For legions of catfish anglers, the only thing that exceeds the smell of punchbaits is their reputation for catching catfish. Punchbaits come in many brands and formulations, but are generally a cheese-based doughy paste with lots of fiber added so that when a treble hook is pushed ("punched") into a bait tub and then pulled out at an angle by the fishing line, the hook ends up surrounded by an assertively aromatic, viciously tenacious ball of catfish candy.
Clark Culp of Seaford, Delaware, says he's been chasing catfish for only a couple years, after getting frustrated casting lures for bass and other gamefish with limited success. "I noticed other guys having good luck catching catfish on manufactured catfish baits," Culp says. "I just want to catch fish and have fun, so I checked into dipbaits, but didn't like the idea of having to buy and mess with dipbait worms or sponges, so I went online and researched punchbaits. I liked their simplicity and saw good reviews about CJ's Catfish Punchbait. I ordered some and didn't have especially good luck. So I went back and watched the video on CJ's website about how to use punchbaits.
"Knowing how to fish with punchbait turned out to be as important as the bait itself," he says. "Mr. Jones, the owner of CJ's, says you need to fish punchbait with one rod, always holding that rod in your hand, and when you so much as see the tip of the rod jiggle, set the hook. That made all the difference in the world for me. Other guys were putting out three or four rods in rod holders and not catching many fish, but I was fishing near them with one rod in my hand baited with CJ's Punchbait, and catching 15 or 20 channel cats. If you fish it the right way, it's a wonderful bait."
Culp fishes from piers, docks, or other public accesses along the Nanticoke River's shoreline, which is mostly free from logjams. He uses a 7-foot medium-power Ugly Stik and 30-pound-test Sufix line and rigs Carolina-style (slipsinker rig), with an egg sinker above a barrel swivel tied to a 12- to 18-inch leader with a #6 treble hook loaded with punchbait.
"I caught between 300 and 400 channel cats last year," he says. "I actually caught more than that, but I only count them if they're more than 4 pounds. I caught 20 or 30 that were 8 to 11 pounds, and 3 or 4 that were around 15 pounds. My best days were November 11, 12, and 13, around the Super Moon. I caught over 100 channel cats between 4 and 14 pounds on those days."
Charles Jones, proprietor of CJ's, says presentation is critical to success with punchbaits. "Some folks still form it into balls and use it like doughbait," he says. "Other people try to use it with a dipworm or a dipbait sponge on their hook. Neither of those are the right way to use punchbait. Punchbait is made to work best if you use a stick to push a treble hook down into the tub of bait so you end up with a nice little wad of bait that won't sling off when you cast it, and it won't wash off in current. When you're done for the day, you might have to cut the last of the fibers off your hook, because they're on there so tight."
Thom Whitlock, along with his son, Wendell, and grandson, Mike, are catfish guides on Lake Fork, Lake Tawakoni, and Ray Roberts Lake, Texas. They concoct, sell, and use Mr. Whiskers Catfish Punchbait, and while they're confident their punchbait is the best on the planet, they agree that technique plays a key role.
"We call it 'whiskerin'," Thom says. "Forget fishing with more than one rod. You catch more fish if you hold one rod in your hand and 'whisker' that punchbait. We usually fish directly under the boat with Carolina rigs. We have our clients keep their rod tips about 6 inches to a foot above the surface, then slowly lift and drop the rigs to keep the bait moving a little. If there's much wave action, the boat moving up and down can be enough. Our punchbait floats up away from the weight, so slow jigging moves it around, gets the flavor into the water, and always out-catches baits that are cast out and allowed to sit. There's an art to catching catfish — you've got to work at it. If you're not catching catfish with our punchbait, you're not using the right technique."
The Whitlocks use 7-foot Ugly Stik or Berkley Cherrywood baitcasting rods with Abu Garcia 5000, 5500, and 4600 baitcaster reels. "We have our clients hold the rods upside down, with their hand just ahead of the reel," Thom says. "That puts the reel on the bottom. If you hold that rod just ahead of the upside-down reel, it's about perfectly balanced in your hand. You see and feel the slightest tug, and that's when you set the hook when you're fishing with punchbait. People see everybody on our boat holding their rods upside down and look at us funny, but they stop laughing when they see how many catfish we bring to the boat ramp. It's nothing to put 150 to 200 catfish in the boat on a good day."
Secret Sauces & Family Recipes
In the last issue of In-Fisherman I wrote about the fierce loyalty many anglers have toward specific brands of dipbaits. That loyalty extends to punchbaits, too, along with regional favoritism. "For a number of reasons, northern catfishermen have always favored dipbaits, while southern catfishermen have used punchbaits," says Jeff Williams, owner of Team Catfish. "Dipbaits have a thinner consistency and work well in cooler water farther north, while punchbaits stay on the hook better in the hot summers down south. Then you get into discussions about dipbait worms and sponges versus treble hooks and punchbaits, and that comes down to personal preference about which is easier to use. I stay neutral because we offer both kinds of baits.
"Team Catfish's Secret 7 is a great dipbait that a lot of guys swear by," he says. "Sudden Impact is our fiber bait, but our approach is to use less fiber, with more sticky ingredients. Fiber is just a carrier that helps punchbait stay on the hook. In Sudden Impact we use a sister product to Secret 7 that's really sticky. We can use less of the flavorless fiber, more of the sticky ingredient, and end up with a bait that stays on the hook with more flavor to release."
Williams sees punchbaits expanding into the Upper Midwest and East Coast, where dipbaits have long been the manufactured catfish bait of choice. Occasional "artificial-bait-only" catfish tournaments in the Midwest have challenged bait manufacturers by instituting single-hook-only rules. Those rules encouraged anglers and bait manufacturers alike to experiment with delivering punchbait on single hooks. Jones, with CJ's Catfish Punchbait, believes punchbait capable of being delivered on a single hook is the next big thing in catfishing.
"I've been experimenting for three years, and have come up with a new bait that's a combination — a fusion — of dipbait and punchbait," Jones says. "We named it CJ's Fusion Catfish Bait. You can use it with a dipbait sponge, and it works great on a treble hook since it's a cousin to our punchbait, but it's designed to use with a 1/0 single hook with a little coiled spring on its shank. You can get our special hooks anywhere they sell CJ's Catfish Baits. The flavor of Fusion is a bit different from our other baits, but the secret ingredients that make all our baits effective definitely are in there."
Every manufacturer of catfish bait is confident their secret formula is so attractive to catfish that it's just this side of illegal. James Cantrell, owner of Wooded Acres Bait and Tackle in Streetman, Texas, believed so strongly in Danny King's Catfish Punchbait that he bought the brand.
"All the major punchbaits catch lots of catfish, but Danny's was our best seller back in the day," Cantrell says. "He had the magic recipe. He sold the business to a guy who sort of let things slide, and when I had a chance to buy it, I worked with Danny to get it back to the way he originally made it. Any punchbait is based on cheese, and we add beef fat and some other stuff that makes ours work well. We let our cheese sit outside in barrels in the heat for five months before we even consider using it in the bait. The beef fat sits for a week to a couple months. We add fish oil and other ingredients, but cheese and beef fat are the main ones, along with cattail fluff to give it the fibers you need to keep it on the hook. I'm not going to say what the secret is, but I'll say that we learned that the process Danny developed to make the bait makes a huge difference in the quality of the product. How you make it is as important as what's in it."
Some punchbait manufacturers offer a single flavor. Williams says Team Catfish's Sudden Impact is based on cheese, with selected "fish attractants" added. "Catfish like cheese flavor, soured cheese, rotten cheese, so that's a given," he says. "The other ingredients are products we've discovered that attract catfish. They may or may not smell or have flavor to humans, but they're definitely attractive to catfish."
Berkley's new PowerBait Catfish PowerPunch focuses more on ingredients attractive to catfish than on how noxious they smell to humans. "Just because something smells nasty to humans doesn't mean it makes catfish bite," says Brent Southworth, biologist, researcher, and field tester for Berkley. "We did a lot of research in the lab and in the field to discover things that attract catfish and things that trigger them to feed. All our dipbaits, as well as the new punchbait, have the maximum amount of those ingredients. We keep doing research, keep finding new things that catfish like, so our baits are continuously evolving to make them even more effective."
Some manufacturers offer a variety of flavors in addition to their core formula of magic ingredients. "Our shad-based baits seem to do well in winter when catfish are used to feeding on winter-killed shad," Jones says. "Crawdad-flavored bait catches a lot of catfish in the spring, and CJ's Monster Bait is highly effective in summer. That's when we catch some of our biggest catfish."
Which raises the issue of the reputation that manufactured baits, both dipbaits and punchbaits, tend to catch only "smaller" channel and blue catfish. Berkley's Southworth is confident manufactured baits have the potential to catch impressive catfish if fished in the right place in the right way. While field-testing, he frequently catches channel cats above 10 pounds and landed a 30-pound blue cat using Berkley's manufactured baits.
"Regardless of size, all catfish of the same species have genetically similar taste preferences," he says. "There are a couple reasons people don't catch a lot of monster catfish on manufactured baits. First, dipbait and punchbait presentations tend to be small compared to big slabs of cutbait anglers often use when they're targeting trophy catfish. There's some truth to, 'Big bait, big fish.' Somebody who uses a big treble hook that holds a big ball of punchbait might be surprised at the size of fish that respond.
"You have to fish where big fish live to catch them, and most anglers who use manufactured baits are fishing for numbers rather than size. They're targeting places with lots of channel and blue cats, and that means the average size will probably be smaller. Punchbaits catch lots of catfish, and punchbaits can catch big catfish. It all depends on when, where, and how you use them."
*Dan Anderson, Bouton Iowa, is a regular contributor to In-Fisherman and Catfish In-Sider Guide.