"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
About Bayou Bill
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Copyright © 2005 by Bill Scifres

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 before daylight.

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 boat.

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 for home.

By daylight the next morning we would be back at the river to run the lines.

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 “skinning catfish.”)

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 riverbank.

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 effective.

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 page.  

The 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.
channelcat.JPG (8322 bytes)

flathead.JPG (22237 bytes)

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All columns, stories, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author's family.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Scifres Family, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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