Editor’s Note: This story is featured in the East edition of the June-July Game & Fish Magazine, now on sale. Get a great deal on an annual subscription.
As you learn about catfish baits, you might come to the conclusion that collecting the fresh, natural baits used by many anglers requires too much effort. After all, many fishermen who target trophy catfish spend as much time collecting the best enticements for big whiskerfish—shad, herring, sunfish, crayfish and frogs—as they do fishing.
Fortunately, many additional items that coax bites from big channel cats and bullheads can be found in your refrigerator, pantry and even your bathroom. I call these "grocery baits" because all can be purchased at supermarkets, and all are relatively inexpensive.
Learn which catfish baits work best and how to use them correctly, and you can spend more time fishing and less time rounding up bait.
Look inside your fridge and chances are you’ll find a package or two of hot dogs. Americans consume some 20 billion of them each year, and more and more anglers are learning that catfish like frankfurters almost as much as they do.
You might think the best catfish bait dogs would be the more expensive varieties like the all-beef kind or those without casings, but such is not the case. Catfish will devour those, too, but they especially like the less expensive links made with meat trimmings and fat. Pork, chicken, turkey—it doesn’t matter what the main type of meat is. The cheaper the price, the better the wieners work for bait.
- How to Fish It: You can use hot dogs as bait right from the package, but soaking them in garlic and Kool-Aid (more items you probably have in your kitchen) makes them even better. Slice the franks into inch-long chunks. Place the pieces in a zip-seal plastic bag and add three tablespoons of chopped garlic (catfish love the taste and smell of garlic). Next, add one packet of unsweetened strawberry Kool-Aid and enough water to cover the tasty morsels. Mix thoroughly. The drink powder gives the franks a blood-red, “injured” look that is very attractive to catfish.
Odds are you’ve got some bacon in the fridge, too. In my experience, this popular cut of pork doesn’t work great on big channel cats, but it’s one of the best enticements you can use for jumbo bullheads and their coastal-river cousins, the white catfish.
Bacon excels in ponds and small lakes where schooling baitfish like herring are absent. But you also can try the pork treat during spring in rivers where white cats are common. River herring and shad are less abundant in spring, as they have yet to spawn. With fewer baitfish to eat, big bulls and whites are more likely to be scavenging on the bottom. If the scent of bacon drifts to them, they’ll use their keen senses to find and eat it.
- How to Fish It: Many anglers who regularly use bacon for bait say hickory-smoked bacon works best. There’s something about that salty, smoky flavor that catfish can’t resist. Cut the meat in pieces about an inch-and-a-half long and place as many as you can on a sharp 3/0 Kahle hook while leaving the hook point exposed. Then add enough weight to your rig so it won’t drift after you cast. Allow the bait to sit for up to 15 minutes so the scent can disperse and attract nearby cats. If you haven’t gotten a taker by then, cast to another spot and try again.
You might rather eat shrimp yourself than use it for catfish bait, but if you have a package that’s freezer-burned or spoiled, don’t just toss it in the trash. Catfish are quickly attracted by the scent and taste of these crustaceans, and if the shrimp have spoiled some, so much the better. Run your hook from the head of the shrimp all the way through the body and tail, leaving the point exposed.
- How to Fish It: A trick some anglers use is adding a half-inch section of a colorful plastic worm or grub to the hook (red tends to work best) behind the bait shrimp. Again, be sure to leave the hook point exposed. This makes the bait more buoyant and functions as an additional attractor. The chunk of plastic helps keep the bait on the hook, too.
GRAPES and RAISINS
Did you know catfish eat fruit? They will gorge on muscadines, mulberries, persimmons and other wild fruits that drop from trees that hang over the water. Knowing that, perhaps it’s not surprising that the grapes you bought for the kids’ lunches are relished by whiskerfish, too. White grapes seem to work especially well, as do golden raisins made from white grapes. You can try them on rod-and-reel rigs, but they’re even better when used with set hooks or any method that allows the bait to be in the water for an extended period of time.
- How to Fish It: Grapes and raisins both seem to work best during the hot summer months, particularly when catfish fishing at night. To give them some extra pizzazz, put them in warm water in a sunny place for a couple days. This allows the fruit to ferment, and the sour odor it exudes as a result attracts catfish from long distances.
If anyone in your household likes to cook desserts, there’s a good chance you can find a bottle of anise extract in your pantry. This flavoring agent has many culinary uses because it tastes like licorice, and for reasons we might never understand, catfish love the taste and aroma as much as people. As a result, savvy anglers have been adding anise to their homemade catfish bait concoctions for decades.
- How to Fish It: You can pour a little anise directly on baits such as shrimp or cut bait, but a better way to use it is to pour some in a container and drop in a sponge hook (a small treble hook with a square of sponge on the shank). Use a spoon to mash the sponge so it absorbs the extract, then cast the weighted sponge rig to a spot where hungry catfish are likely to be lurking. Keep a tight grip on your rod—if a catfish is there, it will hit fast and hard.
While you’re digging in the kitchen cabinet, be on the lookout for a can of Hormel SPAM. When the first cans of this pork product came off the production line in 1937, folks who enjoyed eating it had no idea that catfish would love it, too. But when some enterprising angler put a piece of the pre-cooked meat on his hook and nabbed a hard-fighting catfish for dinner, word soon spread that SPAM makes great catfish baits. An Arkansas angler used it to catch a former world-record blue cat weighing 116 pounds.
- How to Fish It: You can use SPAM right out of the can, but its catfish-attracting properties increase if you let your bait pieces sit in the hot sun a while until they are toughened and exuding a bit of oil. As with other grocery baits, be sure to leave your hook point exposed so you have less trouble hooking fish that bite.
Finally, while scouring your house for catfish bait, be sure to check the sinks and bathtubs. The bars of soap your family uses might be among several types long used by catfish anglers to lure their quarry.
Decades ago, small pieces of Ivory, Zote, Octagon and even homemade lye soap were used to bait set-hooks, and rod-and-reel anglers learned to use soap for bait, too. Proteins from fats used in making the soaps leach into the water and attract cats like the aroma of homemade cookies attracts children.
- How to Fish It: Massachusetts fishing guide Roger Aziz Jr. has used bars of Dial soap to catch several world-record bullheads. His hook is baited with bacon, sunfish or minnows, but a wired-up bar of Dial added to his fishing rig acts as both a weight and a bullhead attractor.
SOAP FOR RECORD BULLHEADS
No one knows more about bullhead fishing than Roger Aziz Jr. of Methuen, Mass. The avid angler has established International Game Fish Association line-class records for yellow bullheads four times and for brown bullheads twice. The National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame has recognized 10 brown bullheads
he’s caught as line-class and all-tackle records, plus five yellow bullhead line-class records.
His biggest bullhead to date was a 6-pound, 4-ounce monster caught in 2008. That fish set a Massachusetts record.
Experimentation led Aziz to use soap as part of his bullhead rigs. “I wanted an attractor that would melt slowly and attract anything swimming by,” he says. “Soap turned out to be that attractor.” Dial soap in particular.
Aziz pushes a piece of wire into the middle of the soap on one end, then attaches the soap to his main line via a swivel on a sliding fish-finder sleeve. The main line runs through the sleeve, with the sleeve held in place above the hooks by a small piece of plastic tubing crimped on the line. The hooks are then baited with bacon, small whole sunfish or minnows. He casts the rig, allows it to sink and rest on the bottom, and waits for a bite.