Old School Catfishing
Jug-fishing and limblining let you fish many places at the same time — and they work.
By Larry D. Hodge
The Old School recreation area on Lake Aquilla near Hillsboro is hard to find, but for those wanting to pursue catfish with jug lines, it’s worth searching out. Its boat ramp gives access to areas where jug lines and limblines can put plenty of blue and channel catfish in your cooler.
John Tibbs, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Inland Fisheries district supervisor for the Waco area, shares my enthusiasm for jug-fishing. Even better, John’s father, Nick, is an accomplished jug-fisher on the Mississippi River, and he joins us for a day of jug-fishing and limblining on Lake Aquilla.
I came to jug-fishing late in life. As a kid growing up in Central Texas, I was a frequent farm-pond fisher using a cane pole. Fishing trips started with digging earthworms in the yard or chasing down grasshoppers, swatting them with a willow switch and popping them into a Prince Albert tobacco tin to await their turn on the hook. The catfish we caught tasted pretty much like the muddy water where they lived, but catching them was fun.
Not until I was grown did I discover jug-fishing. While on a float trip down the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande, we found a number of abandoned jug lines fashioned from plastic quart motor-oil jugs. The cap screwed on over a knot on one end of a two-foot length of heavy twine that held the line in place. We hadn’t anticipated fishing, so the only bait we had was pimento loaf sandwich meat. It didn’t stay on the hook well, but the catfish didn’t care. We’d toss a baited jug into the water and watch it pull ahead of the rubber raft as the current took it. Suddenly the jug would disappear, surface a short distance away, and head for the bank.
About the third time that happened, I was as hooked as the fish.
Part of the appeal of jug-fishing is purely visual. It’s like fishing with a bobber, but instead of having just one line to watch, you can have a dozen or more. Set out a spread of jugs, anchor nearby, put some rod and reel lines in the water, and wait for a cruising catfish to find one of your baits. Small fish may just move the jug around a little when they take the bait, but a big fish will take it completely under. It’s as exciting as watching a bass smash a topwater lure.
Jugs can be either free-floating, like those we found on the Rio Grande, or anchored to the bottom with a weight. Anchored jugs are like a vertical trotline, and you can adjust the length of the main line for whatever depth you’re fishing. Put them in a good location, and they stay put — though if you pick the wrong place, you won’t catch much.
Jugs must be white and bear the angler’s name and address and the date set out. (Commercial jug-fishers must use orange jugs.) You can use plastic milk jugs, but they are not very durable. Ready-made versions are available, some of which tip up or “flag” to signal a bite. These have a short piece of rebar inside a length of PVC pipe and a collar of closed-cell foam on one end. The jugs are deployed with the rebar in the foam-covered end of the pipe; when a fish pulls on the line attached to the opposite end, it pulls the pipe down, the rebar slides to that end, and the rig stands upright in the water.
John Tibbs makes his own anchored, non-flagging jugs out of two-foot lengths of white plastic pipe capped at both ends. He uses a main line about 25 feet long weighted with a brick or a cement-filled tin can with an eyebolt embedded in it. Two drop lines about two feet long are attached to the main line; these hold the hooks. “For the main line I prefer at least 300-pound test so if a fish pulls it into brush, you can retrieve the weight,” Tibbs says. “I prefer 150-pound test for the drop lines.” Hooks are 2/0 or bigger circle hooks.
“Circle hooks let the fish hook itself,” Nick Tibbs points out. “Also, fish won’t swallow the hook. They will take the bait and start to swim off with it, and the hook will turn and catch them, usually in the corner of the mouth.”
Legally up to five hooks can be used on a jug-line, but it’s best to use no more than two. When handling the jugs, especially if there is a big fish on, it’s easy to get tangled up and even hook yourself if there are a bunch of hooks flying around. Tibbs uses hooks attached to the main line three and six feet above the weight.
Line management is a major part of jug-fishing. Twenty jugs with two hooks each provide lots of opportunities for accidental snagging. Tibbs wraps the line around his nonflagging jugs and secures each hook with a rubber band for storage; hooks can be imbedded in the foam of the flagging jugs for storage. In either case, a five-gallon bucket or a plastic milk crate makes a handy holder. When the jugs are deployed, Tibbs drops the weight to the bottom, then uses a rubber band to hold the main line to the jug with about two feet of slack. When a fish takes the bait, it pulls the line free of the rubber band, and more can play out. “I like to use plenty of line so the float will always remain on top even if a big fish carries it off into deep water,” Tibbs says. When the fish moves far enough, resistance from the float and the weight on the end of the line sets the hook.
It’s a fine October morning when we set out on Lake Aquilla, and John Tibbs has a couple of destinations in mind. The first is a flat adjacent to the Aquilla Creek channel. “One of the nice things about jugs is they can be set out on flats where there is no way to set a trotline or limbline, and you can catch cats cruising the flats looking for shad,” he observes. “I’ve trotlined and limblined and fished from the bank, but this is more fun. You see you have a fish and go pick up the jug. It’s a more personal way of fishing than a trotline.”
Tibbs selects a flat between an island and the creek channel to set out a dozen jugs. The location offers several advantages. Catfish can use the creek channel as an underwater highway. Shad will move to the shallow water next to the island as the water warms, and the catfish can trap them between the bank and the deeper water. Plus we can beach the boat after setting out jug-lines and fish the flat using rods and reels while we wait for the jugs to get hit. It’s a lazy, relaxing way to fish, but there’s always the undercurrent of tension as we watch and wait for one of the jugs to tip up.
But for now we have more jugs to set out in another spot, and John has another trick he wants to try: using limblines under a cormorant roost. After setting out a half-dozen jugs at the point where a line of flooded trees marking an old fenceline meets a thick stand of timber, we thread our way through the forest of dead trees to one that cormorants favor.
A limbline can be nothing more than a length of stout line tied to a limb with a hook on the end, but the Tibbses have a refinement: rubber hold-down straps with the hooks removed. The rubber strap acts as a shock absorber, so that if a big fish takes the bait, it’s less likely to break the line or snap the limb off. It also provides enough give to help keep a big fish from straightening the hook and getting away.
For bait we’re using pieces of gizzard shad John catches with a cast net. “Chicken livers or worms work, too, and I’ve heard of people using stinkbaits on jugs or live perch for flatheads,” John says. “Anise-scented soap is also a popular catfish bait, but I prefer to use what the fish would normally eat.”
Once the limblines are set out, it’s time to go back to our first spread of jugs and check for bites. We’ve set out a combination of flagging and non-flagging jugs, and one of the former is standing upright. One of the advantages of flagging jugs is being able to see from a distance if you’ve had a bite. Non-flagging jugs aren’t as visible, but one with a fish on may have moved from its original location or may be moving differently from the rest. Part of the fun is guessing whether a jug’s motion is due to wave action or a fish. We’re optimists. If a jug is nervous, we expect a fish.
A flagging or moving jug doesn’t guarantee a fish has been caught, however, and we have some false alarms during the day. But a few channel and blue catfish do find their way onto ice. To our surprise, the limblines under the cormorant roost produce not only more fish but also the biggest fish of the day.
Perhaps the best part of jug-fishing is that it requires teamwork to set out and run the lines, and it’s that cooperation, rather than competition over who catches the biggest fish, that strengthens ties of family and friendship. John handles the boat while Nick checks lines for fish and re-baits hooks. It’s a chance for the two to have some fun with each other, trading friendly barbs about John’s boat-driving skills or Nick’s ability to get tangled up in the lines. As the disinterested observer, it’s my pleasure to watch the faces of both and see eyes rolled and heads shaken when things don’t go just right. Nick bursts forth with impromptu doggerel verse about catfishing from time to time, but he’s willing to share his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so we don’t throw him out of the boat. By the end of the day, jug-fishing for catfish has widened the circle of friends for all three of us.
That alone is reason enough to go jugging for cats. But fresh catfish fillets dredged in cornmeal and fried to a crispy golden brown, served up with hush puppies and coleslaw and french fries and savory pinto beans — now there’s the real payoff.
Reaping the Rewards
John Tibbs advocates releasing all catfish weighing 10 pounds or more, since those are the broodfish for future generations. For the smaller fish, he offers this recipe.
Tibbs’ Catfish Tidbits
Preheat cooking oil to 375 degrees.
Cut catfish fillets into pieces about 2 inches square and no more than 1/2 inch thick. Put pieces in bowl with whole milk to cover. Add powdered milk until the liquid is visibly thickened and adheres to the fish. In another bowl, mix ample cornmeal with salt and spices to taste.
Coat each piece of fish individually with cornmeal mixture, pressing it on so the cornmeal sticks well. Do not shake off excess cornmeal. (Do not coat the pieces by shaking them in a bag with the cornmeal. This results in an insufficient coating of cornmeal and soggy fish.)
Fry until golden brown, approximately four to six minutes. Drain well. Let the oil temperature recover between batches to ensure crispy fish.
Regulations for jug-fishing as well as a list of water bodies where it is not allowed can be found at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/annual/fish/legal_devices/>.
Information on lakes and rivers, fishing reports, stocking reports and more can be found at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fish>.
Commercial fishing for blue and channel catfish is allowed only in certain Texas counties. Find a link to the Commercial Fishing Guide at <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/commercial/>.
For Texas-specific catfishing information, including jug-fishing how-to and where-to, one good source is <www.whiskerkitty.com>.