Hook, Line, and Sinker: Catfish Limb-Lining Basics

Hook, Line, and Sinker: Catfish Limb-Lining Basics

Our fate hangs by a thread just around this bend. If the limb-line is taut, we’ll dine on fresh catfish fried crispy in cornmeal and lard. If not, it’s creek-side potted meat and crackers for supper.

We’re canoeing Mississippi’s Black Creek for a few days. We lit the Coleman stove long before the sun. The smell of eggs, coffee, and bacon rose in the gloaming. And, at first good light, we were floating downstream through a wild and scenic morning, our paddles doing little more than steering us around stobs.

About noon our canoe hisses onto the perfect sandbar—long and gentle and soft underfoot. Best of all, it’s just downstream from a deep hole filled with tangled timber. A storm will blow in soon so there’s work to do. We pitch tents and gather wood in a hurry. We rinse in the creek and turn the bow downstream to set up limb-lines to catch the evening meal.

The creek currents here are such that we can paddle up or float down with impunity. So, we’ll hang six sets downstream and then six more up. Heavy raindrops thump the hull of the empty canoe as we hang the last set below that flood-driven timber. As we wash the sand off our feet through the tent flap, thunder knocks a hole in whatever holds back the rain. Water pours. But it’ll pass.

The drenching only manages to wet the heat. As we paddle upstream to the first set, sweat rises on my skin like steam from the banks. But we’re fishing now so I don’t mind.

We round the bend, begging for a bucking limb. Nothing. We study the bits of sky between the leaves to better detect motion. No, that’s just us moving. And, when that limb does twitch, it’s electric—like a plucked guitar string that’s strung from the tree to my spine.

As we near, I see the twine angled off toward the bank. It could be any number of critters – an alligator snapping turtle, alligator gar, largemouth bass, ballsy bluegill, or even a pissed off cottonmouth. But there’s the whiskers. Then the channel cat’s olive sides and dark spots. Catfish for supper it is.

It’s exciting every time. But it’s not exactly a surprise. Because pretty much year-round and in most any kind of open catfish water, limb-lines catch fish.

The Basic Rig
The most basic limb-lining rig is a hook, line, and sinker. You’ll need a spool of braided nylon trotline twine. I prefer #9 in green, and I cut it into 6-foot lengths with a loop at one end. Run the other end of the line through a ½-ounce sliding egg weight, then tie on a 2/0 to 5/0 J-hook. If you can’t get your line through the eye of the hook, tie a snap swivel onto the line and clip it onto your hook. Set the egg weight about 6 inches above the hook and peg it there with a toothpick or by crimping a split shot underneath. Now all you need is bait and a green limb hanging over a honey hole.

Cats and Catnip
Blue cats and flatheads are rare in creeks, but channel cats are plentiful throughout much of the Southern U.S. And, they’ll eat damn near anything: nightcrawlers, crawfish, stink bait, Beetle Spins, Ivory soap, hot dogs, flies, liver—you name it and someone has probably caught a channel cat on it. We once caught one on a dirt clod wedged onto a bream hook. But the best creek baits have common characteristics, all of which are embodied in our favorite bait: catawba worms.

Caterpillars of the catalpa sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae), “catawba worms” in our local parlance, are hell on channel cats (and blues where they reside). The 3-inch, Slim Jim-fat, yellow, black, and white caterpillars invade catalpa trees by the thousands in spring and summer, so they’re usually easy to gather. They’re colorful, fat, juicy, and they plain catch fish. They freeze well too so they’re transportable and available year-round. And, they stay on the hook such that you can often catch several fish on one worm. Note: If you don’t have a catalpa tree nearby, you can sometimes find the worms for sale online.

In the absence of catawba worms, we catch small, live baitfish either by cast net (where legal) or with a fly rod and a size 10 popper. A seine works too. We present the fish in one of two ways: Either rigged live to swim loudly at the surface or rigged as submerged cut bait. Note: Live bait catches flatheads if they’re in your water.

The Set
If a spot just looks fishy—like it’s begging for a nightcrawler on a Zebco 33—then it’s a good candidate. I’m talking about eddies and any deep, slow spots. Bends in the creek are always likely locations, either inside the point or deep outside troughs. I also pay attention to any open spots just above or just below downed timber and logjams. Bridges, ledges, islands, and tributary mouths are worth considering as well. Also keep an eye out for fruit trees and vines. If you see muscadines, mayhaw, persimmon, mulberries, or other fruits falling, pop a couple sets there. Then collect some of the fruit for yourself.

When you find a supple limb hanging over such a spot, tie your line firmly onto the branch such that the bait is submerged, but suspended well above any snags. If you’re running live fish, rig it at the surface without weight so the fish makes a lot of racket. Catfish will hear that dinner bell ringing.

Similar Fishing Methods
There’s more than one way to skin a cat. And, more than one way to catch one with passive methods too.

A Trotline is a length of twine strung out from shore into a waterway with smaller lines dangling off about every three feet to present a baited hook. Weights hang every 15 feet or so to keep the bait submerged. One end of the line is tied to a bank, the other is tied or anchored to something heavy out in the water. Trotlines can have 50 hooks or more to cover lots of promising water and they’re a lot of fun to run.

In our family, when it was time to catch a mess of fish for the fish fry or the freezer, we ran catawba worms on trotlines in the deep bends of the Pearl River for channel cats and blues. They can be a lot to manage, so they’re not right for every outing. For creek trips, we prefer the limb-lines because honey holes are spread out, paddling is the main activity, and we don’t need 50 hooks in the water to catch supper.

A Jug-line is a hook, line, and sinker dropped beneath a jug, 2-liter bottle, pool noodle, or anything else that floats. They’re cheap and easy to make. You can use them to cover lots of water and catch lots of fish. On the other hand, they can be unwieldy and a pain in high wind or strong currents.

We’ve had good luck letting the jugs float into the flooded stumps and downed trees in Ross Barnett Reservoir and other lakes. When it comes to creek fishing, though, we prefer limb-lines because we don’t want to chase jugs, dig them out of tangles, or have them fill the canoe.

Bank poles are essentially mobile limb-lines, making it so you don’t have to find the perfect branch hanging over the perfect water. Instead, your limb is a five to 10-foot pole—often PVC, willow, cane, or bamboo—tied to 5 to 20 feet of trotline twine with a hook, maybe a sinker, and bait. The butt end is jammed into the bank. You can put it where the fish are.

While bank poles offer a lot of freedom, we prefer limb-lines on our creeks because there’s never a shortage of suitable limbs. And, we don’t want to invest the time in the poles or lug them around in the canoe.

Yo-Yo Reels are essentially mechanized limb-lines. You can hang them on anything—not just a green limb—over the water. When the fish hits the bait, the automatic reel sets the hook. They pack up well, hang easily, and open up more water than a limb-line, so they make a lot of sense—though they’re not legal in all states.

When I was a kid, my grandfather lived year-round on a houseboat in the Pascagoula River Swamp. He kept a couple of yo-yo reels baited and hanging off the back railing. It worked well.

Which is the best method? It depends on where you are and what you’re trying to do. Do some research to understand your landscape, your water, and your fish. Find out how other folks are catching fish. Then pick the method that makes the most sense to you. Once you find your rig, run it.

Laws governing limb-lines, trotlines, jug-lines, yo-yos, the use of gamefish as bait, multiple hooks, etc. vary widely from state to state. What’s legal for your buddy across the state line may not be legal for you. So, please check with the appropriate fish and wildlife management agency and abide by the laws.

Final Thoughts
It may be easiest to make your limb-line rigs at home and bring them to the creek rather than building them streamside at the expense of your fishing time. To store and transport your rigs, you can cut a pool noodle in half, cut a length-wise slit, tuck the hook and sinker into the slit, wrap the line around the noodle, tucking in the tag end. Repeat all the way down the noodle.

Whenever you’re floated creeks and messing with streamside vegetation, look out for water moccasins, wasps, and other critters. Monitor the weather and water levels before and during creek trips. Conditions can get nasty quickly, especially in the winter, so be prepared.

No luck on the short set? Let your bait soak overnight and have catfish for breakfast.

If you run your lines at night, use reflective tape and maybe clip bells on the lines within earshot so you know when to go. Also, unattended hooks and lines can be death traps for other river users and wildlife. Please track your lines and remove them when you leave.

After a good sleep, the flame from the Coleman glows and sends the smell of eggs, coffee, and bacon rising again. The hull hisses from the sandbar until the current turns the bow and sends us downstream through another wild and scenic morning.

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