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How To Catch Catfish With Yo-Yos

Phillip Gentry

catfish on limb line

Commercial non-game fishing devices run the gamut from trotlines and limb lines to jugs, baskets, and a variety of nets. One of the lesser known, but locally popular, non-game fishing devices that still sees wide use today is called a yo-yo. 

Yo-Yo fishing is a variation of limb line fishing with a mechanical twist. Between the limb and the line is a spring-loaded retractable reel, similar in principle to the pull-start of a push lawnmower. The line is pulled out and a release stops the coil in the reel from retracting. When a fish takes the bait, it pulls the line, the trigger is released, and the coil winds the line in, both setting the hook and fighting the fish and will often pull a smaller fish right out of the water.

Due to its non-game status in many states, catfish are the most frequently sought target when fishing with yo-yos.

catfishing with yo yo


All species of catfish get lumped together as scavengers when in truth, specific baits all have different appeals depending upon the type of catfish you’re after. It’s a well-known fact among veteran catfish anglers that flathead catfish will turn up their nose at anything other than a freshly cut bait or a whole live bait. Blue catfish tend to be more opportunistic feeders but still depend largely on fresh fish, mussels and crayfish for their diet.
If there is a true scavenger in the group, it’s the channel catfish. But the label “scavenger” is mostly a misnomer, owing largely to the channel catfish’s highly developed olfactory senses. Catfish have olfactory pits on each side of their head. Each pit has two nostrils. Water comes in one nostril and goes out the other. The olfactory pit has folds inside that are lined with sensitive tissue for detecting food. In comparison, a rainbow trout has about 18 folds while a largemouth bass has roughly a dozen. Channel catfish have 140 of these folds in each nostril granting it the capability to detect one part food in 10 billion parts of water. 

Thanks to their sense of smell, channel catfish will eat nearly anything, especially with an odor, so anglers use a variety of smelly baits - minnows, cut shad, and worms, which makes the channel catfish a good target when yo-yo fishing. 

If there is one bait with the potential of outshining the rest when it comes to enticing channel catfish, it’s stink bait. As stink baits get a bad rap from anglers who have never tried them, or possibly never been successful using them, bait manufacturers have attempted to soften the name by rebranding the gooey, peanut butter-like substance as dip baits.  

channel catfish

Dip baits are frequently sold commercially with tackle designed to absorb the paste or at least provide a porous substrate for the bait to adhere to. Dip baits are often sold in small tubs or tubes to minimize the angler’s handling of the bait.  

The best locations for fishing yo-yos are either piers and boat docks or areas with standing timber. The latter is a better choice for anglers wanting to fish numbers of the devices, where permitted by law. The line is attached to an overhead limb and enough line is set to allow the bait to settle in the water column, usually just above the bottom.


In days gone by, many commercially motivated catfishermen would set yo-yos in the same fashion as trotlines and come back later to check them. This practice frequently resulted in the waste and loss of by-catch – smaller catfish and game species that would be pulled out of the water and suffocate.

For this reason, many states have enacting laws requiring anglers fishing with yo-yos to attend these fishing devices at all times. Attend means that the anglers must remain in sight of the yo-yos if the gears are set and baited or set and tripped. Additional regulations may permit the devices to remain unattended for a short period during the middle of the day if the devices are tripped and hooks are not in the water.

catfishing with yo yo


Care and maintenance for yo-yos used for catfishing is pretty simple. It’s best to allow the devices to air dry after use and perhaps apply a thin coat of WD-40 or other spray lubricant to keep the coils from rusting when not in use.

Many anglers tie swivels to the end of the yo-yo line to make it easier to attach lines or use a Styrofoam cooler or pool noodle to wrap lines after use so they don’t get tangled. 

Mossy Oak Store fishing gear

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