Jug Your Way To North Texas Catfish

Jug Your Way To North Texas Catfish

One sure way to catch catfish this month doesn't require a lot of finesse. Listen up as the pros tell how it's done. (August 2006)

Fort Worth catfisherman Ed Hope examines the mixed catch of channel and blue catfish that he and several jugliner friends made recently at Lake Texoma.
Photo by Bob Hood.

Whoever first observed that there's more than one way to skin a cat must have been a catfisherman! And my guess is that he'd have had a tubful of juglines just waiting to be tossed overboard.

Of the many ways to catch catfish, from bank-angling or boat fishing with rod and reel to trotlining, limblining and, yes, even noodling, jug-fishing has grown in popularity faster than has any other method. That's been true all across Texas, and especially so on a host of lakes like Texoma, Richland-Chambers, Whitney and Livingston.

Jugliners, I've concluded, are a separate breed of fishermen -- but they weren't necessarily born that way. Most of them grew up catching catfish just about any way they knew how, but turned to juglining because a friend or neighbor helped them learn how. It's gratifying to these anglers to catch big catfish on jugs, and particularly so when those jugs are crafted by hand to their own specifications.

On many of our lakes, jugliners go after whatever type of catfish they can catch. But on some lakes, such as Texoma on the Texas/Oklahoma border, it's the big blue cats that attract the most attention -- which shouldn't be surprising, considering that Texoma consistently yields up blue cats weighing 30 to 70 pounds, and occasionally one even larger, such as the world-record 121-pounder caught on rod and reel there last year.

Juglining at Texoma almost has the aura of a deer-hunting camp -- except that the groups of men and women who gather to camp and to cook out together are after catfish fillets, not venison backstraps. You can gauge the seriousness of jugliners less by the number in the party than by the number of jugs stacked in cartons or in the boats' storage boxes.

On many occasions, four to 12 jugliners work as a team: two to a boat with 25 to 40 prerigged jugs, all helping to run and rebait the jugs. Multiply an average of 30 jugs per boat by a dozen fishermen and you can see just how serious these folks are about catching catfish.

Burleson resident Ed Hope rallies one group of successful jugliners to Texoma two to three times a year. Their "base camp" is a house or some cabins that they rent from a marina.

"I started jugging about 15 years ago," Hope said. "I learned how to jug from one of my neighbors that went to Texoma a lot. My wife, Susie, and our girls went up there on vacation one time, and my neighbor asked me if we wanted to put out some jugs.

"We set them in the back of a creek. All we had was a four-cell flashlight and a 12-foot aluminum boat. When we ran them, my neighbor said there was a little gap (in the line of jugs) and we found one jug that was just under the water. I pulled up on it and it went down. I pulled again and the fish came straight up. When I saw the fish it looked as wide as the boat. It was a 36-pounder -- and I was hooked!"

And Hope has learned a lot more about jug-fishing since that initial voyage.

From their boats, Hope and his followers begin their two- to three-day juglining excursion by following the first order of the day: catching bait. They sink barrels with holes drilled into their sides and keep them in the marina boat stalls, filling them with threadfin shad taken in cast nets. On most occasions, catching shad at Texoma is almost effortless, because the Red River impoundment is brimming with baitfish -- a major reason behind the lake's reputation as a considerable fishery when it comes to largemouth bass, striped bass, sand bass and, of course, catfish.

Once Hope and company have caught enough shad for baiting their hooks, they venture out onto the lake in their boats, each pair of anglers/ team members either going to places in which they've caught blue cats in the past or trying a different area, one that they believe has been put under less pressure by other jugliners in recent days.

"We usually set them in about 30 to 35 feet of water," reported Hope, "but it really doesn't matter. We usually don't set them shallow. Blue catfish run up to 8 to 10 feet of water to feed, so they are coming out of the river, and that's where we set them.

"When you have a mudline, that's when you really can catch them. But on Texoma without a mudline you can set them right out in the middle in 50 feet of water and have just as good a chance as anyone."

Most of the time, Hope's jugs are set out about 30 yards or so apart. He makes sure the jugs are set "tight" to the water. The main line is tied with a double-hitch, so that once the weight hits the bottom, no slack is present in the line. Jugs set too lightly, or with slack in the line, are more likely to be picked up and moved by waves caused by other boats or the wind.

If the bait's large enough, usually only one shad per hook is needed. However, if only small threadfin shad are caught, two or more shad are impaled on each hook.

Numerous jugs and similar devices found on the market range from a disc-type Styrofoam device popular at Texoma, to other manufactured jugs made of plastic or Styrofoam, but many veteran jugliners prefer to make their own jugs -- and with good reason. Although many off-the-rack jugs will catch fish and come ready for use, which is great for those who doesn't have the time to make their own tackle, juggers like Hope prefer personal touches. They also can employ innovative tactics such as using higher pound-test lines, larger stainless steel hooks, special leaders and hook knots, and adding self-poured lead weights that fit over the neck of the jug for convenient storage.

Early in his jugging career, Hope filled two-liter soft drink bottles with canned foam for use as his jugs, but he's since learned better practices. "Bottles filled with the foam tend to cave in over the years," he noted. "I now fill them with the beads you get out of beanbag chairs.

"I go to a garage sale or Salvation Army place and find a couple of beanbag chairs. I cut the chair open and push a bottle down into it; you can fill it pretty quick that way. Then I take packing peanuts and stuff them into the bottle to get it as tight as I can. If you only fill it with beanbag beads, you can't get it tight. But if you stuff packing peanuts in with your finger or a stick, you can get it just right."

To prevent the main line from slipping off the bottle both during s

torage and while it's set in the water, Hope affixes small mounds of silicone above and below the wrapped line all the way around the bottle.

Freddie Voyles and David Carter of Fort Worth, who number among the jugliners who've learned much from Hope, now have their own set of jugs. They, however, have switched from the two-liter soft drink bottles to Gatorade bottles.

Voyles and Carter were attracted to the Gatorade bottle by both its overall sturdiness and the indentation found close to the middle of the bottle. It's around this that Voyles wraps the main line when it's not in use, or when extra line remains after the jug is set.

Voyles and Carter follow Hope in filling their bottles with beads from beanbag chairs. Once their bottles are filled, the jugliners screw on the lids, and the bottles are ready for the line.

"I use 80-pound-test line for the main line and then 50- to 60-pound-test line for the line that holds the weight," Hope said. "That way, if you get the weight stuck somewhere, you will break it off and only lose the weight, not the entire rig."

The weight is held by a 5-foot leader. Hope uses a leader for the hook that's 8 to 10 inches long; some practitioners prefer one that's about 18 inches.

"Ed showed me a knot to tie that makes the leader stand straight out away from the bottle," said Voyles. "And that really is important, so it keeps your bait out there where the fish can take it easier, instead of down toward the main line."

Hope and his friends use stainless steel hooks, knowing all to well that big blue cats can straighten out hooks that are insufficiently stout. "I use a 6/0 stainless steel hook and about a 2-pound weight," Hope said.

The weight is lowered to the bottom of the lake and a half-hitch looped in the line at the neck of the jug to make the set. Then, the jugs baited and set, the anglers return to base and simply wait for the fish to bite. All set their own pace as to when to inspect the jugs to see if fish are on, but most are checked about every two hours, even throughout the night.

At night the jugs are located by means of spotlights. For this purpose, the anglers attach a large patch of reflective tape to each jug.

Texoma has become a jugliner's paradise, on weekends most of all, so getting there early and setting out the jugs before things get too crowded is important. And that procedure holds true for any catfishing lake whose popularity can crank up the fishing pressure.

So far, the largest blue cat that Hope has caught was a fish that weighed 74 pounds, but he's taken numerous blue cats weighing 40 to 60 pounds, and even more. "I think the blue cats run in schools," Hope offered. "And you usually will catch a lot of the same size fish in one day. I think the secret is that blue cats do not run on the bottom of the lake; they are not bottom-dwellers. They are cruisers -- they stay 4 to 6 feet off the bottom, depending on the thermocline. And that is where they cruise.

"If they smell something down, they go down. I think they follow schools of stripers and clean up after them. They know where the shad are, and they run in schools of about the same size fish.

"One day the lady at the marina told me on the phone that she had taken pictures of two 50-pounders a day earlier and then took two pictures of a pair of 60-pounders the morning I talked to her. We went up there and caught a 57-pounder, 54-pounder and one weighing 53 pounds."

Most of the fish Hope wrests from the water are blue cats, but the jugs catch an occasional channel cat, too. In fact, while the channel cats may be much smaller in size overall, they're a blast to catch; further, they're present in just about any lake in Texas.

Juglining is fun no matter what type of catfish you're after. It's a great way to spice up a family fishing outing on even the smallest lakes. On many of my own fishing trips for largemouth bass, sand bass or striped bass, I'll set out a few jugs and check them periodically while I'm changing locations in which I search for fish other than cats.

On most occasions, I bait the hooks with Danny King's punch bait -- it stays on the hook admirably well -- but other commercial blood baits, punch baits, shrimp, minnows, chicken livers and earthworms will work, too, although the jugs may need to be checked more often to keep the hooks baited.

Baits are a matter of choice, so once you find a bait that works for you, stick with it. "The secret is having fresh bait," Hope said. "It doesn't have to be live bait. Just fresh and not washed out."

Among my favorite places for going after channel cats are Texas' numerous small city-owned lakes -- diminutive venues ranging in size from about 50 acres to 200 acres. Most of the fishing pressure they receive comes from local anglers fishing from the bank, which leaves them wide-open for jug-fishing, particularly when the activity's combined with fishing for bass or crappie, for example, or, maybe, with gigging bullfrogs at night. On most of these trips, I only set out about five jugs, mainly because of that's all the time I have to spend baiting and checking them while enjoying the other fishing or bullfrogging I'm doing.

Determining the number of jugs to set out is, of course, your call; set out however many you're willing to work. Remember that if you do your juglining as a family, you can add extra fun to your fishing by adding a little friendly competition to the equation.

A friend of mine and his wife take their three children, ages 6, 8 and 10, with them to various small lakes in North and West Texas. While they usually fish with rod and reel for bream, bass or catfish, they always carry along jugs -- three each -- and compete to see who can catch the first, largest and most catfish on his or her own set of jugs.

But for the larger blue cats, heavy lines, stout hooks, big weights and sturdy jugs like the ones Hope and his friends use are by far the way to go. And their system of catching catfish will work wherever the fish roam.

"It's really a lot of fun, and the way we do it everyone pitches in and works as a team," Hope stated. "Catching a really big catfish is a thrill, but I had just as soon catch 10 15-pounders. They are just as good to eat as any fish."

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