Jugheads for Flatheads

Use these jug-fishing techniques, and you’ll be inviting your neighbors over for a monstrous fish fry.

Rob Heflin

May 28, 2009 at 9:49 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

This mess of blue and channel cats was caught by Holeman while jug-fishing the Ross Barnett Reservoir. He recommends fishing stump fields and ledges where the lake bottom drops off into the original Pearl River channel.
Tony Holeman
This mess of blue and channel cats was caught by Holeman while jug-fishing the Ross Barnett Reservoir. He recommends fishing stump fields and ledges where the lake bottom drops off into the original Pearl River channel.
Catfish can be found on every continent in the world, with the exception of Antarctica. The catfish is probably one of the most popular fish in the nation, yet it is not even a game fish in Mississippi.

There are several species of catfish right here in the Hospitality State, including blue, channel, yellow and bullhead. Channel cats gained their national fame back in the late 1960s when a few Delta farmers, going broke farming clay soils that grew poor crops, decided to build ponds. Mississippi leads the nation in farm-raised channel catfish production.

Blue catfish get their reputation from the enormous sizes they can reach in certain waterways and their aggressiveness.

Yellow cats, sometimes known as appaloosas, tabbies or flatheads, have to be one of the most delicious fishes in the world.

Bullhead, commonly referred to as mudcat, is probably the least popular species in the state, but they are eaten from time to time.

There are about as many ways to catch catfish as there are days in the year. You can go low-tech and fish from the bank with cork and bobber, or you can spend all of your earnings on the latest gear, boats and technology. Some sport anglers set out trotlines and limb-lines, while commercial anglers may use hoop nets, gill nets and slat traps. The mentally unstable catfishing crowd prefers the hand-grabbing method.

However, it seems that another form of catfishing is gaining in popularity — jug-fishing. This is a method of fishing by which anglers bait hooks suspended from floats, and let the entire apparatus drift with the current. The “jugs” can be homemade devices made from plastic soda bottles, corks or foam pool noodles. Commercially made plastic jugs can be found in sporting goods stores, as can custom-made noodles.

“Jug-fishing is a good technique to cover a wide area with different baits while being able to fish different depths,” says Brookhaven native Dustin Price.

 

The Gear

The Game and Fish folks use the term “free floating fishing device,” or FFFD for short, to describe any device used for fishing that floats freely. Most anglers use the terms “jug” and “noodle.” Don’t get noodle in this instance confused with “noodling,” which is another term for hand-grabbing catfish.

Tony Holeman, Jr. from Rankin County prefers swimming pool noodles over plastic jugs, but offered tips on how to rig both.

“If you use a bottle (plastic) be sure it’s clean and rinsed so no pollutants are released into the water while fishing,” he advised. “Take trotline string (don’t use fishing line because it’s easier to break), and make different length cuts from 2 feet to however deep you want to fish. Most success comes from 2- to 6-foot depths.

“Place a weight three-quarters of the way down the string, and place a trotline or circle hook on the bottom. Be sure to use a sturdy hook so if you catch a big one he won’t break your hook off. 5/0 is a great size for catfish. Take the other end of the string and tie it around the handle of the bottle, or if there isn’t a handle, tie it between the bottle and lip close to the cap.

“If you use swimming noodles, cut them into 12- to 14-inch pieces. You can do them smaller, but larger catfish can hold them down longer or wrap them around stumps or limbs. Some folks like to place a piece of PVC pipe in the middle of the noodle to add extra strength, but believe it or not, catfish can’t pull the line through the noodle alone.

“Depending on the state regulations where you’re fishing determines whether you can only use one or more hooks. Here in Mississippi, we can use two hooks per jug. Cut your trotline from 6 feet to 20 feet depending on how deep or how far apart you want your hooks. Tie two loops in the string, each about 16 inches in circumference. There is no special knot that works better than any other. This is one continuous string, no cuts.”

Price uses a slightly different method when rigging foam noodles for fishing.

“There are several different techniques in building your jugs,” he said. “I prefer a brightly colored, large swim noodle cut into 8-inch sections. I will then glue a piece of PVC in between two sections, where it looks like a dumbbell. You can glue one end of your line under one section. On the opposite end of the handle, drill a hole and run your line out the other end. I usually use 80-pound tarred line and vary between 2/0 to 6/0 hooks.

“This setup will also allow you to be able to change your depths quickly. I will use 2-ounce egg weights and have different hook setups depending on what body of water I’m fishing. Many jug fishermen will put more than one hook per line, but we have found it to be less productive and more time-consuming.”

 

The Bait

Catfish are known to be attracted to anything stinky and disgusting, but to say they only eat that type of thing is a myth. Another myth is that catfish are bottom-feeders. Catfish in the wild don’t roam the bottom sucking up leftovers; they are hunters. Catfish will sit behind a rock dike or point in the river and ambush baitfish caught in eddies. They’ll also sit in the slack-water in holes in the river bottom and grab prey items as they fall out of the swift currents above the holes.

Yellow cats love woody structure, and can be caught near log jams and stumps where they hide and wait for prey to enter seeking refuge. Most all catfish anglers know that the bite usually picks up in the evening and through the night. This is when these predators come up from the depths to hunt the shallow waters near the bank. Catfish are hunters, and they do it well.

There is a story of a class of conservation officer recruits catching a 60-plus-pound flathead in a State Park lake while helping some fisheries biologists with a bass stocking project. They called the Natural Science Museum in Jackson to see if they wanted the fish for the aquariums. The response they receieved was a gracious, but emphatic, “NO!”

It seems that the museum had previously put a large flathead in the aquariums, and it gobbled up everything else in the tank before they could get it out. Catfish are opportunistic feeders, and the larger they get, the more opportunities they have to eat things smaller than they are.

I’ll never forget the time my little brother, Ryan, and I went fishing on my grandparents’ catfish ponds. We used raisins and marshmallows as bait, and the densely stocked channel cats tore them up. When we got home, I complained to Mom that Ryan had eaten all of the bait. She was mortified at the mere thought of such a thing, until she learned that he had scarfed down a couple of boxes of raisins. The point is that catfish can be caught on a multitude of bait items, and not all are necessarily putrid or bloody.

My go-to bait for flatheads is the green sunfish, a.k.a. the pond perch or rice slick. When you are after tabbies, it’s hard to beat live sunfish. A couple of traps placed in private ponds will usually get me all of the bait I need when setting out hooks for yellow cats. Flatheads will occasionally take other baits, but a flathead will swim through a mile of liver to get to one floundering sunfish. A 4-inch sunfish on a 7/0 Circle Sea hook will catch flatheads from 3 pounds and up.

I have talked to commercial fishermen who use cut buffalo with the skin attached when fishing for cats. They say the white skin of the buffalo flutters in the water and attracts tabbies with great success.

Holeman has opinions on the matter.

“Baits are as unique as the body of water you’re fishing,” Holeman said. “Most common baits are nightcrawlers, catalpa worms, live bream, cut bait, liver, hot dogs, etc. Each body of water is different, so you’ll have to fish it a time or two to find which one they really love.”

Price has his favorites.

“For the river [Mississippi], I use a larger hook and mainly use skipjack, gizzards and goldfish,” he said. “While fishing Ross Barnett, I’ll use smaller hooks. I’ll also stick with goldfish and gizzards.”

 

The Location

“Catfish are like any fish,” Holeman said. “They look for two things, cover and edges.”

Find the stump fields or the drops in the lake/river you’re fishing and place your jugs along them. Some folks like to put all their jugs in one area; others like to spread them out. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

“Jug-fishing is most effective in a current to keep the momentum of the jugs flowing to cover more area and keeping ample space between each jug,” says Price. “I prefer to fish the Mississippi River due to size of fish and area that it allows you to cover. I will generally start the depths ranging from 14 to 6 feet deep. I start the jugs behind a dike and let them flow around the end where many fish are waiting for baitfish to flow through the current.

“Once they have entered the edge of the main current, we will float beside them, while another method is to start them in the channel and float them down. While fishing the Big Muddy I may limit the number of jugs I put out to be able to keep control of them with barge traffic.

“Another successful way to produce fish is to look for ledges to float the jugs across. For lake fishing, I’ll find shallow flats and allow the wind to drift them across the flats. It is easier to set out more jugs in a slower current such as the lake compared to the river where it’s harder to maintain your jugs in the stronger currents.”

Price adds that a benefit of jug-fishing is once you drop a jug into the water, you are free to do other things while waiting on the fish to bite.

“A good advantage of jug-fishing is that you can leave them unattended while socializing with friends, setting out more jugs or while harvesting another big cat,” he said. “If it has been a while since you’ve caught a fish, it may be time to troll through and check your bait. Just like any other fishing, it is good to know the area you are fishing and always be aware of surroundings while in the river.”

There are clear signs of success, Holeman reports.

“Look for a bottle to stand up on its end or bounce around like it’s doing the ‘come get me’ dance,” he said. “On noodles, it’s harder to tell sometimes. Watch for the noodle to bob or bounce a little. On calm days, it’s easy to see the wake it puts off. Don’t worry about knowing if there is a big one on, you’ll know.”

Dustin Price and crew revel in their success after a day of jug-fishing on the Big Muddy. Big water means the opportunity for big fish, and the Mississippi has produced many.
Holeman caught these blues on homemade jugs. Jug-fishing at night, with the proper safety equipment, is a great way to beat the heat of the Mississippi summer and put delicious fillets on the table.
This is a standard rig of a noodle with reflective tape, two hooks and an egg-sinker. Holeman prefers 2 to 6 feet of twine suspended below a foot-long section of noodle, rigged with two 5/0 hooks.
This is a “Price Jug” made of two pieces of foam noodle with PVC inserted inside them. Price prefers 8-inch pieces of noodle with PVC glued inside, 80-pound tarred line and 2/0-6/0 hooks, finished with a 2-ounce egg sinker.
Bottom Diagram
Dike Diagram: Just upstream of a rock dike is a good place to put out your jugs.
Current Diagram
     



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