A variety of natural baits including catalpa worms, guts, nightcrawlers, and cutbait catch catfish. So do absolutely vile-smelling, home-brewed stinkbaits potent enough to burn your nose and stain your boat seats. But commercially concocted doughs, dips, chunks, and other mass-produced manmade marvels offer convenience, reduce waste, and oftentimes boost your catch rate.
Prepared baits are an easy way for budding cat fans to score consistent catches. "As the catfish market continues to expand at a fast pace, manufactured baits make it easy for entry-level anglers to catch fish," says John Jamison, lifelong catman and decorated competitor on national venues including the Cabela's King Kat trail.
"Prepared baits are easy to store, don't make a mess, or get all over your fingers and clothes if you use them correctly, and are always ready to go fishing," he says, adding that during his travels conducting seminars and competing in tournaments, he's seen families, youngsters, and physically challenged anglers embrace the ever-growing crop of commercial baits.
Such products are also easy to fish — a key factor for many catfish anglers of all skill levels, he says. "When I started doing seminars, I focused on complex, advanced tactics, but audiences overwhelmingly wanted strategies that were easy to put into practice. So now I keep it simple, and commercial baits are a perfect fit."
He points to Rippin Lips' Leakin' Livers, which he helped design, as a prime example of a simple yet deadly manufactured bait. Made from natural ingredients, the bite-sized morsels sport semi-rigid skins that encase a rich blend of water-activated scents and flavors locked inside. "Pinch one in your fingers and you hear a slight crack," he says. "That means it's ready to fish."
Leakin' Livers, offered by Rippin Lips and Little Stinker, Berkley PowerBait and Gulp! Catfish Chunks, and other cube-style baits — along with live- and deadbait imitators such as Gulp! Catfish Shad Guts — are simple to thread on a hook and cast. Other concoctions like Little Stinker Dough Bait come in pliable pastes to form your own soft nuggets.
For most channel cat duties, Jamison favors a 1/0 modified circle hook such as Rippin' Lips' Tournament Grade Circle Hook, the point of which turns at a roughly 45-degree angle to the shank, instead of coming around in full curl like a traditional circle hook. Jamison says the modified design boosts hookup ratios. "Basically a cross between a J-hook and true circle, a modified circle hook is more forgiving if you accidentally jerk back when a fish takes the bait," he says. "Try to set the hook with a true circle and you'll miss the fish."
Dipbaitin' Channel Cats
For nearly four decades, legendary catman Phil King has fished the Tennessee River near Pickwick Dam, which has taught the veteran guide many lessons about successful dipping. A top contender in national tournaments, he's been crowned world champion in major events including the Cabela's King Kat Classic, and is a three-time winner in Big Cat Quest Championships. He was also the first angler to break the 100-pound barrier in a modern-day catfish competition, with a 103-pound blue. Much of his guiding, however, often centers on connecting clients with oodles of eater-size channels in the 5- to 10-pound range — with chances for larger fish.
"Channel cats are perfect targets for easy-to-fish dipbait programs," he says. "And dips have gotten so much better. The baits aren't as messy and there's less smell." One of his favorite springtime routines centers on the spawn. Water temperatures pushing past 65°F coax prespawn channel cats into depths of 8 to 10 feet near reservoir shorelines offering rocks, logs, and undercuts, he says, while the 70°F mark triggers fish to shift even shallower to spawn.
King gives lovesick, bank-running whiskers the royal treatment by suspending a Berkley DipWorm slathered in sticky, scent-saturated dipbait just off bottom on a slip-bobber rig. Pre-rigged on 20-pound Berkley Big Game with a #6 treble hook, the tube-style body sports ribs and cups to hold bait better than traditional designs. "It's a snap to fish under a float, or on slipsinker- and three-way rigs," he says.
King's go-to dip is Berkley's PowerBait PowerDip. The result of lab and field research, it's formulated to dissolve at a rate to lure catfish in before the flavor fades. "It's available in blood and cheese flavors, and I always bring both flavors, because channel cats often prefer one over the other," he says. "Experiment with each kind on different lines until the fish tell you the right choice for the day."
The dipbait market offers many other popular options for experimenting. Little Stinker offers a Blood Dip Bait, while Team Catfish sells Secret 7. Many more companies are brewing up batches with secret recipes, each with loyal followers who swear by their favorite brands. Check Strike King, Catfish Charlie, Doc's, Bee'-Jay, Magic Bait, Sonny's, CatTracker — the list goes on with others you can sniff out.
Rigging is straightforward. King wields a light to mid-weight spinning combo spooled with 10-pound-test Berkley Big Game monofilament. A bobber stop, bead, 2½- to 3-inch slipbobber, and 1/4-ounce egg sinker ride above a small barrel swivel, which links his mainline to the DipWorm rig. Tied from 20-pound Big Game mono, it sports a #6 treble and 2-inch DipWorm body, and is trimmed to 12 inches in length. The float is adjusted to suspend the bait just off bottom, to limit snags, and repositioned as needed to cover depths from 2 to 6 feet.
"You can also use the same setup without the float, and walk it along bottom down a break like a slipsinker rig," he says. "Sometimes this approach produces better than a float rig when fish are stubborn and want the bait sitting still."
With or without a float, King approaches prime lies from deeper water. "Fishing from a boat, cast toward shore, let the bait sit 10 to 15 seconds, then pull the rig a little deeper and let it sit again," he says. "Don't soak it in one place very long. If the fish are going to hit, they'll do it right away." Since amorous channel cats often school in small groups, once King catches a fish, he quickly casts back to that spot. "Where you catch one, you can usually pick up three to six more before the bite dies and it's time to move farther down the bank," he says.
While channel cats stay relatively shallow much of the year, King says the bank program excels from April into June on his home waters. "On Pickwick Lake, a good bite occurs from early morning to about 10 a.m.," he adds. "Then the fish move deeper at midday, and the shallow bite picks up again in late afternoon."
Like King, Jamison's a huge fan of bobber rigs, particularly for covering water along fish-holding banks, either afoot or afloat. His first strike of the season, however, is a bottom rig approach aimed at hungry Midwestern channel cats cruising fast-warming shallows just after ice-out.
"Bays on the north side of a lake are typically best, because that's where predominant south winds push warming surface water and winter-killed shad," he says. "The combination lures catfish from deeper parts of the lake up onto shallow mudflats in 1 to 2 feet of water."
Jamsion methodically works large sections of water 5 feet deep or less by anchoring, then spreading lines around the boat. While multiple anchors are standard gear on the cat scene, he leans on shallow-water anchoring systems like the Minn Kota Talon. "When I got my first Talon a few seasons ago, I told my tournament partner we'd probably never use it," he says. "Now we use it all the time. The speed, stealth, and convenience beat traditional anchoring methods in shallow water."
A slipsinker rig consisting of an 18-inch leader, swivel, and sinker works wonders, he says. Ready-to-fish manufactured tubes, like the Little Stinker Sticky Worm and Team Catfish's EZ Load Dip Tube, and dipworms, such as the Little Stinker Dip Bait Worm and Berkley DipWorm, are top options, but he often takes matters into his own hands. "Pre-made plastics are easy to use and work fine, but I also like to twist a 5-inch-long, thin section of foam (think old carseat padding) onto a 1/0 modified circle hook," he says. "Holes in the foam hold dipbaits like Rippin Lips' Bootleg products exceptionally well."
If soft-plastic and foam delivery systems aren't your thing, innovative fiber-based products such as Team Catfish's Furry Thang offer added options. Strung on 18 inches of 30-pound mono, the rigs feature a forest of bait-holding looped fibers, and are available in single- and treble-hook options.
Lifelong catman and founder of the Big Cat Quest tournament circuit, Ken Freeman also rides the cutting edge of the dipbait scene. Raised in Pocahontas, Tennessee, a short cast from the Hatchie, Mississippi, and Tennessee rivers, Freeman has been chasing cats since he was old enough to help his father, a commercial fisherman, tend bait and set lines.
Freeman's prepared bait strategies primarily target channel cats, along with magnum blues. Like Jamison and King, he praises today's advanced products, such as Berkley's PowerBait PowerDip and DipWorm. "PowerDip is extremely effective, and hangs onto the DipWorm's ribs and suction cups better than traditional tubes and worms," he says.
On the channel cat front, Freeman gears up with a medium-weight baitcasting outfit loaded with 20-pound Berkley Trilene Braid mainline. When bigger fish are in play, he upgrades to a heavier combo spooled with 40- to 50-pound braid. In either case, he threads a 1/2- to 2-ounce egg sinker on the line (depending on depth and current), followed by a small bead. Next, he ties on a Berkley Cross-Lok snap-swivel, to which he clips the loop on the PowerBait DipWorm rig.
When sweetening the worm with scent, he toggles between cheese and blood formulations. "Amino acids from the breakdown of blood are some of the most powerful scents in all of catfish fishing," he says. "Bloodbaits tend to work best when fish are in a feeding mood and busting shad, minnows, or other prey." But lactic acid from cheese proteins are equally deadly. "Cheese produces catfish when nothing else can, which is why commercial fisherman put cheese in their nets. I keep both PowerBait cheese and blood options ready to go, because catfish preferences can change from day to day."
After stirring his dipbait with a stick or paddle, Freeman applies a healthy dose to the worm, making sure every nook and cranny is covered. Once the bait is saturated, he fires it into a target area, which could be a variety of classic channel hangouts including eddies, flats, holes, and downed timber.
But he doesn't let the rig settle on his first cast. "Channel catfish are smelling machines," he says. "When setting up in an area, I give myself an advantage by ripping that first cast back like I was fishing a topwater lure for bass." The tactic generates a fine scent trail he says calls cats to the area. After re-charging the DipWorm, he makes another cast, this time letting the bait sink to bottom and waiting for a hungry cat to pick it up.
When cats play hard to catch, Freeman removes the sinker. "A free-floating dip is hard to beat for finicky fish," he says, adding that suspended baits also shine after dark. "At night, I suspend the bait 2 or 3 feet below the surface beneath a glow-in-the-dark float."
For big blue cats, he often uses dips to sweeten the pot when drifting skipjack or other natural baits. "When you fill a baitfish's mouth with cheese-flavored PowerDip, you get an extra-long scent trail, with a shot of lactic acid to boot," he says. â–
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media. Contact: Guide Phil King, 662/286-8644.