Drift-fishing: An Ideal Tactic for Summer’s Blue Catfish

By Keith “Catfish” Sutton

Get off your duff and get moving. To catch summer blue cats, drift-fishing beats sitting on the bank.

 

Most catfish anglers are “sit-and-wait” types. They find a shady spot on the bank where they can toss out a bottom rig, lean their rod against a forked stick, and then sit and wait, hoping sooner or later something will bite.

Something usually does, if they wait long enough. But hours may pass before it happens.

There are times, however, when still-fishing from shore is totally unproductive. You can sit and wait till the cows come home, but it probably won’t do you much good.

The multi-rod set-ups used in drift-fishing provide an excellent means for anglers to find and catch trophy blue catfish in summer, like this nice fish caught in the Mississippi River by James Patterson of Bartlett, Tennessee. (Keith Sutton photo)

The multi-rod set-ups used in drift-fishing provide an excellent means for anglers to find and catch trophy blue catfish in summer, like this nice fish caught in the Mississippi River by James Patterson of Bartlett, Tennessee. (Keith Sutton photo)

Fishing for summer blue cats is a case in point.

Blue catfish tend to be nomadic in summer, moving here and there following schools of baitfish and seeking comfort zones in their home waters. They’re often scattered and difficult to pinpoint, a fact that frustrates many anglers. You can sit on the bank and try to catch them, but drift-fishing in a boat works much better. This is an active approach to catfishing that can make your catch rate soar, and a good way to target trophy fish.

“Drift-fishing works great on both rivers and lakes.”

 

Drift-fishing works great on both rivers and lakes. Start by using a fishfinder to look for large fish hanging around prominent bottom changes. Summer blues typically roam around bottom channels, humps, depressions and other readily identifiable structures, and use of sonar can help you find them.

A drift sock helps maintain proper boat speed when drifting big waters under prime weather conditions. (Keith Sutton photo)

A drift sock helps maintain proper boat speed when drifting big waters under prime weather conditions. (Keith Sutton photo)

Many cat men use a special float rig for drift-fishing. The main line is run through the eye of a sinker (usually a pencil weight or bell sinker), and a barrel swivel is tied below it to keep the weight from sliding off. A 24-inch leader is then tied to the swivel’s lower eye. A small float is placed in the middle of the leader, and a 5/0- to 8/0 wide-gap circle hook is tied at the end and baited. The float suspends the baited hook above bottom to reduce snagging.

Another superb rig comes from Texas catfish guide Randle Hall. Components of his rig include: a 12/0 Mustad circle hook; a stainless-steel split ring; a 3- to 4-foot, 50-pound-test leader; a 2-inch crappie cork; a barrel swivel; a 1-ounce Snake Weight or Slinky Weight (made with pieces of lead in a flexible nylon sleeve); and a size 7 snap swivel.

“The split ring is attached to the eye of the hook,” said Hall.  “Then I put two drops of Liquid Weld on the split ring so it holds together. The split ring is tied to the leader with a Palomar knot.  I put the crappie cork on the leader about 10 inches above the hook and ring.  The other end of the leader is tied to the barrel swivel.

“To create a sort of sliding sinker, I clip the snap swivel on the Snake Weight, run my main line (30-pound-test mono) through the eye of the swivel, then tie my main line to the free eye of the barrel swivel.”

High-capacity reels, long sturdy rods and quality rod holders firmly mounted on the rails improve the angler’s odds of hooking and landing a trophy blue cat while drift-fishing. (Keith Sutton photo)

High-capacity reels, long sturdy rods and quality rod holders firmly mounted on the rails improve the angler’s odds of hooking and landing a trophy blue cat while drift-fishing. (Keith Sutton photo)

The effectiveness of this rig becomes apparent when one examines Hall’s reasoning in its construction. First, the use of a circle hook alleviates the need for Hall’s customers, often inexperienced fishermen, to grab a rod from a holder and attempt to get an effective hookset.

“I did use Kahle hooks,” Hall says.  “But customers have to jerk to set the hook and miss lots of fish. With a circle hook, the catfish hooks itself.”

The split ring allows the baited hook to swivel, a fact Hall credits for better hook penetration.  The Snake Weight is relatively snagless, making it ideal for drift-fishing, and when the rig moves across the bottom, the crappie cork keeps the baited end floating in the strike zone.

Whole shad or herring (live or dead) are widely considered the best drift-fishing baits because they are highly enticing to big blue cats and can be rigged to stay on the hook for the extended periods it often takes to find and catch fish. Hook the bait through the lips, and consider tying a stinger hook on a short length of line to the main hook. The stinger is run through the side of the bait to secure it even further and helps hook cats that bite at the rear of the bait.

Follow the Schools
When drift-fishing for summer blues, it’s a good idea to find and follow schools of baitfish that comprise much of this species’ hot-weather forage.
Baitfish such as shad and herring are continually seeking comfort zones where plankton, young-of-the-year baitfish and other foods are available. They may move several times and several miles during each 24-hour period; or they may remain relatively stationary. Wherever they go, however, blue cats will follow, with most holding in loose schools beneath the baitfish where they feed.
One way to make this work for you when drift-fishing is using sonar to probe deep-water habitat for big fish holding beneath baitfish schools. Most will be on or near prominent bottom structure like channel breaks, humps and holes—within the thermocline in stratified waters. When you sees “blips” indicating the possibility of a big cat beneath schooling baitfish at a specific depth, that’s a hotspot for drifting.

 

The number of rods that can be used effectively depends to some degree on the experience of the angler. Experts sometimes can handle four to eight, but most beginners should start with no more than two. Check local regulations for restrictions.

The rods are positioned in sturdy, transom-mounted rod holders, and then wind or current carries the boat over the structures where fish are holding. A drift sock often is tied to the boat to keep the craft moving along the right course at the right speed, and a trolling motor may be used for maneuvering and forward movement as well.

How much line should you have out when drifting? The ideal distance varies with water clarity, speed and other factors, but many anglers start by releasing 75 to 100 yards of 25-pound-test line to keep the fishing rig moving smoothly across the bottom. With lesser lengths of line, the weight tends to drag or snag, causing the bait to jump and move wildly about. If you’re drift-fishing for the first time and unfamiliar with what works best, start by drifting with 75 yards of line out, then experiment if necessary to see what works best.

Bear in mind that high-capacity reels are a must for this type of fishing, especially when targeting trophy-class catfish. If you have 75 yards of line out and a big blue hits, you’ll need plenty of line on the reel to avoid getting spooled. Also be sure to properly set the drags on all your reels.

Proper speed is important when drift-fishing, but there’s no magic formula for determining what speed is best under a given set of conditions. On some days, you may have to inch your boat along to get strikes. On other days you’ll have to troll so fast you’ll wonder how catfish could possibly catch your bait. And when you find the productive speed, you must maintain it, even when wind and current push your boat ahead or drive it back.

Let the fish and the motion of the boat do the hook-setting. Wait until the rod has a definite bend in it, then remove it from the holder and reel in your quarry.

The key word when drift-fishing, as with any form of catfishing, is “experiment.”  Try to determine how catfish are likely to react in the type water you’re fishing, and then adapt your tactics to conform to those expectations. But if your game plan doesn’t produce within a short time, try something different. Sooner or later, the innovative cat man discovers a pattern that allows him to capitalize on the situation. And when drift-fishing, this rarely takes very long. Few tactics are as effective on summer’s big nomadic blue cats.

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