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Fresh Bait

How to keep live bait lively for the biggest catfish

Fresh Bait
Todd Arbuckle tosses a hand net into an eddy on a small feeder creek. (Don Mulligan photo)

There are two very different schools of thought when it comes to choosing catfish bait.

Some veteran whisker-fish hunters believe the stinkier the better. They come up with concoctions that would make a skunk gag, and they swear by it.

They argue that smelly and gross looking globs of dead bait are responsible for huge stringers of catfish across the country, as well as a bunch of tournament trophies.

My fishing partner, Todd Arbuckle and I fall into another camp. We believe the biggest fish always fall prey to the liveliest, freshest bait available.

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How to keep live bait lively for the biggest catfish

And though we might use a glob of night crawler every once-in-a-while for channel cats, we would never be caught dead with anything but live bait when fishing for blue and flathead catfish.

Though I’m sure some blended baits are the culmination of years of painstaking research and sacrifice, I suspect most people use them because they are simply a lot easier to get, handle and keep. If it were possible to buy live shad at the local discount store, leave them in the bottom of the boat for three months without a thought and still use them they would likely be everyone’s bait of choice.

Fishing with live, or freshly killed bait is a chore. Just gathering it constitutes an outing by itself, and serious live bait handlers typically have as much money wrapped-up in bait gear as they do in cat gear. Sometimes more.

Start with the nets. Though some species of rough fish can be caught with hook and line, cast nets are the most effective way to gather most species of catfish bait, depending on the time of year and water conditions.

My first net casting outing illustrated an important lesson, however. After spending $125 on a high quality net, I went to my favorite eddy in large creek several hours from my home. After several hours of driving, boat launching and positioning, I finally threw the net for the first time.

Though it wasn’t a prize-winning throw by any means, it spread out enough to perhaps catch a fish or two. It didn’t.

What it caught was some underwater debris that wouldn’t let go. I tore that net in an effort to free it, and went home without ever catching a fish.


I later found out that serious cast-netters carry five or six $125 nets with them. It hurts to lose one, but at least the trip isn’t a complete bust if one is lost or damaged.

Though some states only allow a six-foot net, they are, quite frankly, too small to be effective. Where legal, Arbuckle taught me to use a 20-foot net. They come with different amounts of lead weights on their perimeter, and casters should use the heaviest weight they can throw.

When casting a net in deep or fast moving water, consider using a net with at least two pounds of lead on it.

Deep water casting is necessary in the summer months when spawning fish are no longer in the streams, and the largest concentrations of bait can be found in reservoirs near dam heads. Expect to cast in at least 15-20 feet of water once summer rolls around in most places.

Get tanked

Holding tanks are an even larger expense for live bait handlers. Good ones cost over $600, and serious guys, like Arbuckle, have four or five of them. Like everything else in life, buy a cheap tank, and you get a cheap tank.

The writer mixes some salt into the holding tank water to reduce stress on the baitfish. (Don Mulligan photo)

The writer mixes some salt into the holding tank water to reduce stress on the baitfish. (Don Mulligan photo)

After considering the time and effort involved in catching live bait, a well constructed, smartly designed tank is worth the extra money.

Like nets, fishermen should purchase the biggest tank they can afford and fit in their boat. Fifty-gallon tanks are generally big enough to hold enough live bait for a full day of eventful fishing, and a good tank that is properly maintained can support approximately one bait per gallon of water.

But size shouldn’t be the only consideration when choosing a tank. All bait tanks should be either round or oval to stop fish from beating themselves to death in the corners, and they shouldn’t have too much current flow.

Additionally, good tanks create a lot of oxygen that originates from the bottom of the tank. Tanks that circulate bubbles from the top are not as effective as those that spread bubbles across the bottom to work their way completely through the entire tank.

Look for a tank that has an easy to clean filter, since very clean water is one of the keys to keeping bait alive for more than a day. I prefer a filter system that forces the water through a dual element screen that can be removed and rinsed-out without interrupting the flow for more than a minute or so.

It is critical that the filter be constantly cleaned since several of the baits preferred by cat fishermen are prone to shed their scales when stressed.

Even the best tank equipped with the perfect filter and oxygen diffuser isn’t enough to keep bait healthy and happy, however.

Because gathering live bait can take the better part of a day, it is typically necessary to keep bait alive in the tank for at least 24 hours. When handled correctly, it is possible to keep some bait alive for up to a week.

Doing so requires clean water that is kept under 60 degrees, and properly conditioned with the right amounts water treatment products. Start the process by adding salt at a rate of one-cup per 10 gallons of water.

Salt hardens the fish’s scales and locks them down, minimizing shedding. For fish that are easily stressed, like the gizzard shad, it is a good idea to add even more salt.

Never use table salt, or any other salt that is iodized. Kosher, or ice cream rock salt works the best.

Next, add a chemical that rids ammonia. Refer to the product label for amounts, because if too much is added, it will also remove oxygen. This, and a product intended to remove nitrates is important when using tap water to fill the tank, since tap water often contains copper and chlorine.

Lastly, add a commercial conditioner to limit abrasion, as well as a foam reducer.

Make sure the tank lid is left slightly open, or has a vent when keeping fish overnight. Fish waste creates ammonia, and if the tank is sealed, it will eventually kill everything inside.

Even the best tank and bait handler can’t keep some bait alive, however. Species like the skipjack and a couple others are simply too fragile. In their case, Arbuckle and I catch and freeze them.

Freeze them incorrectly, however, and all that will be left after thawing, is an unusable bunch of mush.

Fish that must be frozen must be frozen fresh with a vacuum sealer. Removing all of the oxygen from the freezing process is the only way to keep the flesh firm after it is thawed.

Freshly frozen, vacuum-packed baitfish is the only dead bait I use, and even then, I only use it in the winter for blues. It is generally a waste of time to target flatheads in the winter with any bait, but once they start feeding again, I only use live bait.

Bait options

Here are some of the best live bait options for big blue and flathead catfish.

Both gizzard and threadfin are good bait, but both are very temperamental and difficult to keep. Gather these with a cast net in feeder creeks, low-head dams and by hot water outlets in the winter, but in the main lake body and in coves in the spring and summer. Only hook shad through the nose with a single hook to keep them alive.

These are most efficiently gathered with a hook and line using a small jig. Find skipjacks on major rivers near hot water outlets and below dams in the winter.

Skipjacks require high oxygen content, and will only be found in places where it is present. For this reason skipjacks are the most difficult fish to keep alive, and are best used frozen in chunks.

These fish require a lot of oxygen and are therefore often difficult to find and keep. They are typically found below dams on large rivers. Though they can be netted, mooneyes are easy to catch with a night crawler suspended under a bobber.

Both red and white suckers can be caught with hook and line or netted. In the early spring they can be found in small feeder creeks off of larger bodies of water.

By summer, they are too dispersed in the main lake body to target specifically. Large suckers can be frozen and chunked, while the smaller ones keep well in a tank.

Bluegills, crappies, yellow bass and bullheads
All of these are excellent flathead bait when fished live in a state where it is legal. All do well in a tank when it is kept clean and cool.

Creek chubs
Found year-round in small feeder creeks in eddies and deep holes. These rainbow-patterned fish are excellent bait when they are large enough. They are tough to net since they live in cover, but are easy to catch with a small jig.

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