Don't ask me for the whys and wherefores, but
among setline anglers July has always been known as big catfish month.
It may be that flathead catfish, channels and
blues--the stars of the Hoosier big cat drama--have taken daytime refuge
in deep holes of rivers or under log jams and other heavy cover near deep
water when days grow hot and long.
accompanying Department of Natural Resources illustrations will help cat
lovers identify the big three cats of Indiana waters. Note that the channel
catfish also has a rounded edge on the anal fin . . . this helps separate
channel and blue cats.
Whatever the reason, July certainly is the real
beginning of the setline season. And big live bait is the key to success.
One of my fondest memories of setline fishing
unfolded to my utter amazement at Calford Bayou (Vernon Fork of the Muscatatuck
River) when I was about seven years old.
My dad, who had to work to make a living in those
post-depression days, would set his lines on Saturdays with the hope of
catching a big cat. Success meant a Sunday fish dinner for our family and
often the neighbors. The only refrigeration we had was a big old icebox
and that would not preserve fish more than a day or two.
Not having a boat at our disposal--nor even a
method of transporting a boat if we had one-- my dad used what he called
"throw" and "bank" lines. The difference between the two was that the throw
line usually consisted of a strong main line of 20 feet or more and utilized
four to six strong hooks, each attached to the main line with a drop line
that was about a foot long. The main line (mudded to make it less visible
to anyone who might be on the river) was attached to strong, underwater
objects (most often a strong tree root), and the weight (most often a rusty
railroad spike) was attached to the other end of the main line.
With the line attached and hooks baited with
live long-eared (redbelly) sunfish, my dad would stretch the line, swing
the weight pendulum style, and heave it into the river.
Bank lines usually were attached to sturdy poles.
They usually were armed with only one or two hooks and often were positioned
to keep the live bait flouncing on the surface of the water.
Aside from the fact that my dad liked to make
his vast outdoor knowledge available to me, he liked to have me along on
his setline trips because I was pretty good at catching redbellies on a
pole and line.
With tobacco cans of garden worms in our back
pockets, we would walk to the river early in the afternoon and spend the
rest of the day catching bait. My dad usually opted for dead ash poles
because they were straight, strong and light.
Our fishing line (usually a silk braid about
the same length as the pole) usually held a long-shanked, wire "sunfish"
hook and a small wrap-on sinker a few inches above the hook.
As we caught sunfish they were kept alive in
a drawstring bag he knitted from strong twine (called stagen).
When we had enough bait to fill the hooks--usually
25 to 30--we would wait for the sun to fall behind the tree-lined riverbanks
and start baiting up.
It would always be well after dark before we
got home, but our supper would always be warm on the back or the old wood-burning
stove. We would have plenty of time to think about the denizens that might
be taking our baits before drifting off to sleep until awakened well before
daylight to go "run" the lines.
My big setline moment--the one I remember best
although there are many fond ones--came on such a Sunday morning. The sun
was barely up when we approached the river half a mile below Calford Bayou
where the first of seven throw lines had been "set" in a deep hole of the
To check the lines, my dad would roll up his
sleeves (shirts with short sleeves hadn't been invented in those days),
and on hands and knees would run his left hand and arm in a sweeping motion
until he found the main line. He would pull on the main line gently until
it was well above the water, and we would hope he would feel a fish pulling
back. If there was no resistance, he retrieve the line (removing the baits
and dropping them back in the river, most of them still alive.
With hooks bare and the line free, he would carefully
wrap it around the railroad spike (weight) in a manner that would cover
the points of the hooks. It would be placed in a container (usually a galvanized
bucket) for the trip home where the lines would be stretched to dry then
rewound and placed back in the bucket, ready for the next weekend trip.
On this, my most memorable setline morning, my
dad had gone through his ritual at each of six lines in six deep holes.
But nothing had pulled back. We were down to the last line.
That line was set at the upper end of the Calford
Bayou deep hole, a place where we often fished for bass with live minnows.
At first, my dad had trouble remembering where
he had anchored the line, but found it and pulled in enough loose line
to get his hand above the water. There was no resistance to that so he
gave the line a slight inward pull.
For a few seconds it appeared that Sunday dinner
(the noon meal) would be fried chicken and trimmin's which was not all
bad. But then, with the line still grasped tightly, my dad's hand and arm
was pulled back under the water.
"We got one, Bill," my dad said and brought the
fighting fish in slowly, (removing the dropper hooks with a simple pull
at each knot) until he could slip his fingers in the gills and his thumb
into the corner of the fish's mouth. Then, in a smooth sweep of his hand
and arm, he tossed the fish (still hooked) into the weeds well away from
The walk home through the woods and fields did
not quite measure up to my expectations because I wanted to carry the fish
and it was so long that its tail dragged the earth when I held it.
"You can carry it when we get to town," my dad
promised, and he lived up to his word although he had to help me get it
draped over my back.
It was a 16-pound blue, but more than that it
was a big Sunday dinner for our family and some of the neighbors; not to
mention the notoriety residuals that ride the shirt tails of small town
anglers who catch big fish, some of which may not be known for many years
. . . if ever.
Like, for example, many years later I am recalling
my big cat moment in a conversation with my squirrel/quail-hunting mentor,
the late Jack Cain.
Jack said, he had been standing on the corner
that morning when Sampson Mitchell (the town police department) walked
past and said: "Jake Scifres and his little snot-nosed kid, just walked
past my house with a big catfish."