From time to time I like to try to dispel some of the myths about catfish that seem so prevalent these days.
For example, many anglers still mistakenly believe the hot summer months are the only good times to go catfishing. These people fish very little during other seasons, even though we now know the bite often is better when the water, and the weather, is cooler. Catfishing during late fall, winter and early spring often produces more and bigger fish than fishing during warmer seasons.
Another persistent rumor is that catfish are strictly bottom-feeders and baits must be presented on the bottom to work. Certainly, whiskerfish are well-adapted for feeding on the bottoms of rivers, lakes and ponds.
But if you think they never feed at mid-depths or on the surface, you're wrong.
Catfish are opportunistic and take their food where they find it. They often feed on grasshoppers, cicadas, frogs and other creatures (floating catfish chow, too) found on the surface, and prey on baitfish such as shad and herring in midwaters. If bottom-fishing doesn't produce, you should try presenting your enticement elsewhere in the water column.
The rumor I'd like to discuss today is another one that's widespread and won't seem to go away. This is the one that states catfish baits must stink in order to be effective. "If it doesn't make you retch and cause your eyes to water, it won't work," proponents say.
It's true that catfish anglers have been mixing smelly brews of secret-recipe specialty baits for decades, and these "stinkbaits" can be great cat-catchers. Stinkbaits don't work because they stink, however. In fact, what stinks to anglers can't be smelled by catfish; the chemistry of olfaction is much different in catfish and humans.
Dr. John T. Caprio, a neurophysiologist at Louisiana State University, has been studying the senses of catfish since 1971, particularly the senses of taste and smell and how they relate to catfish feeding behavior. He helped dispel the "stinks more, works better" bait rumor during a discussion we had.
"Most anglers think horrible smelling baits work best," he said. "But that's crazy. What stinks to you and me doesn't stink to fish. We're smelling chemicals volatilized to the air, but animals living in water can't detect volatiles. They detect chemical compounds in the water instead. What you and I smell, fish can't smell, so how terrible a bait smells or doesn't smell to us has no bearing at all on whether or not a catfish will eat it."
That's good news for catfish anglers because it means you don't have to use rotten or nasty-smelling baits when targeting whiskerfish. Some of the best enticements don't smell bad at all, including these.
Some people still find it hard to believe that soap can be used as a catfish bait, but it can, indeed. One of the best brands is Ivory. Bars of this "100% pure" hand cleaner have been a staple in bait boxes of hardcore cat men for almost a century and a half. It may be the best-smelling catfish bait an angler can use.
Octagon, Dial and Zote soaps also work great. Some catfishermen I know use old-fashioned lye soap made at home, and it, too, will readily coax bites from hungry cats.
Cooks often add licorice-flavored anise oil to baked goods and candies, and extracts of the fragrant plant have been added to soap, creams, perfumes and medicines since at least the early 1800s. It's hard to pinpoint the first use of anise as a catfish attractant, but for decades, manufacturers have included it as an ingredient in scent products sold to catfish anglers.
A simple way to fish with anise is to impale a 1-inch square piece of sponge on a hook, add a few drops of the oil to the sponge and then cast the sponge rig to your fishing spot. Eating-size cats can't resist.
In the tidewater rivers of New England where white catfish are common, anglers like Roger Aziz Jr. of Methuen, Massachusetts, often use bacon for bait.
"I like to use a very sharp Kahle hook and get as much bacon on it as I can," Aziz said. "A sharp hook will cut through the bacon and give you a good hookset. And I've found that hickory-smoked bacon works best."
I've never tried it, but you might want to give Hormel Spam a go sometime. In 2001, Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion, Arkansas, used a chunk of this spicy canned meat to catch a 116-pound, 12-ounce, world-record blue cat in the Mississippi River.
"My father used Spam for catfish bait, and so did my grandfather," said Ashley. "I rarely use anything else." And if you're a Spam fan, the aroma is delicious.
On South Carolina's Santee Cooper lakes, hot dogs are used to entice catfish — 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."
For extra attraction, soak chunks of hot dogs in a zip-seal bag to which you've added 1/2 cup water and 1 package of unsweetened strawberry Kool-Aid. This gives the franks a bright red "blood" color that gets cats attention quick.
You may not realize it, but catfish love fruit, too. Persimmons, muscadines, mulberries and other fruits that fall in the water from overhanging branches or vines will be quickly eaten, as will any of these fruits the angler impales on a hook.
In his book "Masters' Secrets of Catfishing," John Phillips reports on another top-notch 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 says. "The raisins are the most productive during the hot summer months — particularly when fishing at night â€¦ 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 says.