By Dennis Doyle
The somewhat recent incursion of catfish into the Bay has resulted in some new and frequently heavy action for Maryland anglers. Nowadays you never know just how big the critter is at the end of your line.
Fish, particularly blue catfish, in the 50-pound class are a definite possibility. Plus, depending on what species you’ve encountered, the limits on how many you can harvest is up to you.
There are still quantities of our favorite rockfish to be had but in the last few years catfish have entered the mix in substantial numbers. And the traditional freshwater rigs popular throughout the U.S. for catching them are making their way into the Tidewater as well and their use is producing striped bass equally well.
Nationally, catfish have long been an overwhelmingly popular fish. Originating from the Missouri River, they are now found in every state and second only to the largemouth bass in the number of sweetwater aficionados pursuing them. Catfish have also become the official state species in at least five states.
Bait-fishing on the bottom is the traditional tactic for catching the four most popular species in the Bay: the blue, channel, flathead and white catfish. The doodlebug rig, once a mainstay of our surf anglers along the Atlantic as a means to float their baits just off of the bottom to elude crabs, also has evolved as a reliable rig for attracting whisker fish.
All of the cats are large-mouthed, small-toothed, tough-skinned but scaleless and usually found feeding and cruising close to the bottom at various depths. The catfish’s sense of smell is accurate at surprisingly long distances and sensed through their barbels (whiskers) located near the sides of their mouths.
The Santee rig, used by the catfish anglers of Santee Cooper Lake in South Carolina, is quite reminiscent of the Maryland surfer’s doodlebug setup. Using a stout three way swivel with a short leader and sinker off of one swivel and at least a 6/0, circle hook with a brightly colored float fixed some four to five inches along a 30 to 80 pound, 16-inch leader on the other swivel. The mainline is usually composed of monofilament or braided lines from 20 to 60 pound test.
Another similar setup, the Carolina rig, uses the common Bay fish-finder sliding sinker of about 2 to 3 ounces, above a stout swivel, then to a 19- to 24-inch leader, preferably fluorocarbon of 30 to 50 pounds and at least a 6/0 circle hook. A colored float of about 3 to 4 inches is placed about 6 inches above the bait to keep it just off the bottom. I used this rig for the first time last year and found it equally as effective for rock as catfish.
n A Demon Dragon is another recent innovation becoming popular for all types of catfishing that simply involves using a spook type, hookless, surface plug (or Demon Dragon) in a baitfish pattern, tied in as the float above the baited hook. Allegedly intended to emulate a baitfish trying to steal the cut bait, it is claimed to induce more aggressive and frequent bites from targeted prey.
To make all of these rigs effective, use an old school, dead stick technique to insure a firm corner mouth hookup. Dead sticking means that, after casting out your bait, you place your rod in a bank or boat rod holder in gear so that it can resist some substantial pressure from the fish. When the fish bites, the angler must wait and allow the fish to actually set the hook by pulling strongly.
I’ve found that interfering in that process is inevitably detrimental to success, so just sit back and wait for that drag to start humming.