As hard as it may be to believe, catfish are one of the most versatile quarries with whom anglers can ever hope to do battle. While most people think of them as slimy creatures that lurk on the bottom in the mud, catfish represent all of the characteristics as top-of-the-food-chain predators, finicky tournament day foes, and main course for a fish fry all rolled up into one.
The three primary species of catfish — blue catfish, flathead catfish, and channel catfish — create an umbrella that can suffice for bass, crappie, striped bass, and even bream anglers. With summer starting to crank up, now is a great time to get out on the water and fill whatever catfish craving you may have. Here are five ways to catch catfish to help you get your summer started and last all season long.
Pickwick Lake catfish guide Brian Barton said June is the time to stock up on fish fry fodder. Truly trophy sized blue, flathead and channel catfish are pre-occupied with spawning, which tends to scatter the fish making them harder to find.
Fryer catfish, on the other hand, those specimens that Barton says are “something under 5-pound range,” are more than available for the taking.
“I would tell somebody going catfishing in June to just go catfishing and to just catch fish,” Barton said. “Cut down the size bait and fish for those 1- to 5-pound fish; that’s what you’re going to catch the most of.”
Barton said of all the ways to catch fryer cats, he prefers to cast artificial baits for them. He casts a small flutter spoon with a little chunk of meat attached, in areas that smaller cats hang out.
“For smaller cats, I like to take a Size 1 Bo Jo Le spoon, which is about a 1½-inch bait and hook a small piece of shrimp to it,” Barton said. “Pickwick is full of bluff walls so I pitch the spoon right at the base of those bluff ledges and fish it like a plastic worm, just lift and fall, lift and fall, back to the boat.”
Barton said the bait is always available in local tackle shops, since it gets a lot of use from striper and smallmouth fishermen who use them a lot in the tailrace waters behind the dam.
“It’s a flutter spoon, available in several sizes,” he said. “A lot of the bait guys catch skipjack on them. It looks kind of like a barracuda spoon, but it’s painted. In my experience, the better colors are red/white, chartreuse, and copper.”
Winter and spring catfishing generally involve site-specific fishing tactics such as anchored-down, cut-bait fishing. However, from late May through November, catfish move around a lot due to a number of factors, particularly in reservoirs without a lot of current.
One of the best ways to target catfish while they’re on the move is to drift or troll. Trolling can be a very effective tactic when catfish react to changing weather patterns, baitfish movements, and seasonal spawning migrations.
Because catfish are most often targeted on or near the bottom, trolling for catfish may sound like an invitation to retie often and cuss a lot. To counter this, veteran catfish anglers employ a homemade trolling rig that places baits within reach of the bottom, yet still resists snags.
“The key to trolling or drifting is to use a slinky weight,” explains catfish angler Chris Simpson from Greenwood. “A lot of catfishermen make them by inserting 00 buckshot pellets into a 6-inch lengths of nylon Paracord, it’s hollow and you squeeze the shot into it like a sock.”
After heat-sealing the ends to hold the shot in place, a snap swivel is punched through one end of the tube and the main line slides through the eye of the swivel. A barrel swivel holds the weight away from the hook with a 3- to 4-foot length of leader between. About midway down the leader is attached a small 2-inch Styrofoam crappie float. The float raises the baited hook off the bottom, just above head level to a prowling cat, while the slinky weight holds the rig to the bottom and slides it over underwater structure without snagging.
On days with adequate wind, anglers start their drifting runs upwind and drift across open sections of the lake. Days without wind require the use of a trolling motor to move the boat at .5 to .7 mph. Up to four baits can be trolled this way, two straight back and two out to the side of the boat.
Simpson said cut herring or shad work best, but make sure there is a swivel tied between the main line and the leader as the bait may spin when trolled.
As the water temperature gets warmer, Simpson targets deep-water flats during the day and will target points and drop-offs early and late in the day for trolling.
“Somedays you cover a lot of territory, trying to figure out a pattern,” said Simpson. “I find that once I’ve figured out what terrain or structure they’re on, I can got to other areas with that same terrain or structure and locate catfish there, too.”
Bumping is very similar to trolling the bottom, only in reverse. To get the right angle in the presentation, the angler lets out more and more line until the bait is nearly sliding across the bottom with the current at a much slower speed than trolling with the current. Nick Dimino is a tournament catfish angler from Starkville who loves to bump for catfish in rivers with the proper current flow.
“You want to disengage the reel to be in free spool and you just keep letting line out until you get the rig back behind the boat,” Dimino said. “You can tell by the feel of the rod that you are in a comfortable spot because it will feel like the rig is only moving 5 or 6 inches at a time.
“Bumping is not a multiple rod tactic. With my partner Adam and I in the boat, we fish one rod each, but it will definitely put some big catfish in the boat.”
You must develop a feel for the tactic if it’s to be effective.
“When you hit that sweet spot, that’s where you want to be,” Dimino said. “You drop the rig to the bottom and you pick it up, as soon as you set it down, you hit the bottom. You only want to lift the weight up about 3 or 4 inches. Just enough to get off the bottom and let the current sweep it along and then set it back down. That sort of scoots the bait along the bottom in a very natural manner.”
Getting the hang of bumping is a challenge, but that’s only half of the equation. At some point along the way, a catfish, hopefully a big one, will fall for the bait and eat it. When that happens, the angler needs to be able to distinguish the bite from the bottom and take action quickly.
“What most anglers don’t realize is that when the fish bites, the boat is still moving down river and the fish that just grabbed your bait is sitting still,” Dimino said. “You need to start taking up slack, quickly. If you’re not taking up slack, you’re making a big loop in the line between you and the fish and you’re going to miss your fish if you don’t start getting that line tight.”
Dimino stresses that the more horizontal you can get with the presentation, the more effective you will become at the tactic and the more natural the presentation will look. He discourages anglers from trying to stay vertical, which may seem easier, but not as effective.
“The further I can get the rig back away from the boat, the more bites I get and the further I can get away from the boat, the better the bites are,” he said. “If the bait is not far enough back when I’m picking the bait up it suddenly flies several feet down the river, right on top of a fish or something.”
Dimino’s final thought on perfecting the tactic is to realize that the riverbed is not flat at all times beneath the boat. There are valleys and hills, holes and debris that are both attractive to catfish and make it tougher on the angler in the boat.
“It takes a lot of practice when you’re bumping to distinguish the difference between different bites and bottom structure and cover because you’ve got contours on the bottom,” he said. “You’re going up hills, you’re falling down into holes. You’re also bumping over logs and who knows what sitting on the bottom.
“With practice, you learn when to take it out of free spool and pick up some line and when to let more line out in order to keep the bait bumping along naturally.”
When many sportsmen think of trotlining for catfish, they envision a business venture, commercially harvesting catfish for profit.
The truth is, recreational anglers, who love the sport for the challenge of placing lines in the water while trying to think like the fish, do most trotlining in the Magnolia State.
There’s also the thrill of the unknown on the next hook down the line.
Albert Fortenberry grew up along the banks of the Pearl River in Lawrence County. A resident of the small community of New Hebron, Fortenberry runs trotlines nearly year round but really looks forward to it during the summer. He enjoys the fellowship of running lines with friends, spending a weekend camping on the banks of the river, catching bait, cleaning fish, and enjoying the outdoors.
“Your most common fish that you’re going to catch is what I call a Motley Cat,” Fortenberry said. “It’s also known as an Appaloosa or flathead. You’re also going to catch blue cats, sometimes called a high-back blue, as well as channel cats.”
Fortenberry uses two different setups for trotlining. The first is the more typical setup where one end of the line is tied off to a tree or stump, stretched across a span of water, and tied off to another stump. The second is a drop line. One end is tied off to a tree or stump and terminated out in the water using a heavy weight.
Bait choice and size has a fair amount to do with how successful a trotliner will be on the river. Fortenberry prefers live over cut bait and his favorite is a native baitfish he nets or traps right out of the river.
“The No. 1 bait we use in the river is a spot tail minnow that lives here in the river,” he said. “You can catch these minnows on any of the sandbars and rock bars using minnow traps, or by casting a net on the edge of the sandbars. The river is full of them and they’re really good bait.”
Mississippi law permits each person having a valid fishing license to use no more than 100 hooks per person. Fortenberry’s preference is 10 hooks per line. For him, running six or seven such lines per outing is full-time work.
Some of the best summertime catfish occurs where no rod and reels are needed. That is the thought of Corey Ready of Brandon who prefers to catch catfish with family and friends by running jug lines.
Jug fishing is great fun and a productive way to catch catfish. The anticipation of what might be lurking on the next line is as exciting as watching a rod tip bend over, and jug fishing offers a camaraderie that is seldom matched in other outdoor pursuits.
“I got into jug fishing several years ago,” Ready said. “I’ve been in love with it ever since. There is really no trick or trade to it. You can make it as complicated as you want or as simple as you want. Basically, all you need to have fun with your family is something that floats, a hook, line, and some bait. It doesn’t matter what kind of bait, they’ll bite anything at different times of the day.”
Ready prefers to jug on Ross Barnett Reservoir where he lives, but jug fishing is effective in many lakes around the state. He said once you have the gear and some bait, much of learning an area is based on trial and error
“You’ll know if they’re biting or not pretty quick,” said Ready. “If they’re not, don’t be scared to pick them up and move. Change your depth, change your bait.”
Most anglers think of jugging as a set-it-and-forget-it prospect to be checked the following morning, but Ready said the best jugging involves near constant interaction with the floats.
“If you put them out and they’re biting, don’t leave them,” he said. “You’ll have smaller catfish that will rob your bait. I’ve seen people put them out overnight, usually with live bait just wanting to catch a couple of big fish. If you’re fishing with worms or little cut bait, something that will come off the hook easy, you probably shouldn’t leave them long because they’re just going to be sitting out there with a hook in the water and no bait.”
Ready’s thoughts about jug fishing are first and foremost to make it fun, whether you’re out on the water with family or enjoying an evening with friends. He said there’s no point going to a lot of expense because jugs can be made out of about anything that floats and on occasion some of those jugs will just disappear, so no point investing a lot of money in them.
“Don’t overcomplicate it,” he said. “You’re going to lose some jugs so don’t beat yourself up over it. But the day you go out and you see that jug disappear in front of you and your kids are jumping up and down and screaming and yelling, ‘we got one!’ it makes it all worthwhile.
“It’s absolutely good, clean family fun all the way around, plus, at the end of the day, you’ve got dinner sitting in the cooler.”