Although I have been catfishing many times, for this story, I called in an expert, my dad. He grew up on the banks of the Attoyac River, deep in the heart of East Texas. His childhood was spent running trotlines and fishing for catfish.
Although he left the Attoyac over 50 years ago, he never lost his love of fishing. At least once or twice a year, you will find him camped beside Lake Sam Rayburn doing the same kind of fishing he has done all his life.
Catfishing is a measured combination of skill, gear, bait and the wisdom to learn from the ‘old-timers.’ To be done right, it takes a great deal of patience and some seriously disgusting bait. Ask 20 people around the area lakes and rivers about the best way to catch catfish, and you will get twenty-five different answers.
What I will share is the way my dad does it, his secret recipe for bait and the preparation, and what rigging to use.
If you are new to catfishing, I need to offer one word of caution. Their dorsal and pectoral fins contain a type of venom that can cause swelling and pain if it pierces the skin. The spines can break off under the skin as well and, in addition to being very painful, can pose a significant risk for infection. Having a fish grabber and a pair of fishing pliers to assist in removing the hooks are necessary safety equipment when catfishing.
Ok, so with that out of the way, let’s get to some old-school catfishing wisdom…
3 Proven Catfishing Techniques
Trotline Fishing for Catfish
Trotlines are heavily regulated as well as illegal in some states (check with your state’s fish and wildlife division) but still a popular way to catch large catfish, especially those referred to as Blues and Ops. Op stands for Opelousas. These fish can reach massive sizes of up to sixty-one inches in length and up to 125 pounds. This type of fishing is more like an art than a sport.
It is fairly easy to make your own trotline rig or, alternatively, you could also buy one premade. At the heart of the trotline for catfish is #36 or higher main braided nylon twine or cord (paracord is even better due to superior strength)) strung across the openings of coves, across a river, or where the mouth of a river or stream feeds a lake.
The trotline is anchored to each side of the water you are fishing to a large rock, tree, tree stump or something similar. Tied to the main line will be the staging or droplines which attach to the main line and, of course, your hooks at the other end. For your staging or droplines, you can use a smaller diameter cord – about half the diameter of the main line – or even high test-pound braided and monofilament fishing lines.
The staging length will depend on the depth of the water but are typically sixteen to twenty-four inches in length. They are attached to the main line with a clip or swivel. Droplines are approximately five to ten feet apart, depending on the length of the trotline. Any given trotline cannot contain more than twenty-five hooks (although this too is dependent on the rules and regulations of the area where you are fishing).
Attached to the staging is a hook. The type and size will vary depending on the type of bait you are using. Some types of bait considered good for both ops and blues are:
- Cut bait (rumor has it that cut buffalo is a favorite)
- Live perch
You check the lines at least twice a day, pulling off and releasing any non-legal fish. You keep whatever catfish meet the length requirements then re-bait. Trotlines in shallow water, meant for catching Channel Cats and Blues, are typically checked at least twice a day. These lines are shorter than the deepwater lines meant for Ops and bigger Blue’s. Deepwater lines are longer, baited with live bait, and typically only checked once daily.
To check trotlines, you need a minimum of two people to do it safely. One person runs the line while the other is there to assist with a dip net and handling fish. You should always have a gaff on board to assist with being able to get a large catfish into the boat safely.
Noodles for Catfishing: A New Twist to an Old-School Method
No, this isn’t about using pasta noodles nor is it about noodling where the catfish swallows your hand whole. This method is an off-shoot of jug lining or jug fishing, an old-school technique popularized in the South whereby your fishing line, hook, bait and sinker/weight are attached to a jug or plastic container.
Here, it means using a sealed PVC pipe, shoved inside a cut-up foam swimming pool noodle instead of plastic jugs. Onto each noodle is attached a staging of smaller depth than you would use on a trotline. Hooks sizes are bait dependent, but you use circle hooks for live bait and treble hooks for cut bait, cheese bait, or Catfish Charlie. Hooks used on noodles are smaller than those used on a trotline.
As with any fishing gear placed in public waterways, noodles are clearly marked and identified. Always check the rules and regulations specific to your area. You place the noodles in a cove or other semi-protected area to make checking and retrieving them easier. You come back numerous times a day and check your noodles, or keep an eye on them while you hand fish in the same area. The ones that are bobbing up and down and moving around obviously have a fish on it.
For retrieval, a gaff (which is a pole with a hook on the end) is a useful tool to pull the noodle to the boat and also helpful if the fish has pulled the noodle into the brush or weeds and lily pads. A dip net is also a necessary part of your catfish equipment. If the noodle has a larger fish attached, you will want to use the dip net to ensure he makes it into the boat.
As with Trotlines, this type of fishing is also regulated or not allowed in some states due to concerns about sustainability, so again check your state’s regulations.
Catfish on Rod and Reel
Using a rod and reel remains the primary way of fishing for catfish. It is usually done by boat, although you will see people fishing from the banks of area rivers. Generally, you go out ahead of your planned fishing time and scout the best locations. Referred to as “fishing holes,” courtesy dictates that others will not fish in the same spot. However, it is not unlawful to fish in a spot someone else has baited. It is considered rude.
Once you have identified a good spot, you will sink a bucket with a secure lid and small holes drilled in the sides, filled with dog food and horrid smelling cheese bait. You will use small amounts of the bait along with dry dog food in a bucket prepared as described above. Next, you tie the bucket off to a stump or tree and sink it into your favorite fishing spot.
You will then want to let the bucket sit for at least a day or two to assure the fish have found it. A bucket will normally keep attracting fish for up to a week. When you arrive at your spot to fish, grab the line and jiggle the bucket to distribute fresh bait into the water.
When you are ready to fish, the most successful bait is, unfortunately, cheese bait (recipe below). Any standard rod and reel will work for this type of fishing, as you are not casting. Instead, you release your line to the desired depth. Determining the desired depth is again more art than science. Catfish are notorious bottom feeders, but the ‘sweet spot’ for catching them can be anywhere from the bottom to just a few feet below the surface.
Treble hooks are best suited for the bait used. If using something like Catfish Charlie, you form it into a ball and press it around the hook. For the cheese bait, you will need sponge hooks. These are treble hooks with a piece of sponge inserted into the hook. Dip the sponge into the cheese bait until it is fully saturated. A small stick can be helpful to mash more of the bait into the hook.
As you may spend some out fishing, you need to have a way to keep the fish alive until you are ready to kill and clean them. If your boat has an aerated live-well, this works best. If you do not, then a floating wire basket is a great alternative.
One Disgusting, Effective Homemade Catfish Bait Recipe
Dad’s go-to catfish bait consists primarily of a homemade rotted cheese concoction. With my dads’ permission, I am sharing his secret catfish bait recipe. I have used this stuff to fish since my childhood and can attest to the fact that it works. I can also verify the absolute disgustingness of the smell.
Dad’s Catfish Bait Recipe:
- 30 pounds of canned or block cheese
- Catfish scent spray
- Two drops of anise oil (available in most pharmacies)
- Tablespoon of vanilla extract
You want to have an outdoor fish fryer to “cook” this bait as it isn’t a scent you want permeating your kitchen. You warm it on a fish fryer while stirring in the ingredients. Continue to cook and stir until it is the consistency of peanut butter. Remove from heat. Pour it into a bucket with a lid, and then allow it to sit outside in the sunshine to rot.
For those who prefer to fish without having their gag reflex triggered, commercial bait like Catfish Charlie also works. It still has a disgusting odor, and you want to handle it while wearing a disposable glove, but the odor is far less pungent than the tried and true cheese bait listed above.
Closing Thoughts and Tips on Handling and Cleaning Catfish
When you return with the day’s catch, the real work of fishing starts. Catfish are notoriously difficult to clean. Remember, their dorsal and pectoral fins contain a type of venom. Use your fish grabber and caution when removing them from the live well or basket. Continue to be cautious while cleaning the fish as the fins can still puncture the skin and inject venom even after the fish is dead.
Because catfish have skin and not scales, the process for cleaning them is different than most other fish. A necessary tool when cleaning catfish is a good pair of catfish skinning pliers.
Fishing for catfish is fun for the entire family. Just remember the fins and make sure it is always an adult removing the fish from the hook. ‘Being finned’ can definitely put an end to a day of fishing. Do not be fooled, the smaller the catfish, the harder they are to handle, and the sharper their fins are. Most significant stings come from smaller fish.
I would love to end the article with a great recipe for delicious fried catfish. Though my dad was willing to give up the legendary recipe for cheese bait, he is not prepared to release the family recipe for frying them. Oh well, sorry, it’s a southern thing.
Anyway, I hope you have enjoyed this post. You are welcome to share your favorite technique for fishing catfish as well as your own ‘can’t miss’ catfish bait recipe with all its repugnancy.
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