Anglers have been targeting whiskerfish in American waters for a long time.
Consider, for example, the explorers Lewis and Clark who led the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River in 1804 at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson. Every night, the leaders had their men set lines to catch catfish for feeding their intrepid crew.
They caught hundreds, including one that weighed 130 pounds! Clark said one afternoon the men "caught 19 catfish that would weigh close to 300 pounds."
When I read Lewis and Clark's journals, I was excited to see all their entries about catfishing, but disappointed they didn't tell us more about the baits they used. We can only imagine how they enticed those river monsters, and other highly effective baits used in decades past have almost been forgotten as well.
One example is this previously secret formula passed down through six generations of catfishermen in one family I know.
"To 1 pint of pine tar oil (in a quart container), add 1 ounce each oil of anise, oil of rhodium, banana oil, sassafras oil and tincture of asafoetida. Finish filling the container with used motor oil. Stir. Paint hooks and about 1 inch of the line above the hook, or tie a few turns of cotton twine around the hook's bend and soak in bait mixture. Good for all kinds of catfish."
Does it work? I cannot truly say, for I've never found all the unusual ingredients needed to make it. But for 40 years, that family had a reputation for catching the region's biggest catfish, and they often used this homemade attractant.
I have tried the old-fashioned baits described below. They may seem strange to modern anglers, but each attracts hungry catfish like kids to an ice-cream truck. Try them and see.
Decades ago, embarrassed children often went to school wearing little cotton pouches on strings around their necks. These "acifidity bags" contained a foul-smelling resin called devil's dung believed to ward off flu. Made from plants native to central Asia, asafoetida, as it is properly known, found its way into catfish baits as well. "If it stinks, throw it in," bait makers often said.
I can testify to asafoetida's effectiveness. In the 1960s, several men with whom I fished carried powdered asafoetida when fishing. A small amount was dissolved in water, then strips of cloth were soaked in the malodorous solution and placed on hooks. We caught many catfish using this scent bait.
Despite its repugnant aroma, asafoetida is a standard ingredient in many Asian food recipes, adding a flavor many compare to leeks. It still can be obtained via internet companies. Should you try it, carry a clothespin to put on your nose.
It seems strange that catfish might greedily devour soap. What person would even think to try such a bait? Despite the seeming oddity, however, certain soaps have been used to entice catfish since shortly after the Civil War.
It probably started with homemade lye soap, which contained beef tallow or lard. A few anglers I know still use it effectively. The natural ingredients contain proteins attractive to catfish.
Ivory Soap, made by Proctor & Gamble since 1879, has been used by hardcore catters for more than a century. Zote and Octagon soaps are favorites, too. Roger Aziz Jr., a Massachusetts angler who has set many world records for bullheads, uses Dial soap as an attractant for those bantam cats.
Pieces of soap can be hooked and fished using rod and reel, but old-timers swear it works better on trotlines and limb-lines because these sets give it time to melt and attract cats from afar.
A moth called the catalpa sphinx occurs throughout much of the eastern United States. Its caterpillars subsist entirely on catalpa tree leaves. A single tree may contain thousands of catalpa worms in spring, and because catfish relish these fat larvae, anglers have long favored them as an abundant bait supply.
Despite their effectiveness, catalpa worms have fallen out of favor with modern anglers. That's a shame because few baits work as well on eating-size channel cats. Thread one on a hook like an earthworm, then cast and prepare for a hard strike.
Worms on low branches can be picked from the leaves. For those higher up, use a long pole to tap the leaves and make the worms fall. Store in a cool container with some catalpa leaves until ready to fish.
In bygone days, catfishermen often opened the stomachs of fish they caught to see what foods were inside. In this way, anglers discovered big cats often cannibalize their smaller relatives. It made sense then to use small live catfish for bait.
I first discovered the use of catfish for catfish bait in Joe Mathers' 1953 book Catfishin'. "Use small living forms, 3-6 inches long," Mathers 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 set lines."
Check local regulations first. Catfish baits are legal some places but off limits in others. If you can use them, rejoice. Few enticements work better for trophy cats, especially big flatheads.
In the bellies of catfish, anglers of years past often found fruits as well. Being observant, they also saw the swirls of catfish dining on falling mulberries, persimmons and other fruits and started using those fruits for bait.
I've met few catfishermen under age 70 who've tried hooking a fruit and lobbing it into the water to catch catfish. But old timers with whom I've fished would beach their boats under fruit trees or vines, gather what they needed, then proceed to catch dozens of cats on the hooked baits.
Domestic fruits work as well. Mississippi catfish guide Phil King tells me he often uses grapes with great success, and several anglers I know use muscadines and even raisins on rod and reel and setlines. Weird? Maybe. Effective? For sure.
"You'll be surprised how many cats you can catch using bait everyone else seems to have forgotten or never known," King says.