The age old adage goes “There is more than one way to skin a cat,” but they forgot to mention that first you have to catch the cat.
Sometimes that feat is easier to describe than actually accomplish. The same can be said for the angling sport of catfishing: Sometimes they just come to the boat despite best efforts at crappie or bass fishing.
Other times you couldn’t catch one with a net.
Brandon angler Mark Cockrell has been a lifelong fisherman. He’s basically done a whole bunch of it, especially lots of saltwater fishing along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in the marshes of Louisiana. He’s caught a ton of redfish and speckled trout over the years, and a good share of flounder and other salt varieties.
He knows the gear and the tactics mostly learned in the "DIY" mode.
Cockrell’s freshwater exploits are nearly as impressive, but even he confesses that in the past few years he has gotten the urge to try something completely new.
"Oh, I still like tossing a buzzbait, spinnerbait, a colored worm or other lures for largemouth bass, or working a minnow or jig for white perch," he said, "but I was in the search for something even more proactive.
"Then I ran into another angler at the reservoir marina who talked about jugging for catfish. From what I heard, I knew this was something I had to try.
"I did some research on it, but truthfully was not able to find a lot of hands-on practical advice, so I set about learning it the hard way, going the self-taught route."
Equipment has changed, although not in a major way.
"Sort of in the old days, but not really all that many years ago, catfish jugging started with metal cans that were readily available," Cockrell said. "The fishing cord would be tied around the cans and wrapped. When dropped, the weight above the hook would un-spin the can to the depth of the cord.
"Now, of course, everything is plastic, but really that is OK because the plastic bottles I use to jug for catfish are a lot easier to rig up and handle from the boat."
Debate is open on which type or size of plastic bottle works best for catfish jugging, but likely it is a matter of personal preference or what can be available in numbers. The larger juice bottles, sports drinks and such seem to work well. The bottle simply has to be big enough to handle but not too cumbersome to dispatch from the boat.
"Rigging up cans is pretty straightforward and easy, but it can be time consuming," said Cockrell. "Having all the materials on hand before you start is a good idea, and then you can set up all the jugs at one time. Pick your jugs, rinse them, and then lay them all out in a row or whatever works to make assembly timely and easy."
Cockrell does as much as possible in advance, so he’s not having to set up on a boat.
"Precut your choice of fishing line according to the depths you will be fishing," he explained. "This may take some trial and error depending on where you plan to fish. At lakes like Ross Barnett Reservoir, I tend to fish fairly close in to the banks and coves, so I vary the line depth from 5 and 10 feet."
Of course, getting a cat to bite isn’t much good if you don’t have something to hold the fish until you can retrieve it.
"Pick a good catfishing hook that a fish can’t slip off of," Cockrell advised. "Add sufficient weight to the line so as it sinks it will spin off the bottle, but not so much (weight) that it submerges too much of the bottle."
That last bit is vitally important.
"You want the bottles to have maximum visibility from the boat," Cockrell said. "In that regard, I paint my jugs with some high-viz hunter-orange spray paint."
Then he just wraps the line around the neck of each bottle to secure the hook, and he’s just about ready to hit the boat.
"Set the bottles up in plastic boxes or milk cartons so they are ready to be easily baited and tossed," he said.
What to use for bait is pretty much a personal preference.
"Baiting up jugging hooks is really a basic no-brainer," said Cockrell. "Pick the bait you want and bait all the jugs at once or one at a time; I prefer the later approach.
"I use frozen bait shrimp that has been thawing since leaving home traveling to the lake fishing site. By the time I get set to bait, the shrimp is just right. I suppose you can use other classic catfish bait, as well, like chunks of cheese, bologna or hot dogs.
"Try them all to see what works."
Some juggers adopt their own methodologies as they learn what consistently works best for them when catching catfish with jugs. When Cockrell pulls into the area he is going to toss a number of jugs — usually 12 to 20 — he baits and throws them one at a time.
There is no good or bad, better or best, right or wrong about how to set out jugs. When I observed this process, it seems that baiting and throwing them one at a time allows the angler to visually see where each jug hits the water. This also allows a time span of a few seconds between tosses, letting a jug float away from the boat so the flotilla of floats is not all jammed up together.
"I bait each jug, and then toss it as far as I can from the boat," Cockrell noted. "Sometimes I alternate the sides of the boat.
"The idea is to set the whole string with ample spacing between each jug so they don’t get tangled up in a mess, especially if a wind is kicking up any waves."
Wave action can have a profound effect on your jugging strings.
The toughest part of jugging is keeping an eye on all the jugs floating around, bobbing about and eventually spreading out. Having a partner along certainly helps.
"Once the jug string is out and set, then the fun starts," said Cockrell. "All eyes have to be on all the jugs at the same time. This is much easier said than done, as one might expect. Sometimes a jug will indicate when a fish is on by its bobbing up and down action, but don’t always count on that.
"Eventually all the jugs will have to be recovered to check them."
Some jug fishermen toss a whole string at one time, and then pick up all of them at one time. Then the process starts all over again.
"One thing I learned for sure after a couple jugging trips is that bending over the boat side to grab a jug by hand was not the way to do it," said Cockrell. "The next day I could hardly stand up from the stiff back.
"So, I quickly fabricated an extended-reach pole with a hook arm on it. That way I could reach overboard and grab the jug by the line. That method worked a whole lot better and certainly reduced the fatigue factor."
"I might make three to five runs before I catch 20 or so fish, sometimes more or less. Jugging is labor intensive, but it is a challenge waiting to see what each jug produces. I keep waiting for one of those 20 pounders, but for now the filets from the 1- to 2-pound fish fry up just fine."