other out in the channel for smaller fish to get some action! Always throw the tail away as it will tend to spin the bait and also pull it off the bottom.
The rest of what you need to know comes from learning where catfish are during certain times of the year and what kind of structure to look for.
A good depth finder is important not only to find structure, but to locate the fish as well. If you donít see any fish on the graph thereís no sense in dropping anchor. Read the manual and practice using it to locate fish. The settings have to be right for fish sitting on the bottom to show up. If the settings are wrong you could ride around all day thinking you arenít seeing any fish.
Blue cats relate heavily to structure. It may be a wing dam, downed tree, underwater boulder, drop-off, or ledge. The key to all of those is a current break where the cats can sit out of the current and still have easy access to food. All of them can hold fish year round but depth is the key. Generally speaking a tree in 20ft of water will have a chance of holding bigger fish than a tree in 5ft of water.
Catfish will generally hold deeper in winter and shallower in summer. There are exceptions of course such as bigger catfish staying deeper in the summer. You will learn which applies to your body of water the more you fish.
Winter is big fish season on the James. Most big blues will move to deep structure and stay there all winter long. They will continue to feed and remain active, which gives catfisherman an excellent opportunity for a trophy.
During the warmer months catfish may come up shallow to feed or stay in the deeper holes. This behavior is harder to predict which is why trophies are harder to come by in the summer. Also being more active they may move from one piece of structure to another, which they normally will not do during the winter.
Fishing a steep drop-off or ledge with deep water that allows quick shallow water access is a high percentage spot. Wing dams are also a high percentage spot. Inactive catfish will be able to hold behind the wing dam out of current to rest. Active catfish will sit in current breaks in front of, along side, and in scour holes by a wing dam. Once again a wing dam that reaches 25ft deep at the end generally will be more productive than a wing dam that reaches 10ft at the end. Bridge pillars are another popular target for catfisherman. They also allow catfish to sit in current breaks in front, along side, and in scour holes by the pier to feed. During periods of inactivity they will sit behind the bridge pillar.
Iím sure by now youíve noticed the theme. Current breaks, current seems, and eddies provided by structure are what you need to look for. They may be obvious such as with a bridge pillar or you may notice a subtle ripple on the surface from a boulder 20ft down. It all comes from reading, learning the river and watching your depth finder.
This picture shows targets to aim for. #1 is a sharp drop off parallel along the shoreline that drops quickly from 5 to 15 feet. #2 is a drop off perpendicular to the shoreline dropping from 22 to 30 feet. #3 is a ledge that runs parallel to the shoreline dropping from 25 to 34 feet. If you look closely at the picture you can see slight ripples on the surface from the drops for 1 and 2. All 3 in the same area makes for a productive spot. All were found using my depth finder. In this case #1 caught me a 24lb fish, #2 a 35lb fish, and #3 the 63lb fish Iím holding. I also had a fourth rod cast out to the left of #3 in the main channel that did not get a bite. This picture also shows that I have 4 rod holders across the back of the boat to effectively fish a hole or structure using circle hooks.
The last thing to learn is that current is your friend when fishing for blue catfish. In some rivers the current is always present but in tidal rivers such as the James itís very important to look at a tide chart so you can fish when the tides are moving. During slack tide the catfish tend to roam around making their location unpredictable. When the tides are moving it puts the catfish back on the structure to be protected from the current. I donít see much difference from incoming and outgoing tides. I feel as long as itís moving youíre in good shape.
Take the time to read up on blue catfish. Learning their seasonal movements and biology, then adding to the above tips will go a long way in your success.
Most importantly please practice catch and release!
Keep the small ones to eat but release the big ones to let grow. Protect our trophy fish!
About the author: I live in Virginia and fish the James River about once a week, year round. I grew up fishing for channel cats and smallmouth bass on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Iíll always miss summer days fishing for bass all day and catfish when the sun goes down. However, nothing can compare to the enormous blue catfish of the James! Best day on the James: 11 fish weighing 320lbs and not a single one under 20lbs! My friend and I broke our personal bests twice that day! Biggest fish: 63lbs. caught on Valentines Day this year while fishing with my wife. Yes sir Iím a lucky man!
You might be able to keep up with John's exploits on several catfishing boards where he is known as "Tank".