Jugs, Trot Lines For Big Numbers Of Oconee Catfish
This Coweta County catfishing crew makes a meat run to Lake Oconee a half-dozen times each summer. After the author spent a day with them, it was obvious this wasn't a fishing vacation.
I met Wayne Moore 17 years ago after killing my first deer, a small-racked buck from Coweta County. At the time dad and I didn’t know much about quartering-up game, so we took it down the road to a local deer processor. There, we were greeted by a middle-aged man with an long, dark beard.
“Got one I see,” he said.
My dad spoke up.
“Sure did. Boy got his first deer.”
The deer processor sent back a great big smile. In a business where you work all hours day and night, gutting, quartering and packaging, it is a special moment when you become a part of a kid’s first deer.
“Sure is a good buck. I bet you’re on cloud nine,” he said.
The processor was Wayne Moore.
Wayne cut up a few more of my deer through my teen years, and then we lost touch. When I went to work for GON in 1998, our communications rekindled. When GON moved to Madison, nearly on the banks of Lake Oconee, he started to tell me about the fantastic catfishing at Oconee. As it turned out, he and his buddies take six or seven trips a summer and run trot lines and jugs catching blue and channel cats.
“You need to go with us. We’ll fill a 55-gallon drum full.”
I tried to do this story last year, but Wayne backed out on me, with good reason.
“We don’t have enough catalpa worms. I bet there ain’t a hundred out there on the trees,” he told me.
One-hundred big worms sounded like a pretty good mess of fish bait, but I left it up to Wayne. This year the trees had enough catalpa worms that we could make the trip, and it was, I think, the most successful meat trip I’ve ever been a part of. If you really want to load the freezer down with catfish fillets, you can do it, but don’t expect it to be a lazy day of fishing.
Wayne and four of his buddies got to Parks Ferry, just below I-20, about noon on June 14. By 2 p.m. they had a tightly-tied trot line stretched out with fresh bait. I met them at 6:30 for an evening on the water checking lines and rebaiting hooks. I was in the boat with Wayne and his long-time friend, Phillip Estes from Moreland.
“How long is the trot line?”
“You see that boat down there at the other end of the timber?”
I squinted, and then squinted a little harder. The only boat I could see downriver was about a half-mile away.
“That boat?” I asked.
“Yeah. He’s starting on the other end of the trot line, and we’ll meet in the middle,” said Wayne.
O.K., so these weren’t weekend-warrior fishermen. They were meat hunters who came to Oconee to work.
As Wayne and Phillip pulled us down the trot line, it was exciting to see hooked fish surfacing in front the boat. Surprisingly, we had a catfish every six or seven hooks, which we agreed was good since catfish don’t feed as well during the day.
“It’s best to bait your hooks near dark to have that bait fresh,” said Wayne.
There was no down-time in this boat. Both men kept their hands on the line as they pulled fish off the hooks, rebaited when necessary and steered the boat on down the line. Fish were tossed into a 144-quart cooler filled with chunk ice.
“We fill five-gallon buckets with water and freeze them,” said Phillip. “If not we’ll spend $40 just on ice.”
The trot line was suspended in timber four-feet down in 12 to 20 feet of water on the main Oconee River run below Parks Ferry. The 1/2-mile rig is homemade and made with braided, nylon rope. Along the trot line, in six-foot increments, is a No. 1 barrel swivel. On each side of the barrel swivel is a piece of rope, which holds it in place on the trot line. Running off the swivel is a 12-inch piece of 50-lb. test braided nylon cord with a No. 2 hook on it.
Attached to the main trot line 75-feet apart — or 12 to 13 hooks apart — are a combination of 6- to 10-oz. weights that pull the trot line below the surface. To suspend the trot line, soft-drink bottles are tied to the line every 75 feet. These bottles have four-foot leaders, meaning the entire half-mile trot line will sink four feet.
“I’ve run trot lines for 45 years, and I’ve used every bait out there,” said Wayne. “To me, there’s no better bait than the catalpa worm.”
Wayne has 270 trees in his yard where he collects catalpa worms in the summer. These fat, green worms just can’t be beat, according to Wayne.
For the two-day fishing trip, Wayne brought 1,000 worms. For those of you without trees, catalpa worms are expensive and hard to find in the bait shops. You may want to invest in a few trees for your yard.
“For just the regular guy who’s wanting to go out and catch a few catfish or bream, six or seven trees would be all you’d need,” said Philip.
A half-dozen catalpa trees may allow you to run trot lines on a much-smaller scale. Try a shorter, suspending line through the timber or lay one across the bottom at the mouth of a cove. If you don’t have catalpa worms, Wayne said you’ll still catch fish on nightcrawlers, chicken liver or minnows. However, your catch won’t be near as large.
Deer liver is Wayne’s second-favorite bait. When you kill a deer this fall, cut the liver into small chunks and freeze it. You’ll be amazed at how well it stays on the hook. It is much firmer and is easier to put on a hook than stringy chicken liver.
Wayne likes a thick, No. 2 hook. Eagle Claw quit making theirs, but he said Mustad makes a decent one. The Mustad hook is inexpensive, which is what Wayne looks for since he has 440 hooks on a trot line to bait.
When we met our partners in the middle of the trot line, we had our 144-quart cooler one-third full of blue and channel cats, and they had a pretty good mess, too. Most of the fish were in the 1-lb. range, and about 80 percent of them were blue cats. Wayne said that up until a few years ago they used to catch mostly channels.
“We first started seeing blues in our sampling in about 1998,” said Scott Robinson, WRD fisheries biologist. “They got in there somehow — they were not stocked. I think this was the first year we picked one up in our samples below the 44 bridge. Before they were upstream of I-20.
“Blues will get bigger than the channels. I think the blues will improve the catfishing. The lake used to be full of those small white cats. These bigger fish are eating those fish and getting bigger, and now it’s shifting toward bigger blues, channels and flatheads.”
We didn’t catch a flathead on our trip, but we saw one floating dead that was in the 30-lb. range.
After rebaiting the trot line, our two-boat party went downriver and stopped a mile above the mouth of Sugar Creek. Then, we started slinging orange-painted bottles overboard. Called jugs, these soft-drink bottles had been filled with Great Stuff foam and the cap was screwed on tight. Dangling from the mouth of the jug was a 36-inch leader of 50-lb. braided cord equipped with a 1/0 or 2/0 Kahle hook and dressed with catalpa worms or deer liver. To avoid line twist, Wayne puts a No. 1 swivel down toward the hook. When we were through chunking fluorescent bottles, I was looking at a run-way of 168 floating jugs.
“We throw them right out in the middle of the lake, so we always fish in the middle of the week when there’s less boat traffic,” said Wayne.
By daylight the next morning we were back on the water. Wayne, Phillip and I checked the trot line while the other boys collected jugs. The line was heavier than the afternoon before. Instead of a fish every six or seven hooks, we sometimes had four or five cats in a row. Quickly the cooler began to fill with fish that weighed from a half a pound up to about seven pounds.
“We’ll have to run back and get another cooler before we go help them get jugs,” said Wayne.
He was right. When we got to the end of the line, two hours later, we had a 144-quart cooler full catfish.
After exchanging a heavy cooler for an empty one, we picked up a few jugs. Wayne has a snake-catching tool, which has a hook on the end, to snatch jugs from the water. This extended arm avoids the headache of trying to chase down a bigger cat. Half the jugs we found had floated to the bank, and it was those that usually had a cat on them.
If you go jugging, paint your jugs a bright color, so they’re easier to see from a distance. Expect them to float for miles in some cases. We picked up a few bottles below Sugar Creek. Also, make sure you don’t have be anywhere on a morning you’re collecting jugs. It took us most of the morning.
“Tonight I’m leaving the jugs in the truck, and we’re just going to run the trot line,” said Wayne. “It’s a lot of work running those things down in the morning.”
Catching big numbers of catfish is just fine — there’s no limit on the number of cats you can keep. We weighed all the cats we had from the morning and afternoon before, and they weighed 219 pounds. Wayne and the crew had 145 pounds waiting on the trot line the next morning. With 364 pounds of fish, you’d think they’d be doing backflips back to Coweta County!
“Our record for two days is 722 pounds. This trip was kind of below average,” said Wayne.
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