Kansas native Jerry Dishman remembers using whatever means possible to catch catfish in the Big Blue River as a young boy in the 1940’s. In that era, fishing was done to put food on the table, not for sport, so the technology that anglers rely on today did not even exist. Instead, Dishman and other anglers got creative, using techniques like hand fishing, gigging and fish traps. While those techniques are a bit primitive, those were different times.
“There was no sport fishing at that time, so going to the river was only about finding food. We ate everything we caught,” said Dishman.
Over the years, sport fishing emerged and fishing technology evolved. As the retired parks superintendent for the city of Manhattan, Kan., Dishman says that many people still turn to the tried and true techniques of yesteryear, because they work.
What has changed over the years, are the laws governing these techniques. Each state has different restrictions and in some states, certain techniques are outlawed completely.
According to Jason Olive, Assistant Chief of Fisheries Management for Arkansas Game and Fish, laws differ from state to state for several reasons. These include, productivity of the water relating to fish population, state management goals that strive to find a balance between supply and demand for recreational and commercial fishing and the less quantifiable sociological considerations.
“Sometimes regulations are created not because we are worried about a species being wiped out, but because the public feels it’s a method not considered fair chase. Traditions and norms of what people consider acceptable and fair chase differ among regions,” said Olive.
Hand fishing is a prime example, where it is legal in southern states, and illegal in the north.
It is important to check the regulations in your state, but here are 10 old-school catfishing techniques that are still used today.
One of the more popular “non tackle” catfishing techniques is yo-yo fishing. Some catfish anglers use the yo-yo technique almost exclusively because it requires minimal equipment, it is easy to learn and it works.
While the simplistic yo-yos have become more sophisticated over the years, they evolved from a time when a spring-loaded feature was considered high-tech fishing gear.
The technique relies on a spring-loaded disk with line wrapped around the internal unit. The end of the line hangs from the yo-yo with a swivel, hook and split-shot weights.
The device is then attached a dock or a limb to hang over the water. When a fish bites, the spring-loaded yo-yo automatically sets the hook.
Outdoor adventure and survival schools like Blackhorn-USA teach the yo-yo technique to students versus other fishing methods.
“We recommend the use of yo-yo reels to our students for two reasons: they are very effective and they can fish while you concentrate on other tasks,” said Dave Carlson, Owner of Blackthorn-USA.
The yo-yo technique is most effective for catching eating-sized catfish. The best habitats for using yo-yos are low regions with shallow, stumpy lakes or with the use of lures in mid-depth water.
Photo courtesy of: Blackhorn USA
Perhaps no other old-school technique gets as much attention as hand fishing. In fact, depending on where you visit, you will find it called different things: “noodling” in Missouri and Oklahoma, “hogging” in Arkansas and “hand grabbing” in Mississippi. The term “hand fishing” is acceptable almost everywhere.
Without rod and reel, hand fishing evolved as an easy method for catching food. Today, the technique is used mostly for sport and is as much about bragging rights and bravery as it is the catch.
This technique involves targeting catfish holes beneath the water and using your bare hands to attract the fish for a bite. Anglers wade in murky water navigating the edges of the bank, logs and rocks with their bare hands.
Once a catfish hole is discovered, they reach in with their arm hoping the fish will swim forward and bite. It sounds easy enough, but these holes are often under brush or located several feet under water resulting in many instances of injuries when other animals reach out to bite instead.
While still legal in some states, hand fishing is highly regulated out of concerns for angler safety and for conservation. Typically, the large cats that are in these holes are gravid females that are nesting. Disrupting these nests interrupts reproduction.
Photo by Mike Wintroath
The use of hoop nets is almost exclusive to commercial fishermen and biologists who conduct regular sampling of catfish in rivers. Generations ago, hoop nets were used as an effective fishing technique in large waterways like the Columbia River where they could be easily placed in a swift current.
Modern-day hoop nets evolved from versions developed by Native American Indian tribes, which consisted of a series of wooden hoops, connected with hemp twine.
The commercial hoop nets of today are either a single hoop or tandem hoop style either made of metal or fiberglass. While the construction has changed, the basic technique for using them has not.
Single hoop nets are tied to the root of a tree or on-shore structure and left to drift downstream so the current flows through it. Tandem hoop nets are a series of 3 or 4 hoops connected together with netting as they decrease in size and also drift downstream.
Hoop nets are extremely effective for catching catfish. However, there are many restrictions on the size of nets that can be used, where they can be use and in the states where they are legal, you need a commercial fishing license to use them.
Photo by Mike Wintroath
Next to the traditional rod and reel, trotlines are one of the most popular fishing techniques for catfish. It is also one of the oldest and most versatile ways to target many fish at once.
Trotlines are usually set in deeper water and they are very effective in both lakes and rivers. The origins of the trotline appear to be as varied as the bait that can be used on them.
While trotlines have a rich history in U.S. Appalachian culture, the actual term “trotline” derived from English and German origins from the term “trot,” likely referring to the action of checking the line.
This is a simple technique that is easily learned, which is why it has been passed down for generations with very little change to the technique or the tools.
Trotlines are made up of heavy fishing line with a series of dangling lines and hooks, called snoods. Floats are usually placed one either end to indicate a line in the water.
Some lines have upwards of 25 hooks that can accommodate various kinds of bait from crawfish to brim. The line is draped across the water and checked periodically or left overnight.
Spearfishing is an old-school technique that has gained new popularity in recent years. It is an ancient technique that was used by many early civilizations and Native Americans to hunt for fish.
Using sharpened tree branches as spears, fish were hunted by sight from the riverbank or by diving in clear water.
The spears of today are fiberglass and can be powered by compressed gas or elastic spearguns.
Some spearfishing anglers, like members of the Hell Divers Spearfishing Club , use free-diving techniques to target catfish in 5 to 20 feet of water. This is an effective technique that has netted them even trophy-size catfish.
“We spearfish for catfish in the local lakes of Southern Louisiana from June through December, when the rivers that feed the lakes are at the lowest stages. From June through October, we get the larger yellow cats and winter is when we hunt the blue catfish,” said David Chaix of Hell Divers.
Clubs like Hell Divers have been part of a resurgence of the popularity of spearfishing, which is a technique that also being used now to aid in conservation research.
Photo by David Chaix
Anyone who ever went fishing with grandpa remembers the old milk jugs that were used to fish in lakes and large reservoirs. That is how the term “jug fishing” came to be, and it is a technique that is still popular for catfishing.
Jug fishing for catfish works like this: a flotation device (plastic milk jug, empty soda container, pool noodle sections) is used to suspend your line in the water. When the fish bites, the jug moves and you can retrieve your catch.
These days, anglers use a variety of flotation devices, but the concept is the same as when grandpa heaved the milk jugs over the side of the boat.
Matt Oliver, a self-proclaimed “jug fisherman” and President/CEO of Catfishing Noodles , says while the decades and laws have changed, this is still a viable method.
“In order to keep up with the times we use PVC pipe, swimming noodles, and reflective tape to make our catfish noodles so that they can be fished all night and keep in compliance with the laws today,” said Matt Oliver.
Jug fishing is preferred because you can cover a large area of water and catch many fish over a short period of time. You can also use a variety of bait and easily relocate your line when necessary.
Photo courtesy of: Catfish Noodles
Limb lines are as simple as you can get, which is likely why this technique has been used to catch catfish for many years.
Traditionally, limb lines were used as an easy way to catch enough fish at one time to feed a family. Like similar methods of jug fishing, trotlines and yo-yos, limb lines originated as common method of putting food on the table.
Best used in shallow water, limb lines are simply string tied to a limb with a hook and bait that is dropped several feet into the water. It is common to tie several dozen limb lines along the riverbank and leave them to check later or overnight.
Art Preller, Owner of Port Arthur Instant Limb Lines with deep family roots along the Arkansas Delta, says this technique is effective for putting your line right in the path of passing fish.
“Limb lines work best because you put your bait close to where the catfish run as they search for food,” said Preller.
This is why limb lines are so effective at night when catfish are hungry and on the prowl. Limb lines are preferred because they require little maintenance and monitoring.
Photo by Art Preller jr.
The use of bow and arrow for hunting has transcended many cultures over thousands of years. This is where bowfishing for catfish eventually emerged, and like other techniques became less about food and more about sport over time.
Bowfishing is popular in areas with expansive, shallow water, no more than two feet in depth. Bowfishing can be done by wading or with use of an airboat, which enables you to get to areas that are inaccessible, by foot. Usually done at night with the use of spotlights, bowfishing is quite successful for catfish as long as you have good aim.
Bowfishing utilizes specialized archery gear that is equipped with a barbed spear attached to a line for easy retrieval. Catfish are targeted by sight so polarized sunglasses are essential during the day to cut down on glare and adequate spotlighting is necessary at night.
Photo by Mike Wintroath
One of the most ancient and most primitive forms of catfishing is trapping. Indigenous Australians used fish traps made out of branches and trees to catch meals for their families.
Fish traps were significant to the commercial salmon fishing industry in Alaska before they were banned in 1959 and stirring up controversy ever sense.
Various versions of fish traps were used in nearly every culture around the world because they were simple, efficient and easy to make out of natural resources.
Fish traps are permanent or semi-permanent structures (usually a wooden box) equipped with a funnel-type cylinder that makes it almost impossible for fish to escape once they enter. The boxes are set downstream where they literally trap the fish in their path of navigation.
Today, fish traps are mostly outlawed in the United States except for strictly regulated commercial fishing in some states. You will also find wilderness survival courses that teach this technique as a last resort method for finding food.
Photo by Willow Haven Outdoor
While not very common, gigging is an old-school method that some people still use and that some states still allow. This simple method involves using a large gig to spear fish. Gigs typically have three or four sharp prongs attached to a long pole. Oftentimes, anglers attach the gig to a rope to target catfish by sight in shallow water.
Jerry Dishman of Kansas who showed me some antique gigs in his collection says gigging was a common method for hunting food in the early 1900’s. In fact, the white Kansas corn came in handy for anglers because they could throw it into the water using it to easily see the shadows of the catfish as they came near.
Gigging is another method that originated out of necessity and evolved over time to sport. While some states like Arkansas and Missouri allow gigging, it is strictly regulated and used infrequently by anglers.