By Jill J Easton
The tree was having a conniption fit. The slender limb of the button willow thrashed up and down, pummeled and tossed by an unseen force at the end of the black tarred line. As my husband Jim moved the boat among the flooded vegetation toward the bush, the splashing and thrashing doubled in intensity.
“Looks like a big one,” 14-year-old Ben Niendick of Jordan, Ark. shouted. He has netted three catfish already this morning, so now he is an expert. “This one is the biggest yet. We should catch enough fish today for the party at the marina for opening of spear fishing season.”
It was fun to see the tween-ager get excited about something besides video games and organized sports, but Ben’s reaction wasn’t unusual. Jim and I have introduced dozens of folks to limb-lining for catfish, and we know that fishermen from 8 to 80 still get excited about the shaking limb that indicates a fish below.
Limb-lining is a great way to fish, especially while the Central United States waits for flood waters to subside after the torrential rains of spring.
“Wow, this is the biggest yet,” Ben hollered. He expertly grabbed the line and led the 8-pound channel cat into the net.
There are few moments in fishing that are more exciting than a big catfish fighting a limb line in flood waters. Whether it’s a river, lake or pond there are catfish aplenty.
Limb lines are a great way to catch catfish, bass and other shallow-water denizens that take advantage of flooded areas where they normally couldn’t hunt. It also opens up opportunities to catch fish when the water is too muddy and roiled for rod and reel fishing.
How to limb line
The basic equipment is simple: 3½ feet of sturdy line, a good swivel and a strong hook. Jim and I use Styrofoam pool noodles cut up into 4-inch sections to mark our limb lines. The line (we use #9 tarred nylon seine twine, with a breaking strength of about 90 pounds) is threaded through the hole in the noodle and tied securely, with his fishing license number on each noodle.
These floats are color coded; green marks the beginning or end of a line, blue is regular fishing and orange ones have an extra-long line. The swivel is attached to the opposite end of the line, and six to eight inches below the swivel comes the hook. We use Daiichi Bleeding Bait Circle Hooks, size 5/0.
Small perch or sunfish (in the south they are called bream) are our bait of choice. We catch them on ultra-light tackle with a tiny hook and small piece of worm. The ideal bait fish is 3 inches long, but we use everything from 2 to 5 inches.
Catching these little baits in shallow water is fun, but time-consuming. We store the baits in fish baskets about 10 feet below the surface (to avoid hot surface temperatures) until we put out the limb lines late in the afternoon. Putting baits out late keeps day hunters like herons, turtles and gars from stealing the bait.
When we go to bait the lines, the baits are transported in a big tub of water in the boat, and we keep the water cool in hot weather by carrying along a supply of plastic bottles filled with frozen water. Keep a dip net handy to catch the baits; it’s much quicker than trying to grab them by hand.
There are many things that will attract channel catfish. Pieces of hot dog, crawfish or shrimp, worms, goldfish, scented bar soaps like Ivory and prepared catfish baits are only a few of the choices. Since catfish are drawn to strong smells, some people use chicken gizzards or livers.
To increase the appeal, soak them in a mixture of garlic, anise or other spices. (Note: if you want to catch flathead catfish, you’ll want to stick with live bait. Flatheads are predators almost exclusively, and rarely eat anything that isn’t alive.)
Putting out limb lines
This is my area of expertise, since Jim claims he is a better boat driver. (This is questionable, since his main sport appears to be ramming me into every spider-loaded bush he can find.)
Locate a bush or tree limb that is in at least two feet of water and in an area that is clear of underwater obstructions in which the bait can tangle. Wrap or tie the line around the branch so that the baited hook is about six inches under water.
Hook each baitfish a half-inch behind the dorsal (top) fin and above the vertebrae, then gently toss it into the water. A lively bait will create underwater noise and ripples that will bring in predator fish. Hot dogs, soap and stink baits attract catfish through sensors in their barbels, or whiskers, which are loaded with taste and smell receptors.
We generally set out 50-80 lines each night. Check your state regulations, because some states have a maximum number of hooks per person. After two to three nights the sets become less effective, so we move about 20% of our lines each night after day #2.
Getting catfish in the boat is harder than it looks. The trick is to grab hold of the line, lead the fish into the submerged net and then raise it around the fish. Don’t get excited and try to chase the fish around with the net. The catfish is faster than you are, and it’s a good way to lose your fish.
When running your lines, check each line to be sure you see the hook or bait. Catfish will sometimes remain motionless until you’re right on top of them with the boat, and if you’re setting in shallow water and the fish can get its belly on the bottom. It’s easy to get fooled.
Often the catfish will do what we call an alligator roll and thoroughly tangle itself in the net when you bring it into the boat. A sturdy pair of needle nose pliers is the easiest way to get the fish loose and the hook out.
Warning: catfish have bony fins on the top and sides with sharp points, so handle the fish carefully. Grab the catfish around its body behind the side fins with a finger hooked around the dorsal fin and make sure it is well inside the confines of the boat.
Then use the pliers to carefully untangle the fins from the net. If that doesn’t work, turn the net upside down and shake it vigorously. This will often fix the problem. To unhook the fish, get the pliers on the shank of the hook as close as possible to the fish’s mouth and use your wrist to twist the hook free. Put your catch in the live well or in a large tub of water and go on to the next set.
“Limb lining is a whole new way to fish for me,” Ben exclaimed. “I am ready to go out any time Jim will take me along.”