Gearing Up For Monster Spring Catfish
Anybody who fishes the Madison Chain knows that spring means giant Channel Catfish on Lake Mendota. They are big, fight like crazy, and typically easy to catch. You can catch them from a boat or from shore, day or night. That said these fish do at times get a little finiky, so here are the go-to's for baits and rigs for targeting these big old kitties.
Hungry pre-spawn Madison Cat caught on a piece of Bluegill
The vast majority of the time we utilize cut bait presentations in the spring, especially in cooler water as they seem to produce more bites than stink baits. Bait of choice varies, however small panfish or muskie suckers cut into "steaks" are usually a safe bet. Not to mention catching your own bait then going out and catching a 15+ pound catfish on it is pretty fun! The fish "steaks" should be about an inch wide at the most. You don't want to put TOO much meat on the hook. The goal is to get the fish to eat the whole piece in one take, engulfing the whole bait and hook. Often times when the bait is too big the fish will grab it and run, but won't eat it outright. Then, as the fish is running off with the bait, you go to set the hook and out pops the bait, leaving you confused and bummed.
Hook selection is a very important and often overlooked aspect of the catfish approach. Catfish have rather sensitive mouths and can in many cases detect a large hook. Fortunately they have pretty gummy mouths so by the time they feel the hook, many times they are already hooked. The go-to hook for these catfish rigs is a Lazer Sharp 3/0 Circle Sea hook (L197BKG). The circle hook design prevents the fish from being gut hooked in the event that the fish swallows the bait prior to the hookset, while also providing perfect hook placement right in the corner of the mouth. Compared to other catfish specific hooks made by other brands, the Lazer Sharp hooks are made of a thinner, less bulky wire making them a good choice for picky catfish, yet are extremely strong and won's straighten out on a 20+ pound kitty.
Although it may sound strange as we are talking about catfish after all, a good leader is also an important component to the rig. The leader is the sacrificial part of the rig as it will over time become frayed and beat up from fighting dozens of fish. Also, the leader allows for a swivel to serve as the line to leader connection. Anybody who has caught a catfish knows how much they like to roll and twist in the line, so incorporating a swivel will greatly reduce line twist in the long run. A size 5 to size 7 Eagle Claw barrel swivel works great. A 20lb fluorocarbon serves well for this purpose, generally 15-20 inches long. Most leaders will last for a dozen or more fish. Just keep an eye on it and when you notice excessive fraying, cut the frayed section off and re-tie, or replace the leader all together.
One of nearly a dozen fish caught within an hour on the cut bait program
The next component is the weighting system for this rig. A simple egg or casting sinker anywhere from 1 to 1.5 ounces works great. Thread the weight onto the main line (either 20lb monofilament or 20lb braid) followed by a small plastic bead, then tie the main line to the swivel. The plastic bead helps keep the weight from slamming into the knot and weakening it cast after cast, fish after fish. As mentioned before 20lb monofilament or 20lb braid work great for a main line. Sure, you can go heavier however there is no need if you have a limber enough rod. Obviously braid is more expensive but it lasts forever and is thinner diameter making it a good choice for fishing in areas with heavy current. Monofilament is less expensive and offers a little stretch which can be helpful when fighting a giant fish, so the choice is ultimately yours.
Crazy double header with two personal best catfish and biggest fish ever!
The rod and reel end of things is very much up to the angler. You can spend as much or as little as you like, so long as the combo does these two things: cast and can reel in a fish. Sure, you can blow $100 on a catfish specific baitcasting reel and a $60 catfish specific rod, and sure they are pretty nice, however a $20 spinning combo with 2 ball bearings and a 7 foot fiberglass rod works just as well. Most of our catfish rods are a mixed bag of older round reels, cheaper spinning reels, and mismatched fiberglass rods. One feature that is nice to have in a reel is some type of loud drag or a built in clicker to hear the line running out of the reel when a fish takes the bait. That said, most of the time the takes a fairly violent and powerful so it is hard to miss.
With these simple tips and rigs you can greatly increase the number of big catfish you get to fight. Also, for the sake of being able to keep chasing these awesome fish it is important to limit the harvest on these fish. Contrary to popular belief these fish are not stocked and have always been in the lake. Over the last few years the numbers have dropped significantly due to over harvesting. A LOT of people keep these fish thinking that they are a problem, primarily that they are eating the panfish. Although they certainly can and do eat other live fish, they are not a big part of the diet and are not the cause for any decline in panfish populations, so don't take it out on the catfish. If you want to keep fish, keep a few smaller 3-5 pound fish, not the 10+ pounders. Not to mention the amount of bioaccumulation of heavy metals and other toxins in the bigger fish are not great for you, nor do they taste all that great.