Light Tackle for Big Cats
by Capt. Richard Simms
Smaller tackle always equals more catfish and sometimes it can even mean bigger catfish.
It was blazing hot at 2 pm. The temperature was nearing 95 degrees, no breeze and a heat index over 100. The Tennessee River was glassy smooth reflecting just a few puffy white clouds overhead.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw Jon West’s seven-foot spinning rod with a light action tip literally whipsaw toward the water. I probably imagined it but I could swear it cracked like bullwhip.
Jon grunted and I said, “Dang! I don’t know if that one is big but it sure hit big!”
We were using one of my favorite catfishing techniques. We refer to it as our “light tackle drift.” Our rods are standard 6-to 7-foot spinning rods, usually medium action with a standard spinning reel loaded with monofilament as light as 8-pound test up to 20-pound test braided line. It is the same equipment the majority of fishermen might use for bass or even bluegill. The only difference is we have caught catfish up 70-plus-pounds on such gear. One of my clients even holds a catch & release world record for the biggest blue cat taken on 10-pound test line from the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.
The average blue catfish we routinely catch in our area weighs between four and eight pounds. When you first hook an 8 lb. cat on light tackle – because you really cannot put a lot of backbone into it – you really have no idea what you might have on the line. It often takes a minute or two to determine what size fish you have on the line.
That was the case with Jon until the trophy cat turned tail and his reel whined as the drag spun out of control. For a fishing guide there is no sweeter sound than the whine of braided line screaming off a client’s reel in the wrong direction.
That’s when we use our favorite line, telling clients, “Remember, it’s patience over power.”
About 15 or 20 minutes later, after several drag-screaming runs, I slid the net beneath Jon’s 30-pound blue, a trophy class fish by most anyone’s standards and especially on a regular-sized spinning rod.
On light line with light tackle you cannot overpower a trophy catfish. Your goal is to simply outlast him. Hook a fish in the 40-pound (or up) class and battles of 30 minutes to an hour are not unusual. My boat record lengthy fish fight came when client Rodney Bass who battled a 48 lb. catfish for an hour-and-a-half on ten-pound test line. Rodney is a big boy and he wasn’t babying the fish. It was just a demon blue cat that had absolutely ZERO “give up” in its steely blue body.
However, in reality our light tackle bite is often more about quantity than quality. We like for our clients to have bent poles and that’s where the light tackle excels.
Where to Fish
We routinely fish the Tennessee River in the tailwaters of Chickamauga or Watts Bar Dams in East Tennessee. Those systems are more like a true river as compared to a still water reservoir. However, the river current is dictated by the amount of water the Tennessee Valley Authority is releasing through the dam to generate electricity.
Those tailwater areas are also relatively shallow. At times beneath Chickamauga Dam we are fishing areas where the water might only be six to 10 feet deep. Standard big water catfishing techniques simply are not as effective.
The rig is exceedingly simple. While now I often use 20-pound test braided line I started out using 10-pound test monofilament almost exclusively. Using a 2-way swivel I attach a 20-pound test “shock leader” about a foot-and-a-half long. I still use the mono shock leader even with heavier braid because it’s easier to break if I hang up and the swivels helps avoid line twist.
My preferred hook is a 3/0 Kahle hook. The flat profile Kahle hook hangs on the bottom less frequently than a standard J hook.
The true secret is weight, or better put, the lack of weight. I always tell folks to “use the LEAST amount of weight possible.” That includes sometimes using no weight.
We are firmly of the opinion that presentation matters a great deal. A free drifting bait better imitates the food the catfish are used to seeing drifting along in the current. Attach a weight, or too much weight to the line and the bait doesn’t float natural.
The perfect analogy is a feather. When you drop a feather it drifts and floats down naturally. Attach a split shot to it and it simply falls to earth and looks nothing like a feather.
The same is true of your bait. The less weight it has the more naturally it drifts with the current. And presentation matters, a lot.
While I sometimes use cut bait one of my preferred baits is plain chicken breast. It is tough and it is dense. I cut chunks of chicken breast roughly the size of a ping pong ball. I cast it directly upstream of the boat and drift at the exact same speed as the current. On a free drift on a slack line the chicken will sink naturally. I’ve hung the bottom with weightless chicken as deep as 30 feet, as well as some big cats.
Why Not Heavier Line?
The principal of the light tackle technique is to provide a more natural bait presentation. Using heavier line or more weight greatly restricts the “floating feather” qualities of your bait drifting downstream. Without question lighter, smaller diameter lines and less weight results in more bites.
What to Look For
We routinely fish about a 15 mile stretch of the Tennessee River downstream of Chickamauga Dam and the truth is you could use the light tackle technique virtually anywhere and potentially catch fish. However, we normally key in on stretches of the river where there is some structure versus a bottom that is table-top smooth. Sometimes it is an area with deeper holes in the main river channel or sometimes it is long stretches of river that simply have lots of big chunk rock and small humps on the bottom.
I routinely tell clients that catfish are really like trout. In a river current situation they prefer resting in “ambush points.” On a shallow trout stream it is easy to see those places where there might be a large boulder a series of small rocks or a riffle emptying into deep pool. Catfish look for the same type areas except you can’t see them without using your electronics.
When To Go Light
The light tackle technique is not normally a winter or cold weather technique. Our best light tackle bite typically begins in late-March or April and then continues throughout the warm weather months.
Sometimes the hotter it gets the better the fishing. That, in part, is because TVA routinely needs to generate more power for air conditioners when it is hot and releases more water through the dams.
Read the Current
It is essential that you learn to read and comprehend generation schedules and predictions. The amount of river current has a huge influence on the best times and technique. In our area river flows generally fluctuate between 7,000 and 47,000 cubic feet of water per second being released. We can fish light tackle in any flow however different flow rates have a huge influence on where we fish.
Don’t Be Afraid to Size Down
Many catfishermen like catfishing specifically because they like pursuing monsters 50-pounds and up. Traditionally those folks use huge tackle akin to the kind of rods & reels folks use while deep sea fishing. We do that too.
However, those anglers might be missing out on a tremendous amount of action and fun. That is especially true if you are taking youngsters or inexperienced anglers that definitely don’t enjoy camping out for hours waiting on a “big fish bite.”
And there are times when sizing down your tackle might even be the best way to snag a monster.
You’ll find a lot more fun video and examples of our techniques on our ScenicCityFishing YouTube Channel.
Capt. Richard Simms is a former game warden for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Now he is a freelance journalist and owner/guide of Scenic City Fishing Charters, Inc. in Chattanooga, Tenn.