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.
Berkley Gulp! Catfish Shad Guts
Sporting random intestinal shapes, realistic bloody colorations, and patented Gulp! fish-attracting scent, these fake guts put an end to scooping the innards out of hapless shad to sucker hungry cats. Just glom a gob around a 1/0 to 4/0 treble or baitholder, secure it on the barbs, and you're set. Available in 1.2-ounce, re-sealable packs. Click Here to View Product!
Berkley PowerBait Catfish Chunks
Studies in simplicity, these cubes are easy to fish. But more importantly, they're formulated by Berkley's scientists to tempt catfish three times faster than standard doughballs. Available in liver, blood, and fish flavors, in 6-ounce packages. Click Here to View Product!
Bowker's Catfish Bait
A staple of diehard catmen for decades, Bowker's dip excels on dip worms, tubes, and sponge strips, which the company also carries. You can also coat natural baits such as shrimp with it for extra flavor. It's available in original, blood-, shrimp-, and shad-added versions, which let you tailor taste to season and conditions. The blood bait, for example, is deadly on dog-days channels, while the shad scent shines in cool water after ice-out. Click Here to View Product!
Catfish Charlie's Dip Bait
An extra-sticky dip, Charlie's molds on and sticks to hooks, tubes, worms and other baitholders with ease. Available in 12- and 36-ounce tubs, in cheese, blood, and shad variations. As with other dip baits, Charlie's shad flavor is particularly productive in cool water. 641/673-7229
Doc's Catfish Bait
On the cat scene since 1927, Doc's knows a thing or two about stinkbait. Which explains why the company offers three temperature-driven dips — an extra-stiff blend for hot weather, an original mix for temps of 70 to 90 degrees, and a cool-weather concoction for temperatures below 70. All are available in 12-ounce, 40-ounce, and gallon-sized containers, in cheese and blood flavors, while liver is an option with the original, in 12-ounce cans only. Click Here to View Product!
Magic Bait Hog Wild Catfish Dip Bait
Cat fans seeking traditional thin, fast-oozing stinkbait will appreciate Hog Wild's ability to quickly infiltrate the water column with cheese, blood, and shad-based aromas. Available in pint-sized jars, it's a natural for tubes, sponges, netting, and similar delivery systems, but also shines for giving dough baits an upgraded coating. Click Here to View Product!
Rippin Lips Leakin' Livers
Pinch one of these all-natural chunks to activate its scent-dispersal system, and it oozes a fine flavor trail for about an hour. Easily skewered on a 1/0 treble or single baitholder, Leakin' Livers are available in original chicken liver, blood, garlic, and fish oil options, all sold in re-sealable, 15-bait packs. Click Here to View Product!
Strike King Catfish Dynamite
Better known for bass baits, Strike King also whips up this dandy kitty dip. Available in 12-ounce tubs, in cheese and blood flavors, it works well with a number of cat baits, including the company's ribbed Dipping Worms. strikeking.com
Team Catfish Secret-7 Dip
Nearly 20 years of tinkering went into the recipe for this sticky, cat-calling dip, which the company purchased from a retired chemist. Rich in fish attractants, the bait bonds with a variety of cat lures, but Team Catfish says it's especially deadly on its Furry THaNG dip holder. Available in 12 to 64-ounce jars and buckets. Click Here to View Product!
Uncle Josh Little Stinker Dip Bait
Famous for pork rinds, Uncle Josh also offers the Little Stinker line of prepared catfish baits, plus rigs for presenting them. Available in blood, chicken, and rotten shad formulations in 16-ounce allotments, the dip is a doozy for delivering a scent trail in flowing water situations, particularly when paired with the company's Sticky Worm. unclejosh.com Click Here to View Product!
The Kermit Factor
The unwary mouse that falls from a vine over a catfish hole has made its last mistake. We sometimes find rodents and snakes, as well as water-dwelling amphibians like frogs and salamanders, in the guts of catfish.
Frogs are locally popular and usually productive baits. They can be hooked through the nose or through one leg. Some anglers cut off the lower legs to make a more compact bait. Dead frogs usually work as well as live ones. As with fish and crayfish, cutting or crushing them allows the attractive amino acids to flow toward the catfish's sensitive olfactory and taste organs. Forget tadpoles, though. They apparently secrete a substance or aroma that's noxious.
The leopard frog is one of the most widely distributed frog species and the one most commonly used for bait. Leopard frogs mate in early spring, leaving clutches of eggs clinging to submerged vegetation in ponds and river backwaters, before moving to adjacent meadows and other grassy areas for the summer. With the exception of occasional visits to lakes and rivers, catfish rarely encounter leopard frogs during summer.
As the days become shorter and air temperatures cool in early fall, leopard frogs begin to congregate and prepare for winter. They gather in staging areas adjacent to water, particularly during periods of cool, rainy weather. One clue that this fall migration is underway is increased numbers of road-killed frogs. Once nighttime temperatures approach the 50ËšF range, frogs begin moving toward lakes and rivers where they'll spend the winter.
Such an abundant food source rarely goes unnoticed, and catfish often cruise shallow flats where leopard frogs make brief forays into the water during the first few hours of darkness. As the water continues to cool, frogs gradually spend more time in the water than on land, providing increasingly better feeding opportunities for prowling cats. Fish continue to consume other live or dead prey when the opportunity arises, but using frogs makes sense when they're so abundant.
Catfish take advantage of any food seasonally available, though there's no denying the appeal of human food like hot dogs. Still, wild-grown baits natural to the system and familiar to the fish, or commercial baits that duplicate them, work best most of the time.
Flathead catfish share with bass an innate love of crayfish. Often just rubbing a cat's belly reveals their lumpy remains. Tail-hook live craws and bottom rig them. But as flatheads grow, they're less likely to take these smaller baits, or maybe they have a harder time beating their 5- to 10-pound kin to the forage.
Crayfish are easy to catch, and the best time to collect them may coincide with the best catfishing. Crayfish usually hold under rocks or other cover during the day, then emerge to consume whatever living or dead prey they can find after dark. Chub creeks and bullhead ponds usually hold good numbers of craws, which are easily located and captured with the aid of a headlamp and long-handled dipnet. Wire minnow traps baited with a piece of dead fish are excellent craw catchers on any water with a decent crayfish population.
For channel cats, craw tails make a fine bait for bottom drifting or float-fishing in summer. When using a whole craw, try crushing the head a bit to release those tasty brain morsels that Cajun crawdad fans can't resist.
Catfish eat clams — freshwater mussels, Asiatic clams, snails of various sorts, even zebra mussels. Blue cats are notorious for foraging on mussel beds. Shake their bellies and you can almost hear the shells rattling. Food habits studies suggest that blue catfish feed on mussels more readily from spring through fall, especially in more southerly reservoirs, with blues turning almost exclusively to shad when they become more lethargic and vulnerable in cold water.
Across North America, white suckers are a can't-fail bait, as this most common species is suitable in size for yearling channel cats and up to 40-pound flatties. Slice 'em and dice 'em for float or bottom rigging for blues and channel cats, or tail-hook a 2-pounder to lure a mother flathead from her lair.
Note the difference, though, between pond-raised bait suckers and wild ones. Cultured baits don't flee, a movement that often triggers a lethal attack from a predator. Seine baits or catch suckers on live worms, instead. We've found that keeping pond-raised suckers in a tank with a big flathead quickly trains the suckers in survival, making them better baits.
Smaller members of the catfish clan — stonecats, madtoms, and bullheads — make excellent baits. Indeed, studies of catfish show these species can be cannibalistic. In some waters where flatheads have been introduced, bullhead populations have plummeted.
Young carp, for example, are gourmet fare for big flatheads, who may follow them onto flooded pastures at night.
The closely related exotic goldfish also makes a fine bait on setlines or rod and reel. Surprisingly, cut carp doesn't rank nearly as high for channel, white, or blue cats. As a caution, be sure to check state regulations on which baits are legal and how they may be obtained. Rules vary.
Wherever gizzard and threadfin shad abound, catfish prey on these aromatic, abundant species. Catfish guides on Santee-Cooper and many other southern reservoirs use cast nets to gather a tank full of livebait to start the day. Skewering several 4-inch threadfins through the eye socket provides a tasty bait for channel cats, blues, and flatheads. Cutting larger gizzard shad in half and rigging them on the bottom also brings action.
In early spring and fall, 3-inch shiners and redtail chubs from bait shops make fine baits for channel cats. These selections follow the general rule: Smaller baits in colder water, big stuff for summer nights.
Sunfish make great baits, remaining lively on the hook and attractive when cut. Toughest and liveliest of all is the green sunfish, a prime flathead bait on line or rod and reel. Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, redears, and the rest of their clan are appetizing, too.
Nightcrawlers remain a great bait for all cats, sometimes unequaled for channel cats. Even the biggest cats can't resist worms. Drift 'em, float 'em, or bottom rig 'em. A ball of about six crawlers on a 3/0 hook is a fine bait for flatheads early in the season. The aroma and wriggling action seem to attract the big cats. In Kansas reservoirs, catmen dabble treble hooks adorned with several juicy crawlers for spawning flatheads, targeting undercuts and rock crevices along riprap walls where cats have holed up.
Catalpa worms are a highly regarded bait in parts of the South, where they're common. These meaty green worms apparently become a focus for many fish species, where they feed on lakeside trees and tumble into the water. Freeze them for future use. The worm's flavor is said to be so irresistible that the essence of catalpa or crushed worms is added to some commercial pastebaits.