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The Way Jug Fishing Used To Be

Back when a catfish jug was an Castrol motor oil bottle.

Andrew Curtis | November 29, 2022

A young Andrew Curtis goes fishing on Lake Oconee with his grandfather.

I don’t think of cars when I see one. I don’t think of engines. I don’t think of anything to do with land. To this day, over 30 years later, I still see water when I look at a quart oil jug. I see the stained brown water of Lake Oconee. I see the 12-foot jonboat. And I see the man who taught me to fish.

My grandfather, Bob Carter (or Daddy Bob to me), was a product of the Great Depression. He knew the prudence of being frugal. This was a man who, after becoming a decorated Navy combat pilot in World War II, moved from his small hometown of Naylor along the Alapaha River up to Madison to start Madison Truck and Tractor. And so began his business career with engines. 

He eventually became a Pontiac dealer in the Madison town square before retiring and selling used cars. Because my grandfather had a difficult time discarding anything that might remotely be of use someday, the quart oil jugs piled up. He had a plan.

Once Lake Oconee was created by Georgia Power in 1979, my grandfather built a small lake house on the Buckhead side, just 20 minutes from his home in Madison. This lake is where I learned to fish. 

I will never forget the first time Daddy Bob took me fishing when I was around 4 years old; I wondered where the fishing poles were. On the way from Madison to the lake, we stopped by an old store in “The Real Buckhead, Georgia” to purchase 2-dozen bass minnows. But I was still looking for our fishing poles.

Once at his lake house, he pulled the old jonboat down to the water and threw a sack full of quart oil jugs in, followed by the bucket of minnows. Now I was confused. What were we going to fish with?

After ensuring that my life jacket was snug, my grandfather paddled out to the middle of the cove and retrieved the first jug from the sack. I can still see that jug now… a white Castrol container with a black top. He unraveled the string that had been hidden and wrapped around the jug, and I could see a washer tied in the middle for a weight and an extremely rusty hook on the end of the string. I was beginning to understand the concept in my young mind. Picking up a minnow with his bare hand, he hooked the little fish through the back and handed the jug to me. 

“Toss it in the water,” he said as he helped me throw in the jug and line.

We had only baited about five or six, when the first one began dancing erratically on the water’s surface. 

“Got one!” I heard Daddy Bob shout while paddling quickly toward the bobbing oil jug. With one hand on my life jacket, he said, “Grab the jug, Andrew!”

Reaching over the side of the boat, I attempted to snag the elusive jug only to see it disappear under the boat. My grandfather slapped his knee in laughter while I frantically searched for the missing jug. Seconds later, it popped up 10 yards from the boat, gaining speed as it fled away from us. 

“Paddle faster!” I screamed to my grandfather, who calmly turned the boat and followed the fleeing fish. I don’t think he ever stopped laughing. I, however, was all business. As we approached again, I leaned over the boat edge to grab the jug, but my small hands could not hold on to the slippery container. Just before the jug shot underneath the boat a second time, my grandfather palmed it in one hand and slung the big channel catfish into the aluminum boat with a loud “thud.” This little boy was on top of the world! I would never be the same again.

As the years went by, I always looked forward to jug fishing with my grandfather on Lake Oconee. I never knew what we would catch: bass, catfish, gar, crappie, even the occasional snapping turtle. Our equipment never changed because it never failed to work.

Now days when I see “jugs” on the lake, I see these huge clusters of sophisticated, reflective noodle contraptions, equipped with sliding weight systems and fine, ergonomic handles on the back for easy retrieval. The high-quality lines are fitted with nice, big egg weights and razor-sharp, name-brand circle hooks. Although I’m not sure how much one of these new-fangled jugs costs to make (or buy), I know for a fact it is more expensive than my grandfather’s way.

My grandfather has been gone 20 years now, but my family still returns to this same lake house. It’s where I feel like a kid again. I see Daddy Bob everywhere out there. I see the simplicity of it all. No fancy equipment. No motors. No batteries. Just a plain jonboat with a paddle, two life jackets, a bucket of minnows, a sack full of fishing jugs and a little boy with his granddaddy. Those memories won’t fade.

This past summer while walking in the woods next to the lake house, I saw something white under some of the leaves. Curious to investigate, I brushed away the debris to see a soil-stained Castrol oil container with a black top. A threadbare remnant of dry rotted string clung precariously to the neck of the jug. There is no telling how many fish that jug had caught through the years. Turning it over and over in my hands, I searched for a crack or hole but found none. Amazingly, the plastic seemed quite preserved. I smiled to myself as a tear ran down my cheek. 

My two little boys have never been jug fishing, but I’m about to change that. 

And I know the first jug we are going to bait up.

Thank you, Daddy Bob.

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