Dipbaits for Blue Catfish
April 14, 2014
Many catmen know that dipbaits can during certain seasons be a good option for channel cats. But, evidence suggests, dips may at times also be a top choice for blue cats in some waters. When and where dips are more effective than natural baits like fresh-cut portions of an oily baitfish are questions many blue cat anglers are only now beginning to consider.
Dipbaits are creamy cheese-based concoctions just thin enough to require a delivery vehicle — usually a ribbed plastic worm, a piece of sponge, or a length of surgical tubing. They work because they're so intense. Dipbaits begin to disperse as soon as they hit the water. The cloud of bait particles in the water may trigger active fish in the immediate area to quickly take the bait. Even if no fish are nearby, the drifting bait molecules may draw them to the source.
These baits smell as bad as one might expect, but the smell isn't what a catfish senses. A catfish's sense of smell is in part a social sense — primarily used for finding suitable spawning areas and identifying other catfish — not totally a feeding sense. A blue cat tastes a dipbait with the thousands of taste buds covering its entire body, but concentrated on its mouth and barbels. The chemical aura that oozes from the bait is carried through the water to a catfish that recognizes and responds to it, based in part on past experience. Dips create a more intense aura than natural baits, but a cat must first associate the taste with food before it will respond.
We've often said that catfish quickly become programmed to eat what's abundant in their environment. Freshly killed or live baitfish are effective in most situations because they're present during most seasons in most waters. It follows then that one of the best places to use dips is where other fishermen are using them. Catfish in heavily fished areas become accustomed to commonly presented baits, be it chicken livers, nightcrawlers, or dipbaits. We would expect channel cats in remote river sections and blue cats across most of their range — where dips are only beginning to be used — to be more receptive to natural baits, but that's not always the case.
Grand Lake, Oklahoma
During spring, blue cats in reservoirs may at times seem to be feeding on almost anything all over the impoundment. As Catfish Guide contributor Larry Cofer explains elsewhere in this issue, though, reservoir blues tend to inhabit shallower and faster water during spring — areas like dams and feeder creeks that also hold channel cats early in the season. Both blue and channel cats also are more active during daylight in spring than at any other time of year, increasing the odds of a channel cat fisherman armed with dipbait catching a blue cat or two.
That's important because we don't know of any blue cat specialists who target prespawn blues with dipbait. But we do know many channel cat anglers who catch enough blue cats on dips to draw some general conclusions about blue cat location and their feeding strategies during this prime fishing period. Scott Hampton of Magic Bait Company is one such angler. Hampton catches dozens of blue cats every spring while targeting channel catfish on Grand Lake and other reservoirs in northeast Oklahoma.
"In my experience," Hampton says, "our Hog Wild dipbait is as effective on blues as on channel cats. Most of the blues I catch on dips, though, are smaller than the ones I catch on natural baits like live or cut perch. On a typical spring day, for example, I might catch a dozen or so 1 to 3-pound blue cats on dipbait. If I were using live perch, I might catch half as many fish, but most would weigh between 4 and 10 pounds. It's also interesting that most of the channel cats I catch on dipbait are larger than the blues I catch. They usually average 2 to 6 pounds."
Hampton prefers to set up where the main river or a large feeder creek enters the reservoir. The current in these areas attracts and holds schools of shad and other baitfish, which in turn attract hungry cats. Channel cats often are caught by drifting baits across the flat adjacent to the creek channel in water only 2 or 3 feet deep, while blues usually hold in the deeper water of the channel. "My favorite location for spring blues," Hampton says, "is where the creek channel first drops off into 12 to 15 feet of water, just before its confluence with the main river channel."
Hampton points out that blue cats often feed so aggressively that they swallow his sponge hook before he can set the hook. Other times, though, they quickly reject baits if there's too much pressure on the line. "Big cats usually don't care about line tension," Hampton says, "but smaller fish often drop a bait as soon as they feel resistance. I use a slip rig constructed with a bass casting sinker, a small barrel swivel, and a 12- to 18-inch leader, so the fish can move a short distance with the bait before feeling my line."
Hampton experimented with most delivery systems on the market before settling on a homemade sponge hook. "I prefer an inch thick piece of sponge, about the diameter of a quarter, pushed over the shank of a #4 treble hook," he says. "A good thin dipbait soaks into the pores of a sponge so the bait sticks longer than it does on a plastic worm. I just dip the sponge in water to open the pores, squeeze out the excess water between my thumb and forefinger, then use a stick to mash the sponge around in my bait."
Like many anglers, Hampton occasionally uses natural baits coated with dipbait. "I haven't made side-by-side comparisons between plain and coated baits," he continues, "but I think I catch more fish with dipped baits than with plain baits when the fishing's tough. In cold front conditions or when high muddy water sweeps through the lake, I don't hesitate to dunk a piece of cutbait or a gob of nightcrawlers in a tub of dipbait."
As we've said, blue cats tend to eat whatever food is abundant. Since winter-killed baitfish are most abundant during late winter and early spring, we would expect this period to offer catmen, using a dipbait that contains the essence of shad or other baitfish, their best opportunity to catch numbers of blue cats and their best shot at a trophy. Turns out, however, that the summer bite isn't too bad either.
Santee Cooper Reservoir, South Carolina
"The first thing I learned about dipbait," veteran catfish guide Joe Drose (800/858-7018) says, "is that the specific flavor doesn't matter. There are dips made with plain cheese, cheese and shad, cheese and blood, and just about everything else that can be mixed with cheese. I just dump a few tubs of bait into a big Tupperware bowl and when it starts to get low I add another tub of whatever variety I have on hand.
Drose admits that after his introduction to the use of dipbait last spring, he doubted it would work for blue cats. "I knew this stuff was popular for channel catfish in the Midwest," Drose says, "but I'd never met anyone who used it for blue cats. It was too different from the live and cut herring I'd relied on for more than 40 years. The first time I really took the bait seriously, though, my party boated 40 cats in two hours. I was impressed and continued to use the bait through mid-July, boating another 2,200 catfish; about 1/3 were blue cats."
Toward the end of July, though, Drose says the dipbait bite started to taper off. The flow of water through the Pinopolis dam dwindled and the water level on the reservoir dropped. Blue cats that had been feeding in the shallow running water dropped back into the main lake. The bait was not as effective without current to hold the cats in predictable places and spread the dipbait molecules through the water.
The way Drose uses dipbaits for blue catfish in early summer, though, isn't much different from the way he fishes with cut herring. "I start by locating shallow flats from 2 to 8 feet deep with at least a moderate current," he says. "The technique works on either lake, but many of the best flats on Lake Marion have been declared waterfowl sanctuaries. On either lake, the biggest cleanest flats with the most current and maybe a large mussel population are the best areas to catch blues on dips. And, since there aren't many places on either lake that possess these qualities, the best areas often hold incredible numbers of cats."
Nothing complicated about Drose's rigging either. He uses a standard sliprig consisting of a 2-ounce egg sinker, #5 barrel swivel, 18-inch leader, and a surgical tube style worm. "When the cats are really cracking baits in May and June, I use a 2/0 single hook," Drose says. "But when they're finicky, I prefer a #6 treble hook. The treble seems to stick more subtle-biting fish — usually smaller channel cats — while the single hook is easier to remove from the bigger and more aggressive blue cats that often swallow treble hooks."
Drose uses the same tackle for dips that he uses for cutbait — an 81â„2-foot medium-light-power Shakespeare Ugly Stik rod and large-capacity casting reel spooled with 20-pound line. He casts the bait onto the flat, then puts the rod in a holder with the reel engaged. "Experienced fishermen may catch more fish by using a freespool clicker," Drose says, "but many of my clients only fish a few days a year, and I can't count on their remembering to engage the reel before setting the hook. Besides, when a big blue takes a dip worm, he usually hits it hard enough to set the hook against the steady pressure of a limber rod."
Continued after gallery...
Cooper River, South Carolina
Like most of the blue cat anglers we talked to, Gene Flynn (803/761-2818), a booking agent on Santee Cooper Reservoir, also is new to the dipbait scene. Unlike most catmen, though, Flynn was so impressed by his initial experience with the bait that he crammed a season's worth of fishing into a few weeks. "I caught more than 400 blue cats last October, fishing side by side with friends using chicken livers and shrimp," Flynn says. "Some days I outfished them by as much as 20 to 1. Most of the fish weighed a pound or two, but I also caught a few approaching 20 pounds. Needless to say, persuading my fishing partners to give dipbait a try wasn't difficult."
Flynn caught a few blue cats at the mouth of feeder creeks and in old rice fields flooded by the incoming tide, but he found deep holes in the main river channel the most productive. "The best spot was a 25- to 30-foot hole on an outside bend lined with woody cover," Flynn says. "My guides on Santee Cooper usually catch many more channels than blue cats on dipbait, but I've found that these deep river holes hold mostly blue cats. In fact, I probably caught more than a hundred blues for every channel cat I brought to net."
When the water starts to cool in mid-October, Cooper River blue cats become increasingly active. During the first and last hour of high tide, Flynn says that blues usually hit his bait 8 to 10 seconds after it hits the bottom. "I can't fish with more than one rod," he says. "And as soon as they pick up the worm, I set the hook. No need to wait for them to run with the bait. When a cat picks it up, he has it." When the fish are less active, though, Flynn often sets a pair of rods in holders with the reels engaged.
Flynn prefers the same surgical tube worm Drose uses, but he usually cuts the worm in half to make it more appealing to smaller fish. "I also add a small piece of foam carpet pad to the hook so it holds the scent of the bait a little longer," Flynn says. After losing several worms to snags and several more swallowed by aggressive fish, Flynn began replacing his treble hooks with 1/0 Aberdeen-style single hooks. This hook can be bent straight with a steady pull if snagged, then bent back into shape and reused. Flynn landed an 18-pound blue with this light wire hook last fall, and he says it's plenty strong for the 2-pounders he typically catches.
Flynn also uses a simple Carolina rig tied with a 1/2-ounce egg sinker sliding on the main line above a small barrel swivel. He attaches the worm to a 10- to 14-inch leader made of 17-pound test — the same breaking strength as his main line. Flynn says a longer leader gives the bait too much action in current, and the cats don't seem to mind a bait anchored close to the sinker.
Cumberland River, Tennessee
Guide Warren Byrd (800/933-1638) also is new to dipbaits, but has experienced enough success during his first winter to keep him dipping the rest of the year. "I used dips for the first time in December," Byrd says, "so I can't say how well it will work in warm water. I know it works when the water's in the 45ËšF to 50ËšF range, and I also know that it works when standard baits like cut skipjack fail. During my first trip, after catching nothing on cutbait in the morning, I caught three blue cats in the afternoon that weighed 33, 14, and 13 pounds. I haven't caught any that big since, but I'm still catching 6- to 12-pound blues regularly."
Byrd guides on Kentucky and Barkley lakes on the Cumberland River. Like fellow catfish guide Jim Moyer, who pioneered the pattern for catching big blue cats in cold water, Byrd prefers to fish along channel ledges in 30 to 40 feet of water. Water temperature doesn't seem to affect the bait's effectiveness, but water level and current velocity are critical. "That's generally true of all baits," Byrd says. "Whether I'm using cutbait, livebait, or dipbait, I want to be on the river when the water level is stable or rising and the current is heavy enough to require a 5-ounce sinker."
Many anglers hesitate to use dipbait in such heavy current because they think the bait washes off too quickly. Even when no bait is visible on a dip worm or sponge, however, the essence of the bait remains. A blue cat attracted by bait molecules drifting in the current likely will recognize the worm as the source of the taste trail. "If the dip is applied correctly," Byrd says, "the rig will continue to attract catfish for 30 or 40 minutes, even in heavy current.
"But starting with a dry worm is critical," Byrd continues, "not just the first time you apply the bait, but every time. The bait won't stick to a wet worm. Use a sponge or a paper towel to squeeze the moisture from the worm. Then push the worm into the dipbait with a spoon, stick, or your finger. I also dunk the coated worm in the water for a few seconds to lock the bait on the worm. This keeps the bait from flying off when I cast. I find this especially important when I have clients in the boat."
Byrd uses Berkley E-Cat #3 rods and Ambassadeur 7000 or Penn 209 reels spooled with 40-pound line and an 18-inch leader of 60-pound test for increased abrasion resistance. "That's too heavy for channel cats," Byrd says, "but these blues will eat your lunch if you try to land them on light tackle. Most catmen fish a lifetime waiting for an 80-, 90-, 100-pound blue cat to hit. If I get my chance, I don't intend to lose her."