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Cane Mutiny

Cane Mutiny
Cane poles aren't used as much for fishing as they once were, but these whippy bamboo rods still work great and can be crafted from natural materials that cost nothing. (Keith Sutton photo)

At most sporting-goods stores, you can buy all sorts of fancy fishing poles made from all sorts of modern man-made materials. Choose from boron, graphite, fiberglass or composites; long poles, short poles or in-between poles. Some are so tough you can tie a knot in one without breaking it. Some are so sensitive you probably could detect a gnat landing on the tip. Some are so expensive a glance at the price-tag will cause distress.

Next time you visit a tackle shop, ask if you can buy a regular, old-fashioned cane pole. You remember cane poles, don’t you? You know, the kind you used to catch bluegills in farm ponds; those long, slender pieces of bamboo you spread around your boat when trolling for crappie; that flexible, whippy-tipped piece of river-bottom cane you cut and dried yourself and used to snatch shade perch out of the crick when you were a kid.

It’s getting harder to find a retailer who sells cane poles these days. But despite the popularity of high-tech fishing gear, cane poles still find favor with many anglers. Cane poles are sensitive but have all the backbone you need to whip a feisty catfish or bass. Their extra length allows you to fish out-of-the-way hotspots without disturbing fish and provides extra reach for bank fishermen. Best of all, you can still cut and dry your own, a nostalgic adventure that adds an extra measure of fun to the fishing experience, especially for kids. Somehow it’s nice to know you don’t need a lot of expensive gear to catch a mess of fish.

Cane grows in the understory of many bottomland hardwood forests. There are two primary types of native cane: giant cane and switch cane. Giant cane reaches a maximum height of about 30 feet, with an average of 15-20 feet. In 1778, botanist William Bartram recorded giant cane poles in Alabama’s Tombigbee River bottoms 30 to 40 feet high and 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Most poles found today rarely exceed 2 inches in diameter. The maximum height of switch cane is about 10 feet, with a diameter up to about 1 inch. Both types make excellent fishing poles.

Before cutting poles, obtain permission from the landowner. Then stick a compass in your pocket. Traveling in a canebrake is like walking through a forest of side-by-side fishing poles, and since everything looks the same in all directions, a tract of cane is a likely place in which to get lost. In some brakes, there are 40,000 cane poles per acre, so it shouldn’t be difficult to find a pole that meets your needs.

Cane Poles
The typical cane brake contains thousands of poles from which the do-it-yourselfer can choose. (Keith Sutton photo)

A saw or a sharp machete is better than an ax for cutting cane. Select green canes of the proper length and diameter. A pole that’s too long or too thick will be unwieldy and heavy, tiring your arm while fishing. A pole that’s too short and skinny could break if you hook a real fighter. Most anglers prefer those 1 to 1-1/2 inches in diameter at the butt and 10 to 15 feet long.

Cut each cane at the base, then use some wire cutters to trim all leaves and stems close to the cane. Leave as much of the pole’s slender tip as possible, taking care not to damage it.

Cane Poles
Wire cutters are excellent tools for trimming branches and leaves off each pole. (Keith Sutton photo)

At home, saw through the bottom of a joint to square up the butt end. Done properly, the butt will be “capped” with the piece of wood that divides the joint; the hollow space inside the cane won’t be visible. Run your hand along the pole and smooth any rough edges you feel with sandpaper or a knife.

Straight canes make the best fishing poles, but unless cured properly, the poles develop a natural bend at the tip when drying. To prevent this, hang the poles upright instead of laying them. Tie cord to each tip, and secure the end to barn rafters or a tree limb so the poles hang vertically slightly above the ground. Curing is complete when the poles take on a tannish hue, a process that usually takes several weeks to a couple of months. (Don’t dry the poles quickly in the hot sun or they’ll split and crack.) Some anglers varnish their cured poles or rub them with tung oil for extra durability.

Before fishing, test each pole by grasping it near the butt and whipping the tip back and forth. If there are any cracks or breaks that weren’t evident before, they’ll show up now, allowing you to cull inferior specimens. The best poles are whippy yet straight near the tip, with a solid inflexible butt.

Some anglers make the mistake of tying line only to the pole’s end. If the tip breaks, the fish escapes. It’s better to run line along the whole length, starting just above the “handle,” where you’ll hold the pole. Tie the line here, then wrap a piece of electrical or duct tape around the tie to secure it. Tape the line at several evenly spaced points along the pole, then wrap several feet around the tip and tie the line off, leaving a length of line beyond the tip that’s a foot or two longer than the length of the pole. When the line is rigged with terminal tackle, you can adjust the length by wrapping or unwrapping it at the tip. Use an overhand knot to tie it off.

Cane Poles
Tape your fishing line at regular intervals along the pole so you won’t lose a fish if the pole breaks. (Keith Sutton photo)

A cane pole is great for fishing bream or crappie beds in spring. With a 10- to 15-foot model, you can keep your distance to avoid spooking the fish. Rig with a small Carlisle (cricket) hook, a split shot and a small cork, then work shallow-water cover. With a long cane pole, this can be done from the bank or a boat, as you prefer.

Cane poles are inexpensive, so they’re popular with crappie anglers who enjoy “spider trolling.” On waters where it’s legal, it’s not uncommon to see a johnboat with a dozen or more poles set around the transom, lending the appearance of a large spider crossing the water. That’s where the sport gets its unusual name.

The poles, rigged with jigs or live minnows, are secured in rod holders attached to the bow and transom. The angler then drifts or trolls, passing near underwater structure where crappie are likely to be. The poles are usually rigged at different depths until crappie are found. Then each is set at the depth where fish are feeding.

If it’s bass you’re after, try “doodlesocking” with a cane pole. Tie a surface lure to a 2- or 3-foot section of 20-pound line. Then work the lure around log piles, flooded brush, riprap and other cover. The best lures are noisy ones like poppers and propeller plugs. And you want to make as much noise with them as you can. Run the lure back and forth around the same piece of cover several times. You want to make the bass mad enough to blast out of its hole and smack your lure. Strikes are violent. The fishing is extraordinary.

How long has it been since you fished with a cane pole? Try one again this season and go back to a form of fishing where expensive rods and reels take a back seat to nature’s free and simple “bamboo.” Cane poling is a sport no one ever outgrows.

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