Jugging for Catfish

By Steve Webner

“FISH ON! FISH ON!” That phrase struck an adrenaline rush that only two things could ignite, a first kiss and “juggin” for catfish. At that moment every head in every boat turned like a top trying to find that one Gatorade bottle creating a wake across the waters of the Des Moines River north of Bradgate, Iowa. It didn’t usually take long to spot the bottle bobbing up and down across the river as a catfish did it’s best to take the leopard frog on the bottle’s steel leader down to the depths below a submerged log. The closest boat, whether it be a flat bottom or canoe, was excitedly in charge of chasing down the hooked catfish. Now, time for the best part, reaching into the water, grabbing the floating Gatorade bottle, and slowly pulling that catfish from his safe haven and into the boat. This is what some call jugging, or as the catfish wizards of Rolfe, Iowa, called it, “Juggin.”

Jugging is a method of fishing in which you use a jug with fishing line or steel leader hanging from the jug with your choice of bait attached. The setup I was introduced to years ago consisted of a Gatorade bottle spray painted fluorescent orange inside, steel leader tied around the neck of the bottle, and either a leopard frog, crayfish, or whatever was in the sane net the evening before attached. Any plastic jug will do — milk jug, pop bottle, or anything that is of decent size and will float. Size is important if you are fishing waters with large catfish as these cats will do their best to pull the jug to the deep and not return.

Although I haven’t gone jugging for many years, I still look back on those early mornings as some of my best times on the water. A day of “juggin” usually consisted of a pre-dawn alarm clock, throwing on some old clothes, jumping into a truck and heading to the river with a 12 foot jonboat sticking out of an 8 foot truck bed. We typically joined a group of other Rolfe men, ( the more the merrier), and also more jugs we could throw in the water. Upon arriving at the muddy Des Moines River we jumped into our boats, paddled out to the middle of the river, and each threw out two jugs with our favorite bait attached. The morning was set for laughs with good friends, beautiful sunrises, and a good time pulling in some catfish.

We floated the Des Moines River with our jugs, watching intently. We typically placed one boat in front of the group of jugs and one in the back; acting as goalies to keep the jugs somewhat grouped together. We would periodically count the number of jugs in order to leave no jug behind. When a jug started moving erratically, it was a rush to the scene of the action. The movement of the jug often indicates the size of the fish. A jug bobbing up and down often indicates a smaller fish. However, a wake usually means big fish and big fun! A continuously submerged jug is a good indication you might need a bigger boat. Using your bare hands to work the beast from the depths and into the boat is pure excitement! For those who have never fought a fish without a fishing pole, the experience of bringing a big cat in with your hands is one you will never forget.

The key to bringing in the fish is to grab the jug slowly, working the fish from their hiding place. When the time comes for a jugged fish to surface, it is easiest to net the fish. However, for those who want a little more excitement, wrestle the fish with only your hands and enjoy the moment.

One may ask if jug fishing is legal. According to the 2021 Iowa Fishing Regulations (page 5), “You cannot use more than two jugs or two hooks on each jug. You cannot leave the jugs in the water unattended by being out of visual sight of them. You can fish with one pole with line and one jug or two jugs and no pole with line. You can fish a third line or jug if you have a valid third line fishing permit.” So yes, it is legal to jug away! Before recycling that next Gatorade bottle, tie on a steel leader, hook, bait of choice, and chuck it into the water…and don’t forget to yell, “FISH ON!”