Three years ago, I never would have been comfortable talking seriously about softbaits for catfish. An accidental fish here and there on a soft plastic lure seemed to imply that there was something happening. Yet most of us knew that these lures just weren't a legitimate alternative to cut or live baitfish, or even attractor baits like dipbaits.
Recent developments have redefined the softbait lure category. In the bass and saltwater arenas, some of the hottest softbaits no longer contain synthetic plastisol. Rather, they're formulated with ingredients that begin dissolving the instant they're submersed in water. Eventually, they biodegrade completely. Some of them even provide nutritional value to fish.
These third-generation softbaits are proving attractive to catfish. First-generation softbaits consisted of a combination of vinyl, oils, and pigments. Next arrived scent-impregnated lures formulated with softer plastisols that featured more lifelike textures and actions. First- and second-generation baits were of little interest to catfish anglers because they rarely offered the right combinations of scent, taste, or action to compel catfish to eat them. Today, a handful of companies offer catfish anglers some highly potent softbaits that absolutely get eaten.
For me, the softbait revelation began as an accident. It didn't start out as some grand experiment. In fact, it didn't even begin as a catfish outing. Mostly, it was just another day on the water, casting a small jig and softbait grub for anything that would bite. I certainly didn't know that what was about to happen would eventually alter the way I thought about approaching catfish, particularly channel cats, through much of the season. Call it one of those unexpected discoveries we sometimes make while in no particular hurry to prove some larger point.
What was already a pleasant week of fishing on a string of small southern lakes I frequent each winter was about to get interesting. I'd scored a few channel cats on cut sunfish that week, plus two hefty flatheads after dark with live goldfish; but as a whole, the cutbait thing just wasn't happening the way it should have been.
This day, walking along the edges of the bank, I have crappies on my mind. On my third cast onto a shallow flat, blanketed by afternoon shade under a line of shaggy cottonwoods, my jig is thwacked with startling power. After a thumping tug-o-war on crappie tackle, a portly channel cat slides onto the beach. Nice surprise, but it'll never happen again.
The next cast proves me wrong. Letting the jig settle and rest on bottom for a moment, I give the lure a short drag, then pause it on a taught line. Thwack. Can't be. Yes! This one looks bigger, a broad-headed male, about 10 pounds. When I feel the next cat thump the jig, I'm ready, cracking the whip like Bill Dance. An angler fishing next to me is starting to wonder, and I can only give a shrug and a grin before moving on.
The rest of the day slides by in similar fashion, most spots producing a fish or two. Channel cats eat the jig-and-softbait combo under boat docks, shaded drop-offs, and at the end of a shallow bay. At a stream inlet later that evening, I hook what is for this water a rarely seen blue, a brute that rolls in the 4-pound line before popping free. Eventually, regrettably, the sun sets on one of those extraordinary days you never forget. Every cast a new clue, some bit of knowledge you didn't previously own.
In the three years since on numerous different waters and in nearly every season, friends and I have had decent catches on third-generation softbaits. In many situations, they've become confidence baits. Meanwhile, we're still tracing the boundaries of these futuristic baits, discovering the whens and wheres, although I think the whys are clear.
Third-generation softbaits, including select products from the Berkley Gulp! line, FoodSource Lures, and Fishbites, appeal to catfish because they offer the right balance between taste, scent, shape, and texture. And never before has so much scientific thought and research entered the equation of formulating softbaits.
Even though at times you can be confident using these baits, they still don't replace natural cutbait and probably never will. I'm still experimenting, so my best advice is to try them in different situations, particularly when you typically fish dip- or doughbaits. I regard softbaits as fine, even superior alternatives to prepared attractor baits in most situations.
Presentations and Bait Options
Softbaits excel when coupled with a jighead or beneath the same float riggings you'd use with traditional baits. They could be effective alternatives to cutbait while drift-fishing reservoirs, too. In many ways, these baits are the most efficient options for catfish, and when you're actively casting and retrieving them — a rather exotic approach for catfish anglers — softbaits also are a lot of fun to fish.
Even though some of these softbaits, such as those labeled as "cutbait alternatives," were designed to be fished stationary, such as on bottom with a set rig, most work better when you add action to them. This is particularly the case with channel cats. Choose baits that resemble something alive and provide some action when pulling them through the water. Thin, flat baits work better than thick, rigid ones. A thinner bait worked on a jig imparts a swimming, undulating action that appeals to catfish. Under a float or on bottom, current provides a subtle waving action.
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Berkley Gulp! 3 ' Minnow Grub
Fishbites Yeh Monn! Freshwater Catfish Bait
FoodSource 3 ' Shrimp Tail
3733 4th Ter N, Birmingham, AL 35222
FoodSource Big Cat Meal
3733 4th Ter N, Birmingham, AL 35222
FoodSource Cat Bites
3733 4th Ter N, Birmingham, AL 35222
FoodSource Cut Bait
3733 4th Ter N, Birmingham, AL 35222
Berkley Gulp! — Gulp! baits reportedly release 400 times more scent than regular soft plastic baits. They're 100-percent biodegradable and composed of all-natural ingredients. When kept out of water for extended periods, it's vital to return Gulp! baits to their zip-locked package or they harden and become unfishable.
Several varieties and sizes of Gulp! have proven appealing to channel cats. Chief among them are the curlytail varieties like the Minnow Grub and the Jigging Grub, a Cabela's Gulp! exclusive. The Jigging Grub has the traditional curlytail grub shape, while the Minnow Grub has a fatter body. I've done well on 3- and 4-inch Jigging Grubs in black. Rig grubs on a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jighead and deadstick them or retrieve them slowly over bottom. Ultra-slow crawls with 20- to 30-second pauses can be effective. When catfish strike a jig-and-grub combo, you're reminded that they really are hunters.
Some of the Gulp! Saltwater products, including the Shrimp and Peeler Crab, have produced nice catches of channel cats, as well. Catfish In-Sider Guide Editor Rob Neumann and I caught some good fish on these baits drifted under slipfloats in rivers last summer. Catfish should also find Gulp! Cut Bait appealing. It comes in precut strips that mimic cut fish, something to try on drift rigs.
The newest addition to the Gulp! line of softbaits is Gulp! Alive!, packaged in livebait-style tubs filled with Gulp! Alive! attractant. Reported to absorb 20 percent more Gulp! scent and yield a more natural swimming action, Alive! baits can be recharged by placing them back into the tub of attractant. In limited trials on a small river this summer, Gulp! Alive! Squids produced several channel cats fished beneath slipfloats. Berkley's new Gulp! Alive! Swimming Mullet looks like another catfish catcher.
FoodSource Lures — Developed through a 3-year cooperative partnership between Auburn University fishery researchers and food scientists, FoodSource says their lures are the only ones made of 100-percent real food. In laboratory trials, fish not only ate these baits, but also grew and thrived on a FoodSource diet.
Also unique to FoodSource is that even after baits are left out of water, they can be re-softened and recharged. Simply place them into water or another water-based solution for a few minutes, and then return them to a bag of unused baits.
Of interest to catfish anglers are the 3-inch Saltwater Shrimp Tail, Catfish Bites, Big Cat Meal, and the Goliath Grub. Fish the Shrimp Tail on a classic set rig or drift one below a float. Rigid, non-action baits, such as the Big Cat Meal, reportedly work well during summer, particularly when dipbaits and other prepared baits are producing catfish. I haven't personally found this to be the case, but these chunk-style baits might work fine in pay lakes or other settings where cats frequently encounter a wide variety of discarded baits, such as doughbait or cheese.
The FoodSource Goliath Grub, a giant 9-inch curlytail, can be productive, but you need to modify it to get it working right. Tear the flat tail section from the tube-shaped body. The tail from this bait is as close to an ideal piece of imitation cutbait as it gets. Hooked once through the base (torn-off side) of the tail with a 1/0 Eagle Claw 84, this little flap of scent and taste waves and flutters in current.
There's something catfish find attractive about these thin, flat strips. Scent and taste remain fundamental attractors, but in many instances, the elements of visual appearance and natural action in the water make a positive difference. Catfish not only detect minute movements and vibrations, but in many environments they can visually discern familiar cues in their natural food. When set-rigged on bottom, interspersed drags or short rod-tip sweeps activate these "flappy" softbaits to trigger cats.
The cube-shaped chunks of cut baitfish we often use sprout these thin, fleshy strips of skin that subtly flutter and flap in current. This is a trigger though an easy one to overlook, because it's built into natural baits, so we don't often think about it. Still, I think catfish respond to this as part of the overall food package. Even if they can't always see it, they can feel it.
Fishbites — Developed through decades of study by marine researcher and University of Florida professor Dr. William Carr, Fishbites is a synthetic alternative to natural cutbait. Carr's research has led him to conclusions about the chemical stimulants fish use to detect and track prey. Among them is the idea that what humans smell in the air and what fish detect in the water are very different. Fish sense and react only to chemicals that are dissolved in water. Moreover, even strong airborne odors do not necessarily dissolve in water, so they may not be attractive to fish.
Fishbites baits consist of nearly odorless (in air) and highly water-soluble ingredients. This is a radical idea in the catfishing realm, yet it might represent one the biggest advancements in catfish baits in decades. Originally designed as an alternative to live- and deadbaits for saltwater applications, Fishbites has recently introduced Yeh Monn! Freshwater Catfish Bait, a 13-inch long by 5/8-inch wide ribbon of bait that anglers cut into desired lengths and shapes. The ribbon reminds me of a long stick of soft chewing gum.
Yeh Monn! flavors include crayfish, liver, shad, and worm, and Saltwater Fishbite products contain additional flavors such as shrimp, clam, and crab. Fishbites are "physically right" for cats, too. Strips come in thin slices, so they offer a natural flapping motion underwater, particularly in current. The bait is attached to an imperceptibly light mesh backing material, so the strips stay on the hook well and are durable. These biodegradable baits hold good potential as cutbait alternatives.
Never has so much scientific research entered the process of designing soft lures. In addition to being biodegradable, these third-generation softbaits are highly appealing to catfish on an olfactory, and at times visual, level. So long as development dollars continue to support further research into the realm of natural lure alternatives, the potential for newer, even more desirable catfish softbaits is high.