The Saga of Catfish Bait
by Brad Durick
There is no greater challenge in catfishing.
Many casual catfish anglers don’t understand the importance of good bait. Many diehard catfish anglers go to great lengths to get good bait and almost crazier lengths to keep it fresh.
I am not going to get into what is the best bait for catfish because it changes depending on where you live, and the time of year you are fishing, but fresh catfish bait is a big deal, BIG!
Catfish, especially the big ones, are true predators that hunt for their food. It is a fallacy that catfish are just bottom feeders that loaf around the bottom of the lake or river picking up anything they can find. They are opportunistic feeders, yes, but dumb garbage eaters they are not. They can take a full-sized fish in the blink of an eye. Knowing that they can hunt that effectively, it is critical to get what they want in front of them.
The absolute best way to get the freshest bait possible is to go to a local bait shop if yours carries what catfish want; or, go out and catch it fresh the day you plan to go fishing. Anglers can use a cast net to catch shad where they are the main forage. I have to catch mine on hook and line because cast nets are illegal where I fish. Be sure to check your local regulations.
In many cases it is more practical to make a “bait run” to stock up on bait. This is basically where you dedicate a day or two specifically to catching bait to have on hand for the future.
Once you have collected your bait it is imperative to keep it as fresh as possible until you need to put it on the hook. Many serious catfish anglers have taken this far beyond what many people can imagine. Personally (as a guide), I have two commercial bait tanks and two deep freezes dedicated to bait storage. This is more storage capacity than one of the larger bait shops in my town. My desire to stockpile bait is mainly due to an off-kilter supply and demand of bait. It has forced me to be able to stock up and store bait during the good times to ensure I don’t run out.
Keeping Bait Fresh While Fishing
To keep my suckers alive and fresh in the boat I like the Frabill Aqua Life systems. It is a six-gallon insulated pail with a strong internal aeration lid. I start the day with cold tank water with the fish. It keeps them happy all day, even when the weather is hot.
If for some reason my suckers die in my holding tank, or at the end of the day I had to kill them due to aquatic nuisance laws, it is critical to keep them cold and fresh. If I am on my way to the river or need to keep them for the next day I packaged them in a Ziploc bag, squeeze the air out and pack them tight on ice. This will keep them fresh for up to two days.
Should it come down to freezing bait there are a couple things you have to do to ensure that it will be as fresh as it can be. First, you have to package it with as little air in the bag as possible. Vacuum sealing is the best, but expensive and kind of a pain. I found a great bait saving product a couple years back, Glad Press and Seal. Simply pull some off the roll, and wrap the fish in it, squeezing the air out as you go. This also keeps your bait from freezing together into a block.
Captain Ben Goebel (River City Catfishing) advises anglers to buy chamber sealed bait if possible. It is a professional grade packaging that preserves bait well. Where vacuum sealing squeezes the juices out of frozen bait, the chamber sealing process does not. Goebel says that he sees little difference in bait packed and frozen with this method compared to fresh baits. It also allows anglers to buy and store quantities of skipjack without the risk of the baiting going bad.
Frozen Bait When Fishing
When you take frozen bait fishing it is critical to keep it as frozen as you can until it’s time to use. Of course, packing it tight on ice is a big key. When you open the package take only what you need from the bait and immediately put it back in the ice. I found that using a quality Roto Mold cooler, such as the Big Frig Denali, keeps bait at its best. While more expensive (the prices are falling) these coolers make this task much easier and your bait that doesn’t get used at the end of the day can go back into the freezer when you get home. It should be noted, that once frozen bait is thawed out, and soft, it is ruined and should just be thrown out.
There are many catfish baits available on the market, especially for channel cat. From stink baits of every variety, to chicken livers, there are concoctions to catch catfish on every corner.
Catfish will eat these baits, but you have to understand catfish behavior. In the first part of this article it was noted that catfish are predators and your best success will come when you use the freshest bait possible.
Smaller channels are dinner targets of the bigger fish. Some rivers don’t have big schools of smaller channel cats, and those that exist have to be careful they are not eaten by the bigger fish. Those smaller fish will bite stink baits and chicken livers aggressively, as they try to get what they can, while staying out of the feeding zone of larger fish. The bigger fish are hunters and generally not interested in stink baits unless it lands right on their nose.
Lakes, ponds, and back waters, often hold many smaller fish and they are trying to get their share of the food that is available. When a dip bait, chicken liver, or anything else is put in the water they will charge to it to get what they can. It’s a competitive thing. This behavior continues until they get big enough to venture out and hunt for their own foods. They eventually become more of a lone hunter.
While these manufactured baits are useful and have their place in catfishing, there still is nothing like fresh baits for effectiveness. Even the smallest of catfish can be an incredible hunter.
I once was walleye fishing near a tailrace with a 3-inch fathead minnow on a jig. I felt a light tap, set the hook and what came up was astonishing. A 4-inch channel cat hit, and tried to eat, a 3-inch minnow. Now tell me catfish are not born hunters.
The bottom line is that catfish are predators with a bad rep. They are the true kings of their underwater jungle. While they will take an easy meal, they will stalk down and hunt their next meal. Just remember, the bait that you offer the catfish will determine the outcome on the end of your line.
Captain Brad Durick is a nationally recognized catfish guide on the Red River of the North, seminar speaker, and author of the books, Cracking the Channel Catfish Code and Advanced Catfishing Made Easy. For more information go to www.redrivercatfish.com.