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catfish hunter

Setlining cliff notes.

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Some of this has already been hit by other posts, but I thought I’d go a little more in depth on my methods. During the right times of year, one of the best ways to catch and preserve food in a survival situation is by fishing. Fish can be kept contained and alive easier than most other animals until they are needed for food, and can be caught while a survivor is off doing other tasks.

I learned my fishing skills throughout a lifetime of catching pan fish, bass, and catfish in Midwestern ponds, streams, and rivers. I have devoted many hours to catching fish, reading about how to catch fish, and keeping notes on how to catch fish. I have always had a great passion for the outdoors, and especially catching and releasing trophy catfish. I have learned to be successful with my methods normally catching a few over 50lbs each year. These methods can be effective enough to have a major impact on the population fairly quickly. When doing this as a hobby I keep only a few fish for the freezer and release the rest, especially the largest mature fish that carry most of the eggs. Survival is different, but it’s something to think about if you go out to practice.

One of the first things to understand is that absentee fishing, or setlining is not a 100% prospect. During the prime pre-spawn season setting lines on one of the better catfish rivers in the Midwest I average about a 40% catch ratio, meaning that 40% of my hooks will have a fish on the following morning if I set my lines right before dark. Some fish can come unhooked, others can be stolen by larger fish or turtles, lines can become tangled or broken, 40% is doing very well. That is being done with a modern boat/motor, ideal sized bait caught from areas up to 40 miles from the river, and fishing a 10 mile stretch of the best river during the best time of year. Setlining for survival will be a smaller scale and tougher prospect, but some basic knowledge of fish habits can help tip the odds in your favor.


The first thing I’d suggest is learning the common species of fish that live in the area you plan to be fishing and their traits. Some of the most important things to know are as follows.

1. Preferred food items - some will be seasonal like late summer grasshoppers, etc.

2. Preferred water conditions – fast/slow flowing, clear/muddy, shallow/deep, etc.

3. Preferred water temperature – learn what water temperature the fish become active in

4. Spawning times – different fish can become very easy or difficult to catch during the spawn and this should impact your fishing strategy.


Once you know what is available to fish for you can start putting together a survival fishing kit that fits the area. Between my girlfriend and my BOB our kits include:


1. Hooks of sizes and shapes to fit the species in your area. Standard J hooks are ok, but I seldom use them on setlines. My hook-up percentages have been better with circle or kahle hooks. Circle hooks especially wide gap circles are very effective on setlines. The fish closes it’s mouth over the bait and then swims off. When the eye of the hook reaches the corner of the fishes mouth it turns sideways to slide through the gap in the mouth and sets the hook tip under the fishes jaw allowing for a very solid hook-up that seldom shakes loose. I always like to have at least 4 dozen small J-hooks for panfish or bait, 3 dozen assorted hooks between 2/0 and 4/0, mostly circles and kahles, and a few heavy wire 8/0 circles for a survival kit in my area. The big hooks are for large catfish. One such fish can be kept alive until needed and then eaten and dried to supply several meals.


2. Swivels that can be tied into the line to prevent twisting. I prefer steel ball bearing swivels rated 1/3 heavier than the cord I will use for setlines. If you buy cheaper brass swivels buy them rated for double the strength of your line. I carry both 2 and 3 way swivels but don’t mess with the snap swivels, knots are stronger in my experience.


3. Cord & line. I like to use braided nylon cord for my set-lines for catfish. It’s tough, durable, and abrasion resistant. You can’t carry to much of it, what isn’t used for lines works extremely well for an unlimited number of other uses outdoors. Heavy mono works for smaller fish, but I go for the overkill in my area, don’t want to lose a hook to a big cat. I usually carry a full roll rated at 142lb breaking strength and a mix of pieces of 225lb and 380lb test. I prefer it to paracord for most things, but still carry both. I also carry a 300yd spool of 65lb test braided “superline” for use with the smaller hooks. It’s a good idea to pack some repair needles with this cord also for gear repair or emergency sutures. The 380lb cord makes excellent boot laces also.


4. Light wire. I don’t like to pack fishing weights or floats due to their bulk and weight. Light wire can be used to tie natural materials to a 3 way swivel or your line for this purpose. The same wire works for snaring squirrels or other small animals making it multi-purpose. It can also be used on making skewer hooks from wood or bone.


5. Assorted lures. These are mainly for catching bait or panfish. I stay away from anything with a soft plastic body that can melt. I pack a few in-line spinners, crappie jigs, blade baits, and spoons in smaller sizes. I look for ones with a fairly compact body and stout wire hook. Setlines don’t have the same shock absorption as modern rod and reel combos so the hooks need to hold up to more stress. I try to pick lures that will look lively in current or under a float in the wind so they can be used for absentee fishing in a pinch. For example a blade bait or in-line spinner will flash in a brisk current, or a crappie jig will bounce under a float on a windy pond without a fisherman providing the action.


6. A 3ft length of twisted nylon cord. Gar are a fish with a hard bony mouth that can be very hard to hook. They are notorious stealers of live or fresh dead bait. Their fine needle-like teeth can sometimes be snagged by the fine fibers of the twisted cord when un-raveled for 3” or so to hang over the bait. Tying a small piece of this into your hook eye gives you a chance of catching them and removing them from the fishing hole.


7. 1 dozen 18” coated cable leaders. Fish with sharp teeth or turtles can be caught with these where they would break normal line. 18” is also long enough to leave a loop big enough to use one as a rabbit snare if needed, where a 12” snare is not.


8. A fish gig point. A gig point large enough to spear and hold a decent size fish is cheap, effective, and lightweight. Wooden gigs can be made but they primarily pin a fish down where these penetrate and hold the fish. A wooden handle can always be fashioned but the head is well worth packing. It can be used for other things also, a rabbit to far to reach under a brushpile, frogs, etc.


9. 4” Rapala fillet knife. These only weigh 2.3oz sheath included. They are extremely handy when processing fish, boning game, or trying to slice meat thin enough to dry plus they are a handy little knife that’s easy to keep sharp. Also you should include a sharpener somewhere in your gear that will handle hooks as well as your knives.


Kits should be tweaked to fit your area, but this should get everyone started thinking on the right track. I have smaller kits for short term, but this one provides more options and resources for long term. If space isn’t a concern an assortment of minnow traps and larger fish traps can go along way toward keeping you in bait and small fish. The entrails of previously caught fish can be used to bait them, or canned dog/catfood works excellent also. A bucket or other container that allows water to flow freely through it while containing small fish is another excellent item to have to keep your bait/fish alive.

Edited by catfish hunter

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Enough of gear, now where do we try to set the lines? Species have different habits, but these tips work on most predatory fish. Let’s start with moving water. All streams or rivers regardless of scale follow a basic pattern of riffle/hole/run. This means you will have shallow often narrow area where the water flows quickly over a harder bottom followed by a deeper hole where the fast water hits a softer bottom and cuts it deeper over time. The run is the mid-depth area between a hole and the next riffle downstream. This can be very easy to see on small streams or rivers and harder to see on big rivers, but it exists everywhere. For our purposes consider the middle of the hole the bedroom where fish rest, and the upper end of the hole, plus the lower end of the riffle as the kitchen. Fish move upstream to try to intercept food or smaller fish coming down through the riffle into the hole. When setting my lines I look for a current break near the head of the hole where a fish can lie in slower water watching for food to be swept by in the faster water. I try to set my lines just on the slack side of the current break where the bait will not be washed off the hook or out of natural juices as fast but the fish will still find it. Any large rock, log, etc can create a current break. Another area that can be very good is any large logjam or similar structure in the middle of the hole. Even resting fish can be enticed to bite and there is a good chance many of the larger fish in the hole will live in the logjam. If the logjam is on an outside bend of a deeper hole that is ideal. Smaller fish will use the tight spaces in the branches of the logjam as protection from larger fish, and larger fish will lie in the shaded areas around the trunks or larger limbs.

Standing water is a little trickier in some cases. The first thing I look for is areas cleaned out along the shore for spawning nests, ripples caused by feeding fish, or fish themselves to make sure there are fish in the water I’m checking out. Then I try to look cover such as wood or rocks and especially for areas where two types of cover meet, like a weedline/submerged tree, rock bottom/stump, etc as a primary target. Any place where water comes into or leaves the body of water can be a good target. A point or thinner finger of water coming off the main body can also be a good area as it funnels fish into it. It can be especially good if there is a narrow channel to concentrate fish traveling between two areas. On a round featureless pond I just space lines around it to try to catch fish cruising the shoreline for food.


Types of Setlines.

All setlines should consist of the same basic parts. From the bottom up you have the hook, leader (usually around 1ft of cord), swivel, weight, mainline, and shock absorber. I won’t go into what type of knot to tie on each connection, there are many different knots that can be used and as many opinions on which is best. My advice is to learn a couple basic ones very well. The Palomar knot is a good one and you can see pictures of how to make it on Wikipedia. Learn to tie your favored knot in the dark by feel.

The leader will allow your bait to move freely below the swivel and weight. The weight keeps your bait down below the surface and out of the sight of land scavengers that may try to grab it. The most important part is probably the shock absorber. This needs to have enough spring to keep the hook from ripping free of the fishes mouth while having enough strength to keep it from escaping. Sometimes a natural springy limb can be found hanging in a good location over the water, but most of the time a sapling will need to be cut. I like a sapling of dogwood or some other springy wood with a base stout enough to push or drive into the bank and a tip light enough to provide the shock absorption. Length can vary with the set, just decide exactly where you want the bait to hang and adjust the angle or length of the pole to make it hang exactly in that spot. Fish with a softer mouth or lots of light membrane will need a springier pole to prevent them from escaping. Even with that they can often escape a unless they swallow the hook. I like to tie my line around the middle of the pole and then use another piece of cord to tie it again at the tip. That way if a fish breaks the tip off the pole, the line tied to the thicker part at the center will still hold him. I also make sure to cut my lines long enough to work in many situations so I’m not adding or cutting cord when I use the same line on another pole later. I use a stick or weight tied to a piece of my cord to make sure the area around the bankpole is clear of obstructions that can snag or fray my line or that the fish can wrap it around, making sure to check the whole radius the fish can cover pulling on the line is clear. Trotlines or other types of setlines can be effective but they require a lot of bait up in a small area. I prefer to spread my bait out over a wider area to improve my odds. Finding enough bait is a difficult task more often than not, so I hate to put that much in one spot unless it’s really proven. I won’t recommend any certain number of lines to put out it really depends on how many spots you can find good enough to justify having a line, and how much bait you can come up with. When targeting trophy catfish I sometimes will put 10 hooks in a prime spot within 50yards of each other and then go 3-4 miles before hanging another one. A spot that produces fish is often worth another hook or two nearby and a spot that strikes out for 2 or 3 days in a row should be moved.


Bait is an issue to regional to cover well. This is why it’s important to know what fish in your area eat naturally. Scavenging fish like many catfish can often be caught off the entrails or unused parts of another fish. Live or cut minnows are a prime bait in many areas. Any insects or crayfish you can capture are a good bet as well. Grasshoppers can be a prime bait in late summer when they grow larger. If you can get them, live minnows or crayfish will tempt about as many different sizes and species of fish as anything for a good bet as a universal bait. The small jigs or spinners in the kit can often be used on an improvised pole or handline to catch smaller fish for bait. If no bait can be caught it is worth trying to use the lures as a setline in the ways mentioned above in the part about what to carry. This isn’t an exact science and anything you can do to make a lure flash or dance around has the potential to tempt a passing fish.

Once the lines are set it’s important not to stay right by them unless you are quiet and still. Never let your shadow spread out over the water if you can prevent it either. One of setlines greatest advantages is that they can work without anyone around making noise, splashing, or otherwise spooking fish. I like to check them every few hours, removing fish and re-baiting if possible. The longer a hooked fish stays on the line the better it’s chances of escape. Every 2-3 hours, or when a natural break occurs in your other tasks is a good general rule.

Fish that don’t need to be eaten right away can be kept alive for quite a while in a pool or trap. As long as the pool you choose to store them in has flowing water to keep oxygen coming to the fish and their waste leaving they will live for a long time. Bait can be kept alive in this way also. Remember though you are not the only thing that eats fish. Take precautions to make sure a turtle or raccoon for example can’t easily come raid your personal fish pond.

Even the smallest Altoid tin survival kits I have include material for a half dozen basic minimal setlines and snares. They can be made in such a small package and for so little weight it doesn’t make sense not to have them. The kit I carry in my hunting daypack that even goes on high country hunts can provide includes 6 hooks and line for them, plus a dozen cable leader snares and only weighs 1.2oz.

Setlining is a lot like trapping, practice makes perfect. It takes a lot of time to develop the knowledge of the animal or fish habits in your area depending upon the season or weather conditions. Like trapping, it’s a great skill to have in your playbook as it can provide food with relatively little input or expense of calories. And finally like trapping, the most important part is the knowledge that can be stored in your head. Everything but that can be improvised if necessary. Once you have the knowledge you can never lose it or leave it at home.

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