Using yo-yos to catch fish is a favorite pastime for freshwater anglers. Here’s all you need to know to get started.
Well, let’s try this again,” I said as Clay pushed the boat out from the muddy Dugdemona river bank. This was the second time in a week that my cousin Clay Scoggin, his son Jake and I had come here to participate in a North Louisiana springtime ritual: yo-yo fishing. A trip the previous week had been great, but the photographs came out poorly. So here we were again trying to get it right.
I had set out two dozen yo-yos earlier in the day and caught two white perch, two mudcats, a small channel cat and a large bream while baiting them. Things definitely looked promising, and we were looking forward to a productive run this evening.
Yo-yos are immensely popular in North Louisiana, especially when the white perch are spawning in area lakes, but some of the best springtime yo-yoing is found on the creeks and bayous that lace the region. Such streams as Dugdemona River, Saline Bayou, Corney Creek, Bayou Pierre and D’Arbonne Bayou are among the favorites.
Yo-yos, or mechanical fishing devices, exploded on the scene more than 40 years ago. Made of galvanized metal, a yo-yo is about the size of its namesake, only thinner, and has a short tie string for attaching it to a limb, dock, or set pole. A spring-powered spool contains fishing line and a swivel, to which a baited hook is attached.
As the line is pulled out, the spring is wound tight. The yo-yo is then “set” by locking a trigger device. When a fish grabs the bait, the trigger is released (or “tripped”), and the spring snags the fish. The spool then plays the fish and eventually brings it to the surface to await the fisherman.
Yo-yos are made by several companies, but I prefer the White’s brand because they are sturdy and durable. A box of one dozen costs approximately $20, and two to three dozen are usually used on an outing.
An important hint for the beginner is to replace the short, thin tie string with a longer, thicker, 60-pound nylon line. Make it about 4 feet long so the yo-yo can be tied to higher limbs yet still keep the hook in the water.
Once the tie string has been replaced, attach a 1-ounce sinker about 2 inches above the swivel. Lake fisherman usually do not use a sinker, but it is critical on small streams. Sometimes currents can be quite strong, and the bait will not reach the proper depth without it.
Now all that’s left is to attach a hook and bait. A small catfish hook works very well. These will hold any fish the yo-yo is capable of landing (normally up to 8 pounds), but it still can be straightened and retrieved if hung up in roots.
Shiners, crawfish, nightcrawlers and red wigglers are the most popular yo-yo baits. Shiners are hard to beat because they tend to catch bigger fish and more numerous species, especially the prized opelousa (or flathead) cat. However, for sheer numbers, red wigglers often are best.
Once your yo-yos are prepared, place them in a large bucket. When hung by the hooks along the rim, the yo-yos will drape down the inside of the bucket leaving plenty of room to carry extra gear.
Be sure to hold the bucket away from your body when carrying it, for the hooks inevitably will grab your pants leg if they brush against it. To avoid this problem, some people use a Styrofoam ice chest to hold their yo-yos and bury the hooks along the top rim. This works well, but Styrofoam is flimsy, and it often splits or breaks.
Before setting off for the creek, fill a coffee can with extra hooks, sinkers, swivels, nails and pliers, and place it in your bucket. These will be needed because yo-yos often have to be regeared as a result of frayed lines, broken swivels or straightened hooks. Also make sure you take a landing net for the larger fish and a hatchet for cutting poles to set in the bank or nail to stumps.
Yo-yo placement over the water is critical. If too high, small fish will be jerked completely out of the water and will die before the fisherman returns. Even if the yo-yo is tied a little too high, the fish’s head will be held above the water. It might survive in this position, but most likely its lack of movement will make the fish prime turtle bait.
For best results, tie the yo-yo so the hook is touching the water. This allows the spring to keep enough tension to keep the fish hooked, but leaves enough play for the fish to move around and not become turtle food. Always keep a careful eye on the creek to see if it is rising or falling in order to keep the yo-yo adjusted from day to day.
Growing up on Dugdemona River in Winn Parish, I was taught the secrets of springtime yo-yoing by my Uncle Preston Copeland, with occasional lessons from Uncles Rodger and Waymon Jones.
I quickly learned that yo-yo tactics on small streams depend largely on water level. Springtime can bring sudden downpours that will raise water levels several feet in a matter of hours. Many times, I have set out yo-yos on Dugdemona when the water was low, only to have to search for my submerged limbs and set poles with a paddle the next morning after a sudden thunderstorm.
The lower the water, the better the main creek channel is. Yo-yos baited with shiners should be set near large cypress trees, stumps and logs for opelousa and white perch. Shiners or worms placed in the current behind drifts or along cut banks will catch mostly blue and channel cats.
If water levels are running high, place yo-yos in sloughs off the main creek channel. Most any bait will work, but my favorite for this type of fishing is red wigglers. Sometimes when the bite is really on, a dozen yo-yos can keep you busy running back and forth taking off fish and rebaiting.
One mistake often made with yo-yos is fishing too deep. Years ago, when Preston would take his son Gary and me to the creek, we would pester him by asking, “How deep is it here?” every time we paddled over one of Dugdemona’s larger pools. Preston would respond by jabbing his long cypress paddle into the murky water until it disappeared. “Wooo!” he’d yell, “There ain’t no bottom here!”
It was a scary thought for a youngster, and my mind envisioned all sorts of monstrous catfish lurking in the bottomless pit (which, I found later, was rarely over 10 feet). Thus, when I started fishing by myself, I would set the yo-yo as deep as it would go — and rarely caught a fish.
Yo-yos should always be set shallow. Eighteen inches is plenty, even for deep water. Fish will come up for the bait, and shallow sets are not as likely to hang up the hook on roots.
Preston also taught me that some of the best fishing is to be had in extremely shallow water. On one trip up Dugdemona’s Ernest Slough, I noticed he was setting the hooks less than a foot deep. When I expressed surprise, he thrust his paddle down and hit hard bottom barely knee deep.
I learned then that blue and channel cats swim up the shallow sloughs in the spring to spawn. Sure enough, we caught a nice mess of fish on that trip, and most were full of eggs.
On this late-spring trip with Clay and Jake, Dugdemona was perfect for fishing the main channel, and we were using shiners in hopes of catching some ops. The ops never bit, but we wound up with a variety of other species.
One of the great things about yo-yo fishing on creeks is that you never know what you’ll catch. There’s a thrill to rounding a bend at night and having the spotlight catch the spinning movement of a yo-yo with a fish on. Half the fun is guessing what it might be. White perch and opelousa, blue and channel catfish are the preferred catches, but you are just as likely to have a gar, grinnel, bass, goggle-eye, gaspergou, bream or any myriad creatures that call the creek home.
One of the greatest shocks in my career occurred as a teenager on a trip with Rodger. It was one of the first times we ever used an outboard motor, so he ran it and allowed me to work the yo-yos.
We had caught few fish, but finally saw what looked to be a nice channel cat on one yo-yo. Rodger positioned me next to the limb, and I grabbed the line and pulled it up and over into the boat. To my surprise, the “channel cat” kept coming out of the water, and before I knew it, a long, slithery eel was flopping around my feet.
My mind immediately identified it as a water moccasin, and in a fit of the heebie-jeebies I instantly flung it over the other side of the boat. Rodger nearly fell out of the boat laughing. It was the only eel I ever recall having caught in my many years of yo-yoing.
Like any type of fishing, certain precautions should be taken while yo-yoing on creeks. When using a motor, always go slow, for submerged stumps and logs can be a real hazard. This is true even on waterways you know well. Annual floods deposit new underwater obstructions and rearrange old ones. Falling water also can expose a hazard where one did not exist the previous day.
Snakes are another concern. In the warm springtime, they frequently sun themselves on the same low-hanging limbs needed for yo-yos. Having a water moccasin fall into the boat or, worse, grabbing one, can ruin your day.
As a boy, I sat at the front of our old cypress boat while Preston paddled from the rear. Inevitably, as he maneuvered to set a yo-yo, my end would drift into the bushes.
“Watch for snakes!” he’d yell and laugh as I disappeared into the limbs. Most of the ones we encountered were harmless water snakes, but it was unnerving nonetheless.
Clay and Jake had a close encounter on our outing. We saw one yo-yo on a large cypress log slowly spinning with what looked to be a nice channel cat. We passed it by to take off a spotted bass farther down and then returned. When Clay pulled up the cat, it was dead with all of the gills eaten out.
I was thinking it strange a turtle would only take the gills when Clay cried, “Whoa!!” and pointed next to the boat. Just a few feet away from him and Jake was a large snake curled up on the log. Apparently, it had been chewing on the cat as we motored past.
We finished our run at dusty dark, and had enjoyed considerable success with five more channel cats, two white perch, a mudcat and a spotted bass. We also learned that turtles sometimes will get the fish from even a well-set yo-yo. As we eased up to one of our first sets, Jake reported from the front of the boat, “We have one here!” I pulled up the line only to find a half-eaten bluegill attached to the hook.
We had planned to build a fire and sit awhile before making another run, but had second thoughts when lightning in the distance indicated a storm was approaching. Knowing we might have to move fast, we decided to enjoy the evening in the dark.
Clay and I lit up cigars to ward off the mosquitoes while Jake fished out some drinks from the cooler. As darkness settled over the swamp, we watched four deer ease out onto a pipeline just across the creek.
Soon, the wind picked up and distant thunder followed the lightning flashes. We hooked up a spotlight and started another run before the storm hit but were only able to check half the yo-yos before a light rain forced us home. Still, we took off two more white perch and a channel cat.
That night a fierce squall line dumped over 6 inches of rain upstream. Clay and Jake were unable to make it back in the morning, and I feared Dugdemona would be running wild. Instead, I found the creek had not yet begun to rise and was able to retrieve my yo-yos and boat without difficulty.
This run produced three nice blue cats, two more white perch, two mudcats and a large gar. In all, the two dozen yo-yos had produced twenty-seven fish in about 16 hours. Of these, I kept eight catfish.
Yo-yoing on creeks is a great family pastime. Kids love it because you don’t have to be still or quiet, and there’s great excitement watching ahead for the tell-tale sign of a flashing, spinning yo-yo signaling that a fish is on.
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