For many outdoors activities, July could be the slowest month of the
year, but for fishing for big catfish with setlines, frog hunting, and
harvesting wild blackberries it will pass any test one cares to apply.
If that’s not enough to keep one busy, July also is the month to get
ready for the squirrel season opener in August.
Generally, Indiana waters host four species of catfish. They are flathead,
blue, and channel; the big cats, and the bullheads, the smaller version
of the whiskered set. Bullheads, incidentally, may be brown, black or yellow.
When thinking of setline fishing for the three species of big cats,
there are at least four ways to go; trotline, throw line, bank (limb) line
and jug. Any one of these methods of fishing can produce good results with
a great variety of baits.
One of the great features of fishing for big cats with setlines revolves
around the potential for combining fishing with camping, and running (checking)
the lines several times during the night when the big cats are most active.
Otherwise, the lines are left throughout the night and run (checked) early
the next morning.
The big cats spend a lot of the daylight hours under logjams (drifts),
and other natural cover. But they come out at night to feed. Thus, if setlines
are baited just before dark, the chances are good for catching a big cat
My father, the late Jacob W. Scifres, was undoubtedly the best setline
angler I have ever fished with. He did not own a boat, but if he had owned
a boat, he would not have had a vehicle to transport it. Not many people
owned either a boat or a motor vehicle in the late-depression and post-depression
days of the 30s and early 40s, but anglers lucky enough to own a boat would
have it hauled to the river (or some other body of water) and keep it under
lock and chain--usually chained to a large tree.
In the absence of a boat, my dad used what he called throw lines. This
method of setlining still is a good way to go--even if the angler has a
A throw line is a length of strong cord (usually 20 feet or longer)--we
called it stagen--with a heavy weight (railroad spikes are excellent weights)
tied to one end. Four or five drop hooks are tied to shorter lengths of
stagen and they were tied to the main line with a knot that would prevent
them from slipping along the main line.
To set the throw line, the end of the mainline is staked or tied to
a strong underwater tree root to avoid detection by other anglers. My dad
also colored new lines with mud to make them less obvious in clear water.
When the line was secured, it was stretched full length along the bank
of the river, and each of the four or five dropper hooks was baited. Then,
with the line taut and all of the baited hooks above the bank, my dad would
swing the railroad spike pendulum style and release it at just the right
time to send the stretched line (and railroad spike) to the spot he wanted
them to be.
My dad’s favorite bait was the longear sunfish (also known as the red-belly),
hooked lightly under the dorsal fin or through the tail to keep it alive.
But any live fish--including sucker minnows and small bullhead catfish--were
believed to be good bait. He would also use night crawlers and other natural
baits with smaller hooks, but he preferred live fish--explaining that big
flatheads like big live baits.
My dad’s live-fish thinking accounted at least partially for my popularity
as a fishing partner. I was pretty good at catching sunfish with pole and
line and having me along on Saturday afternoons (his only fishing day of
the week) was like owning a bait shop (unheard of in those days).
We would walk four miles of the Pennsylvania Railroad right-of-way to
his favorite stretch of the Muscatauck River. I would be invited to partner
in the fishing adventure with the condition that I must keep the pace my
dad set as we walked the railroad to the river. The catch was that my dad
was a tall man with long legs and he stepped on only every third crosstie.
My short legs would have to chop-chop to keep up, but I did it by using
he paths at the side of the tracks when possible. As we neared the river,
my dad would cut a dead ash pole for each of us and attach light lines
about the length of the poles. Dead poles weighed less than green poles
and ash was straighter than the “saplings” of most other tree species.
At the river my dad would pull the worm can (a flat Prince Albert tobacco
can) from his hip pocket and we would be in the bait-catching business.
The red bellies, and other fish we caught, would be stored in a mesh
live bag my dad knitted with a large seasoned-hickory needle. The bag had
a drawstring at the top and was stored in the fresh water of the river.
When the sun started sinking we would bait the lines at holes of the
deep river or below riffles (the fast water between deep holes) and head
By daylight the next morning we would be back at the river to run the
We didn’t always catch a big cat, but on the successful Sunday mornings
we were back home by midmorning and the household would bustle with activity
as my mother, grandmother and sister prepared for a fish dinner (the noon
meal on Sundays), and my dad skinned the catfish.
Some anglers would simply scald the slick outer skin of catfish and
scrape it off with a dull knife. My dad always skinned catfish, noting
that he didn’t want to “cook his fish until it was in the skillet.”
(Note: More information on procedures for skinning catfish will be found
by searching this website for
When we caught a big cat (25 pounds was my dad’s all-time record, a
flathead), the town would be abuzz as word of the success spread. Neighbors,
and special friends, anticipated a fish dinner of their own because the
only refrigerators of those post-depression days were iceboxes and they
would not keep fish long. Fish were not canned in those days, at least
not by families.
My all-time favorite line-running adventure involved a 16-pound blue
catfish my dad and I caught at Calford Bayou on the west (Vernon) fork
of the Muscatatuck River (see the July Ramble of 2003).
This facet of the big cat setline picture, builds throughout the afternoon
as the bait is being caught, but it intensifies from the time the last
railroad spike plunks into the water. It continues to build as each hook
is unbaited the next morning and the line is rolled neatly around its railroad
spike. Later, at home, the lines will be unwound and suspended from the
clothesline or low tree limbs to dry. This avoids rot.
When my dad checked a line, he would grasp the line underwater and gently
pull in a foot or so of slack. If he did not feel a fish, he would give
the line a sharp tug. If there was a fish on, he would find himself in
an overhand battle with out Sunday dinner.
I never had to ask if we had a fish on . . . his eyes told me.
Fishing trotlines and limb (drop) lines is very similar to fishing throw
lines. However, Indiana fishing regulations allow as many as 50 hooks on
a trotline, but an angler may legally use only one trotline. Indiana regulations
allow an angler to use 10 limb (drop) lines, but each line can legally
have only one hook. Limb lines usually are tied to sturdy limbs over the
water, but they also can be suspended from a strong pole pushed into the
Throw lines and trotlines are lumped into one category in Indiana fishing
regulations. This means that it is legal to fish only one such line. However,
this regulation is not enforced.
Setline anglers should understand regulations. All lines must be run
every 24 hours and must be tagged with the name and address of the user.
Limb lines are especially effective for fishing large live baits for
big cats on hot, dark nights.
Bit cats tend to hole up during the day, but at night they often feed
while riding the current with their mouths at surface level and tails hanging
down. A big bait flouncing on the surface of the water can be especially
One of setlining’s greatest features revolves around the opportunity
to camp and combine fishing with frog hunting, also best on hot dark nights.
Blackberries ripen in July and there is no better place to find this
exquisite natural food that the edges of bottomland thickets, or along
the brush-infested banks of streams and rivers.
Other writings on blackberries and frog hunting will be found by using
the search engine of this web
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.