Big channel cats often live in some tough-to-fish areas; here are some tips on where to look, how to rig up and drag them out of their hidey holes. Denny Halgren is an unconventional catfish angler who uses unconventional tactics to catch big channel cats. If you were to encounter him on the Rock River in Illinois, a river he’s guided on for more than 40 years, you might wonder if this Dixon resident had gotten in a bit of trouble. Chances are, his boat would be sitting smack-dab on top of a big tree that’s lying horizontally in the water. He might be in the boat, but it’s just as likely he’d be standing out on that tree with a rod and reel in his hands.
Some who have come upon Halgren in this situation believed he’d crashed his craft into the timber. And in a way, they were right.
You see, Denny Halgren has perfected an advanced catfishing tactic he calls “crashin’ and thrashin’.” In a nutshell, it works like this.
First, you “crash” your boat into big timber, the only effective means for reaching those hard-to-get-at catfish hotspots other anglers wouldn’t dare fish. Next, you drop a bait into the swirling water at just the right spot. Then, if all goes well, and a catfish is there (one usually is), you experience the thrashin’ part of the name. The fish nabs the bait, you set the hook, and try to hoss a thrashin’ log kitty out of its hidey-hole. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. But when you learn Halgren’s technique and put it to use on the waters you fish, you’ll find yourself battling far more jumbo catfish than your still-fishing buddies.
The key, Halgren says, is learning to pinpoint the exact spot where a big cat is likely to be. That spot will have two primary components: a big tree and a big boil.
“The ideal place,” he says, “is where current has undercut a tree and caused it to topple over into the water. At least part of the tree must be in shallow water—2 to 3 feet deep—and there must be at least moderate current coming across the tree. When the right amount of current is present, the biggest, most territorial catfish centralize. In other words, the current causes them to hold in very specific spots where they can easily grab food carried in the current. Without proper current, the fish could be anywhere and are difficult to pinpoint. When the current is right, you can find them every time.”
Prime locales rarely consist of more than one tree, or trees lying parallel to the bank. When scouting a river, anglers should look for a single fallen tree positioned perpendicular to the bank, with the root end still close to shore in shallow water. A big drift pile comprised of numerous trees washed together would seem to be a better catfish attractor. But Halgren notes that a thick tree that “looks like a fence post”—with few branches—may draw bigger fish.
“In the best spots, current washes underneath the trunk of the tree in shallow water and creates a channel,” he says. “As the water goes through that channel, it’s funneled through to the downstream side of the tree and creates a big boil. Right in that boil is where you want to fish. You may catch smaller catfish in other spots around the perimeter of the tree. But the biggest cat on that piece of cover will almost always be in the biggest boil.”
The crashin’ part of this technique isn’t as dangerous as it sounds. Ideally, after spotting a good tree/boil location, the boat operator slows the boat and allows it to slide gently onto the tree trunk or into the tree’s branches. When done properly, the boat will catch and hold, and the fisherman will be able to drop his bait into the boil.
“You must be positioned so you can drop your bait straight down into the largest boil on the downstream side of the trunk,” says Halgren. “What’s surprising to most anglers is that riding your boat up on that tree only rarely spooks the fish out. The big cats just don’t spook, so you can move right in on top of them.”
For bait, Halgren uses a commercial cheese-flavored dip bait fished on a “catfish worm,” a soft-plastic bait ribbed so the dip bait clings when the worm is pushed into it. He uses a single 2/0 or 3/0 hook on the rigs, with a ¼-ounce split shot or bullet sinker on the line above the worm. When a bullet sinker is used, a split shot is placed below it to peg it on the line.
“I drop the rig in the boil, then leave it,” he says. “You can’t move the bait, even if you think it’s hung. Chances are, you’ll get a hit right away. If not, wait for up to 10 minutes. If you don’t have a catfish by then, it’s time to move and try another spot.”
Catching more than one jumbo catfish at each fishing spot happens only rarely. “When you catch one, you might as well head for another tree,” Halgren says.
Of course, getting a cat out of a tree is never easy, whether it has fur or fins. You may get scratched. You could fall. You have to be brave—some say crazy—to try.
But if, like Denny Halgren, you’re brave enough, or crazy enough, to fish where other anglers won’t, big channel cats will be your prize. Crashin’ and thrashin’ is proven to catch cats when other tactics fail.