There’s a lot of travail in the world about catfish bait. In fact, it’s such a critical factor for Jeremy Leach, an accomplished catfish tournament angler from Madison, Indiana, that he frets more about the acquisition of the best catfish bait than locating the ideal catfish lair.
Most of Leach’s outings are on the Ohio River, where he targets blue catfish from Cincinnati to the Illinois state line. His favorite bait, especially June through August, is a 12-inch or longer skipjack herring. He even tries to have some fresh ones on hand the rest of the year.
Because skipjack can be difficult to procure along the Ohio, he often travels 210 miles to the Cumberland River in Tennessee to harvest them. His most effective setup for big skipjacks there is a 1/4-ounce white crappie jig paired with spinning tackle and PowerPro braided line. When big specimens are scarce, he catches small ones by using a Sabiki rig—a 4-foot leader that sports 5 small white streamer flies with either pink or green heads. When conditions are right, he catches five herring at a time.
Leach says fresh skipjack is far superior to frozen, and that if freshly caught and properly cared for, it remains effective for 6 days. He immediately places herring on ice in a big cooler with holes drilled in the bottom so water can drain, keeping the bait from becoming water-soaked. Upon his arrival home, he stores skipjacks in big plastic bags in a refrigerator; the night before an outing, he removes them from the refrigerator and puts them on ice in the cooler.
During the spring, winter, and fall on the Ohio, blue catfish relish gizzard shad almost as much as they savor skipjacks. Because shad are abundant on the Ohio, Leach doesn’t have to make a 400-mile round trip to get bait, but at times it takes a lot of scouting and expertise to catch them. He catches shad using 10- to 18-foot-diameter throw nets. The 10-footer is used for small shad, while the 18-footer, with a larger mesh and a faster sink rate, is used for big shad.
He locates shad schools in feeder creeks, around marinas, and in the current below dams, although it’s nearly impossible to properly wield a throw net around the dams when the current runs at a torrid pace, he says. As he catches the shad, Leach uses the same storage methods as for the skipjacks but never mixes the two species, as the slime that shad excrete fouls the skipjacks in short order. What’s more, shad don’t keep as long as skipjacks do.
When Leach turns to the Ohio River’s flathead catfish, he uses three livebaits: gizzard shad, bluegills, and creek chubs. To keep gizzard shad alive, they’re immediately removed from the throw net and held in a 40-gallon Grayline bait tank, which accommodates about 40 nice-sized shad. The tank keeps shad frisky for several days, even during the hottest spells of the year.
Leach and his daughters catch bluegills from ponds using a spinning outfit that sports a tiny bobber and a hook baited with bee moths. They place the bluegills, ranging in size from 3 to 7 inches, in a 50-quart cooler equipped with an aerator. For creek chubs, Leach ventures to the creeks around Madison, Indiana, catching them on the same setup that he uses for bluegills. The chubs, ranging from 2 to 10 inches, are stored in the aerated cooler, which holds 40 chubs and 20 bluegills.
To pursue the Ohio’s channel catfish, he fishes with shad or skipjacks cut into smaller portions. At times, the channels prefer the baitfish guts. He uses only cutbait for channel catfish, but if he has a difficult time catching blues on cutbait, he switches to small live shad.
Buster Rush of Camden, South Carolina, has been fishing the Santee-Cooper reservoir system since 1963 and guiding there since 1993, upon retiring from DuPont. He says, “I quit using a throw net about 10 years ago. I got tired of fishing all day, throwing a net, and getting to bed at 10 p.m. I figured I’d live longer if I just bought my bait that somebody else was up late throwing for.”
So when Rush and his clients are pursuing blue catfish, he buys shad and herring; but when they’re after flatheads with livebait, he spends time every morning catching white perch, finding that a lively white perch has few peers when it comes to enticing Santee-Cooper’s flatheads. Large schools of white perch typically swim about in 8 to 12 feet of water on points, where they’re caught on crappie gear with a piece of a nightcrawler for bait. Rush prefers 4- to 5-inch-long perch but has used them as small as 3 inches.
Up to 3 dozen baits can be held in Rush’s homemade livewell, which he constructed by cutting a 55-gallon plastic barrel so that it was 20 inches high, lining the inside with insulation. Another, smaller, 35-gallon plastic barrel is also cut to 20 inches and placed inside the larger, insulated barrel. The top, fashioned out of a piece of 3/4-inch plywood with a hinged door, is secured to the barrels. An aerator is held to the bottom with suction cups, and a spray bar is attached near the top. To keep baits cool, he places plastic bottles filled with frozen tapwater in the livewell, explaining that he doesn’t have to worry about contamination with chlorine because the bottles are snugly capped.
Depending on the size of the white perch, Rush uses either a 4/0 or 5/0 Eagle Claw Kahle hook, impaling the perch along its back and behind the dorsal fin. Trimming part of the tail fin makes the bait swim erratically, attracting the attention of a tentative flathead.
He presents baits on a Carolina rig comprised of a 2-foot leader, a barrel swivel, and either a 11⁄2- or 2-ounce slipsinker. The line and leader are 80-pound-test Berkley FireLine. Rush says that a lively white perch can make a mess of a Carolina rig if the leader is longer than 2 feet.
White perch are presented to Santee-Cooper’s flatheads in two ways. One method is anchoring the boat at a unique lair and using six rods to place baits at strategic spots. The second is to drift across a large expanse of the reservoir’s topography, searching for scattered flatheads.
When Rush doesn’t need to worry about keeping his bait alive, he stores them in a zip-lock bag in an ice-filled cooler. He butterflies the dead white perch, cutting from the tail toward the head and through the body cavity, exposing the guts. He runs the hook through both eye sockets so that the hook’s point is on the side that’s been cut. The segment of cut flesh is then pulled up to the eye socket and affixed to the hook, which opens the body cavity and allows the odors of the internal organs to exude as he drifts. On a drifting presentation, blue catfish like the butterflied white perch as much as flatheads do, he says.
For drifting, Rush normally uses 6 medium-heavy rods spooled with 80-pound-test FireLine. Each rod sports a Carolina rig with a 2-ounce egg sinker. A foam float is placed 6 inches above the hook. If it’s windy and he’s fishing vertically from an anchored boat, he opts for 7-foot rods with a softer action and 3-ounce sinkers. This combination keeps the bait from bouncing up and down too radically.
In Topeka, Kansas, Steve Desch doesn’t have to drive 210 miles, or toss throw nets long into the night to get hold of one of his favorite livebaits for channel catfish. He gathers bait merely a few paces from his front door—his yard is a nightcrawler nirvana.
There is, however, a lot more to the art and science of gathering nightcrawlers than ambling around the yard. In fact, when the Kansas weather turns dry, common in summer and winter, harvesting nightcrawlers becomes as trying for him as it is for Leach to catch skipjacks.
To create a good habitat for nightcrawlers, Desch says that it’s essential not to apply fertilizers or pesticides, and that because moles eat nightcrawlers, a good crawler yard shows signs of mole activity. Nightcrawlers also reveal their whereabouts during rainy periods by creating holes across the surface of his yard; the easiest areas to spot the wormholes are where the grass cover is slight, he says.
Traditionally, nightcrawler collectors do best on a cool, damp, spring night. According to crawler lore, the coolness of the night makes them more lethargic and easier to grab. By contrast, on a warm, humid night, the worms can move nimbly and bury themselves into the earth with the swiftness of a power drill. It’s said that the crawlers’ prostomium, the flap that covers their mouth, is extremely sensitive to light and vibration, so they’re easy to spook. That’s why most old-time collectors used dim light and walked gingerly on their nighttime forays.
Desch, however, shuns all of these traditional methods, instead gathering his bait during the middle of the day. Using a garden hose, he saturates a small area of his yard. Straightaway, nightcrawlers emerge and begin swimming in the water flowing out of the hose. It’s “easy pickings,” he says, and it’s even better if a significant amount of rain fell the night before. But the drier the soil, the longer it takes to bring the nightcrawlers up, he notes, and their numbers are fewer.
Around Topeka, the best months for collecting crawlers are March through June, Desch says, but anytime the soil is moist for several feet under the surface, he can attract significant numbers. He notes that his midday crawlers are docile and easy to catch. Because they’re so submissive, he rarely injures them, picking them up only when they’re completely out of their holes and swimming in the water.
Desch stores nightcrawlers in a Worm Ranch that includes 41⁄2 pounds of bedding material, feeding them finely ground oatmeal. Keeping the bedding material moist throughout the box is important—it shouldn’t be too wet, and it’s best to err on the dry side. His Worm Ranch is never filled with more than 200 worms and is stored in a refrigerator set at 45ºF.
He puts new crawlers on top of the bedding and discards those that don’t bury themselves within a few hours. Sickly worms are so flaccid and languid, he says, that they don’t attract fish as do the tough, healthy, active ones. His Worm Ranch is thus regularly inspected for sickly specimens, which are removed so disease won’t spread to the others. The connoisseur has kept his worms alive and well for up to 9 months, and during that spell, he says, they even procreated.
The tough-skinned and muscular crawlers can act as hook-guards on jigs, when an angler fishes rocky zones where many channel cats spawn. A crawler on a 1/16-ounce Gopher Mushroom Head Jig with a #4 hook is an effective combination. Desch clips about an inch off the worm’s head before threading it on the jig, the same way a bass angler affixes a plastic worm to a shaky-head jig.
For channel cats, cast and retrieve the crawler-jig combo the same as you would for crappies, walleyes, or bass. Occasionally a big flathead engulfs the offering. For Desch, this is a dandy way to initiate bass, crappie, and walleye anglers to the joys of catching catfish.
A Better Worm
Virgil Brown of Olpe, Kansas, is a regular participant and winner at the U.S. C.A.T.S. Kansas Division tournaments. From late March to early June, he likes to use earthworms but not nightcrawlers to catch channel catfish, noting that crawlers are too flaccid. He prefers a species of earthworm he calls a sodworm, which others call a river worm.
According to Brown, sodworms are tougher, livelier, and have a superior texture to that of nightcrawlers, which he compares to felt, while the sodworm feels more like a crunchy carrot. He also suspects that channel cats find sodworms juicer and tastier than nightcrawlers.
Brown finds his sodworms by digging along riverbanks about 15 yards from the water’s edge, among the grasses and willow saplings. The banks of the Fall River in Greenwood County, Kansas, produce his favorite specimens. The best time to dig for them, he says, is on a warm afternoon in late February. A sunny riverbank is best, where in the warm soil worms move towards the surface, making them easier to find and dig up. On a good dig he can extract 15 worms from one forkful of dirt, he says.
Since their body temperature is cool in late February, sodworms are slower then, making them easier to grab. They’re also healthier than in late spring or the heat of summer, and a worm injured by the prongs of a digging fork readily heals and won’t adversely affect the other worms.
The hotter the soil, the more vulnerable the worms become. On an extremely hot day in late May several years ago, he dug up 700 sodworms, all of which died before he could sort and refrigerate them.
Brown can store 250 sodworms in a 12 x 15 x 8-inch Styrofoam box filled with finely shredded newspapers and a bit of ground corn. He adds water to moisten the newspaper, the proper water ratio determined by squeezing a large handful of the shredded newspaper—when only one drop of water emerges, it’s wet enough.
Stomping Up River Worms
Troy Kuhlman of Olpe, Kansas, collects sodworms, or river worms, along the banks of Eagle Creek in Coffey County, Kansas. He likes an overcast day and also immediately after a rainstorm.
Kuhlman searches the riverbank for an area scarred with wormholes. At such a spot, he pounds the wet soil with a shovel or stomps his feet on the ground. All of this ruckus brings the worms to the surface, ripe for the pickings.