"Set that hook!"
by Daniel Kiazyk
Set that hook, reel'em in – yeah… easier said than done!
Almost invariably at the beginning of a catfishing trip I'll spend some time talking about what guests can expect while on their catfish charter. I've written elsewhere about what a guest should consider doing on any guided trip but with this article my plan is to speak on what is the single most important component of any fishing trip to the Red River for its giant catfish : How to "set that hook" on one of those whiskered behemoths.
One of the greatest detractions from being able to successfully set a hook on a cat is having experience fishing for other species and trying to transfer that experience to catfishing. Walleye for example require a hook set that will often require movement back to towards the fish that has taken a bait. It follows that the success that folks will have with one species they'll usually try to transfer to another species. Walleye experience usually works to the detriment of the successful catfish angler. So it follows to start that setting that hook on a catfish is something that is different than other species.
Another challenge that I've noticed with new catfish anglers is a tendency to want to move a bait. Moving the bait so the theory goes is that it will attract fish to something of interest. I would suggest that the contrary happens when catfishing. As the bait moves so does the point of origin of a scent trail… away from catfish that may have picked up a bait's scent and have followed it from a considerable distance. Keep in mind that the site window in the Red is about 6-8 inches and If a point of origin has moved too much the cat will not be able to find what you've got to offer. For those who think a cat doesn't use their site… try fly fishing with an artificial fly…..but wait the fly moves and the angler mends with the different with a set on any tic you feel. Moreover the scent trail that follows from a hook that's moved isn't going to be as strong as it would be if it rests in one spot.
One instance comes to mind that supports the "no move" theory. What instance is being spoken of..? Well many of the areas that we'll frequent when we're looking for cats will be especially snaggy. Tyndall stone and clam beds will invariably hang up the rigs we use when fishing for cats. Now immediately the guest angler will become concerned over having a "snag" feeling it might not give them an opportunity to catch a big cat. It will be at that point where there will be a reflection on the prior two discussed points and it becomes apparent that a snag in most cases is not really a problem…the bait remains still and the angler's habits are not going to impact the bait that's being presented. As for the catfish that on many occasions do bite, lifting the snag or digging a hook out is not any issue…..and the unbelievable looks of surprise I've seen over the years convincing anglers that being still (even if it means being snagged) is worth the price of admission most days.
So the prior situations on many occasions do seem to make a difference for angling for cats. Of course it's not going to be possible to not move the bait on all occasions and there might be an occasion where the boat's movement lets the bait either drop back or move away from a biting cat. The idea however is to make a best effort to control these two factors . To be honest these ideas seems to apply to "bait" fishing for the most part. There are certainly example of movement where anglers do have success when fishing for cats.
And so we finally get to the moment of truth for any catfishing trip, the actual hook set. My instruction regarding this particular moment is to coach folks to allow the rod to bend at least 15-20 degrees before pulling back. But what could go wrong? Right? Presupposed at this moment is that the rod is held at 45 degrees. Well, if the rod is held too low the rod's ability to absorb the shock of such a bite is lost and a couple of things usually go wrong 1) the leader breaks and/or the 2) the cat is able to chew and spit the bait. And if the guest is holding the rod too high that might create some difficulty at pulling back on a biting fish in an appropriate time frame. And finally there's those guys who set too early. One of two situations occur when premature hook set is operative; The bait is ripped off or the fish comes unbuttoned as the angler fights the fish in. Problems? Nah…. just experience making the day that much more memorable… OK ;-()
Now all of the preceding changes when a circle hook is used and I always have a few circle hooks set up for a guests convenience – it's nice to eat a sandwich and continue fishing. The circle hook does not behave like a regular J-style hook. A circle hook requires a lot more patience for the experienced angler. A circle hook will pull through a catfish`s mouth if pressure is applied. An appropriate response to a catfish bite with a circle hook is minimal response….yup just let it happen is the best approach – and continue eating that sandwich until the cat is definitely hooked up. Or in some cases I`ve found that turning the reel during the bite assists with hook ups on "some" occasions (but not all!). A circle hook has one exceptional quality: they do for the most part hook up with fish by the corner of their mouths. J-hook styles of hook can hook down too deep causing the fish harm.
The actual battle that ensues upon a successful hook up is another experience that many anglers haven't had prior to battling with a Red River channel cat. Too often as a part of the fight that ensues, many anglers will try to use the reel as a winch. They soon discover however that the reel (albeit of appropriate size) is unable to act as such. It soon becomes evident to the angler that pumping the rod and then reeling up the slack line of the bow to the fish is normal operation. The operator soon makes the appropriate adjustment to be able to retrieve the fish. I always find it interesting to remind anglers of how the drag is really an indicator that the operation of the rod and reel needs to be adjusted to suit the species that is be fished for.
I do my best to coach my guests to enjoy the fight that follows the hook up. Many fishermen do realize that a steady easy retrieve with constant pressure on the rod makes for a successful retrieval. It becomes obvious that as a cat approaches the boat its effort to escape increases considerably. Allowing the rod to be loaded and the reel to release line via its drag is perhaps the most exciting moment of the battle with a channel cat. Finally the angler has the task of directing the cat away from the boat and into the net. This last process is not necessarily a science but will depend on the tenacity of the cat and the duration of the fight.
There's always little twists to setting the hook. Some days when the fish are biting tentatively the wait to set the hook can be excruciatingly long. On those other days when the cats are biting aggressively the wait to set is not nearly as long. Having a few ideas on what goes on before, during and after the bite and hook set can make the Red River catfishing experience that much more rewarding.