Live fish top the list of most enticing catfish baits, and with good reason. A catfish 24 inches or longer, regardless of species, sustains itself on a diet comprised almost exclusively of other fish. There simply are no better baits for trophy cats.
Shad and herring. Throughout much of their range, large blue cats feed almost exclusively on shad, herring and other schooling baitfish. Channel cats and flatheads relish these baitfish, too.
Catch these baitfish using a cast net, tiny jigs and spoons, or a sabiki rig (see sidebar). To remain healthy, they must be kept uncrowded in highly oxygenated water. Use a large, round, well-insulated, aerated tank with cool stream or lake water, or rig a perforated garbage can to carry them alongside your boat. A gallon of water supports about four large baitfish.
Bullheads. Bullheads are the main prey of flatheads in many waters where both are common, and many catfish anglers are aware of this. Bullheads have been used as flathead bait for more than 100 years, and sometimes attract big blues and channel cats as well. They're tough, easy to keep alive in a bait tank and are readily caught on hook and line using chicken liver or worms.
Sunfish. Live sunfish are hot catfish baits on many waters, especially for large flatheads. One of the most widely used species is the ubiquitous green sunfish, sometimes called a ricefield slick or shade perch, which is extremely abundant, hardy and easy to catch on hook and line or by seining. Other species used as cat bait where law permits include bluegills, redears, pumpkinseeds, longear sunfish and spotted sunfish.
Suckers and chubs. Suckers or creek chubs, 6 to 12 inches long, also make great catfish bait because they're active, hardy and a favored food of large cats, especially big flatheads and channels. In some parts of the country, both are often available at bait shops. They also can be seined from creeks or small rivers or caught on tiny hooks baited with bits of worm.
Other Fish. Among "bait-store" baits, goldfish, fathead minnows and large shiners are hard to beat. The rosy red, or pink, minnow — a special orange-colored variety of the fathead minnow — is a special favorite of many anglers, and the Black Salty baitfish — a specially raised goldfish tolerant of saltwater — is quickly becoming a favorite in both fresh and brackish water. Other good cat baits include small carp, mooneyes, goldeyes, alewives, ciscoes, killifish, American eels, madtoms and stonecats.
Live fish tip: The attractiveness of live-fish baits can be improved by snipping the spiny fins off, causing the baitfish to bleed and flounder in the water. As the blood trail flows, catfish are attracted.
This article is an excerpt from Keith "Catfish" Sutton's latest book "Pro Tactics: Catfish," published by Lyons Press. For orders and information, visit Sutton's website at www.catfishsutton.com.