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.”
Continued – click on page link below.