Catfish are not exactly selective when it comes to their diet. In fact, they’re some of the most opportunistic feeders in freshwater. But that doesn’t mean they’re always easy to catch. Water temp, clarity, current, time of day and time of year are all influence their willingness and ability to feed. They’re also factors you need to consider when selecting bait.
We’re not talking about breaking records here; we’re talking about catching dinner. If you want some catfish for the fryer, then your bait selection should reflect that goal. Here are our top bait recommendations for catching big numbers of channels, flatheads and blues.
Worms are classic catfish bait. Okay, they’re classic everything bait. They perform well suspended under bobbers or resting on the bottom behind a sinker. They’ll catch catfish in creeks, rivers, ponds or reservoirs.
Two hooks perform best with worms. Bait hooks, which are the standard J-shape and have small barbs that help keep your worm in place, and circle hooks with their unique shape that prevents fish from swallowing the hook. I usually opt for bait hooks when targeting smaller catfish, because I’m not concerned if a fish that I plan on eating swallows the hook.
Be warned, though, just about everything that swims eats worms. This can be problematic in areas that have healthy populations of bluegill, bass, bullhead, carp, drum, turtles, etc. You might have a tough time getting your bait in front of a cat before something else grabs it. That’s a good problem to have if you’re just trying to bend a rod, but if you want catfish and catfish only, you might consider other options.
Shad and Minnows
Like worms, shad and minnows have mass appeal. You’ll probably experience some of the same bycatch issues you have with worms, but they’re still a solid bait choice. Size matters. When targeting smaller, fryer size catfish, I recommend using baitfish no longer than two inches.
I opt for live shad and minnows in stagnant water, and dead shad and minnows in moving water. In ponds and lakes, the movement of live bait is crucial for getting a fish’s attention. In creeks and rivers, the smell and oil that a dead shad sends off makes it the better choice. For an added chum-slick bonus, make small slits in the stomach of your dead bait.
My favorite way to present shad and minnows is on the end of a crappie rig. Some uppity anglers frown upon crappie rigs (I used to), but damn they work well. Whether live or dead, I hook my minnows through the back rather than jaw.
Unlike worms and minnows, stink bait only appeals to catfish. For that reason, it’s my favorite bait to use in the right conditions. The best situation to use stink bait in is when you’re fishing warm, moving water or anytime the water is turbid and has low visibility. If you’re on a creek or river in the summer, you won’t find a better option for catching lots of eater cats.
For presenting stink bait, my top choice is a “worm” rather than a “diaper” or “sponge.” The ribbed design of dip bait worms does a better job of holding stink bait, and makes setting the hook easier. Don’t get hung up on worm color, though. Small cats don’t care if there’s orange, green or yellow underneath the rancid paste that they’re about to eat.
Stink bait catches more channel cats than blues or flatheads, so don’t expect much diversity.
Anything from the Fridge
Have some questionable chicken breasts in the fridge? How about shrimp, steak, pork chops, liver or hot dogs? Rather than throwing them in the garbage, throw them in your bait bucket.
Similar to stink bait, rotting meat is ideal for situations with a bit of current. Although it might smell rancid to you, the odor is a dinner bell to catfish. If you want to make it smell even sweeter to a cat, soak it in something with strong flavors. Most anglers’ “secret baits” are just pieces of deli meat marinated in something like minced garlic, strawberry Kool-Aid or gravy packets.
For presenting small chunks of cut bait, I prefer to use a slip sinker or Santee rig with circle hooks. Slip sinkers are a great choice for shore fishermen, while a Santee rig is better when in a boat.
Catfish love anything with strong odor, not just foul-smelling options. In recent years, cheap soap has become a popular choice, specifically trot liners in the South.
Soap catches fish the same way stink bait or cut bait does, with long scent trails that bring in cats from downstream. For anglers that are tired of handling bait that smells terribly and makes a mess, this is a great alternative.
Cutting a bar of soap into small chunks and running a J-hook through it works, but I have a better method. Take a little bit of extra time, melt a bar of soap down and pour it into an ice cube tray with treble hooks. Run these on the end of a snap-swivel, and you’ll have a constant supply of quality bait that is quick to rig up.