May 23, 2022
By Keith Sutton
Anglers use an amazing variety of baits to catch channel catfish. Natural baits including minnows, sunfish, shad, chubs, worms, frogs, crawfish and even grasshoppers work great whether dead or alive.
Some superb enticements are even found in grocery stores—things like poultry livers, chicken breasts, shrimp, hot dogs, cheese and Spam.
Don’t forget stinkbaits, either, whether homemade or store-bought. They smell horrible, but catfish find the taste and aroma tempting.
You can usually employ these baits just by putting them on a hook, but smart anglers know they can customize channel catfish baits to make them work even better.
In many cases, all you need are some simple tricks to turn mediocre baits into cat-catchers extraordinaire.
Here are seven ways to boost the effectiveness of your channel catfish baits for more success on the water this summer:
GIVE A SQUEEZE
A catfish’s skin is covered head to tail with tens of thousands of taste buds. These help it find food, even in muddy water. When you’re tempting channel cats with dead baits—whole dead fish like chubs and shiners—squeeze a big shot of tube-style stinkbait into the mouth and gills of each lifeless baitfish.
Little Stinker Catfish Tube Bait (available in Liver/Blood, Rotten Shad, Blood, Chicken Liver and Catalpa Worm flavors) is one of the best for this purpose. Just cut off the very end of the squeeze tube, insert the tip in an orifice and give it a good squeeze. When the bait oozes out, you’ve got enough to amplify the taste and aroma of the dead bait and ring a loud dinner bell for hungry cats.
BEND A MINNOW
When fishing streams or rivers, make dead baits work better by adding some sight appeal. Hook each baitfish so it has a distinct bend in the body. The bend catches the current, and, instead of lying motionless on the bottom, the bait waves about and is more likely to catch the eye of a ravenous catfish.
You’ll need a bait-holder hook with a barb on the shaft to make this work properly. Run the hook point through the baitfish’s mouth and toward the tail, pushing it out one side about midway down. Leave the point exposed to increase hook-ups, and use a leader at least 3 feet long so the wavering bait has room to really flutter in the moving water. Then, prepare for action.
INFLATE A WORM
Live-bait anglers can gussy up offerings to make them more enticing as well. If you like fishing worms, consider investing $3 or so in a worm blower, a little plastic bottle with a needle top (Lindy Fishing Tackle and Magic Products both offer one). Use the blower to inject a shot of air into the bodies of the nightcrawlers and worms you use for bait. Worms often sink to the bottom, where they can be hard for catfish to find. The air shot causes the worm to float so it’s no longer hidden in rocks and debris. Hungry catfish quickly zero-in on each tidbit.
To make your worms even more visually attractive, try a very old trick that adds more flavor and color that catfish find tantalizing. First, buy a jar of pickled beets, eat the beets and save the juice. Next, drop 2- or 3-dozen worms in the beet juice and let them soak overnight. Not only will the worms toughen up so they stay on the hook longer, but they also take on a bright red color that’s like a flashing “Eat Here!” sign for channel cats. This works in much the same way as red hooks. To catfish, red signifies blood or an injury, and hungry cats are quick to dash in and gobble up an easy meal.
CLIP A FIN
Whenever you’re fishing with live fish—sunfish, shiners, suckers, chubs, carp, minnows, etc.—as bait, carry some sharp scissors to clip off a portion of the baitfish’s tail and fins. The little scissors in multitools work great for this purpose. You don’t have to remove much—perhaps a corner of the tail or the tips of the spiny fins.
Hook the clipped fish just behind the dorsal fin and rig it for fishing beneath a bobber. Then, cast to a good-looking spot and let the befuddled baitfish dart about beneath the float. Catfish will likely taste and smell the blood trail it leaves, and they’re certain to give their attention to the injured fish, which looks like an effortless meal.
TWEAK THE GROCERIES
There’s no question that grocery store baits like chicken livers and hot dogs work. However, there are many ways to jazz up these items so they’re even more attractive to channel catfish. Let’s use livers as an example.
The blood that oozes from a piece of fresh chicken or turkey liver is one of the best catfish attractors there is, even without enhancements. But many anglers like to dust the pieces with cheese powder to give them extra catfish-attracting flavor and scent. The cheese from packets in boxes of macaroni and cheese work great. Also good are Velveeta cheese sauce, garlic powder and the juice from packages of tuna.
Hot dogs are excellent grocery baits, too, especially cheaper types made with pork and poultry parts. You can slice them into bite-sized pieces and use as is, but marinating the chunks adds attractiveness. Put pieces in a zip-top freezer bag and add one packet of unsweetened strawberry Kool-Aid, three tablespoons minced garlic and enough water to cover. Refrigerate overnight. The garlic flavor and blood-red color will coax bites from catfish every time.
PAIR A BAIT AND LURE
In some situations, anglers may benefit from combining live bait and lures, just as crappie and walleye anglers often do. For example, a minnow or chub soaked on the bottom or beneath a bobber will eventually get eaten by any catfish that tastes or smells it. But bites will likely come quicker if you tie a colorful jig or flashy spinner on your line first. Run the lure hook through the lips or eyes of the live bait, then work the bait/lure combo around cover and structure where catfish are likely to be lurking. You can drag the same jig head-and-nightcrawler combinations that northern walleye fishermen use across the bottom to entice hungry catfish around rocks, stumps and other hideouts.
ADD SOME PLASTIC
Finally, here’s a helpful hint from Tennessee catfish angler Bob Holmes, which Chris Altman shared in his book Catfishing. Holmes places half-inch pieces of plastic worms on his bait hooks to provide a splash of color.
“The piece of plastic worm makes the bait a bit more buoyant,” Holmes says. “But I believe it functions most effectively as an attractor to the catfish, something to get the fish’s attention. We have done informal studies on the technique and, invariably, the angler using the piece of plastic gets a bite more often.” Holmes’ favorite color is red, but he also uses blue worms in clear water and chartreuse ones in muddy water. Test your favorite colors to see how well they work.
Bait Gear to Help Catfish Anglers
Lindy Worm Blower: This handy, easy-to-use, inexpensive item ($2.49; lurenet.com) helps you get your worms up off the bottom and into a catfish’s line of sight.
Frabill Universal Bait Station: This soft-sided cooler ($59.99; frabill.com) provides live-bait anglers with a durable yet portable bait management system. It is insulated, watertight and holds up to 8 quarts of water, ice or soil, making it suitable for whatever type of bait you’re using. There is a side-mounted, battery-operated aerator with a hose and stone for keeping baitfish alive and fresh. Up top, a quick-access bait door permits easy bait retrieval. It also makes for a good cooler or a tackle bag capable of holding up to four 3600 StowAway utility boxes.
Magic Products Worm Farm: If fishing worms is on your agenda, you need a way to properly store them. Magic’s Worm Farm kit ($15.99; magicproducts.com) contains a 1 1/2-pound bag of Magic Worm Bedding, a 4-ounce bag of Magic Worm Food and instructions, all within a handy bait bucket. The 8-quart container’s polystyrene construction prevents rotting or worms eating through it, and a new internal ventilation system keeps the bedding appropriately aerated. Due to its height (12 inches), you can place an ice container atop the bedding to keep worms cool.
SPRO 9-inch Sportsman Scissors: A quality pair of fishing scissors is handy for any number of reasons, but they’re really useful for clipping a baitfish’s fin to make it more attractive to cats. These scissors ($11.19; spro.com) are stainless steel and sport a double serrated edge and oversized non-slip grips. They also have a built-in bottle opener, fish scaler and nut/claw cracker.
Little Stinker Catfish Tube Bait: If you’re fishing a whole dead bait and want to spice things up a bit, squeeze some of this stuff ($3.49; acmetackle.com) into the mouth or gills. It comes in five popular scent options, and each tube holds 4.5 ounces of bait. The company recommends trying it with their Tear Drop Glitter Lure ($3.49), which has tiny holes that gradually release the injected scent material into the water. — Drew Warden