Catching catfish is unique among fishing sports because of the never-ending varieties of bait an angler can use.
Chunks of pure soap are one of the "traditional" off-the-wall baits for catfish. Photo by Keith Sutton
One of the most amazing things about catfishing is the odd assortment of baits that fishermen use to entice big whiskerfish. Consider, for example, the story related by Hart Stilwell in his 1946 classic, Hunting and Fishing in Texas.
"I believe the fuzziest idea I ever saw put into practice in the taking of catfish," Stilwell wrote, "was revealed to me way out on the West Pecos River where a friend of mine . . . showed me how to catch big old flathead yellows with freshly killed (or freshly dead) baby chicks. His trouble was in getting the baby chicks, since his wife had strong moral and economic objections. She watched her baby chicks about as closely as the mother hen did, and I honestly believe she had taught that hen to set up a racket the instant Bill eased into the henhouse with the idea of sneaking out a baby chick.
"I hung around there several days, fishing for bass and catching mighty few of them," Stilwell continued. "From time to time, Bill would show up with a baby chick. Each time he managed to convince his wife the chick had died of causes beyond his control. Maybe it did; all I know is that Bill was there for the deathwatch, for the chick was still warm when he showed up with it.
"Each time he threaded a fluffy baby chick on a line and let it down into the river, he caught a big old flathead yellow, and one of them was big enough for Bill to carve a 5-pound steak off one side and give it to me to ice down and take back home."
The republication of this story, which was written nearly 60 years ago, is not an attempt to revive the lost art of "chick flipping" for catfish. No, indeed. I would no more recommend using fluffy chicks for bait than I would suggest using puppies or kittens, a practice that is not only highly illegal, but also highly unethical. I relate the story merely to open your mind to the endless possibilities. When it comes to catfish baits, the best are often unthinkable. For example:
When Proctor and Gamble introduced Ivory soap in 1879, the folks at the company probably never imagined their product would become a popular catfish bait. That's exactly what happened, however, and for a century or so now, white bars of this "100 percent pure" hand cleaner have been a staple in the bait boxes of hardcore cat men.
Old-timers on the rivers I fished as a youngster often baited trotlines with chunks cut from bars of Ivory soap. My uncle was one of these old-timers, and when we ran lines he'd baited in this fashion, it wasn't unusual to find a cat on every other hook. A small piece threaded on a hook works equally well for rod-and-reel anglers.
Although Ivory is the brand most often used, I've heard that Octagon and Zote soaps also work great. These also are "pure" soaps, without added scents or chemicals. Some catfishermen I know use old-fashioned lye soap made at home, and it, too, seldom fails to coax a bite from hungry cats.
ASAFETIDA AND OTHER SCENT BAITS
Asafetida is another superb catfish enticement now largely forgotten. Also called stinking gum and Devil's dung, this product, made from plants native to Eurasia, comes in two primary forms - a resin and an oil - both of which are used to flavor foods and for medicinal purposes. In decades past, children often wore a pouch of asafetida around the neck to ward off winter colds, an embarrassing matter for the kids, for asafetida has a strong, repugnant smell.
Catfishermen used asafetida by mixing a bit of resin or oil in a bucket of water. A cotton trotline was then soaked in the mixture. When the line was set, catfish would come and rub against it, much like a feline playing with catnip. Many got foul-hooked, thus producing a catch without the angler having to obtain "regular" bait. Oil of rhodium, anise oil and rotten eggs sometimes were used the same way.
Back in the 1960s, many men with whom I catfished carried a bottle of asefetida oil in their tackle box or little 10-gram packets of the sticky resin. We'd put a few drops of the oil in a can of water or dissolve a piece of resin in the same, then soak a piece of cloth in the mixture and put it on our hook. We caught many catfish using this scent bait, all of which ate the bait just like they might eat a worm.
Where does one obtain asefetida, you might ask? In the old days, we got it from our local druggist. On a whim, I went to my local drugstore last week and asked the pharmacist if he was familiar with the product. "Certainly," he said and proceeded to produce a dusty carton from the back of a shelf containing dozens of small boxes of "glycerited asafoetida," the very item we used back in the 1960s. You probably won't find it in many drugstores, but if you check with some of the smaller establishments in rural areas, your search might prove fruitful. Asafetida also is available through several Internet sources.
A few anglers I know use fruits to catch their cats. The very idea stretches the imagination, but cats are opportunistic feeders that will gorge on various types of wild fruits when available. In South America, for example, the red-tailed catfish is considered especially delicious during high-water periods when it migrates into flooded jungles to feed on fruits falling into the water.
Our own blue cats and channel cats are known to do likewise, gathering to feed on muscadines, mulberries, haw fruits and even acorns and hickory nuts that drop from trees overhanging the water. When we fished flooded woodlands along the lower Mississippi when I was younger, the catfish we cleaned often had fruits and nuts in their bellies.
My father-in-law, 70-year-old Hansel Hill of Alpine, Arkansas, says anglers on Arkansas' Lake Greeson frequently use ripe persimmons for bait.
"In fall, when persimmons get ripe and start falling, it's not unusual to clean a catfish that has a belly full of them," he said. "Years ago, when folks discovered this, they started using persimmons for bait. And they learned real quickly, when persimmons are available, they're one of the best catfish baits there is. I've seen folks load a boat with cats by baiting their hooks with nothing but persimmons."
On the Little Missouri River, a tributary of Lake Greeson, I've run into catfishermen using mulberries for bait. Unlike persimmons, which ripen in autumn, mulberries ripen in spring. The banks along the Little Missouri have hundreds of mulberry trees overhanging the water, and when the ripe fruit starts falling, you can see schools of channel catfish fighting to grab each m
orsel that splashes down.
The mulberry anglers gather the fruits and impale two or three on a baitholder hook. The fruit is lobbed out under a mulberry tree, and rarely reaches bottom before a cat gobbles it up.
In his book, Masters' Secrets of Catfishing, Alabama writer John Phillips reports on another topnotch fruit bait. "Golden raisins are good catfish bait if you're using set hooks, trotlines or any method of fishing that allows the bait to be in the water for an extended time," he wrote. "The raisins are the most productive during the hot summer months - particularly when fishing at night. . . . The raisins swell up on the hooks and begin to ferment, giving off a very strong odor that calls catfish. Because of the raisins' bright-yellow color, the cats can find and eat them easily."
Catfish guide Phil King of Corinth, Mississippi, often uses raisins for bait. He reports that white grapes are another fruit anglers should try. "They're a good summer bait," he said.
BULLHEADS AND OTHER CATFISH
Bullhead catfish are the main prey of flatheads in many waters where both are common. They've been used as bait by flathead fans since at least the 19th century, but nowadays, relatively few anglers ever try them, despite the fact that where they are legal bait - and you need to check the regulations because in many places they are not legal - they may be the best bait available when you're targeting trophy-class flatheads.
In his 1953 book, Catfishin', Joe Mathers called bullhead baits "excellent, especially for large catfish."
"Use small living forms, 3 to 6 inches long," he wrote. "Snip off the barbels, spines and dorsal fins 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 setlines. Small bullheads can usually be taken in great numbers with a seine or on hook and line from backwaters, bayous, ponds and small lakes and streams . . ."
Outdoor writer Jeff Samsel, an avid catfishermen, reports that channel cats sometimes are used for bait as well.
"For big flathead catfish, many longtime river fishermen contend there is no better bait than another catfish," he told me. "Bullheads and channel cats are most commonly used, but whatever kind of catfish a flathead is accustomed to seeing in a waterway is probably the best cat to use as bait in that location. Any cat up to a couple of pounds will do. Hook the bait in the back, toward the tail, and suspend it just off the bottom."
Sometimes you can rig the bait just by catching it. When Dorothy Taylor of Ft. Scott, Kansas, cleaned a 53-pound flathead she caught, she found a 1 1/2-pound channel cat in its belly. The channel cat, not the flathead, had her hook in its mouth.
GROCERY STORE BAITS
As their name implies, grocery store baits can be purchased at your local supermarket.
Take Hormel Spam, for example. On Aug. 3, 2001, Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion, Arkansas, used a chunk of this spicy canned meat to catch a 116-pound, 12-ounce blue cat in the Mississippi River at West Memphis - the world record by rod and reel at the time.
When I asked Ashley what had convinced him that Spam might catch catfish, he seemed astounded.
"I thought everybody used it," he replied. "My father used Spam for catfish bait, and so did my grandfather. I rarely use anything else." (Word has it there was a shortage of Spam in east Arkansas and West Tennessee for months after Ashley landed his record fish.)
Both fresh and frozen shrimp can be used to entice blue, channel and flathead cats up to about 10 pounds. Run your hook from the head of the shrimp out through the tail, and leave the hook point exposed.
Cheese is an ingredient in many stink bait concoctions, especially smelly cheeses such as Limburger. In some areas, however, anglers simply use chunks of sharp cheddar or Velveeta, both of which are said to be effective cat catchers.
On South Carolina's Santee-Cooper lakes, hallowed water for catfish fans, hot dogs are used to entice cats - but not just any hot dogs.
"They don't like all-beef hot dogs," one guide told me. "But they love the cheap kind made out of chicken or turkey." (And you thought catfish weren't discriminating diners!)
Will cats eat dog food? Indeed! Cat men in Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama swear Tender Chunks is head and shoulders above the rest. But an angler in Arkansas claims Kibbles 'n' Bits is tops for small channel cats.
Bread doesn't seem like a great cat bait, but I once watched a tour guide mash an entire loaf into a big dough ball, then drop it over the side of the boat into the clear waters of Silver Springs, Florida. One of the biggest cats I ever saw came up and swallowed the entire loaf of bread in a single gulp. Might be worth trying.
Massachusetts catter Roger Aziz has caught more line-class-record white cats than anyone. His favorite bait? Bacon.
"Hickory-smoked bacon works best," he said. "Always."
In winter, when live baits are hard to come by, anglers must rely more on various types of grocery baits. Randle Hall, a Texas catfish guide, told me, "I started experimenting and found that squid really works. I use non-cleaned squid bought at a supermarket, half a squid per hook."
OTHER WACKY BAITS
John Phillips tells a story about a friend, out of bait, who resorted to using a road-killed possum on his hook. It worked.
"I was very surprised," his friend said. "The catfish hit the possum bait better than they had the cut shad, live minnows and worms I had been using."
"Some people say adding WD-40 or Preparation H to lures and baits brings added success," wrote Vince Travnichek in an article published in the Missouri Conservationist. "The explanation is that both products contain shark oil, which attracts fish. The manufacturer of WD-40 said that shark oil is not an ingredient in the product, but the manufacturer of Preparation H stated that their product contains 3 percent shark liver oil. Both said they had heard of these angling secrets, but did not recommend using their products in such a manner."
James Patterson of Mississippi River Guide Service in Bartlett, Tennessee, says he has caught catfish using mulberries, bologna and crickets, and has cleaned cats that had such items as fried potatoes and pork chops in their bellies.
"The most unusual thing I've found in a catfish was bubble gum," he noted. "I landed the fish and it was squirting pink liquid everywhere. When I cut it open, it still had three full pieces of bubble gum inside."
Some anglers actually use bubble gum for bait. "We use Bazooka, Double Bu
bble and Bubble Yum," a Georgia catfisherman told me. "They all catch cats so long as you chew the gum a little before baiting your hook. Don't chew all the flavor out, though, or they won't take it."
The wackiest cat bait? No bait at all. Jug-fishermen on the White and Mississippi rivers catch channel and blue cats using only a gold crappie hook dangled beneath each jug. "Catfish see that flashy gold hook and grab it," one told me. "You don't need bait at all."
Which just goes to prove what I've been saying all along: Sooner or later you'll catch a catfish no matter what you dangle in the water. And that, my friend, is one of the things that make catfishing so much fun.