Diary of a Tournament Catfisherman
by Terry Madewell
Employing the tactical strategy of a tournament fisherman can improve your catfishing success
The popularity of catfish tournaments has surged in recent years. One reason for its popularity is that tournament fishing enables anglers to elevate their catfishing passion to a competitive level.
Jeff Manning of Rock Hill, South Carolina is a veteran tournament angler. He’s fished various tournament trails and has won numerous individual tournaments. He has also garnered the season-long point championships for a multiple-event tournament series on several occasions.
Manning has developed a high level of focus with the ability to analyze water, fish and forage patterns. What he sees in the patterns allows him to adjust his tactical strategy on tournament day.
This chronicle is an insight to Manning’s strategies from a tournament held on Lake Wylie, a Catawba River lake on the North/South Carolina border. The tournament began at 7 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m. Anglers can fish until three o’clock, then immediately pull lines and be at the weight-in site by 3:30 p.m.
I was invited to fish with Manning’s team, “Reelin’ the Blues,” to record his tactics and strategies on tournament day.
6:00 a.m. – Manning arrives early to arrange gear and assess weather and water conditions to formulate his initial strategy.
He said Lake Wylie has an excellent population of blue, flathead and channel catfish. With a three-fish limit for weigh-in Manning said blues and flatheads are his targets because of top-end size.
“The species targeted will change with conditions.” he said. “Recently I won a tournament at Lake Wylie with three big flatheads totaling 99-plus pounds. It’s still a fall-type pattern here but the water has cooled and we have less current now. Warmer water and more current are keys for flathead success in these waters. Instead of going north, where I’d target flatheads, I’m going south to fish deeper water and focus on blues.”
7:00 a.m. – Tournament begins and Manning notes that many anglers head north, up the lake, as we’re heading south.
“Our first stop is going to be close,” he said. “I want to get bait in the water quickly this morning. I think we may have a strong early bite on blues.”
7:12 a.m. – Manning graphs a point, marking the desired combination of forage and big fish marks. He anchors and casts his rods to the areas he’s mentally noted where he marked big fish on the graph.
“I try to put the bait as close to where I saw fish as I can,” he said. “If they are in a bite mode, I want them to bite quickly.”
7:28 a.m. – First bite and a blue catfish just under 32-inches is landed.
7:40 a.m. – Another chunky blue is landed, measuring just over 32-inches.
7:58 a.m. – The third blue catfish is caught and Manning has three fish to weigh with one over 32-inches, two others just under.
“This is good, we have three so we’ll spend the rest of day upgrading, and that impacts my strategy,” Manning said. “Catfish have a ‘wolf pack’ mentality and they stay on the move feeding. If we need to make a move to stay on them, we may move a short distance to get ahead of them and they’ll pass through again, if we have quality fish. Catfish have definitive movement patterns. I don’t believe in coincidence when tournament fishing.”
8:20 a.m. – Manning weighs the three fish and total weight is 46 pounds. Manning said the bite today has been primarily on gizzard shad, a week ago he said it was primarily white perch. We’ll focus more on shad for now, but will keep some perch out to give big catfish plenty of options.
8:53 a.m. – An 18.5-pound blue catfish is caught, biggest of the day, on a white perch head. Raises the total weight to 49 pounds, a three-pound upgrade.
9:05 a.m. – Additional fish are caught but no size upgrades, all in the 13-to-15-pound class. Manning said he’s hunting a 30- to 40-pound-plus catfish for a significant upgrade.
“That could mean a top-three finish,” he said.
9:28 a.m. – Manning gives a “10-minute warning” for a fish to bite or we’re moving. Nine and one-half minutes later we catch a 14-pound blue, not an upgrade, so Manning moves.
9:38 a.m. – Manning said we’re going to start ‘bumping points’ looking for one or two much larger fish. Now he diversifies baits in terms of types and sizes and water fished in terms of depth. While on the move he notes three tournament boats that went up lake early and are now motoring back toward the lower end of the lake. Also, the last three catfish have come on perch baits.
“Those are good fishermen so it looks like the north bite may be slow and that tells me to stay south for now,” Manning said. “If serious about fishing tournaments, planning and executing a continuously evolving strategy during the tournament is essential.”
10:17 a.m. – We anchor on a point with forage and large fish graphed and he uses whole live perch, large perch heads, perch fillets and cut shad as bait. He is using predominately larger baits now.
“We’re looking for a ‘toad’ now,” he said. “I am using more large baits, but some smaller ones just in case. I like big baits when specifically targeting huge catfish. I don’t think a big catfish swims by a big bait and thinks ‘Naw, I’m gonna eat light today’. Catfish are not hard to understand. They look for food, they eat it and once a year they take a few weeks to make more catfish.”
10:20 a.m. – A 13-pound blue is boated and quickly released. Manning said we need to have patience on this spot because it’s produced big fish previously.
11:19 a.m. – A 17.5-pound fish is boated, a slight upgrade to overall weight.
11:38a.m. – We move and relocate to another deep water point slightly further south.
12:00 noon – A rod is slammed three-eyes-deep into the water, but the fish was only a feisty 16.5-pound blue. Manning’s hopes for a ‘toad’ were high for a minute.
12:53 p.m. – “A little over two hours are left, I’m gonna gamble on finding a big fish feeding,” he said. “We’re going to go to the back of a large creek that should have a lot of big gizzard shad and fish for one or two really big feeding fish.”
We set anchor in eight-feet of water and fan cast all around the boat.
12:58 p.m. – Manning hooks a fish, but one of the smaller ones of the day at 12 pounds and it’s quickly released.
“This is a good sign,” he said. “Fish are back here feeding, we just have to poke around and find a big one.”
1:20 p.m. – A larger fish is hooked but lost.
“I saw that fish when it rolled and it was over twenty pounds, a quality fish,” Manning said. “I believe our fish is back here so we’re going to make our stand in the flat because we’ve got quality bait and catfish. Let’s get one or two big fish bites.”
1:40 p.m. – Manning moves about 100-yards toward slightly deeper water where he saw shad activity.
1:57 p.m. – Caught and released a 13-pound blue on a big perch head.
2:25 p.m. – Manning makes another move, continuing to poke around looking for the big fish he’s confident is in the back of this creek. He sets up in seven and one-half feet of water. Gulls are now in the creek searching for forage, another good sign.
In the next 30 minutes, more 15-pound-class blues are caught and released.
2:59 p.m. – “One-minute warning,” Manning said.
3:00 p.m. – “It’s three o’clock, we’re done, reel ‘em in,” he said.
Manning stores the dipnet, we start reeling rigs and the rod I’m reeling has a fish hooked that had sucked the bait in, unknown to us.
Manning laughed and said he hoped that’s not the big fish we’d been working for because time’s up, it can’t count. He estimated the blue as another mid-teen class fish when he unhooked it beside the boat.
“I think we made the right decision to come back here even if we didn’t catch the big fish,” he said. “I think bigger fish are here, we just didn’t hook up.”
Our top three fish weighed in at 50 pounds, and out of 27 boats Manning finished seventh. His prediction of what we needed to challenge the winning weight was very close and we were only four pounds away from a top-three finish.
At the weigh-in, Manning and others shared the day’s events, and he noted that few flatheads were caught and that the winning catch was all chunky blues. The overall atmosphere was one of camaraderie and all the catfish were released alive.
“This was an exciting day,” Manning said. “We fished to win and I feel we had a chance right up until 3:00 o’clock. I like the decisions regarding our strategy. We caught 17 catfish averaging about 14.5 pounds each, that’s a great day of fishing. I get an adrenalin rush on a day like today when we’re one big-fish bite away from being in contention and Lake Wylie is full of big catfish.”
Epilogue: At the conclusion of the 2016/2017 fall, winter and spring wrap-around season Jeff Manning’s Team, “Reelin’ the Blues” won the points championship for the Southeastern Catfish Club, his primary tournament trail. In winning the championship, Manning won one event, had two seconds, one third and consistently placed well in other events.