Get the Drift

By Larry R. Beckett | July 16, 2012
From Missouri Conservationist: Aug 2012

As the boat rocked gently with the waves, I leaned back in the lawn chair, soaked up the sunshine and sipped an ice-cold sweet tea. The wind blew just enough to keep the boat moving at a snail’s pace and a masseuse could not have put my muscles into a more relaxed state. Even my fingers had loosened their once tight grip on the spinning rod, which was now only held in the palm of my hand by gravity. I was nearly asleep when something at the bottom of the lake decided it was hungry for the smelly shad attached to the end of my line. It attacked the bait with the force of a semi, and I went from unconscious to cardiac arrest in the blink of an eye. I lunged and grabbed the rod as it was going over the side of the boat. A quick set of the hook and the fight was on. After a few minutes of rod bending and line stretching, a pot-bellied blue catfish was hoisted into the boat.

Drift fishing is the process of letting your bait bounce along the bottom while a gentle wind blows your boat slowly across the lake. Using this method to pursue catfish during August and September can provide exceptional results in any body of water inhabited by these bottom-dwelling, whiskered fish. During the late summer and early fall, catfish will spread out onto large, open flats in lakes. Finding the catfish can be difficult and drifting allows you to cover a large area and increase your odds of putting the bait in front of fish. Although flathead catfish can occasionally be caught drifting, channel catfish and blue catfish are more likely to engulf your bait. The widespread distribution of these fish and their willingness to eat just about anything make them a great source of fun for beginning and experienced anglers alike.

Catfish don’t care about fancy bait presentations or high-dollar fishing gear. If you can push the button on a reel and let the bait drop to the bottom, you can drift for catfish. You never know what size of fish is going to strike, so it is best to use 17–20 pound test line. Catfish are not particularly finicky and are more concerned with the smell of the bait than the size of the line. If the body of water you are fishing produces larger fish, using a stronger line will not likely reduce your success. Any medium heavy rod equipped with a reel that will hold at least 100 yards of whatever line that you choose will work for drift fishing.

One of the best methods for rigging your line for drifting is by using a three-way swivel. Attach one point of the swivel to the line from your rod. Add an 18- to 24-inch piece of line to the second leg of the swivel. At the end of this, tie on a weedless sinker. You want to use one that is large enough to stay on the bottom while drifting but not too heavy to discourage the catfish from swimming off with the bait. A 4-ounce bell sinker is a good place to start. Tie an 18-inch piece of line to the third leg of the swivel. To the end of this line, attach a snap swivel and the appropriate hook. One of the most important tools in a successful fishing trip is having the right type of hook and ensuring that it is razor sharp. Depending upon the type of bait that is being used, circle hooks and treble hooks usually bring more fish to the boat than most other types.

Half of the fun of catfishing comes from the variety of pungent baits that can be used.

Many catfish anglers experiment with different odors and flavors, and some result in closely guarded secret recipes. Although it is exciting to come up with your own concoction, most catfish will gladly engulf a few readily available baits.

Probably the most commonly used bait for drift fishing is cut shad. They can be caught with a casting net or purchased in the store. To prepare a whole shad, lay it on a cutting board and cut it into vertical strips about an inch wide. Attach a 2/0 circle hook to the snap swivel and thread the hook twice through one of the shad strips.

Many other types of bait, including hot dogs, worms, shrimp and stink bait, will also catch catfish. By using a different type of bait on each rod in the boat, you can determine which one the fish prefer on that particular day.

To locate flats, obtain a contour map of the lake. Look for large areas with little change in depth, preferably in the range of 15- to 25-feet. To begin drifting, position the boat on the upwind side of the flat. The ideal wind conditions will move your boat at about 1/2 mile per hour. If the boat is moving slower, you can use a trolling motor to increase your drifting speed. If the wind is stronger and you need to slow the boat down, it can be done in a couple of ways. Wind socks are available that attach to the side of the boat and work well at slowing the boat’s speed, but it is sometimes just as easy to use two five-gallon buckets. Attach a 4- to 8-foot section of rope to each one and tie them to opposite ends of the boat. They will fill with water and provide the same type of drag as a windsock.

Once you begin drifting across the flat, it is best to hold onto your fishing rod. When drifting, strikes can be lightening fast and if the rod is in a rod holder, the fish will often be missed. Once a strike occurs, try to mark the location with a marker buoy, a GPS or by shoreline landmarks. After drifting the entire length of the flat, you can maneuver the boat upwind of the strike zones and target the areas that produced fish.

As summer winds down, lasso a few shad with a casting net, throw a couple of five-gallon buckets in the flat-bottomed boat and head to the lake. Enjoy the cool breeze blowing the boat gently across the water, but try to keep a tight grip on the rod. It can be yanked over the side of the boat in an instant and sink to the bottom among the many other fishing rods of those unprepared for the powerful strikes of catfish while drift fishing.

Find MO Fish

MDC now has a free smart phone application that shows you a map of Missouri with the locations of public boat ramps to major lakes, rivers and streams. The map also shows you the exact location of underwater fish structures MDC has established over the years. These fish-attracting structures act as habitat for fish. With the geo-location feature, you can guide your boat right up to your favorite fish attractor and start fishing.

For links to find this application for your phone, go to length of the flat, you can maneuver the boat upwind of the strike zones and target the areas that produced fish.

Also In This Issue

Nature Centers
MDC is celebrating the 75th anniversary of putting the state’s citizen-led conservation efforts into action. In this issue, we highlight the Department’s conservation education efforts.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler