Head to the grocery store

Keith Sutton Contributing Writer Published September 9, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
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Keith Sutton / Contributing Photographer

A visit to the supermarket will turn up a wide variety of baits that can be used to entice catfish.

One of the most amazing things I ever saw involved a catfish and a loaf of bread.

I was a teenager. Our family was vacationing in Florida. The highlight of the trip was riding the famous glass-bottomed boats at Silver Springs.

I remember how incredibly clear the water was and how marvelous it was watching turtles, fish and alligators swimming beneath us.

The boat operator stopped at one deep hole and said he wanted to introduce us to a friend.

He then opened a loaf of fresh bread and began squeezing the slices together. Soon he had in his hands a doughball the size of a child’s head.

“Watch what happens,” he said, placing the doughball in the water.

The bread sank slowly. When it was perhaps 20 feet below us, I saw movement in a dark cavity on the river’s bottom. Then I saw whiskers — very long whiskers. A catfish!

I cannot say for sure what species of catfish it was. But it was a gigantic specimen. We watched, enthralled, as the huge cat swam to the ball of bread and swallowed it in a single gulp.

For many weeks that summer, I made doughballs from fresh bread and used them for catfish bait. I figured if that big Florida cat liked them, other big cats probably did, too. To my disappointment, however, I never caught a cat much larger than 3 pounds on bread bait.

Later in life, when I started studying catfish feeding habits more seriously, I learned that trophy-size catfish of all species tend to be primarily piscivorous, or fish eating, in nature. Small catfish scavenge a lot, eating all sorts of weird foods and baits. But the older and larger a catfish gets, the more likely it is to prefer fresh fish such as shad, herring and sunfish for dinner. Loaves of bread aren’t on the menu.

Another fact became increasingly clear as I honed my catfishing skills: Catching fresh fish to use for bait can be considerably difficult, especially during extremely hot weather like we’ve experienced this summer. Shad may be plentiful one day but gone the next. Skipjacks may have migrated to parts unknown. Sunfish may refuse to bite. At times, the best big-cat baits just aren’t available, and the angler must use other enticements to lure his quarry.

I still haven’t been able to get a big catfish to bite a squished-up loaf of bread, but some good baits are available at local supermarkets. I call them grocery-store baits, and though they don’t attract the attention of heavyweight blues, flatheads and channel cats as often as fresh-fish baits, the grocery-store baits do so often enough that you should consider using them whenever the need arises.

I learned about these baits from fellow catfishing enthusiasts, each of whom shared tips to get the most from these readily available cat-catchers.

Hot dogs

“Did you know cats would eat dogs?”

Joe Drose asked me that while I was fighting a nice blue cat on South Carolina’s Lake Moultrie. Drose has been guiding catfishermen there since Methuselah was a baby. Drose had baited our hooks with chunks of hot dogs, which seemed to me rather unusual.

“Won’t we just catch little cats using hot dogs for bait?” I asked.

“We may catch some small fish,” Drose replied, “but there’s an equally good chance we’ll nail a trophy, too. Big blue catfish often feed on small mussels, and though a piece of herring the same size as one of these clams may work better, a clam-sized chunk of hot dog often works, too. I’ve caught catfish up to 70 pounds using hot dogs for bait. And believe it or not, the cheaper brands of hot dogs — those made with turkey or chicken — work best.”

When using hot-dog baits, Drose’s fishing rig consists of an egg sinker on the main line above a barrel swivel, with an 8- to 12-inch leader connecting the swivel to a sturdy 3/0 to 5/0 Kahle hook or circle hook. This bottom-fishing rig is baited, cast to a likely spot and allowed to sit for up to 15 minutes. If no bite is forthcoming, Drose moves to another spot and tries again.

Chicken liver

Corinth, Miss., catfish guide Phil King has targeted big cats in the Tennessee River system for more than a quarter century. He fishes a variety of baits, including dip baits, shad and skipjack herring. At least one grocery-store bait — fresh chicken liver — also figures into his angling.

“I start using fresh chicken livers around the first of May and continue to use them through late fall,” he said. “The blood in fresh liver attracts catfish from a long distance, and it’s not unusual to take big blue or channel catfish when still-fishing in a good area or slow-drifting through deep holes or along ledges.”

King’s terminal tackle typically consists of a double-hook rig, which entails the use of one bait placed several feet above another on the main leader.

I prefer to use a single treble hook on a snap swivel. Open the snap, remove the hook, push the hook eye through the liver, then resnap. You’re ready to fish, and the liver is less likely to fly off.

Soap

When Proctor & Gamble introduced Ivory soap in 1879, the folks at the company probably never imagined their product would become a popular catfish bait. That’s exactly what happened, however, and for a century or so now, white bars of this “99 and 44/100 percent pure” hand cleaner have been a staple in the bait boxes of hard-core cat men.

Old timers on the rivers I fished as a youngster often baited trotlines with chunks cut from bars of Ivory soap. My uncle did, and when we ran lines he’d baited in this fashion, it wasn’t unusual to find a cat on every other hook, including some huge specimens. A small piece of Ivory soap threaded on a hook works equally well for rod-and-reel anglers.

Although Ivory is the brand most often used, I’ve heard that Octagon and Zote soaps also work great. These also are “pure” soaps, without additives. Some catfishermen I know use old-fashioned

lye soap made at home, and it, too, seldom fails to coax a bite from hungry cats.

More grocery store baits

I’ve never tried it, but you might want to give Hormel Spam a go sometime. On

Aug. 3, 2001, Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion, Ark., used a chunk of this spicy canned meat to catch a 116-pound, 12-ounce world-record blue cat.

“My father used Spam for catfish bait, and so did my grandfather,” Ashley said. “I rarely use anything else.”

Other grocery-store baits proven to catch occasional big cats include fresh and frozen shrimp; smelly cheeses such as Limburger and sharp cheddar; fresh or frozen squid; golden raisins and green grapes, both of which are superb, if unusual, summer cat baits; and even bubble gum (Bazooka and Bubble Yum rate high in some areas).

The fact is, you’ll probably hook a big catfish sooner or later, no matter what bait you dangle in the water.

So next time you’re at the grocery, pick up something new and experiment. If the fish don’t bite, you can snack on the bait!

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