Several years ago while sifting through questions that had been sent in by email I realized that there was one question that was asked over and over again and that’s people wanting to know what the best catfish bait is.
I quit counting emails at 257 before I finally gave up.
Theres slight variations in each of these questions based on types of catfish, different bodies of water etc., but they all go something like this……
What’s the best catfish bait for fishing in ____________:
What’s the best catfish bait for ___________:
- Blue Catfish
- Channel Catfish
- Flathead Catfish
- Catching big monster trophy catfish.
Looking through these questions about the best catfish bait I realized 99% of them provide no species information and lump “catfish” into one group instead of asking about the species they plan to target.
Catfish Is Not a Catfish Is Not a Catfish
The approach to fishing for blue cats is very different than that of fishing for channels and flatheads.
They’re all very different species with very different food preferences and habits and require a different plan of attack, catfish rigs, bait selections and techniques.
While it’s highly possible to be fishing for blues and catch channels, developing a specialized approach and using the right bait for the right species will greatly increase your success and often make the difference between fishing and catching.
Make sure you read up on the types of catfish so you have a better understanding of their behaviors, preferences and differences between each one.
The Basic Guide To Selecting The Best Catfish Bait
There’s many variables in fishing and often no absolutes. Many things you’ll encounter whe fishing for catfish will leave you with more questions that answers and leave you spending more time trying to learn more.
Catfish baits are no different.
I could go on for days and talk about all of the random “one off” catfish baits that I’ve had thrown at me over the years from chicken breast soaked in vanilla, to aluminum foil and leather soaked in WD–40.
Just because you catch a fish on something once doesn’t mean it’s a good bait. The world is full of one hit wonders and catfish baits are no different.
This isn’t the encyclopedia of baits, it’s about the best catfish baits so you’ve got access to some quick, down and dirty tips to help you catch more and bigger catfish.
After over fifteen years as a professional catfish guide I’ve seen and heard of more fad baits that everyone claims are the best, I’ve had more homemade concoctions passed on to me that I care to think about and I’ve tried just about everything there is to try for bait.
One thing remains the same though, catfish baits are simple and you shouldn’t overcomplicate them.
If you start out using one of these tried and true baits you’ll catch more cats!
Best Catfish Bait For Blue Catfish
In most cases this will be threadfin shad, gizzard shad or skipjack herring.
It’s not uncommon to find blue cats with their bellies engorged with shad or skipjack and absolutely stuffed. It’s common to find them so full of bait fish they they regurgitate them or even have them hanging out of their mouths.
Most experienced blue cat anglers refer to them as “opportunistic predators” which is a fancy term that means they will eat dead or live bait. The bait of choice is almost always going to be their primary food source, which in most lakes is going to be shad or skipjack herring.
Fresh caught shad or skipjack is the best catfish bait choice for blues in most cases.
Fresh baits will out fish frozen baits almost every day of the week and twice on Sunday in most instances. There are some exceptions but they’re rare exceptions in my opinion.
Threadin and gizzard shad can be fished whole wormed onto a hook, or cut into chunks. Skipjack are typically larger than shad and can be used whole for targeting large trophy class fish, For smaller blues skipjack is cut into strips or chunks tailored to the size catfish you’re targeting.
In the event that shad (or skipjack) are not present in a lake or river (which would be highly unlikely in a water body with a thriving population) then the best choice for catfish bait is going to be their primary food source in that body of water.
The second choice to fresh caught whole or cut shad is any other sort of freshly caught cut bait.
Fish that are commonly used for cut bait for catfish include:
- Carp (both common carp and asian carp)
- Drum (also called Gaspergou)
These baits can often work as well as shad or skipjack but my experience has always been they’re not as consistent. I typically use these as my primary bait as a last resort but often bait hooks with these baits in addition to fresh shad.
A good rule to follow when choosing a fish to use for cut bait is the oilier the fish the better it will work (both shad and skipjack are very oily fish).
Prepared catfish baits like dip and punch baits can be used for blues. Whether this is a good choice is highly dependent on the catfishing techniques you’re using. It’s possible to catch blue catfish with prepared “stink” baits but most serious anglers won’t use them as cut baits will outperform these manufactured baits for catching blues but they can be effective given the right approach and technique.
What about live bait?
I’ve targeted blues with live shad, perch and bluegill and know others that do as well. It’s not something I practice, at least as a “preferred technique”.
Over the years I have used live and dead bait side by side and in almost every instance have found that blues will hit fresh dead bait (whole or cut) just as well as they will live.
The process (and equipment) of keeping shad and other baitfish alive is in my opinion an unnecessary task for this species.
If you are dead set on buying or building a bait tank, going through the trials and hassles of keeping shad alive go right ahead but I can honestly say that it will have little to no impact on your success a majority of the time.
There is no magic bullet bait that you can buy.
I constantly hear debates from anglers trying to cut corners because they don’t want to invest the time to learn how to throw a cast net, pattern shad and catch their own fresh bait.
There’s no workarounds to success when catching bait for blue cats. Don’t overanalyze it, it’s really not that difficult and learning how to locate and catch shad will help you catch fish also.
Get a cast net (and make sure you choose the right one), learn to throw it, invest in a fish finder (if fishing from a boat) and learn to catch your own bait. With a little time on the water you’ll learn the essentials and some tips and tricks to help you catch more shad.
If you’re fishing in waters that have skipjack populations then get some lightweight rods and reels, stock up on Sabiki Rigs and get out there and start catching skipjack.
This will contribute 2000% percent more to your success catching blues than the time you are investing looking for the “next best thing”. Put your energy into learning to do it the right way instead of focusing your energy on trying to cut corners.
Bottom line, if you want to fish for blue catfish finding and catching fresh bait is part of the deal. If you learn how to pattern bait fish all year long, and how to catch them the rest just falls into place.
This process alone teaches you a LOT about learning to pattern fish.
Best Catfish Bait For Channel Catfish
When I’m fishing for channel catfish i’m after numbers. I catch some bigger channels using these techniques but my goal is shear numbers of keeper sized catfish because we simply don’t have good populations of large channel catfish in Texas.
Channel catfish are scavengers. They’ll feed on live (or fresh dead) bait they like easy meals that they don’t have to work for and they’re driven by their strong sense of smell and “taste”. They’ll feed from sight and sound also and have keen senses that are above and beyond many other species of fish.
For catching numbers of channel catfish the best catfish baits are prepared baits, like dip and punch baits.
Dip baits are a thin consistently and you’ll use a small tube, worm or sponge to hold the bait on the hook.
Punch baits are much thicker and get their name from the process used to bait the hook. You take a bare treble hook and “punch” the hook into the bait and then pull the hook from the bucket with a loaded hook.
Both will work for catching numbers of channel catfish but I’ve always preferred punch baits as they’re much cleaner to fish with and eliminate the need for using the tubes, sponges and worms to hold bait.
There’s a number of good brands available including:
- CJ’s Catfish Punch Bait
- Sure Shot Catfish Punch Bait
- Sudden Impact Fiber Bait from Team Catfish
If you can’t catch channel catfish with a good punch or dip bait then you’re fishing in the wrong place or they’re just not biting. Most often rigging with a slip bobber or the Secret Catfish Rig and fishing with some lightweight gear and finesse techniques you’ll have no problem catching some big numbers of channel cats.
These stinky concoctions accomplish two things.
First they have a very strong smell that attracts catfish almost immediately but they also break down in the water and that scent carries throughout the water and attracts more catfish into the area.
They’re absolutely deadly for producing numbers of channel cats and are hands down the best catfish baits for catching numbers of channel catfish.
Baits For Big Channel Cats
Channel cats will also bite fresh dead shad, perch, bluegill used whole or in chunks as well as minnows and a variety of other dead and live baits.
Natural baits are going to be a better option if your goal is to catch larger channel catfish. The right bait for catching bigger channel cats is just like that you’ll use for blue cats, just typically used in smaller sizes.
For day in and day out effectiveness and truly being successful catching lots of numbers of smaller channel cats on a regular basis the stinky concoctions are my preference. I rarely see a need to use anything else.
Grocery Store Baits
Many anglers that target channel catfish use what I call “grocery store baits”, things like chicken livers, turkey livers, hot dogs, shrimp and a variety of other items.
While there’s times these can be good baits, I steer people away from them. The simple reason for this is if you’re after numbers if they won’t hit a good prepared concoction you’re in the wrong area. If you’re after size natural baits will typically prove much more effective.
Buffet Of Channel Cat Baits
You don’t have to carry a buffet with you, don’t over think it. The numbers of people that are carrying along a half dozen different channel catfish baits always amazes me.
If you’re investing that much time and energy into trying all of these different baits and you’re not catching fish, you’re wasting a lot of energy, time and money.
Invest your energy in locating the catfish and learning how to pattern them. In the end you’ll catch far more fish putting one bait in the right area than you will putting a half dozen baits in the wrong area.
Good “Stink” Baits (Prepared Baits)
I hate the term “stink bait”. These manufactured baits stink to the person using them but to a channel cat they’re a strong trail of sensory overload.
There’s a lot of really great prepared baits in stores and some really bad ones also. The mass marketed baits that aren’t so good give people the impression that none of these types of baits work.
I’ve used just about everything on the market over the years and found that the following baits work best and consistently produce catfish for me.
- CJ’s Catfish Punch Bait (every flavor I’ve tried has worked)
- Sure Shot Catfish Punch Bait
- Sudden Impact Fiber Bait
I’m not saying that others don’t work.
I’m not saying that there are not other good products out there.
I’m saying that when rod and reel fishing if I can’t catch channel cats with one of these products they’re not biting. Just pick one, learn to use it and when the confidence develops the rest will fall into place.
You can always make your own catfish bait also but I’ve always preferred to just buy something that I know works.
Best Catfish Bait For Flathead Catfish
If you’re going to target flatheads there’s a couple of simple rules:
- You have to have good hearty and lively bait and learn to keep it alive and healthy.
- You have to be willing to spend a lot of time on the water.
Flathead catfishing is not a fast and furious sport for most anglers where you can expect to go out and catch 5, 10, 20 or 30 in a given trip. It just doesn’t work that way because of the populations of these fish and the nature of the fish.
Most anglers that are really hardcore about catching flatheads consider one to two fish in a day or night to be a good trip. Those “good trips” are often the exception as there are often outings without a catch at all. There’s always exceptions though and you’ll have better days (or nights) if you put the time in.
Live bait can be purchased in many bait and tackle shops. To save money and get the best baits build or buy a good perch trap or catch them on rod and reel. Learn to catch your chosen bait, learn to keep them alive and hearty for long periods of time and start catching some flatheads.
Cut Bait For Flathead Catfish
I get called out by “textbook” anglers all the time when I talk about cut bait for flathead catfish. These are the people who’ve ready time and time again that to catch flathead catfish you must use live baits and they won’t eat anything else.
Experience says otherwise. Not only my experience but the experience of a growing number of anglers across the country.
I’ve seen cut bait perform well for flathead catfish many times and the biggest flatheads I catch traditionally come from them.
There’s a direct correlation between moving water and or moving baits and the flathead bite.
If you’re fishing rivers or lakes with moving current that movement alone will often encourage them to bite. Using techniques with some movement to the bait like drift fishing, trolling, controlled drifting or even anchoring using a “drop and drop” technique will often produce flathead catfish bites also.
I’m not discounting the need for live bait and if fishing on anchor in still water. I won’t debate that live bait is typically the best choice either but If you’re fishing current or using techniques that create movement of the baits don’t be afraid to mix in some cut bait with your live baits for flathead cats.
You might be surprised at what happens when you add cut bait to your presentation for flatheads in the right environment.
There’s Always Exceptions
Typically when I write something like this I get bombarded with questions and comments from the “what about’s” who has a buddy that “wore them out” one day on a piece of bubble gum or some other off the wall concoction.
These are the exceptions and not the rule. If you put something in front of a hungry fish, even a bare hook, chances are you’ll get bit. The best and most consistent results however will come from using a tried and true bait that’s known to work.
Investing time and energy researching the exceptions to find that “magic bullet” is a total waste of time and energy.
You’re much better off spending your time fishing and learning, studying maps or countless other activities that are going to be much more productive.
Match The Hatch
In the end regardless of what you choose to put on your hooks there’s a golden rule to follow, “match the hatch”.
You may have heard this before from bass anglers or fly fisherman and it’s true for catfishing also.
Whats it mean to “match the hatch”?
- Find what they’re feeding on
- Use what they are feeding on for bait or use something that mimics what they’re feeding on.
- Present it in a manner that looks natural
- Regardless of what techniques you’re using or how you’re presenting your baits, these tried and true options provided will usually catch cats.
Just remember the action or technique often has more impact than the bait itself.
Here’s some examples:
I was fishing with clients in a creek with large trees and grapevines hanging over the water. Every once and a while I’d see a large swirl around the area .
I realized it was catfish feeding on the muscadine grapes that would occasionally fall off the vines. I trolled into the area and flipped some punch bait into the area and we caught a few catfish.
I got curious, went across the creek and picked some grapes off a vine and rigged them up weightless on some light line. I flipped them up into the same area, catching a fish almost every time i’d cast.
I was matching the hatch and the action created by the grapes falling off the vines. I’d never go out and fish in the middle of the lake with a bag of grapes however because that’s what the fish were feeding on it worked! I was just in the right place at the right time and thinking on my feet.
Cats On The Fries
There’s s a marina at one of my local lakes where I was waiting on clients. There were people sitting on the dock eating and they were throwing french fries to the ducks.
Every once and a while I’d see a big swirl under the water and could see the channel cats moving around. My clients showed up and I went and bought four orders of french fries inside the marina.
I took some fries and got the ducks attention. and then rigged french fries weightless on a light weight line and flipped them out around the docks. We proceeded to sit there and catch fifteen or twenty channel catfish in short order.
Would french fries work for catching fish at any location? Probably not but when there’s fish in the area and that’s what their feeding on you match the hatch.
Read The Water, Catch More Catfish
You need to constantly read the water around you. Pay attention to how, when and where the fish are feeding when you start having activity. Try to match the hatch in addition to recreating the action and you’ll catch more fish.
The Secrets To Success Aren’t Really Secrets At All
Having the right bait at the right time and place is one portion of being a successful angler and the quest to choose the best catfish bait is quite simple as I’ve outlined here.
Stop focusing your energy on finding that next magic bullet and stick with one of the simple and effective proven baits I’ve outlined for your target species.
Get On The Fast Track
If you’d like to shorten your learning curve and get on the fast track to catching catfish check out some of the Catfish Edge products. These in depth resources walk you step by step through everything you need to know to catch more and bigger catfish using specific techniques (like drift fishing or splat fishing) or during specific seasons (like catching blues in the spring or channel cats in the summer).