Hardcore catmen often are v-e-r-y particular about catfish baits. No wonder, then, that the topic of which bait works best is one that elicits strong opinions. Some catmen swear by chunks of fresh-caught skipjack, others by redworms or crawlers. To hear them tell it, without the right bait, youʼre wasting your time.
This pathological bait fixation is dangerous business. I know guys who spend more time and energy gathering, preparing, and maintaining bait than they spend fishing, thereby earning themselves the dubious title of “Master Baiter.”
I’ll let you in on a little secret: catfish, by and large, really aren’t all that picky about what they eat. These are not a bunch of food critics from Bon Appetit we’re dealing with. Catfish are buffet feeders, opportunistic predators with a hearty appetite for all sorts of entrees—alive, once alive but now dead, and manmade.
Regardless of what some catmen tell you, you don’t always need a castnet or a shovel to come up with all the bait you need for a great catfishin’ trip. You’ll find a selection of taste-tempting catfish treats just down the road, at your neighborhood grocery store.
Legendary Tennessee catmeister Jim Moyer is one of the nation’s most respected guides, a trusted authority on many aspects of catfishing. In the dead of winter, when he’s hunting the Cumberland River’s giant blue cats, he won’t mess with anything but plump, juicy chunks of skipjack caught on hook and line the morning of the trip. But Moyer is a mellow sort of fellow, never in so much of a hurry that he won’t take time to tinker with alternative approaches.
“Yep, I’ll use grocery story baits,” Moyer says, “but like Wirth said, mainly in warm weather when I’m not so intent on targeting giant blues. They’re great for channel cats, but I’ve found that blues and flatheads much prefer fresh fish, either live or freshly killed. Take hot dogs. I’m talking tube steaks, not those so-called catfish wieners that have been treated with fish attractant. Plain ol’ all-American hot dogs. Great channel cat bait. All-beef hot dogs are good; so are those cheesy wieners. But I like to doctor ‘em up a little for catfishing.”
Using a cooking syringe, the kind commonly employed by chefs to inject butter or spices into poultry, Moyer mainlines his weenies with various liquid flavor enhancers including cod liver oil, anise oil, or chicken blood. “Cut raw, injected hot dogs into one-inch sections and thread ‘em onto a reliable livebait hook like the Gamakatsu Octopus,” he recommends. “Fish ‘em on bottom just as you would any other cat bait. Good thing about hot dogs is, you can grill the ones you don’t use for bait. Just bring along a hibachi, and don’t forget the mustard.”
While hitting your local Piggly Wiggly for a hot dog run, take a turn down aisle three and pick up some canned pet food, Jim suggests. “Alpo and Puss ‘n Boots both work well for channel cats. Cut a piece of surgical tubing just long enough to fit over the shank of a bait hook, pack it full of moist pet food and fish it on bottom. Canned pet food can be used for chum, too.”
Next stop: the dairy case. “Soft cheese will catch both catfish and trout,” Moyer says. “Garlic cheese is a good choice. I like to mix a little cayenne pepper or anise oil with my cheese. I’ll fish this in a surgical tubing rig or mold it around a treble hook. Trebles especially made for this application have little springs around the shank. It’s cheaper, however, to take the spring from an old ball point pen and use it to modify several hooks.”
A word about treble hooks, especially the small sizes needed for soft grocery store baits: Moyer uses them only when he’s after a mess of keeper-size cats for a fish fry. Catfish often swallow trebles, making catch and release impossible.
When I mentioned that biscuit dough, another dairy item, can be formed into doughballs for both catfish and carp, Jim was reminded of this story: “A woman in Mississippi comes out of a Safeway store on a hot day, puts her groceries in the back seat and starts her car. Suddenly a shot rings out and WHAM! she feels an impact on the back of her head. She reaches back, feels something warm and squishy, and panics. ‘Help!’ she screams. A man runs up and asks her what’s wrong. ‘I’ve been shot and my brains are running out the back of my head!’ she cries, holding the mushy mass in place with her hands. The guy flags down a police car. ‘What’s the trouble?’ the officer wonders. ‘I’ve been shot and my brains are running out the back of my head!’ the woman replies hysterically. Seeing no blood, the cop leans in for a closer look and realizes what’s happened: the tube of refrigerated biscuits in the woman’s grocery sack has exploded in the hot car, sending the dough flying like shot from a cannon and strikes her in the back of the head.
“True story,” Moyer adds, “so be careful with that biscuit dough.”
Shrimp make awesome catfish bait. “See if you can talk the seafood clerk out of the old shrimp that he was about to throw out,” Jim suggests. “On the Cumberland in spring and summer, I’d rather have a jugline baited with shrimp than anything else, but I can’t catch anything on it when I fish it on the bottom. But on the Red River in Manitoba, those big channels absolutely will wear shrimp out on a Carolina rig. Go figure.”
Last stop: the meat counter. “Liver is a time-tested catfish bait,” Moyer says. “Beef liver isn’t as good as chicken liver; it bleeds out quickly in current and doesn’t hold its scent or flavor. I know catmen who swear by turkey liver, but I’ve never tried it. Deer liver makes great chum. Let it sit for awhile until it sours, then toss it in the river to bait your hole.”
Chicken livers work great, Moyer concludes and offers a final tip for fishing them: “Make a small sack out of a piece of panty hose to hold the livers, then work it around a treble hook.”
Nashville catfish guide Donny Hall swears by turkey livers. “They’re my second favorite bait behind fresh-cut skipjack,” he says. “All the grocery stores around Kentucky Lake put ‘em up in 30 pound bags for catfishermen. You may have to do some hunting to find them in a store in your area, but they’re worth the effort.”
Hall likes livers when the water warms above 65˚F, which is when the skipjack bite tapers off. He and his clients have caught many braggin’-size blues on livers during the past few seasons. “Last summer we caught blues weighing 40, 50, 60, and 75 pounds in two days on turkey livers at Kentucky Lake. There’s no telling how many pounds of liver we went through.”
Hall lets the turkey liver sit out in the sun during the course of a fishing day to toughen it up, then he impales it on a 5/0 Gamakatsu circle hook. “This is a perfect hook-style for this application ‘cause it holds liver well, and as soon as a fish bites, it’s hooked. This is a big help when I’m guiding inexperienced anglers; no hookset needed.” Once rigged, Hall drops the livers straight down and bumps them along the bottom near deep, snaggy channel structure.
Hall has tried chicken livers, wieners, and other grocery store baits, but finds they work best for smaller channel cats. “For blue cats,” Hall says, “use skipjack in cold water and turkey livers in warm water.”
Tennessee River catfish guide Phil King also relies on liver to spark river catfish into action. “The last six trips I made below Pickwick Dam, we caught between 120 and 200 pounds of blue cats a day by bumping bottom with chicken livers. Most of these fish weighed four- to six-pounds; my biggest during this period went 26 pounds. My all-time best blue cat on liver weighed 473⁄4 pounds. If you’re looking for constant action and an occasional trophy fish, chicken livers rule.”
The fresher the liver, the better, Phil says. “I’ve tried freezing livers and then letting them thaw, but I always do much better with fresh liver.” King drifts with current and bumps his patented liver-baited double-hook rig along the bottom, setting the hook hard when he detects resistance. “Some days they’ll take liver real easy; other days they’ll practically jerk the rod out of your hands.”
For casting from a boat or the bank, turkey or rooster livers rigged on a treble hook work far better than chicken livers, King says. “They’re a lot tougher so you won’t fling them off the hook as easily. You’ll probably have to scour around back-country markets to find these, but they work great.”
King occasionally uses red food coloring to enhance the liver’s appeal. “Catfish see red and they think two things: fresh blood or a gill flash,” King says. “Either way, they’re gonna feed.”
King adds that liver definitely works better in clear water than in murky water. “I’ve tried and I can’t catch ‘em on the Mississippi River with my chicken liver rig, but when we have four to six feet of visibility on the Tennessee, it’s a done deal.”