Most catfish anglers know that catfish possess smell and taste senses far more powerful than most other freshwater species, but few realize that cats also possess a range of hearing greater than gamefish like bass, walleye, and pike. This sense of hearing works in combination with the lateral line sense, which detects low-frequency vibrations that can't be heard. And while cats often get a bad rap in the vision department, they can and do use sight to feed when water conditions permit.
It follows then that offerings like catfish spinner rigs tipped with natural baits like live baitfish, nightcrawlers, or cutbait; or attractor baits like dips and blood may at times attract and trigger more fish than bait alone. As we've said, catfish are extremely sensitive to vibration, and the essence of spinner rigging is to attract with vibration and flash. Commercial spinner rigs designed for walleyes usually aren't heavy enough for cats, but catfish-weight rigs are easy to tie.
Spinner blades obviously are the key component of a spinner rig. Rotating blades produce vibration, alerting catfish to the bait long before they can detect the bait with their other senses. If the combination of components is correct, maximizing or minimizing attention to arouse curiosity or mimic natural forage, catfish can be triggered into striking the bait. Blades don't necessarily have to spin continuously to produce vibration; often a side-to-side wobble is sufficient. Experiment through a range of options to determine what the fish want on a particular day.
Colorado Blades — Colorados spin at a wide angle for lots of thump and vibration, even at slow speeds. They're probably the most common blade style on commercial spinner rigs and the best option for catfish in most situations. Cupped blades produce more vibration than flatter models, though thinner blades can be bent to produce more action. Fluorescent orange, red, and chartreuse are good choices for stained or dirty water; nickel or gold blades provide more flash in clear water. Blades plated with silver or gold produce even more flash, but also are more expensive.
Indiana Blades — Similar in shape to Colorado blades, but a bit narrower, Indiana blades rotate faster and at a shallower angle, creating less vibration but more flash. Rigs equipped with Indiana blades should be fished a little faster than Colorados, to keep the blades spinning. This may make them a better choice for covering large expanses of water in larger lakes and reservoirs while searching for active cats, either suspended or holding near the bottom.
Willow Leaf Blades — Willow leafs rotate close to the line and produce subtle vibration but lots of flash. They must be fished at relatively high speeds to spin properly, making them a good option for open water trolling, particularly for suspended fish. Since catfish probably key more on the vibration created by spinner blades rather than the flash, though, willow leafs probably aren't as effective as Colorado and Indiana blades for attracting cats in most situations. Stock a few sizes and colors in your box, however, to experiment with.
Folded metal clevises in size 2, 4, or 6 are used to attach spinner blades to the leader. Metal spins easier than plastic to maximize blade rotation at slow speeds. Holes on stamped or stirrup-type clevises often have rough edges that eventually wear through leaders. Plastic snap clevises, originally available from Lindy-Little Joe and Quick Change, and now available from a growing number of tackle companies, allow for snapping blades in and out, to change blade size or style without retying.
Plastic beads from 2- to 7 mm in diameter usually are used for spinner rigs. Use small beads as attractors ahead of the hook on plain livebait rigs, or for spacing between the hook and clevis on tiny spinner rigs. Larger beads add color, profile, and work best for spacing components on spinner rigs, particularly between the blade and hook to allow for a good hookset. Northland's Buck-Shot Rattle beads also add color, sound, vibration, and flotation to spinner rigs.
Snaps, Swivels, Snap swivels
Barrel Swivels — Most walleye anglers prefer #10 or #12 swivels to tie slipsinker livebait snells, but catmen should step up to at least a #7 swivel for increased breaking strength and durability. The swivel prevents a slipsinker from sliding down the line to the hook and also can be used to fashion three-way rigs. A good swivel also reduces line twist, which can be significant during a day of spinner fishing.
Snaps & Snap Swivels — Use #2 or #3 snaps to attach spinner rigs to your main line, resorting to snap swivels only when line twist is significant. Snaps also are handy for attaching and changing sinkers on three-way rigs without retying. Berkley and Sampo dominate the upper end of the swivel market, though many less expensive options also are available. Use the best components you can afford to maximize rig performance.
Tough, abrasion-resistant lines like Berkley Big Game or Stren Hi-Impact in 12- to 20-pound breaking strengths should be used to construct spinner rigs. For trolling larger spinner blades on the Great Lakes, many walleye anglers prefer a 20-pound fused-filament superline like Berkley FireLine or SpiderWire Fusion. These lines hold up much better than mono lines to the spinning blade and clevis. Use a stiffer mono leader with spinning floats like the Spin-N-Glo, though, to keep the rig from tangling, especially in heavy current.
Floating Jigheads — These originated with foam heads, before moving on to cork, hollow soft plastic, and other variations. Most floating jigheads lack significant floating ability, though, so moving slowly and with long pauses is necessary to allow the bait to rise. Many jigheads become colored attractors that are at most neutrally buoyant. Northland Fishing Tackle's Float'n Jig is available with a 2/0 hook for floating nightcrawlers or small pieces of cutbait, while Stinger Tackle offers weedless Bohn Head floating jigheads.
Sliding Floats — Common with steelheaders, variations of Lil' Corkies can be adapted to catfishing. Most companies that offer walleye rigs also offer an array of sliding float options suitable for spinner rigs. Cigar-shaped floats usually are positioned between the spinner and the hook, adding profile and color and slowing the sink rate when movement stops. Some anglers string several floats together (interspersed with beads) to further increase flotation and present the illusion of bulk.
Spinner rigging works almost anywhere cats swim — trolled, cast, or drifted in lakes, reservoirs, and large rivers across North America. Spinner rigging may be used as an addition to the drift rigs used for blue cats on big reservoirs, for example, or for stillfishing near cover in current. Spinners call cats and the bait intensifies and focuses their reaction. The opportunities with spinner combos are limited only by your imagination.
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.