More and more anglers are learning the thrills of catching catfish with this no-frills technique.
Catfishing is one of Louisiana’s most popular pastimes. For generations, we have pursued Mr. Whiskers with traps, nets, yo-yos, rod and reel, and old-fashioned cane pole. Today, more and more fishermen are trying an old, but relatively unknown, method — jugging.
I was introduced to this unique sport 30 years ago when my wife, Carol, and I were dating. Her father, James Janette, was an outdoor fanatic, whose interests ran from squirrel hunting to frog gigging.
After apparently deciding I was worthy to date his daughter, he invited me to Alexandria some night to go jugging. My curiosity was piqued, so arrangements were made, and I drove down one Friday afternoon with my johnboat and outboard. Leaving the house at dusk, James guided me to nearby Cotile Lake, and proceeded to demonstrate the art of jugging.
He had perhaps a dozen milk jugs, each attached to about 3 feet of line with a catfish hook and sinker. As we eased along parallel to the dam, James baited each one with a night crawler and heaved it overboard. Once all the jugs were out, we tried our hand at some bass fishing.
About 10 p.m., we tracked down the jugs, and took off several nice channel cats. The process was repeated until a good mess of catfish was flopping in the bottom of the boat.
Heading back to town, I didn’t relish fighting mosquitoes in the backyard cleaning all those fish. But, as I came to discover, James ruled his roost. He simply spread out newspaper on the air-conditioned kitchen floor and began skinning and gutting right there. I knew then I would fit into his world.
Today, jugging is popular all over the state. Cale Chandler and his family are among those who have mastered the technique in North Louisiana.
“The first time I ever saw someone jug fishing,” he explains, “was several years ago while motoring down Boeuf River. I knew then I just had to try it.”
Years ago, milk containers and 2-liter Coke bottles were used for jugs. These are very bulky, however, and take up too much room in a sack or boat. Chandler, like most experienced juggers, now makes his out of the long Styrofoam swim noodles that can be purchased at Wal-Mart or most any other discount store. The 5-foot-long noodles are inexpensive, durable and buoyant, and come in a variety of bright colors that are easy to spot on the water.
Chandler buys the hollow noodles that are 2 1/2 inches in diameter, and cuts them into 8-inch sections. He then uses No. 15 or 18 black nylon line for the string. Catfish will readily come up for bait, so Chandler usually makes his line about 2 feet long.
“Anywhere from 2 to 7 feet will work,” he says, “but never use more than about 7 feet because then it will only hang up more often. Even in the deep Red River channel, 2 to 3 feet of line seems to work best.”
After a while, the lines have a tendency to cut into the noodle. To prevent this, Chandler first wraps duct tape around the middle of the noodle, and ties the line on top of it. Another wrap of tape on top of the line keeps it from slipping down the noodle.
“We also put reflective tape on each jug,” Chandler adds. “It shines in a spotlight, and makes it much easier to find the jugs on a dark river.”
Once the line is attached, Chandler runs it through the noodle’s hollow center. This allows the baited line to drop from the end of the noodle and not the center.
“That way,” he explains, “the jug will tip up when a fish is on, making it easy to spot.”
A small 1/4- or 1/2-ounce sinker is tied just above the hook to keep the bait down in the river’s current.
Serious juggers are very particular about hooks. Chandler prefers a 2-0 Eagle Claw kahle hook.
“The curved kahle hook seems to snag the fish much better than a regular hook, and Eagle Claws stay sharp for a long time,” he said.
Most fish taken with jugs will be less than 10 pounds, but a medium-sized hook is capable of holding much larger ones. Since the jug can be pulled under water, there never is enough stress on the hook to straighten it.
Once everything is rigged, the line can be wrapped around the noodle and the hook buried in the Styrofoam. A decoy bag or laundry sack is great for storage. Several dozen jugs can be placed in a large bag and easily removed for baiting. How many jugs are set out depends on the body of water and personal taste. Chandler generally uses 30 to 40 at a time.
There actually are many ways to prepare jugs. Cousins Jim Brister and Don Calhoun, who fish Lake D’Arbonne, use 20-ounce Coke bottles as well as noodles.
“We tie the line behind the lip beneath the bottle cap and then simply wind it around the bottle for storage,” Brister said. “To make the bottle more visible, just spray paint it white.”
Brister and Calhoun agree the kahle hook is best, but point out it has to be kept needle sharp.
“For some reason, catfish often just brush the bait and sometimes will get hooked on the side of the mouth or head,” Brister said. “A sharp hook is necessary to penetrate the tough skin.”
Many types of bait can be used while jugging. Whole shad, cut bait, liver, crawfish, catalpa worms, nightcrawlers and shiners are all good. Calhoun prefers catalpa worms.
To keep them fresh, he first boils Karo syrup and water into a sweet syrup. He then puts some catalpa worms in a Styrofoam coffee cup, fills it with the sweet water, puts a lid on, and freezes it.
“When you thaw them out, the worms look just as green and fresh as when you put them in,” Brister said.
Calhoun is one of the serious juggers, and freezes about 3,000 catalpa worms a year.
But for the Red River, Chandler prefers a certain baitfish to everything else.
“All you ever need to use is shad,” he said. “We take a throw net and catch the bait fresh. Go to any rock jetty and cast into the eddy formed by the current rolling past the rock point.”
Chandler believes the smaller shad are best.
“Just run the hook into the mouth and out the hard top of the head. That keeps it on better, and the fish don’t bite them off as easy,” he said.
Large shad and skipjacks also make good cut bait, but Chandler thinks they’re less effective.
“When you cut them up, they bleed out quickly and lose their attracting smell. You have to change baits more often to keep it fresh,” he said.
Sometimes it pays to try several different baits until you find which one the fish like best. But a method is needed to remember which jug had which bait.
One way to do this is to number your jugs with a permanent marker. Then you can put one bait on even-numbered jugs, another bait on odd-numbered ones.
Another way is to make your jugs out of different colored noodles, and place different baits on each color. Once you find what bait the fish prefer, you can use it on all the jugs.
Checking jugs is made easier with a highly maneuverable boat. Often the jugs get bunched together, and there’s usually wind and current to contend with.
When I first started jugging, I found my stick-steering boat lacked this needed maneuverability. If I missed one, I had to motor way around to try again. Or if several jugs were bunched together, I could not steer the boat sharply enough to get to each one on the first pass.
Brister and Calhoun solved this problem by using a hook pole. A blunted catfish hook is attached to the end of a 5-foot cane pole with string and glue. It’s a very handy tool to reach out and snag a jug’s line and bring it in as the boat idles by.
Jugging is very productive in rivers, lakes and ponds. Of course, wind and current will move the jugs around, so pay attention to conditions when setting them out. One method is to place the jugs perpendicular to the wind or current when first setting them out. That way, they drift across a wide area, and you can tell quickly where the fish are located.
If the fish are concentrated along a river’s bank and not in the channel, move all the jugs parallel to the bank and let them drift down it, one behind the other. If the fish seem to be biting best on a particular lake flat, the jugs can be placed so the wind blows them over the hotspot.
Like all fishermen, Chandler has his own method to search for catfish.
“Some people just throw out the jugs anywhere, but you really have to know the river,” he said. “I always look for a long sandbar along the channel. That’s where the blue cat will be hanging out. But I know some people who prefer to fish the oxbow lakes off the main channel. They can be real good, too.”
Chandler also has a technique for covering the most water without having the jugs get hung up.
“One way we do it is to find a large curve in the river and throw the jugs out along the inside bend,” he said. “That way they will be carried into the main channel and float farther downstream without hitting anything or hanging up on the outside bank line.”
Surprisingly, Chandler usually avoids fishing along the riverbank.
“It seems the closer to the bank you get, the more trash fish you catch,” he said.
When fishing the main channel, Chandler has found there are certain places that seem to hold concentrations of fish.
“Sometimes the jugs will float a long way without much luck,” he said. “Then they’ll hit a stretch of river, and suddenly fish are on nearly every jug. We can’t see it, but there’s something there that’s holding the catfish to that area. Once you find these spots, you can keep returning for weeks and catch fish every time.”
But be forewarned. If you fish in the Red River, it’s probably only a matter of time before you lose some jugs. One hot July night, I accompanied my brother Danny, nephew Mason, and cousin Clay Scoggin to the Red for some jugging. Around midnight, we were checking the jugs in two boats when a large barge loaded with rock approached. We dutifully pulled over to the bank to let it pass, but it started edging closer and closer.
Suddenly, what sounded like the voice of God split the muggy night. From high in the air, a loudspeaker blasted out: “You boys better move out of there! I’m going to brush that bank making this bend.”
We cranked up and took off as the barge slid down the bank, running over our jugs. As the barge disappeared into the night, the captain came back on: “Sorry about that. I’ve never been on this stretch of the river before and am having to learn the bends.”
We appreciated the captain’s candor, but never did find some of the jugs he ran over.
Jug fishermen usually will catch small to medium-sized cats — perfect for eating. However, the jugs can hold much larger ones. In fact, it’s amazing what a small 8-inch noodle can subdue. Just recently, this fact was clearly demonstrated.
Danny, Mason, Clay and his sons, Daniel and Jake, and I decided to spend the night on Dugdemona River for some springtime yo-yoing. The creek was running too high for a good outing, so Jake and I took some jugs up to the family pond and threw out about a dozen, baited with chicken liver.
The next morning we packed up our gear, left the creek and went to check the jugs. Mason and Jake took a nice 7-pound channel cat off one jug, but all the others appeared empty.
As they approached a couple of jugs that had drifted into a sunken top, one began bobbing frantically. Mason grabbed the line but found it was tangled up in the top. Just then a huge swirl boiled the water, and Mason and Jake jerked back, both letting out a “Gwaah!”
“Is it a good one?” I asked.
“I’ve never seen anything that big!” Mason yelled.
He and Jake finally manhandled the 24-pound Opelousas into the boat. As sometimes happens in jugging, the Op had apparently brushed by the hook and gotten snagged on the top of its head.
Jugging can be productive on any given day all year long, but Chandler has found some times are better than others.
“On the Red River, we do real well from early spring until early summer,” he explained. “You can catch them on jugs pretty much all year round, but the bite slows down when the water’s surface temperature gets real hot.”
Chandler also has noticed that moon phases seem to affect the bite.
“If it’s around a full moon, the catfish bite better at night. If it’s a darker moon, they seem to bite better in the daytime,” he said.
When the bite is on, the numbers caught can be impressive. One day this spring, Cale’s brother Craig set out 31 jugs in Red River near Natchitoches baited with whole shad. He ran them twice, and filled a 105-quart ice chest with blue and channel cat.
Years ago jugging was a rather unknown sport enjoyed by a few dedicated fishermen. Now, however, word is spreading, and more and more sportsmen are trying it out. It’s a great way to introduce kids to fishing, and an exciting activity to enjoy while camping out.
Whether you call it jugging or noodling, this unique method will fill the freezer with tasty fillets.