Few can argue that there is a fish more enjoyable to fish for and catch than the catfish. Nearly every farm pond has an ample supply, and just about any type gear and bait combo is sure to land one of these tasty critters.
Anglers from 8 to 80 can be found fishing for whiskerfish across Mississippi most any day of the year when the weather is pleasant. And nowhere in the Magnolia State can one find a greater concentration of catfish than in the land created by the Mississippi River itself.
The Delta may be the best place for catfish for many reasons. One is the sheer number of man-made ponds that have supplied the nation with quality farm-raised catfish for more than 40 years.
Second is the never-ending supply of water from the northern half of the state that flows from the flood-control reservoirs and down the Yazoo River drainage system on the eastern side of the flat plain.
A third reason is the countless oxbow lakes and drainages along the Mississippi River and the smaller bogues and rivers on the western side of the Delta.
But one thing is for sure, no matter where you go in the Delta, you will most certainly be close to catfish.
There are as many ways to catch a catfish as there are to slice a cake, but some of the most-popular methods in the Delta involve no rods or reels at all. Anglers who know how to catch fish on “lines” fare well in the spring of the year. Using “trotlines” and “limb lines” is a method of using twine attached to fixed points on the bank and a series of baited hooks that dangle in the water. They can be made as simple as you please, or they can be very complex.
The focus on this type of fishing is to get a bunch of hooks in the water in select locations and to check on the baited hooks several times over a set period. Most catfish anglers who prefer this method do the bulk of their fishing just before dark and throughout the night hours. This is when the big cats are on the prowl, and the fishing can be fantastic.
This is just the time when Yazoo City angler Josh Vaughan likes to ply the muddy waters of the Yazoo River in search of delicious catfish.
“Well, when the water’s high like it is now, it’s best to fish using limb lines up against the steep banks and places that may be undermined by the current,” he said. “I like to fish two No. 6 or 8 hooks on each line, and tie them so that they don’t tangle with one another.
“Sun perch seem to be about the best bait I’ve found for catfish in the river. When the water gets down in the mid summer, fish behind log jams and any other structure you can find using trot lines or throw lines with the same hooks as the limb lines.”
Sun perch are what local anglers call green sunfish, a close relative of the bluegill. These fish are normally easy to catch in homemade traps that are legal to use in private waters. Most anyone with a private pond has an ample supply of green sunfish, whether they know it or not. A simple trap, baited with bread or dogfood, will usually catch enough in a few hours time to bait up one run of your lines.
“The loops are about 4 feet apart and about 2 feet long each,” says Vaughan, describing how he makes his lines. “I make a loop knot on the shank of the hook; this keeps the big boys from twisting the line loose. The length and number of hooks on each line varies just depending on what I’m tying off to.”
Kealon Dill, a Sunflower County deputy sheriff and Inverness resident, ties his trotlines in much the same fashion.
“I buy thin, braided twine from Delta Net and Twine,” he said. “I like this thin line because it allows the bait to move more easily in the water than the thicker, coated twine does. If I’m making a new line, I go out in the yard and tie one end off to a pole or something. Then I stretch my arms as far as I can, and at that length I make my first drop. I pull about an arm’s length of twine down and back up into a loop, and tie a slip knot in it. Then I just go on down the line another full reach and make another drop.”
As far as tying on the hooks, Dill prefers using barrel swivels.
“I sit in my recliner with a pair of needle-nosed pliers, a box of hooks and a box of swivels,” he said. “I open the eye of the hook, put the swivel in and close it back. I do this to a whole box of hooks so that I have plenty of spares after I get my lines rigged. I use Mustad 8/0 stainless hooks with 4/0 barrel swivels. Most of these stainless hooks have lasted 8-10 years.
“Then when I get ready to put my hooks on my drops, I just thread the end of the drop loop through the eye of the swivel, flip the hook through the end of the loop and it’s done. That way if I ever have to put on a new hook, I don’t have to cut or retie any line.”
Dill fishes the Quiver River as well as the Sunflower. The areas he fishes are best in the summer months, after the fish have finished spawning and the water is lower and slower.
“I’ve been handgrabbing and running trotlines since I was big enough to get in a boat,” said Dill. “The spring is not my favorite time to fish; I’d rather wait until the fish come off of the nest.
“I’m on the river every July 4th because that’s the way we always did it growing up. The catfish are hungry and ready to eat because they’ve been on the nest for the last few weeks. I look for holes in the river bottom, and fish the same spots every time I go. When the river gets down to where it’s only 3-5 feet deep, the fish will be in those holes.
“I run my lines all the way across the river, and about a foot and a half off of the bottom. I put 12-15 hooks on each line, and tie a 12- to 16-inch leader on my weights to keep the hooks off the bottom.
“If you’ve ever looked at a flathead, you’ll see his eyes are on the top of his head. If you put your hooks about a foot or so off of the bottom, he’ll see the bait against the light above as he is swimming along the bottom. You’ll get a top-lip catch every time.”
Vaughan uses a similar style when rigging his trotlines and limb lines. Limb lines are similar to trotlines, but they aren’t stretched out for a long distance like trot lines are. Limb lines are usually tied to a green limb on the bank, and the trailing end is weighted and tossed into the water. The hooks dangle between the weight and the anchor point.
“I don’t use any floats,” he said. “For limb lines, I use either railroad spikes or big steel nuts tied on the end of them as weights. Hang limb lines on limbs of trees. I usually look for good springy limbs.
“When tying trot lines, tie your lines low to the water. Use any kind of scrap metal or cinder blocks for weights, and the weights really need to be pretty heavy so when the fish scoops up the bait the weights kinda set the hook when he pulls out the slack.”
As far as keeping his bait alive while in the sultry heat of the Delta spring and summer, Vaughan lets the river do it for him.
“I have a bait cage I put my bait in as well; it’s basically a box built out of hardware cloth with a door on it and weights on the bottom,” he said. “I leave it in the water to keep the bait alive. Tie a line and a float (Coke bottle) on it to pull it up. The key things to remember are keep fresh bait, fish the slow-moving deep water, and most of all be careful.”
Dill fishes lines in his local waters from July through September with good success. Using 2- to 3-inch sunfish as bait, he’s mastered the art of catching Delta cats when the weather is miserably hot.
“I don’t bait in the daytime because of all the gar,” he said. “A gar is the thievingest fish in the river; they are strait thugs. We go out about an hour and a half before dark and start baiting the hooks. When we get through baiting, we run back down river, checking lines all the way back to the boat ramp. If we’ve caught any fish, we remove them and re-bait the hooks. We wait until about 10:30 or 11 p.m., and run the lines again. We bait up again, and run the lines one last time at dawn. If any bait is left on the hooks at dawn, I pull it off and leave the hooks bare until the next evening.”
Apparently, this technique has worked well for him, as he recounted one of his most memorable fishing trips in years past.
“We had 80 hooks out one night in July,” he said. “By dawn the next morning, we had caught 42 fish. Forty of them were flatheads, and two were channel cats. The fish ranged in size from 5 to 20 pounds each.
“I had two buddies with me, and we had planned to fish again the next night, but after we got through cleaning that 400 pounds of fish, we had had all of the fishing we wanted.”