Without river current to keep things moving, anglers targeting catfish on Mississippi’s four I-55 corridor lakes can learn some tricks about putting baits in front of big fish.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time fishing on one of the flood-control lakes along Mississippi’s I-55 corridor has witnessed boats trolling back and forth with rods hanging off their sides.
Multiple-rod trolling is one, if not the most-popular, tactic for targeting slab crappie in these U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes.
But the next time you pass such a boat, you might want to focus on what kind of fish is coming over the gunwales. It might not be a crappie, especially if it’s being pulled into David Magness’ boat.
Magness, from Hernando, is a trophy catfish man and part-time guide in northwest Mississippi. His first love is fishing for big, blue catfish on the Mississippi River. With his home only a stone’s throw from Lake Arkabutla and not much further from Enid, Sardis, and Grenada lakes, he and several other catfishing fans realized they might be overlooking some good catfish action right under their noses.
“There are definitely some good fish to be found in these lakes,” Magness said. “I’ve caught several catfish in the 20- to 30-pound range, and you’ll see hand-grabbers catch them almost twice that size. They’re in there along with numbers of smaller fish.”
Most catfish anglers are lost without current. It’s ingrained in trophy catters that water flow brings food to the fish, dictates boat control when setting up, and even determines how much lead is attached to the terminal tackle in order to keep the bait on or near the bottom where catfish feed.
The only logical conclusion from that traditional thought is that if you are fishing on water that doesn’t move, it would be wise to make the boat move. That’s how trolling for catfish was born.
“We call it draggin’, but in other parts of the country, they just call it trolling or drifting, even though you’re relying on the trolling motor to move the boat forward. Average speed is about .5 or maybe even .7 miles per hour as the water warms up,” said Magness.” Some folks just use flat lines, but in the last couple of years, we’ve started using planer boards to move the lines out away from the boat.”
Magness said the basic setup involves six to eight rods stationed around the rear gunwales and stern of the boat. He uses 7½- and 10-foot B’n’M catfish rods spooled with 80-pound braided line. His bait rig revolves around a three-way swivel. One eye is tied to the main line, while the second eye has a 3- or 4-foot section of 50-pound Hi Seas monofilament leader ending with an 8/0 hook.
A split crappie float pegged at both ends is attached to the leader about 4 to 6 inches from the hook. The float helps keep the bait off the bottom and clear of snags. Magness attaches a \slinky weight to the third eye to weight the rig and crawl over the bottom.
“You want to look for humps, ledges, holes and channels, the same kind of stuff you would anchor up on to catfish, but you’re just going to troll through them,” Magness said. “I especially like a ledge. I can troll on top or get down in the channel.”
To find such areas, Magness relies on a Navionics Platinum Hot Spot map integrated with his sonar unit mapping system. He will get on a contour line and use that as a road map.
“In June, the catfish are in post-spawn. I’m mostly referring to blue cats, but this tactic will catch plenty of bigger channels as well as the occasional flathead, too. In post-spawn, they’re going to be dropping back into deeper water, and they’ll start to get hungry again to build back strength.”
Magness’ favorite bait is shad, and preferably any bait that he can catch from the lake he is fishing. Surprisingly, catfish can be picky about their food, especially during the brief post-spawn period, and homegrown baits are hard for them to turn down.
“A lot of folks will go back behind the dam at these lakes and catch bait using a metal basket that they lower on a rope along the edge of the dam structure. Most of these fish are shad, but the law says you can’t keep them alive for fear of mistakenly introducing Asian carp into the lake. The small carp and threadfin or gizzard shad look a lot alike,” he said. “I’m cutting them for bait anyway, so putting them straight on ice isn’t a problem.”
Another method for catching bait is using a cast net around sandy areas; boat ramps are usually pretty good for this. Magness will throw the net several times before daylight and fill his cooler with bait. Ideally, he’s looking for 4- to 6-inch specimens to cut, but if the take is smaller, he’s not opposed to stringing 3 or 4 of them on a hook.
“I use a Daiichi D82 7/0 hook. It’s kind of an improved circle,” he said. “The hook will set itself like a circle hook, but you can also jack him up when you see the bite and not pull the hook out like a true circle hook.”
HOW TO GET THERE: The most northern of the I-55 corridor lakes, Arkabutla is 12 miles south of Memphis, Tenn., and 13 miles west of Hernando, on Scenic Loop 304 off I-55. Heading south, Sardis is next in the I-55 corridor, east of the interstate between Como and Sardis and about 10 miles northwest of Oxford. Enid is about 20 miles south of Sardis; the dam is partially visible from I-55 north of Enid. Grenada is the southernmost of the lakes, located just east of I-55 at Exit 206 at the town of Grenada.
RAMPS: Each lake has several launching sites. For a complete listing of available public boat ramps and launches on Mississippi’s reservoirs, by name, visit the MDWFP website and go to the Ramp & Piers page at http://home.mdwfp.com/Fisheries/rampspiers.
TECHNIQUES: While river catfish tend to stack up in current breaks in moving water, reservoir catfish tend to be more scattered. Trolling on inland reservoirs requires the boat to move, dragging baits across the bottom, to search for catfish. Veteran anglers lake David Magness and Rusty Jackson troll between .5 and .7 miles per hour using several rods pulling slinky-weighted rigs across the bottom. They often employ planer boards to pull the lines out to the sides of the boat to create a wider swathe of bait coverage. They use electronics to find holes, ditches and ledges, as well as logs and stumps.
BAITS: While most catfish baits will work, the pros like to catch indigenous bait species caught from the reservoir they are fishing. Cut or whole shad are usually the baits of choice.