Limblines for River Cats | Great Days Outdoors

Veteran angler or not, the right bait, swivel, line and hook size play a big part in limblining catfish.

My brother and I had just beached our kayaks on the Leaf River in southeast Mississippi when an older gentleman pulled up to the launch in a 12-foot flat bottom. We had been float fishing for bass all morning and were surprised to have bumped into another river rat. As we peered over the edge of his boat, it was easy to recognize the success of his labor. All ranging from one to three pounds, a dozen or more catfish awaited  their fate in a frying pan.

Spot tail minnows rank very high for river catfish. These can easily be obtained from any creek or river by seine or minnow jars. Photo by Matt Lofton


After some introductions and small talk, the savvy cat fisherman informed us that catfish were, in his opinion, the most overlooked resource in Southern rivers and streams.  He boasted of catching channel cats of all sizes, along with the occasional flathead. The range of his catch went from small whole-fried little ones all the way to big 15-plus-pound monsters.  He said that every bend of the river had the potential to feed dozens of people and that if all your cards lined up just right, you could feed even more — much more.  This article is based on his hypothesis. The results were astonishing. With a little technique and with the right bait selection, catching a “mess” of river cats can come easy for the average and veteran angler alike.


If you’re a beginning catfish angler, I know you’re asking the question: Where? The good news is that your first question is the easiest to answer. Any creek or river in Alabama has the potential for being a great catfish stream. Obviously, the bigger the stream, the more likelihood of catching a bigger fish, but I have witnessed five-pound fish come out of some really narrow flows. Depth will be the real key here, not width. As long as the stream has some nice holes at least chest-deep in its bends, it will hold some decent fish. Another good rule of thumb is any creek that is floatable will suffice and give you opportunities to cash in on tomorrow’s supper.

Cat fishermen have many different methods, but our main focus in this article will be on the limb line. These primitive fish catching machines are easy to make, inexpensive, and easier to deal with than the traditional trot line. Limb lines consist of braided nylon twine, one-half ounce weights, and stainless hooks with extra large eyes. The twine doesn’t have to be huge, but get something that will hold some decent weight in case a big cat strikes. Weights can vary, but the half-ounce normally does a good job of keeping the bait down even in heavy current. I emphasized extra large eyes when purchasing hooks because you will need to be able to thread twine through the eyes easily during preparation. No need for huge hooks; 3/0 will do.

After assembling the necessary elements, it’s time to make the lines. Start with a piece of twine about four to five-feet long. Tie a loop at one end of the twine. On the other end, position the weight about a foot above the twine’s end. You can easily do this by making a loop at the desired place, running it through the eye of the weight, and then pulling the weight back through the loop snug. Create one last loop at the bottom of the twine and thread the hook exactly like you did the weight earlier. Your finished product from top to bottom should be as follows: loop at the top, place weight about a half-foot above the hook, and affix the hook at the base of the line.

If you desire the weight to be able to move, you can use an egg weight. Thread the weight on the line before making the final loop. This will allow the egg weight to slide between the top loop and the bottom loop. Another modification includes the use of a swivel. Some people opt to put a barrel swivel in addition to the above mentioned. This avoids catfish from twisting themselves off while fighting to be unhooked. This can easily be done but will take an additional step plus two pieces of twine instead of one. When you head to the creek, keep in mind that ten lines will keep you plenty busy, so don’t overdo it.

Gathering creek minnows is one of the most effective ways to catch a mess of hungry catfish. Photo by Matt Lofton

Now that your lines are made and ready to go, here are ten final observations that will be helpful to you.

1. Choose only green limber limbs and avoid dead limbs that could break under the pressure of a fish.


2. Allow the hook to dangle only about a foot below the water’s surface. Deeper lines can easily get tangled on bottom debris, allowing the fish to get away.

3. Choose areas near current. Fish love current because food is brought to them. Your weight will help keep the bait down.

4. Set out and bait your lines about an hour before dark. Catfish are nocturnal feeders which means they prefer to eat at night. Dusk to Dawn is prime-time.

5. If you plan on checking your lines and re-baiting throughout the night, pick a night that has a full or three-quarters moon. Not only will it help the fish see your bait, more importantly it will give you the extra light you need to be quick and effective in netting fish and re-baiting lines.

6. Dress appropriately. Mosquito spray is a must on our rivers and a good headlight has saved the day more than once.

7. Bring a net! Catfish have sharp spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins. When handling a catfish, hold the fish directly below the pectoral fins, being extra careful.

8. Mark the tops of your line with reflective duct tape. This will make your lines very easy to locate in the middle of the night.

9. Use live bait from the river itself for best results! Crawfish and creek minnows are the two best baits to catch channel cats, while flatheads prefer live bream. Crawfish can be found in ditches nearby or under rocks in the creek. The best method for catching creek minnows is by seine or minnow jar. Live bream can be caught the afternoon before with a fly rod, ultralight lures, or by the old fashioned worm and a cork.

10. Pick up all your lines once you are done. Every year someone swimming or canoeing gets a hook in them due to an irresponsible cat fisherman. Don’t be that person. Clean it up and reuse your lines to save money. The top loop created earlier is helpful in keeping up with lines. Wrap lines around a PVC pipe, hooking the next line’s hook into the top loop of the previous line. This will keep your lines tangle-free and easy to use next time you want to go fishing.

Well, that’s the basics, and the only thing that trumps the excitement of a bank full of limb lines dancing up and down on Friday night is the enjoyment of eating fresh fish on Saturday. Catfish is king down South and according to the old-timer at the boat launch we spoke to, your next meal is just around the river bend.


This article originally appeared in the print edition of Great Days Outdoors magazine in June 2011. 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.

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