Catfish guide Dale Broughton and I are anchored on the Ohio River, tending stout rods baited with 9-inch gizzard shad, when a clicker drag shrieks, then goes quiet. I snatch the live rod, engage the reel, and turn off the clicker. Finally, the catfish moves, this time swimming steadily.
"Wait until the line gets tight," says Broughton.
I do as instructed and hammer the hook into what feels like a house foundation. The flathead shakes and surges, ripping line from my reel several times before I battle it into the net. It weighs about 25 pounds. "Not bad," Broughton says, "but I thought maybe we had a big one."
To a catfisherman, big means something entirely different than it does to most freshwater anglers: channel cats weighing 25 pounds or more, and flatheads and blues that are regularly 30 to more than 50 pounds. In some big rivers, flatheads grow in excess of 90 pounds and blues go over 100.
Interest in these giant fish continues to rise, causing the development of catfish-specific tackle and the refinement of tactics to an almost scientific level. Dale Broughton is a perfect example of the new breed of catfisherman. You won't find him sitting on the bank behind a cooler. He prefers to run big rivers in search of the hottest action. These waterways flow through major cities, remote forests, or quiet farmlands, and chances are there is one near you. Find it and try the following approach, and you can catch a 50-pounder.
Hotspots In summertime, Broughton fishes mostly at night. "Dawn and dusk are also productive, but the fish feed best at night during the hot months." On the Ohio, his home river, he usually fishes 40 to 60 feet deep. The productive depth on other rivers varies, but deep holes near banks swept by the current are always good places to focus.
"Current is critical in the summer," says Broughton. "Dead water means dead fishing."
Before he sets his lines, Broughton uses a liquid crystal graph to look for dropoffs and snags where catfish hold to feed. When fishing a large hole, he may set up in three or four different locations. If a spot doesn't produce a bite in 20 minutes, Broughton moves. Some outings he runs 50 miles or more and drops anchor no less than 20 times.
Several companies now make rods designed specifically for catfishing. Broughton uses 71/2-foot Quantum Big Cat rods and matches them with Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500 and 7000 baitcasting reels with clicker alarms. He fills the reels with 30- to 40-pound Trilene Big Game Solar Collector monofilament.
To assemble Broughton's basic catfish rig, thread the line through a 4- to 8-ounce egg sinker. Go with the lightest sinker that maintains positive bottom contact, given the depth and strength of the current. Next, tie the line to a No. 5 barrel swivel and add a 12- to 24-inch 50-pound leader. The swivel reduces line twist and prevents the sinker from sliding down to the No. 8 Gamakatsu Octopus hook.
Broughton drops a 20-pound river anchor about 100 feet directly upstream from the place he wishes to fish and ties it to the bow cleat. After he backs down to his fishing position, the current holds his boat in line with the anchor and the transom faces downstream.
Casting over the transom, he lets line roll off the spool until the sinker hits bottom. He winds up slack, lays the rod on a bench seat so it points downstream, then flicks on the clicker and puts the reel in free spool. When a catfish runs with the bait, line flows unimpeded and the reel sounds off.
Broughton positions the boat so it floats above the edge of a dropoff. He sets out two rods per person and spreads the lines. This allows the lines to cover various depths, from the top to the bottom of the drop. Bottom rigs score well on channel cats and flatheads, but for summertime blues, Broughton drops his riggs straight down to the bottom and then cranks them up 2 or 3 feet. The reels must remain in gear to keep the baits suspended. Wedge the butts of the rods securely in place to prevent big cats from hauling them overboard. Movements in the rod tips indicate takes.
In weak water currents, Broughton prefers 6- to 9-inch live shad. He runs the hook up through the lower jaw and out the nose, or under the dorsal fin. The frenzied movements of shad attract catfish in quiet water.
Broughton catches shad with a cast net just prior to fishing. He finds schools of the baitfish in quiet bays and marinas. He may have to net hundreds of shad to get 60 larger ones, sufficient for a full session of catfishing.
When the current picks up, Broughton switches to cutbait.
"A steady current washes the bait's smell downstream," he says. "It can draw catfish from hundreds of yards away."
The skipjack herring is unsurpassed as a cutbait. Broughton catches them by casting 1/16-ounce jigs that he has dressed with curly-tailed grubs into tailwaters and discharges. He favors 1- to 2-pound skipjacks, which he scales and fillets, cutting the meat into 1-inch chunks. He baits a hook with three to five pieces. Fresh is best; frozen works too.