I can’t believe that it has anything whatsoever to do with the Civil War, but the only states that existed in 1861 in which trolling isn’t among the most popular ways to catch fish in 2018 are the ones that either were -- or wanted to be -- part of the Confederacy.
It can’t have anything to do with a lack of opportunity, either. Not only can walleyes, muskies and several other species routinely targeted by Yankee trollers be found south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but almost every reservoir in the southeastern United States boasts abundant numbers of one or more of the three species of large catfish.
Yes, I meant catfish.
Despite the fact that very few anglers do it, trolling is as effective a method for catching catfish in Missouri as it is for catching walleyes in Minnesota. And I’m not just talking about “eating sized” channel cats. Trolling’s also a great option for rod and reel anglers who’d like to tangle with flatheads or blue cats with more than enough heft to wear them slick.
Channel cats are by far the most widespread of the large catfish, and they’re also virtually always the most abundant catfish in any given body of water. If that’s not enough, as many a crappie or bass angler will attest, channel cats will strike a variety of artificial lures, sometimes with reckless abandon. Even so, tying on a crappie jig or a spinnerbait and casting toward the bank is very seldom the best way catch enough channel cats for an invite-the-in laws fish fry. Trolling on the other hand, often outperforms traditional bait presentations, because trolling allows the angler’s offering to search for fish instead of forcing fish to search for it.
Obviously it does no good to search where there are no fish to be found. Trolling is most effective in reasonably open water, but channel cats normally relate to the bottom and are attracted to wood and rock. From a practical standpoint, that means both fish and fisherman must compromise at least a little bit.
Crankbaits with a wide wobble are one option. I’ve never found any one superior color, but it is important to choose a lure that will run just above the bottom.
Far more often than not, a “walleye rig” with a two-hook nightcrawler harness is the best bet. Using a bottom bouncer makes it much easier to keep in contact with the bottom without snagging the rig. Most commercial walleye rigs come with #3 or #4 Colorado blades, because Colorado blades will spin at slower speeds than other blade styles.
Loose schools of blue cats cruise flats directly associated with river channels. One of my favorite flats varies from 9 to 12 feet deep. The river channel that crosses it is only about four feet deeper than the flat, but that’s enough difference to attract and hold blue cats. I’ve also found good numbers of blue cats on flats that were 20 feet deep with 50-foot river channels.
The only lure I use is a homemade walleye rig with a quick-change clevis, so I can quickly change #4 or #5 Colorado blades. Instead of a snelled single hook, my rig ends in a stout snap. My standard hook is an Eagle Claw 5/0 round bend worm hook, but the snap allows for quick changes.
My go-to bait is a 3- to 4-inch green sunfish, primarily because they’re very hardy. Live or very freshly killed shad also work well, but it’s hard to keep shad fresh, let alone alive.
Use the lightest bottom bouncer that will keep in contact with the bottom with between 10 and 20 yards of line out. Blue cats can be boat shy even at 20 yards. I don’t have any slide planer boards, but if I did, I’d use them.
Unlike conventional rod and reel fishing for flatheads, trolling for them is best during the middle of a hot sunny day, when these normally solitary fish are holding in the deepest available water. Additional circumstances that force them to concentrate in a relatively small area, such as the first few miles of river downstream from a major dam, is a major plus.
Braided lines’ small diameter and lack of stretch make it a tempting choice, especially in situations that call for getting a lure as deep as possible. It can be a good choice, too, but only if the user mitigates the downside of a lack of stretch by setting the reel’s drag light enough to allow line to slip off the spool when a fish strikes. Otherwise, something else will give.
To me, one of the best things about catfishing in general and trolling in particular is that it’s impossible to know what the next strike will bring. To be sure, the most likely scenario is a catfish weighing less than five pounds. On the other hand, a 50-pounder may bend your rod double and put your heart in your throat.
Gerald Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org