For countless catfish anglers across the continent, cast nets are critical in the quest to gather fresh baitfish for a variety of live- and deadbait presentations. As with any other type of tackle or gear, options abound. Likewise, choosing a net that fits your needs and the conditions at hand can make the difference between enjoying fruitful bait-gathering expeditions or frustration.
Chad Ferguson of North Texas Catfish Guide Service is no stranger to cast nets. The veteran guide routinely wields a net to collect shad for trips on Lone Star fisheries near the Dallas/Fort Worth area, including Lake Ray Roberts, Lewisville, and Eagle Mountain. "I use cast nets every day to catch bait," he says, "mainly lake-run gizzard shad and other forms of cutbait, such as drum and carp."
Intimate knowledge of baitfish location and behavior on his milk run of honey holes allows Ferguson to confidently schedule bait-collection chores for the morning of a trip. "If shad are hard to come by, however, such as during winter, I might go out the night before just to be sure I'm able to collect bait," he says. "But it's generally a simple, straightforward process to boat enough bait for a day on the water."
Cast Nets By Design
In a time-honored design used for thousands of years, the cast net is basically a circular net with weights positioned around the edge. When properly thrown — or cast — the net expands and sinks in an open fashion, collecting baitfish on its descent. When the net hits bottom or at the desired depth, the handline is pulled to draw the net closed and the catch is hauled to the surface.
It sounds easy, and with practice it can be — especially under the right conditions. The presence of weeds, wood, or rocks presents a challenge, as does deep water. Fortunately, Ferguson finds ways to reap a baitfish harvest anyway.
"Choosing the right net is a critical first step," he says. "Too many anglers run down to the local big box store and buy the first cast net they see. Unfortunately, many times they end up with an undersized net with inferior materials or poor construction that doesn't work well."
Common choices of material include nylon and monofilament. "Most nets are made of nylon, which is thicker and sinks more slowly than mono," he explains. "While it's not a huge issue in depths of 7 feet or less, the deeper you go, the more problematic it becomes. Mono is also less visible, so I recommend it over nylon."
Cast nets are available in various diameters — referring to the overall span of the net. Ferguson recommends the largest net allowed by local laws (which vary, so check before you buy). "In Texas we can use up to 7-foot nets, so that's what I go with," he says. "Eight feet is better where legal. The amount of water you cover with a large net versus a 3- or 4-footer makes all the difference. Larger nets also are better in deep water, since all nets tend to close slightly as they fall, because the lead line is heavier than the rest of the net."
Mesh size is also key. Ferguson avoids 1/4-inch-mesh nets because they sink slowly and catch tiny baitfish. "These are for catching ghost minnows in shallow water," he says.
Conversely, 3/8-inch mesh is a good all-around choice for catching shad and other baitfish of a variety of sizes, while 5/8- or 1-inch mesh excels for pursuing large baitfish in deep water.
Weighting is another consideration. "A 3/8-inch-mesh net with .75 pounds of weight per radius foot (weights are on the lead line that runs the outside circumference of the net) is fine in shallow water, though you catch a lot of undersized 'button' shad," he says. "I prefer a 1/2-inch mesh with 1 pound of weight per foot most of the year, and upgrade to a 5/8-inch mesh with 1.5 pounds of weight per foot when targeting big shad in deep water."
In depths of 30 feet or more, Ferguson also recommends adding tape to the net. "Taped nets have some type of tape or webbing around the net in or above the lead line, which slows down the outside of the net as it's sinking, keeping it from closing," he says, noting that commercial options are available, though some anglers tape their own nets.
Before taking a new net on the water, he preps it for surefire deployment. "I soak the net overnight in a cooler filled with hot water and fabric softener," he says. "Then I rinse it and lay it on a flat surface, fully open, to dry. I also trim the monofilament tag ends off the outside of the bottom of the net to reduce tangles, and superglue the remaining stubs so the knots don't come out."
To maximize cast-net success, Ferguson recommends taking time to learn how to properly cast the net. "Learn to throw it in a perfect circle to cover as much water as possible," he says. "If your 8-foot net only opens halfway, you might as well throw a 4-footer." To master the craft, he advises, "Watching videos, reading how-to articles, and then getting out and practicing until you get it right. And avoid gimmicks like throwing rings and other devices marketed as throwing aids. There's no substitute for learning how to do it the right way."
Mastering the throw is only part of the battle. "After the net hits the water, maintain modest tension on the line while letting the rope slip through your hand," Ferguson says.
"When the net hits bottom, immediately give the rope a solid pull to close it and begin taking in line. If you let the net sit on bottom too long, shad have a chance to escape."
To limit tangles, Ferguson coils the handline on the retrieve. "This keeps you from having rope all over the deck, which is unsafe and prone to tangles," he explains. "Plus, it allows you to quickly throw the net again." To further maintain order, he promptly deposits caught shad in a bait bucket, rather than scattering them around the bottom of the boat.
For safety, he advises maintaining a sure footing — especially on slick decks — and avoiding tightly tying the handline to your wrist. "A loose loop or elastic cuff is fine, but a tight knot could prove fatal if the net tangles on timber or other water hazards and pulls you overboard," he warns. Some anglers don't use a wrist loop; rather they tie the end of the handline to a cleat or another spot on the outside of the deck, so they're free from the hand rope once it's deployed, and the net's secured before retrieving it by hand.
Chad Ferguson, 817/889-4402, catfishedge.com.