by Russell Tinsley
The late John Hargis and I spent many weekends together fishing for catfish with rod and reel, primarily on the streams and small rivers that run through the countryside near my home. I remember the lanky ex-pro basketball player for many things, particularly for the number of fish he consistently caught – channel catfish, mainly – and the manner in which he caught them.
In all the years I fished with him, I never knew of John buying bait. It was uncalled for, to him, and wholly unnecessary. In fact, depending on his wits, hustling bait was part of the angling experience. John caught catfish as much for the eating as for the sport.
John’s memory still tags along when I go fishing on one of these scenic and clear watercourses that drain the country near home. I think of him and his no-nonsense way of doing things.
I recall John once chiding me for using a prepared cheese bait I’d bought at a local convenience store. He said I was just throwing money away, but then added, almost apologetically, that he couldn’t fault anyone for buying bait even earthworms, his favorite – if they had no other choice. Store-bought bait is convenient, like buying a fastfood lunch, yet something has been lost in transition.
How about worms? They are a universally favorite catfish bait that’s been producing forever, or so it seems.
Common earthworms lead the list, followed by night crawlers. Both are a natural-occurring catfish food in rivers, particularly during the spring rainy season. They are for sale at any fishbait outlet.
But they are expensive. It takes a bunch of worms when fishing for catfish because not only do cats love an entree of worms; so does just about any other fish that swims the waters where catfish abound.
You can dig a few worms in flower beds and other shady places around the house that get plenty of water and remain moist. But if you are serious about your catfish fishing, you might want to raise your own. It’s not that big a deal, if you have room where you live or someplace else convenient.
You need a container such as an old bathtub or something of comparable size. Check with the local salvage yard if there is one in the town where you live. It might have something you can use. Fill the container about three-quarters full of compost mixed with a little dirt. Straight topsoil is OK if there is little or no clay. Add a few worms and keep the compost moist.
Alvin Dannheim, who lives in my hometown, has been raising worms and using them for catfish bait since the 1960s. Once you get a worm bed established, he says, it’s easy to maintain. And it provides a steady supply of proven catfish bait.
Dannheim uses native soil and native worms he digs from flower beds and his vegetable garden for broodstock, worms that have adapted to the climate. He feeds the worms chicken-laying pellets, crushing the pellets before sprinkling the food over the soil. Cornmeal can be utilized if there is no feedstore nearby.
It is absolutely necessary, Dannheim said, to have some sort of cover such as a piece of old carpet. This keeps the soil moist and prevents the worms from crawling out of the container. There is not much reproduction in the summer, but in the winter the worms make up for lost time. This assures a new supply of bait for springtime catfishing.
For best results, keep the container where it is cool in the summer, perhaps a shady spot that doesn’t catch sunlight, and in a spot that’s protected from the north wind in the winter.
A different type of worm, one that many veteran catfish fishermen say might be the best bait of all, is the catalpa worm, found in catalpa trees in some areas of the South for only a short time (never predictably, though) in late spring and early summer. This black-and-yellow caterpillar of a nondescript gray moth is scarce, though, because many anglers are actively seeking productive trees, and it is difficult to get many of the worms at one time.
Some fishermen freeze the worms for later use. It is best to freeze them in water, in lots of about 25. Thawed out, catalpa worms turn black and soggy, but apparently the limp specimens lose none of their appeal to catfish. That’s why the worms are so popular with catfishermen.
Another favored forage of catfish throughout the region is crayfish – in the spring, especially when there is an abundance of the soft-shelled specimens. You can find crayfish in the rainy season in roadside ditches and in ponds.
Crayfish like murky water. You can catch plenty with a minnow seine. A problem with crayfish, like earthworms, is universal appeal; bass, freshwater drum and other fish gobble baits before catfish have a chance to take them. And by the time summer arrives, small soft-shelled specimens, the ones predatory fish prefer, are no longer widely available.
One man I know collects a bunch of smallish crayfish in the spring and puts them in his home aquarium for later use. In captivity they cease to grow almost entirely. A small soft-shelled crayfish, about 2 1/2 inches long, is like a candy bar to catfish. They can’t resist!
Another treat channel catfish really like is a hellgrammite, which is one of my favorite baits. You perhaps never have seen one of these nasty-looking critters, which resemble a cross between a scorpion and a centipede. The hellgrammite, larva of the Dobson fly, is typically dark brown in color, about 3 inches long, segmented, and has a pair of strong pinchers at the forward end. When handling one you must be careful. Grasp the hellgrammite just behind the pinchers as you put it on your hook. Run the barb through the “collar” just behind the head, and a hellgrammite will stay alive indefinitely. It also is tough. It is not unusual to catch several fish on a single bait before being forced to change to a fresh one.
Hellgrammites are caught from rocky riffles in some smaller rivers. I have been catching and fishing with hellgrammites on one particular river since I was a kid – for longer than I can recollect. The same places with rocks about the size of softballs produce year after year.
When trying to catch a mess for bait, it is easiest and most productive when three persons work as a team. Two team members stretch a minnow seine below the riffle. The third party then works down the riffle toward the seine, turning rocks and scratching the gravel beneath the rocks as he goes.
When a rock is upturned, a hellgrammite that’s been under the rock is abruptly exposed to the sudden current and loses its grip and is swept down the riffle into the seine. If you collect six or more from a riffle, consider yourself fortunate.
times catching the bait is more difficult than catching the catfish. Hellgrammites are hardy, though, and can be kept alive for weeks. Get a steep-sided plastic tub and pour about 2 inches of water in it. In the center put a few rocks to improvise an island, where the captives can climb out of the water. Store in a cool, dark spot and change the water every three or four days. You also might add a little river moss where the hellgrammites can hide.
The meat from mussels is a catfish delicacy, although finding enough of the bivalve mollusks to go fishing is a challenge. But if while fishing you find a mussel or two when wading a stream or maybe the shallows of a reservoir, add it to your bait supply; or if you know of a mussel bed where you can collect quite a few when need be, keep it a secret; that’s a valuable resource.
Be sure to check local regulations on the waters you fish. In some areas’ mussels may be protected and cannot be removed from their natural beds. But where legal, they make great catfish baits.
Snails are another possibility. You might find snails in flower beds or other moist places around the house. Crush the shell and use the live snail for bait. As with hellgrammites, you can hold a supply of bait for some time. Put some river moss in a plastic tub, keep it damp and in a cool, shady place. You’ll also need some type of cover. With its suction-like grip, a snail can navigate the steep side and make good its escape.
Catfish in warm weather locate food primarily by smell, but in the spring and early summer they get an assist from sight and pursuit, particularly when there is an abundance of springhatched forage.
With the exception of the flathead, other catfish species could not care less whether their food is alive or dead. The flathead is an effective predator and its basic diet is composed of other fish, such as shiners, shad and sunfish.
Channel and blue catfish are ineffective predators, and they can’t survive solely by catching other fish. As natural foods become scarce in the summer, these two catfish turn to scavenging and depend on their sophisticated sense of smell to locate food, animal or vegetable matter that’s dead or alive.
Scent travels farther and faster in warm water. Thus, a piece of cut shad is more appealing than a live shad. More juices are released into the water, leaving a scent trail for cats to follow, which usually makes cut bait more effective than a live baitfish, although all cats will dine on a live shad or shiner if it appears crippled and unable to escape. There are no hard-and-fast rules.
When you capture more bait than you need for a single fishing trip, you can save any surplus for later use. Freeze minnows or shad. They will keep indefinitely.
Baitfish are easily caught. Use a conventional seine with someone on each end and drag it through riffles or shallow backwaters. Or use a cast net from a boat in a lake cove or below a dam. A school of threadfin or gizzard shad heading upstream in the current will be pushed near shore and up to the surface, where the bait can be caught more easily.
According to a lake guide I know, one secret of catching shad is to use a quality cast net with larger weights. With smaller sinkers the net descends too slowly. With a cheapie net, shad can dart out from under it before it catches them, particularly when they are in deeper water. A sonar fishfinder will help locate schools of shad.
One of the most effective baits I’ve used is a so-called shad gizzard. Take a gizzard shad about the size of your hand and rip it open to remove the gizzard and entrails. Wrap the whole mess on a treble hook. The gizzard in a shad is similar to that in a chicken; that is, it is tough and stays on a hook. And channel and blue catfish love it. Any baitshops that carry these sell out of them quickly. That’s why it’s important to find your own shad gizzards.
A live shad also is a top bait for a flathead, but shad are difficult to keep alive, either in captivity or on hooks. That is why a common sunfish is a favorite substitute, or a carp or sucker.
A friend of mine who fishes for flatheads and nothing else raises sunfish in a pond and catches what he needs in a baitfish trap. Sunfish, or perch, if that is what you call them, are prolific. Minnows also are rather easy to raise in a pond.
When fishing for blue or channel catfish and using a shiner for bait, fish it like you would if it were dead, running the hook back and forth through the body several times to release body fluids cats can smell. With shad, fish one the same way, whole, or try cut bait. Cut the shad in half between head and tail. The front half will tremor for a time. The combination of smell and quivering creates strong appeal. If you end up with any leftover bait, freeze the shad in a plastic bag for later use. Since dead shad are such good baits, don’t ever waste them!
Not all baits must relate to the water. Consider the grasshopper, for instance. In the summer, when this terrestrial is most abundant, it becomes a basic food for catfish, one they can’t resist. Yet it often is overlooked as a prime bait, especially when river fishing. Put a jumbo hopper on a No. I hook and drift it with the current. Or if the grasshoppers are smallish where you live and fish, gob several on a hook. The insect need not be alive.
Getting a bunch for bait is routine. If you find the yellow jumbo variety, one that can’t fly, all you must do is walk and look, simply picking up a hopper when you find one. If you are after the spooky winged variety, get a butterfly net – or make your own – and you are in business.
You also can hunt at night with a light. Grasshoppers roost on tall grass and weeds, and you can ease along and pick them off. Or search in early morning. If there is any dew the insects get damp and can’t fly far, if they can at all.
To retain the bait, cut a little flap door in the plastic top of a coffee can. Push a hopper through the hole and the plastic will snap back to prevent escape. And you can freeze a supply for later use. This bait doesn’t have to be fresh.
None of these baits, however, will produce unless it is fished at the right place, the right way at the right time basic angling fundamentals. But having a proven bait on your hook plays an integral and necessary role in any technique. So get out and start looking. I’m betting you can find bait right around or near your home, bait that won’t cost you a dime.
How is that for a deal?
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