I could only shake my head as I stared at a dead-ended household project. Instead of searching diligently for the proper screwdriver, I’d settled for one that was too small, but handy. The screw was rusted in, and by pressing extra hard with the wrong tool for the task, I’d only managed to strip the Phillips head opening into an even, round hole, rendering all screwdrivers equally useless.
It is a cautionary tale that can be translated to catfish angling.
A catfisherman’s toolbox is filled with hooks, swivels, sinkers and other terminal-end hardware items — pieces that are combined to form rigs for various fishing applications. Although an angler often can suffice with a variety of rigs, he’ll do a far better job of presenting baits in the proper places, staying out of snags and hooking fish effectively if he selects the right tools for the task at hand. The end result to all is catching more catfish.
Plenty has been written about popular catfishing techniques and how to execute each and about the best baits to use for various kinds of cats. Here we’ll focus on the stuff that gets tied to the end of the line and how to best put it together into rigs for various types of fishing.
SLIDING BOTTOM RIG
For many stationary catfishing approaches, the most efficient set-up is a simple sliding bottom rig. The rig, which can be adapted for different situations by varying the amount of lead and the style and size of hook used, carries the bait to the bottom and keeps it in place. It can be fished with a tight line, which is sometimes necessary in significant current, or with an open bail to allow fish more opportunity to get the bait without feeling line tension.
The best style of weight for a sliding bottom rig is a bell, or teardrop-shaped sinker that has a metal or lead-cast eye for the line to go through at its top. The main line is simply threaded through the eye so that it can slide freely and then is tied to one end of a barrel swivel. Some anglers add a plastic bead between the weight and the swivel to protect the knot from the weight. A 1- to 2-foot section of leader and hook complete the rig.
Hook style and sizes vary in large part based upon the size and type of bait an angler opts to use, but also based on the size of catfish that swim in a given waterway. Some baits commonly used with this type of rig dictate use of a specific type of hook. Chicken livers, for example, stay on the hook best with a small No. 4 or No. 6 treble hook. Dip baits are best presented with special ribbed plastic worms or tubes that normally come pre-rigged with treble hooks and their own leaders and that are designed to be packed with dip bait. For fresh “meaty” offerings, such as cut fish or shrimp, a circle hook in the No. 1 to 4/O size range is a very good choice.
A three-way rig, which puts the weight at the end of the line and the hook on a separate leader farther up the rig, provides an outstanding option for vertical or nearly vertical presentations and situations where an angler wants to suspend an offering barely off the bottom. Whether fishermen are anchored over the head of a deep hole, drifting in a tailwater or working a deep hump with the trolling motor, a three-way rig is ideal for keeping the bait right where it needs to be.
Anglers fishing with three-way rigs commonly use teardrop or pyramid sinkers at the end of the line, with teardrops favored for mobile techniques and pyramids for stationary approaches. Whatever the style, a weight must be heavy enough to keep the line close to vertical. In river settings, that often means using 2 or 3 ounces of lead.
The rig is built around a three-way swivel with one eye attached to the main line and others to leaders that terminate with the weight and hook, respectively. Many anglers tie the weight leader longer than the hook leader so the hook will stays up off the bottom and is less likely to snag. It’s also a good idea to use lighter line for the weight leader so that if the weight gets hung in the rocks, it’s not necessary to break off the entire rig.
A popular variation of a three-way rig is to double up by adding a second three-way swivel, leader and hook a foot or so up the main line. Along with putting two baits in the strike zone at one time, a “double three-way” rig probes two slightly different levels of the water column. Tying the upper hook leader short and using fairy stiff line for both hook leaders will reduce chances of lines getting tangled.
DRIFT & DRAG RIG
For drifting in shallow water or medium depths or in lake settings, it’s often necessary to drag the baits a long distance back to from the boat to avoid spooking the fish. That style of drifting calls for specialized rigs.
The rig is actually tied just like the sliding bottom rig, with a weight slid onto the main line, a barrel swivel and a section of leader leading to a circle hook. Elements that set this rig apart are the style of weight used, the 2 1/2- to 3-foot length of the leader and a small inline-style cork float that goes between the swivel and the hook. The float, which is normally pegged a foot or so from the bait, keeps the bait off the bottom and dramatically reduces the possibilities of snags. Most drifters use bottom bouncer style sinkers, like walleye fishermen use for the same type of fishing, or the new clothe or net tubes that are filled with shot. Both are designed to pull through rocks and brush without getting hung.
Flatheads, more so than other kinds of cats, like a live bait presented up off the bottom, so where the situation allows for anchoring directly over the fish, it’s hard to beat a basic down-line rig. A normal down-line rig consists of an egg weight slid on the main line, a heavy swivel, 18 to 24 inches of leader and a fairly heavy hook.
Because this approach is used mostly for flatheads, everything about the tackle falls on the large end, such as 50-pound-plus braid for the main line; 30- to 50-pound fluorocarbon for the leader; weights ranging from an ounce for still water and modest depths to several ounces for some river situations; and 2/0 to 5/0 heavy hooks. The specific hook size depends mostly on the size of the bait. Many angers contend that using J-hooks and setting the hook results in hooking more fish than using circle hooks for a strictly vertical approach.
A variation of this rig involves a large float. When the water is too shallow to park the boat directly over a flathead spot, or when current or cover are prohibitive to such an approach, a good alternative is to add a really big sliding float to the main line, set a stopper to suspend the rig just off the bottom and then cast the rig to the flatheads’ likely holding areas. The float must be big enough to hold up a few ounces of weight and a big live bait.