June 08, 2022
It was late February and the snow was falling when my wife Julie and I slipped our Aquapod skiffs into the river on the upstream side of the bridge and went to work cast-netting a short bucket of gizzard shad—a task that didn’t take long.
Tying off gunwale-to-gunwale to an old snag in two feet of frigid, murky water, we baited No. 4 Eagle Claws with fresh shad innards and made our first casts of the New Year.
Within 60 seconds, if that, Julie’s Lamiglas bent into an arc as a wide, silver-gray tail slapped the surface 20 feet away. It wasn’t long before a gorgeous 3-pound channel catfish lay in the bottom of her skiff. I was of no help, however, since I was fastened to her cat’s twin brother.
It went on like that for the next 90 minutes. Gorging themselves on a carpet of winter-killed shad, hundreds of ravenous catfish cruised the shallows in search of the fresh baits we offered up. It was, quite literally, one right after another.
"Twenty-eight," Julie said, dropping another 2-pound eater into the cooler. "That’s enough. Let’s go home and clean fish. I’d lost the feeling in my fingers 15 minutes earlier and couldn’t agree quickly enough."
That was a dozen years ago, and after discovering how red-hot the ice-out channel cat fishery can be, we made it an annual tradition. It was consistent, always fast-paced and often quite educational. Over the years, we’ve learned that channel catfish, while omnivorous and generally never lacking an appetite, can be quite particular about what they eat.
Just like finicky rainbows and wary brown trout, channel cats often require you to “match the hatch,” so to speak. That is, you can be close with what you’re throwing, but if you’re not spot on…well, you’re not going to have many cats to clean. To that end, let’s take an in-depth look at what works best when it comes to enticing springtime channel catfish.
First, we’ll examine the undeniably best choice—live and natural baits. Live baits for catfish are almost without number and include a long list of familiar offerings, including nightcrawlers, redworms, crayfish, minnows and shad.
However, there are some perhaps less-familiar options that also can be effective—things such as freshwater clams, eels or eel chunks, grasshoppers and catalpa worms.
As far as I’m concerned, live bait for channels can be either truly alive or very recently deceased. Unlike flatheads, which are partial to wiggling baits such as smaller bullheads, green sunfish and creek chubs, channel cats will take their meals alive or dead.
However, unless the fish are actively feeding on a long-dead food source, the words “dead” and “rotten” aren’t synonymous. The bottom line? Keep live bait alive and see that dead bait doesn’t get to the point of liquifying.
- Minnows: For channel cats, I prefer bigger minnows—4 to 5 inches—hooked under the dorsal fin or just ahead of the tail beneath an as-small-as-possible high-vis slip bobber. Such a rig can be cast from shore, floated into and around structure such as log jams or sandbar drop-offs or fished vertically over riprap or timber. As for any dead minnows in my bucket, I’ll fish them just off the bottom, using a small float pegged 10 to 16 inches above a No. 2 or No. 4 Daiichi Bleeding Bait hook. I apply a generous dose of Smelly Jelly garlic scent before each cast.
- Nightcrawlers/Redworms: I’d be remiss not to mention ’crawlers and their kin, but I seldom use worms when targeting channel cats. Too many species eat worms, and when I want cats, I want cats. That said, a fat nightcrawler fished on a 24-inch leader with a bell-sinker-and-bead sliding rig is tough to beat.
- Crayfish: As a catfish bait, these crustaceans are vastly underrated. They’re fun to catch and extremely hardy in the bait bucket as long as it’s well aerated. I fish crawdads off the bottom under a slip bobber, though I first remove their claws so they can’t latch onto anything and hang me up. Dead mudbugs can be fished on the bottom, but don’t forget the crayfish-scented Smelly Jelly.
- Freshwater Clams: Freshwater clams, aka horse clams or mud clams, make fantastic cat baits where legal; anglers should take care in their procurement, identification and use of mollusks for bait. If you have the greenlight to use them where you fish, shuck them, thread them onto a No. 2 Daiichi treble hook, finish with several wraps of Atlas-Mike’s Magic (or Miracle) Thread, and fish them on or near the bottom beneath a pegged float as you would a crawdad or ’crawler. Clams can also be tied into mesh or nylon stockings and used as a steelhead angler would a spawn bag. Spritz liberally with Bang garlic-scented spray.
Nine times out of 10, my cut bait of choice for channel cats is some type of shad, be it gizzard, hickory or threadfin. However, any number of species, including American carp, buffalo, quillback, creek chubs, mooneye, skipjack herring and horse suckers will work just fine.
The higher the oil content of the baitfish the better, as the oil leaches into the water, effectively creating a chum slick that attracts cats from long distances.
Eric Scordo, of Watertown, N.Y., owns and operates NNY Catfish Hunter Charters. He holds both the New York state record and IGFA world record for the longest channel catfish. For Scordo, there are four key factors to consider when fishing cut bait for channel cats.
- Match the Hatch: If a lake is chockfull of gizzard shad, and shad is available to catch and use as bait, it doesn’t make sense to use fillets of carp instead. Using electronics, find a school of the predominant baitfish in your lake’s shallows, throw a cast net and boat all you need for the day. Scordo’s go-to cut bait is fresh yellow perch. “The fresher your bait, the better off you’re going to be,” he says. “I’ve tried rotting my bait, and I haven’t caught anything.”
- Size Matters: Channel cats—all catfish, in fact—have an amazing ability to gulp down baits that are seemingly too big for them. However, if you’re looking for eater cats—say, 1 to 3 pounds—a 2-inch-square chunk of cut shad might be the ticket. Targeting fish in excess of 20 pounds? Half of a 10-inch whole bait should do the trick.
- Hook Up Right: Unless the bait I’m using is on the small side, I’m partial to scaling my cut bait prior to rigging it. This ensures the hook point isn’t covered, possibly preventing a solid hook set. Too, it’s important to use a large enough hook so there’s a sufficient gap when baited to again ensure a good hook-up on the strike. At one time a proponent of circle hooks, Scordo has since switched up his terminal tackle to include Addya off-set, wide-gap, chunk-bait hooks. "I find the Addya wide-gap hooks work much better than the circle hooks," he says. "They’re amazing and very sharp. I’d say I have a 99-percent hook up-to-boat rate with these hooks."
- Making Scents: I’m a true believer in the use of scents like Smelly Jelly or Bang when applied to cut baits. Here again, it’s best to match the hatch—i.e., use shad scent with shad, crayfish scent with crayfish, etc. However, garlic and/or anise both seem to be almost universal in their effectiveness.
Eliminating human scent throughout the rigging process is vital to success. This means not cutting or baiting with hands contaminated by insect repellent, gasoline, sunscreen or tobacco products. Disposable latex gloves can help keep things clean from start to finish.
"You definitely want to keep your hands clean," says Scordo. "And you have to be careful with hand sanitizer. Everyone’s using it these days, and I don’t think the fish bite as well when you’re using that stuff. I can guarantee those fish are smelling that [sanitizer] on your bait."
Volumes have been written about the use of artificial lures for channel ’cats. And while undeniably effective in certain situations, most ’cat anglers would agree that plastics such as twister-tail grubs and hard lures like crankbaits come in second place to natural baits. That said, they’re certainly a viable tool in any catfisherman’s tackle box.
- Soft Plastics: Lead heads paired with twister-tail grubs have accounted for their fair share of channel cats, as well as flatheads and blue cats, both by anglers with intent to catch them and those with other targets in mind. Plain, unscented, 3- to 5-inch twister tails worked along the bottom might well get noticed by an aggressive channel cat, but plastics impregnated with scent, like Berkley’s Gulp! Alive! plastics in any number of natural reproductions—minnow, ’crawler, crayfish, leech, shad, eel—could very well be the dinner bell you’re looking for. The key with plastics, as it is with natural baits be they live or cut, is to target those areas where cats live. Slowly working these plastics around logjams, rock piles, sandbar drop-offs or flooded timber can prove deadly effective.
- Hard Baits: A good friend of mine in Iowa, primarily a dedicated walleye/sauger angler, spends quite a bit of time during the early summer months either trolling or casting small crankbaits specifically for channel cats. He trolls cranks like Wiggle Warts and old-school Hot ‘N Tots along the edges of creek channels, keeping the hard baits on the transition to deeper water using his electronics. High water, which in the Hawkeye State often means June, will find him fan-casting Berkley Flicker Shads or Rat-L-Traps over submerged gravel roadbeds and along flooded willow stands where wood and open water meet. Creek mouths, too, can be a hotspot for those tossing hardware for early-summer channels. Again, it’s a matter of focusing on known cat haunts rather than employing a hunt-and-peck style of finding fish.