Perhaps no other aspect of catfishing is debated so fiercely or so often as bait. We've often said that most catmen can improve their effectiveness by switching to more effective catfish baits.
Dip baits generally are the tool of choice among hardcore anglers who fish with prepared baits. The reason, according to Sonny Hootman of Sonny's Super Sticky fame, is that dips are so intense. "If attracting needs doin'," Hootman offers on the subject, "dips just do a better job than anything else. Of course, some folks think dips are harder to work with than paste baits. I can't see it, though. A good dip is as simple as one, two, three, and almost impossible to fish wrong."
Bob Hosch, owner of Doc's Catfish Bait Company says a dip bait's thin consistency allows bait molecules to disperse faster in the water. "A good dip bait," Hosch says, "just has more of the stuff that attracts cats. Typically, if fish are in the vicinity, they'll take the bait quickly. Even if fish aren't nearby, though, the scent soon draws them into the area. So instead of catching a few fish and then the action tapers off — as you might expect if you were fishing with a natural bait — the fishing often gets better as the bait calls in more cats." Still, Hosch doesn't recommend staying in a spot longer than 10 or 15 minutes without a bite.
Dips are creamy, just thin enough to require a delivery vehicle — usually a plastic worm, but sometimes a piece of sponge. Also on the scene the past few years are 1- to 2-inch lengths of surgical tubing with holes. Which delivery vehicle works best? Hootman says that channels and sometimes blues bite just about anything that holds the essence of the dip for a time, though he does prefer a worm for its convenience.
"A lot of worms on the market are popular because fishermen think this or that characteristic might make one worm better than another," Hootman continues. "Mostly, though, an extra hole here or there, an extra ring, size of the worm, and particularly color just don't make much difference, so long as the plastic tends to hold a good sticky bait. I don't make worms, but I sell four styles because my customers feel their choice might make a difference."
"Doc's Super Catfish Worms are available in 8 colors," Hosch adds, "because catmen think a white or chartreuse worm will catch more cats than purple or orange. We've experimented with different shapes and sizes, though, and I think these factors are important. Our original Getter worm was long and skinny. It caught fish, but missed some, too. The Baby worm was shorter and thinner, and more cats that picked up the worm were hooked. Problem was, many fishermen didn't like it because it didn't look like it would hold as much bait as larger worms on the market. Our current offering, the Super worm, is 21„2 inches long with deep groves to hold more bait."
Hosch also believes that matching the consistency of the bait to the temperature is important. "Dips usually are associated with summer," Hosch says, "but they catch fish throughout the open-water season if you can keep them on your hook. Since it's impossible to have hardness and softness in the same can, we offer cool weather and hot weather baits in addition to our regular formula. The extra-stiff bait maintains a thicker, stickier consistency when exposed to temperatures above 95ËšF, while our cool weather formula doesn't harden in temperatures below 70ËšF."
Eileen Holub of Catfish Charlie's says it's important to keep the bait out of the sun in hot weather. "A cheese-based dip is just like margarine — expose it to heat and it gets too soft; keep it cold and it gets too hard. Store dips in a cooler on a hot day and stir them when the weather's cool. If the bait does become too hard, add a small amount of water or cooking oil. And a bait that's too soft can usually be revived with a little cornstarch, flour, or even soil."
Viola McLaughlin of Cat Tracker says oil should not be used with Cat Tracker dip baits. "We've heard that oil has ruined the consistency of our bait. A small amount of water mixed in the top half of the bait should return a thick bait to it's original consistency. If the bait's too thin, we recommend using Mark's Magic Additive. A tablespoon or so of this scented powder makes the bait stickier and allows anglers to customize dip scent."
Wayne Schefsky of W-D-3 says his floating dip bait can be used without additives in temperatures as cold as 40ËšF or as warm as 100ËšF. "W-D-3 is different than any other dip on the market," Schefsky says, "because it's not affected by weather. Store the sealed container anywhere you want and it's always ready to fish. No need to add anything to thicken or thin the bait."
"In order to feel confident," Hootman says, "most fishermen like to see a gob of dip hanging on their worm. That's why 'sticky' is an important part of my formula. My bait's so sticky that if applied correctly, it just won't come off unless a catfish eats it. Use a towel to dry the worm before each dip and the bait will stick better. And before casting, dip the loaded worm in the water to lock the bait on the worm or sponge."
Dough baits contain many of the same ingredients as dip baits, but with the addition of a filler material that allows them to be molded around the shank of a #4 or #6 treble hook. Bob Hosch says Doc's Original Dough Bait accounts for only a small portion of his company's business. He says, "The only time I recommend a dough bait is when a fisherman wants to see bait left on his hook after it's been in the water for half an hour. He doesn't realize that a good dip bait leaves an aura of scent and taste around a dip worm or sponge that continues to attract cats long after the bait washes off."
Catfish Charlie's, on the other hand, produces four varieties of dough baits and views these products as an important part of the versatile catman's bait arsenal. "Dip baits are more intense than dough baits," Holub says, "but doughs are more effective in heavy current. In deep fast water, the current may wash most of the bait off a dip worm before your rig ever touches the bottom. But a thicker dough bait tends to stay on the hook longer and disperse more evenly. It may take longer for the bait to work, but you won't need to rebait as often."
Dough baits may be less intense than dips, but since they require more handling, they're often messier to work with. They also tend to be more difficult to apply correctly. The key, according to Holub, is not to use too much bait. "Grab a small amount of dough and work it around the shank of your treble hook," he advises, "applying just enough to cover the hook points. Smaller cats tend to peck at a big two-inch ball of bait, but catfish of any size will readily take a bite-size piece of bait. Remember, too, to dip your baited hook in the water for several seconds before casting to lock the dough around the hook shank, as you would with a dip worm."
Newcomers to the commercial bait market are preformed dough balls sold in resealable plastic pouches. "Our premolded dough baits meet an incredible demand," Holub says, "but they tend to be less effective than our dip and dough baits. They contain even more filler material to make them stiff enough to handle, so they don't release as many fish-attracting molecules into the water. They're convenient to use, though, and often are the best choice for heavy current or setlines. They just take more time to work."
According to Dan Mommer, Quik-Hit's dough balls originally were developed for commercial setliners. "Our original formula was designed to last 8 to 12 hours on a hook," Mommer says, "but most trotliners were unwilling to pay 2 to 3 cents per bait. So we altered our original formula to disperse faster in the water and marketed it to recreational fishermen. Dip baits release particles faster and may be a better choice if active cats are nearby, but our bait nuggets are more efficient for casting to different areas or letting the bait sit in one spot to attract less-active fish."
Both Holub and Mommer agree that premolded dough balls are best presented on a single #2 or #4 hook, rather than a treble. Just mold the bait around the shank of the hook with moistened fingers, leaving the hook point exposed. "Several anglers have told us that our baits seem to increase the effectiveness of a fresh piece of cutbait for channel and blue cats, or even a livebait for flatheads," Mommer adds.
Paste baits lie somewhere between dip and dough baits on the consistency scale — thicker and stickier than dips, but creamier than doughs. The major advantage, according to Gene Berce of Uncle Josh, is that pastes don't have to be handled as much as other prepared baits. "They're neat, clean, and effective.
"Paste baits may contain many of the same ingredients as dips and doughs," Berce continues, "but we've also experimented with other formulas that have proven effective on catfish. Our Mr. Catfish pastes, like dip baits, are cheese-based. But our Little Stinker paste baits are molasses-based. Additives like blood, chicken liver, and catalpa worm essence attracts cats, but are less offensive to fishermen than traditional stink baits."
John Prochnow, a product development chemist at Berkley, compared the effectiveness of Berkley's Catfish Paste with traditional attractor baits like chicken livers. "Chicken livers are a popular catfish bait across most of the country," Prochnow says, "but because they're messy to handle and need to be kept on ice in hot weather, we knew many anglers would prefer an equally effective but more convenient bait. In all our field tests, we caught as many fish with paste as with liver, and on several occasions more."
Paste baits are presented inside hollow soft plastic lures. To apply the paste, the nozzle of the tube is inserted into a hole in the lure and the tube is squeezed until bait starts oozing out the other holes. Little Stinker offers two styles of lures, one with a #4 double hook and a swivel top, and one that resembles a catalpa worm rigged with a treble hook. Berkley's new Power Liver resembles a small chicken liver and is designed to be filled with paste and fished on a single or treble hook.
Whether you're after cats in lakes, rivers, or reservoirs, keep your rigging as simple as possible. The simplest rig consists of a lead shot or two pinched on the line several inches above the dip worm, sponge, or hook. Placing the shot farther up the line allows the bait more movement in current, but the hook also snags more often. Pinching a 3/0 shot right at the head of the dip worm keeps snags to a minimum and keeps the bait skipping along the bottom in slow to moderate current.
Most dip bait fanciers, though, use a sliprig consisting of an egg or bell sinker sliding on the main line above a swivel or snap-swivel. Vary the size of the egg sinker, based on current speed and how far you need to cast. Many anglers use a 4- or 5-mm bead between the sinker and the snap-swivel to protect the knot from the sliding sinker. This basic slip rig also is effective for presenting dough and paste baits.
A dip-worm snell should run about 6 to 12 inches. Tie it to a small swivel or just make a loop knot on the end of the snell. Slip the loop or the swivel onto the snap portion of the snap-swivel. Changing worms is easy if a fish swallows the bait or to try a different worm style. Rig a dozen worms before you hit the water and retrieve swallowed worms when you clean your catch.
Other rigs are applicable, depending on the situation. Three-way swivel rigging, for example, works on big rivers, particularly around rocky structures like wing dams. Say you're running 12- or 14-pound-test main line, about the standard for prepared baits. Tie the main line to one rung of the swivel. Tie a 6- to 12-inch dropline to another rung of the swivel. Add a bell sinker of appropriate weight to this drop line. The leader should be 4 to 6 inches longer than the dropline and tied to the last rung of the three-way swivel. A two-way swivel, by the way, works just as well for three-way rigging. Tie both the main line and the dropline to the first rung of a standard barrel swivel. For other rigging options, see "Rig Options On Review" in this guide.
We don't know of any big-cat specialists who rely solely on prepared baits. As we've said, these baits tend to appeal mostly to smaller cats. But at times, commercial baits, especially dip baits, seem to trigger big fish. Viola McLaughlin says that when the Cat Tracker gang visited Santee Cooper last May, they caught several blue cats to 40 pounds and a few 20-pound-class channels.
"But let's face it," Sonny Hootman concludes, "dips, doughs, pastes, and other commercial bait options are a top bait for fishermen who want to catch a ton of eatin' size catfish — those folks who want lots of action, which is most folks, most of the time. Can't say as I've caught many cats over 6 pounds on dips. But then I haven't fished everywhere. Seems reasonable that situations might exist where prepared baits produce big fish better than baits like, say fresh cutbait. Commercial baits, though, are mostly for folks who want to get bit and go home with a mess of eatin' cats."
Chumming for Cats
Freshwater anglers are beginning to understand the effectiveness of chumming. Saltwater fishermen often use buckets of ground baitfish to attract open-water species like sharks into the area they're fishing. And in Europe, where access to many waters is limited, shore anglers often chum with groundbait to draw active fish to their bait. Articles in In-Fisherman have described how some anglers chum for cats with fermented grain.
Fishfinder Products recently introduced a ready-to-fish chum bag designed for catfish. "Anything that attracts the species of fish you're after is a good chum," Fishfinder's Patty Braatz says, "but in the past, effective mixtures have been messy to work with. Our Dry Chum Bag, made from real catfish foods and fish oils, is packaged in a no-mess foil bag. It doesn't require refrigeration and lasts for about 3 hours in moderate current."
Dennis Keller says Line Buster's new Chum and Chum Sticks don't just attract cats, they feed them. "Our chum is made from natural ingredients like wheat, rice, and blood," Keller adds. "Add water to the dry mixture and it begins to ferment, allowing the pellets to expand as they absorb water. Fish are attracted by the smell and taste of the chum, but since they can eat the pellets, they stay in the area much longer."
Kodiak Cat Cubes are a mixture of dry food and scent particles molded into a briquette the size and shape of an ice cube. Toss a cube or two into the water and it sinks to the bottom where the particles begin to disperse. Like ground bait, Kodiak says the chum attracts both catfish and gamefish, which in turn attracts more cats and stimulates a feeding response.
Both Keller and Braatz stress the importance of chumming an area before fishing. "Many anglers drop some chum in the water and expect to catch fish immediately," Braatz says, "but it usually takes 30 minutes or so before fish begin to respond. We recommend chumming a few spots in different areas, then returning to the first spot a half hour later to begin fishing."
- In Manitoba, anglers must fish barbless, which for catfish anglers causes problems keeping bait on hooks. The solution is Bait Buttons, which are plastic buttons that slide over the hook point to hold baits in place. The Buttons are in a handy dispenser. Shake the dispenser, hold the narrow end down to slide a Button into place in the holder. After the bait's on the hook, position the hook point in the center of the button, and pull the point through to slide the button onto the hook.
- No-Roll sinkers are available to make via molds from Do-it Molds, but also are available at stores, including Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops. In heavy current, the best leader length often is no leader at all. To minimize snags and still catch fish, let the hook slide right up to the No-Roll, adding a bead between the sinker and the hook. Pictured: No-Roll Sinker rigged for heavy current.
- Circle hooks with a snell eye like the Lazer Sharp L7228 should be snelled to work effectively. Hooks like the TroKar TK4, a similar design to the Lazer Sharp L2004, with a straight eye, should be snelled from the inside out, instead of tying direct, to facilitate the cam-action roll of the circle hook.