Whiskers and Ditty Poles
By Brad Durick
One of my fondest memories of setting bank poles, or ditty poles as many call them, took place on the Des Moines River two summers ago. My friends Josh, Jarred and I fished for two nights out of Jarred’s big twenty foot flat-bottom and camped along the bank. It was one of those trips where an angler really connects with the river and becomes a part of its mystique.
I remember waking up the morning after the second night to heavy air and a quiet river gurgling by. Everything was in slow motion including us, struggling to pull ourselves from the sleeping bags after a big meal of fried flathead and frog legs the night before. Our lines which hadn’t been checked since midnight were set out spanning roughly a mile of river upstream from camp. Anticipation set in and we quickly packed up and ventured into the foggy river to check our sets.
Adding to our excitement, one of the first lines yielded a nice 13 lb flathead which had taken an exceptionally large bullhead. This just goes to show that catfish can handle a pretty hefty meal considering this bullhead was all of ten inches long. The next few sets gave up nothing so we pushed upstream. We had separated our lines, Josh’s five first followed by Jarred’s, then mine the farthest up, not that it makes a difference when bank polling, we just like to throw a little competition in the mix. Jarred’s sets didn’t bring any flatheads but a couple nice channel cats were enough to keep our spirits high.
Halfway through my sets I looked up river to locate the next line and was happy to see a sharp curve in the white PVC pole bending hard towards the water. The fish must have sensed the approaching boat as it began to struggle and the end of the pole almost touched the water. It takes a good sized fish to make 3/4 inch PVC do that. We eased up along the line and as I brought it close to the boat a telltale widely set brown grin came to the surface. It was a big flathead, not huge by Iowa standards but a good fish nonetheless. It weighed a healthy 24 lbs and after a few photos I decided to release her back to the river. We had more than enough meat from the other three flatheads and dozen or so channel cats boated from the trip.
Trips like these are what Iowa catfishing is all about. Good friends, the peaceful river, slimy bait and when successful a nice fish fry to cap it all off. Setting bank lines really isn’t all that tough to do, it does however take time, patience and a few other ingredients to make it work well.
When To Go
I am frequently asked when the best time of year to target catfish is. My response generally includes water temps and river levels and the exact time or date is different every year depending upon these factors. If I had to put a timeframe on it though, late May until the first half of June is great. Catfish in Iowa spawn when waters reach the low to mid seventies and this typically occurs in late June and July. During the spawning time my success drops off. After the spawn the action picks up again through September and October however anglers must be careful boating the rivers as levels can get quite low with reduced rainfall. In late summer and fall I find that rising waters get catfish active and on the move if they don’t rise too sharply. When water levels are stable, structure and key lowlight periods are a must to focus on. Early in the season the fish are on the move a lot more than later in the summer. Flatheads especially during this late summer pattern are tied to holes and structure and only venture out to feed when they need to, typically during low light. In this case it really pays to study the river and locate areas where these fish feel comfortable and set lines right in their kitchen.
You can probably guess but woody debris, deep holes and concrete laden banks adjacent to deeper water are magnets for flatheads. These areas give them a place to rest in shade and ambush prey without having to expend a lot of energy fighting the current. I like to set my lines just on the upstream edge of these types of structure so when the fish venture out for a meal they won’t have to travel far. Generally speaking, flatheads will travel upstream from their hideout when leaving to feed. Plus, any disturbance or scent given off by the struggling bait will travel downstream to the lurking predator.
Other areas that I have had a lot of success on are steep cut banks with small points that create current eddys. Flatheads and channel cats love to slip along these current seam pockets when hunting. One other area that has produced for me when water levels are up is where shoreline vegetation is slightly submerged along the bank. This type of structure holds a lot of food items including frogs, crayfish and smaller fish. The current is usually lighter and makes for an easy place to tamp in a bank pole in the soft sediment.
Let’s step away from the river for a minute and talk terminal gear. Bank poles come in all shapes and arrangements but they all have three core parts, the line, the hook and the pole. I have seen everything from golf course flag poles to willow sticks to the most common, PVC. I use PVC because it’s cheap, visible from a fair distance and has the strength to endure a very large fish.
You can get away with using 1/2″ PVC but I like to step it up and use 3/4″ just for the added comfort of knowing that if a fish breaks that then it deserves a second chance, not to mention respect. I have yet to pull up on a broken bank pole. This is my own design and you can play around with other ideas but I use an eye bolt at the end for attaching the line and it gives a place to wrap the line around for setting the depth along with a spot to store the hook when not in use. I’ll cut the PVC at about 6-7 feet for length and then angle cut the bottom to make it easier to drive into the bank.
For the line I just go with 150# braided trot line you can buy at many bait shops. I generally go big on the circle hook size in the #7-#10 range depending on the size of bait I intend to use. If you are primarily after channel cats then probably step the hook size down to a #6. You can also add a weight to the line above the hook to keep it held below the pole but I will only use this in areas of stronger current. Attaching a big barrel swivel between the hook and the pole also helps to reduce line twisting from a fighting fish. That’s about as simple as it gets and I do not use a shock line or anything else. Just tie the trot line braid to the hook using your favorite fishing knot and you are set!
A lot of other bank lines I have seen have the baits set out into the river along the bottom and this works well in most cases but it gives the fish a lot of room to fight and wrap your gear around, or worse, twist off and even shear the line on some underwater debris. Give the fish as little wiggle room as possible by setting the bait just under the surface. This may sound crazy but catfish, especially flatheads will readily come to the surface for a meal. When using live bait the struggling fish will splash and create a struggle that really calls a hungry cat up for a closer inspection. Simply wrap the line on the pole once set into the bank to adjust for depth. When a fish grabs the bait and is hooked it will have very little room to turn and get into cover.
You generally do not want to set the poles so that they face skyward and I typically set my lines so that the pole sets out over the water at a slightly upward angle, maybe 15-20 degrees. Do not worry about the fish pulling the pole out of the bank. This gives you the added bonus of reaching out into some harder-to-reach structures that may require a few feet of reach from the bank. Flatheads will travel into some pretty skinny water for a meal so even if the set is shallow but near good structure then you are fine. Bring along a rubber mallet or plastic mallet to help set the poles into the bank.
If its flatheads that I’m after then live bait is the only thing getting hooked on the bank lines. Even channel cats are highly predatory and will consume everything from bluegills to bullheads. If you can get a hold of live bullheads then I strongly recommend using those. Bullheads in the 5-9 inch range are preferred. They are hardy on the hook and keep well in bait tanks versus other baitfish. If bullheads aren’t an option then big bluegills, green sunfish, large chubs and medium sized suckers are also good bait.
There is just something about bullheads though that really produce over anything else I use. I had a buddy that worked for the DNR Fisheries in Clear Lake, IA and they had about a fifteen pound flatty in their tank at the station. He said you could throw sunfish and yellow bass in there on any day and the flathead would only pick a few off here and there when it got hungry, but as soon as you dropped a bullhead in there the flathead would instantly go on the attack. I’ve heard the reason is not just food driven but also a territorial response given the presence of another catfish species. Bullheads are also notorious nest raiders of flathead eggs so the old mudcats have good reason to attack.
Keep It Legal
It’s always good to check out the most recent fishing regulations given out by the Iowa DNR but for those of you that are new to the sport of ditty pole fishing, here are some key points to stay legal. You may not use more than five bank poles per licensed angler and no more than fifteen hooks total between those five lines. The sets must be checked every 24 hours and to be honest, checking them every 10-12 hours will not only keep fresh bait on the hooks but also increase the number of fish brought in. Just avoid checking them too frequently to avoid spooking fish.
You cannot set bank lines in public lakes or ponds and some designated streams and rivers as described in the regulations do not allow this style of fishing all together in certain stretches or in their entire reach. Each pole must also be clearly labeled with the licensed angler’s name and address. What I like to do in this case is to wrap some duct tape on the pole and label with a sharpie, touching up the label as needed.
Bank polling is a fun and different way to tackle the river and really catch some big fish. It takes a little effort up front to get bait and scout out good locations but the effort is well worth the reward when it all comes together. Remember to focus on structure late in the summer and fall and always be careful navigating the river. Good luck on the water!