Bobber Blues

Monster catfish have a hard time resisting live bait drifted past their noses.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Catfishing is typically done at night in balmy weather, so I admit I had some misgivings as I stood on a dock overlooking the Virginia portion of Kerr Lake in mid-March. My breath looked thicker than mosquito fog in the frigid 20-degree air, and the harsh dawn sunlight glared through an impeccably cloudless sky. It wasn't exactly what I'd call ideal catfishing conditions.

I couldn't complain, though, as I had been forewarned. Chris Coleman of W&W; Outdoor Adventures (434-374-4011; www.kerrlake.com/whiskers) had told me I was a month too early to savor prime fishing for blue cats. In April and May, Coleman regularly puts his clients in touch with 30- to 40-pounders. Even so, he assured me we would catch a fair number of smaller blues (and possibly a big one) despite the 49-degree water.

When Coleman pulled his boat up to the dock, he and his partner Steve Tollerson looked like frosted beer mugs. They'd been throwing cast nests since before daylight to fill their aerated baitwell with blueback herring and gizzard shad. The nets had doused their boat and snowsuits with water, which had frozen. Coleman welcomed me aboard the motorized iceberg; then we headed up Grassy Creek to begin what would be a most unusual day of catfishing. Not only would we catch a mess of blue cats under bright sunlight in cold water, but we would dupe them on live bait suspended above the bottom from oversized slip bobbers-from a moving boat, no less.

Different Breed of Cat
I soon learned that flatheads, which also thrive in Kerr Lake, rarely succumb to suspended bait. Though blues and flatheads both favor live bait over stinkbaits, they are the odd couple in terms of lifestyle. "A blue is a hunting fish," Tollerson says. "A blue stays on the move and follows the baitfish. A flathead is more territorial. Release a flathead and you can go back and catch it from the same spot later."

Because blues tend not to linger, Tollerson never drops lines until he marks fish on his liquid-crystal graph. Up on Grassy Creek that morning, we idled over two points while intensely studying the screen. We marked a few fish, but nothing that looked like a blue cat to Tollerson.

Since Kerr also has a large striper population, I wondered how one can tell the difference between stripers and blue cats on a graph. Don't they both appear as large arches? "The arch on the screen made by a blue is flatter than that of a striper," Tollerson says. "I can't tell you why, but I do know you need a high-resolution graph to see the difference."

On the third point we checked, Coleman spotted a cluster of blue cats near a cloud of baitfish 16 to 22 feet deep in 24 feet of water. He dropped a marker buoy on the fish and idled away 70 yards or so. Then we put out four baits ranging from 15 to 20 feet deep beneath big slip bobbers. The rods were secured by transom-mounted rod holders. We hung four more baits straight down without floats from rods resting in holders along the boat's gunwales. Most of the baits descended to a depth 1 or 2 feet above the blues, but a couple were positioned slightly higher in case shallow stragglers wandered through.

Under the power of a bow-mounted electric motor, Tollerson guided the boat slowly past the buoy with the floats trailing 25 to 75 yards behind. By the time we had made three passes over the point, which took about 30 minutes, we had netted and released two blue cats that weighed 6 pounds each. One came on a down line, the other on a float line. Not satisfied with the action, Tollerson decided we would move and look for bigger cats.

[pagebreak] BOAT-SHY BLUES
That day Tollerson and Coleman set out as many as six float lines and eight vertical lines at each place we fished. It appeared to be a good combination, but Coleman told me earlier that the down lines were little more than window dressing. "The floats farthest from the boat ways catch more blues," he said. "On most days we don't even fool with the vertical lines. At best, they pick up an extra fish or two."

Coleman's comments turned out to be a dead-on prediction the day we fished. Of the dozen or more blues we boated, including one strong 20-pounder that we caught, all but two went for baits dangling below the most distant floats, typically back 75 yards or more. The vertical lines accounted for only one blue.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw from this is that blue cats are extremely boat shy, which means floats are deadly on blue cats because they suspend the bait above the bottom and present it far enough away to encourage skittish blues to bite. Once the fish made up their minds to take bait, they tended to take it on the run. If a float started moving off quickly, the angler picked up the rod, engaged the spool, let the fish tighten up the line and then set the hook.

We enjoyed our best fishing early in the afternoon while dragging the floats over a subtle hump near a creek channel 200 yards offshore. The hump topped out at 36 feet and the blues were suspended at about 24 feet. Coleman and Tollerson kept the boat moving slowly, but the pace was faster than I would have thought possible for success, especially in such chilly water. "We move even faster when the water warms up," Coleman says. "We often drift in winds up to ten miles per hour."

When the wind is strong enough for drifting, the trolling motor adjusts the direction of the drift. In the absence of wind the trolling motor is used, as it was the day I fished with the pair. By late afternoon the air had warmed, the ice had melted from the boat and the sun had encouraged us to shuck our jackets. And I was no longer a skeptic.

[pagebreak] BOBBER TIMES AND PLACES
Dangling live bait beneath floats fools blue catfish on Kerr Lake throughout the year. However, the peak fishing in April and May is the result of annual spawning urges that nudge the blues upstream toward the Dan and Roanoke rivers that feed the big impoundment. Consequently, the catfish congregate over main lake structures.

The one time blues stay put is when they settle into wintering holes on the main lake and in creek arms, often 40 to 45 feet deep. Winter holes change from year to year, but once you find the holding areas, you can return and catch blues through the cold months. The key at this time, as always, is the presence of baitfish.

While Coleman and Tollerson prefer to fish for blues during the day, their methods also produce at night. Some anglers who fish with floats claim the night bite is better in hot weather. The catfish tend to move closer to the surface after dark. Floats that light up are popular. If the light disappears, set the hook.

Bobber fishing for blues has gained a strong following at Kerr Lake, and it should work as well at other reservoirs that maintain healthy populations of these jumbo catfish. It might also succeed on any deep, slow-moving river that is home to big blues.

Cats After Dark
Useful tools to help you catch those night biters.
If you hope to take advantage of a night bite, there are a few useful tools to take along that will make the fishing easier.

USE A LIGHT: Because it's often difficult to tell when you're getting a bite-assuming you're using floats instead of tight-lining-buy a few bobbers designed to emit a glow. In fact, some of them are so bright that if you stop seeing them bobbing in the darkness, you'd better set the hook.

Night Bobby lighted floats, which are powered by small button batteries, are available from mail-order outlets such as Bass Pro Shops (800-227-7776) and cost about $5. Cyalume light sticks, which also are readily available from a variety of sources, can be fixed to the float with a rubber band (as shown above) or tied on the fishing line near the float. If nothing else, take along one of the small flashlights that attach to the bill of your fishing cap. These LED-enhanced lights range in price from about $5 to $20 or so.

WATCH THE SKY: Catfish can be very light-sensitive, and sometimes it's better to forgo fishing a clear lake when the sun is shining. Fishing clear waters on cloudy days might be productive, but otherwise wait and fish after dark. Remember, too, that catfish activity often peaks at dawn, so stay on the water until then. -Keith Sutton

Light-as-Air Rainwear to Go
Designed for backpackers, it's great angling gear, too Spring is a great time to fish, but it's also a wet time. When a spring shower rolls through, an angler has a choice of hiding under the closest bridge or donning a dependable rainsuit. When a bridge isn't handy, hope you're toting rainwear like the Solstice Discovery rainsuit.

Targeted mainly to the backpacking crowd, Solstice rain gear is made of lightweight Microshed HC fabric. The material is breathable, an attribute especially beneficial to anglers in warm climates. All seams are welded, rather than sewn, in order to keep water out. The jacket, available in four colors, weighs just over a pound. The pants, in black only, weigh 7 ounces. (Jacket, about $129, pants, $59; 503-239-6991; www.solsticegear.com) fishing line near the float. If nothing else, take along one of the small flashlights that attach to the bill of your fishing cap. These LED-enhanced lights range in price from about $5 to $20 or so.

WATCH THE SKY: Catfish can be very light-sensitive, and sometimes it's better to forgo fishing a clear lake when the sun is shining. Fishing clear waters on cloudy days might be productive, but otherwise wait and fish after dark. Remember, too, that catfish activity often peaks at dawn, so stay on the water until then. -Keith Sutton

Light-as-Air Rainwear to Go
Designed for backpackers, it's great angling gear, too Spring is a great time to fish, but it's also a wet time. When a spring shower rolls through, an angler has a choice of hiding under the closest bridge or donning a dependable rainsuit. When a bridge isn't handy, hope you're toting rainwear like the Solstice Discovery rainsuit.

Targeted mainly to the backpacking crowd, Solstice rain gear is made of lightweight Microshed HC fabric. The material is breathable, an attribute especially beneficial to anglers in warm climates. All seams are welded, rather than sewn, in order to keep water out. The jacket, available in four colors, weighs just over a pound. The pants, in black only, weigh 7 ounces. (Jacket, about $129, pants, $59; 503-239-6991; www.solsticegear.com)