When in Rome . . .
by Ron Presley
Follow the lead of those who know the ropes
Most people are familiar with the statement, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” It’s good advice for catfishers too. When you visit an unfamiliar lake or river, one of the best things you can do, to improve your success, is to find out what the local catfish anglers use for bait. You need to adapt to and follow the customs of those anglers that fish the body of water regularly. Just because skipjack is the bait of choice in your area doesn’t mean it’s best everywhere.
By adapting your techniques to local customs, you shorten the learning curve and enjoy more productive fishing. The more time you save by being smart, the more time you are fishing with the bait that is most likely to put fish in the boat.
Jeremy Coe travels the county as tournament director of Cabela’s King Kat tournament trail. His observations on bait usage starts by drawing a horizontal line across the United States through Indianapolis.
“Skipjack reigns king in most places south of Indianapolis,” offered Coe. “The Central U.S. is definitely skipjack country. If you go down south in flathead territory shad and bluegill become popular as well in places like Ohio and West Virginia. Move out west, especially northwest in states like NE, SD, ND and even parts of IA, anglers use suckers and chubs for channels. They also use stink baits, blood baits, and dough baits. A fourth prominent type of bait is in the Carolinas where they use a lot of white perch and mullet. In the end, bait choice depends on the species of catfish and the location of the fishery.”
This story is aimed at visiting three geographically diverse bodies of water and reporting on the best baits to use in those areas. The differences will enlighten you.
Texas – Lake Wright Patman
Lake Wright Patman is home waters to catfish enthusiast Lisa Hill. Lisa travels all over the county in search of whiskered critters with her tournament partner, James Prince. She understands, that when they travel, they need to adapt to the destination waters by finding out what bait works best. But, when Lisa is at home in Texas, she knows exactly what bait to use to tempt the whiskered fish.
Formed on the Sulphur River, Wright Patman provides flood control for the region and big catfish for the anglers. The record blue catfish for Wright Patman is 69 pounds, caught back in 2014, on cut shad, by Sandy Wilson. Local anglers know what Wilson knew when she caught the record. On Lake Wright Patman, cut gizzard shad is the best bait for catching trophy catfish.
“Both gizzard shad and threadfin shad can usually be found year-round,” offered Hill. “Gizzard shad is the bigger of the two and what we like to use. Shad can literally be anywhere on the lake, but there are two locations that have a higher percentage of producing shad on a regular basis. The two places most easily accessible on Lake Wright Patman are the spillway at the dam and a bridge named Low Water Bridge. On a good day, you can cast net 8- to 10-inch shad. That size makes great cut bait.”
“Most days you can cast your net a few times and have all you need,” continued Hill. “On other days you may have to throw the net a hundred times to catch only a few. Sometimes we have to work hard for the best bait.”
“Using live shad is a challenge for us,” explained Hill. “Shad can be difficult to keep alive in bulk without the help of a good bait tank. So, once we catch shad we quickly transfer them into a plastic Ziploc bag. Then we store the bag on ice in a cooler.”
Hill normally uses a balloon rig or a Santee-Cooper rig to drift fish on Wright Patman. The shad is cut into three pieces, the head, gut, and tail. The tail is simply disposed of.
“Sometimes bait catching can be as challenging as the catfishing itself,” concluded Hill. “But, when we get the right bait, it’s worth all the time and trouble spent because then we have the opportunity to catch a trophy catfish.”
Montana – Yellowstone River
Eddie and Ann White, claim their home waters as the Yellowstone River. They operate a wholesale bait business (The Minnow Bucket) near their hometown of Broadview, Montana.
The Yellowstone River flows from Yellowstone Lake in Yellowstone Park. It winds its way through Montana where it joins the Missouri River at the Montana-North Dakota state line. It is considered one of the only free-flowing rivers in the US. There are diversion dams for irrigation, but no permanent dams that form lakes along its length.
“Catfishing doesn’t begin until the Billings area and moves east towards the confluence,” said Eddie. “West of billings, the water is typically too cold for channel cats. In our area, we do have stone cats and bullheads, but channel cats are our primary species to target.”
“I sell bait commercially,” said Eddie. “I spend about a fourth of my life chasing bait. We trap, seine, dipnet, and hook and line, depending on the time of year.”
Needless to say, as bait suppliers Eddie and Ann are well versed in the bait needs of catfish anglers in their area.
“We have an abundance of forage species,” reported Eddie. “The top three are suckers, flathead chubs, and goldeye. There are three types of suckers — white, long nose, or red horse. White suckers are the preferred bait. Flathead chubs are the second-best, and the goldeye is third.”
Eddie likes to note that Yellowstone River catfish will key in on different food sources as the different bait runs transition through the year.
“In the early season high water dominates and suckers take precedence,” advised Eddie. “The suckers are on their spawning run and the cats will focus on them. The flathead chubs are also in the spawning run, but typically in the feeder creeks.”
“Suckers will remain the best bet up until July/August when the water starts to clear and goldeye run begins. The flathead chubs also return to the main channel.”
“Flathead chubs will congregate in huge balls,” outlined Eddie. “During this time the cats will focus on that particular forage, making any other bait almost obsolete. However, with chubs and goldeye running at the same time, the bite can switch from one to another depending on the day. Once Fall arrives and the chubs start their run back up feeder creeks to winter, goldeye can be the go-to bait.”
Eddie and Ann like to pre-rig terminal tackle for different presentations. They have narrowed their preferences down to three different setups. They always use cut bait for the simple reason that they have never had much luck using live bait.
“With catfishing evolving, there is no such thing as typical rig any longer,” said Eddie. “It is amazing how many Plano boxes we have set up for different presentations. If I had to pick three, it would be a standard Carolina rig, a zero or whisker bomb rig, or a Carolina rig with a float.”
Fishing on the Yellowstone depends on the area and season. In the winter anglers look for deep wintering holes.
“In our area, deep would be 20 feet,” instructed Eddie. “There is a large variation in depth along our stretch of the river. Depth can change from those 20-foot holes to 6-inch runs, necessitating the use of jet boats rather than prop-driven vessels.”
“During pre-spawn, warm mudflats and rocks, along with downed timber, hold the most fish,” explained Eddie. “During high water, the cats prefer backwaters and flooded feeder creeks where they sit to avoid the main current and rush of debris. During the summer 8- to 15-foot holes during the day and flats or runs in front of those holes at night produces the best numbers and sizes of channels. Fall finds us struggling to establish a pattern as the fish move downriver towards their wintering holes. So, we typically fish any of the previously mentioned techniques to find them.”
Eddie and Ann are also tournament anglers, often with their son Spencer, and they will be directing tournaments in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming in 2018. They plan to expand their tournament activities in 2019 to include neighboring states in an effort to “bring legitimacy to tournament angling in the northwest.”
Tennessee – Chickamauga Lake
For catfish anglers fishing the Tennessee River and its many lakes, skipjack is king. That is true for Chickamauga Lake near Chattanooga, TN, but one local guide advises anglers to have backup baits available.
For Ty Konkle, owner-operator of FV-Catfish.com Guide Service, skipjack is good certain times of the year, but other times there are some great, and preferable, alternative baits. It usually comes down to what is abundant at the time, and Tennessee law allows anglers to use gamefish if they catch it on hook and line.
“Anything you catch legally and is in the slot limit, you can turn around and use as bait,” advised Konkle. “That might be crappie, white bass, shell crackers, bluegill, and others in the sunfish family. There are times when the fish want one type of bait more than the other. The key is to experiment when you start your day. Use a variety of baits and let the fish tell you what they want.”
“There is no real way to explain it, other than it is what is running at the time,” offered Konkle. “When the crappies start coming into the shallows and they start stacking up pretty good, they make excellent bait. A lot of people like skipjack, but if they’re not running really well they might not be as good as something else. It seems like during any particular time, whatever is easiest to catch by the angler, typically tends to be the best bait for the catfish.”
“I always say, what can easily be caught at a certain time is probably the bait to consider using. When they are ‘running’ they are probably on the catfish menu.”
Sometimes one bait works better than another, and that can change daily or even hourly. It definitely changes by season. Konkle reports days when the only fish caught came on live bluegill, then he offers a caveat.
“During the winter you can hardly catch one on live bluegill,” declared Konkle. “I typically find cut baits work better during winter up to spawn. After the spawn live bait can really be the hot bait. Oily fish, like skipjack, tend to work better during warmer water temperatures. Non-oily fish like bluegill work better in colder water when they don’t ‘wash out’ quite as easy.”
“The big thing to remember about bait usage is that each state has a different classification of what constitutes a baitfish,” instructed Konkle. “States also regulate how they can be caught. For instance, in Tennessee, if it’s caught in a legal manner and in the correct slot limit, it can be used as bait. Bluegill caught in a cast net cannot be used as bait in Tennessee. However, catch bluegill on hook and line and they are legal as bait.”
These three examples of geographically diverse bodies of water underline the importance of local knowledge in achieving fishing success. The lesson from each location is to be observant, ask questions, and adapt to local customs.
Even though catfishing techniques change frequently as new methods are tried and proven, catfish have been eating the same food, in the same kinds of places, for their entire life. In fact, they base their feeding behavior on the behavior of the bait that lives in the same water they do.
When it comes to choosing bait, successful catfish anglers would do well to heed the age-old proverb, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”