Out There: Yo-yoing for cats with 'Toothpick'

Billy "Toothpick" Blakeley nets a channel cat caught on a yo-yo. 

Last summer, Billy "Toothpick" Blakeley reminded me how much fun playing with yo-yos can be.

We were supposed to be catching the giant bluegills inhabiting Tennessee's Reelfoot Lake.

Unfortunately, the bluegills played hard to get.

After a long, almost-fishless morning, I suggested to Toothpick — a fishing guide at Blue Bank Resort — that we do something different.

"How 'bout yo-yos?" he inquired.

"What?" I asked.

"Yo-yos," he said. "Let's go yo-yoing."

Don't misunderstand. Toothpick wasn't talking about walking the dog or doing a sleeper with a Duncan.

In the South, if a grown man asks you to go yo-yoing, he's not asking you to play with a kid's toy. In this region, adults probably yo-yo a lot more than kids nowadays.

The difference is, the kids are playing and the adults are fishing, although there are some folks who maintain the two are one and the same.

In fishing parlance, yo-yo is a nickname for the Automatic Fishing Reel, or Auto-Fisher, a neat little mechanical device patented on July 12, 1949, by John W. White Jr., a native of Arkansas.

White had the notion that if a fisherman can use 10 times as many hooks, chances are he can catch 10 times as many fish. Multi-hook trotlines weren't to his liking, because they are too restrictive. He preferred to pick several individual hotspots and fish all of them at once; so using individual fishing units was the only answer.

White's original prototype incorporated the spring-loaded end of an old window shade. It consisted of a carbon-steel spring, a galvanized-steel reel, a ratchet and a body to hold it all together.

Curiously, the only important change over the years came when White began painting Auto-Fishers fluorescent orange so they could be spotted more easily at a distance.

The Auto-Fisher's "yo-yo" nickname makes sense when you see one in action. A length of nylon line is stored on the spring-loaded reel. The line runs through a metal ear with a hole in it, and a snap swivel and hook are placed on the line's end.

If you pull on the line's end, the reel turns and line comes out. If you release the line, it snaps back, rewound on the spool by the action of the spring. The line stops rewinding when the swivel becomes seated against the metal ear.

Yo-yos usually are hung singly from tree limbs, docks, poles or other stable objects above the water. The hook is baited first, then line is pulled off the retractable spool, and a catch, or trigger, is set in a notch on the spool to hold the line at the preferred depth.

When a fish takes the bait, the catch is released, and the spring tension pulls the line tight. This sets the hook in the fish's mouth. The fish is then fighting the spring, and it is eventually worn down. The spring tension can be set at hard, medium or light. The yo-yoer comes around periodically to remove his catch and reset the lines.

With the help of two friends, Toothpick and I set out 75 yo-yos. Reelfoot Lake provides an ideal setting for yo-yo fishing, thanks to the abundance of cypress trees growing out in the lake.

Each cypress has low-hanging branches where the yo-yos can be attached, and because the trees grow in clusters, you can set dozens of yo-yos where they all can be watched.

Toothpick prefers night crawlers or other earthworms above other baits.

"Small channel cats are abundant in Reelfoot," he told me. "And experience has shown me that worms are as good a bait as any when you're after small cats for the dinner table.

"You can buy a couple of hundred worms at any bait store for a pretty reasonable price, and that's plenty when you're fishing a few dozen yo-yos."

Select your bait based on the type of catfish you want to catch.

Worms are excellent for small channel cats, but equally productive baits include chicken liver, catalpa worms, crawfish, stinkbaits and minnows. Live fish baits, such as minnow, goldfish and small sunfish, are best for flatheads. Blue cats fall for cut shad or herring.

Toothpick and I tied each yo-yo to a branch near the water, baited the hook, then stripped off enough line to keep the baits four feet or so beneath the water.

Although the swivels at each line's end were ample to weight the baits we used, some yo-yo fishermen add big split shot or other weights to keep their baits down, particularly when fishing areas with current.

In the cypress groves we fished, baits placed nearest each tree trunk produced best. Initially, some yo-yos were placed near the trunk, others at the ends of branches several feet away from the trunk.

When we determined that in-close yo-yos were producing more cats, we moved the outer devices closer to the trunks.

"Just because you have a lot of hooks in the water, doesn't mean you're going to catch a lot of catfish," Toothpick said. "It's important to place each hook in a spot where catfish are likely to be feeding.

"Experimenting with different presentations can help you determine the best spots on a particular day, but it's important to learn the specific types of cover and structure catfish prefer in order to be a successful yo-yo fisherman time and time again. If you place your rigs in fishless water, you won't catch fish, simple as that."

At times, you may be able to place and set all your yo-yos before the catfish start biting. But at other times, you'll be setting one out when you hear a catfish fighting the line on another one you already baited. Toothpick and I experienced the latter. Before we had placed all 75 of our yo-yos, we already had caught 10 nice channel cats.

"It's important to monitor your yo-yos closely in order to avoid exceeding the creel limit," Toothpick said. "And you need to keep track of them for other reasons, too.

"An unattended yo-yo is a hazard to fishermen and boaters, and, if left unchecked, many fish are hooked and die, a real waste. Yo-yo fishermen can help eliminate opposition to this enjoyable sport by removing their catch as soon as possible and taking all their yo-yos with them when they leave."

When Toothpick fishes with yo-yos, he tracks those he has out by several methods:

"First, I try to set all my yo-yos along a straight line course — along a river bank, along the edge of a tree line, etc.," he told me.

"That way I don't have to look all over the place for my sets. I follow a straight line from one end of my sets to the other, then back again. Each yo-yo is placed in sight of the one before it. And each time I run my yo-yo line, I count the devices to be sure none has been missed."

A splotch of fluorescent paint sprayed on each yo-yo helps immensely when you're trying to spot them, or you can tie a small piece of flagging tape to the end of each branch on which a yo-yo is suspended. When you're finished fishing, count your yo-yos again to be sure none are missing. Never leave a yo-yo behind.

Yo-yos are illegal in some states. In other states, there are numerous restrictions on yo-yo fishing. In my home state of Arkansas, for example, it is illegal to suspend more than one yo-yo from any horizontal line, wire, limb or support. It also is unlawful to leave yo-yos unattended (out of sight or hearing), except from sunset to sunrise when each yo-yo is clearly marked with the name and address of the user. Always know your local regulations, and abide by them.

The popularity of yo-yos is easy to understand. Many fishermen use them to stock their freezers when the fishing is at its best. Lots of fish can be taken quickly with yo-yos, and, sometimes, time is of the essence.

Using yo-yos is a good way to gather the makings for a fish fry, especially when only one angler is responsible for obtaining the supply.

Best of all, yo-yo fishing is pure, unadulterated fun. "You can't walk the dog with one of these yo-yos," Toothpick said. "But you can catch the cat."

Try it yourself and see.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net