Much mystery surrounds the sport of catfishing, particularly as it pertains to alleged "secret baits." The truth is catfish have been guilty of gobbling up some pretty oddball stuff. Ironically, it doesn't get much more bizarre than dipbait — a gooey, aromatically offensive paste that gloms onto hooks like mud on a hog. And yet, this is considered a mainstream catfish bait — has been for years. Interestingly, although anglers (and all humans) often confuse olfaction (scent) with taste, the reality is that catfish don't particularly use scent for feeding. Rather, they mainly rely on barbels and taste buds throughout their bodies to sample flavors of critters and objects in the water. Moreover, things that smell intensely to us may not exhibit the same aromas to fish underwater.
From an artificial (manufactured or grocery store) bait perspective, we really don't know what exact flavors catfish prefer. Could be they actually crave sweet, fruity flavors over rotten cheese or meaty chicken liver. And like other fish, a catfish's preferences certainly change from season to season, water to water. All of which points to the fact that catfish mostly eat what's abundant; what they're used to eating on a daily basis: skipjack herring, carp and shad in big rivers and southern impoundments, goldeye and suckers in smaller Midwestern streams, sunfish in a pond, American Shad, herring or blue crab in Eastern tidal rivers.
Exceptions always exist, of course. Certain baits can be called 'overlooked,' if not exactly secret — even though certain anglers might have you believe otherwise. (I've spoken with a pond fishing expert who claims the best bait of all is cow manure, so who am I to say?)
In recent years American carp anglers have discovered, unintentionally, that European style "boilies" produce amazing numbers of small and medium sized cats. A hardened, flavored dough bait that's traditionally set on a hair rig, boilies withstand the constant pecking by smaller fish, and can hold up to multiple fish without coming un-hooked.
Guides targeting giant carp and buffalo in waters like Lake Fork, Texas, commonly catch so many catfish on boilies that they often have to move to different spots to catch carp. Similar catches have happened on urban rivers in the Upper Midwest, and heavy trafficked lakes and ponds in the Northeast.
The remarkable thing is that while most manufactured baits carry off-putting odors, which folks assume catfish prefer, the best boilie flavors are those with sweet-smelling fruit extracts — plum, strawberry and even nutty varieties often produce best. The other side benefit of boilies is that they are super clean to handle, leaving little mess and no stinky residue on your hands. Expect to see some new catfish specific boilies from manufacturers in the not-too-distant future.
Sonny's Super Sticky
For more years than most cat-folks can remember, Sonny's Super Sticky Dip Bait has remained the standard stinkbait recipe — not that anyone outside the Hootman clan knows exactly what's in it. Which is just as old Sonny prefers it. All that matters is, catfish eat a ton of the stuff. It's indeed doubtful that anyone else on earth has brewed or sold a greater abundance of dipbait than Hootman. The famous plain-label jars are so inconspicuous on the shelves that they actually stand out from the masses, if that makes any sense. Certainly, they outsell other brands every year, especially amid recent rumors that production is slowing down and that the popular bait has suddenly become difficult to obtain.
Like other fine dipbaits on the market, such as Rippin Lips Bootleg and Junnie's Wicked Sticky, Sonny's bait works best when applied to either a plastic dipworm or a thicker style dipping sponge. The StickWorm by Junnie's CatTracker is an effective dipworm, while Bowkers Sponges are also good holders of dipbait. Sonny's original flavor remains most popular, while the "bloodied" formula often produces best in the heat of summer.
Top-level tournament anglers keep this one under their hats. For "juicing up" cutbaits or recharging used baits, fishermen employ a marinating container or cooler, filling it with an amino acid based scent product and pre-cut baitfish. Rippin Lips' Scent Trail and Team Catfish Dead Red Blood are two popular formulas, both imbued with fish oil and blood.
For smaller baits, a Plano Liqua-Bait Locker is perfect. Pro angler John Jamison uses a Keep Kool bait cooler for large cutbaits, which has an outer ice chamber for chilling baits without soaking them in melting ice. The inner chamber can be filled with bait and scent. Prior to fishing, Jamison often pre-cuts several large skipjack or an Asian carp, and adds them to the Keep Kool, along with a bottle or two of Scent Trail. He lets his baits soak for up to an hour before fishing. If you're running low on bait, you can also recharge used baits by marinating them for several minutes.
The real reason behind the traditional midsummer use of raisins on setlines is a little more "interesting" than meets the eye. It's true that raisins — particularly the golden variety — can be attractive to smaller blue cats and channel cats. When you put them onto a hook, they absorb water and swell in size, apparently giving off a fermented odor that attracts fish of many species.
That said, a well-known blue cat guide in the Southeastern U.S. once told me about the practice of trotlining with raisins, for a different reason. Apparently, the goal among certain setliners is to use raisins to attract and hook smaller fish — sunfish, small catfish, bullheads and other bait-sized fish — which in turn attract much larger flathead and blue cats. So by using raisins, these commercial fishermen save time, money and the effort of setting lines with livebait. Rumor has it that several 100-pound plus cats have been landed with this ambiguous method.
First discovered this one years ago while scrounging through the freezer for catfish bait. Seems I had a bag of frozen ciscoes left over from a winter of fishing for pike through the ice. So why not try them for catfish? Turns out, blue and channel cats eat these oily, protein-rich baitfish like an irresistible meal. Although catfish rarely coexist with this species, which mostly resides in natural lakes in the northern U.S. and Canada, they apparently recognize it as something highly worthy of a bite. Since then, I've made it a point to put up a stash of cisco each winter — or buy it at the local fishmonger, when available.
In side-by-side test fishing with cut sucker, goldeye, and shad, cisco typically gets bit far more often than the more familiar — and often, native — species. Because cisco is so oily, it requires a bit more care when freezing it than other species. When we catch 1 to 2 pound specimens in winter (through the ice), we freeze whole ciscoes, one or two per ziplock bag, removing all air with a vacuum sealer of some sort. (I use the manual Zip-Vac system and bags.) Freezer burn renders ciscoes much less effective and less firm, and exponentially less appealing to catfish.
For fishing, it's best to slowly thaw bags of ciscoes in a cooler or a refrigerator over 24 hours prior to hitting the water. Cut whole ciscoes into approximately 2-inch by 3-inch "steaks." If a bigger bait is desired, fillet whole sides of a cisco, or cut accordingly to match the situation. Likewise, anglers on the West Coast has discovered the amazing appeal of mackerel — an equally oily saltwater species that can either be caught with a hook and line or purchased in a store.
Around about August, catfish anglers near the Red River of the North go on a serious quest for frogs. Something about this late summer period that draws legions of leopard frogs to the banks of the river, where the Red's population of monster channel cats find them a rather tasty snack. Wise frog hunters search grassy ditches and vegetated rims of ponds and rivers for these little devils, typically scooping them up with a hoop net. The quickest froggers use their hands, but the speediness of these native frogs present a real challenge, which can be nearly as fun as catching catfish with them.
Of course, the frog bite is hardly confined to the Red River. Throughout the entire Upper Midwest, Great Plains and east to New England, the late summer to early fall phase heralds tremendous amphibian fishing. In the south, species such as the Green Frog, Wood Frog and Southern Leopard Frog can yield equally awesome action. Some days, cats still bite best on cut baitfish, but when the fish want frogs, you best have a supply on hand, because the action can be furious.
Most anglers thump a frog first to knock him out, and then simply slip a 1/0 to 3/0 octopus or circle hook through the bottom and upper lip. You can employ the same sort of standard rigging — slip sinker rig, plain jighead or beneath a slip float — you use with cutbait. Cast Kermit into current breaks and alongside brushpiles for some crazy catfish action.