You don't have to hang around catfish anglers long to learn their stories are prone to exaggeration. That's fine, of course, unless you start basing your angling decisions on those tales.
Once, when I was a kid, for example, I fished with an old river rat who took me to the water's edge to see the "best bait" for catching cats. When he pointed into the water, I could see something, but couldn't make it out. When I asked what it was, he gave a sly wink and said, "A saucer of milk!"
I was young, alright, but I wasn't stupid.
Another time I was fishing with a different old timer who began cutting chaws off a plug of tobacco and tossing them into the water. Then he sculled to the bank, pulled out a baseball bat and began scanning the floating plugs.
"How are we gonna catch catfish like this?" I asked.
"Well," he drawled, "when them catfish smell that tobacco, they'll swim up and take it to chaw. Then, when they come back up to spit, we'll club 'em."
The old man took great pride in setting me up for that one.
There are plenty of stories about the catfish's indiscriminate taste, including reports in old periodicals. In 1847, the prestigious journal, Scientific American, reported that, "A catfish was purchased in the Cincinnati market, lately, which, on being opened, was found to contain in its stomach a silver thimble, a gold ring and a counterfeit dime tied up in a rag."
The May 18, 1894 edition of the Manitoba Morning Free Press shed light on more unusual catfish feeding in the story of a Kansas cat caught by Douglass Smith. Allegedly, the cat's stomach contained a corked bottle containing the message, "Whoever will find this will please send it back to me. H.E. Pipes."
According to the story, Pipes threw the bottle into the river three years earlier and 75 miles from where the fish was caught.
Historical literature also references unusual catfish baits. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, Huck and Jim bait their hook with a skinned rabbit and catch a catfish "as big as a man." Although the account appears in fiction, author Mark Twain could well have seen such bait being used while plying the Mississippi as a steamboat pilot.
Some of these stories likely contain a good dose of fiction. Still, over the years, many equally bizarre, but nevertheless productive, baits have evolved as undisputed catfish catchers.
Ivory soap is a perfect example. This famous soap was introduced in 1879. Although intended for anything but catching catfish, Ivory became an instant favorite among serious catmen.
I saw Ivory's effectiveness as a kid, while tending trotlines. Using Ivory, my uncle often caught cats on half the hooks in his lines. An inch-square piece of the Ivory soap threaded on a hook works equally well for rod-and-reel anglers.
Ivory soap is available just about everywhere these days, but some parts of the country offer alternatives. Southern catmen are familiar with Octagon and Zote soaps. Both will catch catfish, as will homemade lye soaps.
Fruitful Cat Baits
Most anglers don't think of fruit as catfish bait. However, cats are opportunistic feeders and sometimes go to extreme lengths to gorge on wild fruits. In South America, for example, red-tailed catfish migrate into flooded jungles during high-water periods to feed on falling fruits.
Blue and channel cats behave similarly, gathering to feed on muscadines, mulberries, haw fruits, and even acorns and hickory nuts that drop from overhanging trees and flooded woodlands.
In southern catfish rivers, this fruit feeding frenzy begins in spring, when mulberries ripen. Many southern rivers have hundreds of mulberry trees overhanging their waters, and when the ripe fruits start falling, schools of channel cats fight for each morsel.
To capitalize on this, impale two or three of the fruits on a baitholder hook, and lob it under an overhanging mulberry tree.
After mulberries have fallen and summer's dog days begin, golden raisins become an effective substitute.
Catfish guide Phil King of Corinth, Mississippi, fishes raisins, as well as white grapes, "They're a hot-water, hot- weather bait," he says. "The raisins puff up and swell in the water, and begin giving off a scent that attracts catfish."
Raisins are often used on trotlines where they can sit in the water for a long period of time, but King says they also work for rod-and-reel anglers.
As summer slips into autumn, persimmons ripen and begin falling, starting another flurry of feeding activity among fruit-loving cats.
To fish a persimmon bait, cut a ripe fruit into chunks and impale a piece on a baitholder hook. If the current and water depth allow, rig the persimmon without any weight or other terminal tackle.
Strange Scent Baits
Asafetida is another superb—and largely forgotten—catfish bait. Also called "stinking gum" and "devil's dung," asafetida has a strong, repugnant smell. The plant-based product comes in resin and oil forms, both of which are used for medicinal purposes and to flavor foods.
Catfishermen use asafetida by combining it with water and baiting their hooks with a piece of cloth or sponge soaked in the mixture. Cats gobble up the oil-soaked material as readily as they would a gob of nightcrawlers.
Unfortunately, because of its awful smell, few drugstores and supermarkets carry asafetida these days. Look for it in ethnic markets that specialize in Indian food, or search specialty websites that offer spices and herbs.
Anise oil and oil of rhodium work similarly. Anise oil is widely available, and a longtime favorite among many anglers. You may have to search a little harder for oil of rhodium, though you can get it online through specialty websites.
You can also make dipbait by beating a few eggs and letting them sit in the sun until they spoil. The concoction is excellent for dipping sponge baits.
Capitalizing On Cannibals
Despite their taste for fruit, catfish remain predators by nature, and some of their preferred prey is their own cousins. Bullheads, for example, are a flathead favorite in many waters where both species swim. However, relatively few anglers try them, despite the fact they might be the best bait for trophy flatheads.
In his 1953 book, "Catfishin," Joe Mathers calls bullheads excellent baits for trophy-size catfish.
"Use small living forms, 3 to 6 inches long," he writes. "Snip off the barbels, spines and dorsal fin causing the fish to bleed and flounder in the water."
Georgia writer Jeff Samsel, whose work has appeared in North American Fisherman, is an avid catfisherman. He says small channel cats are also effective.
"For big flathead catfish, many long-time river fishermen contend there is no better bait than another catfish," he says. "Bullheads and channel cats are most commonly used, but whatever kind of catfish a flathead is accustomed to seeing in a waterway is probably the best to use as bait.
"Any cat up to a couple pounds will do. Hook it in the back, toward the tail, and suspend it just off bottom."
There appears to be no limit to what tempts catfish to bite. Outdoor writer John Phillips, for example, tells of a friend who had run out of bait and resorted to putting a chunk of road killed opossum on his hook. Although bizarre, the bait worked.
That might seem amazing, but dead 'possum is run-of-the-mill compared to other baits. For example, applying Preparation H, the famous hemorrhoidal cream, to plastic dipbait holders sometimes helps anglers catch more cats, perhaps because it contains shark liver oil. The lubricant, WD-40, is also widely known as a catfish attractor, despite the fact it doesn't contain shark oil.
The fact catfish eat such substances probably doesn't come as much of a surprise to James Patterson of Miss¬issippi River Guide Service in Bartlett, Tennessee. After all, he's caught catfish with fried potatoes and pork chops in their bellies. How¬ever, those finds pale in comparison to others he's made.
"The most unusual thing I've found in a catfish was bubble gum," he says. "I landed the fish and it was squirting pink liquid everywhere. When I cut it open, it still had three full pieces of bubble gum inside."
Some savvy catfish anglers capitalize on this unusual behavior.
"We use Bazooka, Double Bubble and Bubble Yum," a Georgia catfisherman told me. "They all catch cats so long as you chew the gum a little before baiting your hook. Don't chew all of the flavor out, though, or they won't take it."
Use a simple rig when using bubble gum, as well as the other oddball baits I've mentioned. If the current and depth allow, rig the bait on a plain hook, without a sinker. And, if sinkers or other terminal tackle are necessary to keep the bait within the strike zone, use as little as possible.
All of this simply proves what I've thought all along: No matter what you dangle in the water, you'll eventually catch a catfish. And that, my friends, is one of the things that make catfishing so much fun.
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