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Big Cats in the Kayak

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July 9, 2015

Big Cats in the Kayak

I've been asked several times for some advice on pursuing big catfish in the kayak. The thought of going for a sleigh ride with an ugly behemoth at the end of the line is appealing to many kayak anglers. For freshwater kayak anglers like me, this is as close as it gets to wrangling sharks, sailfish and tarpon. Chasing trophy catfish in the kayak takes a bit of work and dedication but it might be a goal easier reached than some may believe. In fact, your feline dreams may come true overnight.

The first step is properly preparing for battle. If you go out under-equipped your outing will likely end in heartbreak. Big blues and flatheads will test your gear to the max. I prefer a heavy rod with a slow action tip. I like the rod to be at least 8 feet long to help gain leverage when that big fish makes a run for the nastiest snag in the lake or river. I like the slow action tip because it helps the hook point find home when using a kahle or circle hook. Most of the time you want to use large baits for large cats so you don't want to 'set' the hook in a traditional sense. A slow, sweeping hook set with a 5/0 to 7/0 kahle hook will often result in a perfectly embedded hook in the corner of the mouth. This is also key for releasing trophy fish alive and well.  I've caught both a flathead and a blue over 70 pounds with the kahle hook, my personal favorite. When it comes to line choice, I won't use anything under 60 pound break strength, often I'll use 80- 100lb. test braided line. While braid can be subject to abrasion, heavy braid is more resistant but if you are fishing in thick snags consider a 60-80lb. test fluorocarbon leader. As far as reel choice goes there are many options. I use a Shimano Calcutta most of the time but I also use a strong surfcasting spinning reel sometimes. You don't necessarily need to make long casts when fishing from a kayak, you should be more concerned with having line capacity for heavy line and the strength to crank in a big fish from snags or current. A bait caster like an Abu Garcia or Shimano Calcutta come with bait clickers which are useful at night for detecting a bite. When I choose a spinning reel it is for situations when I'm after wary fish and I don't want them to feel any resistance when they take the bait, so I open the bail and let the fish run free. Once you have put together a solid combo you'll be ready for battle. In the kayak, it's usually best to use just one rod. Paying attention to having one setup in the right location will equal more success than trying to juggle another line when you hook up with a big fish. You'll find when chasing 50 plus pound fish that simplicity plays an important role. A roomy kayak like my Hobie Pro Angler is the bee's knees for big game. Most nets are too small for big cats and if you need fish grips you might as well stay home. You must be ready to be painted with slime and blood. When that gaping mouth appears next to your kayak, you must be ready to stick your paw in there and grab a fistful of beast.

Next topic to cover would be bait. Obtaining the right bait is just as important as gear and location. If you think catching big cats involves liver, stink bait and worms then it is time to reconsider the fish you are chasing. Big cats eat a bunch of food and they prefer to capitalize on optimum caloric intake. This doesn't mean you won't catch a big cat on a dinky goldfish or creek chub but bigger is better. With big bait you appeal to a variety of the cat's senses. While the cats might be slurping up shad  you can make a choice that will stand out among thousands of silvery baitfish. I like to use bullheads, drum and where legal sometimes even channel catfish as bait. The stronger and hardier the bait, the better. I've used bait weighing up to two pounds before! Do not be afraid of using big bait! Now, when I talk about live bait I am generally discussing what I use to target flathead catfish. For blue catfish I prefer cut bait. Blues seem to like oily fishes more than anything. Fish like drum, gold eye, skipjack herring and shad all work well. I prefer fresh caught cut bait, sliced vertically and hooked between the skin and flesh with hook point well exposed. If your hook isn't large enough you will often end up with the hook point stuck in your bait instead of the fish's mouth. This is an important detail. I also like a clean cut piece of bait because appendages on your chunk of bait can cause it to spin in current and twist up your line. For live bait, I like to hook my fish just under the dorsal or through the lips as flatheads often take a bait head first. Flatheads will often swallow a soft spined fish quickly but for fish with spiny fins they will usually pick up the bait, swim to deeper water and then wait for it to die in the grip of their jaws before swallowing it. This means if you are using a spiny fish for bait you should wait until the after the fish makes its initial run and pause. When it runs a second time, set the hook. This is especially true when using large bait.

You might be asking at this point, "how do I rig up for these baits?". Once again, attention to detail in your rig set-up is crucial. For roaming, hungry flatheads I prefer to use a slip bobber with a kahle hook below it. If I am targeting a certain depth, I'll add a free sliding sinker above the hook to keep my bait down. If the flatheads are being aggressive I will let the bait swim free as a big flathead has no qualms plucking a bait from the surface. There are even guys who target topwater flatheads with plugs and swim baits! In most situations, I prefer to use a float that offers the least resistance to a running flathead. This usually means a strong baitfish can pull the bobber under for a bit, this is okay. If you are targeting flatheads that get little fishing pressure try experimenting with adding rattles or flashy spinner blades to your rig. A certain Japanese friend of mine even tried using an unmentionable adult toy to add extra vibration in the water for attracting "big momma flatheads". When fishing creeks and rivers for flatheads, a bottom rig is usually best. There are two that I prefer, one is using a heavy river sinker that slides free above a heavy duty swivel which leads to the hook. This allows a fish to run free without much resistance when it takes the bait. If you are fishing heavy cover however, you might consider a three way swivel with the weight on a monofilament drop line and the main line to the swivel being heavy braid. Then tie a piece of braid from the swivel to your kahle hook. With this rig, the weight breaks off when the fish swims into a snag and you are less likely to lose the fish in the rocks, trees, sunken Chevy trucks, etc. These bottom rigs are also what I generally use for river blue catfish but with my oily cut bait instead of a live fish.

With an idea now of gear, rigs and bait we are ready to cover when and where to target big cats in the kayak. Big cats make predictable seasonal movements. They can be targeted in spring, summer and fall. Blues and flatheads both do well in some reservoirs. While flatheads remain in wintering holes in early spring, blues will take advantage of feeding opportunities. In lakes with a spring shad die-off, target shallow, wind-blown areas where catfish can easily slurp up dying or dead shad. When it comes to bait, match the hatch as they say. If the shad are floating on top or swirling around mid-depth, employ a float rig. If they are on the bottom, fish on the bottom. Pay attention to your surroundings on the water, there will be cues that hint to the proper set-up. Later in the year, blues will suspend around areas containing the most baitfish. They will roam and follow baitfish, often positioning themselves in areas that funnel food through current generated by the wind... bends in underwater creek channels, humps, jetties, etc. Flatheads start to move heavily when the water warms top to bottom in spring. Reservoir flatheads will hold in a variety of areas but locations containing a mixture of preferred habitat and baitfish will be prime. I like to think 'big' when it comes to habitat. This means big rocks, big trees and other large objects in the water. Flatheads love a feeling of security in their haunts and this means big habitat for big fish. One thing flatheads do not love is current. While they may venture into areas with current to feed, they prefer calm areas. The flathead catfish is equipped with everything it needs to be a fearsome, apex predator. The flathead is a hunter and like bass it hunts on edges where it can pin baitfish in a vulnerable spot and crush it, keep this in mind when positioning your bait. Around June in the midwest, both species begin to spawn, 'big' habitat is once again important to find these fish. Hollow logs, cut-in creek banks and rock ledges all offer prime spawning habitat. After the spawn, the fish are hungry and some great fishing can be had in the normal areas you would fish. A fair bite often lasts all the way to fall when some really heavy feeding occurs before winter. Often times, cats will gravitate towards feeding areas close to their deep wintering holes. The same goes for both blues and flatheads in creeks and rivers. In the first few heavy rains of spring, catfish migrate up into feeder creeks where they will eventually spawn. Sometimes, it's a good idea to concentrate on tiny streams where you would least expect a big fish. These fish are usually unpressured and easy to locate. You would be surprised the monster fish that will be hiding in a small hole in the creek, only eight feet deep. In high water during the spring, blues and flatheads will move up extremely shallow to feed. Otherwise they are best targeted at the front or back of deeper holes. Flatheads once again gravitate towards heavy cover such as logjams in areas with less current. They will move out to flats at night to feast. Blues prefer deeper holes with some current and cover. They will also feed in shallower water at night but both species can be targeted and caught during the day. When you approach creeks and rivers containing catfish try to remain confident, if you follow a basic knowledge of catfish location it can be easier than you think to find the big girls. While big cats are rare compared to the number of small cats in moving water, there can actually be very good numbers of large fish that are simply an untapped resource in many circumstances.

Lastly, it is important to be safe. A river or even lake at night can be dangerous. Always wear a life jacket and have a variety of lighting options. Always go with a buddy to help you out in a jam or in an instance where a cat is too big to land in the kayak alone. If need be, beach your yak and handle the fish from shore. My largest cat in the yak went 75lbs. 7 oz and required me to beach my yak or I would have ended up in another state or caught in a logjam. My brother landed an 80 plus pound blue cat that required both of us to pull into the kayak, one guy handling the rod and the other handling the fish. Avoid anchoring in strong current. I prefer tying off to a branch, rock or bridge pillar. In a lake, an anchor with a float that you can disattach is very helpful if you hook a big fish. Last but not least, don't forget to charge your camera battery. When you finally wrestle that giant cat in the yak you don't want to miss the chance to preserve your trophy with a picture before you gently let her swim away. I could write for days on the subject but hopefully I covered enough to get you started on a quest for big cats. Tight lines, my friends.

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