Catfish Baits for Different Seasons
May 30, 2014
All catfish baits belong in one of two categories — attractor baits or triggering baits. Attractors such as commercial dips, pastes, doughs, and chunk baits emanate odors and exude tastes that would gag most mammals, but catfish find them perfectly sweet. In addition, chum baits like beef blood or fermented soybeans poured into the water can draw an abundance of catfish.
Powers of attraction aside, commercial baits don't always fool whopper-sized catfish. Enter triggering baits. In their natural form, triggering baits are the animals living in or near your fishing waters, such as live threadfin shad cast-netted from a reservoir, filleted goldeye angled from a mid-sized river, butterfly-netted grasshoppers, and handpicked leopard frogs. Catfish eat natural baits with abandon because they're the same foods they encounter and eat every day.
Baiting through the Seasons
If we've done our jobs as catmen, fish should find everything about our baits both natural and familiar. No reason to get tricky in most waters, just need to feed cats the baits that play most powerfully to their senses, given the various seasonal changes that occur within their environments. Among a boatload of bait options available during a typical catfishing season, a few confirmed patterns remain deadly every year.
Late Winter to Early Spring in Large Rivers — During some of the coldest months of the year in rivers and upper sections of reservoirs in the Midsouth, behemoth blues prowl deep ledges near the main flow. Premier baits remain freshly killed species such as skipjack herring and threadfin shad, where these prey species occur naturally.
Procuring a cache of choice bait means doing the dirty work yourself by means of cast-netting or angling with small multi-bait rigs. Herring frequently bunch together behind current buffers at dam spillways, where a half-hour of fishing can produce plenty of baits for the day.
Keep baitfish healthy in an aerated livewell until needed, or set fresh-killed baits atop ice cubes, not submerged in meltwater. Cut each bait only when fish demand, slicing skin-on fillets into 1- to 2-inch cubes. Slip two to four cubes onto a 4/0 to 8/0 wide gap or Kahle-style hook. Cubes present a tighter package than a single large fillet in current, preventing the bait from spinning behind the sinker. Location and timing done right, fresh, wickedly greasy cutbaits entice lots of big coldwater blues, as well as occasional channel cats and flatheads.
Late Spring into Early Summer in Small to Medium Rivers — The Prespawn is perhaps one of the most productive periods for catching loads of channel catfish. Anyone who's fished Manitoba's section of the Red River in May or early June compares it to every other prespawn bite they experience. "Prespawn channels are absolute gluttons," says Stu McKay, reknowned guide and owner of Cats On The Red in Lockport, Manitoba. "They're constantly hunting and consuming huge amounts of food."
"Fresh-cut sucker is a proven producer in spring," he says, "although as the season progresses, goldeye shows up in the river in droves. Once this occurs, fresh goldeye becomes lethal for numbers of big channels. If I were restricted to just one bait, it would be no contest — fresh goldeye. They're so abundant in the river, and cats are so fond of eating them, that it's almost a no-brainer."
During roughly this same period as water levels stabilize, hungry flatheads draw many anglers to the river. One strategy for a day's fishing includes scouting spots and hitting channel cats during daylight, then setting up in key flathead holes at night. In early summer, flatheads respond to cutbaits slipped stealthily into their hideouts, even though for many of us this is just a sideline to chasing channels. But, while channel cats prefer cut fish from species that swim in their waters, the same isn't always true of river flatheads. Live and vigorous 4- to 7-inch bullheads, plump goldfish, and green sunfish are premier baits for flatheads, none of them abundant in most flathead rivers.
Summer in Lakes, Reservoirs, and Rivers — Something about midsummer's heat compels catmen to experiment. In a pinch, you still can't go wrong with fresh-cut baitfish for channels and blues, but in summer, you can break out those attractor baits — dipbaits, bloodbaits, punchbaits — that have been moldering in your garage. Summer's stability conjures up a huge stew of natural aquatic food. In contrast, attractors such as dips combine a crazy list of putrefied ingredients, which sets them vividly apart from natural catfish foods like a chocolate truffle on a plate of kidney beans.
Small to medium-sized catfish, particularly blues and channels, are especially fond of attractor baits, curious to sample a range of different flavors. Ponds and small rivers can provide especially good fishing. Where large numbers of anglers chum and present commercial baits in finite areas, catfish eventually get programmed to approach these baits as food.
A variety of first-rate chums and dipbaits exists today, so working with several brands is a good idea, at least until you've gained the confidence to lean on one over another. Frabill offers several catfish chums in their new line of Doc Chumly's catfish baits. Good things in catfishing don't bother with labels that resemble campaign banners. So, don't overlook a dipbait just because it doesn't have a fancy label. Doc's Catfish Getter, Cat Tracker Wicked Sticky, Danny King's Catfish Punch Bait, Bowker's Original Dip Bait and Sonny's Super are all good dips to try.
Late Summer into Early Fall in Rivers & Reservoirs — If midsummer's the time for attractor baits, then late summer to early fall is about crayfish, grasshoppers, and frogs — during different intervals, these can prove more attractive to catfish than traditional baits. Blues, channels, and flatheads dwelling in rivers all eat crayfish. The late-summer molting phase — when crawdaddys shed their exoskeleton to grow — presents cats with a brief period of easy access to lots of soft, slow-moving morsels. Capture a batch of softshells in the usual rocky areas, then rig and present one gingerly on a sliprig, hooking it through the upper crown or lower tail. Both live and freshly killed crayfish work well.
Another invertebrate, the grasshopper, emerges along lush banks en masse as summer's heat nears its ebb. The 'hopper bite doesn't last over a month, but in waters where cats know them as food, float-rigging means good near-surface sport. A butterfly net whipped through shoreline weeds in the morning usually captures ample numbers to keep cats grazing for hours.
As 'hopper plagues subside, armies of leopard frogs begin their annual march from wetlands to lakes and rivers. These spots are where you often find Red River catfish guide "Backwater" Ed Carlson. "In flowing water," Carlson says, "nose-hook frogs so they run straight behind the hook. The best size frogs aren't giants, but medium-sized ones from last year's hatch. I like to stun the frog first, then quickly slit the stomach to let some guts spill out. Cats can't resist this. Stand-up style jigs are my favorite option for fishing cats with frogs, because they hold the bottom and keep the hook in a perfect position for a solid set."
Late summer into early fall also spurs movements of big channel cats and flatheads in rivers. "Fall cats are by far my favorite," McKay says. "In September, big channels key in on ciscoe (tulibee) fillets. It's apparent that ciscoes make a fall river movement on the Red River," he says, "because September cats feed like demons on this species. While anglers using other baits may catch a few channels, those rigging fresh ciscoes consistently boat loads of big cats."
Meanwhile, as late-summer heatwaves evoke hopes of autumn's refreshment, rivers and reservoirs from Minnesota to Ohio resonate with hungry flatheads. It's a time for bankside fires, good friends, and hefty live baitfish. Big flatsies aren't particular now, so it's time to lean on your confidence baits. On a hook, wild redhorse suckers and big creek chubs kick like angry mules, leaving flatheads little choice except to strike.
Winter Options — Whether working moving water or shuffling across a sheet of ice, blues, channels, and flatheads all respond well to various approaches. It's not that they always feed so heartily — rather, they hunker together in deep holes in such massive herds that competitive feeding, even among a small percentage, feels like a hot bite. The best overall bait to interest winter cats is a 2-inch piece of cut shiner, tipped on a 1/4- to 3/4-ounce stand-up jighead.
Ice-catfishing has become the "in" thing among North Country anglers, including some who experiment with jigging spoons and other non-traditional baits. As ice allows suspended matter in reservoir basins to settle, the waters clear, allowing cats to use vision to find food. It's one period during which we've been able to watch channel cats take baits on an underwater camera. And it's also why, I suspect, cats sometimes exhibit a major preference for minnow heads over other sections of cutbait — perhaps they're responding to the visual enticement of preyfish eyes.
The Seafood Aisle
Mussels (Freshwater Clams)
From the late 1800s through most of World War I, mussels harvested from big rivers like the Mississippi fueled a multi-million-dollar industry. In those days garments had buttons made from mussel shells. Along with overharvest, siltation and water pollution drastically reduced mussel populations and even eliminated species, in others.
But there's enough left in some rivers to be eaten by both blue and channel cats. Catfish ingest them shell and all — it's said that, in some cases, cats full of mussel shells actually rattle. Where legal, some anglers chum river holes by filling a burlap sack with mussel meat. Discarding the shell, thread a piece of mussel onto a #1 to 2/0 hook like an Eagle Claw 84, or place mussel meat into a steelhead-style spawn bag, securing it to a hook with a section of yarn or thread.
From the early 1980s through 2000, In-Fisherman's Master Angler Awards program showed that more large channel catfish were caught on shrimp than on any other natural or artificial bait, yet shrimp are rarely mentioned in the same company with other baits.
Most anglers who use shrimp look for the uncooked, un-deveined varieties sold in 3-pound bags in grocery stores. Better yet, check your local seafood market for whole fresh shrimp, which are tougher and easier to keep on a hook. Hook them through the lower tail; on whole shrimp, through the crown. We haven't experimented yet with Berkley's Gulp! Shrimp for catfish, but its scent and flavor might be attractive to cats.