Whether you are a new angler or seasoned veteran, one thing everyone looking to hook has in common is the desire to catch that monster fish and fry it up. Nothing tastes quite like fresh catfish. However, most people have trouble either finding the right live bait or using live bait at all. In this article, we will help you learn how to catch those tricky catfish without any live bait.
Can you catch catfish without using live bait? Many old-time anglers will swear that the best way to catch a catfish is by using live bait similar to the fish living in the water where you want to snag catfish. However, there are several alternatives to live bait that can be used to catch catfish, including chicken livers, shad, stink bait, and hot dogs, to name a few.
While live bait is a tried and true method, often, it is just not possible either by choice or opportunity. If you are interested in learning the many different ways to catch catfish without having to deal with live bait, then read on for all of the in-depth details to get you ready for your next fish fry.
Why Do Catfish Like Live Bait?
Catfish spend a good amount of time in the mud or silt at the bottom of rivers, streams, and lakes. They use this to save energy and stay where the temperature is cool. Most of all, they use it as a built-in camouflage to easily gulp down smaller fish, insects, crustaceans, and even mussels if they are around. However, catfish do swim and eat in all areas of the water, even the surface from time to time.
Catfish come in three main varieties within the United States, though there are believed to be perhaps hundreds of subspecies throughout the world. In the US, you are likely to come across:
- Blue Catfish
- Channel Catfish
- Flathead Catfish.
Each variety of catfish has its own temperament and baits will vary depending on the type you are fishing for and where you are fishing. Not all catfish, even in the same species, will respond to the same type of bait.
Live Bait Alternatives
When it comes to alternatives to live bait, nearly every fisherman has a secret trick passed down from someone, somewhere, that was a sure bet to catching catfish. The truth is, there are probably hundreds or more suggestions out there. We’ll go through the most commonly used and tested baits that have proven to work.
Chicken Liver is by far the favorite for most looking to hook a good catfish. This easy-to-find meat is in most grocery stores, and almost all fishermen have used them at one point or another. Chicken liver should be purchased unfrozen for the best possible results, as they will retain more of their natural aroma. The smell is what attracts the catfish.
Shad is a small fish that can be used to cut into small pieces or even strips and used to fish for catfish. These little guys are especially abundant around rivers and reservoirs. The downside to using shad is that for the best results, you will want to catch or purchase them alive and then slice them. They deteriorate quickly, making them a less attractive meal for catfish.
If you do decide to go with shad, you can get them in some bait shops and cut them up yourself. When doing so, do not disregard the guts and entrails. These usually have a very strong smell that will attract a quicker bite than other cuts from the fish.
Dip and Punch Baits
Dip and punch baits, sometimes referred to as stink bait, are putty-like substances that are attached to lures or hooks. The bait usually has a very strong odor that works wonders for catfish. Many people use homemade recipes to make their own. There are also plenty of commercially produced options that can be picked up just about anywhere fishing supplies are found.
Stink bait gets its slang name for a very good reason. The best stink bait will be strong-smelling enough to grab the catfish’s attention before the bait is washed away in the current. These baits are favorites of those looking for catfish in streams and rivers as catfish will quickly fight the battle upstream for a great stink bait.
These baits are usually dropped slightly upstream from where the catfish are suspected to be hiding. The smell will quickly draw them out, leading to a quick bite. When using punch or dip bait, you need quick reflexes to snag your bite before they realize they have been had.
Love it or hate it, SPAM is one of those canned foods that finds its way into most homes at some point. Everyone looking to try something a bit different should consider trying SPAM. This meat-concoction is a favorite of most catfish species, especial Blue Catfish. In fact, according to Game and Fish Magazine, the world record for blue catfish was set at 116 pounds, 12 ounces in 2001 using SPAM.
Raw Poultry Skin
Another easy to find bait can be pulled from the scraps of last night’s dinner. Poultry skin is fatty and holds together well. This bait works well when trying to attract smaller catfish in warmer water. Letting the skin sit in the sun for a bit before baiting your hook may help speed up the release of the fatty oils that attract the fish.
Much like the skin from poultry can attract catfish, some claim the same for the fact that many may trim from steaks and other cuts of beef. This bait is used less often due to the cost associated with finding it. However, those that have used it swear by its success. Much like skin, fat seems to work better in warmer waters and warm climates.
Cat or Dog Food (Canned)
It may seem a bit weird to fish for catfish using cat food (or dog food), but just like stink bait, these products are produced specifically to give off a strong odor to attract animals. Why not fish? This bait seems to work better for channel catfish, thanks most likely to their number of taste buds and the ability to smell. Oddly, most share that the cheaper types of canned foods work the best, so there is no need to spend money on big name brands.
Cocktail shrimp does not usually make it to the refrigerator in many homes, for those that do, a perfect fish bait is found. Cocktail shrimp have a relatively short shelf life before they are just not appetizing for us humans.
Catfish of all varieties, however, just cannot get enough of the stuff. We have placed shrimp a bit low on our list since we would never suggest buying it strictly for bait due to the cost. But if the opportunity presents, go for it!
Yes, we mean those meat-like links you put on a bun and cover in a variety of condiments at a picnic. Hot dogs were once thought of as the poor man’s stink bait. However, over the years, avid fishermen have tested their efficacy over and over and promise they are the real deal when looking to hook “the big one.”
The only suggestion is to use chicken and turkey hotdogs instead of the all-beef variety. Hotdogs work straight out of the package, or you can marinate them in a variety of things. From beet juice to Kool-Aid for red color, and garlic to pickles for seasoning or your own mix of ingredients, the options are endless.
The idea is that the red color mimics blood, and your guess is as good as ours why garlic or pickling spices would attract them. We just know they do!
Match the Hatch
The phrase “Match the Hatch” does not refer to any specific type of bait. It refers to using a little detective work to determine the bait that can be found or is prevalent in the area you’re fishing in that they are most likely to be hunting for right now.
This means you determine what the fish are eating and try to find something that closely resembles what they are already eating and use it as bait in a way that resembles what they eat. This is the most tried and true method of bait fishing for catfish and many other types of fish.
Trial and Error
The best advice for non-live bait fishing for catfish is to try anything that you think may work, and if it does, great, if not, then move on. No two areas are going to respond to the same bait. Even the same area may not respond a second or third time. Catfish can be finicky at times and sometimes, we just get lucky.
Know Your Catfish
The best way to fish for catfish is to get to know the variety that is present where you are hoping to catch them. As we mentioned, there are three basic varieties in the United States, each with their own
Probably the most popular type of catfish caught in the channel catfish or channel cat. These fish are usually smaller than their blue or flathead cousins, and put up a fight, making the catch especially rewarding.
This species can be found in most moving bodies of water, including streams and even lakes. Second, only to bass in most areas of the US, this is by far the largest catfish population among the three primary species.
How to Catch Channel Catfish
Channel cats are usually eager to bite at just about any bait thrown their way. They can usually be found off the beaten path where they can get out of the faster-moving current but remain close enough to grab a bite when smaller prey is struggling. Large logs, rocks, even tree roots make a great break in the current, making prime pickings for these quick fish.
The blue catfish is usually touted as “the big one.” All those legendary stories of fish weighing in excess of 100 pounds or more, those would be blue catfish. This species is most often found in larger rivers and shoot-offs that run pretty far to the south. These fish search out warmer temperatures in the winter. If you happen upon a blue catfish under 24-inches, throw it back, as it has a lot of growing left to do.
How to Catch Blue Catfish
Blue catfish do not mind open water, as long as it is not moving too fast. The blue cat can often be found staying close to a stationary structure and enjoy slower-moving bodies of water. If you are hoping to land one of the big blues, then drop your bait just upstream from deep pools or structures that provide a lot of cover from the current.
Flathead catfish are probably best known for sport catfishing. They have quickly risen in population throughout much of the United States. This species also largely prefers live bait over all other types. They are a breed prone to prey on other fish in their surrounding area, as well as, other catfish when they get big enough.
Flathead catfish are also known to be solitary creatures when they get especially large. This has led to the growth of Noodling as a way of catching these fish. Noodling is catching, usually a flathead catfish with one’s bare hands. The “noodler” will intentionally allow the large fish to bite their hand or arm. They are then wrenched from their muddy habitat.
Please Note: Noodling is illegal in many states.
How to Catch Flathead Catfish
Flatheads are drawn to faster moving currents and love to find cover just out of the main currents’ reach. These guys find downed logs and rocks and bury themselves in the river bottom whenever they can. These catfish are why most people think of all catfish as bottom-dwellers. In their case, fishing near the bottom is your best chance to snag a bite.
Catfishing Tips and Tricks
We could all use some tips and tricks to make things easier, and that includes catfishing. We put together a few of our favorite little tidbits to share with you. Hopefully, one or more of these will be of some use to you.
Telling a Blue Catfish from a Channel Catfish
Channel cats and blue cats are often mistaken for each other since channel cats often lose their spots as they mature. The best way to tell a blue from a channel cat is looking closely at their fins. The tailfin of a channel cat will be rounded while a blue’s tail is pointed. Blue cats will also have a bigger number of rays on their fins as well.
Catfishing At Night
While you definitely do not have to fish for catfish at night, if you choose to, there are a couple of things to know.
- Flatheads are the most nocturnal of all catfish and will venture out more during the night hours. This is especially true during the hottest months of the year when the temperatures can penetrate deeper, and the sun is out for longer periods of time.
- Blue and channel catfish move to shallower water to forage for food. Catfish of all types have strong senses that help them track down food in even the darkest night.
Deep Water Catfishing
Daytime fishing is best when you can reach the deeper waters. Lakes and some larger rivers will have a section where the water is at its deepest. Start fishing there and slowly work toward shore until you find a hiding spot for catfish.
There are probably a dozen different suggestions for the best equipment to run out and get. All of them will probably have several items that claim to guarantee success. The truth is you do not need any special equipment to catch catfish.
Avid catfishermen will find their favorite equipment over time and with trial and error. Here are a few differences to consider for baiting your line.
Probably the most popular way to fish for catfish is by using some type of sinker setup. A sinker allows you to hit bottom at faster speeds than without one. Often sinkers will be attached 12 inches or more from the hook. This allows the sinker to sit on the bottom, and their hook will float just above and move with the current.
Different sinker weights or using multiple sinkers can allow you to either troll the bottom or drift through an area, inducing catfish out of their hiding places.
Floats are another option. Unlike sinkers, floats keep the line visible on the water’s surface. Floats are also a favorite option for deeper or murky waters where your line will be less visible, causing a missed bite. Floats are also preferred in highly wooded areas to avoid getting your line stuck or broke.
Jigs and Lures
Jigs and lures are still the favorites of catfish anglers all over. These allow anglers to manipulate and imitate the natural movement of smaller creatures in the water. Jigs and lures are used in conjunction with most types of baits.
Most catfish anglers will order treble hooks when fishing. With the exception of small baits, treble hooks naturally increase your chances of snagging the fish. Catfish have a habit of toying with bait before they take a real bite. With time, anglers learn to feel the difference.
We have all heard the wild stories of the biggest fish ever caught or the one that got away. Myths about fishing for any type of fish have been around forever. Here are just a few of our favorite myths about catfish that are just a little off point.
- Catfish the Size of a VW Bug
In almost every river or lake, there is a mystical catfish that was seen by someone’s cousin’s, uncle’s, best friend’s brother. There is not now, nor has there ever been any proof of a catfish that size anywhere in the world. However, we will share that there were some unsubstantiated reports of fish, reportedly catfish, caught along the Mississippi River in the 1800s.
- You Gotta Fish at Night for Catfish
FALSE! Catfish are not nocturnal by nature; they hunt and eat at all times of the day and night. Many fishermen prefer daytime fishing for these fish as they get to enjoy the chase and being able to see the fish as it approaches the surface, especially when fishing for blue catfish!
- Stink Bait is Required
While we admit that stink bait is often successful at catching catfish, particularly channel catfish, it is definitely not the only option. As we mentioned above, flathead catfish especially, would not fall for stink bait in most cases. If you do not want to deal with the stink, let it be.
- You Can Only Catch Catfish With Sinkers
Ugh, this is one of those myths that give all seasoned catfish anglers a headache. Catfish may spend some of their time on the bottom of the lake, river, or stream, but not all of their time. Catfish swim all over the place, depending on the time of day, season, temperature, and available food. Do not be suckered into a missed opportunity by only fishing on the bottom.
Bonus Catfish Info
We already covered the three main varieties of catfish found in the United States, but this interesting species has a ton of other interesting features. Here are a few of the facts that we found amazing that we thought you might want to know as well.
Catfish Can Change Color
Catfish can often have very different colors than others of the same variety, even in the same spot. They can also change in color depending on where they spend their time and as they mature. For example, it is not at all uncommon for many channel cats to lose their trademark spots as they mature, causing many to be mistaken for blue cats.
Blue catfish also come in a wide variety of blue hues. They will lighten in color when they spend more of their time in the dark undergrowth or hiding and darken when the days are longer, and they spend more time in shallow pools where the sun can darken their pigment. Some have even found blue cats to be almost white. This usually means they have spent a long time in the murky depths and have not had to search in shallower waters for food very often.
Catfish Have Super Senses
Catfish are the bats of the water, easily able to find prey with heightened senses of smell, taste, and even touch. Like bats use sonar, catfish can detect high frequencies and even the slightest sound wave as it transmits through the water.
- Channel catfish, for example, have nearly 250,000 individual taste buds. These taste buds are also found all over the fish’s body, making them able to taste the water and the slightest changes in all directions.
- The catfish’s strong odor detection comes from a large number of folds found in the nostrils of the fish, or so scientists assume. While other fish, such as bass, have around 13 folds to use to smell the area around them, catfish have, on average 140, or ten times the scent sense of bass.
- Catfish have very buoyant bodies and inner ears that are highly sensitive to even the slightest sound ripple in the water. This is why most experienced anglers swear by live or moving bait that mimics the live movements in small ways to attract the attention of the catfish.
Catfish Have Dangerous Fins
Any angler that has caught a catfish can probably share their own story of getting finned by them. Many people falsely believe that catfish whiskers can sting and are what you need to watch out for.
However, it is the fins that can quickly and smartly catch your skin. You will know it almost immediately as the burn is quite intense. The secret to calm the burn, rub the belly of the fish across the scratch or puncture and nearly immediately all burning will stop!
There are several schools of thought when it comes to fishing, and every type of fish has an almost cult-like following for just how, when, and where to best catch them. Catfishing is not a whole lot different. Every area will have their diehards that will swear there is only one way to snag a cat. Really only trial and error, and possibly a little bit of luck are what you really need to catch a catfish.
Anglers that love to fish for catfish will often share wild stories of hard-fought battles and determined foes that broke their line or put up a good fight.
In the end, hopefully, they make their way to a frying pan, or other yummy preparation to be enjoyed by you and yours. We hope this article has helped you make your way through some of the confusion to find some information that will lead to some great catches in your future.