When it comes to bait, bass fishermen have it easy. They merely reach into their tackle boxes, pick out a plastic worm, affix it Texas-style to a 3/0 offset hook, and commence plumbing the lakeʼs contours. If that plastic worm fails to entice a bass, the bass man can quickly switch to a crankbait, jig and pork chunk, spinnerbait, or a potpourri of other artificial lures.
On the other side of the bait spectrum sit catfish anglers, for whom bait gathering and selection can be an ordeal. In June 2001, for example, Steve Hoffman, Rich Eckholm, and I searched in vain for bullheads for a flathead trip on the Kansas River. We even found it difficult to catch sufficient green sunfish, which usually can be caught by the five-gallon bucketful. We caught plenty of bluegills, but they aren’t as lively as bullheads and greenies.
The difficulty in catching and keeping livebait and fresh cutbait probably is the main reason so many catmen who pursue blue and channel cats constantly search for some kind of manmade alternative. And that’s the primary reason so many catfish anglers across the Central Plains now rely more on catfish bloodbait than on anything else.
Hemophobes Need Not Apply
We don’t know who concocted the first batch of catfish blood bait, but it was a stroke of genius. Today, countless recipes are used to prepare fresh blood for the hook, and anglers frequently debate the merits of their favorite blend.
For example, Cat Daddy Shumway of Topeka, Kansas, often says: “I’ve used all types of blood through the years—goat blood, horse blood, emu blood, lamb blood, deer blood, goose blood, rabbit blood, chicken blood, and turkey blood. Turkey blood, in my experience, produces the best results.”
During Shumway’s first years as a bloodbait devotee, he primarily used chicken blood. He says it’s thinner than other animal blood, but ultimately congeals into firm pieces that are effective catfish attractors.
Several factors led Shumway from chicken to turkey blood. First, turkey blood is easier to acquire, especially in the quantities he uses during an average season. Second, it coagulates into a thicker mass and sets up faster than chicken blood. And finally, when it’s in the water, it “bleeds” more and a for a longer period of time.
Shumway admits, though, that many reservoir anglers find chicken and turkey blood too tender. Most drifters, therefore, usually opt for beef blood.
Shumway says that beef blood is dramatically different than turkey and chicken blood. Consequently, the process of making a batch of bait from beef blood is different than working with poultry blood. “But if a bloodbait maker is worth his salt,” Shumway adds, “he can concoct a batch of turkey blood that will delight any drifter.”
At the slaughterhouse, Shumway pours the blood into 50-gallon barrels, then loads the barrels onto a trailer. During the trip home, the road vibrations cause the congealed blood to sink to the bottom of the barrels.
As soon as Shumway arrives home, he removes the uncoagulated blood and saves the liquid as an essential ingredient in his wood chip, sour grain, and maggot chum mixture. He then pours the congealed blood into a large, rigid plastic wading pool.
Shumway makes a seasoned and an unseasoned bloodbait. One of his new favorites is a bait laced with garlic. He also makes a mixture flavored with menhaden oil, and another loaded with anise.
When making seasoned bait, Shumway adds the seasoning immediately after he pours the blood into the plastic wading pool. The seasoning is widely and evenly broadcast on top of the pool of blood.
After adding the seasoning, Shumway sprinkles sugar across the surface of the blood. The sugar causes all the ingredients to naturally roll to the bottom and become thoroughly mixed with the blood.
This mixing or brewing process usually takes two days. While brewing, the blood bubbles. As soon as it stops bubbling, it’s ready to be frozen.
To prepare it for freezing, Shumway picks out the prime hunks, which look like thin pieces of liver. He places these pieces into a plastic bucket, puts a lid on the bucket, then freezes it.
To toughen the blood, Shumway thaws it and places the liverlike slabs on a piece of concrete in the hot sun. The sun and hot concrete cooks and toughens the blood. To make the bait extra tough, he sprinkles Kosher salt on the pieces of blood. Then he refreezes the bait.
From Shumway’s perspective, his toughened turkey blood will outperform beef blood. Since the process for making beef bloodbait is different from making turkey bloodbait, Shumway says the end products also are different.
According to Shumway, beef blood isn’t as bloody as turkey or chicken blood. Beef has a rubbery or spongy feel, and it’s porous. When fishing with beef blood, Shumway has found that it quickly becomes a lighter color and stops secreting scent. Beef blood’s greatest asset, Shumway says, is that its spongy consistency allows it to stay on the hook better than turkey or chicken blood. But for enticing channel cats, Shumway contends that no blood can match that from “a big white-breasted bird.”
On the other hand, Tom Lawrence of Papillion, Nebraska, is one of the many advocates for beef blood. According to Lawrence, he and his cohorts also have experimented with all kinds of blood, and in their eyes, none catches channel and blue catfish as well as beef blood.
When it comes to catching scores of big catfish, Lawrence knows what he’s talking about. During the past decade, he has tangled with countless big channels and blues at reservoirs all across the nation. And his trip in July 2001 to Lake Texoma is an illustration of his prowess with beef blood.
At Texoma, he used huge chunks of blood to probe a steep edge of the submerged Washita River in 20 to 42 feet of water, where he caught and released a blue cat every 30 minutes that weighed more than 20 pounds. And his biggest fish that trip weighed 65 pounds.
Besides beef blood’s intrinsic abilities to allure big catfish, Lawrence notes that southeastern Nebraska always has a bountiful supply of beef blood. Of course, supply is a paramount consideration when it comes to bait procurement.
After the steer is killed at a slaughterhouse, an artery in its throat is cut. From that severed artery, a steady stream of blood gushes into a five-gallon bucket. On average, a steer yields about three gallons of blood.
After the blood is collected in the bucket, Lawrence says it’s important to allow it to coagulate, which takes about two hours. Once the blood coagulates, it can be transported to another site. If the blood is transported before it coagulates, the vibration that occurs during the move permanently stymies coagulation.
The next step is to let the blood sit in a cool spot for three days. Then the bucket of blood is poured into a bathtub and formed into slabs that are two inches thick. Each slab is formed into a 10-inch square. The square is cut in half and cut again into 10 pieces. Lawrence puts the pieces into a plastic container with a lid and freezes it. On a summer day in Nebraska, it takes about two hours for a container of beef blood to thaw. Any bait left after a channel or blue cat excursion can be refrozen.
The Punchbait Alternative
No matter how effective Shumway and Lawrence find bloodbait, it’s not to every angler’s liking. A lot of folks call it a messy hassle. David Schmidtlein of Topeka, Kansas, is of that school.
Originally Schmidtlein was a drifter who primarily employed gizzard shad. Then he became a chummer who used nightcrawlers and a potpourri of prepared baits. In the 1990s, Bob’s Cheese Punch Bait, developed and manufactured by the late Bob Fincher of Nixon, Texas, became the bait of choice of many of the chummers in northeastern Kansas; Schmidtlein became part of that contagion.
Bob’s bait is made of cheese, cattails, ground chicken guts, and blood. Despite the potentially messy nature of its contents, it supposedly leaves no mess on hands, boats, or clothing. Anglers are instructed to use a stick to punch a treble hook into the container of bait. Then by grasping the line, the hook is gently pulled out of the container with a wad of bait affixed to it.
But more important than the cleanliness factor, Bob’s Punch Bait has proven to be an extraordinarily effective bait. It’s so effective that two chummers at Pomona Lake, Kansas, in August 2001 regularly caught 60 channel cats an hour. And for a coterie of anglers who are fixated by the desire to tangle with massive numbers of fish, Bob’s has become their favorite elixir.
After Bob Fincher died in the late 1990s, his wife, Bettie, continued to manufacture the bait, and the business flourished. But during the summer of 2001, the building that was used to manufacture the punch bait burned to the ground.
The fire also destroyed Fincher’s stockpile of cattails. And cattails are an integral ingredient of punch bait, taking three five-gallon buckets of cattails to make a one-gallon bucket of the finished bait.
As of the winter of 2001 and 2002, Bettie hadn’t rebuilt the building or acquired a new inventory of cattails. This development has scores of chumming catmen across the southern plains in a state of consternation, fearing that the summer of 2002 will be a bust without their favorite punchbait.
Schmidtlein, however, isn’t one of those panicked anglers. Nowadays Schmidtlein makes his own version of punchbait. He calls it Cat Candy, and he’s been experimenting with it for several years.
It includes seven ingredients, including cattails and fermented or sour soybeans. Recently Schmidtlein has substituted burlap fibers for the cattails and has found it as effective as cattails.
Schmidtlein has toyed with divulging the other five ingredients, but he also has been considering manufacturing and selling the bait and giving the profits to charity. So as of now, all that he will say about the other five ingredients is that humans can safely consume them.
Instead of being a traditional punch bait, like Bob’s, Schmidtlein’s bait it is blended into a paste. To put it on a #6 treble hook, a small quantity is formed into a ball by rolling it between the thumb and index finger. The hook is then punched through the ball. Once the hook is centered, the bait is rerolled, enclosing the hook inside the ball. By covering the treble hook, logjams and brushpiles can be thoroughly probed without snagging. Schmidtlein always uses it in conjunction with soybean chum.
Schmidtlein says the most difficult part of using Cat Candy is discovering how to extract larger catfish from the mazes of logs and limbs they call home. But he has it pretty well figured out. At Melvern Lake, Kansas, last summer, Schmidtlein caught and released 100 channel cats on most of his five-hour outings. Some weighed as much as 15 pounds, but a couple behemoths showed Schmidtlein that he still had some things to learn about battling big cats in cover.
As word spread about Schmidtlein’s manifold successes with his bait, several chummers have experimented with similar brews. Cat Daddy Shumway is one whose willing to share his punchbait recipe.
Shumway mixes crushed soybeans and cattails in water and allows them to ferment. As they ferment, he stirs them frequently. Occasionally he kneads the mixture, making sure the cattails break apart into a multitude of tiny fibers. After the soybeans and cattails become thoroughly mixed and fermented, turkey blood, anise, and flour are added, and the mixture is stirred until all the ingredients meld.
If Shumway wants his bait to secrete an oil slick, he adds some menhaden oil along with the blood, anise, and flour. When everything is combined, the mixture is allowed to age, and as it ages, it becomes rank with maggots. Once the maggots develop substantial girth and length, Shumway puts the bait in the freezer long enough to kill the maggots. Then he removes the bait from the freezer, allows it to warm to room temperature, and stirs the bait until the maggots are intermingled with the other ingredients.
Shumway is working on another punchbait that he calls Cat Daddy’s Double Dinner Dip. The viscosity of this one is thinner, which allows it to dissolve in about five minutes. As it dissolves, kernels of fermented wheat are dispersed around the covert. This bait is in what Shumway calls the “research and development phase.” He’s hoping the final product will be a combination of chum and punchbait.
“There’s no getting around it,” Shumway says, “ getting bait for catching cats is a chore. No matter if its catching bullheads or making blood and punchbait, it’s a pain. In comparison, bass fishing is a piece of cake, but who wants to catch a puny little ol’ bass when he can tangle with a 50-pound blue?”
Taken from Elk City Reservoir, Kansas, on May 14, 1998, the fish stretched the tape a whopping 61 inches and sported a pleasantly plump, 42¾-inch girth. Paulie was crappie fishing at the time, and hooked it on a jig-and-minnow. Like many world records, it was not without controversy. It was verified while alive by Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks fishery biologist Sean Lynott. But details of the catch—such as the relatively light tackle Paulie was using, and his statement that it didn’t put up much of a fight—raised eyebrows in the cat community. Still, the record stands to this day as a testament to the immense proportions flatheads are capable of attaining.