Editor’s Note: The seventh stop on our year-long Catfish Hotspots tour takes us back to The Delta to Lake Washington, which was famous for its catfish production long before it became known as the snake hand-grabbing capitol of the world. At this old oxbow, the popular method for getting a box-full of eating-sized cats is yo-yoing.
Thus far in the Catfish Hotspot Series, we’ve visited some of Mississippi’s well-known catfish waters as well as stepping off the beaten path to discover some trot lining and jugging locales. This month, we head over to the Delta to learn the ups and downs of yo-yoing for eating sized catfish from Lake Washington, and we found a veteran of the sport for our guide.
Don Drane lives in Greenville and grew up fishing Lake Washington for catfish. He’s one of the few catfish-only anglers in an area famous for slab crappie and feisty largemouth bass. Drane is a yo-yoer by trade, catching more eating-sized channel cats and blues through the years than he can count. He and his son, Richie, can often be found working yo-yos along the trees at Washington.
“The catfish population is tremendous here,” said Drane. “I’ve always said this is one of the hottest catfish lakes in the state, if not in the southeast. Size-wise, there are hand-grabbers here who catch 40-pound catfish with regularity. But what I love to do is fish with yo-yos. We catch 1½- to 3-pound catfish here, all day long, every day, 12 months out of the year. This lake is absolutely full of them. It’s not unusual to catch 50 to 75 fish in half a day.”
You ask: Yo-yo? What’s that? An explanation of yo-yo design and engineering is in order. Yo-Yo fishing is simply limb line fishing with a mechanical twist. Between the limb and the line is a spring-loaded retractable reel, similar in principle to the pull-start of a push lawnmower. The line is pulled out and a release stops the coil in the reel from retracting.
When a fish takes the bait, it pulls the line, the trigger is released, and the coil winds the line in, setting the hook, fighting the fish and often pulling a smaller fish right out of the water.
The yo-yo concept has been around for over 50 years and the designs really haven’t changed that much. The devices are available at most sporting good stores in the Delta. Drane paints all of his yo-yos in a personal color scheme, so they’ll stand out when he’s collecting them up.
“I paint mine straight out of the box,” he said. “I put a spray primer on it and I go with my color scheme, which is orange, brown and yellow. You can buy them at any net and twine outlet. Memphis Net and Twine comes to mind, but they are everywhere. You can buy them at Bass Pro, Academy, Wal-Mart, all the outdoor supply houses.”
Drane is a regular fixture at the Southern Star RV Park on Lake Washington. He keeps a camper there and has been hitting Washington at least twice a month for the last 40 years. He was more than happy to share his knowledge of the 5,000-acre lake. In fact, on most days Drane has been known to share his catch with lake visitors who are still learning the ropes at Washington. Here’s his list of hot spors.
1. Bait n’ Thangs Landing
GPS: N 33 06.066 / W 91 02.600
One of the biggest tourist attractions, or at least tourist promoters, on Lake Washington is Mike Jones, owner of Southern Star RV Park and Bait ‘N Thangs tackle shop, where Drane launches. It’s a one-stop shop, offering accommodations, bait, tackle, and a convenient boat launch on the northeast end of the lake. After the catfishing, Jones is Drane’s second most influential reason for choosing this area.
“My son and I have had a camper trailer at Mike’s place going on four years,” said Drane. “We’re what he thinks of as a permanent resident, I suppose. We’re in and out of our camp 12 months out of the year. It’s a great place to camp; good facility and good neighbors. Mike takes care of his guests and his customers and always has. He’s a good guy.”
2. Entrance to the Alligator Hole
GPS: N 33 05.910 / W 91 03.665
Directly across the lake from Bait ‘N Thangs is a local fishing hole on Lake Washington known as the Alligator Hole. Two small cypress tree islands shelter what was once an inside bend of the Mississippi River somewhere around 700 years ago. The hole is deeper than the outside tree flat with more deep water on the other side.
“We always have good luck with a spot like this, an outer, outside tree line — what we call the woods,” said Drane. “Anything on the south and west side of the lake, where all the trees are, is a potential woods fishing spot. The outside tree line is where we have our best luck unless it’s real windy then we get in the woods, hang yo-yos in 3 feet of water, with the bait hanging just a few inches above the bottom.”
Channel cats will eat nearly anything, especially with an odor, so Drane uses a variety of stink bait, minnows, cut shad and worms, but admits he has the best luck using stink baits. He doesn’t pay a lot of attention to brand names, just the typical stink bait that can be bought at any of the fishing supply stores and made specifically for catfish.
“Legally, you can set out 25 yo-yos per man in the boat so we’ll put out anywhere from 25 to 50 yo-yos between two of us,” he said. “Every time we take three or four fish off, we bait those yo-yos again and move on, we’ve got two or three more fish hanging and have to go right back to those same yo-yos. It can be kind of frustrating when all you want is to come out here and sit and watch catfish strike those yo-yos.”
3. Bonsai Tree
GPS: N 33 05.926 / W 91 04.146
By this time, Drane’s got us hooked on fishing yo-yos. As he’s moving west toward the upper north end of the lake to hotspot No. 3, he drops the bomb: “Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the snakes. Avoid the snakes in the trees.”
One piece of gear that looks a little out of place in the boat is an old piece of fishing rod. As it turns out, it’s Drane’s best defense against the snakes.
“That’s a snake stick,” he said. “It is an old jig pole painted in my colors so I can spot it if it winds up in another fellow’s boat. The guy in the front seat of the boat has the obligation to tap low hanging cypress limbs to run the snakes out of the limbs. When you go to hang a yo-yo, you want to know there’s no snake waiting for you on the branch you’re about to grab hold of. The guy in the front of the boat just taps each branch lightly and about, every fourth or fifth tap, you’re going to see a snake slide into the water on a good, hot summer day.”
In opposition to the tree line he just left where he’s fishing constant thick trees, spot No. 3 has sparse cypress trees, large cypress trees anywhere from 5 to 25 yards apart. Drane loves to hang yo-yos in the big solitary trees. The water depth here is 6 to 7 feet and he pulls the line as far as he can to get the bait near the bottom.
“This is near the north end of Lake Washington and a great place to hang yo-yos,” he said. “These trees are full of snakes, mostly non-poisonous snakes but you can mop up catfish in this area. You can hang 25 yo-yos here and catch 50 fish in 3 hours or less.”
Drane said he often hangs up to three yo-yos on a single tree and stagger the depths of the baits to cover the water column. He said a solitary tree is a beacon for catfish to come to out of deep water to find shade, food and structure.
4. The Circle
GPS: N 33 05.885 / W 91 02.964
Working his way back down the lake, Drane stops at spot No. 4, directly across from Bait ‘N’ Thangs. Depending on the water levels in Lake Washington, he often finds an opening in the standing trees that may encompass several hundred yards. In a place like this, he can fish all day, working his way around in a big circle.
“We like to run a circle any time it’s windy out on the open lake,” he said. “We’ll get up in the woods a little bit to get out of the wind and we’ll run a circle. Two of us might hang fifty yo-yos in this circle the size of three football fields. Hang a yo-yo every 10 yards or so until you make your way around. By the time you complete your circle, you’ve got fish hanging on half your yo-yos and it’s time to make another loop.”
5. Across from the Pink House
GPS: N 33 05.073 / W 91 02.861
Hotspot No. 5 is deep in the woods on the left side of the lake. It’s another wind-proof location that touts a number of big sturdy cypress trees. The water depth will range from 3 to 5 feet deep depending on the time of year, and like spot No. 4, it’s a smaller hole that he can fish 50 yo-yos in a complete circle. Drane tries to demonstrate how he ties a yo-yo off.
“Unlike some people who just tie a knot or tie a circle and hang it over a limb, we’ve got a method of actually tying a slip knot that’s easy to get loose,” he said grabbing a tree branch, which promptly deposits a three foot snake into the boat.
Drane bats at the snake and it dives over the side of the boat.
“Let me regain my composure … ,” he said. “We’ll tie a knot that you can just yank on the end and get your yo-yo. If we decide to change locations, grab the yo-yo in one hand, the tag end of the line and pull and drop it in the bucket.”
6. The Highland Club
GPS: N 33 04.912 / W 91 02.997
Drane’s No. 6 spot is located 400 yards north of the dock at the Highland Club. He likes this area because he can fish it regardless of weather conditions, windy or calm. He suggests fishing the outside tree line, particularly when it’s calm then circling back around to fish the other side of the same tree line, which protects him from the wind, if that’s an issue.
“We’ll have 50 yo-yos hanging in a quarter mile section on both sides of the trees,” he said. “What’s fun about this is you just kind of ease along here. You look through the trees and you see 3 catfish hanging on the other side of the trees and you know when you finally get around there, you’ll have 6 to 10 fish hanging. That’s when it becomes fun for us. We’ve done it so long, for so many years, we do it just for fun. We give most of our fish away.”
“We’ll skin fish for hours and then give them away to a church group or a guy back at camp who didn’t have any luck or a family on a pontoon boat that didn’t even fish that say ‘yeah, we’ll take some catfish.’”
7. The Gazebos
GPS: N 33 04.024 / W 91 03.046
Hot spot No. 7 is located on the west side of the lake about half way between the north end of the lake and the town of Glen Allen. The area is the most populated part of the lake, so there are a lot of houses with piers and boat docks. Drane said most homeowners prefer that you not fish the trees directly on the bank although it’s perfectly legal to do that. Though it’s inviting, Drane cautioned to never hang a yo-yo from a private pier, dock or boathouse. It’s not only trespassing on private property, it’s also poor sportsmanship.
This spot is on his list because the solitary trees out away from the bank provide an oasis for catfish. A bigger catfish will often lay claim to a solitary tree so he prefers those to violating the law.
Speaking of the law, Drane also warns that it’s against the law to leave a yo-yo unattended. Mississippi game laws require the devices be within sight of the angler during daylight hours, though they may be left overnight if checked the next morning.
“Another thing we don’t do is leave anything hanging in the trees,” he said. “Some anglers will use ribbons, strings, marking tape, beer cans and all sorts of things to mark where they first started their yo-yo line or where their yo-yos are hanging. After a two-day fishing trip they’ll leave that stuff there when they go home.
“It’s the same as littering. We always carry a 5 gallon bucket with us and spend almost as much time picking trash and cutting lines out of trees as we do fishing because this is our favorite place to fish and we like to leave it better than we found it every time we come.”
8. John Henry’s Chute
GPS: N 33 03.634 / W 91 02.924
When he’s not fishing yo-yos, hotspot No. 8 is one of Drane’s favorite places to fish for bream or crappie. It’s not uncommon to find an alligator back in the shady areas, which means he has to be quick recovering his fish from the yo-yo or the gators will move in.
“We try not to take our eyes off our yo-yos; we constantly run them,” said Drane. “If you leave a fish on that hook for a good period of time, 30 minutes or so, he’s given up and it’s going to lift him higher and higher on that spring activated yo-yo. You’re going to lose him to heat or a turtle or an alligator.”
He also pointed out that catfish weren’t the only fish likely to end up on the end of the line.
“Mostly, you’re going to catch catfish,” he said. “You’re not going to catch a bass. Every once in a while you’ll catch a crappie, but you’ll catch trash fish constantly. You can catch a gar, a gaspergou (drum) or a buffalo. We just throw those back.”
9. East Side
GPS: N 33 03.648 / W 91 02.449
Hotspot No. 9 is similar to No. 7 in that it’s more residential than natural. Nonetheless, Drane’s said it makes the list because of the large solitary trees that stand 15 to 20 feet off the bank.
“This is a great yo-yo spot,” he said. “There is 3-5 feet of good usable water here and provides many of the large old cypresses that we love to hang yo-yos in. You’re not going to get that close to anybody’s property. You can’t go 15 yards without having a great limb to hang a yo-yo on in this area.”
10. West Woods at Glen Allan
GPS: N 33 02.689 / W 91 02.704
The final location on Drane’s list is down the lake in Glen Allan. Passing most of the residential area, he’s heading back over to the west side, fishing in the forest of standing trees.
“This is one of my favorite areas,” he said. “We’re looking at 3½ feet of water right here with a lot of big old cypress trees — hundreds and hundreds of limbs to hang yo-yos on. You’re out of the wind here too. You can run a straight line or you can run a circle, whatever you choose to do. Some people just hang them sporadically, zigzag, all through the woods. We either like to stay with a straight line or a circle pattern for obvious reasons.”