Searching for a Personal Best
by Ron Presley
Using the right techniques in the right places are the keys to finding your fish of a lifetime.
In reality, every catfishing trip is a search for a personal best (PB). If the angler is in channel cat water the target is usually the biggest channel to be found. Likewise, with blues and flatheads. If they populate the waters most anglers are hoping for a PB. The dream of catching the big one is what keeps many anglers going back to the water.
While attending Winter Blues on Wheeler in January of 2018 I happened to set across the table from Cad Daly and his son, Case, at the captains meeting. That chance meeting resulted in an invitation for me to return to Wheeler Lake someday to fish with Cad. It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse.
In my experience, I think I have heard more catfish anglers name Wheeler as the location of their personal best blue catfish than any other place. Having fished Wheeler only one time previously, I was excited to go.
I met Daly at the boat ramp about 6:30 am. Daly and his tournament partner, Chris Parker, had already prepared the boat for battle. They operate on the adage that, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
“Preparation typically starts days ahead,” noted Daly. “We have found that if you prepare in the days leading up to an outing or tournament, your chance at success is greater. Early in the week we will typically re-tie all new leaders and rig the rods and reels. We inspect and clean them as we go. You never know when you are going to beat a personal best, so you want your gear to perform when called upon.”
“A day or two before the trip I like to begin loading the boat after work,” continued Daly. “I am doing a mental checklist of items that may or may not have been taken out of the boat on the previous trip. Anchor loaded–check; zip ties for the anchor–check; landing net–check; batteries on the charger, and so on.”
Daly suggests creating a written boat packing list to use for those times that can be hectic or when you are planning a long trip. It is not uncommon to take something out of the boat for some reason and then forget to put it back. A very detailed list of all the things you want on the boat can be very helpful when packing for the next trip. A list will keep you from leaving anything at home.
“A day or two before is also a good time to go through the tackle box,” advised Daly. Check to see if you are good on terminal tackle. If you need something you can use your lunch break to go pick it up if you don’t have time to order it.”
“Preparation and anticipation of a fishing trip is half the fun,” suggested Daly. “When you have prepared properly then you can have a much better fishing outing. Things don’t always go right on the water when fish aren’t wanting to bite. Fish not biting and having to fix things that could have been prepared early the week really stinks.”
The morning of a Daly/Parker fishing outing starts with a traditional stop at a country store for a few biscuits and drinks. They top off the gas in the boat and head for the water. When arriving at the boat ramp Parker grabs items from the truck and positions them in the boat. Daly prepares the boat for launch and then backs the trailer down the ramp while Parker navigates the boat off the trailer and back to the dock to pick up his partner. That teamwork makes for an efficient launch and fast start to the day.
“Having a friend and fishing partner for many years is a great benefit,” offered Daly. “You get to know each other and what the other is going to do. You learn what to expect from each other.”
With several days of preparation, the routine chores of the morning complete, and the boat launched, Daly discussed our options. Wheeler does not offer the bumping opportunities of other bodies of water so Daly is usually dragging or anchor fishing.
“Normally there is not enough current to bump,” advised Daly. “If you have a good rain and good runoff there are some bumping opportunities, but that only seems to happen every couple of years. We normally drag in the big part of the lake. If we go upriver where it gets a little smaller we will anchor. East of Decatur it narrows up and you will get a little current and there is a lot of brush and other structure. There are more flatheads come from up that way. You can do some anchoring up in there.”
Daly decided that we would do some dragging over a sloping flat that had deeper water on one side than the other. His sonar and trolling motor are paired to help him follow contours.
“We will use the Lowrance, which is teamed up with the MotorGuide to follow contours,” instructed Daly. “This pairing takes the work out of it. I pick the contours on the chart and the trolling motor will automatically follow the route I chose. After that, we just set back and fish.”
Daly carefully set the route he wanted to drag. He chose one that allowed us to fish several different depths on the same drift. We were following a contour that had 50 feet of water off the starboard side and about 20 feet of water on the port side. Planer boards were deployed out each side to widen the spread and cover more ground.
“I usually want to follow a certain contour and will do what I need to maintain it,” said Daly. “It doesn’t take much wind to aggravate you. And wind direction will affect the path we fish. More or less speed may be necessary to maintain the desired course. That is not a problem yet this morning with the calm conditions.”
“The planer boards give us a wider spread,” instructed Parker. “We are dragging a couple rods straight out the back of the boat. “We have one planer board on the left side looking backward and two planer boards out the other side. We also have one rod suspended on each side, each one at a different depth. Since those side rods are vertical they are easily adjusted for depth and we will change it from time to time as needed.”
Between Daly and Parker, they had a variety of equipment on the boat. Like any angler does, they had collected their own favorite gear over time and have their own preferences for line and rigs.
“Our equipment this morning includes a little bit of everything,” offered Daly. “I don’t think there is a lot of difference in rods, just use the ones you like, for whatever reason.”
Terminal tackle for Chris included 80-pound braid for the mainline and 50-pound Trik Fish mono for the leader. He uses some variation of a 3-way rig or a sinker slide with the bait line running straight through the swivel. He adds a rattling float near the hook.
“When anchor fishing, which is mainly in the spring and summer, I like 60-pound mono on my reels and 40-pound mono for the sinker lead,” said Daly. “If I get snagged that 40-pound leader will break and I just lose the sinker instead of the whole rig. That makes it a lot easier to tie up and get back to fishing after a hangup.”
“In the fall and winter when we traditionally drag more, I like to use 80-pound braid,” clarified Daly. “Then I use a 40- to 60-pound hook leader. The heavier strength mainline allows me to more easily break the leader line if I get hung up while dragging. That way I only lose a hook and not the dragging tail and swivel.”
Daly and Parker live relatively close to Joe Wheeler Dam and like to catch their bait the day before. They typically go before work or after. Their goal is to be ready to go on trip day without the necessity of catching bait.
“When fresh bait isn’t available we rely on frozen bait that has been vacuum sealed,” instructed Daly. “If using frozen bait, we like our bait to thaw out slowly. The skipjack seems to have better quality if not left in the hot sun to thaw. Fresh bait is always our preference. When we are fishing the Tennessee River nine out 10 outings we will be using skipjack herring.”
“The scent trail is a big part of the process and why skipjack are favorite baits,” offered Daly. “A lot of people like to use skipjack fillets. We like to offer some different cuts because the fish like one thing one day and something else the next.”
“I like to have more heads than anything else,” added Parker, who has a special affinity for the heads. “We have fishing friends that absolutely despise the heads. They say they cut the heads off and throw them away. Maybe they are telling fishing stories and just don’t want us to know. Personally, I’ll take a head anytime.”
The speed of the drift is one of those variables that anglers need to figure out. The best speed is likely to be different from one day to another. Things like wind, water temp, and just how active the fish are will have an impact on finding the right speed. Mental notes from previous trips are a good indicator of where to start.
“A lot of how fast you drag depends on what speed produced fish in the past,” instructed Daly. “A lot of it is what you get confidence in and it can change from one day to the next. Common sense suggests that the fish don’t have to work so hard to run down their dinner at slower speed.”
“I would say about .3 to .7 mph is the norm,” suggested Parker. “On a calm day in the spring we might drift at .5 but in the dead of winter, like at Winter Blues, I would slow it down to .3 mph.”
“I will drift the same spot a couple of times,” added Daly. “I will change speeds over the same spot if the action is slow but I will normally be somewhere between .3 and .7 mph. Some people like to drift as fast as .7 and .8 mph. We just seem to have better luck at around .3 or .4 mph.”
Daly and Parker prefer leaving the rod in the rod holder until the line gets good and tight with a good bow in the rod. After the rod loads up they take it out and fight the fish. They use circle hooks and the fish usually hook themselves with the rod in the holder. There is no need to set the hook, just start reeling and keep a tight line.
“Most of the time when you are dragging the fish are no doubters,” offered Parker. “They pretty much hook themselves. On a big one the boat will even turn around a little indicating a good hookset. A good pole will set the hook once the pressure hits the backbone. At that point, the old planer board will look like it is skiing across the water.”
Anglers that are not used to catching big cats on planer boards may wonder what happens with the board on a big fish.
“If the fish happens to be on a planer board, which they often are, reel to the planer board,” instructed Daly. “Once it is reachable either remove it or let the first snap go and free the board to run back towards the fish. Sometimes on a big fish, it’s best to just release it and let it slide down instead of taking it completely off. That way you’re not taking a chance on getting slack in the line and having the fish come off while trying to take the board completely off.”
Success at the End of the Day
Although every trip doesn’t end with a personal best, this one did. Without speculating as to why, it had been a relatively tough bite. Making a strategy change from deeper water to shallow water appeared to be the key.
Daly and Parker had methodically honed their search for Mr. Whiskers by eliminating a lot of water that was unproductive and using their skills and instincts to make strategic changes.
It was day two of the trip and the fishing began in 35 feet of water where active fish had been found the day before. Continued probing in various depths of water and structures did not produce any fish. A decision was made to move.
“I think we should move to a part of the river that is shallower,” recommended Daly. “The area has sub-20-foot water and lots of humps. We will be fishing between two channel ledges. It is what we like to call highways. We believe that big fish like to follow these highways as they move from area to area.”
The move was made and it proved to be the right one. The baits were deployed much like before. Planers boards were used to increase the spread and one of Parker’s favored skipjack heads was about to get hammered.
“When the planer board went skiing across the water’s surface we knew Mr. Ron was on a good fish,” recalled Daly. “It was what we call a ‘no-doubter.’ In other words, there is no doubt that it is a fish.”
A few minutes into the fight, the big blue came to the top of the water and made a huge tail splash. Everyone on the boat got a good look and knew it was big.
“That’s a new boat record,” exclaimed Parker. Let’s reel down to the board and release it, but leave it with the fish.”
The massive blue cat ended up weighing 83 pounds and established a new personal best for the author. It also beat the previous boat record by 11 pounds.