Catfish are diverse and thrive in waters from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico to California. These big freshwater fish eat almost anything they find, from plant life to smaller catfish.
Most species of catfish, from flathead to blue, are apex predators, making them aggressive in pursuit of wriggling live baits. However, as a catfish’s entire body is covered in olfactory sensors, highly pungent artificial baits are extremely successful.
Before you head out to catch catfish for a summer fry, be sure to research which bait is most effective in catching catfish in your area.
1. Chicken Livers
Chicken livers are traditionally the best way to catch catfish if you’re fishing in deeper waters. Livers remain fresh for 15 to 20 minutes before losing some of their appealing scent, so rebait your rigs frequently.
Despite being affordable and highly successful at reeling in small to mid-sized catfish, livers are notoriously challenging to bait up. The texture of the liver makes it slip off the hook, so most veteran catfishermen recommend using a treble hook and avoiding fast-action snap casts in favor of a gentle lob.
2. Asian Carp
You may have heard of Asian carp being an invasive species in U.S. waterways, but you can use them as carp bait for catfish. They were first introduced in aquaculture ponds and have multiplied at an alarming pace. Many states have banned their use and collection due to their widespread proliferation.
While Asian carp may be bad news for your local river, they are good news for catties who have started gorging themselves and developed a taste for this pernicious pest. If using Asian carp for bait is legal in your area, you can cut them into filets as cut bait for catfish. Carp is naturally oily, giving off plenty of scent and attracting big blue and channel cats.
When fishing for catties, crawfish are an overlooked live bait that are delicacies for various catfish species. You can rig crawfish either live or dead. Hook a live crawdad through the base of its tail or remove the head and string the entire crawfish body on the hook. If using dead crawfish, add a weight or a swivel to give your rig some spin.
Crawfish are better to catch on your own than buying them in-store, and most anglers can easily find live crawdads under rocks close to streams or by setting a simple trap baited with chicken parts. No matter the type of catfish, they are all drawn to live crawfish; however, crawfish are also enjoyed by other fish species, so be cautious when you feel a bite.
Otherwise known as earthworms, nightcrawlers are popular bait across the fishing world. It’s not just because of their convenience (you can find them right outside in your garden), it’s also because many species, including catfish, love nightcrawlers.
This wriggly bait is favored by a slew of scaled species like bass, crappie, breem, perch, carp and, especially, catfish. For bigger fish, you have to use long worms, but their flexibility makes it simple to loop them over a circle hook securely to make an enticing bait for a catfish.
5. Stink Bait
Although catfish love this type of bait, you have to handle it carefully. Catfish have an extraordinarily keen sense of smell, and those fish that live deep in channels have even more evolved olfactory senses.
A variety of stink baits are available commercially, while many anglers make their own special stink bait. It’s a conglomeration of stinky materials (ones that smell like the catfish’s regular prey) that are soured and fermented until they’re especially pungent.
Dip a sponge bait into this vile concoction and quickly toss it to a waiting catfish. As the scent disperses into the current, catfish downstream will chase down the source like sharks when they smell blood, giving you an opportunity to bag them.
6. Punch Bait
This type of bait is similar to stink bait but not quite so aromatic. Dip baits are another addition to this unique class of catfish bait, but those in which you dip a hook are liquid, whereas punch bait is solid.
Using cheese and dough as a base, punch bait includes lots of fibers like cotton, fur or cattail fluff to make it solid enough to hold onto your hook. You can also add fish or attractants to up the smell factor.
When your punch bait is ready, simply punch a treble hook (#8 works best) through the crust and into the mixture. Work it deep into the sticky goo and then pull it out at an angle. The barbs should be chock full of the messy, stinky punch bait and ready for casting.
7. Blood Bait
If you like going deep to get at the monster cats, you may want to switch to a blood bait. Catfish track their prey by scent, and nothing stirs them up like the possibility of a wounded meal up ahead.
Along with blood, which you can buy at many tackle shops, you may want to mix in a coagulant like brown sugar and let it sit under the sun to harden so you can easily put it on a hook. It takes a lot of effort, but the fish will bite hard if it smells blood in the current.
The combination of blood with skipjack herrings, for instance, can attract larger cats. Blood baits also perform well in shallow waters with low current.
These compact, convenient shellfish are some of the catfish’s favorite meals and are easy to get on your hook. Leave the hook tip exposed when pushing the shrimp through, starting at the head.
If catfish like the scent of shrimp in the water, they will love the smell of spoiled shrimp. Allowing the fish to go bad adds a distinctive aroma that drives cats wild. After letting the shrimp spoil, freeze them for later use.
9. Skipjack Herring
Slightly bigger than shad, skipjack herring is a great bait when you’re going after the big cats. They’re not commonly found as bait as they used to be found in coastal waters, but now they are cultivated in reservoirs and used in catfish tournaments. For smaller catfish, they can be chopped up into smaller, bite-sized chunks, while for bigger ones, you can use whole skips on large hooks.
Younger catfish are scrappy and eat just about anything. However, the older a cat gets, the more refined its taste becomes, which often means that the bigger, older cats prefer fresh bait like shad or skipjack herring.
10. White Suckers
White suckers are known in the angling world as a no-fail bait for catfish. Catfish love to eat smaller fish, even some that are part of the same family, and they find white suckers especially delectable.
You need to distinguish between wild-caught and raised white suckers. Those raised with no predatory threats aren’t as skittish when they’re used as bait, and it’s usually the reflexive thrust away from the predator that gets the catfish snapping.
Catch your own white suckers, or make sure that if you buy raised white sucker bait, that they’ve been raised in a pond with a big flathead to make sure they’re wary when they hit the channel.
Don’t throw away the suckers’ nose or tail parts because big catfish will consume all of them.
Choose the Best Catfish Bait for Your Area
The most effective way to catch a monster catfish is to find the best bait for your area. Talk with the locals or those who run the bait shop, and they may be able to point you to what the areas anglers typically use.
Knowing your prey’s behavior, and especially their favorite food, is half the battle. The other half is having the right high-performance gear to help you keep your cool when battling a river monster. Before you hit the channel for your next big trophy, visit Mossy Oak first to outfit yourself with the best fishing apparel and accessories.