May/June 2010Cane Pole Days by Jim Casada
The humble cane pole may evoke memories of days gone by, but it's still an effective choice for many freshwater fish species and tactics.
The image is as enduring as it is appealing - something straight from a Norman Rockwell cover on an old Saturday Evening Post. A bare-footed, freckle-faced country lad walks down a dusty Dixie lane with a bait bucket in his hand and a cane pole over his shoulder. Headed for a favorite fishing hole, he's as carefree as a milkweed spore riding a summertime thermal current. Those fortunate enough to have enjoyed such experiences have fond memories of simpler times and simpler pleasures.
Or perhaps when you think of cane poles another image comes to mind: a battered old car or pickup truck traveling down a country road with the passenger-side window open and the tips of several cane poles, all of them decorated with colorful bobbers, sticking out of the window. Inside the vehicle the passengers, perhaps a father and his children or a bunch of friends, smile as they think of good times to come at the old fishing hole. Sadly, I must acknowledge it has been years since sights of this sort have treated my eyes and mind. Still, this is offset by the glad realization that it is still possible to open a window into this world we have largely lost.
You don't need to drink from the fountain of youth to sample and savor cane pole days. Cane poles remain as functional, and as much fun, as they ever were. With that squarely in mind, let's look at some of the ways in which today's fisherman can successfully ply this simple and satisfying angling tool, starting with the way cane poles have been most frequently used over the years - for bank fishing.
A cane pole, whether fished from shore or boat, is deployed using a simple, graceful motion in which the angler lobs the baited hook (and usually, though not always, the bobber affixed to the line above) to a likely spot in the water. With some practice, this can be accomplished with remarkable precision. The only real limitation is reach - the fisherman can get his bait in the water no farther than a distance just over twice the length of the pole. But offsetting this shortcoming is the fact that a cane pole with a short length of line hanging from its end is ideal for poking into tight places, such as underneath docks and piers, along shorelines with overhanging brush, or in the midst of log jams or flooded timber.
Bedding bream, for example, are notorious for spawning in places where a cast from a rod and reel faces every likelihood of getting hung up. But the length of a cane pole lets the fisherman hold it above the mess and drop his cricket or red worm precisely where it needs to be. When there is a bite, he hoists the fish directly into the air rather than having to weave and work it through limbs, stumps or other impediments.
Cane poles also lend themselves well to being "set;" that is to say, having the butt end jammed into the mud or sand and propped up in a forked stick. This allows the angler to tend or watch over multiple set cane poles, lined up along the bank. Often this can be done while the angler also wields a hand-held pole. It is a fairly simple matter, especially after one has done it a few times, to lay a pole down and rush excitedly to a "set" pole that is getting a bite. If perchance there are simultaneous bites, and this sometimes happens with bedding bream, spawning crappie and summertime catfish, the ensuing chaos is just part of the fun. There will be time enough to deal with tangled lines and crossed poles once some fish have been landed or lost.
A variant on this multiple-pole approach is crappie fishing utilizing what is often described as a spider rig. The name comes from the arrangement of poles extending from all sides of an anchored boat, giving it an appearance similar to a spider's web. The typical approach is to set each pole with the bait (often a minnow) at a different depth. Then, once the depth at which a school of crappie is holding has been determined, all the poles can be adjusted accordingly.
Spider-rig fishing involves the same restful, relaxing ease as idling on a shady bank waiting for a bobber to bounce, but there are other cane pole techniques that involve plenty of energy expenditure. A cane pole works wonderfully for warm-weather wading in creeks, or even in sizeable rivers such as the Catawba or the Broad, where there are shoal areas with depths of just a foot or two. The fisherman eases along, lobbing his bait or lure into likely spots, then deftly working it along with the current or into inaccessible places that might be all but unreachable with a spin-casting rig. This can be done with a float or by "tight lining," where the angler maintains a taut line as the sinker bounces along the bottom of the stream. In slower water, a slight lift and then drop of the pole's tip suffices to change the hook's position. This technique works for all sorts of species - trout in mountain streams, channel catfish in shoals in the heat of summer, panfish in deeper pools or slow areas of creeks, or even bass.
Perhaps the most interesting of all cane pole techniques involves the type of fishing known colloquially as "doodlesocking" or "jiggerpoling." This approach, which was likely pioneered by Native Americans, involves using a cane of appreciably greater length than normal - as long as twenty feet if the individual handling the pole is strong enough. A short, strong length of monofilament is attached to the business end of the pole, and a large surface plug, jig-and-pig rig, plastic worm, or actual piece of a pig in the form of pork rind is used as bait.
The word "finesse" does not figure into the doodlesocker's vocabulary. The technique involves getting a lure into or near heavy cover - along shorelines, amidst flooded brushpiles, near lily pads or moss beds, amongst log jams, or at the edge of riprap - and then making a ruckus by vigorously thrashing the lure back and forth. One beauty of this method is that you can keep the lure precisely were you want it, imparting back-and-forth action all the while, for an extended period of time. This is impossible with cast-and-retrieve outfits. Strikes from bass, the target quarry with this technique, are often splashy or even of the dramatic commode-flushing variety. Expect misses, but often you can put the lure back in place and the fish will return for another go-round.
Once a fish is hooked, it is not played in the traditional se nse, but rather pulled straight to the boat using a hand-over-hand grip on the pole. Doodlesocking is pretty much a two-man operation, with one individual wielding the cane pole while the other carefully and quietly maneuvers a boat or canoe, always trying to be just the right distance from the spot being worked by the fisher. It can be quite effective for night fishing, especially in times near a full moon when there is enough light to allow anglers to see the spots they want to fish; and because of the necessity of getting pretty close, the technique is more effective when water is murky or has a bit of color than when it is crystal clear.
From fishing on hot, lazy "dog days" while half-dozing in the shade to holding court in the middle of a spider rig, from the excitement of jiggerpoling to the delights of wading a creek, the worthy cane pole has much to offer. With a cane pole in hand you can touch base with the past while enjoying a full measure of angling pleasure in the present.