Cut Mackerel for Catfish

Cut Mackerel for Catfish

In southern California, cut mackerel is the most popular bait for channel, white, and blue cats. The few legal livebaits such as shad, crawfish, mudsuckers, and waterdogs produce well under certain conditions, but more and bigger cats are caught on cut mackerel than on any other bait.

Throughout most of the state, the only legal cutbait is dead saltwater fish, and mackerel usually is the species of choice. Of the commonly available saltwater species, mackerel excels because it has a strong fishy flavor combined with a high oil content that appeals to catfish.

The two most common mackerel species are the smaller, milder-flavored Spanish mackerel and the larger Pacific greenback mackerel. Some experts swear by ultrafresh, sushi-quality chunks of the thin-skinned Spanish variety, but the thicker-skinned greenback is the most popular and available, either fresh or frozen.

The Trouble With Mackerel


Of all the kinds of fish one could choose to cut up and use for bait, mackerel is anything but user friendly, especially for those who shorefish and have to cast a baited hook any distance. When cut and placed on a hook, whether fresh or slightly thawed, the soft meat easily separates from the skin and flies off during the cast. Warm flesh turns to mush, rendering it useless.


Old-time surf fishermen were among the first to take advantage of salt-cured baitfish such as anchovies and mackerel. The curing process involves varying amounts of rock salt and brown sugar, which preserves soft baitfish and toughens the meat, making it more durable for casting beyond the waves. To this day, cured mackerel is a mainstay in the surfcaster's arsenal and also has possibilities for catfishing.


Although frozen mackerel are available at most bait shops and marinas, most cat anglers keep a few in their freezer until needed. Just before a trip, frozen mackerel go into the ice chest with plenty of ice to keep them frozen during transport.

When it's time to bait up, take a mackerel from the cooler, slice half-inch-wide strips off the side, and thread a strip onto a 2/0 to 6/0 octopus-style hook. The rest of the bait is then returned to the ice chest.

A Better Way


Tons of catfish have been taken with this simple method, but many improvements are possible. One problem with the traditional method is that you may lose half your bait if you cast far. If you don't lose it, it's probably because you've learned to pack a big wad of bait tightly on the hook to prevent it from flying off. Trouble is, when using a big wad of bait, you inadvertently obscure the hook point, reducing the chance of a solid hookset — critical on pressured waters where bites often are few and far between.

Unless you catch your own bait, your best bet is to visit a fish market. Markets serving Asian communities usually have fresh mackerel on hand. Select a few of the largest, freshest, and firmest greenback mackerel; their coloration often appears more blue than green. The larger 14- to 16-inch fish have a thicker skin, which is a plus for bait purposes. Place them in the freezer for a while to firm them before processing.

With a cutting board and a sharp knife, fillet each fish and cut the fillets into half-inch square pieces, leaving on the skin. Trim the pieces so they're about a quarter inch thick, and save the scraps. The square pieces are the essence of the baitfish, containing the flavor of the skin and the fatty tissues just beneath it, including the blood-rich dark meat.


Bag the pieces in a slide-lock bag, and you're ready to fish with fresh bait or freeze it for later use. Two 14-inch mackerel processed this way yield a sandwich bag about half full of bait chunks. I usually divide this into two or three bags and fish with one bag at a time, keeping the rest as cold as possible until needed.

When I go fishing, the bait's ready to put on a hook, eliminating the need to haul a large ice chest, cutting board, and fillet knife. If I'm shorefishing, this also minimizes interaction with bothersome flies, bees, and yellowjackets, which have a strong attraction to mackerel scent.

Rigging Tips & Tricks

These chunks work well when threaded onto a 2/0 to 5/0 wide-gap hook such as a Mustad 37140 or Eagle Claw L14417S. You can cast a country mile and still have your offering intact when it reaches the bottom of the lake. It's also more difficult for smaller fish to steal the bait, as the skin portions are tough. And most importantly, the hook point remains exposed.

Another advantage of this method is that after the hook is properly baited, you can drop it into a tub of your favorite dipbait and work it around without having the whole mess disintegrate before you cast. I've found that catfish sometimes want only pure mackerel, and at other times or at different lakes, they prefer it enhanced with dipbait.

Anglers pursuing trophy blue cats sometimes use the head of the mackerel, cut an inch behind the gills, with a large hook inserted through both lips. Some use whole fillets hooked through one corner of the fillet or three whole fillets hung on a big treble hook. Still others prefer to cut the baitfish into inch-thick steaks and pin them on a large hook.

In California, perhaps the most popular presentation for mackerel in calm waters is called fly-­lining, a saltwater term describing the use of a hook and bait only, with no sinker. The reel is left out of gear, and a catfish is allowed to pick up and run with the bait a short distance before the reel is engaged and the hook set. Whether from boat or bank, this technique requires fairly light tackle, usually 6- to 12-pound test.

If long casts are required, or if much wind is present, then the sliding sinker rig is the next best choice. When the fish are aggressive or for fishing moving water, the three-way rig can be a good choice, especially for tight-line methods with the reel in gear. In this case, circle hooks such as the Eagle Claw L197 or L198 can be used; a 5/0 hook works well with chunked ­mackerel.

Don't Toss '¨Those Scraps

Back to the cutting board. After cutting up the mackerel into bite-size pieces, you're still left with leftover bits. Toss the scraps minus the bones into an old blender, press the puree button, and you have instant mack sauce, useful in a variety of ways.

I use it as dip for nightcrawlers, live crawfish, or to freshen up mackerel after a bad cast. I also use it to make mackerel-flavored doughballs by adding the slurry instead of water to a mixture of one part flour and two parts white corn meal. Mix well and knead to the desired consistency.

If you're creative, add other ingredients to the mackerel sauce while it's still in the blender. Cheese, blood meal, garlic, or perhaps a dollop of your favorite dipbait can be used as part of a doughball recipe, dip sauce, or added back into the cutbait chunks and allowed to soak in the fridge overnight before freezing.

Where chumming is legal, try sand chumming, a trick used by some West Coast saltwater guides. Take a bucket of oily fish such as mackerel and either chop or grind them, and add an equal amount of clean sand (purists buy washed playground sand). Add some water, mix thoroughly, and freeze the concoction into slabs, blocks, or cubes. When chumming in moving water, the frozen blocks sink quickly to the bottom. As they thaw, oils float up through the water, column attracting fish from all depths.

By the way, a gritty, citrus-based hand cleaner like Fast Orange works well for removing mackerel smell from your hands.

Other saltwater species work well for catfish, too. Pacific bonito, another oily member of the tuna family, works just as well as mackerel, sometimes better. Their thicker skin is an advantage, and bonito fillets can be chunked in similar fashion. Cut anchovies, sardines, yellowtail, and barracuda, plus squid, shrimp, and clams also are well received by the catfish clan.

Even if you live far from any ocean, you might want to give mackerel a try. It's a proven trophy cat enticer on the West Coast and might be effective in your region, too.

*Kirk McKay is an avid catman and saltwater fisherman from Winnetka, California.

Adjustable Three-Way Rig


The three-way rig is an option so versatile that it should at least be considered in most catfishing situations. It's an effective rig for presenting static baits in the heavy current of a tailrace or the still waters of a lake or pond. But it's unparalleled for slipdrifting on big rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, and for drifting windblown flats in big reservoirs like Santee-Cooper.
The three-way rig consists of a dropper line 6 to 24 inches long, anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the bait near bottom. A half-ounce sinker might be sufficient in still water, but 3 to 8 ounces are needed to drift around the tips of wing dams for blue and channel cats. The leader should be slightly longer than the dropper line — usually 2 to 3 feet, depending on current velocity.
Three-way rigs also excel at extracting fish from areas where other rigs can't hold or return from. Say you're fishing for channel cats over a broken-rock bottom below a lowhead dam. Use a three-way rig with a 20-pound mainline and a 17-pound leader. Secure a 2- to 4-ounce bell sinker to the remaining rung of a three-way swivel with 6-pound line. When cast into place, the sinker hangs, anchoring the rig until a fish strikes. Big cats sometimes grab a bait hard enough to hook themselves and break the light dropper line. When a smaller fish strikes, a sharp snap of the rod tip breaks off the sinker and sets the hook.
Another versatile rig is an (pictured here) that doesn't require a three-way swivel. Instead, tie on a standard barrel swivel between your mainline and leader. Next, thread a long dropper line through one of the swivel rungs and clamp a lead shot somewhere on the dropper opposite the sinker and swivel.
The lead shot functions like a bobber stop. Where you set it determines the distance the swivel rides above bottom, and thus the depth the bait runs. To adjust the distance from bottom, simply slide the shot up or down the dropper. Should you snag, a firm pull slides the shot off your dropper line, once again losing only the sinker and saving the rest of the rigging.

Sliprig

Pictured: Basic Sliprig.
Many catfishing situations call for a livebait or piece of cutbait to be stillfished on the bottom. The most popular bottom rig for all catfish species is the simple sliprig. This rig consists of an egg sinker sliding on the mainline, held in place above the hook by a lead shot. The objective is to anchor the bait near the bottom, and then allow a catfish to swim off with the bait without feeling too much tension. The idea is sound, but this rig doesn't accomplish either objective well.
The success of trotlines and limblines illustrates that catfish — particularly big cats — aren't timid feeders. Let a trout or walleye run with the bait before you set the hook, but don't wait for cats. When a decent-size cat picks up the bait, he has it. Most of the time, you could set immediately without giving any line. But your chances of a solid hookset increase if you let the fish turn first. When you feel the thump of a fish grabbing the bait, follow him with your rod tip for a foot or two, then set.
Another problem is the egg sinker. These sinkers work well when pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current. When cast across current, though, they tend to roll along the bottom and snag more often than other sinker designs like bell, bank, or flat sinkers. Slip your mainline through the top of a slipsinker and replace the split shot with a swivel to improve the effectiveness of this popular rig.
Leader length is another concern, especially for novice anglers. Don't use a longer leader just because it separates the bait from the sinker. Rather, adjust the length of the leader to vary the amount of action and movement imparted to the bait. A piece of cutbait tethered on a 12-inch leader may lie motionless on the bottom of a lake or pond, but would flail about wildly in heavy current.
Use just enough leader for your bait to attract fish without hanging up. That might mean a 3- or 4-foot leader for drifting cutbait across the clean bottom of a reservoir for blue cats; a 6-inch leader for holding big livebaits in front of a snag for flatheads; or no leader at all for probing the broken bottom of a tailrace for channel cats.

Double Barreled Float Rig

As much as floats aid strike indication, their true worth lies in the unique ways they present baits to catfish. Given that catfishing remains a game of delivering the right bait the right way, float rigs ought to play a major role in every angler's lineup. This is increasingly true as we discover how well cats respond to drifting, as well as to off-bottom presentations. A float is simply a bait-delivery tool similar to a sinker, and catfishermen ought to consider it just as important.
Regardless of which catfish species you're fishing for, the basic slipfloat rig is constructed in the same way. Before tying on a hook, cinch on a pre-made stop-knot, or tie a five-turn uni-knot around your mainline with the same or slightly heavier line to serve as an adjustable float stop. Sliding the stop-knot up the line makes the bait run deeper, while sliding it down allows for a shallower drift. Next, slip on a 5-mm bead followed by the slipfloat. Anchor cutbait and smaller livebait rigs with a few lead shot about a foot above a hook, ranging from a #2 for small baits to a 3/0 for bigger baits. To anchor larger livebaits for flatheads, add a swivel about 20 inches above a 3/0 to 7/0 hook. Slide a 1- to 2-ounce egg sinker on the line above the swivel to balance the float.

Double-Barreled Sliprigs

Pictured: Double Barreled Rig.
These rigs are a combination of a sliprig and a three-way rig. They're worth the extra time they take to construct — particularly for presenting livebaits to flatheads. The low-frequency vibrations emitted by a struggling baitfish attract catfish by stimulating their sensitive lateral lines. Baitfish of all sizes must first be wild and super lively, and second be presented in a way that allows them to advertise these seductive qualities. Keep a wild bait suspended over cover and it feels exposed, vulnerable, and will panic.
Begin with a terminal leader as you would for a sliprig: A 12-inch section of monofilament or braided line with a hook on one end and a barrel swivel on the other. Before tying the swivel to your mainline, add a sinker dropper consisting of a lighter piece of monofilament with a bell sinker on one end and a swivel on the other. Thread the dropper swivel on the mainline so it slides above the leader swivel. The length of the bottom dropper determines how high the bait is held above the bottom.
This rigging is most effective when you maintain a 30- to 90-degree angle on your line, from rod tip to sinker. Fishing the head of a hole from a boat anchored slightly upstream, or fishing the edge of a flat from the sandbar on an inside river bend, or fishing the scour hole behind a bridge abutment from the top of the bridge are all top situations for double-barreled sliprigs.

Drifting Rigs - Bottom Bouncer Rig


Fixed sinker rigs usually are favored for steady drift speeds or heavy current, since active cats tend to hit moving baits fast and hard. Fish often are hooked on the strike, but always set anyway to ensure a good hookup — unless you're using a circle hook. Another advan- tage of fixed-sinker rigs is that the leader slackens and tightens as the weight pivots along the bottom. When pulled behind a boat moving at a steady speed, the bait slows then darts for- ward, often triggering a neutral fish to strike.

Slinky Rig

Slipsinker rigs usually are a bet- ter choice for slower drift speeds and lighter current. Stan- dard slipsinkers like the walking sinker are fine over a relatively clean bottom, but more snag- resistant designs like the Lindy No-Snagg or Slinky sinkers are better in heavy cover. No sinker design is completely snag-free, but these designs glide through tan- gles that would devour egg and bell sinkers. Adding a panfish- sized float to the leader and using weedless hooks make the rest of the rig more snag-resistant, too.

Pop Up Paternoster Rig

The paternoster is a wonderful rig in areas of relatively consistent depth. The problem is, as depth changes with cast placement, you need to adjust stop-knot position to keep the rig running properly. To some extent, the float acts like a sail, too, catching wind and riding current at speeds exceeding that of water moving below the surface. In significant current or wind, the float may drag the top of the rig into trouble spots or, occasionally, dislodge the entire rig from its position.
Again, we need to change the way we regard floats on a fundamental level. Floats aren't only bite indicators, just as they don't necessarily have to remain on the surface. Consider the pop-up paternoster rig. Rather than presenting the float above the rig on the surface, slide the float onto the dropper line between the swivel and weight, typically a 1- to 5-ounce bell sinker. Streamlined floats, such as Betts' Billy Boy or Little Joe's Pole Float, catch less current, reducing down- stream drag. By submerging the float, you've eliminated worries about adjusting stop knots to changing depths. At rest, the float 'œpops up' the dropper line, holdingthe rig erect above bottom. The depth is a function of dropper length. Finally, by running back-to-back barrel swivels rather than a single three-way swivel, strik- ing catfish run free with the line, similar to the action of a slipsinker rig.

Slip Float Rigging

Pictured: Slip Float Rigging

Splitshotting

If the weight of the bait alone isn't enough to keep it near bottom — either because the bait is moving too fast or the water is too deep — a lead shot or two pinched on the line may be the best solution. This is especially true in lakes and reservoirs, where tentative cats often reject a bait when too much pressure's on the line from a heavy sinker. A single 3/0 or #7 shot usually is enough to keep the bait in the strike zone, but not so heavy that a cat rejects the added weight.
This rig also is a top choice for river fishing situations that usually would call for a slipfloat rig. Pinching lead shot on the mainline about 6 to 12 inches above the hook results in a rig that can be drifted through riffles, shallow holes, and even around the edge of visible cover like snags and boulders. Round shot, as opposed to the removable type with ears, tends to drift better in current and doesn't twist as much while drifting in still water. Soft lead shot also is less damaging to lines than lead substitutes like tin or shot poured from hard lead alloys.

Standard Three-Way Rig

Pictured: S
The three-way rig is another option so versatile that it should at least be considered in most catfishing situations. It's an effective rig for presenting static baits in the heavy current of a tailrace or the still waters of a lake or pond. But it's unparalleled for slipdrifting on big rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, and for drifting windblown flats in big reservoirs like Santee-Cooper.
The three-way rig consists of a dropper line 6 to 24 inches long, anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the bait near bottom. A half-ounce sinker might be sufficient in still water, but 3 to 8 ounces are needed to drift around the tips of wing dams for blue and channel cats. The leader should be slightly longer than the dropper line — usually 2 to 3 feet, depending on current velocity.
Three-way rigs also excel at extracting fish from areas where other rigs can't hold or return from. Say you're fishing for channel cats over a broken-rock bottom below a lowhead dam. Use a three-way rig with a 20-pound mainline and a 17-pound leader. Secure a 2- to 4-ounce bell sinker to the remaining rung of a three-way swivel with 6-pound line. When cast into place, the sinker hangs, anchoring the rig until a fish strikes. Big cats sometimes grab a bait hard enough to hook themselves and break the light dropper line. When a smaller fish strikes, a sharp snap of the rod tip breaks off the sinker and sets the hook.
Another versatile rig is an adjustable three-way that doesn't require a three-way swivel. Instead, tie on a standard barrel swivel between your mainline and leader. Next, thread a long dropper line through one of the swivel rungs and clamp a lead shot somewhere on the dropper opposite the sinker and swivel.
The lead shot functions like a bobber stop. Where you set it determines the distance the swivel rides above bottom, and thus the depth the bait runs. To adjust the distance from bottom, simply slide the shot up or down the dropper. Should you snag, a firm pull slides the shot off your dropper line, once again losing only the sinker and saving the rest of the rigging.

Get Your Fish On.

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