Liven It Up!

Sometimes it takes extra action to entice old Mr. Whiskers to bite -- and then it's time to turn to live baits. Here's the lowdown on what to use and how to rig it. (August 2007)

Crawfish eased across the bottom are excellent baits for blue cats.
Photo by Keith Sutton.

Catfish aren't finicky eaters. They'll gobble up almost anything anglers throw at them.

Dead and smelly baits are well known for attracting hungry cats, including things such as fish guts, shrimp, chicken liver, mussels and stink bait. Grocery store baits like bacon, frankfurters and cheese work, too. Even bizarre offerings such as Ivory soap, dog food, Spam, blood, and bubblegum entice whiskerfish now and then. In fact, you'll probably hook a catfish sooner or later no matter what bait you use.

Remember: If you want to be successful and catch plenty of fish consistently, you must be selective about the baits you use. Some are decidedly better than are others.

The best of the best, in my experience, are live baits, such as minnows, earthworms, crawfish and frogs. Even when a cat isn't actively feeding, a bait still wiggling and fresh is hard for it to refuse. Read local regulations to determine what's legal where you fish, and if restrictions don't prohibit you from doing so, liven up your catfishing with some of these offerings.


When it's big cats you're after nothing beats live fish for bait. And among the various types of fish you can use, few are as productive as shad and herring. Many varieties can be used, like gizzard or threadfin shad and skipjack or blueback herring.

In some areas, you can buy these baitfish, but in most cases, you have to catch your own. Using a cast net is one effective method, so it's worthwhile to purchase one and learn to use it. A cast net tossed out near shore a few times often brings in dozens of shad or herring.

Sabiki rigs also are great tools for catching shad and herring. These are pre-tied rigs that have a main line from which several dropper lines are attached. At the end of each dropper line 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 in the neighborhood of shad or herring, they're quick to strike the tiny lures, and it's not unusual to bring up three or four baitfish at a time.

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, or rig a perforated garbage can to carry them alongside your boat. A gallon of water supports about four large baitfish.

A simple egg-sinker rig works great when fishing with these minnows. 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, which has finer wire than most types, allows you to hook these baitfish behind the dorsal fin or through the lips with little damage that could kill the bait. Sink the rig to the bottom near a channel, hump, riprap or other catfish-attracting cover or structure, and set the bait clicker on your reel to signal when a cat takes the minnow. You rarely have to wait long. Catfish are suckers for a wiggly shad or herring at the end of the line.


One of the best baits for big catfish is one of their smaller cousins -- the bullhead. Bullheads are the main prey of flathead, blue and channel catfish in waters where they are common, and have long been used as bait.

The fact that big cats feast on their smaller brethren is not surprising when you consider that blues, channel cats and flatheads often occupy the same habitat as bullheads in rivers and lakes. The bigger cats are opportunistic fish eaters, sucking up whatever fish happens by. It just happens that bullheads, which live in the same places as their larger cousins, come swimming by more often than many other species.

In his 1953 book Catfishin', Joe Mathers called bullhead baits "excellent, especially for large catfish.

"Use small living forms, 3 to 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 setlines. 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 stay alive darn near forever in a cooler with a few inches of water in the bottom. A good rig is the egg-sinker set up described earlier, but I use a big octopus hook -- at least 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, drop the rig to the bottom and get ready!


Cats, particularly channels, small flatheads and small blues, find night crawlers and other earthworms irresistible. Buy them in bait shops or gather them by raking through damp leaves in flowerbeds 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 the worm. A shot of air in the body lifts the worms up, making them more visible to catfish. Your sinker moves along the bottom while your baits ride high.

If you want to catch a big cat on worms, try this rig. First tie a 6/0 to 8/0 octopus or Kahle hook below a small egg sinker and bait it with as many night crawlers as you can impale on the hook. Leave the ends of the worms dangling loosely. Small sunfish, suckers, catfish will nibble the worms when the big ball of bait is fished on bottom. A big cat nearby is likely to see the little fish, feeding and think it is safe to join the action. If you see the nibbling stop it means the small fish are fleeing as the big cat approaches. Prepare for a strike.


Crawfish are dynamite catfish baits. In many lakes, ponds and streams, 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 in a cheesecloth bag also work.

The best crawfish are "peelers," those that have molted their hard outer shell. Small- to

medium-sized hardshells also work, but break off their pincers to keep them from grabbing objects on the bottom. Keep crawfish 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 work them across the bottom with a slow stop-and-go motion. Many cats also accept a broken-off tail or piece of peeled tail meat threaded on a hook.


Keith Sutton is the author of three books on catfishing: Fishing for Catfish, Catching Catfish, and Catfishing: Beyond the Basics. For more details on these titles, or to order autographed copies, visit Sutton's Web site at

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