Juggin’ For Summer’s Dog Days Catfish

July 2021 Feature Dan Armitage

On hot summer evenings admitted fair-weather angler Doug Wilson throws a dozen or two half-gallon milk jugs, and at least one of several sons he has hanging around the house, into the family pontoon boat. The jugs have been painted in day glow colors—using paint sloshed around the inside of the jug so it doesn’t chip off—and fitted with lines and hooks baited with nightcrawlers, cut fish or prepared bait. Just before dark, he distributes these baited jugs around a cove in his favorite lake, sits back, and lets the free-ranging rigs drift around a bit. He allows the boat to drift with them, and after a while, and at regular intervals through the night, he checks the jugs with a spotlight. If any are “dancing,” he motors over, gives the bobbing jug’s line a sharp tug, and tries to pull in whatever is attached to the hook at the other end. More often than not, it’s a fat channel catfish, which Wilson puts in a cooler for safekeeping until he has time to clean the evening’s catch.

It’s time-honored, passive method of fishing with roots in the south that is practiced nationwide—where allowed and, sometimes, even where not. Because of their deck space, stability and comfort, pontoon boats are particularly popular as the craft of choice for what is called “jug fishing.”  It’s a darned relaxing way to fish; that is, until several jugs start dancing at once!  

At its most basic, and probably most popular, a jug rig is a plastic jug, like an empty one-gallon milk or bleach bottle, with a few feet of line tied to its handle or neck and with a fishing hook on the other end of the line. The hook is baited (with any number of live, dead and prepared bait concoctions) and the rig tossed overboard, to float freely until a catfish takes the bait. At that point, acting like a giant bobber, the jug twitches or moves off, at which point the angler motors over, grabs the jug and line, and brings in the fish hand-over-hand. These days, everything from foam swim noodles to PVC pipe is fashioned into “jugs” (*see web source) that offer additional features and designs.

Whether going old school or using cutting-edge jug tech, it’s easy to see why pontoon boats, especially those models with an open bow deck forward of the fencing, are so popular among jug fishermen. The anglers need a lot of elbow room—often in the dark—to grab the rig, fight and boat the fish—not to mention the fact that some avid jug fishermen may carry several dozen jugs out to the fishing grounds, making practical use of the pontoon’s enclosed playpen for mass tackle storage.

Once they reach their angling destination, most juggers drift along with their jug spread in free-float mode, allowing the breeze, current or, if using live fish, their bait to move the setup across the water. The anglers try to stay in close proximity of their spread and use a light to shine on their jugs periodically to check for action. Where legal, some set their jugs in the evening and check back on them the following morning, using a weight on a line tied separately to the jug, to keep their jugs in place.

Retired Clarksville, Tenn., catfish guide Jim Moyer is a jug fishing legend.

“It's easy, effective and fun,” he said of the sport. “You'll seldom catch a huge catfish on a jug line, but if you're after a mess of fish for the table, juggin' is a great way to catch them.”

An unexpected benefit of jug fishing, according to Moyer, is the ability to catch suspended catfish.

“Most anglers view catfish as bottom-dwellers, but they'll often move up to feed on passing baitfish schools,” he claims. “When they do, a jug line is an ideal presentation. As when bobber fishing, bait dangles beneath the jug.”

Moyer recommends using plastic 2-liter beverage bottles spray-painted bright yellow for maximum visibility. Spray painting, or pouring a bit of paint inside and shaking the bottle to spread the paint around on the inside of the bottle or jug, keeps the paint from wearing off. Some anglers put a Cyalume light stick inside each jug to keep them visible at night, while others use reflective tape to make the floats easier to see in the glare of a 12-volt spotlight. Some states, such as Texas, require that jugs be white in color; others require the jugs be marked with the name and address of the owner/angler.

“Plastic soda bottles are cylindrical and take up less room in your boat than gallon milk jugs,” he says, recommending storage in a plastic garbage bag. Jim writes his name and phone number on each bottle with a waterproof marker; he advises readers to check state fishing regulations to see if this or any additional information is required.

Moyer recommends a 10- to 20-foot length of tough nylon trotline cord, wrapping one end around the neck of a bottle, then tying a 2/0 O'Shaughnessy trotline hook to the tag end. A sinker is attached from a foot or so above the hook, the weight depending on conditions. It may take a 1-ounce bell sinker to keep the bait down in current, but only a BB-sized split shot in slack water.

A rubber band can be used for adjusting the distance of the hook from the jug when fishing, and for containing the wrapped line around the bottle between fishing trips. You can peel off the length of line to get the desired depth and secure the remainder against the jug with the rubber band.

“Keep the bait well off bottom,” Jim adds. “Remember, you're going for suspending cats, and you want your jug to drift freely for a wide-ranging presentation.”

He normally runs his lines from 5 to 15 feet below their respective jugs. Live baits like shiners and small bluegills are great for jug lines, and are especially tempting to flathead catfish. Blue and channel cats can be tempted with chicken livers, raw shrimp or chunks of gizzard shad.

Jug lines are effective in both slack and moving water.

In lakes, spread out baited jugs in a wide circle in a bay or creek arm with your boat in the middle; in rivers, toss out several jugs about 20 feet apart, letting them drift down rock bluffs, across gravel bars and close to banks with fallen trees and logjams. Keep the spread to one side of the river, to make it easy to keep track of your jug fleet. Once they are set, all that’s left to do is simply drift lazily along aboard your boat, watching and waiting for the dance to start.

Moyers’ Jug Fishing Tips

  • Fashion a metal hook to attach to the end of a broom handle for easy jug retrieval. 
  • Don't leave jugs unattended.
  • Stay with your jugs and collect them before you leave the water.
  • Don't set out jugs in high boat-traffic areas.
  • Never set out more jugs than you can handle.
  • Use fewer jugs in high wind or fast current.

Jug Fishing Rules & Regulations

Before dropping your first jug line over the pontoon rail, make sure you are familiar with local laws. Each state has requirements as to the number of hooks that can be set per jug, as well as how many jugs can be placed and how often the jugs must be checked. Also, remember to check with your state's fisheries authorities regarding the legal number of catfish that can be taken each day. Be aware that it is illegal to jug fish at any time in some states, such as Kansas

*Jug-making source: www.hubpages.com/hub/Jug-Line-Fishing

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