Chasing Monsters (How to land a giant)

When most people see pictures of the fish we catch, their immediate reaction is "HOLY S***!!!" Typically, followed by "How do you catch fish like that?". Then I follow-up with a generic answer like "hard work and dedication"; which is true, but I'd like to try and answer that in a little more detail.

Catching fish is fairly simple, catching trophy size fish with any regularity, is an entirely different thing. Here is a basic run-down of how I target monster fish:

Preparation

Study the water Catching giant fish starts well before you get to the water. I typically spend 2-4 hours studying depth contour maps a few days before my trip. When I'm doing this, I try to keep three factors in mind: Season, Weather Patterns, and Barometric Pressure. These 3 factors play into the strategy and locations I'll target on the upcoming trip. Before the boat hits the water I'll have 10 locations identified that could possibly hold hungry fish.

Example: Blue catfish, mid-spring, water temp 56 deg, 3-days of warm weather before trip and cold/rainy on the day of the trip.

Most of the spring, I target shallow flats 2-5 ft deep. Since the weather is less than ideal, I want to move out from shallow flats that I know hold fish, to the nearest river channel ledge that provides at least 20 ft of depth. Follow the river channel until you find bait concentrations and anchor. Don't drift. Also, in this scenario I will often downsize sinker, leader, hook and bait size. (If the fish are still light biting, I will bury the hook a little deeper in the bait, but make sure I still have plenty of hook point exposed.)


Often, you won't see fish on sonar when they aren't actively feeding. Don't worry about that. If you have bait and structure, there should be bigger fish in the area. Another tip in this particular scenario is to "run and gun". The fish won't be moving much so don't give them too much time. I give it 20 minutes max without a bite before I pick up and move. However, you don't have to move much; I'll move 200 yards on the ledge I'm fishing. I'll try this 3 times and if I strike out I'll look at a different area with similar conditions. 

Prep Your Gear


My wife can vouch for this one because it drives her insane. Before I get to the lake, I like to have all the rods I will be using that day rigged up and ready to fish. I actually have a pre-trip checklist for my gear.


  1. Is everything clean? If not, makes sure to wipe down your rods and reels with a non-abrasive cleaner. The reason for this is dirt and scales can wreak havoc on the mechanical components of your reel. You don't want to lock up the worm gear on your reel while fighting a 100 lb fish. Also, scales, slime and dirt can form on the eyes of your rod - couple that with sun and heat or freezing conditions - and abrasions can form on your line. I know it sounds like a long shot, but believe me, I have seen it all. 

  2. Is your equipment in good working order? Make sure to play with your rods and reels before you get them to the lake. I like to test my drag, casting and reeling under pressure. Drag is an easy one simply pull out a bit of line against heavy drag and make sure it is smooth and steady no jerking. Casting is pretty easy, too. I will toss a weight across the front yard, not very far just enough to test function. Then reeling under pressure is a little harder to test but I have found that when I go out to test cast function, I'll toss the weight under my truck tire and reel down until the drag engages. After the reel check, I run my fingers over the eyes on the rod to see if there are any cracks. If all of the test are passed then, I'm good to go!

  3. Is your line is good repair? I do this every trip. Pull off 100 yards off your reels and pass it through your fingers while winding it back on your reel. If you find any snags, knots, abrasions, rough or flat spots, or anything out of the norm, cut the line and start over. Also, watch the amount of line on your reels. I have seen this all too many times, a client brings a great catfishing set-up, ready to roll, without any line. When drifting we may have 250 ft of line out the back of the boat, depending on conditions, and you have to start fighting the fish from that point. The first time I set out to target trophy wiper I was free lining whole gizzard shad vertically on an older Abu Garcia Ambassador 5600 with 40 lb test line and the drag locked. When the rod buckled under the boat, the wiper had all of the line off the reel in less than 3 minutes. This isn't likely to happen if you are fishing with someone, but I use it as a cautionary tale.

  4. Tie your rigs It is much easier to tie a quality rig on your sofa or at your workbench than it is on the water. Besides who wants to use their fishing time to tie new rigs. Make sure all your rods are ready to roll the night before your trip.

  5. Set your drag At this point, I have lost count of how many fish I have lost to this issue. It happens, but you try to minimize it as much as possible. Make sure your drag is heavy but not too heavy. If you set it too high and have the reel locked up, a fish can pull a hook, break your line or swivel, or your rod. So I have a good story about this, I was fishing HEAVY wind conditions in a very exposed section of lake the day before a tournament. I was using the rolling motor to keep the boat close to a sheer cliff that dropped down 40' suspend drifting, I had snagged a rod up and locked the drag to help break the line. After I re-rigged, I dropped the rod down with a whole 11-inch shad cut diagonally from gill to tail (VERY BIG BAIT). I popped the rod in the holder and walked to the other side of the boat. When I turned around to look at the rod, the line was slack and then the rod buckled under the boat. With the tip in the water and proceeded to splinter and break at the handle. This is a 7-ft x-heavy Shimano Talus stand-up rod with a line weight of 60-80 lbs (BIG ROD). After I got to the reel, the 80 lb leader snapped at the hook. Then the rod broke and I lost the fish, a $190 rod and $150 reel. With the drag locked in place, the fish was pulling directly against the gear. And when the rod snapped, the gear stripped. No doubt this was an extreme circumstance compounded by the 35 mph sustained wind, but remember always test that drag, constantly.

  6. Make sure you batteries are charged Nothing sucks more than getting to the lake and realizing your trolling motor is dead and you will have to find a place to sit and charge your batteries instead of fishing. I have done this more than once.

So you have everything prepped and ready to roll, so we're ready to fish right... NO.

Bait


One of the hardest parts of preparation is solving the bait problem. So for bait in the catfishing world you wanted fresh:

  • Shad (live/cut)

  • Bluegill (live/cut)

  • Skipjack (cut)

  • Goldeye (cut)

  • Golden Shiners (live or cut)

  • Bullhead (live)

  • Carp(live/cut)

  • Crappie (live/cut depending on local regulations)

I'm not extremely picky, although I do have my favorites. Cut Gizzard Shad or Goldeye are my favorites locally. In the south I love a big chunk of Skipjack. Everything else is a fall back for me.


The deciding factor for me is fresh and bloody. I don't like frozen bait any way it comes. Frozen bait is always plan C. When I say fresh, I mean dead and on ice less than 24 hours. After a day, bait just doesn't keep well. Most of the time I will have 30 live Bluegill on hand and pre-cut shad caught the morning of the trip.

Now you are ready to fish!


When it comes to trophy size wiper, I don't do much in the way targeting specific locations. Wiper tend to congregate in schools with fish approximately the same size and those schools are constantly moving. I do look for a few things. Wiper love rocky points, steep drop-offs and ledges. So I target those areas the most. Typically, suspending live large Golden Shiners and whole live Gizzard Shad. Over the years I have found the best way to find massive Wipers is to use baits that small wipers won't eat. That way you can keep your bait in the water until the big boys circle around. With Wiper being an open water fish that is always on the move, we don't move as much. I take the approach of "they will come to us," if we are on prime hunting property.

With catfish on the other hand, specifically Blues and Flathead, The game is much different. These giants move in smaller groups and real monsters are often completely solitary. Blue Catfish tend to roam in groups of 3-5 fish once they reach adulthood. Often times you can see this on sonar, and you can certainly see this on days when fish are feeding heavily because you will catch fish in waves of 2-5 fish at a time. Often the fish in these waves will be approximately the same size. My approach to finding trophy Blue Catfish is to target the prime areas and use my sonar and side-imaging to identify larger fish. This is the great thing about big blue catfish, you can actually distinguish their approximate size on your sonar. Oftentimes when we are dragging baits and drifting, I will hit spot lock when I see a big catfish on the screen and watch it come up and eat the bait in real time. I have also found that large catfish won't necessarily travel in schools, but they will often occupy the same area of lake loosely scattered through an area.


When it comes to Flathead, it can be extremely frustrating, but then again, nothing beats the fight of a monster Flathead. It took me years to master catching these monsters on a regular basis, but the key is to find the nastiest, gnarliest, snag you can find and then park a lively bait right in the middle of it and wait. That's just trying to get a bite, if by some miracle your rod does bend, good luck getting that fish out. This is the most boring and most exhilarating thing we do at Record Quest. You may have to wait all night for a bite, but when you do get that bite, hold-on!

The Mental Factor!


You may not have success right away, that's okay it took me 4 years on the water to start getting it right. But once I did, it was like the heavens opened up and said, let there be MONSTERS. For 3 years, my personal best was 26 lbs. Then something clicked. I caught 23 fish from 45-59 lbs, 6 from 60-69 lbs, 3 fish 70-77 lbs (2 on the same night minutes apart, on a 3-hour trip, it was INSANE) and one weighing 86 lb. You have good days and you have bad days. Stay positive, stay committed, and most importantly, put in your time. Every time you lose a fish, you will learn a lesson. Every time someone beats you, you get better. Eventually, you will be the one catching monsters of your own.

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