A channel catfish is the Toucan Sam of the fish world. Except where Sam can only follow his nose, or beak, Mr. Cat has scent glands and even taste buds on his whiskers and all over his body. Therefore, it makes good sense that whatever an angler strings onto his hook can make a very large difference in the number of cats he catches.
Catfishermen are notorious for using a big range of bait types; a former world-record blue cat, for example, was caught on Spam! And multi-species anglers know that an occasional cat will hit everything from crappie minnows to bass plugs. Still, certain types of bait will outshine the rest. Here, we’ve handpicked five of the very finest channel cat offerings.
Before another word is said, it’s important to note that if an angler is going to fish with chicken livers, he’d better have a hand towel or two nearby. The same is true, to some degree, for most catfish baits, but none more so than livers, which are packaged soaking in their own sticky, stinky and distinctively brown juice.
The very qualities that make livers messy to handle, however, help make them extra-attractive to catfish. That goo is not stinky at all to catfish. In fact, it smells like a meal — a fine high-protein meal — and the scent is one that channel catfish have a very difficult time resisting.
The biggest challenge that comes with using livers as bait is that they can be somewhat difficult to keep on a hook, especially for the initial cast. Using a treble hook helps substantially because the liver can be wrapped around the hook shank and hooked separately with all three points so that the bends in the hooks actually support some of the bait and help hold it in place. Another key from a rigging standpoint is to add enough weight to the line that the rig can be cast effectively with a gentle lobbing motion and thus need not be cast really hard.
Once a chicken liver has been put out successfully and the rig has found bottom, there’s little risk of the bait coming off the hook unless a fish steals it. Livers toughen up on the hook. Anglers need not worry too much about fish stealing their bait, either — unless bluegills or other small “nibblers” are the culprits. A catfish that finds a chicken liver typically will take the bait decisively, and any angler who sits ready to set the hook when the rod tip goes down will hook most of the cats that take his bait. In fact, setting hooks relatively quickly is a good idea with chicken livers to prevent deep hooking, which can be challenging to remove with those treble hooks.
Two very nice things about chicken livers are that they are relatively inexpensive and available from virtually any grocery store. Anglers are wise to get a couple of tubs, except for very short outings, because the bait can go quickly when the cats begin to bite well. A couple of things to be aware of during the day are to keep the bait tub out of the hot sun if possible and to keep the container closed and the outside wiped off if there are ants in the vicinity.
Also, when the action is slow, it’s a good idea to change out a chicken liver every half hour or so, as they do tend to lose pungency. Finally, at day’s end, the best bet is to dispose of any remaining bait because fresh livers stay on the hook better than frozen and re-thawed livers.
As a final consideration, some grocery stores sell turkey livers, in addition to chicken livers, and those provide an alternative bait option. A little larger overall, turkey livers provide a good choice for waters that tend to serve up large channel cats. They also tend to be a little tougher than chicken livers. Turkey livers are not quite as strong smelling, however, and it is not the same smell. It’s possible that on some days the cats will favor one flavor over the other.
A good dip bait would be every bit as sticky and icky as a chicken liver if you were to handle it with your fingers. The towel is less of a factor with a dip, however, because if you administer the bait properly, there’s absolutely no reason ever to touch the stuff. A wooden spoon or even a good old-fashioned stick can do the job perfectly well.
Dip baits, whether they are “home brews” or commercial concoctions, such as Strike King’s Catfish Dynamite, have a consistency that’s somewhere between applesauce and Play-Doh and they smell sort of like someone mixed the two, along with a few other things, and left the mix in the sun for a couple of weeks. In the case of the homemade stuff, some period of “sun baking” often is part of the recipe. The best commercial baits aren’t just stinky, though. They have a protein base and a meaty, fishy or cheesy smell that is uniquely appealing to catfish.
The term “dip bait” comes from the way the baits are most commonly applied to the hook. The hook itself is adorned with a sponge or a dip worm, and the whole thing is mashed down into the bucket of bait with the previously mentioned spoon or stick. Many dip bait manufacturers also offer dip worms, and often the worms come pre-rigged with hooks and leaders.
Most dip worms are either rubber tubing with holes punched in them or short, deeply ribbed plastic worms. Dip worms and sponges have the same simple purpose of holding more dip in place because the bait would wash away too quickly if it were simply wadded up and put onto a hook.
Certainly there’s not a more classic fishing bait than a simple worm strung on a hook, and there’s a very good and simple reason for that: Fish like to eat worms.
Dips perform especially well in rivers because the current carries the ever-dispersing bait downstream and forms a scent trail to the source, which is the baited hook. Because of the scent trail factor, anglers fishing with dips generally do well when they set up near the heads of big catfish-filled holes. Veteran dip bait fishermen also tend to work specific spots longer than they might with other baits because the ongoing dispersion of scent from multiple lines actually creates a chumming effect.
For the same basic reason, dips also work well for drifting approaches. The bait leaves a scent trail in its path, and the catfish follow the trails. For drifting, most anglers use an elongated weight a couple of feet above the hook and bait. For snag-filled waters, they’ll add a small float between the weight and the hook so that the weight drags along the bottom and the baited hook follows just off the bottom.
Whether an angler is fishing stationary in current or drifting, it’s important to check lines periodically to make sure there’s still bait on each hook. The same dispersion that brings in the fish also diminishes the amount of bait on the hook on an ongoing basis. The rate varies substantially according to the current strength or drifting speed, the density of the bait and the type of bait-holder used.
The trick is to check baits somewhat frequently early in the day to figure out how quickly they are disappearing. Of course, when the bite is right, that’s not much of a factor because anglers are regularly reeling in fish or checking lines anyway because of fish strikes.
One common variation of a dip is the nugget-type bait, which sort of looks like a piece of dog food. Nuggets, which are often just denser versions of dip formulas, provide anglers with an alternative for when strong currents would wash the dip away too quickly, or for waters where small bait stealers are ultra-abundant.
Because the nuggets don’t break up as readily, though, they don’t broadcast the same scent trail and aren’t quite as effective. Veteran catfishermen typically only choose these over actual dip baits when conditions necessitate doing so.
Certainly there’s not a more classic fishing bait than a simple worm strung on a hook, and there’s a very good and simple reason for that: Fish like to eat worms. A worm, of course, isn’t strictly a catfish bait. Worms also produce bass, bluegills and most other species of game fish. Keys to targeting cats with worms are picking the right worms for the job, rigging appropriately and putting worms where catfish live.
In terms of the right worms, bigger is usually better for targeting catfish. Beyond being more attractive than a little red worm to a hungry channel cat, a big night crawler is far less likely to get picked apart by pesky bluegills. However, upsizing doesn’t necessarily make the bait cat-exclusive. Any worm is apt to produce an occasional bass, and even a big, juicy crawler might be attacked by an overzealous bream. However, a bigger worm won’t get robbed from the hook as often, thus increasing the opportunity for a catfish to find and eat it.
Channel catfish spend the bulk of their time on or near the bottom, so the best rigs for targeting cats would deliver the worm on or near the bottom. For fairly open waters, a variety of simple bottom rigs will work fine, with the ideal amount of weight being just enough to allow for decent casting and to keep the rig in place.
Wherever channel cats abound on stump-studded flats, or other places where the cover is thick, a better approach is to use a slip-bobber pegged at a depth that will suspend the bait just off the bottom. Such a rig can be cast tight to cover where channel cats tend to hold, especially by day. In addition, this rig keeps the hook from dragging across the bottom and getting snagged, plus it allows the angler to know exactly what’s happening anytime a catfish even nibbles.
Virtually all bait stores sell worms of some sort, and most have night crawlers as part of their offerings. Before going out and buying worms, though, it’s never a bad idea for an angler to stick a shovel in the ground in a few shady spots in his own yard. If the soil looks good but none of the right worms are found, they can be “seeded” with any night crawlers left over from a bait store batch at the end of a day of fishing.
For a real-life attraction, it’s hard to beat a scent and flavor that fish are accustomed to having around them all the time — that of fresh fish. Cut bait can be fabulous for making cats bite, and it stands out as an especially good bait choice for anglers who want to target larger cats. As channels gain age and pounds, they tend to shed some of their scavenging ways and have a tendency to add more fish to their diets.
The specific kinds of fish that work best for bait vary by waterway, and it’s important to note that not all kinds of fish may be used as bait. The most important thing for a catfisherman to realize is the simple fact that not all fish are created equal when it comes to catfish-attracting qualities. And where variety is available, it’s a good idea to lay out a buffet, or switch things around and let the cats themselves show which flavor they prefer. Generally speaking, soft-finned, oily species of fish are best for cut bait.
Minnow-sized baitfish can simply be cut in half or even fished whole; larger baitfish can be steaked, from the head to the tail, with strip sizes chosen according to the size of cats common in a given waterway. However, some anglers prefer to fillet larger baitfish and use the fillets or pieces of the fillets as catfish bait. For either cutting approach, most anglers will gut larger fish first and use the innards, as these are considered the prime cut for channel cats. Many catfishermen also really like fish heads for use in catching larger channel catfish.
Because catfish tend to really slurp down cut bait, a circle hook is a good rigging choice and will substantially reduce the number of fish that get hooked deeply. Anglers using circle hooks need to train themselves not to set the hook, but simply to reel into fish that bite and let the circle hooks do the hooking job for them.
Baitfish to be used as cut bait often can be netted or trapped or even caught by rod and reel, depending on the species and the waterway. Often, however, bait stores sell fish that are well suited for use as cut bait. Even large bass-fishing minnows, which are sold to be used as live bait, can be cut into strips and used for channel catfish. Many bait stores also sell packets of frozen fish for the purpose of cut-bait use. However, frozen fish sometimes falls apart more easily than fresh fish and may not have as strong a scent.
Yep, hot dogs. The same dogs that are lunchtime favorites all over the country also make great catfish bait. Neither messy nor terribly stinky, hot dogs are readily available at every grocery store in the country and in many convenience stores and other sorts of markets. Plus, most anglers already have at least a few hot dogs in the refrigerator.
An admitted downside of hot dogs is that they don’t have a super-strong scent and don’t disperse scent or flavor significantly. They aren’t the best choice when fish have to be drawn in. They also won’t produce many really large catfish. However, for fishing a small lake where channel cats are regularly stocked or for casting into a river hole that’s known to be loaded with fish, it’s hard to beat the neatness and simplicity of fishing with a hot dog.
Hot dogs make especially good bait for family outings because they are neat and simple to use as bait. Even a very young or very new angler can break off a quarter-inch-long piece of a hot dog, string it onto a hook, cast the rig out and set the hook when something jerks on the other end. Light spinning or spincasting tackle and simple split shot rigs typically work best for the type of waters that hot dogs are best suited for.
A final great thing about using hot dogs as bait for a family catfishing trip is that some dogs can be cooked at home, put in buns and wrapped in foil for a lakeside lunch and a few more put in a sandwich bag to be used as bait. Many children will find great fun in eating the same thing for lunch that they are using to catch their catfish!