Fish & Tackle: Blue Catfish Obsession

By Vic Attardo


blue catfish


The first blue catfish I ever caught weighed 27 pounds, and the more experienced catfish angler I was with at the time declared it “a mere minnow.” Perhaps, I reckoned, it was a touch of jealousy. But then he landed his own 53-pounder, and even fish of that size don’t make the annals of blue cat lore. A 15-year-old angler set the current North Carolina state record with a 117-pounder last June, and the previous two state records—91 pounds and then 105 pounds—were caught by the same angler within the same 24 hours during December, less than six months before.

With the growing interest in catfish tournaments, some anglers are becoming quite technical in their approach. When fishing, you can make things as complicated as you like. But that new North Carolina record was caught with just a piece of shad on a hook. I have caught very respectable blue cats with cut herring. It’s tough to beat whatever oily fish the blues are accustomed to eating.

A setup for blue cats I consider hard to improve upon is simply an egg sinker on the main line then a snap swivel, a leader, and either a circle hook or treble hook depending on the bait. I prefer a braided leader for baits that hold together well, such as cut shad or herring. However, a no-stretch braided leader can jolt a gelatinous blood bait off the hook, so I may opt for a mono leader with blood bait.

In either case, I prefer a high-strength braid for the main line. Mono may be better for casting distance, but rarely am I tossing the bait a long ways when going after blue cats, preferring to position the boat close and precisely target bottom structure.

While fishing on the Arkansas River I watched a number of 20-pound lines break, and when one big cat charged under the boat, the 25-pound leader snapped with a whip-like crack. It wasn’t anywhere near strong enough to withstand that load.

A braided line rated 50-pound-test has the same diameter as a much lighter-rated mono, and that combination of strength and thinness makes it a good all-round choice for blue cats. I know trophy hunters who wouldn’t consider anything under 80-pound braid for the leader. If you are going that heavy, make sure the swivel is also rated for 80 pounds. Otherwise, it might break if the line doesn’t.

A braided running line is thinner than equal-strength monofilament, and that lets it drop better through current. Once the bait is on the bottom, current doesn’t bow the line as badly as it might a much wider monofilament of similar strength.

Whether to use a circle hook or a regular straight-shank hook remains a topic of debate in blue cat circles. I come down firmly on the side of circle hooks. As noted, blue cats are aggressive strikers that tend to surge away with a bait. This plays right into the strengths of a stout circle hook.

As the fish moves off, the hook lodges in a fleshy corner, top or bottom of its mouth. All three locations provide solid hook-sets and easy catch & release.

Put the reel in free spool for that initial run. Then, as the cat either continues swimming away or takes off on a second run, engage the reel and let the line slowly tighten. When you feel the fish, start cranking. There is no need to set a circle hook with a sharp jerk, and doing so may only pull it out of the fish’s mouth.

The winching power of a bait-casting reel makes it my choice for these powerful fish. However, some spinning reels handle braid and heavy mono just fine. If you prefer a spinning reel, get one with the bait-runner feature. It will let line flow freely off the spool until you throw the brake and tighten down on the fish.

Because a soft blood bait can fall off of a circle hook, a stout treble hook may be a better choice here, and unlike a circle hook, the angler does need to set a treble hook. Unfortunately, there is no firm rule that says when to set that hook.

One day on an Alabama lake, I missed a number of fish trying to set treble hooks during the initial runs. Finally, I let one run parallel to the boat from stern to bow. When it turned and reversed direction, I tried to set the hook and missed again.

In fishing as in life, failure can be a harsh taskmaster but a great teacher. While I hadn’t gained any fresh insight on when to set a treble hook, that experience did cement my preference for firmer fish baits on circle hooks—even when blood baits are getting more bites.

Last time out, I went South with five other guys, and we brought two boats. We agreed the boats would be anchored, and since we could each fish two lines that way, it meant up to a dozen baits at a time worked from two separate positions.

All of those lines in the water at the same time suggested an ideal opportunity for side-by-side testing. I decided to watch what the others were up to and when the opportunity presented itself, do something different myself.

It was the spring of the year, and we had heard blue cats were staging to spawn but not quite there. Blues prefer a spawning temperature of about 60 degrees, and the water in South Carolina’s Lake Moultrie was warming to that mark daily but then dropping back in the night.

The first day we set up in the river outlet that connects Lake Moultrie with Lake Marion. Both boats scanned for underwater structure, and we settled on a channel about 50 feet deep while the other boat went in shallower. I was glad to be on the deeper boat because I thought shallower lines would pick up more channel cats than big blues.

Some of the tackle on our boat seemed a little light, but my heavy-action 7-foot-6-inch rods were teamed with venerable Penn 320 reels.

A friend made me a batch of blood bait for the trip, and I placed a cube on a treble hook while I adorned the circle hook on the other line with shad, freshly frozen from a recent bait-netting outing in Florida and quite oily. The other anglers in my boat had also brought cut bait, but it didn’t look as tempting. I gave the captain some of my homemade blood bait.

We anchored where our baits could drift across a deep channel, and I soon changed from a 1/4-ounce to a 1/2-ounce egg sinker because it felt like the lighter weight was drifting a bit too freely.

About a half-hour later, a fish started running with the captain’s blood bait. He waited until the run was well underway before setting the hook but still didn’t connect. He rebaited, got another taker minutes later, and set the hook same as before. This time he connected and fought a very big fish to a draw at the side of the boat. It looked to me like the other angler snagged one of the treble hook points in the mesh of the net when he tried to help land the fish, and the blue cat twisted free.

It looked to be a solid 40-pounder.

The next fish took my cut shad. I let it run a long ways before it stopped, at which point I believe it turned the bait and swallowed it. When it started to run again I locked down the spool, and when I felt the big fish on the line, I started cranking.

The fish surged, taking line like it was stripping the peel from a ripe banana. When I thought it might spool the big reel, I tightened the drag a smidgen, an “iffy” move in the middle of a fight with a big fish. But I knew the drag on that venerable Penn reel, and I didn’t overdo it.

I could finally wrestle the big cat, and when it tried to make a third run I was able to turn it. The captain did a very professional job netting what looked to be a 45-pound blue. But we didn’t weigh the fish, didn’t boat it, either.

I don’t like to lift heavy blue cats from the water. Their guts are so large when the weight is not being supported by water it can injure the fish. Also, I thought this one might be a female with eggs.

So the captain unhooked her, and she swam straight out of the net.

When it became clear that the blood bait was getting more strikes, my boat mates started fishing it on both lines. However, hook-sets weren’t always sure with the trebles. One rod broke, a reel was spooled, and over two days they brought in three blue cats over 30 pounds.

Fishing cut shad on circle hooks, I missed one fish and brought in eight. My stout tackle performed as it should.

Our friends in the other boat stayed in shallower water. They caught two fine blues and a mess of channel cats, a few of which weren’t in the least shabby.

Blue cats are not really blue but rather a deep pewter grey with a white throat and belly. Because of this coloration and their prodigious strength, I think the name ought to be changed to steel cats

I doubt that will ever happen, but I think it would be appropriate.