Sinclair’s Key To Jug Fishing
The 2021 Brandon Key Catfishing Champs prove it takes a full-scale operation and hard work to load the cooler.
Good Friday last month was a really good Friday. On that morning, I experienced the best catfish jugging trip of my life.
From the 118 jugs we soaked in the waters of Lake Sinclair overnight on Thursday, April 14, I watched a 210-quart Yeti cooler fill to the point where it wouldn’t close. In the mix were 12 or 15 cats in the 15- to 25-lb. range.
My instructors for the trip were Jonathon West, his wife Kelley and their 16-year-old daughter Georgia. The West family, along with several friends, were the June 2021 winners of the Brandon Key Catfishing Tournament. The tournament had 63 boats competing in last year’s event, and this year’s goal is 100 with a $20,000 payout. At the time of this writing, about 60 had already pre-signed at www.3030ministries.org/brandonkey. If you’re interested, better sign up quick. It will cap off at 100.
Anyone who knows Jonathon knows he does everything full throttle. From his work with J Key Construction to his volunteer work with 30-30 Ministries, to his hunting and fishing, he gives 100% at everything.
Successful jug fishing takes planning and a desire to be all in. Don’t expect to put hundreds of pounds of catfish in the boat like we did without making plans and putting in the hard work way in advance.
When I met the West family before dark on Thursday, April 14, they had a steak and baked potato supper ready for me. They do gardening, canning and cooking full throttle, too!
After supper, we walked down the hill to their boat already in the water. Waters were on ice, a cooler for cats was ready, and all 118 pool noodles were neatly stored but ready to be deployed for service. Everything was organized and ready. All I had to do was step in and go to work. Yes, although extremely fun, the next 18 hours were going to be work.
Jonathon’s plan was to catch bait, something he does regularly when he jug fishes. The reason he waited until dark to get started was to give time for the dock lights to turn on and for the gizzard shad to gather under them.
“It’s good to get free bait,” said Jonathon. “Sometimes we’ll throw for two or three hours, sometimes we throw for 10 minutes.”
Georgia did most of the bait catching with a 6-foot net. Every gizzard and threadfin shad would go into a livewell versus into a bait cooler with ice. Keeping the bait alive as long as possible helps the bite.
“The fresher the bait, the better the fishing,” said Jonathon.
About the third dock we pulled up to, Georgia caught five big gizzards on about three casts.
“We’ll probably bait 20 jugs with what we’ve caught here,” said Jonathon.
While Jonathon tweaks his strategy toward a bigger-fish bite during the Brandon Key tournament, which only allows for five fish to be weighed in, he fishes cut gizzards when he’s looking for good numbers of catfish.
“You can also get your gizzards off rip-rap and grassbeds,” said Jonathon. “Anywhere the water comes up from deep to shallow, they will usually hang in there on those little baitfish. That’s what those gizzards are after.”
While fresh gizzards was Jonathon’s go-to bait for our evening, some folks catch bream with a rod and reel and use them. When it comes down to it, about any sort of fish can work. Remember fresher is better, but he did say he’s even brought bait back from a shark fishing trip on the coast that worked.
“Finger mullet is a good choice,” said Jonathon. “We have actually caught a lot of fish on cigar minnows. I think it’s the oily stuff in the bait that attracts the catfish. Carp is good, too. About anything you want to put on the hook.”
On this particular cool evening, it took us about an hour to have enough bait that we were ready to start soaking noodles. Jonathon has tried a number of designs on pool-noddle floats and finally found one he likes that involves an 18-inch piece of float and a T-section of 1/2-inch PVC pipe.
“It’s all dollar-store stuff,” said Jonathon. “I’ve got a $1.25 in one noodle. They cost $5.97 each at Walmart. I build them on a massive scale, usually 150 at a time.”
The business end of that noodle is a 7/0 stainless circle hook that is attached to a 7- to 15-foot leader of 300-lb. leader material from Offshore Angler called Magibraid Spectra Fiber Superline.
“When I am fishing the channel, I want to go 7 to 10 to 15 feet deep,” said Jonathon. “We’re gonna put them out in the channel and wait on them to pull water.
“When I go to a different lake like Oconee and I am going to fish shallow water, I will fish 2 to 5 feet.”
Jonathon flipped on a bright light mounted to the front of his boat and went to work with an electric knife and a cutting board. He took those big gizzards and cut them from top to bottom. For the head pieces he’d hook them through the bottom lip and out the top of the head through that little hard section. For the rest of his baits, he’d hook them through the top of the back portion.
Teamwork came into play. Kelley stayed behind the wheel of the boat making sure the noodles were thrown out in a small area while close friend Jamie Key unraveled each noodle and handed it over to Jonathon before he chunked them into the dark waters.
In less than an hour the team had thrown out all 118 jugs into the Oconee River channel in less 5 acres.
“I like to put the jugs out in a tight area because the more bait you have, the more the fish can smell it,” said Jonathon. “It’s like chumming the fish. They are going to come in there when they smell that bait. They are going to spread out in the night, but this focuses all that scent in one area to start with.”
By 11 p.m., the stage was set. The hard work—at least up until this point—was complete. Jonathon uses an old-school Q-Beam for checking his jugs, which is easily done thanks to the reflective tape he has wrapped around each jug.
“One more lap around them, baby,” he told Kelley.
After a 10-minute idle around the jugs without so much as a sniff from a catfish, Jonathon announced it was time for our crew to hit the rack for a nap before checking the jugs again.
“I like the get back out a little before the sun gets up because it’s easier to start checking them with that reflective tape,” said Jonathon.
So by 11:30 we were in the bed and back up by 5:15. Coffee tumblers were loaded and back down the hill we went to go to work. Ever pick up 118 pool noodles in a few hours, 44 of them loaded with catfish? I have. Work. Very fun work!
“I didn’t sleep last night, I’m ready to see one standing up,” said Jonathon.
The best bites are often midnight and right again at daylight or anytime Georgia Power is pulling water.
“They didn’t pull water last night, so they just kind of drifted around,” said Jonathon.
Even without moving water, the bite happened. We found our noodles about a half mile from where we put them out. Georgia used a long painter’s pole with a hook on the end for grabbing the line. The pole has a pool noodle on it for when—not if—it ended up in the water.
Georgia would hook the 300-lb. leader cord, pull—or often fight—the fish to the surface and daddy Jonathon would be there with the net. The whole time Kelley stayed at the wheel getting us in position.
“This isn’t something you can do by yourself. You got to learn to work as a team. We are one big happy family.”
The third bobbing jug we came up to sunk and went out of sight.
“Cut the motor. First big fish, he’s bigger than 10,” said Jonathon. “They can’t hold it down a long, long time. Those big ones will sometimes hold it down five to 10 minutes, this is when the fun begins. When he pulls it down like this, you know he’s a man.”
Cut the motor was what I’d learn to love hearing because it would most times mean at least a 10-pounder.
“The fun thing is you don’t know what’s on the end of that line,” said Jonathon. “He could be 10 pounds or 60 pounds.”
The first big fish was a pretty blue pushing 20 pounds.
Over the course of the next three hours I watched that 210-quart Yeti get to the point it wouldn’t hold one more single fish.
The West trio exhausted all efforts to make sure they had all their noodles out of the water. I was impressed with their efforts in making sure the lake stayed clean and that jug fishermen didn’t get a bad rap.
So you ready to fill a 210-quart Yeti cooler? After seeing it done, I am convinced you can do it, too. However, you better start making preparations and getting a game plan way in advance. And once you get on the water, expect to work. That’s Sinclair’s key to jug fishing.
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