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Whiskers and Wakes

Waiting for the rod to bend
Waiting for the rod to bend; photo by Josh Dolin

The biggest thrill in kayak fishing might be the “sleigh ride” – a hold on tight, drag screaming battle between fish and angler. There aren’t many fish in freshwater powerful enough to pull a kayak at a speed that leaves a wake, but the catfish is one such species. Whether blues, flatheads or even big channel cats, these whiskered bottom dwellers pose a challenge for any angler. Catching a giant catfish won’t come easy, as they often inhabit thick log jams and deep holes between rocky shoals. It also takes the right equipment to horse these beasts from the depths; after all, it’s a lot more fun to show off your catch on social media than it is to lament about the one that got away. In this article, two of the best kayak catfish anglers in the country share their tips on choosing the right gear and graduating from weekend whiskerer to a true trophy chaser.

Josh Dolin lifting a massive catfish from the depths
Josh Dolin lifting a massive catfish from the depths; photo by Josh Dolin

Josh Dolin, who among his various staff positions runs the popular Instagram channel “Have Rods Will Travel”, is a catfish diehard from Richmond, Virginia. Josh cut his teeth on the James River, one of the country’s top producers of big blue cats. However, the James also produces plenty of giant flatheads and channel cats too. With dozens of trophy citation catches to his name, Dolin always focuses on one thing – deep water. “Deep water is the home of big fish; it is where they spend most of their time. They feel safe there, it is dark, much more stable water temperature wise, and much less noisy when it comes to boat traffic”, says Dolin. When he finds deep water, he immediately looks for the nearest feeding area, which usually consists of a flat next to a channel edge or a point extending out into the channel. He uses his electronics with side and down imaging or a topographic map to try and find the sharpest edge leading from deep water to the nearby feeding areas. “Catfish are a lot like people, they get big and heavy by being lazy. A big catfish is going to find an area where he gets the biggest meal by doing the least amount of work”, notes Dolin. He loves accessing these waters from a kayak because he can stealthily sneak in and out of small areas and maneuver to get the perfect position, often finding places that traditional boats with motors just can’t go.

Dolin with one of his first giant cats from a kayak
Dolin with one of his first giant cats from a kayak; photo by Josh Dolin

After you’ve found your spot and found a way to access it safely from a kayak, often at night, it is all about having the right gear. Dolin uses 100 lb braid as a main line for big fish. The heavier line helps for abrasion resistance around structure. This line is usually tied to a Carolina rig with a 5-12 oz sinker depending on conditions. This rig is then connected to a ball bearing swivel tied to 16 inches of 50 lb monofilament and an 8/0 to 10/0 circle hook. When it comes to reels, Dolin has used Abu Garcia reels since his first trip as a novice angler and has never looked back. He now uses a wide variety of Abu Garcia reels; however, he prefers the 7000 C3 for larger cats and the 6500 C3 for channel cats. These reels are his workhorses that have never failed him, and they have plenty of drag

strength and power to handle monster fish. He notes that the new Ambassadeur Beast and CS Pro Rocket round reels might be added to his arsenal soon, as their quality and extreme castability would make them ideal for chucking baits from a kayak. Dolin pairs his reels with a 7'6 heavy action rod for blues and flats and a 7' medium heavy rod for channels, all in a moderate-fast action. His ideal rod has some tip sensitivity but retains the backbone for tossing heavy baits and fighting fish from a seated position in a kayak.

Dolin with a river flathead
Dolin with a river flathead; photo by Josh Dolin

His favorite baits are regular forage species for the cats he targets, including cut gizzard shad or hickory shad and live bulkheads, suckers, shad or bluegills. He has honed in on these baits by paying close attention to the rivers he fishes and keying in on every small detail, even on days when he went home skunked.

Denny Ransom hooked into a giant catfish
Denny Ransom hooked into a giant catfish; photo by Denny Ransom

In the Midwest, Des Moines native Denny Ransom loves targeting giant cats in his local river systems, but he travels throughout the region in pursuit of trophy fish from his kayak. As a part of the Wilderness Systems pro team and owner of Float, Fish, Adventure, there is nothing better for him than the rush that comes from being towed in a kayak by a giant catfish. However, these giant fish don’t come easy. “Speed control and positioning are critical for success”, Ransom notes. “The kayak angler who puts in the effort to learn how to properly and safely use the tools needed to maintain proper speed and position will reap the rewards.” Anchors in deep water (but NOT current), brush clips around scattered wood, stake-out poles on shallow flats, and drift socks on windy days all have their place in keeping you positioned so that you can present your baits with precision.

A gorgeous midwestern cat
A gorgeous midwestern cat; photo by Denny Ransom

For Ransom, “sit and wait” is never a strategy he uses to start his day. Staying mobile, he drifts or trolls on prime structure features at around 0.5 mph and looks for active fish. When he finds fish, he will make repeat passes or set up and soak baits. For both presentations, he prefers a 7’6” medium heavy rod with a moderate action that is prefect loading circle hooks. He pairs these rods with Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500 C3 reels as the ultimate all-purpose catfish combo. Many years ago, the 6500 C3 was the first catfish reel Ransom ever purchased, and that original reel is still going strong today. He is also considering adding a Catfish Special round reel to his collection soon.

Ransom on a sleigh rod in his kayak
Ransom on a sleigh rod in his kayak; photo by Denny Ransom

Ransom generally uses 85 lb braid on his reel, with leaders between 50-100 lbs depending on the target species and location. On 6/0 to 10/0 hooks, he’ll rig cut or live bait, which he always tries to catch fresh on location. Doing so avoids any issue with presenting an unnatural looking bait for a given body of water. He targets ledges, humps, shallow flats, weed lines, laydowns, and log jams and will explore a variety of areas with his kayak until he finds a pattern, often getting to spots that traditional boats can’t reach. However, although the adrenaline rush is second to none, there are real risks of chasing giant fish from a piece of plastic. Ransom urges anglers to always take the proper safety precautions and wear a PFD at all times when on the water.

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