By Nick Carter
Across the country, catfish are emerging from their spawning dens as we head into the heart of summer. The next couple months are prime time to catch a true trophy catfish.
Through June, pro catfisherman Jonathan Herndon was watching scars. He was eagerly awaiting the end of the fishing lull that is the catfish spawn. Catfish are cavity nesters. They don’t bite as well when they find a heavy logjam or hole for a den. The female lays her eggs. The male fertilizes them and stays with them, fanning the eggs to keep them aerated and free of sediment. It’s the wounds from this fanning activity—like road rash from a motorcycle accident— that Herndon looks for. Whether he’s on the reservoirs and rivers of the Ohio, Tennessee or Mississippi systems, once he starts catching males with healing scars, summer catfishing is getting ready to begin.
“When they come out of the spawn, they’ll put that feed bag on,” Herndon said. “But it’s an urban myth that they’ll eat anything and everything they come across. Anyone can catch small fish on a wad of chicken liver, but the true trophies—anywhere from 30 to 100-plus pounds, depending on where you’re fishing—become predatory when they reach that size.”
Flathead and blue catfish are the two species that regularly grow into behemoths. Herndon said it takes a catfish five years to reach 5 pounds and the trophies will be anywhere from 17 to 20 years old.
“That’s why we practice “CPR,” catch-photo-release,” he said. “Once they reach that size, they’re not good to eat, and I don’t know of a taxidermist who uses the actual skin from a catfish. There’s really no reason to keep them.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t catch them, though. Herndon said the best method is to anchor. This may not be possible on larger rivers, where strong current and barge traffic make anchoring dangerous. But wherever they are, catfish like to rest out of the flow and pick off passing morsels. Even on reservoirs, there will be current when water is moving through dams. This current makes big catfish predictable. When there is no current for them to fight, they are mobile like any other gamefish following bait.
On the subject of bait, this is where Herndon wants to dispel the myth. He is almost ridiculously meticulous about his bait.
“Catfish are like one big swimming nose or tongue,” he said. “Their whole bodies are covered with tastebuds, and they’re very keen to smell. The fresher the bait, the better.”
Threadfin shad, gizzard shad, chubs, mooneyes, bream… use whatever is native to the system, and keep them alive in a bait tank. Fish them either alive or as cut bait, but even with cut bait you want their hearts pumping until they hit the water. The exception is skipjack herring. Herndon said in any system that connects to the Gulf of Mexico, skipjack are the king of catfish bait. Skipjack are the only bait that works just as well fresh or frozen.
Herndon uses bait about the size of a grown man’s fist. Heads, fillets and body sections work well for cutbait. Anytime you’re handling it, make sure your hands are cleaned with the water you’re fishing in. Herndon won’t allow anyone to touch bait if they have sunscreen or bug spray on their hands, and even smokers and cologne wearers get a pass on bait duty.
Herndon fishes what amounts to a heavy-duty Carolina rig, with a sinker-slide and as much weight as it takes to keep his offerings stationary on the bottom. He uses 40-pound mono and about 18 inches of 60- to 80-pound leader. The heavy leader is for the inside of a big cat’s mouth, which is like 60-grit sandpaper. On the business end, Herndon snells in a heavy-gauge 10/0 to 12/0 circle hook. Make sure the gap in the hook is open. If the tip of a circle hook is covered, the hookset will fail.
All of this goes on a medium-heavy rod with a super soft tip and good reel, like a Penn Fathom, Abu Garcia 6500 or Alphamar. You need gear with enough backbone to handle a big fish and the suppleness to allow it to hook itself on a circle hook.
Now comes the fun part. Find a current break like a wing dyke or sharp outside bend on a river or a good hole with some structure on a reservoir. Anchor into the current upstream of whatever you’re fishing. Stagger four to six baits out of the back of the boat. Throw out a few outliers and a few right on top of the structure. If you don’t lose some tackle, you aren’t fishing close enough.
Once you’ve got your baits out, all that’s left to do is wait. When the rod tip bends to the water and it’s all you can do to get the rod out of the rod-holder, you’ll know you’re tied into the kind of fish Herndon is looking for.
Jonathon Herndon is a professional catfisherman and the star of the show Maximum Catfishing, which will air on The Fishing Network in the first quarter of 2014. For more on trophy catfishing, see his website www.maximumcatfishing.com.
Caption: Gary Turner, marketing director for the show Maximum Catfishing, with a trophy flathead catfish from Georgia’s Lake Oconee.