Fresh, natural baits often are the best catfish baits, but they can be difficult to keep fresh for extended periods. The juices and flavors that make nightcrawlers, catalpa worms, gizzard shad, skipjack herring, crawdads, and other baits irresistible to catfish also make them prone to quickly go from nice to nasty.
Stinkbaits, soured shad, and other malodorous baits catch lots of catfish, especially smaller ones that make their living scrounging for worms, minnows, and anything else they can fit into their mouths. But flatheads, blues, and larger channel cats tend to shop for fresh foods. It’s not that dips and soured shad won’t catch bigger fish at times, but fresh livebait and cutbait are more consistent producers of larger catfish. So the challenge becomes to have a sufficient supply of “fresh” bait on hand if you don’t have time to procure it every time you go fishing, or if that bait is out of season.
Some bait companies offer preserved, pre-packaged gizzard shad, crawdads, and other baits. Flavors and scents designed to improve their attractiveness often are added. But catfish anglers tend to be do-it-yourselfers. Many have experimented with processes to preserve baits ranging from old-school salting and pickling to high-tech flash-freezing and vacuum packing. Some techniques work well. Others anger spouses and annoy downwind neighbors. Whatever process used, the key is to start with live, fresh bait.
“Any baitfish has enzymes in their gut that aid digestion,” says Steve Douglas, owner of Monster Rod Holders and a tournament angler. “As soon as a fish dies, those enzymes go to work on the fish tissue and it degrades from the inside out. If you net skipjack herring or gizzard shad and throw them in a livewell full of lake water at 70°F or 80°F, they die and start to degrade quickly. If you tightly pack those dead skipjack or shad into a bucket and throw the bucket in the back of your truck and drive home to preserve them, by the time you get around to salting or freezing them, they’re already well on their way to being rotten.”
Anglers serious about preserving baitfish in just-seined condition must plan ahead. The goal is to have supplies on hand in the field to quick-chill baitfish as soon as they’re seined or caught. Several bags of ice in a cooler, along with packages of sea salt or kosher salt, are key ingredients. Once baitfish are netted or caught by hook and line, they should immediately be layered with ice in an ice chest, then covered with a layer of ice sprinkled with salt.
“Don’t pile baitfish on top of one another so fish are laying on fish,” says Douglas. “An hour into it, if they’re piled on top of each other, their scales start to slough off and they get mushy. Put them in layers one fish thick so they chill as fast as possible.” Alternate layers of baitfish and salted ice until the cooler is full.
Ice alone chills baitfish prior to final preservation, but ice and salt, especially a brine solution, chills faster. Salt lowers the melting point of ice, creating a brine solution that is colder than ice itself. If you’ve ever made home-made ice cream and sprinkled rock salt on the ice, the purpose is to lower the temperature of the ice cream mix in the mixing container to below freezing, speeding its conversion from creamy liquid to semi-solid.
Back home it’s time for the final preservation steps. The goal is to quickly transform chilled baitfish into frozen bait. Douglas takes chilled baitfish from the cooler, pats them dry, then places just enough fish in a one-gallon Ziploc bag so the bag lies flat with no fish overlapping each other. “I squeeze the bag to remove all the air before I close it,” he says. “I’ve seen guys submerge all but the opening of the bag in a bucket of water, to force the air out before they seal it. You also can use a vacuum sealer to suck the air out. Just don’t leave any more air in there than you have to, because air pockets cause freezer burn, which makes poor bait.”
Matt Davis, owner of Whisker Seeker Tackle Company, splits the difference between manually squeezing air from bags and using special freeze-vac systems. “I close all but one corner of the Ziploc bag, then suck the air out with my mouth until the sides of the bag are tight against the fish,” he says. “You don’t want much water in the bag when you do that, and you occasionally get a mouthful of shad juice, but it works well.”
Steve Lynch, national sales manager for Pro-Cure Bait Scents, includes a step before freezing that adds flavor and fish attractant. “We have a preservative product that is 80 percent salt and 20 percent feeding stimulant,” he says. “I mix our Brine ‘N Bite powder with 2 quarts of non-chlorinated water and marinate the chilled baitfish in that solution in a refrigerator for 6 hours. Then I drain off the marinade and put the baitfish in a Ziploc bag so they lie flat and don’t overlap. I squeeze all the air out of the bag, seal it, and put it in my freezer.
Lynch warns that household freezers require special attention when freezing baitfish. “Commercial freezers run at zero, or below zero,” he says. “Household freezers rarely operate at much less than 25°F. If you stack a bunch of unfrozen packages in a home freezer on one shelf, it may be a long time before the packages in the middle of the pile freeze.” Instead, place sealed plastic bags of pre-chilled baitfish flat on freezer shelves, with a thin air space between bags.
Freezing as a bait preservation technique is limited to baitfish. “Nightcrawlers and other worms don’t freeze well,” Lynch says. “They’re too thin-skinned. Freezing ruptures their membranes and you end up with mush. The best you can do with worms is keep them alive and chilled in a refrigerator. As long as the container they come in has moist soil or bedding compound, they stay good for several weeks.
Crawdads seem to work well if you dry-freeze them. I dry-rub them with our Brine ‘N Bite powder on a cookie tray, then put them in baggies and freeze them. If you soak them you get liquid inside their shell and it ruptures organs when it freezes. The salty dry-rub seems to pull some of the moisture out and helps them freeze better.”
Salt preservation pre-dates home refrigeration and freezing. The hygroscopic nature of salt dehydrates bait for storage, with the added benefit of the salt acting as an anti-bacterial preservative. The key is to bring the freshest baitfish possible to the final steps of preservation. Pat chilled fish dry with a paper towel, then place the fish in a container with holes in the bottom. Alternate layers of kosher or sea salt with baitfish, with no baitfish touching each other or the side of the container.
Some anglers add Borax to the salt to “toughen” the skins of the baitfish during the preservation process. The container shouldn’t be sealed and need not be refrigerated. Cover the top with a porous cloth, then place the container over a catch-tray for at least 2 weeks. The catch tray holds fluids that are drawn out of the fish. The resulting salted baitfish can be stored for up to a year. Anglers suggest rehydrating them in a fish attractant or water before using them.
Another old-school alternative to freezing baits is to pickle them. There are several ways to pickle fish, but the intent is the same: Process fresh chilled baitfish to prevent exposure to air and bacteria. Pickling eliminates the need for refrigeration, keeps baitfish moist and supple, and may provide some fish-attracting benefit, depending on the type of natural preservative used. There are many home-made pickling solutions, but the three most common are mineral oil, isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, and ethyl (drinking) alcohol. Rubbing alcohol should be at least 70-percent. Drinking alcohol should be 140-proof or higher. Remember the little worm at the bottom of a bottle of tequila?
Whatever process used, the goal to maintain lifelike catfish bait full of the juices and flavors that attract big catfish. “If you quick-chill them and keep them as fresh as possible before you freeze or preserve them, they retain more of their juices,” says Douglas. “I’ve noticed that the blood in regular frozen baits can be brownish. But if I use salt in the chilling process, the blood is still reddish when I thaw the fish. That’s what I’m looking for—juice and flavor.”
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications on catfish topics.