Catfish bait – When you talk to catfish fishermen across the country, you recognize the many types of natural and unnatural things they use to catch fish in rivers, reservoirs and ponds. In part, this variety of baits is due to the widespread occurrence of channel catfish. They thrive and reach the 30-pound class from the Red River of the North on the Minnesota-Manitoba border to the other Red River, the one that flows through southern Louisiana. And the Connecticut River of New England supports a good population, as does California’s Sacramento River.
In these varied locations, they eat different species of fish both alive or dead, and other materials, including snails, insect larvae, crustaceans, and vegetable matter. Channel catfish are what fish biologists call “omnivores”–ready to eat whatever fits in their mouth and is readily accessible. They can derive protein from the strangest meals.
Moreover, their acute sense of smell allows them to follow a scent trail for a long distance, tracking down the source and eating anything they consider edible. This makes it easy for anglers to choose a good bait—whatever fish are used to eating in that waterway should work fine, and the more flavorful the better.
Blue catfish are their bigger cousins and differ somewhat in their habits. Originally a resident of the biggest rivers of the central U.S., they’ve been introduced to the East and West Coasts, where they’ve thrived in reservoirs and tidal rivers alike.
In deep reservoirs, blues feed on the abundant baitfish found there: gizzard and threadfin shad, blueback herring, skipjack herring, and Asian carp that have invaded waters near and far, following their release in Arkansas. Silver and bighead carp have multiplied fast in these river systems and become very common over the last 20 years, even crowding other fish species from some locations by their size and sheer numbers.
In those environments, blues are powerful predators, following schools of baitfish and feeding at will as they grow well past 100 pounds. In some cases, they share habitat with striped bass as they also favor pelagic prey fish that roam offshore. In smaller reservoirs where they’ve been stocked, blues don’t grow as big and behave more like channel catfish, feeding on bottom for anything they can find. In waters infested with zebra mussels blue cats eat lots of them, too.
Flatheads aren’t closely related to the other two major catfish species and their behavior is very different. They’re originally a fish of medium-size and larger rivers of the Central states, from Iowa east to Alabama and west to Texas. They’ve also been introduced widely, now found in several southwestern states and California, where the extensive irrigation systems there have allowed them to colonize new waters. And on the East Coast, stocked fish have spread from into rivers from Maryland to Florida. Overall, flatheads seem to prefer large baitfish, while smaller ones (under 10 pounds) eat invertebrates and small fish.
Their sense of smell, along with their taste buds, which are located all over their body, help catfish locate food, even at night in the murkiest river.
They particularly thrive in rivers, as current washes the smell of prey downstream and lead catfish to their prey. But they’ve adapted well to ponds and impounded waters as well. Here are top baits for catfish in various types of water. As you’ll see, the options are many.
Natural Catfish Baits
Wherever they’re found, channel catfish eat many types of prey that can be found in their waterways, including live and dead fish, as well as invertebrates which include insects, mollusks, crayfish and worms. At times, these opportunistic predators eat less likely prey such as, vegetation, amphibians, reptiles, even birds and small mammals.
You can’t go wrong with prey fish that live in the lake, river, or reservoir you are fishing. Across the Midwest and South, gizzard shad are an almost universal baitfish that bass, crappies, and walleyes also thrive on.
They range deep and shallow, commonly reaching 14 inches and a pound–a good meal for a lunker cat. But schools of smaller shad are sometimes to thick that they shad out your sonar screen. In the milder waters of southern states, they’re joined by the closely related threadfin shad that generally run fro 3 to 6 inches.
Catching shad with a cast net or dip net often is the first step to a successful day on the river. Ice them down in a cooler and fish them alive or cut into chunks. Live bait makes a livelier offering, but nothing tops the sensory flavors that spill out of a cut chunk, along with blood and guts. Cats aren’t picky and will eat the head and tail pieces along with prime back straps.
Other top baits include suckers, which are common prey in the northern rivers where shad aren’t found. Many species of red horse, as well as the common white sucker, make great baits, as their flesh is quite solid and stays on the hook well. Suckers can be caught with a piece of worm or seined up. Bait shops sell them if you can’t find them.
On the East Coast, catfish eat the anadromous herrings and shad that make a run up creeks in spring. Blueback herring, hickory and American shad and alewives follow this pattern, while skipjack herring remain in the freshwater sections of big rivers.
Today, several of these species, most notably skipjack and blueback herring and alewives have been stocked or made their way into reservoirs, where they can complete their life history in fresh water. They make prime catfish, with skipjacks favored by many fishing guides who specialize in blue catfish. They can be easily caught on jigs and light tackle in tailrace areas, particularly in spring. They can be frozen and used for months.
On the famous Red River of the North on the Minnesota-North Dakota border and running into Manitoba, where channel catfish often grow over 20 pounds, a 9- to 12-inch baitfish called the goldeye is a local favorite. The closely related mooneye is another favorite in northern and central waters as well. Like the skipjack, they’re easily caught on small jigs.
In small impoundments and ponds that dot the countryside, catfish consume a lot of sunfish and small crappies as well. In a few states, it’s illegal to use them as bait since they’re classified as gamefish. But in many areas, they may be caught and used alive or dead.
Over the last 20 years, our waters have been invaded by Asian carp, as several species escaped from hatcheries made their way east and north, swimming up all major rivers. The silver and bighead carp are the most common, with bigheads reaching almost 100 pounds on a diet of plankton, silvers commonly from 10 to 15 pounds. Grass carp and black carp are fortunately less common.
Catfish have learned that smaller ones make a great meal and are easy to find, even as these invasive fish have limited the abundance of gizzard shad in some reservoirs. Cut Asian carp account for some of the biggest catfish caught each year.
Even unfamiliar fish can work, too, such as mackerel and anchovies that are available in Atlantic Coast bait shops. Those that are cured with salt and frozen are best, as their flesh is soft and easily flies off the hook if uncured. But their strong odor and oily flesh make them a favorite where available.
Of all the catfish species, flatheads are most noted for preferring live bait over cut chunks. They’re solitary hunters that prowl at night, looking for big prey such as bluegills and green sunfish, small carp, bullheads, suckers, and smaller catfish of any kind. Setting a big live bait near a dense snag is a favorite technique wherever flatheads roam.
Tough baits that live for hours on the hook are best, the reason green sunfish and bullheads are so popular. Channel catfish rely more on their sense of small and follow their nose to cut bait or other tasty formulas.
Invertebrates for Catfish Bait
Crayfish – As frequent bottom dwellers, catfish encounter crayfish and gobble them eagerly. Flatheads, in particular, thrive on them until they reach 10 pounds or so, when they switch to larger fish. Craws make a fine bait in creeks where they can be caught by hand and hooked through the tail. Other creek critters like hellgrammites make fine baits, too.
Worms – Anglers never need be without bait, as nightcrawlers can be found on wet lawns at night or plucked from leaf piles. When heavy rains arrive, they often wash from lawns and parks into the street where they live until the sun bakes them out. Grab a flashlight and fill a can. If that fails, fast-food stores usually carry them.
Catfish don’t often encounter earthworms in nature, but that doesn’t stop even the biggest channel cats from gobbling them up. Indeed, a worm’s flavor attracts nearly all freshwater gamefish, for unknown reasons. For smaller “fiddler cats,” partially threading a ‘crawler on a No. 1 hook works fine.
For lunker cats, gob three or four juicy ones on a 2/0 model. Far less common but no less effective are catalpa worms, also known as “horn worms” for the fleshy bumps on their tail. They emerge on catalpa trees in mid-summer, often found on the bottom size of the leaves where they’re easy to grab. These trees are most common in the central U.S, from Illinois and Indiana south to Tennessee and Arkansas.
Insects – Another favorite in small creeks are grasshoppers that buzz around fields in summer, often falling into the water. They can be easily collected by hand or with a small-mesh net, particularly in early morning when they less active. They float and a couple on an unweighted hook makes topwater fishing for catfish a reality, a super-fun activity on a summer afternoon! Crickets work, too. Hooking them underneath the “collar” behind the head helps keep them on the hook.
Mollusks – Freshwater mussels and other mollusks like Asian clams and zebra and quagga mussels also make good baits. Blue catfish are noted for eating loads of zebras, as you can sometimes hear the shells rattling in the gut of a big one. Their powerful jaws can crush shells, but breaking the shell and using the meat for bait offers the catfish a special treat without all the work of crushing and evacuation of shells, which must be gnarly, given the swollen anal vents of some big blue cats!
Again, some states have regulations against using zebra and quagga mussels as bait, even where they’re presently found.
Unnatural Catfish Baits
Although chickens are rarely found in the stomachs of catfish, their livers make an effective and popular bait for channel catfish. Meat-packing companies sell livers or you can get them from a butcher if you aren’t among the growing number of people who raise their own! Some companies offer jarred livers, such as Rusty’s Bait in Kansas.
Livers are thin and delicate, so they readily break up in fast currents. You may need to rebait the hook every 10 minutes or so, especially if you continue making casts, which can pull it off the hook. But that’s not all bad, since the lost bait drifts downstream and can attract more fish to your hole.
To hold them on the hook better, wrap in gauze or netting (cut up pieces of pantyhose works well). Form it into a golfball-size clump. The netting makes it easy to run the hook through.
Blood is another regional bait, usually chicken blood that’s been congealed. Anglers around Kansas and Oklahoma have traditionally used it for channel cats in slow creeks and reservoirs. They wrap a glob around a #4 or #2 treble hook and cast into likely spots, with a small weight. Due to FAA food-safety regulations, blood is harder to obtain today, so it’s become more of a novelty bait.
Hotdogs are readily available and work well, too. Cut them into chunks to match hook size and fish them in creeks and reservoirs. While they’re easy to get, experts generally prefer more exotic mixtures that release more flavors. But catfish can even be fooled by a piece of soap, as it slowly dissolves and gives off a scent trail. These fish are far from connoisseurs!
Man-made Catfish Baits
With their acute sense of smell and open-minded palate, catfish are very vulnerable to an incredible array of artificial baits. The most popular artificially produce catfish baits including the following:
- dip baits
- punch bait
- dough baits
Many people label them all “stink baits” for obvious reasons. But there are substantial differences in their formulation and use.
In any case, keep them stored in the garage or outside storage that’s safe from varmints, as the scent has a way of creeping out of a sealed jar. Gagging is common among novice anglers! Nonetheless, there are hundreds of makers of prepared baits in the U.S. Some are garage operations that jar their secret mix for local bait shops. Others, like Catfish Charlie, Magic Bait, and Cat Tracker measure their monthly production in tons.
This category is probably the most common form of “stink bait,” with sales strong across the catfish belt of the Midwest and Central regions. These specially flavored mixtures have been perfected in the garage “labs” of bait makers for 100 years, testing it on local creeks and ponds.
Over the last 20 years, their use has gone viral, with dippin’ fans from the Carolinas to California. The inventors tend to be very secretive about their formulas, fearing rip-offs by some newcomer to the market. They’re a favorite for summer fishing, when catfish are most active and feeding heavily. The warm water also helps wash their potent formulas to nearby fish, bringing them to the baited hook. But some anglers fish it from early spring into winter.
Major catfish companies like Team Catfish, Cat Tracker, Uncle Josh, and Mr. Whiskers have promoted and distributed products nationally, as does Berkley, which has become a major player in catfish baits. Common ingredients include chicken livers and blood, rotten baitfish, cheese mixtures, shrimp, ground-up crayfish, and more. Often they’re allowed to more or less ferment to liquify and gain potency.
Popular options include the following:
- Team Catfish Super 7 Premium Dip Bait
- Catfish Charlie Extra Sticky Dip Bait
- Bill Dance Advantage Dip Bait
Fishing these baits requires use of some sort of carrier, such as a dip worm–much like a short ribbed plastic worm that’s hollow in the middle. Sponge-style holders also work well, and some are made from surgical tubing with holes cut in the sides.
Many dip worms are sold pre-rigged with a hook on a leader, which can be clipped onto a snap swivel and fished with a slip sinker. Many come tied with treble hooks, but more companies are using circle hooks to avoid hooking catfish deep in the gullet, which can kill them; but even if you’re harvesting your fish, removing the hook on a gut-hooked fish can take several minutes.
Catfish are easily hooked on circle hooks, since they keep pulling on a baited hook and hooksets are rarely needed. Push the carrier into the jar with a stick or other object to avoid getting the stuff on your fingers or clothes–particularly if you have any social plans in the near future! Another key is to make sure the dip worm is dry before sticking it back in the jar.
Otherwise, drops of water from each time you rebait eventually turn the mix to thin and runny. Keep a towel for that purpose nearby.
Punch baits have been a favorite bait style, especially in southern waters where anglers deal with very warm water. They’re simple to use and stay on the hook well without the use of dip worms or sponges used to hold dip baits.
Increased promotion of punch baits like the following have encouraged increased popularity of this bait type:
- Danny King’s Catfish Bait
- Team Catfish Sudden Impact Fiber Bait
- Magic Bait Stick It Punch Bait
- CJ’s Punch Bait
- Willie P. Richardson’s Punch Bait
- Rippin’ Lips baits
- Little Stinker Punch Baits
You simply push a No. 8 to No. 2 treble hook into a tub of Punch bait with a stick until it’s buried above the hook eye, then pull it out an an angle. The bait adheres to the hook and catches on the barbs. The stuff is thicker than dip bait so it doesn’t drip on your boat or clothes, which is a major plus! But at the same time, it’s not as quick to disperse in the water on a cast, so patience is needed to let it soak and attract catfish to it.
Punch bait, like other formulas, uses discretionary ingredients. After using a jar, drips of water from re-baiting can cause the mixture to get more runny, hurting its effectiveness. Expert suggest adding small amounts of cattail fuzz, dandelion fuzz, or bits of cotton balls to thicken it back up. Add gradually so it’s not too stiff. The key flavor ingredients are still present, but punch baits rely on their consistency as well.
Punch baits can be based on all sorts of attractive stuff, such as congealed blood, soured cheese, shad guts, mashed crawdads, as well as garlic and fruity flavors. Some are fouler than others to the human nose so try some and see what works best on your local waters.
Punch baits work well in moving water as well as reservoirs and ponds. Fish them on bottom rigs with an egg sinker set above a leader tied with a barrel swivel. In current, you can rig them on slip floats as well, so they drift along with the bait just above bottom. Blue catfish as well as channel cats find these most appetizing.
Guides love punch baits for their simplicity, ease of use, and effectiveness. They’re known more as baits for catching lots of eating-size fish, rather then lunker cats that usually go for larger baits.
These mixture are popular with catfish anglers who prefer to avoid the hassle and stench of stink baits and punch baits. These preformed doughy cubes or nuggets come in jars or zip-style pouches and can be threaded onto the hook. They’re flavored with cheese, blood, liver, shad, or other materials, but they’re never as pungent as the other styles of artificials.
Berkley offers several mixtures in their PowerBait chunks line, made with combinations of liver, blood, and fish. Gulp! Catfish Dough comes in three flavors of bloody chicken and shad, enhanced with formulas tested in their lab as attractive to catfish.
How to rig
To effectively make the best of these differing baits, we need the right combination of line, hook, sinker and sometimes a few extra accessories that can help accomplish the task. For this purpose, we recommend you read our article on the best rigs for catfish.
Chumming for Cats
In many regions, catfish guides, as well as commercial fishermen sweeten their favorite fishing holes by chumming. Anglers sometimes mix chicken, beef, or turkey blood or ground fish with seeds or wood chips that soak up the stuff. Pouring the stuff into a creek gets fish active and moving upstream to find the source, which is your baited hook.
In Texas, where cattle production is a huge enterprise, some anglers use range cubes to chum with. These commercial chunks are infused with minerals and vitamins and fed to the herd to supplement natural forage. Some folks place the cubes in a fish basket and lower it down on their spot and let the materials drift out. Others throw chunks in key areas and fish in the vicinity.
Note, that in many states, placing these organic materials in public waters is illegal and all chumming is banned in some jurisdictions, due to pollution regulations. In certain areas, guides and commercial fishermen clean their catch at marinas or boat ramps, throwing entrails and carcasses in the lake.
Catfish inevitably gather around to eat morsels, making it a hot spot. Again, this is off the table in states with stricter regulations. Be sure to check regulations before engaging in any sort of chumming.
You can also buy premade chum like Bill Dance’s Advantage Fish Chum.