"I want to show you how easy it is to fish this thing," says Barry Loupe. Although no longer a guide, the Saltville, Va., resident has lapsed into his former role as a fishing teacher and has instructed me to do the casting as we begin our float down the James River. His lesson plan involves showing me how easy it is to ply the catfish rig for moving water smallmouth.
We are in the middle of a long, deep, rocky riffle — an area where I always have experienced difficulty while trying to effectively present baits because of the swiftness of the current and the depth. In an eddy behind a rock, Loupe anchors his boat and then ties a three-way swivel to the main line of my baitcaster. Next, he attaches a short leader and a bell sinker to the lower eye of the swivel, and then a much longer leader, a 4/0 hook and a Charlie Case tube to the remaining eye.
"Now, cast into that heavy current," commands Loupe.
The rig lands and Loupe quickly tutors me to keep the rod tip high as I begin the retrieve.
"Don't reel too fast," he continues. "You don't need to because the rig, once it hits bottom, is already in the strike zone. The longer you can leave it there, the better. And if the bell sinker gets snagged, don't worry about that either — the bait is still in the strike zone and waving back and forth like a creature caught in the current."
To my surprise, a large smallmouth slams the tube as I am still getting the feel of the rig. I start to retrieve the bait to make another cast.
"No, no, leave it right there, that fish will come back or another one will be around before too long," coaches the former guide.
Sure enough, a few seconds later another hit occurs, and I miss that fish, as well.
"Don't worry, you're getting the hang of it," consoles Loupe. "The catfish rig is easy to fish."
He's right; on the third cast, yet another smallmouth mauls the tube, and I'm able to hook and land this fish — a fat 14-incher. By my 10th cast, I have caught a 16-inch smallie, a fish that proved quite a challenge to land given the swift current. But Loupe's right; the catfish rig is easy to fish — and an incredibly effective way to prospect for smallmouth in rapidly moving water.
THE PREMISE BEHIND THE CATFISH RIG
"I had seen several similar pre-made rigs in the catfish section of sporting goods stores and also similar rigs used for bottom fishing for walleye," Loupe, a 45-year-old human resources manager, explains. "I'm always looking for options to fish baits in a way the smallmouth haven't seen and to use in specific situations. I felt that this rig might provide me a way to keep the lure above moss and grass and also provide a way for me to feel and search the bottom.
"The principle is that the bell weight drags along the contour of the bottom while allowing the tube or other soft plastic bait to float downcurrent just above the bottom, with how high depending on leader length. The lure has a lot of unrestricted movement, waving side to side, up and down."
Loupe believes this variety of constant, erratic movements can trigger strikes at any time — a real advantage since most lures draw strikes only when they land or during the first few turns of the reel. This ability to entice strikes throughout the retrieve is similar to that of Carolina and drop shot rigs. The difference, emphasizes Loupe, is that the catfish rig excels in moving water while the other two rigs are used mostly in calm water.
WHERE THE CATFISH RIG WORKS BEST
Loupe offers a quick answer when asked around what type of river structure and cover the catfish rig performs best.
"Anywhere," he grins. "The rig seems to be adaptable to all cover types. It seems to work better when there is current, the stronger the better, but I feel it works well in slow current, as well."
There are, however, certain areas where the catfish rig really excels. For example, on our float, Loupe anchors some 20 yards below where a Class I rapid drops off into a trough characterized by a chunk rock and cobblestone bottom. He casts the rig into the heart of the rapid and pauses the bait where the swift water starts to break. The result is a good-sized smallie.
Another good situation is a current break caused by a boulder where an eddy forms below. Many river runners would circle below the rock and cast upstream into the heart of the eddy, where smallmouth typically take up position. Loupe, though, prefers to fish the catfish rig downstream because doing so gives the bait a more erratic action and keeps the bell sinker from snagging as often.
Loupe also avoids casting a bait into the heart of the eddy. Instead, he drops a soft plastic lure just outside the eddy wall. Once the bell sinker digs into the substratum, the bait swings in and out of the current break. The possibility of the fake creature escaping the eddy will stimulate a smallmouth to strike.
WHEN THE CATFISH RIG PERFORMS BEST
Our float trip took place in late August, but Loupe emphasizes that the catfish rig is an all-season rig. In fact, one of his best outings took place in January when he landed four smallmouth, all between 20 and 22 inches. He caught the quartet from a dropoff below a rapid.
Loupe relies on a considerable stable of baits for the catfish rig. Among his favorites are numerous Charlie Case creations: 4 1/2-inch Magic Stiks, 4 1/2-inch Jack's Worms, 4 1/2-inch King Grubs, 3 3/4-inch Sinkin Salty Minnows, 5-inch Sinkin Salty Shads, tubes and 5-inch Charliemanders. Other favorites include 4-inch Venom Salt Series Tubes and Yamamoto Senkos.
At the end of our excursion, Loupe anchors his boat near where the main channel swings in against the shoreline. He quickly entices a brown bass with a Case Magic Stik — one last testament to the effectiveness of the catfish rig.
"If you hang up, depending on what you hang up of course, you usually lose either the weight or the lure, but not both, which is a huge plus," says Barry Loupe. "After I lose part of a rig, I can quickly retie the part I lost. Or I can slip on one of the pre-tied rigs I make before I go fishing."
GEARING UP FOR THEH CATFISH RIG
Essentials:Medium-heavy G. Loomis Bronzeback Series baitcaster rod (6., 6-3 or 6-9), Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 4600C3 reel with 5.3:1 ratio.
Step 1: Tie clear 10-pound-test main line (Loupe likes Shakespeare Omniflex) to the top of a size 2 Laker three-way swivel.l
Step 2: Use 8-pound test for a 12-inch leader from one lower swivel to a 1/4-ounce or larger bell sinker.
Step 3: Tie an 18- to 24- inch leader of clear 10-pound test from the other lower swivel to a wide gap Carolina-style 2/0 to 5/0 hook.
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