Chasing Giant Catfish

Catching monster catfish takes patience and skill.

John N. Felsher | May 8, 2019

Anglers can’t just launch into a river or lake, throw out a few baits and expect to catch a monster whiskerfish, although that can happen. To fish specifically for giant catfish, anglers must first find them. Even outstanding catfish waters like the Altamaha River, Lake Oconee or the Satilla River (see page 14) only hold so many catfish exceeding 50 pounds. Just a few might top 80 pounds. After finding big fish, anglers need to tempt them with something they want to eat, when they want to eat it. 

“To catch really big catfish, anglers need to spend considerable time on the water specifically fishing for big catfish,” Phil King, a professional catfish angler with multiple national championship titles in varied circuits and a 103-lb. blue to his credit. 

“The key to catching catfish is just getting the bait in front of its nose. People need to learn where big cats live and feel secure. Sometimes, people might find a good spot, and see big fish on the depthfinder, but it may not be in the mood to bite right then. Sometimes, we’ll come back to a spot a couple hours later and catch that fish.”

Fortunately, anglers can take advantage of modern technology to find and catch monsters. Before hitting the water, study contour maps or internet satellite images to determine places that might hold giants. On the water, anglers can scan likely areas with quality electronics to locate drop-offs rockpiles, fallen trees, humps, boulders, depressions or other features where big catfish can hide out of direct current but still catch prey. Catfish frequently stay in eddies on the current edge facing upstream looking for the flow to bring them something to eat. In lakes without current, cats drop into holes or stay near deep cover.

“Catfish like to find a place where they can feel secure, but also where they can easily grab a meal if something comes by,” Phil said. “With all the high-tech side-scan and down-scan electronics now, anglers can see the structure much clearer than the sonar systems we used just a few years ago. I like to fish right along the drop-off edge where the current rides over the top, creating a little boil. Sometimes, little mounds on the bottom hold pieces of debris on the front end, making the spot that much better.”

In many rivers, constant water flow carved bottom features create a rolling washboard appearance with humps and valleys. Around bends, currents scour especially deep holes. Big catfish drop into these holes and valleys or hide behind humps or other objects. Non-active fish typically lay near the bottom. When actively feeding, catfish lurk just below the upstream rim of a hole or at the edge of a current break waiting to pounce on anything tempting that passes irresistibly close.

“If I’m fishing a new spot, I like to set my side-scan out to about 200 feet on each side of the boat,” Phil suggested. “I look for depressions, drop-offs, rock, wood or other structure and depth changes. It doesn’t have to be more than a foot in depth change to hold a big fish. With side-scan technology, we can see groves way up under ledges that the water flow scoured over the years.”

Phil King (left) and Tim Haynie show off a big blue catfish they caught.

Drift fishing enables anglers to cover more territory, increasing the odds of putting a succulent bait within reach of a big catfish. After scouting a likely area, swing wide to avoid disturbing the best potential spots and head upstream. Well above the prime area, begin the drift. When current pushes a boat too quickly, point the bow upstream and run the trolling motor to slow the drift and control the direction as the boat floats backward.

“When drifting a big river, speed is critical,” Phil explained. “With the trolling motor facing upstream, I ease downriver at a slower speed than the current flow. That’s the key to making a good drift. That gives me an opportunity to show the bait to fish two or three times instead of it blowing past the fish too fast. The longer someone keeps a bait in a fish’s face, the more likely it’ll bite it.”

On a lake with little to no current, wind can move boats across the surface. Head upwind and turn the boat broadside to the breeze. That way, anglers can rig multiple rods and fish a wider swath of water. During a strong breeze, hang a drift sock or two over the side to slow the speed. Without a drift sock, anglers can use a large bucket on a line as a drift anchor.

“Lakes without current fish totally different,” Phil commented. “I let the wind dictate my drift, but I like to drift over creek channels, drop-offs and other contours. That’s a very effective way to fish big lakes. When drifting in current, my partner and I usually fish one pole each.”

On a calm day, propel the boat slowly forward with a trolling motor. Use electronics to follow creek channel edges, circle humps or fish other structure. Over drop-off edges, place some baits on the shallow side, some at the edge and others on the deep side whenever possible to locate fish and determine patterns.

Whether drifting a lake or a river, try to fish as vertically as possible. Once the sinker hits bottom, crank the reel handle a couple times to keep the line tight. Some anglers add a float to the line to give baits more buoyancy and suspend them 1 to 3 feet off the bottom. Catfish can more easily find something tasty dangling above the bottom than dragging through debris.

An angler prepares to make a skipjack fillet for use as a catfish bait. Strip baits can make excellent temptations for big blue and flathead catfish.

“When I’m fishing a controlled drift or just vertically trolling, I’ll use as many rods as I can and fish different baits,” Phil remarked. “I like to suspend baits at different levels off the bottom. If we start marking suspended fish, we’ll vertically suspend multiple baits right in front of their noses.”

For tempting giant cats, many anglers use 80- to 100-lb. braid for the main line on a medium-heavy to heavy rod. On the terminal end, attach a three-way swivel. From one eye, drop a length of fluorocarbon leader and tie two 5/0 to 7/0 circle hooks about 6 to 12 inches apart. On the other eye, drop a longer line to hold the sinker. The sinker may weigh from 3 to 24 ounces, depending upon the depth and current strength. For bait, think big. Monster catfish normally eat other large fish.

“The best advice I can give to someone who has never caught a giant catfish is to upsize the bait,” Phil recommended. “When a big catfish feeds, it wants a lot of meat. Most people who don’t specifically fish for big catfish can’t believe the bait sizes we use. A big blue or flathead can swallow a huge bait. That 103-lb. blue that I caught could have swallowed my entire head. Even a 50-pounder can swallow a substantial bait. ”

Live, whole, filled or chunked skipjack and gizzard shad make excellent catfish temptations. Anglers can also use mullet and other baitfish. When fishing with cut bait, use the heads or body cavity parts because these pieces ooze the most succulent juices. A catfish can follow a scent trail quite a ways.

“I’ll vary my bait all day,” Phil detailed. “I usually use skipjack, but in the winter, shad is often better than skipjack. Asia carp fillets are also good to use for bait. I like to fish a small bait and a large bait at the same time. That gives fish some options so I can see what they want best that day. I’ll start with a big bait to get the biggest fish. If that doesn’t work, I might go to a fillet and a gut section. Sometimes, they want just a chunk about an inch wide. If fish keep grabbing big baits, but not taking them, downsize the offering. Finicky fish might not want a big chunk. They might only want live baits.”

Blues habitually roam lakes looking for shad and generally feed more aggressively during the day. On the other hand, mammoth flatheads occasionally hit fresh fish chunks, but the voracious predators typically prefer live bait and most often hunt bluegill, shad, bullheads, small catfish and other fish at night. Rather than chasing prey, large flatheads hunker down in the thickest cover they can find, such as fallen trees, brush, rock or logpiles and wait to ambush unsuspecting fish. Where legal, a live bluegill makes a magnificently enticing flathead bait.

For both blues and flatheads, many anglers fish live baits or strips on Carolina rigs. To make a strip bait, fillet off a side of shad, skipjack or other baitfish. Leave the ribcage in the fillet. Run a hook through the ribcage to give it more durability. Some anglers insert the hook once through one end of the fillet, roll it over and run the hook through it again so that the hook goes through both sides and stays on better.

Flatheads are voracious predators that prefer live bait and most often hunt bluegill, shad, bullheads, small catfish and other fish at night.

Slip a sinker on the line above a swivel. To the swivel, attach a 36- to 60-inch length of fluorocarbon leader. To keep the bait off the bottom, add a wine bottle cork to the leader. To a wary flathead, a brown cork looks more like natural debris drifting in the water than a colorful plastic bobber does. Add just enough buoyancy to keep the bait off the bottom. Suspended above bottom clutter, a fillet strip undulates in the current mimicking a living creature while exuding juices.

“If I fished a river with mostly flatheads, I’d try to catch fresh bait that morning or use live bait like bluegill or shad,” Phil advised. “Sometimes, we’ll catch big flatheads when targeting blue catfish and vice versa. A customer caught a 69-lb. flathead while we were anchored and fishing skipjack for blue cats. When the water turns dingy or stained, flatheads bite better on cut bait than live bait. They bite best on live baits in clearer, greener waters.”

Catfish spawn in late spring. During the spawn and right afterward, use smaller baits since cats don’t want to eat a big meal until they recover from the spawning process. By mid-summer and into the fall, use large baits as catfish fatten up for the winter. Weather systems can also affect how they bite.

“The second and third day after a front comes through are the best times to fish for big catfish,” Phil observed. “On the first day after a front, fish are in recovery mode. When the barometric pressure goes up and down, that upsets their systems drastically. They are nauseated and don’t really want to eat. However, on the second and third day, catfish make up for it and eat a lot. On days like that, I’ve caught big catfish with a hand-sized bait that already had a huge skipjack they were trying to swallow while eating my bait.”

Fishing for giant catfish requires great patience. Anglers might stare at the water in abject boredom 99 percent of the time waiting for that 1 percent of sheer adrenaline-pumping exhilaration. Bites might come slow and far between, but any tug on a line could mean a fish of a lifetime.

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!


1 Comment

  1. aug 123 on May 29, 2019 at 9:39 am

    Nice bass and who ever killed the turkeys nice turkeys.


Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.