Fly fishermen and bass anglers talk at length about the subtle differences between the flies and lures they carry. They talk too about the cunning instincts exhibited by their respective quarries—how a big brown trout will stubbornly refuse anything but a precise match of mayflies drifting on the surface of a small stream, or how a lunker largemouth might insist on a half-ounce single-spin spinnerbait slow-rolled along the bottom of a weed flat. Picky as these anglers are, most of them wouldn’t last long in a bait debate with a typical catman.
Catfish are blessed with a unique sensory system that enables them to smell and taste minute concentrations of almost any substance dissolved in water. This offers them a huge advantage, since their favorite food happens to be almost anything. These perceptive powers, however, have also given rise to myths about which baits are most effective for catfish.
Some anglers, for example, claim that catfish can detect the scent trail of a foul-smelling bait from a long distance, making crude baits like dips and pastes most effective. Others believe that catfish generally find the taste of enzymes released from a fresh chicken liver or strips of congealed blood more appealing. Of course, the truth is that no single bait is most effective for all catfish under all conditions. One natural bait, though, comes close and should almost always be included in the arsenal of a catfish angler, particularly for blue cats and channel cats.
Cutbait is natural bait, one catfish immediately recognize as food in a natural sense. Cutbait cut, sliced, or squashed from a natural baitfish allows the release of organic juices into the water. A small portion of fillet from a large baitfish makes great cutbait for catfish, but so does a whole or portion of a smaller baitfish. Technically, too, a freshly killed frog and an endless variety of other critters also qualify as effective cutbait. Usually, though, when cat anglers are talking cutbait, they’re referring to portions of freshly killed baitfish, although soured cutbait is another option we’ll discuss.
Cutbait works because catfish, like other sportfish, become programmed to eat whatever is abundant. If a cat recognizes as food (visually and by tasting) an item drifting in current or lying on the bottom, it eats it. If not, the cat usually moves in and investigates, tasting the bait with the thousands of taste buds covering its body, to determine whether or not it’s something desirable to eat. Catfishermen who complain of small fish pecking at their baits often are using a bait unfamiliar to the fish.
The Cutbait Advantage
Cutbait offers several advantages over other traditional catfish baits, not the least of which is being economical, since it’s relatively easy to net, trap, or catch the bait needed for a day’s fishing from the water being fished. Therefore, cutbait is always at hand. And with the exception of sour cutbait, it’s also cleaner to handle and easier to maintain than many other baits. Cutbait also is easy to size. When fish are active and looking for a mouthful, use a long strip of cutbait; when they’re less active, use a less bulky piece of bait.
Most importantly, cutbait is effective on a size range of fish—on small fish and also large channel cats and blue cats, and in some situations, flatheads. This again is because cutbait is familiar to these fish. Big fish get to be big fish by being wary. They’re programmed to feed on what they encounter in their environment.
According to Catfish Guide Editor In Chief Doug Stange, in clear water, vision is an important part of a cat’s feeding strategy. In most environments, their hearing and lateral line senses also are used to find prey. But in turbid rivers, where visibility is limited and rushing water somewhat distorts the transmission of sound waves, catfish rely heavily on smell and taste to locate food. The blood and oils from a fresh piece of cutbait allow cats to easily home in on the bait.
As we’ve said, that’s great for channels, blues, and white cats, who routinely eat all sorts of animal matter, and also for flatheads in certain situations. Again, according to Stange, flatheads sometimes prefer cutbait during the initial stages of the spring season. Night crawlers also are an overlooked bait at this time. And flatheads may also become programmed to feed on dead baits—instead of their typically preferred live baits—when such baits are overwhelmingly available, as is often the case in tailwaters where turbines kill shad and other baitfish, delivering them to waiting catfish.
How, then, does cutbait compare to prepared baits, like pastes and dips? Stange: “Pastes and dips can be outstanding—the best things going—in lots of situations, particularly during periods of warmer water. At that time, prepared baits are particularly effective on the more numerous smaller fish, particularly eating-size cats up to about three pounds. That’s not to say larger fish always prefer cutbait, or that smaller fish always prefer pastes and dips.
“Smaller fish, though, are more curious by nature—they haven’t been around so long as those seasoned old veteran cats. Larger fish become accustomed to eating what’s abundantly available, while smaller fish are more curious about the intense chemical concoctions of most prepared baits. Both types of baits are an integral part of a cat angler’s arsenal.”
Preparing And Using Cutbait
Catfish guide Jim Moyer, Clarksville, Tennessee, uses cutbait almost exclusively for winter fishing for blue cats. He recently complained that the winter of 1996 was a tough one for catfishing. He makes his living guiding throughout the cold-water period, but a six-month repair project on a dam on his favorite section of river altered the water releases. Before you feel sorry for old Jim, though, even during this marginal year he still boated hundreds of blue catfish over 30 pounds—each one a testament to the effectiveness of cutbait.
Even among cutbait enthusiasts like Moyer, however, the debate doesn’t end. Some believe that baitfish caught from the river being fished are more effective than a foreign baitfish. Both Moyer and Stange suggest, though, that oily flesh is the key. Stange generally uses cut sucker meat, because suckers are oily and readily available where he most often fishes. But he also has used carp (scaled and filleted and cut into sections) as well as fish market species like smelt, whitefish, ciscoes, and even mackerel—fish not available in the water he fishes.
Moyer, meanwhile, has available to him skipjack herring, one of the oiliest fish in fresh water. He uses spinning tackle and jigs to catch these herring from hot-water discharge areas during winter and from riprapped banks during summer and fall. He scales and fillets 18- to 24-inchers and cuts the fillets into 11⁄2-inch cubes, which he packs on a 5/0, 6/0, or 7/0 Kahle hook at the end of a standard slip rig.
The cubes of cutbait don’t spin in current as strips do. He notes, though, that strips may be more effective in slow or still water. In any case, always be sure to leave the hook point exposed to allow instant hook penetration on the hookset. Catfish don’t mind the look or even the feel of hook. Burying the hook point in the bait is a futile gesture that usually results in missed fish.
Smaller baitfish also make an effective and easily prepared cutbait. Remove the head and tail from a 5- to 7-inch sucker or chub, and insert a hook an inch up from the tail. Several smaller minnows, say 3- or 4-inch fatheads or shiners, also can be rigged on a single hook. Hook them through the tail and then squash their heads with a slight crunch with your foot, so they leak juices into the water.
Baitfish should be kept fresh on ice. Moyer says that baitfish kept cool and dry remain fresh for up to five days in a standard cooler. In a pinch, frozen cutbait also can be used, although it tends to be less effective and falls from the hook easily. Shad and other delicate baitfish, in particular, don’t perform well after being frozen. Frozen skipjack herring, though, often is used for drift fishing on Santee Cooper and other reservoirs where the bait is just eased over the side of the boat.
Sour bait is cutbait turned rotten, rancid, and ripe. Winter-killed fish don’t decompose in the cold water, but when temperatures begin to rise in spring, the gases inside these fish expand and they float to the surface. These floaters are driven by wind and current to predictable places—coves on the windward side of a lake, cuts on a reservoir creek arm, and large eddies in rivers. Catfish concentrate in these areas, too, gorging on these spring-time delicacies.
Eventually, though, the abundance of sours declines and with it the bait’s effectiveness. Still, some baitfish are always dying, and during summer they quickly decompose, offering a somewhat constant although inconsistent source of sour bait. During summer, carp, in particular, tends to fish more effectively as sour bait than as fresh cutbait. It’s just tough enough to hold together and be a presentable bait, even during the warmest weather.
Stange’s recipe for preparing sours—Start with a tough-skinned fish like carp. Other fish work, but some—like sour shad and shiners—too easily disintegrate when they hit the water. Such baitfish can be fished in nylon netting, but it’s a messy process. Meanwhile, scale and fillet the carp (or try sheepshead, mooneye, goldeye) and cut the fillets into 1 X 2- or 3-inch pieces about half an inch thick.
Pack the pieces into a glass jar, leaving an inch open at the top. Add a few teaspoons of water, or any other liquid you want to experiment with, to accelerate fermentation. Screw on the lid loosely—not too tight or the expanding gasses may cause the jar to explode. Bury the jar in 6 inches of soil that receives sunlight for most of the day. Direct sunlight tends to break down fish too quickly, although experiment if you need the bait in short order. It’s best, though, to let the bait fester for almost a week.
To use sour bait, hook it once through with the hook point exposed. The bait is just as effective rigged below a float as on slip rigging lying on bottom.
Note that cutbait becomes increasingly less effective the longer it’s in the water. Moyer and Stange both emphasize switching bait on almost every cast, to keep those succulent juices flowing, attracting cats via that super cat sense of taste, which is effective day or night in almost any water condition.