Baits For Bruisers

Catfish have a reputation for eating almost anything, but -- as these Nebraska Master Anglers have learned -- some baits definitely work better than do others. (June 2007)

Michael J. Bush used a chub to catch this giant Missouri River blue. The Greenwood catfisherman said that big cats also take minnows, shad, bluegills, carp and other live baits.
Photo courtesy of Michael Bush.

When Nebraska anglers set out to catch some catfish, they have two choices to make: where to fish and what to use for bait. Polling fans of the whiskerfish, we found the menu offered cats almost as diverse as the waters serving up the tasty quarry.

Dave Timms of Columbus likes to use chicken livers or bacon for his channel cat fishing, but he gives the bait his personal touch. "Neither one of the baits stay on the hook very well," said the 50-year-old house painter, "so I lightly fry both of them to toughen them up a bit."

And it works!

"My brother, Kevin, who lives in Montana, thinks he's the family catfish king," Timms continued, "but the next time I see him I'll show him my three Master Angler certificates for channel cats I caught from a nearby sandpit last summer. They include a pair of 16-pounders and one weighing 12. I think it will make him pull in his horns a little over who's the catfish king in the family."

"Hotdoggin' it" ranks high on the catfishing agenda of Matt and James Watson of Omaha. Both used hotdogs to catch big channels at the Two Rivers State Recreation Area last summer. Matt caught a 37-incher on July 2 and another 37-incher on July 18; James caught one measuring 35 inches on July 16 and a 36-incher on July 24. The sandpit lake they were fishing at Two Rivers is total catch-and-release on the channel cats.

Ryan Greenough of Hastings was fishing a private impoundment on July 23 last year with a friend, Garret Montee of Minden, when he put the steel to what he thought was a big channel cat.

"I got excited when I set the hook," Greenough said. "When I felt it move, I figured it was a pretty big fish. To shorten the story, I finally landed a big leatherback turtle.

"Not too long after that, I felt something pick up my bait, gave it a little slack and set the hook," said the Hastings angler. "Same deal -- it felt big and basically went where it wanted to for a couple of minutes and then more or less stayed deep. We both thought it was the dang turtle again, but it finally surfaced and we saw a big channel cat. It took about 15 minutes to finally corral the cat. It measured 33 inches and weighed 17 pounds, 8 ounces."

Greenough said his favorite bait for channel cats is shrimp. He uses the shrimp anyone can buy in the market.

"I use the fresh shrimp, stick it on a size 6 hook and use a small bell sinker to get it down," he said. "I fish a couple of private ponds, as well as Harlan County Reservoir. The shrimp works good at Harlan, too, but if the action is slow, I sometimes use dead shad. The 17-pounder is the largest cat I've caught. A fish that size is fun, and gives a pretty good account of itself."

Kevin Kriss of Comstock uses shad to feed the channel cats at Calamus Reservoir. Some of the big ones he caught included a 13-pound, 14-ouncer, an 18-8, a 19-8 and a 35-inch, 23-8. He caught the fish from late March through September.

Sometimes catching trophy fish has more than just a "touch of luck" involved in it. Craig Peterson of Bertrand doesn't lay claim to any catfish titles, but he did beach a 15-pound, 9-ounce channel while fishing for white bass at the inlet to Johnson Lake in May of last year.

"I was rigged up with a double tie of 1/8-ounce white jigs and fishing white bass when a big cat hit one of the jigs," Peterson said. "It didn't take long to decide I didn't have a white bass. I was fishing off the rocks, and I didn't have a net, so when I saw this big catfish I played him until I had him 'broke to lead,' grabbed him and tossed him up on the rocks. When it hit the rocks the line broke, but I was finally able to get it on the stringer."

Peterson, a 37-year-old employee of a local educational service unit, has been fishing since he was about 4 years old -- and this cat is the biggest that he's ever caught.

"Hey, I caught a trophy catfish and I wasn't even fishing for cats," he said. "It's probably a good thing I had 8-pound-test line on my spinning outfit. The fish probably would have broken off in the current below the inlet if I'd been using 4- or 6-pound-test."

Wayne Fisher of Broken Bow works on the channel cats at Calamus Reservoir. One of his better days came on March 5 last year. He caught a limit of channel cats (10) in a half-day's fishing. The cats weighed from 5 to 17 pounds.

"I fish the reservoir along the dam and up on the west end of the lake near Gracie Creek," said the 44-year-old farm store salesman. "Last spring I had a super day in catching the limit. I was using dead shad for bait and I caught the 17-pounder about five minutes after I started fishing. The odd thing about the catch was that I had two rigs in the water and as I was playing the first one, a second one hit the other rod. I managed to land both of them; the second one weighed 13 pounds."

Sand toads, fairly common in the Nebraska Sandhills, have long been used as fish bait, but they're nowhere near as popular as shad, shrimp, crawlers or minnows. Austin Ries, a 12-year-old from Ord, is convinced that they're good bait for catfish.

"We were fishing off the bank at Merritt Reservoir," he said. "I had never used a sand toad for bait before, so I didn't know if they were really good catfish bait. I was using pretty heavy line on a spinning rod and I hooked a big cat. It took me about 5 or 10 minutes to get him up on the bank, and then I sent my cousin to get my uncle to help us get him off the hook and on the stringer."

Asked if he released the cat or ate it, Austin said they ate it.

"We (aunts, uncles and cousins) were camped at the lake, so after we measured and weighed it, my uncle Richard cleaned the fish and my aunt Tracey fried it. It was 32 inches long and weighed 18 pounds and 8 ounces, so everyone had plenty of fish to eat and we had some to take home."

Blood bait, either homemade or commercial, is widely used to catch channel cats. Daryl Smith of Grand Island used the prepared bait to catch a 33-inch 20-pounder from a private impoundment on July 30 last year. Frank Bruyette of Lincoln reports using "cow blood" to entice a Sherman Reservoir 40-incher on July 8.

Live bait such as minnows, crawlers and shiners account for lots of cats. Michael J. Bush of Greenwood uses chubs for blue cats on the Missouri River, upstream from Omaha.

"Blues prefer live bait," Bush said. "I use chubs because I have a little creek behind the house where I can get them easily, but the big cats will take big minnows, bluegills, suckers, carp and others, too."

Bushgot began fishing for blues about five years ago on the Missouri. "My brother, Josh, got me started," he said. "He clued me in on tackle and after I hooked into and lost a couple of huge ones, I went even heavier in my choice of line, sinkers, rod and reel. Right now I'm using a medium-heavy action rod that can handle 20- to 50-pound-test line and up to about 10 ounces of sinker. At first I thought tackle like that was heavy, but after losing a lot of fish, I decided on 50-pound-test line and a reel that can handle up to 400 yards of monofilament.

"I have found the big blue cats prefer deep, fast, water," Bush said. "I catch fish in 25 to 40 feet of water in the river, and I use up to 10 ounces of flat sinkers to get the chub down if the current is heavy.

In 2005 Bush laid claim to five big blues measuring 46 to 52 inches. He reports catching numerous smaller ones, 10 to 30 pounds, but they don't qualify for a Master Angler award. To earn an award, a blue must be at least 40 inches long or weigh a minimum of 30 pounds.

"I did even better last year," said the Greenwood fisherman. "I caught six that weighed 30 pounds or better. My largest one weighed about 70 pounds, and I had another half-dozen or so that weighed between 25 and 30 pounds."

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