Hardcore catmen are often quoted in this publication as being v-e-r-y particular about their bait. No wonder, then, that the topic of which bait is best is one that elicits strong opinions. Some catmen swear by cut chunks of fresh-caught skipjack, others by redworms or crawlers. To hear them tell it, if you ain't got the right bait, you're totally wasting your time.
This pathological bait fixation is dangerous business. I know guys who spend more time and energy gathering, preparing and maintaining bait than they spend actually fishing, thereby earning themselves the dubious title of "Master Baiter."
Although purists won't admit it, catfish can be caught on all sorts of store-bought staples: liver, stinky cheese, even Ivory soap.
I'll let you in on a little secret: catfish, by and large, really aren't all that darn picky about what they eat. These are not a bunch of food critics from Bon Appetit we're dealing with here. Catfish are buffet feeders, opportunistic predators with a hearty appetite for all sorts of dinner entrees — alive, once alive but now dead, and man-made. Regardless of what those so-called serious catmen tell you, you don't need a cast net or a shovel to come up with all the bait you can carry for a great catfishin' trip. You'll find a wide selection of taste-tempting catfish treats just down the road at your friendly neighborhood grocery store.
Although purists won't admit it, catfish can be caught on all sorts of store-bought staples: liver, stinky cheese, even Ivory soap. It took some digging, but we found three major-league catfishermen who routinely use grocery store baits and aren't too snooty to admit it. Y'all listen up now, for they're gonna tell you what to buy, how to rig it and where and when to fish it.
Legendary Tennessee catmeister Jim Moyer is one of the nation's most respected guides, a trusted authority on all aspects of catfishing. In the dead of winter, when he's hunting the Cumberland's giant blue cats, he won't mess with anything but plump, juicy chunks of skipjack caught on hook and line the very morning of the trip. But Moyer is a mellow sort of fellow, a guy who is never in so much of a hurry that he won't take time to tinker with alternative catfishing approaches.
"Yep, I'll use grocery story baits, but like Wirth said, mainly in warm weather when I'm not so intent on targeting giant blues," he says. "They're great for channel cats, but I've found that blues and flatheads much prefer fresh fish, either live or in fresh-cut chunks. Take hot dogs. I'm talking tube steaks, not those so-called catfish wieners that have been treated with fish attractant. Plain ol' all-American hot dogs. Great channel cat bait! All-beef hot dogs are good; so are those cheesy wieners. But I like to doctor 'em up a little for catfishing."
Using a cooking syringe, the kind commonly employed by chefs to inject butter or spices into poultry, Moyer mainlines his weenies with various liquid flavor enhancers including cod liver oil, anise oil or chicken blood. "Cut raw, injected hot dogs into 1-inch sections and thread 'em onto a reliable live bait hook like the Gamakatsu Octopus," he recommends. "Fish 'em on bottom just like you would any other cat bait. Good thing about hot dogs is, you can grill the ones you don't use for bait for lunch. Just bring along a hibachi, and don't forget the mustard."
While hitting your local Piggly Wiggly for a hot dog run, take a turn down Aisle 3 and pick up some canned pet food, Jim suggests. "Alpo and Puss 'n Boots -- both very good for channel cats. Cut a piece of surgical tubing just long enough to fit over the shank of a bait hook, pack it full of moist pet food and fish it on the bottom. Use canned pet food for chum, too."
Next stop: the dairy case. "Soft cheese will catch both catfish and trout," Jim knows. "Garlic cheese is a good choice. I like to mix in a little cayenne pepper or anise oil with my cheese. I'll fish this in a surgical tubing rig or mold it around a treble hook. You can buy trebles specially made for this application with little springs around the shank. It's cheaper to take the spring from an old ball point pen and use it to modify several hooks."
A word about treble hooks, especially the small sizes needed for soft grocery store baits: Moyer uses them only when he's after a mess of keeper-size cats for a fish fry. Catfish swallow trebles, making catch and release impossible.
I mentioned that biscuit dough, another dairy item, can be formed into doughballs for both catfish and carp. This reminds Jim of a story: "A woman in Mississippi comes out of a Safeway store on a hot day, puts her groceries in the back seat and goes to start her car. Suddenly a shot rings out and WHAM! she feels an impact on the back of her head. She reaches back, feels something warm and squishy, and panics. "Help!!" she screams. A man runs up and asks her what's wrong. 'I've been shot and my brains are running out the back of my head!!' she cries, holding the mushy mass in place with her hands. The guy flags down a police car. "What's the trouble?" the officer wonders. "I've been shot and my brains are running out the back of my head!' the woman replies hysterically. Seeing no blood, the cop leans in for a closer look and realizes what's happened: the tube of refrigerated biscuits in the woman's grocery sack has exploded in the hot car, sending the dough flying like it was shot from a cannon and striking her in the back of the head. True story."
Shrimp make awesome catfish bait. "See if you can talk the seafood clerk out of giving you the old shrimp that he was about to throw out," Jim suggests. "On the Cumberland in spring and summer, I'd rather have a jugline baited with shrimp than anything, but I can't catch anything on it when I fish it on the bottom. But on the Red River in Ontario, those big channels will absolutely wear shrimp out on a Carolina rig. Go figure."
Last stop: the meat counter. "Liver is a time-tested catfish bait," Moyer says. "Beef liver isn't as good as chicken liver; it bleeds out quickly in current and doesn't hold its scent or flavor. I know catmen who swear by turkey liver, but I've never tried it. Deer liver makes great chum. Let it sit for awhile until it sours, then toss it in the river to bait your hole."
Chicken livers work great, Moyer said. He offers this tip for fishing them: "Make a small sack out of a piece of panty hose to hold the livers, then work it around a treble hook."
Nashville catfish guide Donny Hall swears by turkey livers. "They're my #2 bait behind fresh-cut skipjack," he swears. "All the grocery stores around Kentucky Lake put 'em up in 30 pound bags for catfishermen. You may have to do some hunting to find them in a store in your area, but it'll be worth the trouble."
Hall likes livers in water above 65 degrees, which is when he finds the skipjack bite tapers off. He and his clients have caught many braggin'-size blues on them. "Last summer we caught blues weighing 40, 50, 60 and 75 pounds in two days on turkey livers at Kentucky Lake. There's no telling how many pounds of liver we went through."
The guide lets the turkey liver sit out in the sun during the course of the fishing day to toughen it up. He rigs it on a 5/0 Gamakatsu circle hook. "This is a perfect hook style for this application 'cause it holds liver very well, and as soon as they bite, they're hooked. This is a big help when I'm guiding inexperienced anglers, 'cause there's no hook set needed." Once rigged, he drops the livers straight down and bumps them along the bottom on deep, snaggy channel structure.
Donny has tried chicken livers, wieners and other grocery store baits and finds these mainly work for small channel cats. "For blues, it's skipjack in cold water, turkey livers in warm water, period."
Tennessee River catfish guide Phil "Little Catman" King also relies on liver to spark river catfish into action. "The last six trips I made below Pickwick Dam, we caught between 120 and 200 pounds of blue cats a day by bumping bottom with chicken livers. Most of these fish were 4 to 6 pounders; my biggest during this period on liver was a 26. My all-time best blue cat on liver is a 47-3/4 pounder. If you're looking for constant action and an occasional trophy fish, chicken livers rule."
The fresher the liver, the better, Phil says. "I've tried freezing livers and then letting them thaw or microwaving them, but I always do much better with fresh liver." King drifts with current and bumps his patented liver-baited double hook rig along the bottom, setting the hook hard when he detects resistance. "Some days they'll take liver real easy, other days they'll practically jerk the rod out of your hands," he claims.
For casting from a boat or the bank, turkey or rooster livers rigged on a treble hook work far better than chicken livers, King says. "They're a lot tougher so you won't fling them off the hook as easily. You'll probably have to scour around back-country markets to find these, but they work great."
King occasionally uses red food color to enhance the liver's appeal. "Catfish see red and they think two things: it's either fresh blood or a gill flash. Either way, they're gonna feed."
Phil says liver definitely works better in clear water than murky water. "I've tried and I can't catch 'em on the Mississippi using my chicken liver rig, but when we've got 4 to 6 foot visibility on the Tennessee, it's a done deal."