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Best Catfish Bait and Techniques for Every Situation

Last Updated: October 27th, 2020
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Plenty of catmen swear that the best bait for catfish is nothing more complicated than a box of old chicken livers, and years of experience has proven that they’re not wrong!

But if you want to improve your odds, increase your catch, or land some brute blues, chicken liver is probably not your best option for catfish bait.

Do you know which bait to throw--and how to rig it--when you’re after flatheads hiding under a rock ledge? How about when you’re chasing blues at the mouth of a stream? Or just to increase your catch of channel cats for your next fish fry?

We’d like to help, and below, you’ll find a thorough discussion of which baits work best and why. So keep reading!

Quick glance at the best bait for catfish:

  • Chicken Livers - Best for Flathead and Blue Catfish in Heavy Cover
  • Crawfish - Best for Large Catfish
  • Live Shad - Best for Large Catfish
  • Nightcrawlers - Best for Eating-Size Channel Catfish
  • Punch and Dip Baits - Best for Channel Catfish in Moving Water

Check out our other catfish buying guides and reviews:

Best Bait for Catfish: Reviews and Explanations

Chicken Livers - Best for Channel Cats in Still Water

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a catman sitting on the edge of the water with a small box of chicken livers. There’s no questioning their effectiveness--they will catch fish--but they’re also a finicky option.

Chicken liver, especially if it’s a tad over-ripe, has the stink-factor to attract channel cats in large numbers. But livers are soft and difficult to hook properly, as pretty much every catfish angler has discovered while casting!

Even on a single hook, it will firm up given a few minutes in the water, but every minute also reduces its scent and flavor, making livers the most effective during a Goldilocks period where they’ll stay on the hook well while still carrying some stink.

As Jeff Samsel explains, “Livers also tend to work best for the first 15 or 20 minutes they are on a hook. They lose a lot of their natural juices over time, as well as much of their appeal. Anglers are wise, therefore, to re-bait rigs periodically and to always begin with a fresh piece of liver after moving to a new spot.”

I like them for still water because they’re just not firm enough if there’s much current.

Of course, liver’s not going to do much moving in the water, and the absence of vibration makes it best for channel cats looking for a quick and easy meal.

Recommended Technique

Channel cats hunt the muck on the bottom, but burying your liver doesn’t improve the distribution of its scent. Instead, you want a technique that lifts your bait off the bottom just a bit.

I use a #5 or #6 Mustad’s 4x treble beneath a big slip float like the Billy Boy 040 Oval.

billy boy bobbers for catfish

I wrap about an ounce or two of liver and tangle it into the hooks to really get it stuck to the treble as well as I can. The slip float casts well, and it’ll suspend two ounces or less without sinking.

By adjusting the float, I can set the depth so that my hook is hanging a few inches from the bottom. There, it’ll disperse scent effectively and be easy to find for a channel cat hugging the mud.

Crawfish - Best for Flathead and Blue Catfish in Heavy Cover

crawfish bait for catfish

Crawfish are always on a cat’s menu!

Crawfish are a prime food item for catfish, and they’re primed to take them when they can. All three species will forage on crawfish, but I find it most effective for drawing a flathead out from under an overhang or other heavy cover.

Large crawfish will move actively on a hook, raising their claws and writhing with their tail. That vibration, plus their natural scent, rings the dinner bell for flatheads!

Recommended Technique

Rig a live crawfish by running a 6/0 or 8/0 Gamakatsu’s 4X Strong Octopus Hook upward through the tail. I like to leave the claws intact: I want that crawfish doing its thing to attract a flathead, and I know the fish isn’t going to care about a little pinch as it devours this little guy.

I’ll throw my bait adjacent to an overhang, rocky ledge, or other impenetrable cover, and wait for the flathead to rush out to take it.

Want some tips about how to hook these tiny devils?

This gentleman gives an excellent tutorial:

Live Shad - Best for Large Catfish

The wriggling excitement of a live fish on your hook sends vibrations scattering through the water, and along with the potent scent of its blood, slime, and scales, can pull blues and flatheads in to take a look from the next county.

Channel cats are mainly scavengers, but their larger relatives relish live bait, and pretty much any cat over 10 pounds will be looking for a live meal.

My hands-down favorite is shad. They shed scales like a teenager spends money, and they’re hardy enough to take a hook and keep on ticking. They’re also a natural prey item for many cats, and even where they’re not in the food chain, cats are primed to feed on small fish.

Check out our recommendations for live bait buckets

Recommended Technique for Shad

live shad bait for catfish

Shad from palm-size down to about 2-inches work well for big cats.

Small shad make an outstanding option for large cats, and they just can’t resist this natural prey item. I like shad between palm-size and 2 to 3 inches, and I’ve caught big cats on both.

My preferred technique involves a 6/0 or 8/0 Gamakatsu’s 4X Strong Octopus Hook. You want the shad alive and kicking, creating the excitement that drives cats wild, and it’s important to run the hook through the shad in a way that will secure your live bait and keep it alive for as long as possible.

For that reason, I prefer either lip hooking or tail hooking, as both create intense action from your bait while keeping it swimming longer than other methods.

To run my shad, I prefer a Three-Way Rig.

three way rig

Most catmen are already familiar with the Three-Way Rig, in which your main line runs to a three-way swivel holding both a dropper line and a sinker line.

three way swivel

The humble three-way swivel is an awesome catfish tool.

The result is a rig that has enough weight to keep your shad near the bottom, swimming crazily around your main line to attract a big cat. I like to give my shad a good foot or so of dropper and sinker line, keeping them up off the muck where they can ring that dinner bell.

Another option is the modified dropper loop rig, skipping the three-way swivel.

modified dropper loop rig

This rig is common in surf fishing, but it works really well for catfish!

Popular in the salt, it’s a technique that’s at home on your local river or reservoir.

The best method I’ve seen is demonstrated by Andy from CoastfishTV:

Nightcrawlers - Best for Eating-Size Channel Catfish

nightcrawlers

Nightcrawlers are another go-to bait choice for catmen, and there’s no questioning how well they work.

While still wriggling, a mass of these fast worms on a treble hook is too much for most cats to resist, combining potent smell with a bit of vibration.

Recommended Technique

This is another instance in which I reach for a #5 or #6 Mustad’s 4x treble and a big slip float like the Billy Boy 040 Oval.

Mustad’s 4x treble

The ideal nightcrawlers for catfish are big--as big as you can get them. I’ll rig my slip float and treble so that the hook dangles above the bottom, anywhere from 12 inches to just 4 to 5.

I then wrap, pierce, and hook a small handful of worms, doing my best to keep them attached to my hook. How they look won’t matter--I’m not fishing for bass! Instead, I just want a critical mass of nightcrawlers to create some scent and motion.

Punch and Dip Baits - Best for Channel Catfish in Moving Water

Nothing brings the stink like punch and dip baits!

Designed to have the right consistency to stick to your hook while slowly dispersing in slowly moving water, punch and dip baits are essentially chum and bait in one nauseating package. Necessarily messy, every serious cat angler has a secret recipe--many involving fresh blood of some kind--and as many other raunchy odors as they can get!

Fortunately, you don’t need to make your own, and many excellent commercial options are available. They’re generally applied to dip worms like Catfish Charlie’s or sponge-enhanced hooks that can hold this gooey mess, but high temps can liquify these concoctions, resulting in poor performance.

dip worms for catfishsponge enhanced hooks

Dip and punch baits demand special tackle.

I like to keep them in the shade, or even in a large cooler with a bit of ice to ensure they stay thick and useful. And some manufacturers make a special bait just for the heat of summer.

If there’s a more respected dip bait than Catfish Charlie’s Blood Dip Bait, I don’t know what it is. Horrible to smell, this thick bait sticks well and summons cats from hundreds of feet (at least). It distributes easily in slight currents, and there’s no question it works.

Another popular bait is Secret-7, and this stuff is legit, no question about it!

Recommended Technique

Wearing thick rubber gloves and taking care not to spill my bait, I stir my bait with a stick.

I push my sponge hook into the bait with my stick, getting it nice and covered with muck.

These gentlemen show you how it’s done:

I like to make my own sponge hooks from #5 or #6 Mustad’s 4x treble. Here’s a good guide on which sponge to select and how to do this in just a minute or two:

I’ll run this awful bait under a Billy Boy 040 Oval, especially if I’m fishing for cats over and around stumps, blowdowns, or other thick cover. Even working slick bottoms, I like to suspend my hooks about a foot over the muck, a process made easy by a slip float.

Bait 101: Know Your Catfish to Pick Your Bait!

The better you understand catfish and what makes them tick, the better you’ll be able to pick the right bait for the fish you’re after and the situation you’re in.

All catfish share some common traits. The two most important are that they have a smaller swim bladder than most other species, making them neutrally buoyant. The second is that they hunt more by scent than sight or vibration, but note the “more” in that statement carefully.

Let’s break this down a bit more to see why each is important:

Neutral buoyancy - All three species of catfish--channel, flathead, and blue--have evolved with small swim bladders relative to their size. This makes it easier for them to hug the bottom in search of food, as they don’t need to fight a natural tendency to rise in the water column.

And for the most part, cats will be found at or near the bottom, but that doesn’t mean you should bury your baits in the mud!

Olfactory dominance - Catfish are literally covered with “taste buds,” allowing them to smell and taste the water around them. This adaptation makes them exceptional hunters in low-light conditions, whether that’s the result of turbidity or reduced sunlight.

That generally means that cats are more active at dusk and in the dark. But it also means that baits with a strong scent are key, whether that’s the natural smell of a struggling minnow or the unbearable stink of a punch bait.

But--and this is a big but--there are distinct differences between the species, and if you keep these in mind, you’ll pick better baits.

Blue catfish - The largest of the three species, these monsters need to consume a lot of food to support their bulk. Aggressive predators, they will scavenge anything they run across, but they prefer live bait.

Of the three species, blues are the least driven purely by smell, and the vibration of struggling live bait attracts them effectively. That makes sense given their normal prey items: crawfish, frogs, minnows, and snakes are all on the menu!

Channel catfish - The smallest of the three species, channel cats can’t afford to be picky. Dominated by their sense of smell and taste, they hone-in on anything stinky in the water, coming from quite a distance in search of an easy meal.

Channel cats are suckers for stink, and from chicken liver to punch baits, smell is critical in getting them to bite.

Flathead catfish - Nearly as big as blues, flatheads have feeding habits that are closer to their large relatives than the smaller channel cats. Attracted by vibration as much as smell, live bait is usually more productive than stink baits for catching flatheads.

Final Thoughts

It should be obvious that there’s no magic bullet--no one-size-fits-all bait and technique that guarantees success across species. Instead, you need to know which species you’re angling for and where you plan to fish.

But with this information in hand, you can make some very educated choices about which bait to use--and which technique to employ--to tilt the odds in your favor!

If this article has helped you catch more fish, we’d love to hear from you.

Please leave a comment below.

About The Author
John B
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.
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