The Key Ingredient by John Sherman
In the world of catfishing one thing is certain: Bait is the most important choice you are going to make. Using the wrong baits in certain situations can leave you heading home empty handed. Overall, catfish are the easiest of all fish to choose baits for. Yet, the most asked question is always, “What should I use for bait?”
There are many varieties of bait that range from live, to prepared, to just plain weird. The first category is indigenous baits. These are fish and other creatures that are already living in the water you are fishing, therefore already a part of the catfish’s diet. Bluegill, crayfish, suckers, and worms are great examples of indigenous baits.
The second category is prepared baits. Many companies offer stink baits that are either rubbed into sponges or injected into tubes or bait. Making these baits is rather easy and with a little experimenting you can create your own recipe that works every time! A quick example is combining shad oils, shad guts, chicken blood, and a little strawberry jelly into a dough that will stick on a treble hook.
The last category I like to call strange baits. The most popular is chicken or beef livers. They are the most popular for a reason. They easily out fish all the other strange baits. A few more oddballs are Spam, soap, and squid. While all of these choices will probably land you a fish or two, it is best to stick with the indigenous baits.
Now that you know a few choices it’s time to pair them up with each of the big three species of catfish. Matching them up correctly will greatly increase the number of bites you get each trip.
Channel cats are by nature scavengers. They will readily eat the widest range of baits, therefore the choice here is rather easy. The number one choice is cut bait. Catch a couple bluegill, chubs, or suckers before you’re trip. Simply fillet the sides off and cut off the head. Each fillet will make a great bait for channel cats of all sizes. Don’t overlook the head, as this is a great choice for the bigger channel cats. Hooking it in through the mouth and out through the nostril is the easiest way to keep the hook point exposed when using the head.
When targeting larger fish, a live four to six inch bluegill or sucker bait selection works well. Larger fish rely more on fish in their diets and scavenge less so by using live bait you greatly increase the odds at catching larger fish.
If you are just going out for a day to catch a couple smaller catfish to eat or just out to catch whatever you can there are a few really good options. Live or dead crayfish hooked through the tail, chicken or beef livers, stink baits or prepared baits, or the old standby, worms. During the springtime is an excellent time to add frogs to your repertoire, but make sure to check local regulations before using them.
Choosing bait for the flathead catfish isn’t a matter of what, but how big. It is mandatory to have live fish when searching for the elusive flathead. While the flathead will occasionally take a piece of cut bait, their primary diet is live fish.
When choosing from the different species of fish that live in the particular water you are fishing, it is best to choose the fish that is most abundant. If you contact your local fish and game department they should be able to tell you what is most abundant in that particular body of water. Whether it’s bluegill, suckers, or creek chubs they need to be alive and active.
When targeting large flatheads bigger bait means catching bigger fish. It’s not uncommon for people to use suckers of twelve inches or more! Another often overlooked option for large flatheads is using small bullheads up to ten inches in length. The bullheads tend to be a heartier fish, therefore are more active for a longer amount of time on the hook. This is very important because the flathead picks up the vibrations in the water from the movements of your bait.
Hooking live fish depends on the water you are fishing. In a lake or low current situation it is best to hook them through the back behind the dorsal fin. This allows them to stay the most active for longer periods of time. In a stronger current you should hook the bait either through the eyes or in the mouth and out the nostril. Be careful not to hit the brain as it will result in a pretty quick death for the fish and is not what you want when targeting flatheads. The reason for hooking in the front of the fish in current is because when hooked through the back in the current they tend to face the same direction the current is flowing. This will actually drown them and in a matter of a few minutes your once live fish will be channel cat bait.
At a young age blue catfish can be caught on all the baits mentioned for channel cats. However, once the blue catfish reaches ten pounds or so their diet changes mostly to fish. As with the flathead the bigger baits are going to result in much bigger catches.
The mainstay for most blue cat anglers is shad, with skipjack coming in a close second. Because shad are extremely difficult to keep alive, they are fished as dead baits, either whole or cut. While those baits are the first choice don’t neglect using bluegill, suckers, eels, perch, and creek chubs. Any of those baits can be fished live or as cut bait when targeting blues. During the fall one of the better choices for bait is a live eel hooked through the tail, but in the other seasons shad seems to be the best choice.
If trophy sized blues is what you are after it is best to get fresh shad the morning you are fishing. Six to eight inch shad are great for targeting the medium sized fish, but for real trophies getting a dozen or so twelve inch or bigger shad for the day is the way to go. The shad can be cut in any way you see fit but here are a few of my highest percentage ways to chunk them up.
-Cut through directly behind the head and behind the dorsal fin. This will give you three pieces: the head, body with gut pocket exposed, and tail section.
-Fillet off each side, cut off the head and tail. This will give you four pieces: the head, two fillets, and body. You can throw the tail away.
-Cut off the tail. This is by far the biggest bait but will be sure to get you the biggest fish.
-Fillet off one side, cut off the head and tail. This will give you three pieces: the head, the fillet, and larger body piece. As you can see there are many choices, but you must choose the appropriate bait to match the type and size fish you are targeting. As always practice catch and release for all big fish!