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. He’s 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. He’s 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, “the Little Catman” is the only repeat winner of the prestigious National Catfish Derby, copping first place in 1999 and 2002. He also was the Derby’s Big Catfish winner in 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2002. King’s largest cats are a 64–pound blue and a 49–pound 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. They’re 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, you’ll get a scent bite—cats can’t 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 I’m using has both visual and scent appeal.
WIRTH: Let’s talk livebait first. What livebaits do you use, and when might you use them?
HALL: When I’m livebaiting, I’m 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. I’ve 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 you’re fishing.
MOYER I’ve caught more blues and channels than flatheads on livebait. Blues really love bluegills and live shad, but you’ve got to fish ‘em 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 don’t use much livebait, but when I do, it’s 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. I’ll use circle hooks when I’m targeting smaller fish, but big fish may straighten them out.
MOYER: When I’m livebaiting, I’m usually fishing vertically. If you let a big, lively bait wander around on a long leader, eventually it’ll 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 ‘round and ‘round without tangling.
KING: For vertical livebait trolling, I’ll 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. I’ve had good luck with Daiichi 8/0 octopus-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: I’ve got an onboard oxygen tank with a $200 air stone in my bait tank, and I still can’t keep skipjack alive more than a few minutes.
HALL: There’s 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, I’ve always heard livebaits are best for these. Yet Jim said he’s catching more channels and blues on live minnows than flatheads. What’s up with that?
MOYER: I’ve 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, he’s gonna eat it.
KING: All three species live in the same places in the Tennessee River. I’ve had clients in my boat reel up a flathead, a blue, and a channel from the same spot.
HALL: I’ve caught a lot of big flatheads at night on shallow stump flats. But I’ve 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 Phil’s right, the three will definitely inhabit the same places. They’re all structure oriented.
WIRTH: Is there a season or water condition that’s best for livebait?
HALL: Livebait tends to get a quicker bite in current than in slack water, at least in the river-run reservoirs I’m 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 that’s where I fish livebait.
KING: Below Pickwick Dam on the Tennessee River, there’s a dead zone where live crappie minnows work great. I don’t fish downriver that much with livebait.
WIRTH: What mistakes do you see catfishermen make when fishing livebait?
HALL: Catching your bait in the water you’re fishing is critical. Believe me, the catfish know if it’s 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. Donny’s and Jim’s boats are more set up for livebait than mine; I rarely fish it.
MOYER: I’ve got $1,600 invested in my livebait tank, and I’m 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. Don’t use a real stiff rod with livebait or you’ll 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 Shakespeare’s new Tidewater reels.
KING: I’m working right now on a King Cat signature series of catfish rods for Cabela’s. Medium-heavy rods work well for livebait.
WIRTH: Let’s 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 there’s a dead skipjack floating down the river, he’s 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 that’s been freshly cut up into chunks leeches oils and blood into the water that a live fish doesn’t. 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. They’ve 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, they’ll eventually eat it.
WIRTH: Do you think the biggest fish are the “eating machines” 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. I’d 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 don’t 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 they’d move upriver and feed, then slide back to their home base and sit for several days.
HALL: They feed in cycles. I’ve 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 you’re trying to connect with that monster cat, what’s your deadbait of choice?
HALL: Cut skipjack (river herring). I’ll 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. It’s the greasiest, oiliest bait in the river. I’ll fish the head in summer, but I can’t 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 ‘em.
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 they’ll start out hitting one, then shift to the other. I like pizza, but I can’t eat it every day.
MOYER: That shift in food or presentation preference is something you’ve really got to watch for, otherwise you’ll 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 I’d soaked in garlic and tried that alongside two other lines baited with straight liver. All they’d hit was the garlic liver. Sometimes I think cats just want a change for change’s sake.
KING: That’s why it’s so important to give ‘em different presentations on multiple rods. Let the fish tell you what they want.
WIRTH: Let’s 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. It’s economical—I 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 I’m fishing, until they read this article, that is! Liver works best for me in warm water; below 65°F, I switch to skipjack. I use it primarily for keeper-sized fish.
MOYER: I’ve fished a ton of liver, but catch mostly small fish on it, especially channels. I’ve never caught a flathead on liver.
KING: I dye my chicken livers with red food coloring and fish ‘em on red Bleeding Bait hooks. You can’t tell me that doesn’t make a difference. I’ve fished too many tournaments where we’d 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 “mystery meats” in your boats?
HALL: I put enough skipjack for each trip in individual plastic bags and freeze them whole. The night before a trip, I’ll take out what I need and put it in a bucket so it’s not quite completely thawed by morning. Once in the boat, I’ll 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 bait—it’s hard to tell a client who drove a thousand miles to fish that the bait isn’t running. Those vacuum food sealers work great if you’re going to freeze baitfish. I’ve used mine to keep filleted skipjack in the freezer for up to 14 weeks.
KING: I’ve got a 105-quart cooler and keep my bait out of the ice and water. If it gets soggy, it’s ruined. I much prefer fresh bait, but you can’t 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 leader—up 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 we’ll have to run a drawing of that unbelievably complicated drift rig you use.
KING: It’s 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 I’m drifting.
WIRTH: What range of sinker weights will you use?
HALL: I’ve used every size in the book. I like the lightest sinker that still keeps the bait on the bottom. In flood conditions, I’ll move off the channel and fish around the banks, where current is diminished.
MOYER: I carry sinkers from BB to 16 ounces. Beyond that, I’m 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 I’ve been doing real well on 25-foot mussel beds.
WIRTH: Ever use stink baits?
HALL: They’re deadly for channel cats, but I don’t like ‘em ‘cause I can’t ever get the smell out of my boat
MOYER: In ponds and slackwater areas, prepared baits may outfish live or deadbaits 50 to one. But don’t ever get any in your truck. You’ll never be able to sell it.
KING: I use Junnie’s Cat Tracker when I have kids in the boat; it produces a real fast bite on keeper-size fish. Kids don’t care about size; they want action.
WIRTH: Any final thoughts you’d 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 we’ve 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 conditions and to what the fish are telling you, and your bait fishing will be successful.