Using shad for catfish bait is always a hot topic among catfish anglers. It seems that for some reason the whole idea of finding and catching shad and using it for bait creates a whole bunch of questions for anglers of all experience levels though.
I touched on this recently in the Winter Catfishing Tips article (get the free ebook here) and when the Catfish Edge, Cutting Edge Catfishing Trailer was posted questions started pouring in about the big catfish in the video and what kind of catfish bait I was using so it seemed like a great time to talk about using shad for catfish bait.
Catfish anglers often seem very confused about shad and catching them and have a lot of questions. They usually follow up with a bunch of complaints about shad, not knowing how to find or catch them, complaining about being cold or wet, and a long list of other complaints.
My response is always the same… “Suck it up, princess”
If you want to wear fancy pressed shirts, have a sparkling clean boat, not get wet, cold, and covered in shad scales you should find something else to fish for other than catfish (or at least blue catfish).
Catching bait is just part of the gig if you’re going to be a catfish angler.
This resource covers all the basics you need to know about using shad for catfish bait.
- How To Catch Shad
- How To Choose a Cast Net
- The Basics Of Where To Catch Shad
- How To Bait Hooks Using Shad
- When and Where To Use Shad For Catfish Bait
- Which Species Of Catfish You Can Catch Using Shad For Catfish Bait
For a complete step-by-step visual graphic scroll to the bottom of the page.
Shad For Catfish Bait: The Essential Guide
Threadfin Shad and Gizzard Shad are very different fish.
Threadfin shad are less hearty than gizzard shad, they cannot tolerate cold as well and they don’t grow to the sizes that gizzard shad do.
Gizzard shad grow to larger sizes, they are more hearty than threadfin shad and therefore have a wider distribution. They tolerate cold better than threadfin shad so you find them in more places.
How do you tell the difference in gizzard shad and threadfin shad?
- Usually have a yellowish tint to their fin
- They have 20–25 rays in their anal fin
- Usually less than six inches long
- The upper jaw does not protrude beyond the lower jaw
- No yellowish tint to fins
- 29–35 rays in anal fin
- Can be up to 12″ long (or more)
- The upper jaw protrudes past the lower jaw
Here’s the simple test if you just absolutely need to know if a shad is a gizzard or threadfin shad (besides counting the rays in the anal fin, which would be a bit creepy). Take your fingernail and run it from bottom to top across the mouth of a shad. If your fingernail catches on the top lip, that’s a good indication that it’s a gizzard shad as their upper jaw protrudes past the lower jaw.
Fresh or Frozen Shad, Which Is Better?
It seems that every time I talk about shad the “what if’s” come out of the woodwork and I have people coming out of the woodwork when I make this statement……
Fresh shad is the preferred bait for blue catfish in many areas where populations are present. Anglers who know how to catch shad will be more successful than those who try to take shortcuts and use frozen or “alternative” baits.
I use a lot of generalities because otherwise every article I write would be thousands of words and every video would be hours long covering “the exceptions”.
I stand by my statement that fresh shad will catch more catfish than frozen shad. I don’t know one single angler that will tell you that they can catch more fish with frozen bait than with fresh bait.
The key here is shad. I’m not talking about skipjack or any other form of fresh or cut bait, I’m talking about shad. It’s no secret that skipjack are more hearty and they freeze differently. If you’re in skipjack country (I’m not) and want to fish with them frozen, have at it.
But What About Frozen Shad For Catfish Bait?
Are there exceptions to the rule of fresh shad being best for catfish bait? Of course, there are.
There are times (though they’re limited) that I prefer shad to be “less than fresh”.
What’s that mean?
Caught a few days prior to the date I am fishing. Still what I would consider being “fresh” shad, as they’re never frozen, just “slightly aged”.
Don’t fish with fish sticks. Use fresh shad.
How Do You Catch Shad?
You’re going to use a cast net.
Are there other alternatives? Yes!
Do you need to worry about them? No, not really! Cast nets are going to be the best option for most people.
If you’re bent on exploring other options for catching shad (like shad trawls) just send me the money you’re going to waste on trying other things and buy a cast net. That’s what you’ll end up doing in the end anyway.
What Kind Of Cast Net Is Best For Catching Shad?
Here it is in its most basic form. What you really need to know about choosing a cast net as a catfish angler.
If you plan on fishing in the winter or when you might potentially have to catch shad in deeper water then you need a larger mesh size and net with more weight.
If you’re not going to fish in the winter or catch bait when shad are in deeper water then you can get away with a cast net that has a smaller mesh (and is usually much less expensive than nets used in colder water).
The larger the mesh the faster the cast net sinks.
The more weight per foot the faster the cast net sinks.
The only real issue with larger mesh nets is smaller shad swim through the mesh and also get stuck (gilled) in the net. The trade-off is that they sink faster.
If you’re not planning on catching deepwater shad then just get a 3/8″ mesh cast net with a weight of .5 to .75 lbs per foot.
If you plan on catching deepwater shad then get a 1/2“ to 5/8” mesh cast net with a weight of 1.5 lbs per foot.
Where Do You Catch Shad?
I’ve filled an entire book with information on locating and catching shad because there are a lot of variables to finding and catching shad. It’s by no means something that I can sum in a quick article and tell you everything you really need to know.
Here are some basic fundamentals of how to catch shad though…..
The fastest way to find and catch them is using sonar (a “fish finder”). Sonar makes finding and catching shad a pretty simple process for the most part.
In the absence of sonar (or if you have absolutely no idea where to look) here’s the best advice I can offer on locating shad.
Marinas and lights are some of the easiest places for a newbie to start. Look for bait inside marinas and around lights early in the morning (before first light).
Anywhere there is aeration or warmth are also common places to locate and catch shad.
Aeration can be water flowing in from a manmade source or natural source. Anything that will stir the water up, oxygenate it and move food around will work.
Warmth comes from a few places. Look for areas where the water temperature could be warmer or warm up faster than the main lake. Anything that would hold heat is also key, especially in the colder months.
Concrete is a prime example of an area that will hold heat (and also shad). Boat ramps are often overlooked and one of the easiest places to start throwing your cast net to catch shad. Boat ramps are usually free from obstructions (less risk of damaging your net), covered in algae, and will hold warmth.
As sun the sun shines during the day concrete will warm up and retain heat and create an area that’s warmer than water in other areas. Shad will commonly flock in and around these areas or hold up against the concrete structure.
Locating and catching shad is essential to locating and catching blue catfish. If you learn the basics of finding and catching shad you’ll be a much better blue catfish angler and you’ll catch more fish. Combine these finding shad tips with our Ultimate List Of Catfishing Tips and you’ll have a strong foundation for locating and catching catfish.
If I Use Shad For Catfish Bait What Will I Catch?
Shad is an excellent bait for blue catfish. Whether your goal is a massive trophy blue catfish or numbers of the smaller one to ten-pound blue catfish shad will work for catching them.
Shad is a great bait for channel catfish if you want to target larger channel catfish. If you want a day full of fast-paced action and don’t care about size then some form of prepared bait is likely a better choice.
Flathead catfish can be caught using shad and are often caught using both live and cut shad but if you plan to exclusively target flathead a live bait that’s hearty and easier to keep alive is typically a better option. Consider using fish like live bluegill, perch, or even mudcats to target flathead catfish instead of shad.
How Should You Fish For Catfish With Shad?
Circle hooks are among the most popular option for catfish and an excellent choice when fishing with whole or cut shad or any other form of cut bait.
There are many good circle hook options on the market for catfish but I never could find one that was perfect so I designed my own, the Triple Threat Catfish Hook.
The most important parts of gear selection when using shad for catfish bait are making sure that you use a hook that has a wide gap when fishing with circle hooks and making sure you use a catfish rod with some slight flex in the tip so the circle hooks work properly.
What Size Shad Should You Use For Catfish Bait?
The simplest explanation is to “match the hatch”.
Match the hatch is a term often used by fly fishermen but applies to all types of fishing (and species). This means to use a bait similar in size and appearance to what the fish are feeding on.
If fish are feeding on small 2–3“ threadfin shad then use baits that are that size or similar in size, but mix in a couple of larger baits as well. Most often the most bites (and fish caught) will come from baits that are similar in size and appearance when you ”match the hatch”, but not always.
Always experiment, try some big pieces of cut shad or whole shad and some smaller ones as well and see what works best.
But you have to use big baits to catch big catfish, right?
No. Many anglers try to convince people that to catch trophy class catfish you have to use big baits but it’s not true. Big catfish are caught all the time using small baits. At the end of the day, it’s about getting the right presentation in front of the right fish.
There are some advantages to using big bait for trophy class catfish but it’s certainly not a requirement and there are times that smaller baits will outperform larger ones.
Match the hatch! Catch more catfish!
How Do You Bait Hooks With Shad?
Whole threadfin shad that are a few inches long can be hooked in a variety of ways. The easiest way to hook them (and my preferred method) is to insert the hook through the top of the head and then turn the fish and push it onto the hook, then hooking the bait again through the tail, or back area.
Cut shad can be hooked in a variety of ways and the fish can be cut in a variety of ways as well. It all boils down to personal preference. I use a simple approach of cutting them into chunks when using larger shad. When hooking shad with circle hooks run the hook through the chunk of cut shad at an angle and hook the pieces of cut bait very shallow so the gap of the hook remains open.
When Should You Use Shad For Catfish Bait?
Shad is an excellent choice for catfish bait all year long when targeting blue and channel catfish, in fact, it’s my top catfish bait. There’s no “season” for when you can and cannot use them. If they’re feeding on shad you can use it for bait and it’s rare they won’t be feeding on fish.
Where Do You Use Shad For Catfish Bait?
Finding shad and active feeding fish is best done with the use of sonar (fish finder) when fishing from a boat. Use the sonar to locate schools of shad and active feeding fish below or near them.
Shad will appear in the large cloud-like formations on the sonar screen and are easily identifiable.
Want More On Finding and Catching Shad?
The ability to locate and catch shad is a critical part of being a successful angler if you are going to target blue catfish and many other species of fish as well. You not only need to know how to locate and catch them but also how to pattern them and understand their seasonal movements and environmental triggers that cause them to move.
If you’d like to fast-track your success locating and catching shad (and blue catfish) then check out the Catching Shad ebook from Catfish Edge one of the many premium products guaranteed to fast-track your success catching catfish.