Pole lines illustrate the paradox of catfishing. At a time when excellent rods, reels, and other tackle components are being manufactured specifically for catfishing, many catmen continue to fish with the same crude catfish pole rigs used by catmen of generations past. And at a time when research into the basic nature and sensory capabilities of catfish is being used to develop new baits and bait presentations, we continue to learn as much from traditional catmen as from laboratory researchers about how, when, and where to catch big cats.
Anglers who have never seen a pole line in action usually are surprised by their effectiveness. Pole lines often are the tool of choice for setliners who target big flatheads. Trotlines offer a numbers advantage, but are quickly fouled by the debris carried by rising rivers. Loglines and limblines also are effective, but usually require a piece of inner tube spliced into the line to prevent a large fish from tearing free from the hook. The long flexible poles used by most pole liners allow precise bait placement and are strong and flexible enough to hold a big fish.
Setlines of all kinds work because they’re patient. No fidgeting hands to retrieve baits and cast to a likelier spot. No sinkers to drop on the floor of the boat. No blazing fires or lanterns to illuminate the surface of the water. A pole line suspends a lively baitfish a few feet beneath the surface where it stays put and vulnerable all night. All that a prowling flathead senses is an easy meal. Feeding catfish usually take such baits so aggressively that they hook themselves against the steady pressure of a short heavy line.
In southeastern Iowa, some old-school pole liners have a reputation for catching big cats—seasoned catmen like Elmer Staats, Jr. and Duane O’Donnell who fish the Iowa River below its confluence with the Cedar; and Joe Kauffman, a name that strikes fear in the hearts of Skunk River flatheads. During their 70 years on the water, these catmen have devised dozens of refinements to the basic pole line set, refinements that can help you catch more flatheads, whether you fish with a pole and line or a rod and reel.
The heart of Joe Kauffman’s pole rig is a leader fashioned from two pieces of heavy snare wire. “I use a fence crimping tool to fasten a two-foot piece of wire to one rung of a 6/0 barrel swivel,” Kauffman says, “then I crimp a one-foot length of wire to the other rung. I slide a 3- or 4-ounce egg sinker onto the longer piece of wire to keep the bait anchored in current, and I crimp a line attachment loop on the free end. I finish the leader by crimping a 9/0 Mustad Sea Mate hook on the end of the shorter wire.
“I fished without a leader for several years, but lost a few nice flatheads when they broke my line by rubbing it across stumps and rocks. Wire is more abrasion resistant than any line, and it doesn’t seem to bother the fish. The best line I’ve found, by the way, is the drapery nylon my wife uses to hang curtains. It’s heavier than 500-pound test and holds up better than other nylon twines I’ve used.”
Kauffman uses 8- to 14-foot lengths of ironwood saplings for poles, testing each pole by trying to bend it double. “My biggest flathead—a 64-pound 13-ounce Skunk River beauty that held the state record for a short time—pulled the tip of my pole a foot beneath the surface,” Kauffman says. “That pole held, but I’ve also lost a few poles. When I find a prime big-fish spot I may attach a single line to a pair of poles for added strength. Whittling the base of the pole to a sharp point also makes driving the pole a foot or two into a clay or sand bank easier. Make sure the tip of the pole is at about a 30-degree angle to the water for maximum flexibility.”
When Duane O’Donnell first started fishing the Iowa River two decades ago, he used 50-pound-test throw lines and 6/0 hooks. “Back then I baited with nightcrawlers and crayfish,” O’Donnell says, “but caught mostly channel cats and carp. When I switched to willow pole rigs baited with bluegills, I started catching more flatheads. Since then, I’ve continued to refine my rigs, and my catch rate continues to improve. Each time a fish straightens out one of my hooks, for example, I switch to something stronger. I’m now using 9/0 stainless steel hooks and haven’t lost one yet.”
“I’ve also traded my willow limbs for 6- to 8-foot lengths of half-inch PVC pipe,” Kauffman continues. “I saw a piece of PVC swept against the bank while I was floating down the river a few summers ago and thought it would make a fine pole—strong and flexible; easy to plant into the bank, and best of all, buoyant. I was right on the first two counts, but they don’t float.
“I now shoot styrofoam into the center and seal both ends of my poles so they float when dropped into the water. Then I drill a hole about 4 inches from the end of the pipe, run the line though the hole, and tie an overhand knot to anchor the line. Finally, I attach a big screw eye about two inches from the end of the pole. This keeps the line from unraveling when a fish pulls the tip of the pole into the water. The eye also lets me roll excess line around the pole to set baits at the right depth.
“The change that’s had the biggest affect, though, was my choice of bait. During the years I baited my lines with bluegills, flatheads probably comprised about 60 percent of my catch. The rest were mostly channel cats. But when I started using small bullheads—which Iowa law allows if they’re caught by rod and reel in accordance with harvest limits—flatheads accounted for almost 100 percent of my catch. I run a 9/0 hook through the tail muscle of a 6- to 7-inch bullhead—that’s the firmest portion of the fish, so it holds well and keeps the hook away from the bait’s vital organs. The bait is free to swim around when a big flathead approaches and often will remain alive on the hook for several days.
“I keep my terminal rigging as simple as possible. I attach an 8/0 barrel swivel to the eye of the hook by locking the hook in a vice. Then I bend the eye open enough to get the swivel on and then bend the eye closed. Next I bore out the center of a one- or two-ounce egg sinker, until it’s wide enough to slide on the 175-pound-test braided nylon line I use for my rigs. Then I tie on the hook and swivel and let the sinker slide freely on the line.”
Elmer Staats admits his approach is a little different than most pole liners use, but it has produced lots of flatheads over the years, including several in the 50-pound class. Instead of a limber pole, Staats uses an 8- to 10-foot half-inch steel reinforcement rod. The resulting rig fishes more like a logline, but allows baits to be placed with the precision of a pole line.
“I make my poles by bending a small eye in one end of the steel rod. Then I tie 7 or 8 feet of 500-pound-test twisted nylon line to the eye. Next I tie on a 6/0 or 7/0 stainless steel hook below a 5-ounce river sinker. An overhand knot tied below the sinker about 10 inches above the hook keeps the bait anchored, but allows it to swim around a little and attract prowling flatheads.
“Most avid flathead fishermen know that their favorite quarry likes live fish, but I think nightcrawlers work even better. Problem is, almost every other fish in the river likes nightcrawlers, too. You’re as likely to catch a channel cat or a carp or have your hook stripped clean by a bluegill as to get a flathead on a pole line baited with worms. But I don’t hesitate to use a big gob of crawlers when I’m fishing with a rod and reel, which has produced several flatheads over 30 pounds. For setlines, though, I can’t think of a better bait than a lively green sunfish or a bullhead. Run your hook through the tail and let them work.”
Many anglers consider setlines a numbers game. “Put out enough hooks and anyone can catch fish, they say, easy as hunting squirrels with a 12-gauge. Consistently catching big fish, though, requires an understanding of where and when to put the bait. Joe Kauffman is particularly selective about location, preferring to set baits about 18 inches below the surface over 8 to 10 feet of water near a large snag or eddy—the same spots a rod and reel catman might choose. “A flathead’s eyes are on top of his head,” Kauffman says, “and in midsummer, when I do most of my fishing, a lively bullhead thrashing around on or near the surface in a flathead lair is more than a big fish can resist.”
O’Donnell agrees that the right location is just as critical for catching cats on poles as it is for catching them on rods and reels. “When I start fishing in early summer,” O’Donnell says, “I like to place baits in areas of shallow slack water adjacent to faster and deeper water. My favorite spots are just above or right in the core of a big brushpile. Sometimes I even saw off a few branches so I can drop a bait right into the snag. I also like deep cuts that form behind obstructions like root wads and fallen trees. The mouth of feeder creeks and drainage ditches also can be good, especially during high water. Rough fish tend to congregate at these spots, which in turn attracts hungry flatheads.”
Staats believes that places where flatheads and other fish forage for nightcrawlers are ideal locations for pole sets. “I look for the combination of a steep mud bank near a hole about 15 feet deep,” Staats says. “I can’t prove it, of course, but I can visualize those big flatheads bumping along eroded banks to dislodge worms and other invertebrates. Whatever the reason, these spots do attract and hold flatheads throughout most of the season. I usually set lines in the eddy on the forward edge of these areas, or plant a series of poles along the bank.”
Rod & Reel Adaptations
Those of you who pursue flatheads with rods and reels instead of poles can use the location information and even the rigging methods of the setline boys to catch big cats. As we’ve said, successful setlining often relies on dozens of sets, while at best we’re allowed a couple rods and reels apiece. But success is still a matter of setting the right bait in the right place at the right time. Over the course of a season, a good night with rod and reel is one big fish a night. Deploying rod and reel rigs with poles is a way to increase your odds that some of those fish will be huge.
This system is particularly effective in May and June, the Prespawn Period across most of catfish country. Cats are moving and hungry. Rainfall often raises rivers bankful, and cats are forced to seek the kind of feeding areas targeted by pole liners. Usually, too, not many of these places exist, so plenty of competition arises among the cats that use them. In rivers with flatheads and channel cats, big flatheads dominate the best spots. They feed mostly at night and often near the surface, even though the water’s dingy.
In spots, say no more than 6 feet deep, just set the bait about halfway down. It will naturally spend plenty of time wallowing near the surface. It’s this surface or near-surface frolicking that calls big cats. In deeper areas, just get the bait down a foot or so. Float rigs also suspend baits. But float rigs drift in current and can be moved out of position by an active baitfish. The release rigs developed by In-Fisherman staff members and friends offer anglers the bait-placement advantage of a pole line while letting them hook and land fish with a rod and reel.
*Richard Peterson is a freelance writer and photographer from Columbus Junction, Iowa.