There are as many catfish bait options as there are catfishermen. Don Wirth sat with three world-class catfish guides for an in-depth roundtable discussion on bait fishing:
Donny Hall, Nashville, Tennessee, grew up catfishing on the Cumberland River. Heās been guiding for 10 years, most recently on the Tennessee River, and is an experienced tournament fisherman. Hall is an innovative angler who has experimented with numerous bait presentations. His biggest catfish include a 100-pound blue, a 70-pound flathead, and a 24-pound channel.
Jim Moyer, Clarksville, Tennessee, has targeted big catfish since the early 1960s. Moyer, who has designed catfish rods for Berkley and Shakespeare, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman and Catfish In-Sider Guide. Jim has catfished across North and South America; his primary venue is the Cumberland River. Heās boated blues to 87 pounds, flatheads to 66, and channels to 41.
Phil King, Corinth, Mississippi, has been fishing the Tennessee River for 25 years and guiding for five. A veteran tournament angler, āthe Little Catmanā is the only repeat winner of the prestigious National Catfish Derby, copping first place in 1999 and 2002. He also was the Derbyās Big Catfish winner in 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2002. Kingās largest cats are a 64āpound blue and a 49āpound flathead.
DON WIRTH: Tell us something about the sensory powers of catfish. If you put bait in the water, either live, dead, or prepared, how do cats find it?
DONNY HALL: Catfish are one big sensory organ. They smell cut and prepared baits from long distances and definitely feel the vibrations of livebait. Theyāre well equipped to home in on a meal, even in the muddiest water or at night.
JIM MOYER: They use their well-developed senses of smell, sight, and hearing to help them survive. The sense they rely on most in a given situation probably varies with the water conditions. In real clear water, I think they use their sense of sight more. Their barbels are their trademark sensory organs, but they have hundreds of thousands of taste buds all over their bodies as well.
PHIL KING: In the Mississippi River, which runs tomato-soup red much of the time, youāll get a scent biteācats canāt possibly see anything in that dark water. The Tennessee River usually runs a lot clearer; there I believe they feed more by sight. I take pains to make sure whatever bait Iām using has both visual and scent appeal.
WIRTH: Letās talk livebait first. What livebaits do you use, and when might you use them?
HALL: When Iām livebaiting, Iām after a big flathead, but I may also catch a blue or a channel. My favorite bait is a gizzard shad from 6 to 8 inches long, which I catch in a castnet. Iāve found that flatheads where I fish will bite shad more readily than bluegill, which are more widely touted as a flathead bait. The key is to use the most prevalent forage fish in the waters youāre fishing.
MOYER Iāve caught more blues and channels than flatheads on livebait. Blues really love bluegills and live shad, but youāve got to fish āem deep, 35 to 50 feet. The preferred bait in any body of water will change from one season to the next, and you need to match the hatch. In May through August, 3- to 4-inch shad, suckers, or chubs are good. In November and December, 6- to 14-inch baits rule. In general, the warmer the water, the smaller the bait you should use.
KING: I donāt use much livebait, but when I do, itās usually a crappie-sized tuffy (flathead) minnow. Big blues have a preference for these from May through July.
WIRTH: How do you rig and fish livebait?
HALL: I bottom-fish it on a Carolina rig with a 5-ounce sinker, 10/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook, and 130-pound Spiderline braid. My leader is about 14 inches long. Iāll use circle hooks when Iām targeting smaller fish, but big fish may straighten them out.
MOYER: When Iām livebaiting, Iām usually fishing vertically. If you let a big, lively bait wander around on a long leader, eventually itāll run under a log or get in a snag. I tie a barrel swivel on the end of my 40-pound Trilene Big Game line, then attach a 2- to 6-foot 60-pound Big Game leader with a Gamakatsu 10/0 hook to that. My drop line is longer than the leader, so the bait can run āround and āround without tangling.
KING: For vertical livebait trolling, Iāll rig my line with a 3-way swivel on the bottom, then add a drop line with a 4-ounce lead and a 2- to 3-foot leader. I like 65-pound Berkley Whiplash for my main line and 60-pound Big Game for my leader. Iāve had good luck with Daiichi 8/0 Āoctopus-style and 5/0 Daiichi Circle Wide Bleeding Bait hooks.
WIRTH: I know all three of you fish cut skipjack; do you ever fish these live?
MOYER: Iāve got an onboard oxygen tank with a $200 air stone in my bait tank, and I still canāt keep skipjack alive more than a few minutes.
HALL: Thereās only one guy I know of who can: Ralph Dallas, the legendary Cumberland River striper guide. And he keeps his bait tank setup a secret.
WIRTH: Getting back to flatheads, Iāve always heard livebaits are best for these. Yet Jim said heās catching more channels and blues on live minnows than flatheads. Whatās up with that?
MOYER: Iāve always felt blues and channels moved more than flatheads, which tend to hang tight to a wad of cover. If the bait comes to him, dead or alive, heās gonna eat it.
KING: All three species live in the same places in the Tennessee River. Iāve had clients in my boat reel up a flathead, a blue, and a channel from the same spot.
HALL: Iāve caught a lot of big flatheads at night on shallow stump flats. But Iāve caught just as many during the day by targeting specific trees or logjams on the bottom.
MOYER: I night-fish quite a bit, but I catch a lot more blues after dark. But Philās right, the three will definitely inhabit the same places. Theyāre all structure oriented.
WIRTH: Is there a season or water condition thatās best for livebait?
HALL: Livebait tends to get a quicker bite in current than in slack water, at least in the river-run reservoirs Iām fishing.
MOYER: Early in the year, I do better with livebait in slack water; small minnows are in noncurrent areas feeding on algae then. Later, as the forage grows bigger, it ventures into current more readily, so thatās where I fish livebait.
KING: Below Pickwick Dam on the Tennessee River, thereās a dead zone where live crappie minnows work great. I donāt fish downriver that much with livebait.
WIRTH: What mistakes do you see catfishermen make when fishing livebait?
HALL: Catching your bait in the water youāre fishing is critical. Believe me, the catfish know if itās from a bait shop.
MOYER: I see lots of guys fishing the wrong size bait. Always use what the cats are feeding on.
KING: Not having the proper equipment to keep the bait not only alive, but lively. You really need a remote bait tank to manage livebait, not a livewell as such. Donnyās and Jimās boats are more set up for livebait than mine; I rarely fish it.
MOYER: Iāve got $1,600 invested in my livebait tank, and Iām still not 100 percent satisfied with it.
WIRTH: What rods and reels do you use for livebait?
HALL: I use my Donny Hall Big Fish Series signature rods from J. Miles Custom Rods (423/479-3009). These are fiberglass blanks with a fairly soft tip and tons of backbone. Donāt use a real stiff rod with livebait or youāll fling it off when you cast. You need a wide-spool clicker reel; I like the Shimano Calcutta 700 and Ambassadeur 7000.
MOYER: I use medium-action Berkley E-cat and Shakespeare glass rods. These are paired with 7000s and Shakespeareās new Tidewater reels.
KING: Iām working right now on a King Cat signature series of catfish rods for Cabelaās. Medium-heavy rods work well for livebait.
WIRTH: Letās talk about deadbaits. Why does a giant catfish show a preference for dead fish?
HALL: A catfish gets big by being a successful predator and taking advantage of feeding opportunities. If thereās a dead skipjack floating down the river, heās gonna take advantage of it instead of wasting energy chasing after a live one. I think the biggest cats learn over time to wait for the food to come to them.
MOYER: A fish thatās been freshly cut up into chunks leeches oils and blood into the water that a live fish doesnāt. I think cats feed on livebait more by sight and vibration detection. But, if you rig cutbait properly, you can get movement out of it, in current, anyway.
KING: I think big cats are lazy. Below Pickwick Dam, most of the fish over 30 pounds I catch are full of mussels. Theyāve learned to target food that they just pick off the bottom instead of chase down. The bigger fish live in little depressions on the bottom, behind rocks and around logjams. They sit patiently and wait for food to wash into their lair. When you throw that deadbait close to a spot inhabited by cats, theyāll eventually eat it.
WIRTH: Do you think the biggest fish are the āeating machinesā anglers make them out to be?
KING: I once fished every day over a 6-week period; the big cats fed the heaviest the second and third day following a frontal passage. Iād catch small cats every day, go for several days without catching a big one, then load the boat with big fish after a front went through. So no, they donāt feed every day, just when conditions suit them.
MOYER: When they do feed, they really pig out, but they might go 3 to 5 days before feeding again. Alabama fishery biologist Chris Stephenson has done telemetry studies on big blues; he found theyād move upriver and feed, then slide back to their home base and sit for several days.
HALL: They feed in cycles. Iāve always done best on big fish right before a front, then again a couple days after.
WIRTH: A deadbait might be a dead fish, either whole, filleted, or chunked, or meat such as livers, hearts, gizzards, even hot dogs. When youāre trying to connect with that monster cat, whatās your deadbait of choice?
HALL: Cut skipjack (river herring). Iāll hook the whole gut, a piece of meat, and the head, in that order. The guts give out blood smell, the meat leeches oil, and the head is highly visual. That combination really works for me.
MOYER: Definitely skipjack. Itās the greasiest, oiliest bait in the river. Iāll fish the head in summer, but I canāt catch cats on heads in cold water. When I do fish heads, I break up the skull with a meat cleaver. This releases a lot of blood and oil and lets you set the hook easier. Gut pockets can be deadly, too, but small fish will pick at āem.
KING: I primarily drift-fish with a multiple hook rig: a chicken liver on one, a whole dead skipjack on the other. A lot of days I get 80 percent of my bites on one or the other. Or theyāll start out hitting one, then shift to the other. I like pizza, but I canāt eat it every day.
MOYER: That shift in food or Āpresentation preference is something youāve really got to watch for, otherwise youāll experience a good bite for a while, then everything goes dead. Sometimes in the morning they want skipjack in strips, then a couple hours later, all they want is cubes.
HALL: One day last spring I was on an awesome turkey liver bite, then they quit hitting it like somebody threw a switch. I had a bag of liver Iād soaked in garlic and tried that alongside two other lines baited with straight liver. All theyād hit was the garlic liver. Sometimes I think cats just want a change for changeās sake.
KING: Thatās why itās so important to give āem different presentations on multiple rods. Let the fish tell you what they want.
WIRTH: Letās talk about organ meats. Donny, why turkey liver?
HALL: I like turkey liver for several reasons. It gets tougher as the day goes on, while chicken and beef liver get progressively slimier and harder to keep on the hook. Itās economicalāI buy it in 40-pound boxes, then break down the lot into smaller bags and freeze it. And, not many guys are using it where Iām fishing, until they read this article, that is! Liver works best for me in warm water; below 65Ā°F, I switch to skipjack. I use it primarily for keeper-sized fish.
MOYER: Iāve fished a ton of liver, but catch mostly small fish on it, especially channels. Iāve never caught a flathead on liver.
KING: I dye my chicken livers with red food coloring and fish āem on red Bleeding Bait hooks. You canāt tell me that doesnāt make a difference. Iāve fished too many tournaments where weād catch 20 or 30 pounds more than everybody else when they were using straight liver and plain hooks.
WIRTH: How do you keep dead fish and āmystery meatsā in your boats?
HALL: I put enough skipjack for each trip in individual plastic bags and freeze them whole. The night before a trip, Iāll take out what I need and put it in a bucket so itās not quite completely thawed by morning. Once in the boat, Iāll put a layer of ice in my cooler and lay the bait on top of the ice. If you put ice on top of the bait, it gets mushy, and with deadbait, consistency is as important as odor and taste.
MOYER: I try to catch my bait the morning of the trip if possible, then scale and chunk it as needed. I have a metal grate in my cooler that elevates the bait above the ice. But sometimes you have to use frozen baitāitās hard to tell a client who drove a thousand miles to fish that the bait isnāt running. Those vacuum food sealers work great if youāre going to freeze baitfish. Iāve used mine to keep filleted skipjack in the freezer for up to 14 weeks.
KING: Iāve got a 105-quart cooler and keep my bait out of the ice and water. If it gets soggy, itās ruined. I much prefer fresh bait, but you canāt always get it.
WIRTH: Donny and Jim, I know you favor a Carolina rig for deadbaits.
HALL: Yep, my main line and leader is both 130-pound Spiderline braid.
MOYER: The faster the water, the longer my leaderāup to 4 feet. And, vice-versa, down to 18 inches. Catfish really like the bait to flap around in fast water.
WIRTH: Phil, I reckon weāll have to run a drawing of that unbelievably complicated drift rig you use.
KING: Itās really not that complex. I use 65-pound Whiplash for my main line and a 60-pound Big Game leader. I rig the deadbait on a double-hook setup. I want the bait to roll and tumble while Iām drifting.
WIRTH: What range of sinker weights will you use?
HALL: Iāve used every size in the book. I like the lightest sinker that still keeps the bait on the bottom. In flood conditions, Iāll move off the channel and fish around the banks, where current is diminished.
MOYER: I carry sinkers from BB to 16 ounces. Beyond that, Iām too scared to be out there!
KING: It takes 8 or 9 ounces of lead to keep a medium-sized bait on the bottom 10 miles below the dam when the turbines are running wide open. Drift fishing, I never use over 2 ounces.
WIRTH: Are there certain places or conditions you like for dead fish and organ meats?
HALL: Liver works best in the middle of the channel in slack water. Cutbait is best on the ledges and drop-offs.
MOYER: I want current and snaggy cover when fishing cutbait. Liver works best in slow-moving feeder creeks and ponds.
KING: I usually present both at once. Lately Iāve been doing real well on 25-foot mussel beds.
WIRTH: Ever use stink baits?
HALL: Theyāre deadly for channel cats, but I donāt like āem ācause I canāt ever get the smell out of my boat
MOYER: In ponds and Āslackwater areas, prepared baits may outfish live or deadbaits 50 to one. But donāt ever get any in your truck. Youāll never be able to sell it.
KING: I use Junnieās Cat Tracker when I have kids in the boat; it produces a real fast bite on keeper-size fish. Kids donāt care about size; they want action.
WIRTH: Any final thoughts youād like to share about bait fishing?
HALL: Serious catfishermen experiment with a variety of baits, but eventually settle on an approach they feel comfortable with.
MOYER: Only time on the water will dial you into what works best for you, but maybe what weāve covered here can shorten the learning curve and get you headed in the right direction quicker.
KING: Catfishing is a game of variables, many of which are constantly changing. Pay attention to water Āconditions and to what the fish are telling you, and your bait fishing will be successful.