Frozen shad is always a topic of great debate among catfish anglers.
Can you catch catfish with frozen shad, maybe.
Is it the best choice for catfish bait, probably not.
Hardcore blue catfish anglers are usually very particular (and opinionated) about their preferred baits. There’s no argument that fresh shad and skipjack herring reigns supreme among catfish anglers followed by some form of fresh cut bait (carp, drum, buffalo, white perch etc).
Catfishing, especially for blues and flatheads is an investment. It’s not like fishing for those green lipped, sucker mouth trash fish (largemouth bass) where you can run out and buy a bag of triple ripple flipper wizards in nine different colors and start fishing.
Having the right catfish bait is an investment. For flathead cats that often means fishing for live bait and for blue catfish it means catching fresh bait.
This process of having the right bait alone will “make or break” many catfish anglers. Catter’s all over the country spend countless hours on the water to catch fresh bait and many drive hundreds of miles to catch bait in extreme circumstances, all for fresh baits.
I’ve talked a lot about locating and catching shad, how it relates to catching blue cats and fishing with it and one thing I’ve avoided is the topic of using frozen shad for catfish bait or freezing shad.
It wasn’t an oversight, I’m not a fan of frozen shad for catfish bait.
Is fresh shad really that much better than frozen shad when it comes to catching blue catfish?
The short answer is yes!
We’re Talking Fresh Vs’ Frozen Shad, Not Skipjack Herring
Now, every time I approach this topic the naysayers come out of the woodwork and talk about freezing bait and fishing with frozen shad and try to dispel my argument.
- I won’t argue that many people have caught fish with frozen shad.
- I won’t argue that frozen shad is better than not having any bait at all.
- I won’t say you can’t catch catfish with frozen shad.
I’m not talking about skipjack herring, I’m talking about Threadfin and Gizzard shad. While skipjack is a form of shad, they are much heartier and freeze better than threadfins and gizzards do.
Just forget about skipjack herring for now.
Is Fresh Shad Really Better Than Frozen Shad?
Now as I said, frozen shad is better than not having any catfish bait at all but if given the option of having fresh or frozen shad, fresh will almost always win.
After fifteen years as a catfish guide I’ve tested fresh bait against frozen time and time again and fresh almost always wins. There’s been a few exceptions, very few and it’s something that requires a specific time of year and a very specific set of circumstances. It also lasts for a very brief period of time.
The other 350 days of the year, fresh shad is best for catfish bait.
So what exactly is “fresh”? In most cases less than 24 hours old. In some instances it can and will last longer but for the most part my preference is to have fresh bait caught the day I am fishing (or the night before).
I never head into a fishing trip with the intentions of using frozen shad for blue cats and in the last fifteen years I’ve used frozen shad for bait very few times.
Bottom Line: Do the work, catch fresh shad (or at least try) don’t just “settle” for frozen shad.
Locating and catching shad for bait is a fairly simple process. Most of the time catching fresh shad is not difficult. There are times where it can be work like in the dead of winter and during transition periods, but most of the time locating and catching shad is not a big deal.
Plus the process of learning to be successful finding and catching shad is part of the quest, it helps you learn how to pattern blues.
There’s really no reason you can’t catch fresh threadfins or gizzards all year long if you’re willing to do the work and put the time in. It might not be convenient, you might have to invest more time that you’d like but it’s worth the effort.
You might have to get up earlier, drive further or out of the way (by boat or by car) or go out the night before you plan on catfishing to catch your bait. If you want fresh bait, you can catch it.
Why Is Fresh Shad Better Than Frozen Shad?
There are two problems freezing Threadfin and Gizzard Shad.
It Loses “It”
What’s “it”? I wish I could tell you what “it” is. Something happens to shad when you freeze it that causes it to be less effective. Fres shad is also less effective after it’s more than 24 hours old.
My thought has always been that it’s due to a change in the amino acids (and the scent) but that’s only speculation on my part.
It Gets Soft
The other issue with frozen shad is it gets soft once it’s frozen.
Even fresh shad gets soft and gets to a point where it will not stay on a hook well over a period of time. Frozen shad however is noticeably softer and can be very difficult to keep on the hook. at all.
The bigger problem is that frozen shad is simply not as effective as fresh, and won’t catch as many fish.
Does How Shad Are Frozen Matter?
I’d love to be able to give you some magic formula to make frozen shad work but it simply doesn’t exist.
I’ve tried just about every “trick” and recipe for freezing them and none of them work that I’ve found. These solutions usually claim to make them more effective or keep them from getting soft and “mushy”, but they simply don’t work.
I put forth significant time and effort years ago into finding some sort of “magic bullet” solution.
I’ve tested different methods of freezing and additives and used variations of fresh and frozen bait side by side in attempts to find some “trick”, recipe or formula that would work, but again nothing ever produces as well as fresh caught shad. In fact, nothing has ever even come close.
There’s mornings when it is 20 degrees outside and I’m in the dark freezing my rear off throwing a cast net and pondering some sort of solution to freezing shad.
Despite everything I have ever tried nothing comes close to working to my satisfaction, fresh is best.
I keep a couple of bags of frozen bait around in the winter “just in case” I get into a situation where I cannot catch fresh bait, but never end up using it.
I learned this lesson the hard way one February after I tore up three cast nets in one morning and didn’t have any nets left , leaving me dead in the water with no bait.
I’ve heard countless theories and techniques for freezing shad over the years and everyone claims that their technique is the best (and works better) but I’ve tested them all and none of them work any better than another (or are worth the effort).
Some of the more discussed and well known processes are:
Kool-Aid: Mixing up a batch of cherry kool-aid that is half strength (adding half the water as suggested) and adding this mixture to the shad and freezing them in Ziplock bags.
Sugar: This one involves catching fresh shad and dropping them on a piece of shag carpet and letting them flip around on the carpet (the theory is this helps remove the slime) and then once they’ve flopped all around they are placed in a bucket. A large heaping handful of brown sugar is added to the bucket and they are stirred up by hand really well and coated in the brown sugar and then frozen in Ziplock bags.
Vacuum Sealing These range from using a Foodsaver or other similar vacuum sealing device to using a the cheaper version of these which is a Ziplock vacuum sealing kit (basically a Ziplock bag with a fitting and a small pump). These all hinge around removing as much liquid as possible from the bag before freezing.
Brine Shad: This involves immediately dropping the shad into a cooler packed with salt and ice and then freezing them in bags. There’s many variatios but the end goal is all the same. You’re catching shad, getting them cold quickly and keeping them cold until you freeze them. The real benefit of this is your’e rapidly cooling the shad to stop them from decompising and salt is a preservative.
I’ve tried kool aid, vacuum sealing and brine solutions and found them all to not be worth the effort. I’ve not personally tried the carpet and sugar method but have seen it done and used the bait, again not worth the time.
The brine solution method is popular amongst anglers who use skipjack for bait and they claim it works well. I’ve tried it with shad and was less than impressed. If you’re freezing skipjacks it might be worth your while to try if you’re compelling to try frozen skipjack.
How To Freeze Shad
The best route is to use fresh bait but if you’re dead set on freezing some (for whatever reason) then here’s what to do.
First, learn to throw a cast net and at least try to catch bait every time you fish.
You don’t know if you don’t try, right?
Put forth some effort, you might just surprise yourself.
If you are dead set on fishing with frozen bait or keeping some “emergency backup” around “just in case” (nothing wrong with that) follow these simple rules:
- Shad freeze better in the cooler weather. Catch and freeze them when the weather is cooler.
- Target Gizzard Shad and try to catch the biggest you can find. They’re larger, heartier and they freeze better.
- Catch the largest Threadfin Shad you can catch as an alternative. The bigger the better.
- After catching your bait immediately drop them in a bait bucket and drain the excess slime off them.
- Once they slime has drained immediately put them on ice and keep them cold.
- Add the bait fish and ice in layers so they stay good and cold at all times.
- Transfer them from ice to ziplock bags in small quantities and work quickly.
- Fill the bags with small quantities (about 1/3 full with the bag held upright) so they are in a single layer when the bag is laid flat.
- Crack the seal on the bag and force any excess air out.
- Lay the bags on their side in the freezer (lay them flat) for freezing.
- Don’t waste any time the trick is getting them cold quickly and keeping them cold after you catch them.
Storing Fresh Shad
- When throwing the cast net, dump the shad in a bait bucket.
- Once you’ve finished catching shad use your cast net to cover the bait bucket and drain the excess slime and water.
- Immediately remove the shad from the bucket and place in ziplock bags.
- Fill the bags about 1/3 or 1/2 of the way full and spread them out.
- Immediately put the bags on ice, if possible ice them on top and bottom.
- Keep the bait in a cooler and on ice at all times when fishing.
- We like the Brute Box coolers from Brute Outdoors because they’re durable and hold ice longer (use the coupon code CATFISHEDGE to get a discount).
How Long Can You Keep Shad?
I generally dispose of them (or give them away) at the end of each day.
How Long Can You Use It?
Once you cast a few times (either cut or whole) or leave it in the water it generally doesn’t stay on the hook well.
When fishing with whole Threadfin Shad, change it every few casts and just discard of the older bait. The smaller the bait, the more problematic this is because you generally cannot hook the bait again (and they get soft faster).
Larger Threadfin Shad or Gizzard Shad (cut or whole) are much tougher and can often be hooked again (sometimes multiple times). The primary concern is making sure that they will stay on the hook well (and aren’t dried out).
Outside of keeping bait on the hook, you want scent.
Watch baits closely and you can tell when they start looking “stale”, change them when that happens. You want lots of slime and scent at all times.
Recycling Shad For Bait
Take pieces of cut shad that you’re removing from the hooks and place them in a Tupperware container or Ziplock bag.
Take other bags of bait you have stored that have developed a fair amount of “slime” in the bags and pour this into your storage container (or bag) with your recycled baits. This allows the “recycled baits” to soak in that slime, where they can be reused if absolutely necessary (as a last resort). Just make sure you store the container on ice.
As an alternative to shad slime you can use a spray on bait enhancer for recycled baits like Dead Red Blood Spray from Team Catfish, Catfish Mojo from Bottom Dwellers Tackle or Scent Trail from Rippin Lips.
I’ve used Dead Red Blood Spray and tested it in the past but don’t have any first hand experience with the other two products.
Other Basics To Remember When Fishing With Shad
Make sure your hands are clean and free from strong odors (like gasoline) prior to handling them.
Always put shad in ziplock bags, keeping them on ice. Never put them directly on ice (you want them to be good and slimy).
Shad will keep much longer in the cooler months than in the warmer months, but plan to catch fresh bait each and every day.
These are the basic rules and process to follow for storing shad when catfishing.
Catching shad is an essential part of targeting blue catfish. Not only is fresh shad one of the best baits for blue catfish but learning to pattern shad will do wonders for you in your quest to catch blue catfish.
To get more information including an in depth guide on choosing a cast net and tips and tricks on finding and catching shad and everything else you ever need to know on catching bait, check out the How To Catch Shad book from Catfish Edge and the other Catfish Edge products to help you catch more and bigger catfish on your next fishing trip.
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