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December can be an excellent month for boating large catfish
The big catfish dove just as our boat got within reach of the bobbing yellow jug.
"Get the net, this is a good one," shouted Sam Coleman to his fishing buddy Bill Gibson.
Gibson made a quick sweep with the boat hook and caught the line. A ten-pound flathead catfish found a new home in our live well.
I had been invited on a "jug fishing" trip with Coleman and Gibson on the Coosa River just below Mitchell Dam in Coosa County. Just as soon as the first catfish was placed in the live well another jug took off upstream.
"We got another one," shouted Gibson as Coleman gunned the motor to intercept another catfish.
Another swift sweep of the boat hook by Gibson and a 12-pound blue cat is added to the live well. Scenes like these were repeated several times in the next two hours as these two skilled catfishermen gathered their main ingredient for a fish fry.
Summer is the traditional catfishing time along Alabama’s river system, but fishermen like Coleman and Gibson have discovered October through December yield some of their best catches in both number of fish and size of fish caught.
"We used to only fish during the hottest months for catfish, but as we got older we found fall and early winter to be much more pleasant weather for fishing. Another pleasant surprise was these months seem to be more productive, too," Coleman said.
Coleman has heard commercial fishermen say they prefer fishing for catfish in the fall and winter because they often have the lake or river to themselves. They have good reason to think like this too, as some of the record book catfish have been caught during mid-winter. These trophies prove good catfishing can be had year-round on Alabama’s waters. Warm "bluebird days" seem to be best for winter catfishing. Night fishing, the most productive time in warmer weather, is often not as productive as daytime hours in the winter.
"We like to put out our jugs a couple of hours before dark and follow them downstream waiting for a catfish to take the bait. If they are releasing a lot of water, we will add additional line to our jug rig and tie them to limbs. Following jugs is a lot of fun if the flow isn’t too swift, but, when it is, the limb lines can be more productive. Once we find a "honey hole," we will often bait up our spinning or bait casting gear and catch a few this way.
"A ten to 20 pound cat can give you the fight of your life," Gibson said.
Coleman and Gibson began fishing using large bleach jugs for floats with a weight and hook attached, but have now replaced the jug with a section of a swimming noodle float.
"You can buy these at most discount or swimming supply stores for a few bucks. We get three or four sections from a noodle. I like the bright orange or lime green ones as they are easier to spot at a distance. Cut the noodle in sections, tie a plastic tie around one end about two inches from the end and attach 20-30 pound line to the tie. You can tie the line directly around the noodle, but they last longer if you use the tie. Add a weight (old spark plugs work fine) about ten inches above the hook. Catfisherman have different preferences about hooks, but I like a Kayle hook in varying sizes from size 2 to 3/0," Coleman explained.
Once a jug rig is completed, it’s time to bait it and wait for action.
"There are a lot of things that will catch catfish, but we consistently catch more with cut bait. Learn to throw a casting net and you can fill up your bait container with gizzard or threadfin shad. Flathead catfish prefer live bait, and we bait some of our jug rigs with live shad. Sometimes it seems to work better to hook them behind the dorsal fin, other times it works better to hook them in the lip. Other baits like mullet, beef and chicken liver, shrimp, catalpa worms, wigglers and even marshmallows will catch catfish. Commercial baits with a blood or cheese base are also available, but we have not caught nearly as many fish on these as we have on cut bait. There is just something about the natural juices coming from cut up fish to attract the fish that eat them," Gibson said.
"Fresh bait is better, but we often freeze shad if we catch more than we need for a trip. Sometimes I just cut off the head and bait with it. I take what’s left, scale it and cut shallow slices in the body to allow the juices to flow. Cut bait is good bait anywhere, but it can be exceptionally good bait when fishing below a dam. Turbines chop up baitfish by the thousands-if your lines are baited with the same thing, you are going to catch fish," Coleman stated.
Fishing for catfish with jugs or "noodles" is one of the most relaxing types of fishing. All one needs is a few bleach jugs, soft drink bottles or, preferably, sections of foam noodle; a section of line, a weight and hook. 25 or 30 rigs can be made up in a couple of hours at minimal cost. Floating down the river on a sunny December afternoon watching a jug disappear below the surface can be an exciting experience. Youngsters especially like this type of fishing because they don’t have to be quiet, they don’t have to be still, they love to pull up the fish and even shouting is permitted when a fish is boated. Come to think of it, those are exactly the same reasons us old geezers like jug fishing, too.
Ben Norman is an outdoor writer from Highland Home.