For decades catfish anglers have used a multitude of baits and concoctions to entice Mr. Whiskers. Secret potions, scents and other additives have been tried by anglers looking for that something special. However, some simple, good catfish baits have always produced their share of catfish.
Catfishing has been around a while. Many anglers have fished for these surly looking critters for years. Some folks are interested in catching big cats, but it is a lot more enjoyable to catch more of these scrappy critters. Catfish in the 2- to 5-pound range are more common and much better eating.
Creeks, ponds, lakes and rivers are home for catfish of all sizes. While some anglers may prefer to go after monster catfish, simple, good catfish baits and basic tackle can have some tender catfish filets ready for supper without a lot of hassle.
Finding Catfish Homes
Steve Farmer of Talladega, Ala. was once a tournament bass angler. He chased bass both day and night, but one day he realized he could catch fish with less stress and effort. So, he turned his focus to catfish.
“Fishing for catfish is much more relaxing,” Farmer comments. “You’re not running all over the lake making a bunch of casts.”
Farmer says locating an area holding catfish is fairly simple. He says during the summer months the cats will usually be close to deep water. Cat anglers can start their search around sloping flats and ridges. During this time of year, catfish will hold from around 12 to 30 feet of water.
Lake topo maps and electronic graphs can point anglers in the right direction. Humps and underwater flats that have drops, edges or slopes to deeper water are key areas to begin the search for catfish. The cats will move up and down the ridges and drops to feed.
“You may need to drift around some to locate the fish,” Farmer advises. “I like to zigzag around over the humps. I don’t move in a straight line.”
Farmer relies on his Humminbird GPS/HD graph to locate prime catfish areas. The detail in this unit depicts baitfish and catfish along the bottom. The GPS feature allows farmer to maintain a consistent drift speed. He prefers to keep his boat moving around .5 to .6 miles per hour. The constant motion at this speed can cover a large area and helps dispense the scent from the bait.
Another piece of gear that is a great help for Farmer in drifting around for catfish is the Minn-Kota I-Pilot electric trolling motor. The unit is controlled with a remote about the size of a small TV remote. Farmer can set the speed of the motor to troll or drift at the proper speed. Also, the unit has a spot lock than can hold the boat in position automatically.
He rarely drops an anchor, but uses his trolling motor to hold position. If the wind is strong and the fish are present, he will let down an anchor to keep things simple.
Common Baits for Catfish
Catfish feed by smell. They have a strong olfactory system that helps them home in on a food source. Many folks think catfish prefer dead or stinky baits. However, catfish of all sizes will feed on live bait or fresh bait. Certain bait scents help to attract the cats.
“Catfish can taste the bait without actually biting the bait,” Farmer advises. “It is important to keep your bait fresh.”
Farmer will fish different baits on different rigs. He says one day the cats will prefer one type of bait and the next day another. Sometimes anglers will need to try different baits to determine what the catfish like on that particular day. Farmer says you have to figure out what works for you.
Another tip Farmer offers up to budding cat anglers is not to discard your used bait in the water while fishing. He says all that does is feed the fish. When you remove the old bait from your hook, put it in a container to dispose of later. Anglers should change out their bait regularly to keep the scent trail fresh.
Cut shad and bream are Farmer’s primary baits for catfish. He prefers large chunks for his rod and reel setups. Sometimes he will use live bait alongside cut bait. Farmer will keep his cut bait in a cooler to help keep it fresh. He hooks the live shad and bream under the dorsal fin.
“After catfish spawn, they can be picky eaters and want smaller sized baits,” Farmer mentions.
He prefers small bream and shad in the 2- to 4-inch length range. He will fish these alongside live baits to determine what the catfish prefer that day. Farmer uses a castnet to catch his shad. Edges of seawalls and grass patches are top spots to fill your bait bucket.
Farmer uses a large aerated tank to keep his bait alive. In some cases, he may freeze his bait, but prefers to have it fresh. He prefers the Catfish Extreme Series rods. The rods have plenty of backbone for strong fighting fish, but are very light in weight. The rods are paired with Abu Garcia 6500 or Okuma bait-casting reels. The main line is 40-pound-test Big Game brand just in case a monster catfish is hooked.
“I use Gamakatsu Octopus circle hooks,” Farmer mentions. ‘The fish don’t swallow this type of hook and we catch them in the mouth each time.”
The circle hook is easy to remove. Also, with this style of hook, anglers don’t have to jerk or set the hook when a fish bites. Farmer says just pick up the rod and start reeling.
Farmer uses a unique setup when rigging for catfish. On the mainline, he will place a slip sinker. Just below it, he adds a small plastic bead. The bead helps protect the knot. The main line is tied to a barrel swivel. A 2-foot length of leader is tied to the other end of the swivel. The hooks are snelled onto the line.
Off the swivel is a light line around 15-pound-test where the weight is tied on. Farmer uses various sized bell sinkers to keep his bait down. Generally, a 5-ounce weight will suffice in most cases. Sometimes a heavier weight may be needed to go deeper. If the weight hangs up, the lighter sinker line allows you to break off without losing the entire rig.
After the bait is hooked on, it is dropped to the lake bottom. Farmer likes to reel about four turns of the handle to bring the bait just off the bottom. The weight will stay down, but the bait can move freely releasing the scent trail.
Other Top Baits For Catfish
An old-school bait for catfishing, chicken livers are still very popular for any water and rightly so because catfish love it. Livers can be a little messy and not so easy to keep on the hook. Special bait-keeper style hooks work best. Keep the livers chilled for less mess and better handling.
When fishing with livers, it is better to gently pitch the bait out rather than casting. This helps prevent it from slinging off the hook. Farmer’s method of dropping the bait down and drifting works well with chicken livers.
Commercially prepared baits are also popular among catfish anglers. Dough balls, blood baits and dip baits all have their place and will catch their share of catfish. Most of these baits are simple and easy to use. Anglers can also store them for future trips.
Some anglers prefer to make up their own catfish baits. Hotdogs cut into small sections are a favorite among some anglers. The baits are scent infused with garlic or another strong scent. The pieces can be placed in a zipper-lock style bag along with a couple tablespoons of chopped garlic with enough water to cover everything.
Allow the bait to rest in the fridge for a few days so the weenies can absorb the scent. Don’t open the bag until you are outside and ready to bait your hook.
Another catfish bait that some anglers successfully use is Ivory soap. The bar is cut into chunks and placed directly on the hook. Catfish anglers have also applied garlic powder to the soap and let it set overnight for the scent to absorb.
When the weather gets hot Farmer will fish for catfish at night. He says it is relaxing fishing around the lake and waiting for the sunrise. He says it is all about enjoying everything in God’s creation.
Whichever bait you prefer and whether you fish day or night, catching a bag of catfish always makes a great day outdoors.
This article first appeared in the July 2017 print issue of Great Days Outdoors Magazine. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.