The first time I went to Lake Barkley, I sat on the edge of the lake, in the quiet of the morning, and watched an energetic family motorboat from one “buoy” to another, pulling in fish and laughing as they did. I had never seen this way of catching fish before, but I was hopeful this Rockwellian moment could one day be a part of my future. Indeed, being who I am, I was already imagining my husband driving a boat full of grandchildren …
Later that day, we met the family who had been out in the boat, the Malones. Within minutes of meeting them, they were explaining how they “jug” fished for catfish and showed us their morning catch. I was hooked. My new enthusiasm for catfishing ensured a trip to Wal-Mart to buy supplies. My husband’s curiosity and DIY nature ensured he would have the noodle lines rigged and set that evening. Luck ensured a catch the next morning.
The most common types of catfish in Lake Barkley are the scaleless Channel Catfish and the Blue Catfish. When the Channel catfish are young, their skin is greenish-gray with black spots. As they age, the spots go away, and their skin turns gray. The fish on the right with a white belly is a Blue. The one on the left is a Channel catfish (thanks, Bruce!).
Here are some other facts about catfish that might help you should you decide to go jug, or as we call it, noodle fishing:
- Catfish are nocturnal bottom feeders.
- Their peak activity and eating time is from dusk to midnight.
- They have cat-like whiskers called barbels (that do not sting).
- Their barbels are receptors for taste, smell, touch and for wake-tracking prey.
- Their razor-sharp dorsal and side fins can prick you.
- They have flat heads which make it easier for them to skim the lake floor for food.
- They’ll attempt to eat anything, dead or alive, which is why this, the most foul-smelling dipping bait on earth, is a good choice to lure them in.
Catfish do not have teeth. Instead, they use suction to pull food into their mouths as they swim.
I’ve seen people catch catfish two ways; both involve setting baited lines at dusk. One method is to use a long trotline weighted down with many evenly spaced disc-shaped weights and about 100 large hooks.
The other is known as jug or noodle fishing.
Here is how to noodlefish: Sometime during the late afternoon, place your premade collection of baited noodles in shallow water. The next morning, go out and pull each noodle in. Out of the twelve noodles we set, we usually catch two or three fish. Sometimes, you have to search for the noodles if the wind, or a strong fish, has dragged them away. The hunt for a noodle that has drifted somewhere across the lake is part of the adventure.
How to rig a catfish noodle (makes 4):
1 four-foot long yellow or orange swim noodle and a knife to cut it into twelve-inch segments.
duct tape, scissors, and a sharpie marker
40 feet of thin, braided, polyester string and a lighter to burn and seal the ends
1 tape measure to measure the lengths of string
4 large fishing hooks
4 half-ounce casting sinkers (weights)
1 dry sponge
1 skewer to make holes in the noodle
1 jar of stinky, sticky, catfish bait (we use Sonny’s Super Sticky Channel Cat Bait)
Cut a swimming noodle into four equal parts. Use bright yellow or orange noodles so you will be able to spot them bobbing in the water from afar. Use colorful duct tape to make a stripe on one end to better distinguish your noodle stash from those belonging to others.
Cut four ten-foot long lengths of string, one for each noodle line. Use a lighter to melt and seal each end of the string so it won’t unravel.
On one end of each string, attach a large fish hook. Use a bowline knot to secure the attachment.
About 12 inches in from the hook, attach a weight by making a loop with the string, running the loop through the weight’s clasp hole, and then pulling the weight through the loop of string. Next, tie a knot to secure the weight in place.
The finished hook and sinker should look like this:
Now, for the other end of the string: Using the pointy end of a skewer, make a hole through the noodle as shown. On the flat end of the skewer, make a little slit with the edge of a scissor. Slide the string through the slit, thus creating a guide so you can run the string through the small hole. Knot the string around the noodle, as shown.
Alternatively, you could just attach the string to the tube in this way:
Cut a sponge into little squares. Make extra squares to store in your tackle box. Secure one sponge on each hook.
Wind the string, with the hook and sinker attached, around the noodle, tuck the hook into the styrofoam for safety, and store until ready to fish.
How to noodle fish:
Just before you are ready to set your noodles in the water, dip the hook with its dry sponge into the gooey catfish bait. Throw the baited noodle line into the water. Repeat until all the noodles are baited and tossed into the water. Whenever possible, invite others (such as guests) to do this stinky baiting job. Thanks, Rex!
Throw each baited noodle into shallow water that is about eight feet deep. Since catfish are bottom feeders, you want the weighted hook to sink to their level. We usually set the noodles in coves.
The next day, get up early and check your noodles for fish. We use a mooring hook to grab the noodles out of the water. The noodles sometimes drift, but not too far, and when the waters are calm, not at all.
How the pros do it
Compare our single hook method to how the pros do it … Early one summer morning while we were out pulling in our scrappy little noodle lines, we saw a husband and wife team hauling in one fish after another from a trotline. Mouths agape, we took the boat over to watch and visit.
This couple of experienced fishermen had an interesting system for keeping their fish as fresh as possible until they got home — they had a long, thin, wooden tub in the middle of their boat with a gasoline-powered motor that kept the water in the tub churning.
We noticed the couple was throwing the small fish, which looked huge to us, back into the water. They must have seen how impressed we were with what they called small because about ten minutes later they waved us back over and gave us a bucketful full of their rejects! So thoughtful! We gushed with thanks.
While we were visiting with them, my husband mended the fisherman’s cut (hooked) finger and two weeks later we found a stash of homemade jams and a thank you note in our docked boat, but that’s another story.
Cleaning the fish
A few years ago, again, early on a Sunday morning, we met a brother and sister team as they were taking their fishing boat out of the water after hauling in their morning catch. I asked if I could see their stash. They had a huge cooler-full of fish. I asked if they were going to sell the fish. They said they were stocking up for their winter food. I asked if I could watch them clean the fish. They lived nearby and invited us over. Such a friendly and gracious team, these siblings were. They let me take a video of their method of cleaning fish. Like so many other fishermen we have since met on the lake, they used an electric carving knife to do the job quickly.
How we cook catfish
My husband and our friends, the Carters, cleaned and cooked the fish we caught last week. This recipe makes enough for four people as an appetizer. The fish was light, flaky and delicious.
4 6-ounce catfish fillets (approximately)
1 cup garlic croutons, crushed
1 tablespoon Tony Chachere’s Creole Original Seasoning, or seasoned salt
1 teaspoon lemon garlic pepper
lemon slices for garnish
In a ziplock bag, crush the croutons into large crumbs. Add the fish and remaining seasonings. Gently toss until fillets are well coated.
Meanwhile, heat canola oil in a cast iron skillet (about 1 inch deep). When a drop of water sizzles in the oil, it is ready for the fish. Gently lay the fillets in the hot oil. When lightly browned and flakey, flip over and cook the other side. Serve hot.
Squeeze with lemon juice before serving.
Enjoy! Here is our Southern Living magazine-style photo moment.
The Lake Barkley State Park and Marina is available for room and boat rentals.
P.S. To go fishing in Kentucky, as in most states, you’ll need a license. You can apply for one here.
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