I associate the unique aroma of dipbaits with catching catfish. Lots of them. Not one or two "braggers" that took all day to find and outwit. Sure, I'll take a whopper when I get the chance, but my goal when I go catfishing is to catch as many as possible, and dipbaits are the way I reach that goal. My success with dipbaits is grounded in science, common sense, and experimentation. The folks at Pure Fishing, during development of Berkley's PowerDip Catfish Bait, delved deeply into the chemistry of what triggers catfish to feed.
Dr. Keith Jones, of Berkley's Fish Research Center, explains there's no single magic chemical or compound common to gizzard shad, beef blood, chicken livers, rotten cheese, nightcrawlers, or the dozens of other baits famous for catching catfish.
"Catfish like different baits for different reasons," he says. "The chemicals that attract catfish to cutbait are probably different from the chemicals that attract them to cheese bait. Each of them has some degree of the numerous compounds that are attractive to catfish."
It makes sense that fresh cutbait has chemicals attractive to catfish. They're the flavors and scents that flood their senses when they crunch down on a gizzard shad or skipjack herring. It's less understood why chemicals found in cheese products, the foundation of most manufactured catfish baits, trigger aggressive feeding among catfish, but the results are undeniable.
Denny Halgren, veteran Illinois catman and guide, says manufactured dipbaits actually have the potential to be more attractive to catfish than natural baits."Natural baits, whether cutbait or guts, always get the attention of channel catfish," he says. "The amino acids in the blood and oils in these baits light up a catfish's sense of smell and taste.
Cheese baits are made from milk and animal products that have both amino acids and lactic acids. Certain lactic acids are attractive to catfish. So with cheese-based baits, you've got two compounds in one bait that are both highly attractive to catfish."
The way flavors disperse from baits also plays a role in their effectiveness. It's tough to quantify, but experienced anglers note that manufactured baits seem to "spread the message" more widely and more quickly than cutbaits.
Ken Freeman, promoter of the first all-artificial bait catfish tournament, and founder and owner of Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest tournaments says "Lactic acid sort of 'explodes' in the water when dipbaits dissolve and disperse. You can see dipbait disperse as soon as it hits the water. Amino acids in cutbait kind of 'ooze' out. It seems dipbaits spread flavors quicker, attracting catfish as soon as they touch water. On the Mississippi River, for example, sometimes when we're fishing calm water between wing dikes, we rig dipbaits, cast them out, and rip them back fast a couple times to 'chum' the area. Then we load up with fresh dipbait and catch the catfish we attracted to the area."
Mention of the flavor of dipbait opens a discussion about the many different brands and flavors. That's one area where the normally congenial catfishing community breaks into factions fiercely loyal to specific brands. Sonny's Catfish Bait, Cat Tracker Wicked Sticky, Bill's Cheese and Brains Catfish Bait, Team Catfish Secret 7, Hoss's Hawg Bait, Rippin Lips Bootleg, and dozens of other manufactured baits each have followers who swear by their favorite brand. Freeman says differences among dipbaits are mostly in consistency, additives, and distribution.
"Any bait with cheese in it catches catfish," he says. "My father was a commercial fisherman, and they used to go to a creamery in Tupelo and buy 55-gallon barrels of contaminated cheese. They'd cook that cheese in big fish pots and throw in little chunks of sponge to impregnate those sponges with the liquefied cheese, then use the sponges on trotlines to catch tons of catfish. Beyond the cheese base, one of the secrets of a good dipbait is consistency. It has to stay on a dipworm well enough so it doesn't fling off when you cast, or in strong current, but is still fluid enough to dissolve and disperse flavors. Cat Tracker's Wicked Sticky, which was developed in the strong currents of the upper Mississippi River at Dubuque, is an example of a dipbait with good consistency."
Additives are the second aspect of dipbaits that inspire customer loyalty. Most manufacturers mix some sort of "secret potion" into each batch, and no manufacturer shares their formula. Catfish Charlie's Buddy Holub, under pressure, once conceded to help curious anglers and competitors deduce his secret ingredients. He said, "You taste it and tell me what you think is in it, and I'll tell you if you're right."
But the biggest factor behind the fierce regional loyalty among catfish anglers toward specific dipbaits is limited distribution. Most successful bait companies are small businesses that have trouble keeping up with demand for their product in their local area, and don't have the finances or motivation to expand beyond that local market.
"Our baits are national because we have national distribution," says Jeff Williams, owner of Team Catfish, which markets Secret 7 Catfish Bait. "I think our bait is the best, but most any of the popular catfish baits are good products, catch lots of catfish, and have fanatical followings among local anglers. They're just not distributed outside their immediate area."
Another area of "discussion" among catfish anglers faces off across the Mason-Dixon Line. Northern catfish anglers favor dipbaits, while many southern catfishermen swear by punchbaits. The divide is sometimes sharp.
"When we did a manufactured-bait tournament in Iowa on the Mississippi River, the Texas guys brought their punchbaits and the guys from Iowa and Illinois had their dipbaits," Freeman says. "Some of those guys got serious about it — sort of a north-south feud. When it was all said and done, dipbaits won the tournament, but punchbaits took three of the top five places."
The difference between dipbaits and punchbaits is essentially in the way they're delivered to the fish. Dipbaits cling to, or inside, special dipbait worms or sponges on treble or single hooks. Punchbaits have the same cheesy base and secret fish-catching ingredients, but include fibrous additives that allow balls of bait to cling to treble hooks "punched" or pressed down into tubs of bait.
Dipbait delivery systems come in dozens of forms and sizes. Ringed rubber worms, rubber tubes with holes in them, and various forms of sponges dominate the market. Texas Guide Chad Ferguson generally uses punchbaits, but finds home-made sponges the best way to deliver dipbait, which he prefers to use over punchbaits in cool water.
"Any time the water temperature is below 65°F, I using dipbaits instead of punchbaits," he says. "Dipbaits are thinner in consistency than punchbaits, and disperse the flavor better in cool water. I've experimented with all sorts of dipbait worms and tubes, and always end up back using home-made sponges. I go to western-wear stores and buy the special sponges they sell to clean and de-lint felt cowboy hats. It's a very porous material, but tough, and holds dipbait better than anything I've found. I cut the sponge into chunks about the size of a quarter, punch a hole through the middle, and slip them over the shank of a #6 treble hook. Trim the sponge to the same diameter as the points on the hook, soak it in Bill's Cheese and Brains, CJ's, or another dipbait, and you're looking at a good way to catch 50 or more channel catfish a day."
On the Mississippi River near Muscatine, Iowa, catfish fanatic Scot Ruppert has spent decades developing Rupe Tubes. Last year those tubes quickly and repeatedly sold out at all the regional Farm and Home stores and Scheels Sporting Goods outlets that carried them.
"I experimented with all sorts of dipbait worms, sponges, and hooks, and settled on one size and kind of tubing on single hooks," Ruppert says. "I spent four years searching for the right kind of tubing and getting the size right. The tubing has a narrow diameter, not much more than the #1 Tru-Turn catfish hook I use. Bait tends to fling off bigger tubes when you cast. The size and type of tube I use is just right to get and keep a load of Sonny's dipbait on the hook when you cast, or in strong current. Rupe Tubes are the ones Sonny recommends using with his bait."
Ruppert uses shad guts at the start of the coldwater catfishing season each spring, but switches to dipbait as soon as the water temperature warms above 40°F. He uses dipbaits throughout summer and until water becomes cold again in fall.
"Last fall, the water temperature was 43°F and I caught 28 channel cats in the 3- to 4-pound range one afternoon, fishing with my Rupe Tubes and Sonny's dipbait," he says. "I caught them on a mudflat in 3 to 4 feet of water. The biggest mistake people make with dipbaits is that they assume that the flavor milks off in the water and attracts catfish, so they throw the bait out anywhere and sit and wait. That can happen, but the best way to catch them is to fish where you know there are catfish, put that dipbait right in front of them, and then let the dipbait do its job. Once a dipbait starts oozing out flavor, there's no way a catfish won't eat it."
Ruppert uses Tru-Turn single hooks on his dipworms, saying they improve his hook-up rate and speed his un-hooking process. "The kink in the Tru-Turn shank makes it rotate when you set the hook," he says. "I get 80 percent better hook-ups with Tru-Turns. Plus, catfish tend to gulp dipbaits, and with treble hooks I spent a lot of time cutting off and re-tying because the hooks were so deep and difficult to remove. Last year I caught thousands of catfish (Ruppert fishes almost every day, with a goal of 40 catfish per day, often catch-and-release), and I couldn't get the hook out of only one fish."
Halgren also uses Tru-Turn hooks on his dipbait worms. "I use a 2/0 or 3/0 Tru-Turn with a Team Catfish tube worm loaded with Secret 7 bait," he says. "If not Secret 7, CatTracker Wicked Sticky is a close second. And I always start with red line, red hooks, and red worms. There are times when white worms or black worms work better, especially in cooler water, but red is my go-to color. "
Team Catfish's Jeff Williams emphasizes that when it comes to delivering dipbaits to catfish, one size doesn't fit all situations. "People often make the mistake of fishing with too big of a bait in cool water and too small of a bait in warm water," he says. "For cool water situations, we cut our 2-inch dip tubes into 1-inch pieces and string them sideways on a Team Catfish Double-Action circle hook, and then dip them in Secret 7. When the water temperature is above 70°F, or in strong current, I use a 5/0 Double-Action circle hook and a Team Catfish Furry Thang bait holder. A catfish's metabolism matches the water temperature. They aren't looking for a lot of food when the water temperature is below 50°F. When it's cooler they prefer something smaller. And in hot weather, it's the opposite — they're hungry and want as much food per bite as they can get."
Which opens discussions about "big baits, big fish," "dipbaits versus cutbaits," and the perception that dipbaits rarely catch catfish over 10 pounds. "We've weighed catfish in excess of 50 pounds at our manufactured bait tournaments," Freeman says. "Big catfish definitely take dipbaits. I've got the largest portable fish tank in the world that I use for fishing seminars, and I guarantee that if you drop two baits — a cutbait and a dipbait — down on either side of a big channel cat, it's going to eat the dip bait first."
I've found dipbaits aren't the cure-all that'll guarantee cats every time out. But once I learned to size my dipbait worms according to water temperature, and became better at locating cats around structure, riprap, current breaks, cover, and other places cats gather, dipbaits have become as close as I can get to my slam-dunk.