The beautiful spring weather had given me and my buddy Joe an itch to go fishing, so that’s exactly what we did. We loaded Joe’s johnboat, pulled it to the Arkansas River and launched just after the sun came up.
Unlike the other fisherfolks we saw, though, we weren’t fishing with rods and reels or poles. Instead, we were following a line of empty soda jugs with baited hooks and lines tied to the necks.
We had finished baiting the hook on jug No. 10 when jug No. 2 became animated and started zooming away at a right angle to the current. Joe used the trolling motor to bring us alongside the jug, but before I could grab it, the fish that had taken the bait pulled the float beneath the surface. This happened several times, but finally, I managed to swing a landing net beneath the jug and bring up an 8-pound channel catfish. It was one of 12 we would catch during the next hour.
Of the many ways you can catch catfish—rod-and-reel fishing, limb-lining, trotlining and even noodling (catching whiskerfish with your bare hands), to name a few—none provides more enjoyment than jug fishing. When using the latter method, the fishermen follow a flotilla of empty plastic jugs floating down a river or across a lake. Baited hooks dangle from lines tied to the jugs, and when a catfish gobbles down a piece of bait, that jug races away, and the participants must make a mad dash to retrieve it before the catfish pulls it under. One never knows for sure what size the fish might be—a small cat for the dinner table or a catch-and-release trophy weighing upward of 50 pounds or more. But that’s one of the things that makes this sport so much fun.
Fashioning the Rigs
The first thing you’ll need to do is save up some empty jugs to use when fishing. The best are those that contained drinks such as milk or soda because there’s nothing inside the jugs that could contaminate the water. Don’t use jugs that contained fluids such as bleach, antifreeze or soap that might be toxic to fish, wildlife or plants.
Rinse each jug thoroughly as you empty it; then store in a dry area until ready to use. Here in Arkansas, each angler can use up to 20 jugs, or “free-floating fishing devices,” as the Game and Fish Commission calls them, so use that as a guideline when deciding how many you need.
Before rigging the jugs with hook and line, you might want to paint them so they’re more easily seen when on the water. This is easily done using inexpensive spray paint. Bright colors like fluorescent orange and chartreuse work well, but the best in my experience is flat black. The surface of a lake or river tends to reflect the light colors of the sky on the sunny days most people enjoy fishing, and black jugs seem to stand out best against this light background.
Spread some newspaper or cardboard on the ground, and give the jugs a light coat of paint all over. Then let them sit until dry.
For each jug, you’ll need a 6- to 10-foot length of 50-pound-test or heavier braided fishing line (mono will work but tends to be stiff and loopy), one or two circle hooks (1/0 to 3/0 for eating-size cats; larger if you’re targeting heavyweight trophies) and a bell sinker or two to weight each line and keep it well beneath the water’s surface.
Tie one end of the line to the neck or handle of the jug; then tie on the hook(s) and sinker(s). You can shorten or lengthen the line by wrapping it around the jug and securing the line with duct tape.
Circle hooks are preferred because they hook biting catfish in the corner of the mouth and are self-setting. When a cat takes the bait and starts swimming away, the hook moves from the fish’s throat to its mouth, penetrates, and the battle begins. Be sure each hook is needle-sharp, and in deeper waters, use two hooks per jug line, one rigged above the other, to test different depths.
When you finish rigging each jug, wrap the line tightly around it and secure the line with tape. I also use a small piece of duct tape over each hook for safer transport.
The law requires that all of your jug rigs be clearly marked with the user’s name and address, driver’s license number or current vehicle tag number. Use a permanent marker to do this, and allow to dry properly so the information won’t wash off in the water. And remember, regulations also require that your jugs be attended at all times, except from sunset to sunrise. Keep an eye on your rigs when using them.
I keep all my jugs in 30-gallon plastic garbage bags for transport to my fishing area. I also make sure to carry a big landing net for catching the fish that get hooked and life jackets for each person who’ll be fishing with me. Safety first.
You’ll need bait, too. Good ones include night crawlers, minnows and chunk-style commercial stinkbaits. My favorite, however, is inexpensive hot dogs cut in chunks and marinated in a zip-close bag with some minced garlic for flavor and unsweetened strawberry Kool-Aid for color. Add enough water to cover the hot dogs, shake up the mixture to dissolve the Kool-Aid, and refrigerate overnight. Then when you’re ready to fish, push the hook point all the way through a piece of hot dog, and leave the barb exposed. More fish will get hooked if the barb and hook point aren’t buried in bait.
As each jug rig is baited, place it in the water, and release the jug to float away. Ideally, the jugs will float in a long line near catfish-attracting structure and cover, but not too close so they get snagged. You should follow at a distance in your boat so you don’t spook fish, but be ready to react the moment you see a jug stop, bob or race away.
If your line isn’t too long, use your landing net to catch the fish. Or wear some gloves so you can grab the line and bring the catfish in without getting cut.
It won’t be as easy as you might think to catch the fish you hook. They will often race away again and again as you approach, or if a real whopper gets hooked, it may take your jug underwater repeatedly until it gets worn out enough that you can catch it.
This much is sure. Jug fishing is a simple and unforgettable way to catch catfish. Give it a try this season, and see. For high-level excitement and downright fun, it’s hard to beat.