What's the Big Stink About Catfish Baits?

Whisker fish find their food by smell, but do some catfish baits draw more strikes than others? Here are some answers.

Channel catfiish

Grandpa Keenan's favorite catfish bait was sun-soured chicken guts. He worked in a poultry processing plant, so the ingredients for his catfish-catching concoction were free. He'd grab a handful of guts from the processing line in the morning, leave them in a semi-sealed Mason jar in the sun on the loading dock all day, and have bait ready for catching cats by the time he got off work.

That was back in the 1960s, when there wasn't a lot of science behind catching catfish. While many of today's popular catfish baits — dip baits, punch baits, and natural baits such as fresh cut bait, nightcrawlers, chicken livers, crawdads and frogs — still depend on natural flavors to trigger catfish to bite, science now offers clues to help anglers select the bait most likely to put a cat on the hook.

"It's a misconception that catfish look for the smelliest food they can find," said Dr. Keith Jones, who helped develop many of Berkley's PowerBaits. "From our observations, that is not true at all. It's true they're attracted to things that have strong odors to our noses, but they're more attracted to the way things taste."

Humans are used to smell and taste being intertwined. The smell of fresh cinnamon rolls influences how they taste on our tongue. Research indicates that catfish may perceive scent and taste more independently, with taste being dominant.

Odor is important to humans because it's easily carried in the air that surrounds us. Odor doesn't move as well in water, but flavor travels easily in water. So the stench of Grandpa Keenan's custom-brewed bait may not have been as important to all the catfish he caught as the taste of the complex organic compounds that were common to the bait's natural ingredients.

Chicken guts, nightcrawlers and fresh cut bait all have compounds that interest catfish, but for different reasons. Similarly, steak, cookies or salsa sauce taste good to humans, but for different reasons.

"The compounds that attract them to cut bait are probably different from the compounds that attract them to cheese bait," said Jones. "The goal of bait manufacturers is to identify those compounds and figure out ways to incorporate them in catfish baits. The trick is that just adding one taste with another taste doesn't mean the combined tastes will be more attractive to catfish."

It's kind of like adding salsa sauce to chocolate chip cookies. Just because a flavor tastes good on its own doesn't mean it will taste good combined with another flavor. Which may explain why natural baits — cut baits, chubs, nightcrawlers, frogs — are so effective for catfish. All the flavors in a fresh hookful of shad guts or nightcrawlers are appropriate to that natural bait and therefore attractive to a catfish's discriminating taste buds.

While soured cheese is the primary ingredient to almost every commercially manufactured catfish bait, secondary ingredients and production techniques play a huge role in whether the final product is the catfish equivalent of steak and mushrooms or cookies and salsa.

"It's the additives, the secret formulas, that make one manufactured catfish bait significantly better than another," said Jeff Williams, owner of Team Catfish. "Each manufacturer has his own special ingredients that makes his bait unique. Good luck getting him to tell you what it is."

Manufactured catfish baits come not only in a variety of flavors, but also in a range of consistencies that influence how they are presented to catfish.

Dough baits have a putty-like consistency and are designed to be formed into small balls and pressed around size 4 or size 6 treble hooks. Dip baits are the consistency of thick mustard, and used with hooks that have corrugated rubber dip bait worms or special sponges to which the bait adheres. Punch baits have some sort of natural fiber (such as cattail fuzz) added to their recipe to give the product a consistency somewhere between dough and dip baits. They get their name from the strategy of pushing (punching) a size 4 or size 6 treble hook into a tub of bait, and then pulling the hook out at an angle so that an aromatic ball of bait clings to it.

Dough baits have fallen slightly from favor in the last decade because of the perception that they don't dissolve in water as quickly as dip or punch baits. Dip baits have been the hot ticket in several regions of the country in recent years because they milk flavor quickly into the water and generate quick bites. Fiber-laden punch baits originated farther south, where scorching summer heat tends to thin dip baits and thus makes them difficult to keep on a dip worm or sponge.

All manufactured baits are designed to "milk off" in water to varying degrees, dissolving and releasing their magic flavors to attract catfish. Newbies to manufactured baits are often discouraged when they reel in their line after 10 or 15 minutes in the water to find a nearly bare hook.

"That's the way it's supposed to work," says Mark Mihalkis, owner of Cat Tracker Bait Company. "It's supposed to slowly dissolve and release flavor into the water. Once the flavor is in the water, it doesn't take much on a hook to get them to bite. But it's not a bad idea to freshen a manufactured bait every 15 or 20 minutes, just to keep things working right."

More on catfish baits


While the catfishing community is generally convivial, things can get a bit contentious when the topic of manufactured baits vs. natural baits is under discussion.

Manufactured baits use largely natural ingredients, but that's not "natural" enough for catfish hunters who prefer baits such as minnows, chubs, nightcrawlers, crawdads, and dozens of other baits.

Brad Durick is a nationally known professional catfishing guide who uses only fresh forage fish from the river in which he's fishing.

"In our river, white suckers are the go-to bait. Goldeneyes and freshwater drum are good, and waterdogs (salamanders) are popular with some guys. In other parts of the country the best baitfish are gizzard shad, threadfin shad, common carp, Asian carp, chubs — whatever is most common in that area. Depending on the size of the baitfish, you can fish them whole, fillet them, use the gut pouch, or use the head or body section. Around here I get a 9- to 10-inch sucker, cut off the head behind the gills, then steak him into 1-inch slabs from there to the tail. You have to experiment to find out what they want because some days they want the head, some days they want the gut sections. The big thing is that it has to be fresh when I cut it up — and still bloody when I put it in the water."

Nightcrawlers are another excellent natural catfish bait, especially just after heavy rains or during high water. John Pitlo, a former fisheries biologist, targets the flooded lawns of riverside cottages whenever his favorite river escapes its banks.

"Catfish will be all over those lawns, feeding on nightcrawlers coming out of the sod, like cattle grazing in a pasture," he said.

Catalpa worms, found in the bean pods of catalpa trees (aka, Indian Bean Trees) are regional favorites, as are mulberries, wild grapes and other fruits and berries that fall from overhanging trees into lakes and rivers. Grasshoppers and frogs are great catfish baits in small rivers and large creeks in midsummer, where catfish consider a small "plop" as a signal that, "Lunch is served!"


Good bait will catch catfish almost any time, but the correct bait presented in the right location catches more catfish.

The roiling waters of spillways below dams are prime spots to use fresh cut bait. Catfish lurk in eddies below spillways waiting for baitfish stunned or injured by the dam's mechanics or turbulent waters. Bites on fresh cut baits or fresh whole baits in those situations are often savage, since catfish are used to seizing meals quickly as they tumble past their lairs.

Some anglers toss unweighted baits into the boils and let currents carry them to where catfish await. Others prefer a more controlled, precise presentation, using 1- to 6-ounce weights to anchor Carolina-rigged baits in specific areas of back eddies and plunge pools where experience tells them big catfish lie waiting.

Farther downstream, in slower portions of rivers, or in lakes or ponds, natural baits are always a valid choice, but that's where manufactured baits begin to shine. Slower currents or wave action work to milk flavor from dough baits, dip baits or punch baits and draw the attention of catfish. Presentation depends on current and bottom structure. In snaggy logjams, a heavy sinker can precisely park a chunk of cut bait or an offering of manufactured bait in a pocket at the upper end of a logjam, or in a small eddy beside the catfish haven.

If the current is mild in a river and the bottom is relatively snag free, a split shot a foot above the hook can bounce a cut bait, dip bait or punch bait slowly along the base of a cutbank. Catfish are fond of riprapped banks in rivers and lakes, and using a float to suspend a bait just above the bottom, or at mid-depth of the riprap, is a great way to draw the interest of catfish lurking in the rubble without getting the bait snagged in the rocks.

In lakes on windy days, a float and any catfish bait are often the recipe for a stringer full of cats. Find a windblown shoreline and cast a cut bait or manufactured bait positioned 3 to 10 feet below a slip-float out into the inbound waves. Catfish patrol windward shorelines, and casting a bait-under-float rig into deep water allows wave action to drift the suspended bait to shore, chumming flavor along the way.

Eventually the bait will touch bottom, and the rig becomes a stationary rig waiting for catfish to follow the scent trail. Experimenting with the distance of the bait below the float allows anglers to decipher the depth at which catfish are patrolling offshore on that day, and then target that precise depth for optimum results.

A corollary to fishing along windward shores on lakes for catfish is to fish off points that extend perpendicular to wave action on windy days. Wave action across a point creates subtle currents, and catfish love currents. Catfish often lay on the lee side of points and wait for wave action to bring them a tasty meal.

Whether "tasty" is defined as a rancid bait like Grandpa Keenan's soured chicken guts, an aromatic modern dough, dip or punch bait, or more natural baits like cut baits and nightcrawlers is up to the catfish's discerning taste buds. Which bait actually gets used is up to the olfactory tolerance of the individual angler.

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