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Catfish Bait Equation Equals Big Fish

Catfish Bait Equation Equals Big Fish
Photo by Keith Sutton

Every hardcore catfish angler will agree: You must have fresh catfish bait to catch the big ones.

By Keith "Catfish" Sutton

Fresh bait + proper presentation = big cats. That's the catfish bait equation.

Photo by Keith Sutton

Without fresh bait (either live or freshly killed), you'll find it difficult to catch trophy catfish consistently. Despite popular misconceptions, heavyweight cats are notoriously picky about their food. If it's not fresh — oozing catfish-attracting proteins into the water — chances are good a jumbo whiskerfish will avoid eating it. Due to this fact, the trophy cat enthusiast must learn first to catch bait, second to catch fish.

Begin by determining what baits work best when and where you're fishing. Local anglers, fisheries biologists and bait-shop proprietors can help in this regard, so seek their advice.

Test the baits they recommend, and refine your presentations until you're able to catch cats more often than not. The thing to remember is the best bait choice depends on a variety of factors, particularly the species and size of catfish you're targeting, the season and the availability of particular forage animals in the body of water you're fishing.

For example, to catch a flathead exceeding 20 pounds, you'll increase success dramatically by using live fish baits such as bluegills, carp or chubs where these species are present. Big channel cats and blues sometimes feed opportunistically, scavenging for food that may run the gamut from dead mussels to worms. But these jumbo predators are much more readily enticed by a meal of fresh fish — either an actively moving live fish or chunks of very fresh baitfish. The possibilities may seem endless, but if you study the situation thoroughly, you'll narrow the selection to a few choice baits.

The bait you want may be available from bait dealers or fish farms. If so, rejoice. You can spend more time fishing, less time finding bait. If the bait you need can't be purchased, however — which tends to be the case with blue-ribbon baits like shad and herring — you'll have to learn ways to obtain your own, and allot some time for bait-catching before every trip.


If fresh shad rank high on the local bait list, as they will in many cases, invest in a good cast net, and learn to use it properly. Some excellent baits — skipjacks, sunfish and bullheads, for example — can be caught on small lures or baited hooks, including sabiki rigs made specially for that purpose.

Special traps may be required to catch crayfish, creek chubs and other favored baits, but some bait animals, such as frogs, can be caught by hand. Check local regulations to determine what's legal, then learn the best methods to catch what you need.

Sometimes catching bait is quick and simple. You can do it on site just before fishing. Other times, you may spend hours trying to find fresh bait, with or without success. It's important to prepare for all possibilities.

Most expert anglers try to catch what they need in advance of their fishing trip, and do what's necessary to keep it lively or fresh. This may be as simple as icing down skipjacks in a cooler or keeping frogs in a wet burlap bag, or as elaborate as constructing special aerated tanks for housing live baitfish. If the bait of preference is unobtainable, a substitute can be found before the trip is made.

Anglers who expect to catch all their bait at the fishing site may come up empty handed. Shad may be plentiful one day and gone the next. Skipjacks may have migrated to parts unknown. To keep such outings from being ruined, always carry backup baits such as chicken liver or night crawlers. You may not catch a trophy cat using the latter enticements, but perhaps you'll catch some smaller ones and still enjoy the day.

Frozen baits rarely work as well as fresh-caught baits, but when bait such as herring is plentiful, consider freezing some for times of need. Vacuum-packaging units like the Tilia FoodSaver® can maintain surplus baits in near-fresh condition for months and are well worth the meager investment.

The bottom line is this: if big cats are your quarry, use the freshest bait possible to improve your odds for success. Try to catch some bait on site before you start fishing, for this is the freshest of all. But be prepared in case your efforts fail.

Remember the catfish bait equation: Fresh bait + proper presentation = big cats. It will help you be successful almost every time.

To purchase an autographed copy of one of Keith Sutton's catfish books, visit his website at

More info on catfish baits

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