Like most outdoor activities, most anglers can typically correlate the time of year to the species of fish they are going to chase.  In the spring, it’s generally crappie that is at the top of the list.  In the fall, it’s walleye or pike that make their way onto many anglers’ hit-lists.  However, when the doldrums of summer set in and the weather turns hot and humid that is when many anglers trade in their soft plastics and ultralights for a heavy duty bait caster, some bank poles, and hit the water to start fishing for catfish. With so many anglers heading towards the water, we want to ask…” what is the best live bait for catfish?”

Out of all the fish species in North America, the catfish is one of the most sought after during the summer months.  This is the case for a variety of reasons; first and foremost they are a lot of fun to catch.  Blue and flathead catfish can average well within the 40-pound range and can test the prowess of even the most experienced angler.  Secondly, fishing for catfish can be both exciting and relaxing as the popular fishing methods such as tight lining does not require a significant amount of effort to complete.  Lastly, fishing for catfish doesn’t require a large volume of gear to do, and there are countless opportunities for anglers to hit the water in search of catfish.

Best Live Bait For Catfish

Doesn’t matter what part of the country you happen to find yourself in, if you find yourself in a bait shop and you make your way to the catfish section you will inevitably find a wide selection of soft dough bait or “stink bait” as they can sometimes be called.  Baits such as these are often promoted as being “the best bait for catfish”.  The primary reason is simply their ability to attract catfish.  A catfish typically finds its prey through their strong sense of smell and taste.  The iconic barbells or “whiskers” that catfish possess help them to taste food items that may be lying along the bottom of a lake, pond or river.  Also, catfish possess an extremely sensitive set of receptors along their body that also help them to taste and smell the water as it moves through it.  So, as you can imagine, something that is incredibly pungent could likely get the attention of a catfish or two, however, dough baits come with their fair share of drawbacks.  Dough baits are often hard to keep on the hook, and can be hard to keep fresh.

Photo Credit: Missouri Secrets Tackle

If you really want to be effective when fishing for catfish, you need to keep in mind exactly what a catfish’s diet consists of.  While it is true that a catfish will scavenge along the bottom, as more of an opportunistic feeder, in reality most catfish species do prefer to eat live or wounded bait.  Flathead catfish almost always forage on live bait, while blue and channel catfish will forage on both live and dead prey.

Regardless if you are fishing for catfish with a rod and reel, or bank poles and trotlines selecting your live bait is relatively consistent.  So, what is the best live bait for catfish?

The quick answer for most applications is Gizzard Shad and Brim. This live bait is easy to come by and work for an assortment of catfish species. Keep in mind, with each species of catfish, channel, blue, or flathead, some baits are definitely more effective.

Gizzard Shad – The most popular choice among hardcore catfish anglers is typically gizzard shad.  Gizzard shad are extremely common across the country and are especially common in many of our countries major river systems.  As a result, they can comprise a high volume of a catfish’s diet.  Shad are generally easy to come by, and an angler can usually find some by just throwing a seine net in the water.  If that isn’t really your style, most tackle stores will have shad for sale.

Brim – If you’re looking to branch out from the norm, utilizing a species such as green sunfish or bluegill can generally get the job done.  It is always important that you check the wildlife regulations in your state before assuming that you can use a species such as bluegill or green sunfish, so do your homework!

Other Live Bait – Other great live bait choices for catfish can include perch, skipjack, goldfish, and black salty’s. Much like any other species, the bigger the bait, the bigger the fish so if you are looking to put a “lunker” in the boat, don’t be afraid to scale up the size of the bait you are using.

Live Bait Catfishing Methods

There is a popular misconception that catfish only feed at night.  While they can be more active during the night time hours, the reality is that a catfish will feed at any time during the day.  As a matter of fact, some of the largest catfish can be caught during the middle part of the day.

When it comes to fishing for catfish, especially river fishing, there are three main approaches.  The first is simply to head out with a rod and reel and tight line.  This method is extremely effective, and is just as productive from the bank as it can be from a boat.  River fishing for catfish is part tackle and part experience.  Being able to read a river can make all the difference and ensure that you are putting your live bait in the right location.  If you are electing to take after catfish with a rod and reel, keying in on the channel breaks off the tips of the wing dike can be an excellent place to throw your line.  A sandbar can typically form directly behind the dike, and catfish will stage just downstream and forage on stunned baitfish as they are pushed along by the current.  Consequently, this area can be an excellent location to set your line as well.

Live Bait Presentation for Catfish

Whether you are fishing with a trotline or a rod and reel, the presentation for your live bait is the same. Hook your bait fish through the back just under the dorsal fin.  This will allow the bait to swim naturally and appear injured.  If you are using large bait, you may elect to make a few small incisions in the side to allow for extra scent to permeate from the fish.  Once you have your line tight or the trotline set, all that’s left to do is wait.  Ensuring your bait remains fresh isn’t as critical with catfish as it can be with other species, however, it is a good practice to ensure that your live bait is well airyated and is kept in a cool location, out of the sun. If you are traveling light, or fishing for catfish out of a kayak to get to your “best spot” utilizing tools like the Bait Up live bait container can be of some use!

If you are looking for a new challenge, and something that is fun to do when the weather gets hot, grab some live bait and head to your favorite river and give catfishing a try.  You might just find yourself a new warm weather hobby!