Each of the hundred or so times I've seen Spielberg's 1975 classic, Jaws, and watched Richard Dreyfus exhume the stomach contents of that mega tiger shark — even though I know what's coming — part of me always wonders if this time they'll finally find something truly shocking, more so than the usual license plate, tin can, and pile of tuna cadavers.
You know you're dealing with a diehard when they go in elbow deep to dig out the half-digested remains of a fish's last meal to learn what they're biting on, or perhaps to discover a potential new bait. Fly fishers aren't so different from catmen, for they commonly employ a device like a mini turkey baster to flush microinvertebrate goo out of a trout's stomach.
Being one of the more food-selective creatures in the river demands from anglers extreme measures to verify and replicate a trout's last meal. Catfish folks can simply do a stomach autopsy on a few harvestable fish to see what they're eating. Or, if you're catfish tournament heroes the likes of Jason and Daryl Masingale, who release a lion's share of their big fish, you wait until after weigh-in for the big reveal.
"I gotta admit, one of the most exciting parts of our day is checking to see what's left in our livewell after weighing a limit of big blues," says Jason, who along with his brother, Daryl, won the Mississippi River Monsters tournament last September. "The giant livewell in our SeaArk keeps a limit of big blues in great shape, but after a day on the water, the fish inevitably burp up their last meal. Sometimes it's hard to identify what's in there — a cluster of bones or a chunk of regurgitated something. Shad disintegrate quickly. But we've seen a lot of Asian carp, mostly silvers, and a surprising amount of buffalo, from fish caught on big rivers.
"One of the more interesting regurgitated baitfish we've seen is gar," he says. "At a recent event on the Ohio River, we had 10 to 15 regurgitated gar floating in our livewell. Anyone who's caught or been around gar knows they put off a distinctive, strong odor. Some guys have told us gar can be a go-to bait on the Missouri River.
"The next gar that jumps in our boat isn't going back in the river," Daryl laughs. "It's definitely a catfish bait we need to try." They've also found freshwater drum in their livewell. "But we've never caught many catfish on drum. Same deal with mussels. Catfish sometimes regurgitate them, but we don't use them because of concerns over invasive and threatened native mussel species."
Over the past decade, as Asian carp have continued to proliferate in waters across the U.S., the Masingales have noted a gradual evolution in the appetites of blue cats. "We're seeing more silver and bighead carp remains in our livewell all the time," Daryl says. "A few tournament guys have told us they don't even fish skipjack anymore. Carp have become such an effective catfish bait, particularly on the Mississippi River."
While skipjack herring is still king for many top anglers, the Masingales find Asian carp can be outstanding catfish bait during the dogs days of summer. "At times, when the water gets really hot — up to 95°F in July and August — we can hardly keep carp on the hook because big blues gobble it up so fast," Daryl says. "We've also found buffalo can be effective in mid-summer. We occasionally catch them in our cast nets."
In recent years, when I've asked Daryl about pursuing giant blues — 100 pounds or heavier — he's always mentioned using king-size livebaits. "It's not uncommon for us to see even a medium-size blue eat a big carp. We recently caught a 22-pound blue on the Mississippi with the tail of a 3-pound carp sticking out of its mouth. We've seen the same thing with catfish and 5- to 7-pound buffalo. So you can imagine the size of carp and other baitfish that can be potentially eaten by a 50- to 100-pound blue.
"Even though we use cutbait most of the time, most big blue cats are eating live baitfish. Those different species burped up in our livewell weren't dead when they were eaten. A catfish is capable of hunting down pretty much any living thing that fits in its jaws — and a few that don't.
"Honestly, if I had a week to catch a 100-pound blue, no question, I'd rig up the biggest live carp, buffalo, or other livebait I could find and go sit on my best big-fish spot," Daryl says. "One of these days I'm going to rig up and stick a record-breaker."
Ciscoes, Channel Cats & Omega-3s
A catfish's diet generally reflects what's most abundant in its environment, dead or alive. That's not to say they don't show preferences for more obscure forage species, particularly during specific seasons. Sometimes, even when a catfish has never encountered a particular species, they can still exhibit a powerful fondness for it.
It's unlikely that channel catfish in the Upper Mississippi, Platte, or Des Moines rivers ever encounter ciscoes, which some folks call tullibees. But in every one of these waterways, as well as the Red River of the North, fresh-cut cisco can be a hero bait. I learned this when I fished ciscoes about 10 years ago because there was a shortage of bait early one April, just as heavy spring rains busted loose my home stretch of the Upper Mississippi.
I had about ten 12-inch vacuum-sealed ciscoes left over from ice fishing. Within a few hours of fishing, however, a friend and I had burned through the entire stash, boating over 50 channel cats in a dam tailrace. Every winter since, I spend at least one day ice fishing for these silvery omega-3 infused baitfish.
A coldwater species that populates deep, clear natural lakes and reservoirs in the North, ciscoes can be caught through the ice, as well as in early spring or fall, on small jigs, flies, and tiny livebaits. For catfish, you might consider them the skipjack herring of the North, although they're more closely related to salmon, while skipjack share kinship with shad. Both baits fish well when freshly killed and cut, allowing their oils to flow freely into the water. For channel cats, small cubes or steaks, fillets, and head sections all work, and they can show preferences for certain cuts, depending on the day.
Ciscoes also can occasionally be found in fish markets, particularly around the Great Lakes, where they're commercially harvested. If you're buying them for bait, ask for frozen whole specimens, as opposed to gutted or smoked ciscoes. Also, bait laws prohibit interstate transport of live ciscoes throughout the Great Lakes. And even within state borders, baits such as ciscoes must be certified VHS-free by bait dealers. In all cases, it's wise to label your bait container or bag with species and quantity. Ciscoes, like skipjack, can be exceptionally difficult to keep alive, so we nearly always vacuum-pack and immediately freeze 10- to 14-inchers individually, for legality and to maintain quality bait.
While friends and I have found ciscoes to be exceptional springtime (prespawn) baits in nearly every river and reservoir we've fished them, Captain Brad Durick, who guides on the Red River of the North, says they're particularly effective from late September through fall. Late each summer, Durick drives to Manitoba to purchase certified ciscoes from commercial dealers on Lake Winnipeg.
He says as long as cisco reproductive organs are frozen, transport into the U.S. is permitted. He believes part of the reason ciscoes become attractive to Red River catfish in fall is perhaps because ciscoes in Lake Winnipeg (the Red flows north into Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba), spawn in shallow water during this period. It's reasonable to assume catfish in this system have encountered and fed on ciscoes at some point during its 9,000-year history. A similar dynamic may be at play in the Missouri River, where ciscoes appear to be thriving in lakes Oahe and Sakakawea.
Even in waters where catfish never encounter ciscoes, they seem willing to gobble chunks of this nutritious baitfish. Perhaps fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids are more appealing to catfish than other bait species. Pacific mackerel, for example, have proven to be outstanding baits almost everywhere they're fished, and remain a staple bait for big cats in California reservoirs. The list of fish species highest in this heart-healthy fat might reveal a other potentially outstanding catfish baits: mackerel, sardines, tuna, salmon, herring, whitefish (a close relative of ciscoes), menhaden, anchovy, and bluefish.
Unconventional Flathead Food
Master flathead fisher and Florida-based guide Glenn Flowers works the Apalachicola River and also frequently travels to the Alabama and Mississippi rivers. "Winter to spring, when rivers run high and murky, the flathead's senses of smell and taste override their reliance on sight and vibration," Flowers says. "I bait with various species of sunfish about 90 percent of the time. Of the six rods I set, half have live baitfish while the others are baited with cut sunfish. When rivers run high and the bite gets tough, I catch a lot of big fish on cutbait.
"The best part of any baitfish — sunfish, gizzard shad, skipjack — is the head. All the good stuff's concentrated there: blood, guts, scent, and flavor. So after I've fished a livebait in a spot, I put it on ice for cutbait for later use and rebait with another fresh livebait. I don't go on the water without at least 50 livebaits in my boat's 100-gallon livewell. Many times we've run through over 100 baits on a single night.
"Rather than discarding a used sunfish, I butterfly it," he says. "Start by cutting the tail off just behind the anal fin. Then slit an opening on the underside of the bait, running the knife from tail to head, stopping the cut just under the pectoral fins. Butterflied baits have a wing-like appearance. Compared to a fillet, they have a lot more scent and flavor and they're bigger so there's more to latch onto. We've caught as many as 35 flatheads in one night, and often the fish prefer butterflied sunfish over live ones."
Right after a heavy spring rain, Flowers uses another underrated catfish bait. "Illinois flathead guide Denny Halgren showed me how much spring flatheads like to eat balls of worms," he says. "He's caught as many as 50 flatheads on worms in a single trip. Works in our rivers, too. We catch lots of 15- to 20-pound fish on worms, with an occasional 40-pounder. It's a great bait when flatheads are feeding on critters that get washed off the banks. Even if worms attract small fish, it's a plus because the commotion eventually draws big flatheads to the area."
If Flowers can find extra-large nightcrawlers or earthworms, he threads just two or three of them on a 5/0 wide-gap hook, such as an Eagle Claw Kahle or Team Catfish Mighty Wide. With average-size worms, he uses 5 to 7 per hook. He injects small bubbles of air into several worms with a syringe so the worm ball floats above bottom cover where it's easier for cats to find.
Once river levels begin dropping and the water starts to clear, he turns to other baits. "After the spawn, flatheads feed aggressively, relying on sight and vibration to track a bait," he says. "We use larger baits — bluegills over a pound and redear sunfish up to 12 and even 14 inches. Spotted sunfish, or stump knockers as we call them, are tough critters. We catch them up to about 10 inches in slackwater areas in streams. They kick for a long time on a hook. When collecting any of these larger sunfish for bait, I never take more than a few from a single spot to avoid overharvest.
"Bullheads up to about 10 inches are another great bait. Clipping the dorsal and pectoral fins makes them easier to hold, and I think a clipped bait also sends off a distress signal, a different vibration that attracts flatheads. At times, small channel catfish — 8 to 10 inchers — are great bait. Adult flatheads eat a ton of juvenile channel cats."
Hooking livebaits largely relates to current conditions, Flowers explains. "I don't use circle hooks for flatheads as I don't find them as effective as wide-gap hooks. We successfully hook 90 percent of fish that bite on a wide-gap or Kahle hook. I use a 7/0 for average-size sunfish and 8/0 and 10/0 for giant bluegills. In slack water, I hook baits behind the top of the dorsal fin. But if you do this in heavy current, you drown the bait. In heavy flows, I hook baits through the lips, keeping them faced into the current."
He rigs St. Croix Mojo Catfish rods of three different powers for different baits and scenarios: 7-foot medium for worms and smaller cutbaits, 7.5-foot medium-heavy for all-around flathead and blue cat fishing, and 8-foot heavy for fishing 1- to 2-pound livebaits for big blue cats on the Mississippi. "These rods are light, but set hooks into and battle the biggest catfish with ease."
He spools with 200-pound-test braid mainline with a 60-pound leader to his hook. "I haven't lost a sinker in several years," he says. "Hooks are cheap, but sinkers aren't, especially 2- to 5-ounce No-Rolls."
Flowers plans to return to the Mississippi River Monsters tournament this September to put a beat-down on some gargantuan flatheads, while most other competitors will be targeting the more-abundant blues. "Nothing gets the crowd pumped up like a 50-pound flathead pulled from a livewell. I love these fish."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt writes for all In-Fisherman publications, often covering the catfish scene.