Now that the waters are warm and the catfish are active, people are flocking to their local waterways with the things they value most… friends, family, and beer. Summer is a time known for get-togethers, cookouts, and in the fishing community, fish fries. Catfish are typically the fish of choice when having fish fries as the species is abundant, can grow to be relatively large and possess a white, flakey, boneless filet. If the cook knows what he is doing in the kitchen in regards to meat preparation and care everyone will have a grand time at chowing down on the classic American dish of fried catfish.
Now that I have enticed some of you readers to get off of the couch and go outside to create your own summertime feast, I will take the time to give you some of my favorite fishing baits so that you too may increase your odds of catching the sum of fish needed to impress and feed the people at your next summertime fish fry. I know it may seem unappealing to think about food and bait in the same writing sequence, but I assure you that the two are interconnected. If there is no bait, there is no fish, if there is no fish then there is no fish fry, etc., etc.
Throughout my times fishing for catfish, I have tried a little bit of everything in the book for bait when it comes to fishing for catfish, but every location is different and I assure you that catfish at the lake have a much different standard of eating than the catfish in muddy rivers in streams. It makes sense as to why the two bodies of water would change the preference of the species as the two ecosystems are completely different. It would be like giving someone from Delhi, India a Twinkie and wondering why they don’t like it or want more.
Regardless of each ecosystem having their own preference to what the fish within would like to eat, I think it is advantageous to not put all of your eggs in one basket and bring/find another option for bait when going out at night or in the morning. I have had good luck with all of the bait I mention below, but recommend that when trying out fishing keep bait selection as cheap and simple as you can as that is usually what works best. I highlight why live baits such as night crawlers, minnows + and cut bait such as bluegill, shad are better than some more common baits that you see on YouTube.
1. Night Crawlers
Night Crawlers are the classic multi-species bait that seems to work for a majority of the gamefish and non-game fish here in the Midwest and North America. Canadian night crawlers are what you will typically find in the bait fridges at much of the bait and tackle shops across America, but many people do dig for their own worms in their backyard. These worms are what catfish are looking for on the muddy floors of rivers and streams and within the rocks and crevasses between lake beds.
The absolute size and mass of the worm are what make it appetizing to the fish. It also helps that the worms are very active for a while after being on the hook, sealing the deal for any fish passing your line by based on the smell of the worm.
One con to using this bait though is that eventually your worm gets either nibbled off of your hook by other smaller fish or it just becomes mush and falls off due to being oversaturated with water. Despite this one annoyance, I tend to always bring this bait with me finishing no matter what as it is always a go to and allows you to potentially catch both catfish as well as other fish that you can use for bait if you have a rod set up for it.
2. Bluegill Cut/Strip Bait
Bluegill cut/strip bait is what many anglers claim to be their go to when out on the banks and on the water. It works so well because catfish are scavengers (though they will eat living fish) and this makes the presentation of the bait natural and appealing due to lack of energy required to eat. The blood and guts from the cut bait seems to attract a number of large fish like sharks. For those who do not know already, cut bait is typically large chunks of a panfish (bluegill/sunfish type of fish) or a non-game “trash fish” (typically bycatch) like one of the carp species or drum. Strip bait is composed of the same fish species typically, but instead of cutting large chunks of meat you almost fillet the sides of the fish and cut the fillets into small pieces or strips.
This bait used to always be my go to when fishing small ponds and manmade lakes/reservoir, but I have moved away from depending on it as I have found it to sometimes be inconsistent when trying new spots and attracting turtles to your bait, which can be frustrating. This bait, much like the worm also does degrade as it is in the water, though the overall integrity of the bait will hold on, the meat on it will eventually get mushy and fall off and need to be replaced.
3. Gizzard Shad
Gizzard shad is one of the most common catfish baits I have heard of outside of the top two I previously mentioned. Using shad has made a once quiet spot turn active in my experience. You typically only see people using this bait like cut bait as I described above. The bait works and is abundant at a large portion of water ways across the United States if you are interested in catching and saving your own bait for your fishing trips to save a few bucks.
The bad part about using gizzard shad is obtaining gizzard shad if from shore. It is not impossible, but since the fish are filter feeders they are typically eating only phytoplankton and zooplankton and maybe some algae. This means that you will not have much luck trying to catch these fish with a rod and reel, leaving the only other option as using a cast net. This is not an issue if fishing in clear water with little objects or obstruction in the water from a boat, but from the shore you may find yourself throwing your net on top of a submerged branch or log and getting snagged.
One thing I have noticed while crappie fishing was that when using live minnows for bait on small Aberdeen hooks was that if you weren’t catching crappie, you were probably catching white bass or a channel cat. Using live minnows on hooks may seem inhumane, until you start catching nice eating sized catfish in the morning. They take those little fish as if they aren’t going to eat ever again.
Minnows are nice because, depending on your state regulations, you can either harvest minnows in shallow streams or creeks (if they are not a protected species) or use your own bait. You can also buy some shiners or fathead minnows at a local bait shop for a relatively affordable price. They are also relatively inexpensive as a dozen or two will typically last you an entire morning if fishing with only one or two people.
Minnows are great bait, but they are constantly being stolen or eaten by other fish such as blue gill and turtles. They can also fly off of your hook when going for a long cast into deeper water. Make sure that you hook them either through their mouth and their nose, or above their spine as to ensure you have them hooked well on there.
5. Chicken Liver
Chicken liver is another affordable and easy to obtain bait that many anglers seem to live by. In all honesty, chicken liver is what I caught my biggest catfish on when fishing with my friend Jake in high school along a river. It is meaty and bloody enough to attract many creatures within the pond or river, yet easy to buy at most groceries stores or bait shops.
One of the cons about using chicken liver in my opinion is that it falls off of the hook and attracts turtles. Two ways you can combat it from falling off of your hook is by using some type of pantyhose leggings and dropping the liver in there and typing it off and attaching it to your hook. I have moved away from this method as I try to reduce the amount of plastic or nylon that I am potentially losing in the water when fishing as to prevent pollution. The second way you can keep this bait on the hook is by using a treble hook and getting all of the liver equally hooked on every side you can to prevent it from getting picked off or falling off over time.
There are a lot of good catfish baits out there, way more than I listed, but on the contrary there are way more baits that aren’t that good that people seem to live by that I won’t list as to prevent new anglers from wasting their time with baits that are more expensive and gross to deal with than the live/cut bait I mentioned. It is important to keep your bait selection versatile and as simple as possible as to allow room for picky fish and to keep cost of fishing as low as can be.
Some of the best baits out there can be found for free or only at the cost of your effort and time. Catfish are scavengers and will eat anything I listed above if it is placed in their face for a long enough time. Just keep an open mind and your chances of success will be way higher this summer. I hope everyone reading takes not and gets to have their annual little family fish fry this summer.