Hardcore catmen often are v-e-r-y particular about catfish baits. No wonder, then, that the topic of which bait works best is one that elicits strong opinions. Some catmen swear by chunks of fresh-caught skipjack, others by redworms or crawlers. To hear them tell it, without the right bait, youÊ¼re wasting your time.
This pathological bait fixation is dangerous business. I know guys who spend more time and energy gathering, preparing, and maintaining bait than they spend fishing, thereby earning themselves the dubious title of "Master Baiter."
I'll let you in on a little secret: catfish, by and large, really aren't all that picky about what they eat. These are not a bunch of food critics from Bon Appetit we're dealing with. Catfish are buffet feeders, opportunistic predators with a hearty appetite for all sorts of entrees — alive, once alive but now dead, and manmade.
Regardless of what some catmen tell you, you don't always need a castnet or a shovel to come up with all the bait you need for a great catfishin' trip. You'll find a selection of taste-tempting catfish treats just down the road, at your neighborhood grocery store.
Legendary Tennessee catmeister Jim Moyer is one of the nation's most respected guides, a trusted authority on many aspects of catfishing. In the dead of winter, when he's hunting the Cumberland River's giant blue cats, he won't mess with anything but plump, juicy chunks of skipjack caught on hook and line the morning of the trip. But Moyer is a mellow sort of fellow, never in so much of a hurry that he won't take time to tinker with alternative approaches.
"Yep, I'll use grocery story baits," Moyer says, "but like Wirth said, mainly in warm weather when I'm not so intent on targeting giant blues. They're great for channel cats, but I've found that blues and flatheads much prefer fresh fish, either live or freshly killed. Take hot dogs. I'm talking tube steaks, not those so-called catfish wieners that have been treated with fish attractant. Plain ol' all-American hot dogs. Great channel cat bait. All-beef hot dogs are good; so are those cheesy wieners. But I like to doctor 'em up a little for catfishing."
Using a cooking syringe, the kind commonly employed by chefs to inject butter or spices into poultry, Moyer mainlines his weenies with various liquid flavor enhancers including cod liver oil, anise oil, or chicken blood. "Cut raw, injected hot dogs into one-inch sections and thread 'em onto a reliable livebait hook like the Gamakatsu Octopus," he recommends. "Fish 'em on bottom just as you would any other cat bait. Good thing about hot dogs is, you can grill the ones you don't use for bait. Just bring along a hibachi, and don't forget the mustard."
While hitting your local Piggly Wiggly for a hot dog run, take a turn down aisle three and pick up some canned pet food, Jim suggests. "Alpo and Puss 'n Boots both work well for channel cats. Cut a piece of surgical tubing just long enough to fit over the shank of a bait hook, pack it full of moist pet food and fish it on bottom. Canned pet food can be used for chum, too."
Next stop: the dairy case. "Soft cheese will catch both catfish and trout," Moyer says. "Garlic cheese is a good choice. I like to mix a little cayenne pepper or anise oil with my cheese. I'll fish this in a surgical tubing rig or mold it around a treble hook. Trebles especially made for this application have little springs around the shank. It's cheaper, however, to take the spring from an old ball point pen and use it to modify several hooks."
A word about treble hooks, especially the small sizes needed for soft grocery store baits: Moyer uses them only when he's after a mess of keeper-size cats for a fish fry. Catfish often swallow trebles, making catch and release impossible.
When I mentioned that biscuit dough, another dairy item, can be formed into doughballs for both catfish and carp, Jim was reminded of this story: "A woman in Mississippi comes out of a Safeway store on a hot day, puts her groceries in the back seat and starts her car. Suddenly a shot rings out and WHAM! she feels an impact on the back of her head. She reaches back, feels something warm and squishy, and panics. 'Help!' she screams. A man runs up and asks her what's wrong. 'I've been shot and my brains are running out the back of my head!' she cries, holding the mushy mass in place with her hands. The guy flags down a police car. 'What's the trouble?' the officer wonders. 'I've been shot and my brains are running out the back of my head!' the woman replies hysterically. Seeing no blood, the cop leans in for a closer look and realizes what's happened: the tube of refrigerated biscuits in the woman's grocery sack has exploded in the hot car, sending the dough flying like shot from a cannon and strikes her in the back of the head.
"True story," Moyer adds, "so be careful with that biscuit dough."
Shrimp make awesome catfish bait. "See if you can talk the seafood clerk out of the old shrimp that he was about to throw out," Jim suggests. "On the Cumberland in spring and summer, I'd rather have a jugline baited with shrimp than anything else, but I can't catch anything on it when I fish it on the bottom. But on the Red River in Manitoba, those big channels absolutely will wear shrimp out on a Carolina rig. Go figure."
Last stop: the meat counter. "Liver is a time-tested catfish bait," Moyer says. "Beef liver isn't as good as chicken liver; it bleeds out quickly in current and doesn't hold its scent or flavor. I know catmen who swear by turkey liver, but I've never tried it. Deer liver makes great chum. Let it sit for awhile until it sours, then toss it in the river to bait your hole."
Chicken livers work great, Moyer concludes and offers a final tip for fishing them: "Make a small sack out of a piece of panty hose to hold the livers, then work it around a treble hook."
Nashville catfish guide Donny Hall swears by turkey livers. "They're my second favorite bait behind fresh-cut skipjack," he says. "All the grocery stores around Kentucky Lake put 'em up in 30 pound bags for catfishermen. You may have to do some hunting to find them in a store in your area, but they're worth the effort."
Hall likes livers when the water warms above 65ËšF, which is when the skipjack bite tapers off. He and his clients have caught many braggin'-size blues on livers during the past few seasons. "Last summer we caught blues weighing 40, 50, 60, and 75 pounds in two days on turkey livers at Kentucky Lake. There's no telling how many pounds of liver we went through."
Hall lets the turkey liver sit out in the sun during the course of a fishing day to toughen it up, then he impales it on a 5/0 Gamakatsu circle hook. "This is a perfect hook-style for this application 'cause it holds liver well, and as soon as a fish bites, it's hooked. This is a big help when I'm guiding inexperienced anglers; no hookset needed." Once rigged, Hall drops the livers straight down and bumps them along the bottom near deep, snaggy channel structure.
Hall has tried chicken livers, wieners, and other grocery store baits, but finds they work best for smaller channel cats. "For blue cats," Hall says, "use skipjack in cold water and turkey livers in warm water."
Tennessee River catfish guide Phil King also relies on liver to spark river catfish into action. "The last six trips I made below Pickwick Dam, we caught between 120 and 200 pounds of blue cats a day by bumping bottom with chicken livers. Most of these fish weighed four- to six-pounds; my biggest during this period went 26 pounds. My all-time best blue cat on liver weighed 473„4 pounds. If you're looking for constant action and an occasional trophy fish, chicken livers rule."
The fresher the liver, the better, Phil says. "I've tried freezing livers and then letting them thaw, but I always do much better with fresh liver." King drifts with current and bumps his patented liver-baited double-hook rig along the bottom, setting the hook hard when he detects resistance. "Some days they'll take liver real easy; other days they'll practically jerk the rod out of your hands."
For casting from a boat or the bank, turkey or rooster livers rigged on a treble hook work far better than chicken livers, King says. "They're a lot tougher so you won't fling them off the hook as easily. You'll probably have to scour around back-country markets to find these, but they work great."
King occasionally uses red food coloring to enhance the liver's appeal. "Catfish see red and they think two things: fresh blood or a gill flash," King says. "Either way, they're gonna feed."
King adds that liver definitely works better in clear water than in murky water. "I've tried and I can't catch 'em on the Mississippi River with my chicken liver rig, but when we have four to six feet of visibility on the Tennessee, it's a done deal."
B 'n' M Poles Silver Cat Magnum
— The crappie pole experts at B 'n' M know catfish, too. So when they released the Silver Cat rods last year, these flashy sticks were met with immediate enthusiasm. The brand new Silver Cat Magnum rods are built to tame big blues and flatheads, and with muscle to spare. Like the original Silver Cat, the 100-percent fiberglass blanks on the Magnums sport wrapped nylon cord grips for super sure handling. Heavy-duty actions start with mega backbone and end with sensitivity in the tip. Eight 'Super Slick ' guides and graphite reel seats enhance this three-rod series. Two casting models include 8 and 7-1/2 footers and one 8-foot, 2-piece spinning rod, each rated for 25 to 50 pound test line. Retail price is $70.
— Essential for night-fishing adventures, the Glowstik sports a sweet light-activated blank that nearly hums with luminous energy. These brawny yet comfortable catfish rods are constructed with nearly indestructible E-glass blanks and premium cork handles. A handy dial on the rod's butt-cap lets anglers turn on the lights when the sun fades and big cats go on the prowl. Four spinning and four casting models include 7, 8, 9 and 10 footers, each in medium or medium-heavy actions, with line ratings of 10 to 30 pound test. Retail prices range from $40 to $50.
Driftmaster Series by The Rod Shop KC
— Tom Knox crafts some of the most beautiful custom bass and trout rods on the planet. Yet his real passion is for catfish, and quietly, Knox has built a mini empire of devoted customers who swear by his line of 'Driftmaster ' customs. Designed with input from Phil King and John Jamison, these rods consist of graphite or E-glass models, each made for varying levels of current and weight. Specifically, these rods shine for walking bait in rivers or drifting reservoirs for big blues. However, Knox can build a rod for about any purpose you desire. A recently fashioned Jamison Bait Walker Special is a 7-foot 2-inch, heavy power gem built with high modulus graphite. It hefts like a feather yet easily handles blues exceeding 60-pounds, detecting light bites from great distances. Contact the affable Mr. Knox for pricing.
Eagle Claw Cat Claw
— The classic fishing company's yellow rod remains as iconic as the Duke Boys' bright orange Dodge Charger. Certainly, Eagle Claw's American made Cat Claw series is equally tough, and thankfully, a good bit lighter than the General Lee, made with stout glass blanks, aluminum oxide guides and EVA foam handles. An 8-foot casting model handles 12 to 30 pound test and matches medium duty channel and blue cat situations. The medium-heavy action 7-foot spinning rod is a fine all-purpose catfish rod. Both two-piece rods retail for $20.
Rippin Lips SuperCat
- Built on the foundation of superior S-Glass blanks, SuperCat rods offer the perfect balance between toughness and sensitivity. S-Glass, a lighter more advanced fiberglass material than it's older counterpart, offers twice the modulus of E-Glass, and provides awesome blank strength, smoothness and sensitivity. Pro catter and designer John Jamison also extols the virtues of the SuperCat's custom EVA split grip handle for leverage and balance when casting and battling big catfish. All six rods in the series sport extra tough, chrome-plated stainless steel guides (spinning models have hard ceramic guide inserts for lighter line applications.) Rod tips also feature high glow finishes for nighttime visibility. Three casting and spinning models cover applications from eater-size channels in ponds all the way to goliath blues and fast river current. Retail prices are an affordable, $30 to $40 each.
Shakespeare Ugly Stik Catfish
— What can you say about an Ugly Stik? Archetypal fishing rod. Classic catfish wand. Tough as nails. Reliable as an old pair of boots. If the original was great, imagine what a cat-specific 'Stik' must fish like. The Ugly Stik Catfish series features five specific models, each with lengths, powers and actions appropriate for whiskery beasts. Clear Tip design and blank-through-handle construction adds sensitivity and strength, while EVA handles add comfort and leverage over big cats. Spinning and casting models are each available in 7- and 8-foot lengths. Retail price for each is $40.
St. Croix Premier Glass
— Made with a blend of St. Croix's proprietary SCII graphite and SCI S-glass fibers, the Premier Glass PGM80HM may be the perfect premium flathead rod. At 8-feet in length, this elite glass composite matches up with 40 to 80 pound test line and easily handles 1 to 8 ounce weights. Lighter than traditional E-glass, S-glass fibers offer enhanced sensitivity, yet with a measure of 'give ' in the blank, ideal for lobbing big baits and working with self-setting circle hooks. Other excellent accoutrements include Kigan Master Hand 3D guides, Fuji reel seats and high-grade cork handles, plus a standard 5-year warranty. Retail price is $200.
Tangling with Catfish Extreme
— Increasingly popular Tangling with Catfish rods are made with topnotch components, including the Extreme Spinning rod — a 7-foot 6-inch E-glass model tailor-made for landing limits or lunkers. A special rubberized butt provides a positive fighting grip, while a Class-A cork handle and foregrip give the rod a measure of style and added sensitivity. Extras include a stainless steel hook keeper and stainless steel, double footed guides that are reinforced with silver solder and two coats of epoxy. This sweet spinning rod is a steal at $70.
Team Catfish iCat
— High-end catfish rods were once an oxymoron. But times are changing. The rise in big cat methods, which parallel national tournament circuits, have created a demand for lightweight, sensitive catfish poles. Team Catfish's iCat rods utilize custom carbon blanks, stainless steel guides and an exposed-blank reel seat. The 7-foot 6-inch iCat is built to handle ½ to 8-ounce sinkers and 12 to 65 pound test. Jeff Williams of Team Catfish says the rod was designed for drifting and walking bait in rivers. Retail price is $150.
Team Catfish Thundercat
— Fine all around medium to heavy-duty catfish rods, Thundercats feature extended EVA 'power foam ' handles over high-visibility white E-glass blanks. Stainless steel reinforced guides are spaced optimally to maximize blank leverage and lifting power. Reel seat is graphite and bolstered with a stainless steel band. The rods' long straight handle is made to slide easily out of any rod holder. Each of three these casting rods (7' 6 ' medium, 7' 6 ' medium-heavy and 8' heavy power) sport soft tips for bite detection and shock absorption. Retail prices are $70, $80 and $90, respectively.