Alabama anglers are blessed with a boundless supply of catfish waters and equally diverse methods of catching them. The techniques range from modern approaches like planer boards and power trolling to old-school concepts like limb lines and trotlines. Count Lake Eufaula fishing aficionado Tony Adams among the latter group. Adams never fishes for catfish with a rod-n-reel, rather relying on the time-honored approach of jug line fishing to harvest thousands of pounds of Lake Eufaula catfish each year.
Very few methods are simpler than jug line fishing for catfish, which will catch blues, channels, and flatheads just about any day of the year from one end of the state to the other. Yet Adams has refined his organization and presentation to the extent that he can land several hundred pounds of catfish in only a few hours.
“We have a lot of blues and channels in Lake Eufaula, and I have gotten my process down to where it is effective for me,” Adams said. “People catch plenty of catfish here on rod-n-reels, but I find that the jugs work best for me.”
Adams often aligns his fishing trips to target multiple species, first baiting and putting out the jugs for catfish and then targeting crappie or shellcracker with a rod-n-reel for a few hours while the blues and channels load up on his jug lines.
Adams illustrated his jug line fishing tactics on a trip back in the spring. The morning outing on water served as a perfect example of just how effective jug fishing can be. He and I met at the Barbour Creek ramp just off Highway 431 near downtown Eufaula, ran out of the big tributary, and eventually stopped on a spot near the opposite side of the main river.
Despite a cold front that had swept through the area and potentially cut down on the bite, Adams intended to intercept catfish returning to deeper water after feeding in the shallows overnight. He baited each hook with cut shad and quickly had two dozen jugs in the water in a straight line near the edge of the river channel. Well before he finished dropping the final jugs, we could see one bouncing as a fish had already taken the bait.
“It usually doesn’t take long,” Adams said. “Some days they bite better than others, but the catfishing here is pretty dependable. Jug fishing is the most effective way for me to catch them.”
The bites proved slow as we started but soon picked up. We boated a catfish or two before leaving the jugs and then crappie fished for about an hour, returning to find multiple jugs moving and occasionally submerging due to the weight of a good catfish. Adams checked each jug that appeared to hold a fish, landing perhaps a dozen catfish from a few pounds up to about 12. He also re-baited when necessary.
At times, the jugs bobbed repeatedly in a manner similar to a small bream pulling down a cork. Others tipped up with a lazy, subtle action. Only a couple of times did we see jugs moving rapidly across the surface, and in each instance, the fish was small.
Staying with the jugs for well over an hour, we encountered a couple of catfish that demonstrated Eufaula holds plenty of trophies in addition to the eating-sized fish that we had already caught.
One jug had strayed as much as 100 yards out of the line that Adams had established earlier. When he got his hands on the jug and line, he felt the power of a bigger fish buried up in wood.
“That feels like a really big one,” he said, “but I’m not sure it’s coming out.”
The catfish eventually pulled loose from the hook, and Adams had to break the line.
A few minutes later, the movement of another jug indicated another good fish. As we approached, the jug would dip under the water for several seconds and then re-appear, only to disappear again moments later.
“When they go under repeatedly like this one or if they disappear for a few minutes, then you pretty well know that you have a good one.”
Adams got his hands on the line by reaching it with a long pole with a hook on the end. He uses the pole for both retrieving the line and for fighting bigger fish.
“I think this is probably one that I need the pole for,” Adams said. “It feels pretty heavy.”
Despite its size, the catfish didn’t take long to land, giving in to the pressure of the pole and the heavy jug line. Soon Adams had a blue catfish in the boat that we estimated at 25 pounds, not a Eufaula giant but still a good catch.
“It’s not unusual to catch fish this size and sometimes bigger ones on the lake,” Adams said.
Tools of the Trade
A key component of Adams’ success and efficiency on the water involves his jug set-up. He uses 20-oz. bottles (mainly Gatorade) that he paints orange, pouring the paint on the inside, coating the walls entirely, and then pouring the excess into the next bottle. He ties his line, 40- or 50-lb. mono, to the bottle and adds a heavy swivel and a circle hook, usually 4/0 or 5/0 but up to 8/0 if he is expecting big fish. At times, he slides an egg sinker from ¼ to ½-oz. above the swivel.
A final touch is adding electrical tape (or reflective tape for night fishing), under which he can secure the hook safely.
To further organize, he stores the completed rigs in the plastic trays in which they come. The trays are stackable and hold 24 bottles. They make a neat package in his boat, and Adams uses up to three trays – 72 bottles – on a trip.
“The bottles work well for me,” Adams said. “I know some people like to use bigger jugs, some up to a gallon or more, but you don’t need them that big, and these are much easier to store.”
Adams also avoids pool noodles, which serve as effective floats but are also awkward to store in a boat until deployed. Unless secured in a large box, noodles tend to shift around in a boat in transit to a fishing spot.
One thing that separates Adams from many other jug fishermen is the length of line that he uses. A typical jug line might be roughly from six to 15 feet. However, Adams usually starts with lines about 15 feet long and uses much longer lengths, up to about 50 feet.
The different lines lengths allow Tony to cover the water column regardless of where he is fishing on Lake Eufaula. The same set-up would apply to shallow rivers and lakes across the state or deeper ones, like the Tennessee River impoundments in north Alabama.
The pole is a final important tool in Adams’ arsenal for jug line fishing. He takes a long, limber fiberglass pole, one perhaps normally employed in crappie fishing and secures a heavy j-hook to the tip with line and tape. A 10- or 11-foot pole along the lines of a B’n’M Poles Bream Buster perfectly fits the role.
“I don’t always use the pole,” Adams said, “but it’s nice to be able to reach the jugs and also to wear down a bigger catfish. Without the pole, I sometimes just have to throw the jug and line back in the water when a big catfish decides to run.”
Location, location …
Adams does almost all of his jug line fishing on Lake Eufaula, specifically that five-mile section from Barbour Creek up to near Lake Point State Park. He notes, however, that the techniques that he uses and the type of underwater terrain that he finds there can be duplicated on many other Alabama waters.
Particularly in the summer months, he finds the catfish early in the day on shallow sandbars feeding on mussels. As the sun comes up, most of the fish return to deeper water, either suspending at mid-depths or moving all the way back to the many ledges found on Eufaula. The deeper water off the ledges is where Adams uses his longest lines.
He typically scans an area with his electronics, one of his few concessions to modern technology. As he scans with his Humminbird Helix 12 unit, Adams looks for individual fish or schools, baitfish, and underwater irregularities that will hold catfish.
Bends, points, or indentations along the creek or main-river channels are likely holding spots for catfish. Any wood structure like stumps and log jams are also ideal although Adams loses an occasional catfish that buries up in wood. For whatever reason, bigger catfish – the blues run to about 60 pounds and channels to about 30 on Eufaula – tend to acclimate to wood.
Once Adams determines an area he intends to fish, he deploys his jugs in a straight line. Unless unusual wind or current situations exist, any jug that strays away from the line usually holds a catfish.
“There is no exact science to where I place my jugs,” Tony said. “Before these electronics got so good, I just sort of learned where to expect the fish to be. The electronics helped me confirm why some spots were so good.”
Bait ’em Up
Blues and channels are usually opportunistic feeders, scavenging on a variety of dead baits and also feeding on live shad as well.
Adams generally sticks with cut-bait of some type, normally using shad or skipjack caught from the river or buying fresh or frozen mullet from the Gulf. While mullet are not found in the lake, Adams said the oily nature of the saltwater fish appeals to the catfish in Eufaula and probably anywhere else.
He also notes that rod-n-reel fishermen typically use some of the same cut baits when targeting bigger fish but also bait up with more traditional offerings like worms and chicken livers when seeking eating-sized catfish.
“I guess a key for jug line fishing is a bait that will stay on the hook,” Adams said. “That’s why the cut bait works well for me. The catfish like it, and it won’t disappear when the first fish bites it.”
Tony ended our trip by demonstrating how he retrieves the jugs, and he proved just as efficient in taking the jugs out of the water as he had while putting them in. He methodically wound the line around each jug – the indentions in a Gatorade bottle help secure the line – and placed it in the tray. The process took about 20 minutes.
“I want to make sure that I get all of my jugs out of the water,” Adams said. “It’s just part of the process, so you have to allow the time to retrieve them. That usually means about 15-20 minutes per tray.”
At the end of the trip, the livewell was brimming with Eufaula catfish. Adams estimated that we had 20-plus fish in the boat that weighed 250-300 pounds.
“For a day when they didn’t bite as quickly as they do at times, that’s still more than enough fish for a good fish fry,” he said.
To learn more about jug line fishing for catfish on Lake Eufaula, like and follow “Gone Fishing with Tony” on Facebook. Adams normally fishes several days per week, except perhaps during hunting season, and shares his experiences and photos regularly.
“I like to catch fish, and I also like to share the fun with other people,” Adams said. “Jug line fishing for catfish is a type of fishing that anyone, whether young or old, can enjoy. You’re almost guaranteed to catch plenty of fish on almost every trip.”
This article first appeared in the August 2018 print issue of Great Days Outdoors Magazine. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.