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 so. I had never seen this way of catching fish, but I was hopeful this Rockwellian moment could one day be a part of my future. Indeed, being who I am, I went ahead and imagined my husband driving a boat full of grandchildren …
Later in the day, we met the family who had been out in the boat, our new neighbors, Pat and Dave Malone. They explained how to “jug” fish and showed us their morning catch. We were hooked. My recent enthusiasm for catfishing ensured a trip later in the day to Walmart to buy supplies. My husband’s curiosity and DIY nature ensured he would have the noodle lines rigged and set that evening. Luck secured a catch the following day.
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. The spots go away as they age, and their skin turns gray. The fish on the right with a white belly is called a Blue catfish. The one on the left is a Channel catfish (thanks, Bruce!).
Here are some facts about catfish that might help should you decide to go 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 wake-tracking prey.
- Their razor-sharp dorsal and side fins can prick you.
- Their flat heads make it easier to skim the lake floor for food.
- They’ll attempt to eat anything, dead or alive, so this, the most foul-smelling bait on earth, is an excellent 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 in two ways:.One method is to use a long trotline weighted down with evenly spaced weights and large hooks. This one had about 100 weights and hooks.
The other method is known as noodle fishing.
Here is how to noodlefish: In the late afternoon, place your premade collection of baited noodles in shallow water. The following day, go out and pull each noodle in. We usually catch two or three fish out of the twelve noodles we set. Sometimes, we have to search for the noodles if the wind, or a strong fish, has dragged one away. The hunt for a noodle that has drifted 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 catfish bait (we use Sonny’s Super Sticky Channel Cat Bait)
Cut a swimming noodle into four or five equal parts. Use bright yellow or orange noodles 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 others. Or, just write on the noodle!
Cut ten-foot-long lengths of string, one for each noodle. Use a lighter to melt and seal each end of string so it won’t unravel.
On one end, attach a giant fish hook. Use a bowline knot to secure the attachment.
About 12 inches 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. Make a little slit on the skewer’s flat end 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 this way:
Cut a sponge into little squares. Make extra squares to store in your tackle box. Secure one sponge on each hook.
With the hook and sinker attached, wind the string around the noodle, tuck the hook into the styrofoam for safety, and store until ready to fish.
How to noodle fish:
Before setting 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. Invite others (such as guests) to do this stinky baiting job whenever possible. 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.
The next day, get up early and check your noodles for fish. We use a mooring hook to grab the noodles. The noodles sometimes drift.,
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 noodle lines, we saw a husband and wife team hauling in one fish after another from a “trotline.” Mouths agape, we took our boat over to watch and visit.
The couple, experienced fishermen, had an interesting way of keeping their fish fresh. They had a long, thin, wooden tub in the center of their boat with a gasoline-powered engine that kept the water churning.
We noticed the couple 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 ten minutes later, they waved us over and gave us a bucketful of their “rejects.” We gushed with thanks.
How We Cook Catfish
One weekend, my husband and visiting friends, Mary and Ed Carter, showed us how they prepare catfish. It’s become our traditional way of cooking it now. This recipe makes enough for four people when used 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 has room and boat rentals and is ninety miles from Nashville.
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18 thoughts on “How to Make Catfish Traps: AKA Noodle or Jug Fishing”
another great post! >
Thanks, Mare. Thanks to Ed, too!!
Great story. Always the A method of ” tackling” any situation you care to write about. It’s nice to see how you incorporate Kelly into almost every topic.
Thanks, Carl! It was fun to write. Kelly is the silent partner on my blog. He’s always game for exploring back roads with me and when he gushes about food I cook, I know it’s blog worthy. xo
Here at Morningside where i live, Friday is catfish day at lunch. It could never touch yours because the croutons and Tony Cachere salt isn’t used. My mouth is now watering for yours and I just finished breakfast!
Dolores! Hi there! Thanks, I never had catfish until I moved to the South. It’s probably the only fried food I eat. Maybe Morningside could try my recipe?! Take care.
What a great article! Reminds me of the first time that Luke and I (a couple of recently transplanted Southern California kids) went cat fishing with a local country boy. It’s was at night, at a neighbors’ pond, the moon was out, the crickets chirping and whippoorwills were calling. Luke caught a seven pound catfish that night. Like a Disney movie.
Good imagery, Ginger — the lake, the moonlight, crickets and a big fish! Very Disney! I’ve heard so many childhood stories about fishing today. Love it.
Isn’t that something! I’ve never fished for catfish, but your results look delicious! After one youthful summer of pretty much living on fishing boats out of Newburyport and Seabrook, I’ve been left with a perpetual craving for fresh fish.
When I lived in RI my family caught bluefish and now, on the lake, it’s all about catfish. It might be time for a trip back to Newburyport, Quinn!
Judy, I love this! My mother lived in Bumpus Mills, Tenn., on the Cumberland River before it was dammed to create Lake Barkley. She often told me about going out on the river with her Daddy to set their trotlines and the next morning bringing in the fish, though she never explained how it worked. Now I have a better idea what she was talking about! I doubt they did any noodle fishing back in the 1920s and ’30s, though. Thanks for the lesson!
Gloria, I just Googled “Bumpus Mills” to see where it was located. So interesting to read about these communities that were swallowed up when the US Army Corps of Engineers came in and created the TVA dams. Have you ever written a story about that?
My friend, Lou Ann, told me her dad used to do something called “limb” fishing where they suspended drop lines from tree limbs over creeks and rivers. It’s all very interesting. Thanks for telling me about your mom’s story.
Here, they do something similar with empty plastic milk jugs that float. But, my husband says, that you are required to tag each jug. You purchase the tags from our DNR. He is interested in your sticky stinky bait. Father’s Day gift?
Mimi, thanks for the reminder about a license! I was glad to see we had a multi-year one. Phew! My husband got the stinky bait at Wal-Mart.
Actually, in the picture with two fish, they are two different types of catfish. You correctly identified the one as a channel catfish. The other grayish with white belly is a blue cat. We prefer the blue cats because the flesh is very white and not as strong tasting as the channel. We fish primarily for blues which are far more prevalent in the main channel of the lake and the surrounding flats. My wife and I are also “hooked” on jug fishing.
Thanks, Bruce! Maybe that’s why the blue one was the best tasting catfish we had ever tasted! So glad to know this.