July 07, 2022
You can use almost any bait imaginable to entice a catfish—everything from grocery-store offerings like chicken liver, hot dogs and shrimp to homemade stinkbaits, dead fish and even lures like jigs and crankbaits. Obviously, there's lots of options for catfish baits.
But the catfish’s incredible senses of taste and smell work best for tracking down live treats such as small fish, crayfish, worms, frogs and various insects.
Few things are more delicious on the dinner table than spicy, boiled crayfish. And there’s nothing a big catfish will eat more readily than a live crawdad on your hook. In summer, you can easily collect these crustaceans by turning rocks and leaves on stream bottoms and catching them with your hands, a dip net or a seine. Crawfish traps baited with fish parts or bacon work great.
Top Trick: To mimic their natural movement, rig live crawfish for a backward retrieve. Thread the hook up through the tail and work the mudbug across the bottom of any lake, river or pond with a slow stop-and-go retrieve. Before casting, break off the crawfish’s big pincers. This makes the bait more enticing and less likely to hang up.
2. NIGHT CRAWLERS
These big worms are first-rate catfish baits. Gather your own by raking through damp leaf litter, or purchase some at a bait dealer. Keep them cool—not cold—for longer life. They seem to work especially well when drifted in rivers and streams. Top Trick: One problem with crawlers is they tend to get lost when fished on the bottom. To remedy that, buy a Lindy Worm Blower—a little plastic bottle with a needle tip. Use it to inject a shot of air into each night crawler and the worms will float so they’re no longer hidden in rocks and debris. Hungry catfish will find them quickly and gobble them up.
3. SUNFISH, SUCKERS and CHUBS
These are hot catfish baits on many waters, especially for heavyweight flatheads. The small fish stay active and hardy on the hook—good traits for cajoling hungry giants. Most anglers fish them on the bottom, but floating one under a bobber makes it look more natural, allows you to better control the bait’s positioning and often results in more hook-ups.
Top Trick: Improve the attractiveness of these baits by snipping off the fins, causing the baitfish to bleed and flounder in the water. Hook in the upper tail, just behind the soft dorsal fin, and prepare for incredible action.
4. CATALPA WORMS
Catalpa worms are sphinx moth caterpillars that grow big on a diet of catalpa tree leaves. Look for trees with tattered leaves and pick the worms from low-hanging branches or knock them from high leaves using a cane pole. Store in a cricket cage with leaves to nibble on.
Top Trick: Some anglers cut off the heads and turn the bait inside out on a matchstick before fishing with it. When catfish seem really picky, this often elicits more bites. In most situations, however, simply thread a worm on a hook and fish it around cover. A shot of air from a worm blower keeps the bait visible as it floats.
5. SKIPJACKs and SHAD
Savvy anglers know cats of all kinds love these oily-fleshed baitfish, which usually are caught with cast nets, small lures or Sabiki rigs.
Use them alive to quickly garner the attention of trophy flatheads, blues and channel cats. Or cut freshly dead ones into chunks to create catfish-attracting scent and taste trails of bloody proteins.
Top Trick: When these baitfish are plentiful, chum your fishing hole with small chunks. Then, impale an inch-square portion on a rig with only one or two split shot for weight. Allow the bait to flutter slowly down through the strike zone while gripping your rod and reel tightly. Smashing hits often result.
Minnows are superb baits for all kinds of catfish in all kinds of waters year-round, and are readily available from bait dealers. Use light-wire hooks through the nose or behind the soft dorsal fin to keep them lively; lifeless minnows are far less attractive to catfish.
Top Trick: Cat fans sometimes use a “stacked minnow” presentation to enhance the attractiveness of these baits. Several minnows are placed on one wide-gap hook, with the hook piercing them through the eyes. A round party balloon, inflated to the size of a baseball, is then tied to the line with a tight overhand knot.
Push the balloon up so its position on the line matches the depth of catfish seen on your fish finder. The entire rig is slid into the water and allowed to drift. When a catfish hits, reel it right in. The balloon will slip off the line when it hits your rod tip, without causing any problems.
Want to catch the biggest catfish in the pond? You might want to try live frogs. Cats of all sorts love them, and it’s easy to catch some for bait. Shine a headlight on a rainy night and grab bullfrogs, leopard frogs and other common kinds you see near local ponds and marshes. Stash your frog bounty in a wet sock to keep them lively until fishing time.
Top Trick: Frogs can be hooked through both lips or in the thigh, but hooking the amphibian through a foreleg maintains maximum swimming ability and makes the frog a more enticing bait. Use a 5/0 to 6/0 weedless hook with wire guard to prevent snagging in weeds or brush; a similar-sized Kahle hook also works.
Add one or two split shot on the line 12 inches above the hook to complete the rig. No bobber is necessary. Cast the frog near shoreline cover and allow it to swim to the bottom on slack line. Raise your rod tip occasionally to stir it into action again. Most strikes come quickly when the bait is swimming.
Few anglers ever think about them, but freshwater clams and mussels make great baits for catfish. Collect common varieties from the bottoms of streams or lakes, open with a knife and cut into small pieces. Be ready when you use them because catfish are really quick to gobble them up.
Top Trick: Put some mussels in a bucket, cover them with boiling water, place the bucket in a sunny spot and allow it to sit for several days. The shells will open and the mussels will “stew” in their own juices, resulting in an irresistible enticement for big cats.
Sometimes you need big baits to catch really big catfish. That’s when veterans often use 1- to 2-pound bullheads. These fish are common in many waters, easy to catch on worms or chicken livers and easy to keep alive in a just a bucket of water. Top Trick: Run a big hook through the bullhead’s lips or just behind the dorsal fin, then throw it out on a weighted line. The fish that swallows that bait could be the biggest you’ve ever seen.
A lively cicada buzzing on the water’s surface is one of the best baits you can use for big catfish. Normally, it’s tough to obtain cicadas, but every few years, several year classes emerge at once and millions cover the trees. All you need is a cricket cage to hold them and some youngsters to help catch them.
Top Trick: Hook a cicada through the hard shell and cast it on the water’s surface with no sinker, float or other terminal tackle. If done properly, the big bug will buzz occasionally. Soon you’ll be battling a nice catfish that rose to take the offering.
Bigger varieties of these hopping insects are really attractive topwater baits for catfish. A butterfly net swept through tall grass in fields should turn up plenty. Or, spread a fuzzy blanket in the grass and drive the hoppers to it. The stickers on the bugs’ feet get caught in the fabric. Just pluck the bugs from the blanket and put them in a cricket cage.
Top Trick: My catfishing uncle taught me a trick that never fails. Secure a big grasshopper to a 1/0 or 2/0 Aberdeen hook with a very small rubber band, like the kind used on kids’ braces. Then, flip the bug beside a log or stump using a fly rod. You’ll see every vicious strike and enjoy a rod-bending battle with each hungry cat.
Well, Dog Gone!
When live baits fail, dunk a chunk of hot dog for cats
It just doesn’t get any more fun than camping by a river or lake, roasting some hot dogs over a fire and waiting for a big catfish to bite. But did you know that catfish you’re hoping to catch loves hot dogs as much as you do?
While you’re roasting a hot dog on a stick, you can use another one for bait. Just slice it into chunks and run a hook all the way through one. Put a big bobber on your line above the baited hook, cast it out and drift it near cover where you think a catfish might lurk. If Mr. Whiskers is around, he’ll gobble it up quicker than a kid eating a chocolate bar. Then you’ll be frying catfish for dinner instead of eating tube steak.