If catching cats means fishing with stuff that's dead, stinky, or goopy, it's news to a new breed of catfish fan. Indeed, when boilies and other intriguing U.K. bred baits arrived on American soil several decades ago, inquisitive anglers began to notice their appeal to channel cats and blues, particularly where the species exist with carp.
"Sometimes, I have to stop fishing with boilies because we're catching too many catfish," says Austin Anderson, a guide who targets giant carp and smallmouth buffalo at Lake Fork, Texas. It's not that he dislikes cats — he's landed plenty of monster blues. The problem is that many days, while he's being paid to hunt monster carp, catfish to 20 pounds or so won't stop biting his baits, which may be boiled field corn to tiger nuts to boilies, a hardened dough-style bait.
"At times you can't even fish for carp because you're catching so many catfish," he says. "Fishing can be non-stop like this almost any season, although in summer it's often madness." Catching 50 cats a day isn't uncommon, and Anderson has beached upward of 150 fish a day on several occasions.
Lee Young, captain of Team USA's international carp fishing team and resident of Green Bay, Wisconsin, catches big numbers of cats in lakes and rivers in numerous Midwestern waters when targeting carp. "In the Wisconsin and Fox rivers, I've often caught over a dozen channel cats in the 5- to 15-pound range, all on boilies, in a few hour's fishing," he says. "A lake I fish in southern Illinois has put out over 40 blue and channel cats in a single night — all on boilies or other pellet-style carp baits."
Moreover, there's a developing subculture of catfish anglers fishing paylakes who've taken to European methods, tackle, and baits. Particularly intriguing are competitive events at paylakes, where serious anglers wield rod pods (European-style rod holders), hair rigs, boilies, and other Euro gear.
Luke Nichols, a carp and catfish expert from Fairfax, Virginia, says "I'm not sure where the notion arose that you need bait that's stinky or messy to catch catfish. In my experience, that's just not the case." Nichols, who produces instructional videos for his website (catsandcarp.com), has had good success catching blue and channel cats up to about 20 pounds using many non-traditional catfish baits and flavors. Following a trip to England many years ago, he brought back an assortment of baits and tackle, which he discovered worked wonderfully on catfish in America.
Boilies and Bizarre Flavors
Having experimented with traditional dips and stinkbaits, Nichols says, "I realized that we don't exactly know what flavors catfish prefer. My best fishing by far has been with non-traditional (Euro) baits imbued with oddball flavors such as fruits and vegetables. For example, plum-flavored boilies made by Dynamite Baits are very appealing to cats. And the same boiled field corn favored by carp anglers is a great bait for catfish. All these baits lack strong odors and are cleaner to work with than traditional catfish baits."
"Certainly, cats are strongly attracted to fish flavors," Anderson says. "I use a lot of boilies flavored with different fishmeals — halibut, crayfish, and shellfish. But the numbers of catfish we catch on fruit flavors is unreal. Pineapple and strawberry work especially well." While Young has caught loads of cats on fruit-flavored boilies, he catches his largest fish on boilies containing fishmeal. "K-1 Baits has a crayfish flavored boilie that may be my best overall. I've caught a lot of channel cats over 10 pounds on them."
Dynamite Baits Bloodied Eel Catfish Hook Pellets work well in warm water of summer, particularly when dipped or marinated in attractant, such as Bloodied Eel Boosted Catfish Hookbait Dip. Some of these bait-boosting dips are referred to as "glug," and can used to marinate baits for 5 to 30 minutes or more.
"Pop-up" style boilies, such as Dynamite Baits Squid & Octopus Pop-Up Pellets, have the advantage of floating a hair rig slightly above bottom, which can be effective for fishing around vegetation. Many of these baits also are colored fluorescent orange, pink, or chartreuse for increased visual attraction.
Top-quality boilies from Dynamite Baits and K-1 Baits often contain high-energy ingredients that provide both digestibility and nutritional value for fish. In heavily fished waters, carp, for example, can subsist and gain weight on diets of certain boilies, pellets, and particle baits. This is probably why catfish accept such baits as food the first time they encounter them.
Many Euro-style baits are tough and can last for several fish catches. Anderson says he's taken at least 10 catfish on a single 24-mm boilie before needing to re-bait. So while the initial cost of some of these baits may slightly exceed traditional dips and doughbaits, they make up for the difference in durability and cleanliness. Moreover, many boilies won't completely break down in water for several days, and can be re-hydrated and re-used.
Specialized rigging lies at the core of these Euro bait methods. Familiar to carp anglers, a hair rig places a bait — boilie, pellet, or kernels of corn — on a "hair" or short length of line that extends beyond the bend of the hook. Anglers employ a soft 15- to 30-pound-test braid, such as Spiderwire Ultimate Braid or Berkley Trilene Braid. Fluorocarbon is another option in high-abrasion situations such as around heavy cover.
Using a "knotless knot" — an easy-to-tie snell — rigs feature a #6 to #2 short-shank hook, with a 1- to 3-inch tag end (hair) extending off the end of the hook onto which a bait is threaded. The length of the hair is mostly determined by the size of the bait. A small overhand loop or surgeon's loop at the end of the hair allows anglers to slide baits directly onto the line with a baiting needle.
Manufactured boilies and hook pellets from companies such as Dynamite Baits and K-1 Baits often have small holes pre-drilled through the center, allowing for passage of a bait needle. Baits such as corn kernels are impaled back-to-back onto the needle. The needle's barb grabs the hair-rig loop, so bait can be easily threaded from needle to line.
Finally, a tiny piece of stick or a synthetic bait-stop is secured to the loop and tightened, securing bait to the hair. With boilies and other hardened baits, you can also go without a bait-stop by tying an extra large loop into the hair. Slide the bait onto the hair with a needle, then wrap the loop back over the bait, hook, and standing line, and tighten the loop. The baiting process takes less than 30 seconds.
Along with keeping the hook gap open, hair rigs also secure baits for firing long casts. Nichols says #2 or #4 hooks work for cats up to about 10 pounds. For larger fish, he recommends at least a #1 hook. Octopus style hooks such as the Eagle Claw L3B are good options. You also can find pre-tied hair rigs and specialist hooks at Euro gear retailers online. With the bait rigged off the hook, catfish rarely are deep-hooked. Hook-sets are nearly always successful, with hooks buried in the corner of the mouth.
In-line Baiting Systems
Numerous variations of the hair rig make it one of the most interesting and effective bait delivery tools. While carp often can be sensitive to line and hook selections, catfish typically don't demand sophisticated adjustments. One potent variation allows for built-in baiting/chumming, particularly valuable where introducing groundbait or other loose offerings is not allowed.
Use of a PVA (polyvinyl alcohol) mesh packet or baggy has become popular overseas. The material is water soluble, and is reportedly non-toxic and presents no danger to waterways or public health. Copious literature and studies are available online, most notably that the FDA has given PVAs their GRAS designation, or "Generally Recognized as Safe."
At the heart of in-line groundbait rigs is a product like Korda's PVA Funnel Web System. It consists of a tube with 7 meters of PVA mesh tubing, which you fill with a variety of "stick mixes." Mixes can include catfish attractants such as corn, soybean and grain mixtures, crushed boilies, or prepackaged groundbait. Dynamite Baits offers a variety of catfish-friendly boilies, particle baits, and ready-to-use stick mixes. Particularly appealing to catfish are the Marine Halibut, Spicy Tuna & Sweet Chilli, fish meal, and Sweet & Fruity Stick Mixes.
Creating a PVA stick mix packet is simple. Take your tubing, which is essentially a long continuous roll of PVA mesh tied off at the end to contain whatever mix you use. Drop in roughly one to two small handfuls of mix. Korda and other PVA products include a plastic plunger to pack the mix tightly into the mesh pouch.
Because PVA dissolves quickly and easily in water, be sure any stick mix you use is completely dry before pouring it into the funnel, or else you've defeated the purpose. If using corn or other water-based baits, don't squish the kernels, or water prematurely dissolves the pouch.
Once the bait has been poured into the funnel, pack it down with the plunger while sliding the corresponding length of mesh off the tube. Twist the bait ball and then snip off the mesh, leaving several inches of extra material to allow for an overhand knot, which seals the bag at the other end. Trim both tag ends of the bag — it should be about thumb sized when complete. Then bait your hair rig with a bait similar in flavor to your stick mix.
Finally, impale the loaded PVA bag onto a baiting needle, and connect it to the swivel or loop knot at the top of your hair-rig leader. Slide the pouch off the needle onto the line and to the eye of the hook. Push the hook up into the base of the pouch, burying the hook point up into the baggie and bait.
You can assemble several to a dozen or more PVA baggies prior to fishing, and store them in a dry Ziploc bag. When you cast the rig into the water, the pouch immediately begins to dissolve, distributing the stick mix around your rig. Depending on the material, PVA melts in a few minutes to about an hour. It's an ingenious solution for baiting your fishing area, and directing cats to your bait.
Setting the Table
Lee Young says catfish almost always recognize boilies and other baits as food, even if they've never been exposed to a particular offering before. So it can be a good idea to pre-bait your fishing area prior to setting out your baited rigs. "I've probably been the first to use boilies on many waters in Wisconsin," Young says, "and I've had both cats and carp eat them from the very first session. My guess is that almost anything that falls to the bottom of a river or lake is investigated and tasted by fish in the area. If it smells or tastes like food, they try to eat it."
Many of Anderson's fishing sessions span over three days, and he's constantly baiting with groundbaits, particle baits like corn, hempseed, tigernuts, bird seed, or dissolving cube-style baits. "The longer your bait soaks, the more fish find it and eat it. I catch many catfish after only a few hours of fishing — sometimes it happens almost instantly. Typically, cats appear before carp arrive. Even after the groundbait disappears, or when bites from carp stop, catfish often swoop back in and you're back on a cat fest."
Most of these anglers agree that it's better to bait too little than too much. Depending on the size of the area being fished, and the number of available fish, a few handfuls of boiled corn, fermented soybeans, or other bait is enough to get the area "simmering."
Noteworthy, too, are catapults, throwing sticks and slingshots used to propel free bait out into the water. Big Carp Tackle offers such items starting at around $10. With packed baits, you can even use a dog-ball launcher, which runs about $10.
More Cool Tools
While you can certainly fish these baits from a boat, they've largely been developed for shore-fishing. This opens up another arena of specialized gear like bivvys (mini tents), bank chairs, and unhooking mats, which are all useful items.
Consider investing in a quality rod pod — a rod holder that clutches two or more rods at once — and a set of electronic bite indicators. Together, these devices secure rods and offer an audible alarm when cats bite. Electronic indicators run from $20 to about $200, and often include a wireless remote sensor that alerts you to bites from a distance.
It's like rediscovering the sport we've embraced for decades, all over again. It's rewarding to try new tactics and gear that's at once unfamiliar, interesting, and astonishingly effective.
Contacts: Guide Austin Anderson, texascarpguide.com. Euro bait, tackle, and gear retailers: dynamitebaitsusa.com; k-1baits.com; carppro-store.com; bigcarptackle.com; and climaxtackle.com.