Heart of Texas Cats

Please note the publication date of this article. Statistics and seasonal information were accurate at the time of publication. Check links provided for the most current information.

By Larry D. Hodge

Published in Catfish Now, August 2006

The central region of the state known as the Heart of Texas (H.O.T.) is home to a number of excellent catfish lakes, and there is arguably no more enjoyable way to catch H.O.T. cats than with jug-lines.

I got hooked on jug-fishing a number of years ago while on a float trip through the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande. The main purpose of the 83-mile trip was to search for a rare—possibly extinct—orchid found only in that area. I left that part of the expedition to the scientists on board and concentrated on taking photographs and amusing myself.

A couple of days into the trip, we started finding jug-lines that had been lost by previous river rats. This was an unexpected bonus—but it presented a problem. Not having anticipated fishing, we had no bait with us. However, digging through the food coolers produced a package of pimento loaf lunchmeat, and we were in business.

The stuff wouldn’t stay on the hooks very well, but apparently catfish in the Rio Grande had never seen this bait before, and they bit. We’d bait a hook, toss the jug overboard and watch it slowly pull away downstream of the boat. Suddenly it would disappear, then pop back to the surface and make a beeline for the bank. Fish on!

It’s a long, long way to the Rio Grande, and once you get on the river you’re there until you reach the Dryden takeout. Fortunately, Central Texas offers a number of close-to-home reservoirs where jug-fishing for catfish can be productive.

Those jug-lines we found on the Rio Grande were primitive affairs compared to ones you can now buy or make yourself. They were simply quart plastic motor oil bottles and about 18 inches of line with a knot tied in the end, secured by the screwed-on cap. TPWD district biologist and catman John Tibbs recently showed me two updated versions, one commercially available and the other homebuilt.

The “Fish On” flagging jug-lines (available from www.jugfishing.net) are made of a 2-foot length of white PVC pipe, sealed at both ends, with a weight (a short piece of rebar) inside. About half the pipe is covered with a sleeve of buoyant white foam. The line is attached to the pipe, and the jug is laid on the water with the weight in the end with the white foam. When a fish takes the bait and pulls the end of the pipe down, the weight slides down and the jug stands up, alerting you to a bite. If you would rather not notify every other angler on the lake that you have a fish on, simply slide the weight to the bait end of the jug before putting it into the water so that they are all flagging.

Tibbs makes his own jugs from 2-inch PVC pipe with no foam sleeve and no weight inside, though a weight could be used to make a tip-up rig. He weights the end of the line with half a brick or a cement-filled tin can with an eyebolt embedded; a snap hook attaches the end of the line to the weight. “I prefer braided line for the main line, at least 300-pound test so if a fish takes it into brush you can retrieve it,” Tibbs says. “For the drop lines I prefer 150-pound, one set 3 feet off the bottom and the other 6 feet. Hooks are 2/0 up to 4/0 baited with shad, chicken livers or worms for channels or blues, sunfish for flatheads.” Tibbs uses a rubber band to secure the hooks to the float when stowing the jugs; the rubber band covers the barb and keeps the hook from snagging.

“The nice thing about jugs is they can be set on flats where there is no way to set a trotline or limbline, and you can catch cats cruising the flats looking for shad,” Tibbs continues. “The best time for blues seems to be February, March and April. They are much more active at that time. The water is warming up, they are getting ready to spawn and are schooling. Cooler water also helps your bait stay fresh longer.”

Tibbs jugfishes his home waters, Lake Waco, preferring to set lines of anchored jugs on broad flats. “If you get a big fish, it can’t carry the jug off into deep water,” he explains. “Even so, I like to use extra line so the jug will always be on top even if a big fish takes it off.” Tibbs uses a heavy rubber band to secure the extra line to the jug; it plays out only if a fish takes the weight deep.

“Flats adjacent to a creek or river channel are always a good bet,” Tibbs says. “I normally fish in 12 to 16 feet of water up in the North Bosque arm of the lake adjacent to the river channel.”

It’s worth noting that the Lake Waco all-tackle record blue catfish was caught on a jug-line on January 31, 2003. The big fish weighed 49.8 pounds. The lake record channel cat (10 pounds) and flathead (71 pounds) were both caught on trotlines.

Prior to setting a line of anchored jug-lines, it’s a good idea to reconnoiter the area using sonar. Find the drop-offs, the creek channels, old roadbeds, submerged timber, points and humps and other structure that serve as highways for baitfish. Where go the baitfish, go the catfish.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Inland Fisheries biologists rate a number of lakes in the central part of the state excellent for catfishing. Here’s a rundown of the H.O.T. hotspots:

Benbrook Lake
On the Clear Fork of the Trinity River 10 miles southwest of Fort Worth; 3,635 acres. Channel and blue catfish. Look for blues in deep water near the river channel in winter.
Bonham City Lake
Three miles northeast of Bonham off F.M. 273; 1,020 acres. Channel and blue catfish. Best catfishing is from late winter through fall.
Cedar Creek Reservoir
Fifteen miles northwest of Athens on U.S. 175. Blue and channel catfish. 32,623 acres. Blues predominate; use cut shad or live bait.
Cooper Lake
Northwest of Sulphur Springs and south of the town by the same name. 19,305 acres. Channel, blue and flathead catfish; channel cats are most numerous.
Fairfield Lake
Five miles northeast of the town of the same name on I-45. 2,159 acres. Heated water in this power-plant lake means everything grows faster, including the channel cats. Drift live bait across the points opposite the TXU picnic area. Free-floating jug-lines are ideal for this purpose.
Lake Lewisville
On the Elm Fork of the Trinity River near Denton. 29,592 acres. Blue and channel catfish are abundant; concentrate on the old Lake Dallas area.
Lake Nocona
Eight miles northeast of Nocona. 1,323 acres. Channel and blue cats hang out on the bottom of windswept flats. Crawdads, stinkbaits and liver all work. Use free-floating jugs with the bait set just above the bottom.
Lake Palestine
On the Neches River southwest of Tyler. 25,560 acres. Abundant channel and blue cats and big flatheads. Drift jugs baited with worms, chicken livers, live bait or cut bait between the mouth of Flat Creek and the Highway 155 bridges.
Lake Ray Hubbard
East of Rockwall on the East Fork of the Trinity River. 22,745 acres. Blues and channels. Key on the standing timber north of I-30.
Richland-Chambers Reservoir
On Richland and Chambers creeks southeast of Corsicana. 41,356 acres. Blues and channels. Set jugs and chase birds working over white bass and hybrid stripers while waiting for a bite.
Lake Somerville
On Yegua Creek about 30 miles from Bryan/College Station. 11,456 acres. Channels, blues and flatheads. Use sonar to find schooling shad.
Lake Tawakoni
On Caddo Creek and the forks of the Sabine River southeast of Greenville. 37,879 acres. Mainly channel cats with some blues and flatheads. One of the premier catfish lakes in Texas.
Lake Texoma
On the Red River northwest of Sherman-Denison. 74,686 acres. Made famous for blue cats after producing the world record in 2004, a 121.5-pound fish caught on rod and reel. Some channels and flatheads. Bait jug-lines with live shad or sunfish for blues and flatheads. See the TPWD Outdoor Annual for license information.
Lake Waxahachie
Just south of Waxahachie on Prong Creek. 656 acres. Channel catfish. The small size of this lake makes it easy to use sonar to find flats near creek channels.
Lake Whitney
On the Brazos and Nolan rivers near the town by the same name. 23,500 acres. Blue, channel and flathead catfish. Drift jugs across main lake flats in summer. Target big blues in winter near creek channels and submerged structure.


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Know Before You Go

Jug-fishing is legal on most lakes in Texas, but see the TPWD Outdoor Annual for exceptions. Jug-lines must be marked with a white, free-floating device and must bear a gear tag with the angler’s name, address, and date the jug was set out. This information may be placed on the float instead of a separate tag. Up to five hooks may be used per jug. For information on jug-fishing, making your own jug-lines, and safety tips, visit www.whiskerkitty.com.