By Keith “Catfish” Sutton
The best baits for enticing catfish often are those produced by Mother Nature.
Catfish aren’t finicky. They’ll devour almost anything.
Dead and smelly baits are well-known for attracting hungry cats, including things such as fish guts, shrimp, chicken liver, mussels and stinkbait. Grocery-store baits like bacon, frankfurters and cheese work, too. Even bizarre offerings such Ivory soap, dog food, Spam, blood and bubblegum will entice whiskerfish now and then.
The thing to remember is, if you want to catch lots of fish, you must be selective about the baits you use. Some are decidedly better than others.
The best of the best in my experience are live baits. A forage animal that’s still wiggling and fresh is hard for a cat to refuse. Read local fishing regulations to determine what’s legal, and if restrictions don’t prohibit it, liven up your catfishing with some of these irresistible temptations.
Shad & Herring
When it’s big cats you’re after, nothing beats live fish for bait, and among the various fish you can use, few are as productive as gizzard shad, threadfin shad, skipjack herring, blueback herring and other members of the family.
Using a cast net is one effective method for catching them, so it’s worthwhile to purchase one and learn to use it. One throw often will bring in dozens of shad or herring.
Sabiki rigs also are great tools. These are pre-tied rigs that have a main line from which several dropper lines are attached. At the end of each dropper is a small lure with a tiny hook and a body made of feathers or plastic. A swivel at the main line’s end provides a place to tie a sinker so the rig can be dropped quickly to the bottom. If you place the rig near shad or herring, they’re quick to strike the tiny lures, and it’s not unusual to bring up three or four baitfish at once.
Shad and herring are sensitive and die easily. To keep them healthy, place them in cool, highly oxygenated water. Use a large, round, well-insulated, aerated tank with cool stream or lake water. A gallon of water supports about four large baitfish. Fish that die can be iced for fresh cut-bait.
An egg-sinker rig works great. Put a 1- to 2-ounce egg sinker on your main line and tie a barrel swivel below it. Tie a 3-foot leader to the swivel, and a 3/0 gold Aberdeen hook to the leader. The Aberdeen hook, which has finer wire than most hook types, allows you to hook these baitfish behind the dorsal fin or through the lips without killing them. Fish on bottom near a channel, hump, riprap or other cover or structure, and set your bait clicker to signal pickups. You’ll rarely wait long. Catfish are suckers for these baitfish.
“…if you want to catch lots of fish, you must be selective about the baits you use.”
Another excellent bait for big catfish is a smaller catfish—the bullhead. Bullheads are relished by flathead, blue and channel catfish in many waters where they are common, and have long been used as bait.
In his 1953 book, Catfishin’, Joe Mathers called bullhead baits “excellent, especially for large catfish.
“Use small living forms, 3-6 inches long,” he wrote. “Snip off the barbels, spines and dorsal fin causing the fish to bleed and flounder in the water. They are very tough, easy to keep alive and excellent for use on trot or other set lines. Small bullheads usually can be taken in great numbers with a seine or on hook and line from backwaters, bayous, ponds and small lakes and streams …”
I prefer to catch bullheads on hook and line. They’re suckers for bits of chicken liver or night crawlers fished on bottom. They’ll stay alive for days in a cooler with a little water in the bottom. A good rig is the egg-sinker rig described earlier, but I use a big octopus hook—6/0 to 8/0—that works better to hold the larger, more active bullheads. Run the hook through the baitfish’s lips or the top of its tail, sink the rig and prepare for action.
Live bluegills and green sunfish are hot catfish baits on many waters, especially for large flatheads. Suckers or creek chubs freshly seined from a creek or river also make great catfish bait because they’re very active and extremely hardy. Among bait-store baits, goldfish, fathead minnows and large shiners are hard to beat. Other fish that make good cat baits include small carp, mooneyes, goldeyes, alewives, ciscoes, killifish, madtoms and stonecats. All can be fished in the same manner as shad, herring and bullheads, using a hook appropriate for the size of the bait and the size of the catfish you hope to catch.
Night crawlers and other earthworms are irresistible to catfish, particularly channel cats, small flatheads and small blues. Buy them in bait shops or gather your own by raking through damp leaves in flower beds and woods.
I usually fish worms on a slip-bobber rig that keeps them floating just inches above the bottom. You also can use a hypodermic syringe or special-made worm blower to inflate each worm. A shot of air in the body floats the worms so they’re easily found by catfish
If you want to catch a big cat on worms, try this. Tie a 6/0 to 8/0 Kahle hook below a small egg sinker and bait it with as many night crawlers as you can. Leave the worm ends dangling loosely. Small fish—sunfish, suckers, little catfish—will nibble the worms when the big ball of bait is fished on bottom. A big cat nearby will watch the little fish, and if nothing disturbs the smaller fish, Ol’ Jumbo knows it’s safe to go out and eat. When you notice the nibbling stop, that means the small fish are fleeing as the big cat approaches. Prepare for a strike.
Crawfish are dynamite catfish baits. In many waters, these crustaceans are the primary forage of channel cats, flatheads and small blues. Collect them by turning rocks on a stream bottom and grabbing them with your hands, a dip net or a seine. Crawfish traps baited with fish parts also work.
The best crawfish are “peelers” have molted their hard outer shell. Small- to medium-sized hardshells also work, but remove their pincers so they won’t grab objects on the bottom. They’ll stay lively in a minnow bucket with wet leaves or moss in the bottom.
To mimic natural action, rig crawfish for a backward retrieve. Thread the hook up, through and out the top of the tail, and retrieve with a slow, stop-and-go motion. Cats also will eat a broken-off tail or piece of peeled tail meat threaded on a hook.
Other Live Baits
The best live baits often are those most common in the area you’re fishing, so be observant and employ baits that are seasonally or locally abundant. Grasshoppers and cicadas, for example, are outstanding baits in summer when large numbers become available. Catalpa worms are longtime favorites of Southern catfishermen during spring and early fall when thousands may feast on the leaves of a single tree. Warm, rainy nights bring out frogs, a favorite food of trophy-class channel cats. Watch for baits like these, and give them a try whenever you can. Fresh live baits just can’t be beat.
When it comes to keeping my live baits lively, I rely on many products available from Frabill (www.frabill.com). Their selection of products is extensive and includes durable, stay-cool bait/minnow buckets, some of which are aerated; Flow Troll buckets that keep baitfish lively when pulled alongside your boat; Crawler Cans, Crawler Cabins and Worm Totes for keeping worms at optimal temperatures; and nylon-mesh Bait Quarters you can tie to a dock or boat for storing live baitfish. They also offer individual aerators, oxygen and water conditioner packets, bait traps, worm food and bedding, and more.