Gerald Almy: Tactics for catching a giant catfish

Gerald Almy

Gerald Almy

“When a big cat strikes, you’ll know it,” said our fishing guide, John Sellers. “I’ve never seen a freshwater fish that strikes as violently as a large catfish.”

As if on cue, a rod next to my fishing partner, Sharon Taylor, bowed sharply and began throbbing violently in its holder. Sharon grabbed it quickly and knew instantly the fish on her line was larger than any she had ever caught.
After 10 minutes of give-and-take battling, the big cat came up. But as soon as we caught a glimpse of it, the fish burrowed deep again, stripping line from the tightly-set drag.

“You rarely get them the first time they come up,” Sellers said. “Usually it takes about 20 minutes to land one.”

Finally, after nearly a half-hour, Sharon pumped the cat close and the guide deftly netted 53 pounds of glistening blue catfish and hauled it aboard. That was the latest of over 100 catfish Captain Sellers’ clients had landed weighing over 50 pounds.

If you want to catch big catfish, the first thing you need to do is find waters with such fish available. The famous Santee-Cooper lakes of South Carolina are one such spot. They produce massive blues, channels and flatheads.

The second thing is to learn the techniques of the master anglers who focus on these fish. I was able to pick the brains of Captain John Sellers on the trip mentioned above. He was a legend on this lake, but sadly passed away a few years ago. His techniques are still as valid as ever, though. And best of all, they will work virtually anywhere big catfish are found, including our top lakes and rivers in Virginia such as the James, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers and Gaston and Buggs Island Lake. They’ll entice all major species of cats including blues, channels and flatheads.

Tackle. For starters, use strong enough gear for these big whiskered brawlers. An 8-9 foot heavy graphite rod is best. Match it with a high quality level-wind reel and 30-50 pound line. Thread a ½- to 2-ounce barrel sinker on the main line, and then tie in a two-way swivel. Add a 50-pound monofilament leader measuring 18-36 inches. Then tie on a size 4/0-6/0 hook.

Bait. You can use a variety of offerings, depending on where you fish. Live minnows and commercial catfish stinkbait concoctions are good options. But Sellers said it’s hard to top cut bait from a herring, shad or mullet. Cut them into steaks ¾-1 inch wide. And don’t waste the head. It makes another good bait.

Best depth. “Whatever depth you fish,” he said, “it’s important to keep your bait within inches of the bottom.”

He varies where and how deep he fishes according to the time of day, season, wind speed and other weather conditions.

“Early in the day and late in the evening, catfish tend to move shallow. I sometimes fish in as little as 8-10 feet of water in the morning or at dusk. The big ones move in to feed on flats, bars, points and shallow humps then. During the middle of the day, they hang deeper, from 20-60 feet, typically around rough cover.”

Prime locations. Learn the best spots by trial and error and by studying topo maps and your depth finder. Among the best locations are hills, saddles, channel edges, submerged islands, ditches and holes in otherwise flat bottoms. Dead standing timber can also be worth trying, especially for flatheads.

“Big cats are going to feed an hour or two every day,” he said. “The trick is to put your bait in front of them when that feeding period occurs.”

Drift or anchor? Many catfish guides like to anchor. It’s easier to fish that way. But Sellers said he catches more fish and bigger ones presenting moving bait. The exception would be in early spring, when the fish might be in 4-6 feet of water and would be spooked by the boat’s presence, or when it’s extremely windy.

Sellers had already shown Sharon and me the wisdom of his drift-fishing tactics when we joined him in just a few hours of fishing. We had her 53 pounder and several smaller fish already in the boat.

But before we called our half-day trip quits, a rod near me bounced deep, jerking furiously in its holder. I grabbed it quickly and was connected to another jumbo catfish. This one tipped the scales at 44 pounds. With two beautiful catfish totally 97 pounds, we declared victory and called it a day.

Try these proven catfish tactics on some of Virginia’s top lakes and rivers and maybe you’ll latch onto a pair of cats to best those two beauties. If anybody’s tactics can produce such a catch, it’s those perfected by the late, great Captain Sellers.

Note: Virginia’s Lake Gaston produced an amazing 117-pound, 8-ounce blue catfish on June 11 for angler Landon Evans. This lake straddles the border with North Carolina, and the tremendous catfish became their new state record, topping a 105-pound cat caught in December last year, also on Lake Gaston.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.

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