Channel catfish are like barnyard hogs. They'll eat almost anything. I've caught whiskered warriors on hooks baited with live worms, leeches, caterpillars, crickets, grasshoppers, frogs, minnows, shad, goldfish, bluegills and crawdads, and with artificial lures like spoons, spinners, jigs and crankbaits.
The dead and smelly also are relished, such as shrimp, fish guts, chicken liver, mussels, clotted blood, cheese and stinkbait. Even bizarre offerings like soap, hot dogs, dog food, bread, muscadines, persimmons and bubblegum are enticing at times.
However, to be consistently successful in regard to catfish, anglers need to be selective about baits, as some enticements are decidedly better than others, particularly in winter.
When chasing big channel cats, nothing beats fish for bait, and few fish are as productive as gizzard shad, threadfin shad, skipjack herring, blueback herring and other members of that family. Unfortunately, not many bait shops sell these fish because they are difficult to keep alive and don't freeze well. As such, it is best to learn to catch these fish fresh and keep them on ice to use as cut bait on the same day.
Using a cast net is one effective method for catching herring family members, so it's worthwhile to purchase one and learn to use it. One throw often will bring in dozens of baits.
Sabiki rigs also are great tools. These are pre-tied rigs that have a main line from which several dropper lines are attached. At the end of each dropper is a small lure with a tiny hook and a body of either 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, where it is not unusual to bring up three or four baitfish at a time.
Some anglers fillet strips from a baitfish's sides or belly, while others cut the bait in chunks, or use only the entrails. It's usually best to vary offerings to determine what catfish want. If filets don't work, try using heads or tails. If these don't work, try other pieces. Some days catfish can be very persnickety.
When using filets for bait, leave the skin on and thread the filet on the hook. For chunks, slice crosswise through the fish, dividing it into head, mid-section and tail pieces, or dice the flesh into small pieces about an inch square.
Use the freshest bait possible to improve odds for success. The flesh of shad, skipjacks and herring contains proteins catfish can taste and smell from long distances, but these proteins break down quickly in dead fish. So try to use bait on the same day it is caught.
Tip: If you're having a good day and have caught lots of baitfish, try chumming the fishing hole with small cut-bait chunks. Then impale an inch-square portion on a hook with only one or two split shot for weight. Allow the bait to flutter slowly down through the strike zone while gripping the rod and reel tightly.
Nightcrawlers and other worms can be called catfish candy, as they are relished by hungry channel cats. Even better, these wiggly invertebrates are available year 'round at bait shops.
A three-way rig is good for fishing these baits. Tie the main line to one eye of a three-way swivel and add drop lines 12 and 24 inches long from the other eyes. Tie a hook to the longer drop line, and a sinker to the other. Then, thread a worm on the hook and cast to a likely spot.
The secret to catching cats on worms is generosity. Don't use just one worm or a piece of a worm, or catfish may miss it. Thread two to four plump crawlers on the hook, and mash a few pieces so body juices flow into the water. If catfish are nearby, the action won't take long.
Tip: Many tackle dealers and bait shops carry a neat product called a worm blower. This small plastic bottle with a hollow needle can be used to inject a shot of air into the body of a worm to add buoyancy. Worms floating above the bottom of the lake or stream are more easily found by channel cats than worms lying in the mud or between rocks.
Chicken liver is another bait channel cats find irresistible. Cats quickly zero in on the scent and taste of poultry blood dissolving from the tissue. Turkey, pork and beef liver are recommended by some, but chicken liver seems to work the best in my experience.
I've found fresh livers work much better than frozen, but it is often difficult to keep the bait on the hook without first wrapping it in a piece of cheesecloth or nylon stocking.
Lay some liver on a square of material, pull up the four corners, then run a hook through the corners, leaving the barb exposed. This keeps the liver from flying off when cast, and in no way affects the bait's attractiveness.
A treble hook attached to the line with a swivel is another good rig if planning to eat the catfish, as deep-swallowed trebles may kill released fish.
Unsnap the swivel, remove the hook, push the eye of the hook through the liver so the organ is impaled on the three barbs, and reattach the hook to the swivel. Then, add a sinker to carry the bait to the bottom and you're ready for action.
Tip: If you go catfishing often, you can buy chicken liver in bulk for less than a buck a pound and keep a fresh supply on hand in your refrigerator. Few winter baits are more available, less expensive and more effective.
Catfish, like sharks, are readily attracted to blood. Almost any mammal or bird blood will work, but most anglers use chicken or beef blood obtained from meat-processing plants.
To make blood bait, pour half an inch of blood in a shallow pan, then refrigerate or pack in cracked ice for a day or so until the blood coagulates. The thickened blood is then cut into chunks and stored in a suitable container. When needed, a piece is pinched off and threaded on a hook.
More on catfish baits
Blood bait's main advantage is it's tremendous "cat appeal." Blood attracts cats quickly over long distances. Blood also keeps indefinitely when frozen, and can be thawed and refrozen as needed.
Blood bait's most serious drawback is poor "hookability." It won't stay on a hook very well. To overcome this problem, use the same technique used for liver. Wrap a big piece of blood bait in a square of cheesecloth or nylon, pull the four corners together, then thread the hook through the corners, leaving the point exposed.
Tip: Blood bait quickly dissolves in moving water, making it necessary to re-bait hooks often. For the greatest success, use blood baits only when fishing ponds, lake coves and other still waters.
A frisky live fish often entices heavyweight channel cats better than any other bait. Among the best are 3- to 4-inch-long sunfish, suckers and chubs, all of which can readily be caught in winter using a small hook baited with a piece of worm.
In areas with trophy-sized channel cats, even larger baits are OK. Store the fish in a bait bucket filled with cool water from the lake or stream where they were caught.
I prefer a bobber rig instead of a bottom rig for live fish baits. With a float on the line above a hook and sinker, I can observe baitfish movements and keep active baits from moving too deep into cover and tangling up. Use of a slip-bobber below a bobber stop permits fishing deep or shallow, and a long rod — 7 to 9 feet — allows lifting line off the water and guiding the bait to hotspots.
These live baits cajole hungry trophies better than almost anything. So prepare by using sturdy tackle and heavy line that will handle a 15- to 30-pounder.
Tip: I always carry a multi-tool with built-in scissors that I use to snip off a large corner of the baitfish's tail before casting it out. This makes the fish struggle to swim, and its erratic "I'm injured" actions quickly garner the attention of hungry cats.