Ask the manufacturers of commercial catfish baits, like Catfish Charlie, Cat Tracker, Bowker’s, Sonny’s, Sure-Shot, Magic Bait, and others, about their ingredients, and the universal response is a long silence. Persistent prying yields only generic hints like “shad flavoring” and “sour cheese,” or mysterious codenames such as “TC Secret 7” or “Formula #148.” Recipes are guarded as closely as Donald Trump’s Swiss bank account numbers.

“I keep the formula pretty much in my head,” says Bob Hosch, owner of Doc’s Catfish Bait, Parkersburg, Iowa. “I think my secretary, Frances, could probably mix up a batch if she had to, because she’s helped a lot over the years. Good luck trying to get the formula out of her, though. If I forgot it, I’m not sure she’d tell me what it is.”

Even if an angler could deduce the secret ingredients, there’s more to creating a successful catfish bait than its core components. “It’s not just the secret formula,” says Sonny Hootman, owner of Sonny’s Catfish Traps and Bait, another Iowa manufacturer. “The specific flavors are critical, but how I make it is just as important as what’s in it.” Hootman followed the path of many commercial catfish bait manufacturers on his road to success. A self-described “river rat,” he tinkered with homemade baits for years. As the efficacy of his baits evolved, so did their popularity with friends and local anglers.

An epiphany sent Hootman on a quest: “I got to thinking. If I could sell a pound or two a year to 40 or 50 local guys, why not sell a pound or two a year to 40,000 or 50,000 people around the country? So I started researching to figure out how to make the best bait possible. I studied books and pestered all sorts of people in the food industry, trying to learn not only what should be in the bait, but how to mix and process it to get the results I wanted. I finally hit it big-time—I found a lady who told me some stuff about food processing that made it all work. She didn’t know she told me the secret, because it was the way I used her information to make my bait that made the difference. But that lady made me a wealthy man.”
Most bait manufacturers acknowledge that commercial catfish baits can be big business. Some companies, like Catfish Charlie or Magic Bait, are family operations that support extended families. “My grandfather and dad started the company in my grandmother’s kitchen when Dad was 16 years old,” says Scotty Hampton of Magic Bait. “Grandma was real happy when they got big enough to move it to their garage. Now we work out of a big plant, and the whole family is involved. It’s an interesting business that’s been good to us.”

Another garage-born bait business is now the self-described largest prepared-bait manufacturer in the U.S. Rusty’s Bait started out in Rusty Ryan’s garage 54 years ago. Seventy-eight-year-old Ryan still fishes a lot to develop new baits. “Charlie” Poe, company manager, says their product line long ago outgrew Ryan’s tiny garage. “It’s a multimillion-dollar business,” she says. “But we’re still selling one of the baits that got him started, Rusty’s Big Dipper Sponge Bait.”

Rusty’s takes a different tack than other catfish bait manufacturers and offers not only dough- and dipbaits but also preserved crawdads, minnows, shad, and other natural baits. “Other than blood coloring added to the Bloody Shad, they’re all-natural baits,” Poe says. “Convenience is the driving force behind those baits. People don’t have time, or don’t know how, or don’t want the mess of getting their own live- or natural baits. We do all the work, so all they have to do is buy a package of our crawdads or shad and go fishing.”

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The Evolution of Stinkbaits
Doughbaits—concoctions that are kneaded into balls and pressed onto treble hooks—are the grandfathers of all prepared catfish baits. The first commercial doughs appeared in the 1920s. Dipbaits and punchbaits are the second generation of prepared catfish baits, more liquid to get flavor into the water faster. Dipbaits require the use of dipworms, foam hook covers, or other devices to absorb or hold this juicier bait on a hook.

Punchbaits are a southern alternative to dipbaits, an answer to the bait-liquefying temperatures common to a hot summer day in the South. Punchbaits contain ingredients that stiffen their consistency, making them less prone to puddling at high temperatures. Anglers use a stick to punch a bare treble hook into a tub of punchbait. When the hook is pulled from the tub, the glob of bait clinging to the hook is stiff enough to cast into the water, where it slowly dissolves to disperse scent and flavor.

Dip- and punchbaits have dominated the commercial catfish bait market in recent years. “The big challenge with dipbaits is keeping enough on the hook to satisfy the angler,” says Mark Mihalakis, Cat Tracker manager. “If they reel in their line and there’s no dipbait left on the rubber dipworm, they think it’s not working. But the bait was washed off when they pulled the worm through the water reeling it in. All the bait manufacturers are now trying to make the stickiest baits they can, so they stay on the hook but are still liquid enough to milk off and put lots of flavor in the water to attract fish.”
Doughbaits and preformed dough balls are popular with anglers who prefer not to deal with applying and maintaining dipbaits. Magic Bait’s number one seller is chicken-liver-flavored dough cubes. Catfish Charlie’s Blood Dough Bait is their top seller, too.

Berkley’s Gulp! bait technology incorporates meticulously researched attractants incorporated into water-soluble, biodegradable softbaits. “We’ve done extensive research with catfish in tanks as well as with wild catfish, and identified flavors and chemicals they respond to,” says John Prochnow, product innovation manager for Berkley. “We’ve created baits that not only have the attraction of chicken liver, shad, or other natural baits, but they’ve also got those extra fish attractants we’ve identified, in a formulation that disperses in the water better than real liver or shad. The result is baits that outfish liver or shad in many side-by-side field comparisons.”

Regional Favorites
There is no one-flavor-fits-all to catfish bait. Manufacturers are well aware of regional preferences. “In the Santee-Cooper area, we can’t get them to use anything except our Sewer Bait,” said Cat Tracker’s Mihalakis. “Here in the Midwest, it’s Wicked Sticky. Down in the Tennessee Valley Authority lakes region, they want shad-flavored bait.”

Magic Bait’s Hampton notes that anglers in Texas and Oklahoma prefer blood-flavored prepared baits, while California catmen opt for clam-formula Magic Bait. Hosch, with Doc’s, agrees that blood-based baits sell well down South, but says his cheese-flavored baits sell better in the Upper Midwest.

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The search to develop a universally popular catfish bait is the Holy Grail for bait manufacturers. Hootman, Mihalakis, and Frances Krull do regular and exhaustive “research” to test and develop new bait for their respective companies.

Krull is the receptionist, secretary, and overall Girl Friday at Doc’s Catfish Bait Company. “Some mornings, she’s late for work because she’s been down at the river fishing,” says her boss, Hosch. “She takes a lot of long lunch hours, and it’s nothing for her to walk into the office carrying a stringer of 3- to 5-pound channel cats. I’d name her chief of my Research and Development Department, if I had an R&D department.”

Berkley’s Prochnow notes that there are chemicals that could revolutionize commercial catfish baits. “Our research has uncovered a number of compounds that are attractive to catfish,” he says. “One, in particular, would make a revolutionary catfish bait, but the product is so expensive that no catfisherman would pay the price we’d have to put on it.”
Eagle Claw’s Lisa Villani says her company also has discovered a powerful but pricey chemical that they’d like to add to their Nitro prepared catfish baits. “Experimental batches of bait we formulated using that product outfished our current Nitro baits, and were three times better than any of our competitor’s baits in side-by-side, in-the-field testing,” she says. “But that secret ingredient is currently just too expensive to incorporate in our baits.”

So we’re back to secret ingredients, the core of any prepared catfish bait. When it comes down to the exact formulas manufacturers use to make their specific baits irresistible, they offer few clues. Catfish Charlie’s Buddy Holub, under pressure, finally conceded to helping curious anglers and competitors deduce his secret formula: “Taste it and tell me what you think is in it, and I’ll tell you if you’re right.”

THE DIPWORM DILEMMA
What’s the best size, style, and color of dipworm to use with dipbait? According to manufacturers of dipbait and veteran anglers who use it, the answer is: Never more than 1 inch in length, but never less than 4. The ribs on a dipworm should always be deep, except when they’re shallow. The color of a dipworm makes absolutely no difference, unless it makes a difference.

Confused? Don’t feel bad. Finding the best delivery system for the latest generation of dipbaits depends on a variety of factors and angler preferences. Here are some of the variables to consider.

Ribbed versus Surgical Tubing versus Sponge

“A dipbait worm needs to match the viscosity of the dipbait you’re using,” says Berkley’s John Prochnow. “If you have a thin, runny dipbait that dissolves easily in water, you need either a sponge worm or a tube worm. If the dipbait is thicker and stickier, you need a ribbed worm that sheds the bait easily.”

Depth of ribs on dipworms isn’t as significant as the type and condition of “rubber” that the worms are made of. Ribbed dipworms actually are made of PVC plastic, with plasticizers added to keep the worms supple.

Tube-type dipworms are made of a different type of plastic, but both have shiny, oily-looking surfaces.

Those shiny chemicals on the surface of a worm can make it difficult for dipbait to adhere. Prochnow recommends washing shiny dipworms in a bath of warm water and a little dish soap. Rinse them in clean water to remove any traces of soap. In the field, he suggests blotting worms dry with a paper towel or cloth to remove any water, to improve dipbait adhesion when dipworms are poked into bait tubs.

Many dipbait manufacturers dislike foam dipworms because the sponge rubber tends to soak up water and releases the bait too rapidly. Wayne Scheffsky, owner of W-D-3 Baits in Geneseo, Illinois, agrees that foam dipbait worms must be selected carefully. “I make my dipworms from a special type of rubberized silicone sponge with fibers embedded in it,” Scheffsky says. “I prefer that sponge material because it lets my dipworms float even after they’ve been loaded with dipbait. I want my bait floating right at eye level when catfish come cruising by, looking for the source of the scent and flavor particles released by the bait.”

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