Blue Cat Basics

What would you rather do this winter: clean your reels, or tie into a catfish the size of a small deer? Blues We understand. Deep within your ­long-suffering soul is the need for a fish so huge you’ll hurt yourself hefting it for the camera. But if you’re like many freshwater fishermen, you probably believe that anything over 20 pounds would be the catch of a lifetime. Even in pro ­tournaments, most of the bass cheered on by ­spectators at weigh-in wouldn’t strain the biceps of a 10-year-old. But take heart. There is one sweet-water species out there capable of ­herniating the burliest of anglers: the blue catfish. These behemoths, commonly caught in the 30- to 40-pound range, can weigh more than a small deer. They’re also getting easier to hook, thanks to a surging wave of catfish addicts who’ve perfected the best techniques. One thing these junkies have ­figured out is that some of the very best fishing for giant cats starts right now. The following guide distills the rest of their knowledge into ­simple-to-follow tips and tactics. Read it over, study it well, then hit the water and get the blues. You just might land the largest freshwater fish of your life. THE GEAR Anchor: A four-pronged model, like the Bass Pro Shops Folding Grappling Anchor ($20; basspro.com), holds well in sand or mud and on hard bottoms. Cast Net: Get something fresh for your hooks by casting this net over schools of baitfish in quiet bays. Betts’ 8-foot version with 3⁄8-inch mesh works well and comes with full instructions ($55; 919-552-2226). ** ** Depthfinder: A high-resolution LCD unit marks baitfish, catfish, and structures worth fishing. Humminbird’s Fishfinder 565 ($195; ­humminbird.com) has a 5-inch monochrome display with 640x320 pixels for excellent image clarity. Shad-Keeper: Shad Holding Formula Add this to your bait tank to eliminate ammonia and surface foam while providing electrolytes that keep bait active longer ($9.50; ­wholesalebait.com). Scale Small: Cats make good eating, but the trend with trophies is to weigh them, snap a picture, and put them back unharmed. Rapala’s Magnum XL Lock ’n Weigh Fish Scale ($100; basspro.com) accurately weighs beasts up to 125 pounds. Line: Green Trilene Big Cat monofilament is more visible at night than clear line; it works just fine during the day, too. Go with 30-pound-test ($7 for a 275-yard spool; ­www.berkley-fishing.com). Reel: Yours should hold at least 125 yards of 30-pound-test line and be able to withstand heavy pressure. A clicker alarm that tells when a catfish runs with your bait is also an essential feature. Garcia’s Ambassadeur Trophy 6500TC ($90; ­www.abu-garcia.com) is a great choice. Landing Net: It’s the best way to land a big blue without injury to you or the fish. A Frabill ­ Pro-Formance model 5555 ($75; ­frabill.com) will handle true trophy cats. Sabiki Rig: This consists of a leader with dressed hooks attached to dropper lines and a split shot for casting weight. You can often catch three or four skipjacks at a time with one. Try a No. 4 Hayabusa Hage Kawa Sabiki ($3.50; ­tackletogo.com). Rod Holders: Serious catfishermen set out multiple rods. Driftmaster’s Pro Holder and base ($25; ­outdoorsuperstore.com) acts like an extra arm as you wait for a bite. Aerated Bait Tank: Frabill’s portable Aqua-Life Bait Station ($70; frabill.com) runs off two D cells or one 12-volt battery and has enough room to provide an angler with lively bait all day long. Rod: One-piece fiberglass baitcasting rods with double-foot guides are sturdy, durable, and affordable. A perfect example is Quantum’s 7-foot 6-inch Big Cat ­medium-heavy-action rod, rated for 15- to 40-pound line ($40; ­quantumfishing.com). THE PLANS Hot Spot No. 1 The Drop: Find a shallow flat that maintains a depth of 6 to 8 feet for 50 yards or more offshore before dropping sharply down to a creek or river channel. The biggest cats hover at the lip of the drop. Tactic No. 1 Bottom Feeding: Big blues in clear water less than 40 feet deep won’t feed with a boat overhead. So anchor your craft from the bow about 60 feet upwind of your target area and cast bottom rigs out over the transom. Set the rods in holders, put the reels in free spool, click on the alarms, and wait. The bite is hottest when the wind blows baitfish up onto the flat. Calm days usually make for slower fishing. Hot Spot No. 2 The Edge: Look for blues suspended off the edges of points, humps, and offshore flats in at least 15 feet of water. At 20- to 35-foot depths, they often hold 5 to 10 feet off the bottom. Tactic Suspended Animation: Mark catfish with a depthfinder. Then set your slip bobbers to keep the live bait 1 to 2 feet above the blues. Put your rigs out 25 to 75 yards behind the boat. Place the rods in holders, and drift over the fish. If there’s little wind or current, you can run very slowly back and forth over the cats with an electric trolling motor. Either way, the boat doesn’t affect the fishing because it’s 25 to 75 yards away by the time the bait reaches the fish. THE BAIT Trophy blues relish fresh baitfish, including shad, skipjacks, and blueback herring. Use what’s common to the water you’re fishing. You may be able to buy suitable bait near popular big-cat waters, but most anglers catch their own with Sabiki rigs or cast nets. Live Bait: Where there’s little current, use a 6- to 9-inch live baitfish. Hook it through both nostrils, or up into the lower jaw and out the nose, or under the dorsal fin to keep bait lively. Dorsal hooking lets it swim more freely, however, which can be an ­advantage in still water. Cut Bait: This works well in current, which washes scent downstream, drawing catfish from long distances. Scale and fillet a 1- to 2-pound skipjack herring, cut the fillets into 1-inch sections, and bait your hook with three to five chunks.