If you have never attended a combination fish fry and football tailgate party in Mississippi, you have missed out on one of life’s great pleasures. The state is well represented when its colleges are on the field and catfish fillets are in the fryer.

A big fan of both college football and fried catfish, Don Drane lives in Madison and grew up fishing Lake Washington. He’s one of the few catfish-only anglers on the lake, a yo-yoer and jug angler by trade, catching more eating-sized channel cats and blues through the years than he can count. 

“The catfish population is tremendous at Washington,” Drane said. “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 catfish in half a day.”

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, both setting the hook and fighting the fish, and will often pull a smaller fish right out of the water.

“Anything on the south and west side of the lake, where all the trees are, is a potential good woods fishing spot,” said Drane. “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, 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.”

Drane emphasizes that watching yo-yos is all about having fun. In days gone by, many commercially motivated catfishermen would set yo-yos in the same fashion as trotlines and come back later to check them. This practice frequently resulted in the waste and loss of by-catch — smaller catfish and game species that would be pulled out of the water and suffocate.

New regulations enacted by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks in the last year require yo-yo anglers to be in attendance of the devices, meaning they must stay in sight while hooks are baited and in the water. 

“My son and I do this at least two or three times a month, just for fun primarily,” Drane said. “We give away most of our fish. “We’ll skin fish for hours and give them away to a church group or a guy who’s not having any luck. These are some of the best eating fish there are and they make for a great fish fry.”

Mike Jones of Southern Star RV Park and Bait ’N Thangs Tackle Shop is a good friend of Drane’s and could not agree more on the social aspects of catfishing on the lake, especially in the fall when Saturday mornings are spent fishing and the afternoons are reserved for watching college football.

Jones said jugging was also very popular at Washington — also known locally as noodling, but is not to be confused with hand grabbing, which is called noodling in other parts of the world. Noodling at Washington is named for the device many people use to build their gear.

“Folks will use a foot-long piece of pool noodle with a section of PVC pipe shoved through the hole as the float instead of the jugs most people used back in the old days,” Jones said. “We also get a lot of hand grabbers who come to lake Washington. We held the weigh-in for the Hand Grabbing Association at Lake Washington here at Bait ’N Thangs, with lots of 30, 40, and 50 pound catfish, but the hand grabbing is mostly a summer thing.”

In Mississippi, the grabbing season is May 1-July 15.

Jones said one of the hottest baits this year had been the Neon Nightcrawler, a Canadian Night Crawler that is dyed neon green and actually glows in the water.

“We had some jug fishermen come in and buy a bunch of the Neon Nightcrawlers and they left out of here with just shy of 200 catfish in one week-end,” said Jones. “The lake doesn’t get a lot of current which I think is preferred by the juggers so it doesn’t blow their floats all over the lake.”

Jones said jugging has always had its share of fans but was gaining in popularity with a big event planned for 2017, not on Lake Washington, but in Washington County on the Mississippi River.

“Washington County is going to hold a big jugging tournament on the Mississippi River sometime around July 4 at Warfield Point Park,” said Jones, who is the Washington County Building and Grounds Director. “There will be food, live music and live television coverage. We hope to make this one of the biggest catfish jugging tournament events ever.”