Catching any kind of fish begins with putting baits where the fish are. That simple fact acknowledged, an angler’s offerings also must appeal to the fish. For many species of game fish, lure sizes, shapes, movements and colors, and types of presentations all figure prominently into the equation of making an offering appealing. For catfish, which feed mostly by smell and taste, it is all about using the right kind of bait.
Of course, different species and sizes of cats prefer different kinds of meals, and some offerings lend themselves better to specific styles of catfishing than do others. Also, catfish are just like other kinds of fish — and people for that matter — in the sense that their preferences vary from day to day. One day’s hot bait commonly may not yield much the next day, with no obvious change in conditions. With that in mind, you are wise to set the table with at least a couple of different kinds of baits and allow the cats to dictate their preferences.
Dozens of different bait types are commonly used for catfish, with popular picks ranging from hot dog slices to clams to smaller catfish. If one were to dig into occasional uses, the list of items that have never been used as catfish bait might be shorter than the list of those that have. Despite the never-ending list of options available to catfish anglers, certain baits do tend to outshine the rest. Here we will look at five of the very best.
Big catfish like big meals, and few things do more to improve an angler’s odds of landing a true trophy cat than baiting up with a big chunk of cut shad or even a live shad. Adult flathead catfish feed almost exclusively on live fish, and shad often are an important part of the mix because they are around river channels, where flatheads spend the most time. Even channel catfish, which feed on a little bit of everything both dead and alive, turn heavily to fish diets once they get larger than 10 pounds or so.
Shad make great bait in most reservoirs and many rivers, because they are prevalent natural forage and often are readily available to fishermen. However, the same principles apply to various minnows and other baitfish species in waterways where shad are not the main attraction.
Generally speaking, shad should be cut into chunks or strips, with the size of the pieces and the type of cut determined by the size of cats being targeted and the size of the shad. Probably the most efficient way to cut up a shad is to slice off the head and tail and cut across the body to create strips. If those pieces seem too large, the strips can then be cut in half. However, some anglers prefer to fillet large shad and cut up the fillets or to fish with very small shad, either whole or cut in half.
You also should not overlook a large shad’s “guts.” The entrails produce a very strong smell and often attract strikes almost immediately. Shad guts do not tend to yield as many large fish as do chunks of fillets, but they get a rod tip dancing and definitely are worth putting out there for the cats to consider.
Cut shad can be fished several different ways for good success. The most popular technique is to use a Carolina rig with a large enough barrel weight to keep the rig on the bottom. Lines are spread around the boat or along the shore in a range of depths for lake fishing, or they are cast downstream, often from the head of hole, in rivers. This simple approach is tough to beat any time the cats are using known locations such as river-bend holes or the sides of humps. If the fish are more widespread or their locations are less certain, a good alternative is to drift, using either three-way rigs or bottom-bumping rigs.
For flathead catfish, shad need to be alive and at least palm-sized. Top-end predators, flatheads have minimal interest in cut bait. Baits should be presented on or near the bottom around good structure and thick cover. In rivers, the flatheads are around outside bends among tangles of tree branches near the bank. In reservoirs they typically are along bends in the old creek or river channel or near channel confluences.
Arguably, no bait is more closely associated with catfishing than a chicken liver. The reason is simple: livers produce catfish and lots of them. With their strong, meaty smell, chicken livers draw cats from broad areas. Once the cats find the bait, they have trouble resisting them.
Livers typically do not produce many huge catfish. However, for channel cats up to about 10 pounds, chicken livers are extremely productive. They also are inexpensive and available from any grocery store.
One major caveat of baiting up with chicken livers is that they initially can be difficult to keep on the hook. They toughen up once they have been in the water a few minutes. But if you are not careful, casting this bait much farther than your hook travels is common.
Among the best ways to keep livers hooked is to use treble hooks and relatively small pieces of bait, and wrap the liver onto the hook. That allows the bait to be hooked in a few different places, and the bends of the three hooks work together to keep the offering in place. Beyond that, you simply need to make lob casts instead of fast-action snapping casts.
Livers also tend to work best for the first 15 or 20 minutes they are on a hook. They lose a lot of their natural juices over time as well as much of their appeal. Anglers are wise, therefore, to re-bait rigs periodically and to always begin with a fresh piece of liver after moving to a new spot.
Chicken livers work well any where channel cats or smaller blues are the main attraction and where currents are not too overpowering. Extra strong current such as in tailraces of dams, for example, often tear livers off hooks before the cats get the opportunity to find the bait and eat it.
For ponds or other small-water settings, all you typically need to add to the line is a split shot or two. In bigger lakes or rivers, more weight typically is needed.
A couple of final considerations about livers are worth noting. First, when cats are active, livers go quickly. It is wise to bring two or three containers of bait for a day of catfishing. Also you should always bring a hand towel or two and be prepared to make a mess out of them. Chicken livers are incredibly sticky.
Some folks make their own dips from well-guarded secret recipes that have been passed from generation to generation. Others have favored commercially manufactured blends that they buy by the case. Whether
home brewed or store bought, dip baits are gooey concoctions that usually smell horrible, but catfish absolutely cannot resist them.
While all dip baits smell bad, a foul odor is not enough to make a tub of bait attractive to cats. A dip must have a cheese base or some kind of protein content. Dough balls, no matter how sour or smelly they are, do not offer much appeal to most cats.
A bait’s consistency also is critical. A good dip is soft enough that it breaks up gradually, but solid enough that it does not wash away quickly. In current, where dip baits are really at their best, that can be a delicate balance.
Dip baits work best when fished in the current, because the moving water carries bait particles downstream as the dip breaks up creating a chum line of sorts that leads directly to the hook. Dips often out-produce other baits in rivers or in sections of reservoirs that have plenty of current running through them. However, reservoir fisheries can turn on and off as if someone was flipping a light switch based on power-generation schedules.
Anglers should consider how cats are likely to relate to a river hole or other structure and set up with their baits on the up-current side of where they expect the cats to hold. It is also wise to make repeated casts to the same general area, because doing so strengthens the line of scent to the area where the bait settles.
Dips generally do not stay on hooks — even treble hooks — on their own. There is nothing solid to put a hook through. Instead, anglers buy “catfish worms,” most of which are tubes with holes in them or ringworm-style rubber worms. All are designed to hold the bait initially, but release it gradually. Most come pre-rigged with treble hooks on leaders, and sometimes a worm or two is included with a can of dip. An alternative is to string a piece of sponge onto the shank of the treble hook.
Dip baits are generally best kept in the shade during mid-summer days. Most get thinner in the heat, and keeping the bait on the hook can become challenging. Some manufacturers sell additives that help thicken dip baits that get too thin on toasty afternoons.
A final important accessory, similar to the liver fisherman’s hand towel, is some sort of a dipstick to push the worm or sponge down into the bait without actually touching the goop.
Stringing a worm on a hook is the essence of fishing simplicity. In fact, it almost seems too simple. That said, night crawlers remain some of the finest baits available for coaxing catfish into biting. They smell natural, because they are natural, and they seem to taste mighty good to catfish.
Generally speaking, the rule for night crawlers and catfish is, the bigger the better. Even small cats like big, juicy worms. It is generally a good idea to wad two or three on a hook if you only can find small or medium-sized worms. Unlike other species, catfish typically do not care how night crawlers are strung on the hook. They feed mostly by smell and taste, not by sight, so the more worm that is wrapped around and sewn onto the hook, the better your chances are of hooking cats that bite.
One very effective and often overlooked method for catfishing with worms is to suspend a worm beneath a float, hanging the bait barely off the bottom. This works really well when cats are holding around stumps, the bases of flooded trees or beside downed trees along the edges of rivers. The float allows you to present a bait precisely and move it around easily to locate cats that are using cover.
Night crawlers also work great when fished on the bottom with Carolina rigs, bounced just off the bottoms of tailwaters or other swift rivers with three-way rigs, or dragged across points or flats at night when the cats move shallow to feed.
Because they do not have to be cut up and are not quite as messy as livers or dip bait, night crawlers also make a terrific bait choice for trips with youngsters. Children quickly learn how to string worms on hooks so the bait will not come off. Also, cats tend to slurp in night crawlers, so hook-up ratios tend to be good.
Another great thing about night crawlers and other worms as baits to use during family catfish outings is that the children can dig their own worms, often from their own backyards and sometimes from the lakeshore when there’s a break in the action. There is an indisputable extra pride that comes from catching a fish on a hand-dug worm — somewhat akin to the pride of a fly-fisherman catching a fish on a hand-tied fly.
If chicken livers are the best known of all catfish baits, crawfish may be the most overlooked. All major species of catfish feed on crawfish, although most flatheads caught on craws weigh 20 pounds or less.
Crawfish rank among the best baits of all for fishing in creeks and small rivers. You can either bounce live crawdads near the bottom in the current using split shot rigs or add a little heavier weight and fish crawfish tails right on the bottom. Dead crawfish produce mostly channel catfish. Live ones — especially big craws — also attract modest-sized flatheads. Anglers who specifically want flatheads should put baits close to the thickest cover they can find and be ready to pull with everything they have upon setting the hook.
Crawfish are not purely stream baits, though. They are important forage in many ponds, lakes and reservoirs and, therefore, make great catfish bait in waterways of all sizes. Fresh crawfish, whether dead or alive, work great for putting cats in the boat whether they are placed atop rocky points or humps on summer nights, or fished in the deeper open water along the edge of a grass bed.
A live crawfish can be hooked through the base of the tail from the bottom up. Some anglers like to remove the pincers, but the cats probably do not care either way. Anglers using dead craws often pinch off the head and string the body on the hook, inserting it under the tail and impaling as much of the crawfish as possible. This kind of rig can spin in the water if there is any current, so adding a swivel between the weight and the hook is a good idea.
Some bait stores do sell live crawfish. However, anglers who want to bait up with fresh craws generally have to catch their own. Simply turning rocks can accomplish that in some streams. In many rivers and most lakes, anglers have to put down some type of crawfish trap, which can be baited with chicken parts.
Catfish purists should consider one warning about using crawfish — especially live crawfish: Virtually everything that swims likes to eat crawfish, so expect to sort through a bunch of bluegills, bass and other “undesirables” between prized catfish bites.