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Best Catfish Bait, Catfish Bait Selection 101

best catfish baits

When I get questions through the ask a catfishing question page at Learn To Catch Catfish I glance at them briefly and move them into a file of future questions that I need to respond to. Last week I went a day or so without getting to my email which rarely happens and when I finally got around to checking it I had an overload of catfishing questions. Of these questions, over 60% of them related to catfish baits. For some reason it never hit me before but Is started looking through my inbox of questions and realized that an alarming number of them were this exact same question (I stopped counting at 217 questions about the best catfish baits but I am sure there are more).

What is the best catfish bait for fishing in ____________:

  • Rivers
  • Lakes
  • Ponds
  • Reservoirs
  • Creeks
  • Streams

What is the best catfish bait for fishing for ___________:

I could go on and on and I am sure there are others but this is a good general overview of these questions about choosing the best catfish bait.

The first thing that gave me this major realization when looking through all of these questions about the best catfish bait is that 99% of them provide no species information and lump “catfish” into one lump group instead of stating what species the plan to target and catch.

A Catfish Is Not A Catfish Is Not A Catfish

What do I mean by this? The approach to fishing for blues is very different than that of fishing for channels and flatheads. They are all very different species with very different food preferences and habits and require a different plan of attack, catfish rigs, bait selections. While it is highly possible to be fishing for blues and catch channels, developing a specialized approach and using the right bait for the right species will greatly increase the success that you have and will make the difference between fishing and catching.

This is a guide to the best catfish baits for rod and reel fishing.

If fishing with setlines (trotlines, juglines, limb lines etc) my catfish bait selections change somewhat but 99% of the questions I receive are geared towards rod and reel fishing.

Before you proceed, make sure you read up on all three species so you have a better understanding of their behaviors, preferences and differences between each one.

A Basic Guide To Selecting The Best Catfish Bait

Best Catfish Bait For Blue Catfish

best-catfish-baits-blue-catfishBlue catfish are eating machines, where shad exist, threadfin shad and gizzard shad are their primary food source. They spend much, if not all of their day chasing and eating shad. It is not uncommon to find these fish with their bellies engorged with shad and absolutely stuffed. It is even common to find them so full of bait fish they they regurgitate them or even have them hanging out of their mouths. Most experienced blue cat anglers refer to them as “opportunistic predators” which is a fancy term that means they will eat dead or live bait.

The bait of choice is always going to be their primary food source, which in most lakes is going to be shad (or skipjack herring). Fresh caught shad (or skipjack) is the best catfish bait choice for blues and will out fish frozen baits any day of the week and twice on Sunday. These can be fished whole wormed onto a hook, or cut into chunks.

In the event that shad (or skipjack) are not present in a lake or river (which would be highly unlikely in a water body with a thriving population) then the best choice for catfish bait is going to be their primary food source in that body of water.

The second choice to fresh caught whole or cut threadfin or gizzard shad (read about the differences between the two) is going to be some sort of freshly caught cut bait like carp, drum, buffalo, perch or bluegill. In these instances (just like with shad) fresh caught is always going to better than anything frozen, there are no exceptions. These chunks are placed on a hook similar to baiting a hook with cut shad.

Last but not least is going to be prepared catfish bait like dip and punch baits, and this is highly dependent on the catfishing techniques you are using. While it is possible to catch blue catfish with prepared “stink” baits for most anglers these are not preferred “go to” choices for catching blues, but they can be effective given the right approach and technique.

What about live bait? While I do know anglers that will target blues with live shad, perch or bluegill it’s not something I practice (or at least as a “preferred technique”). Over the years I have used live and dead bait side by side and in almost every instance (with the exception of one time of the year) have found that blues will hit fresh dead bait (whole or cut) just as well as they will live. The process (and equipment) of keeping shad and other baitfish alive is in my opinion an unnecessary task for this species. If you are dead set on buying or building a bait tank, going through the trials and hassles of keeping shad alive go right ahead but I can honestly say that it will have little to no impact on your success a majority of the time.

There is no magic bullet bait that you can buy. I constant see and hear debates from anglers trying to cut corners because they don’t want to invest the time to learn how to throw a cast net, pattern shad and catch their own fresh bait. There are no workarounds to success in this area, get a cast net, learn to throw it, invest in a graph (if fishing from a boat) and learn to catch your own bait. This will contribute 2000% percent more to your success catching blues than the time you are investing looking for the “next best thing”. Put your energy into learning to do it the right way instead of focusing your energy on trying to cut corners.

Bottom line, if you want to fish for blue catfish finding and catching shad is part of the deal. You learn how to pattern shad all year long, and how to catch shad and the rest falls into place. This process along teaches you a LOT about learning to pattern fish.

Bottom line is the best catfish bait for blue catfish is going to be some form of whole or cut fresh bait fish.

Best Catfish Bait For Channel Catfish

best-catfish-baits-channel-catfishI will preface this by saying that when I am fishing for channels I am after numbers, I catch some bigger channels using these techniques but my goal is shear numbers of keeper sized catfish. If I am after size I will target blues or flatheads. In most lakes and rivers channel catfish from one to five pounds are going to be the standard catch, while there certainly are exceptions (like the Red River of the North) the general rule in most lakes, rivers, ponds and other bodies of water is going to be one to five pound fish.

Channel catfish are scavengers. While they will feed on live (or fresh dead) bait they live easy meals that they don’t have to work for and they are much more attracted to “stinky stuff”. For this reason my preferred choice of the best catfish baits is prepared catfish baits like dip and punch baits. I typically use Sure Shot and occasionally one or two others and never have any issues catching catfish. As far as I am concerned if you cannot catch channel catfish with a good punch or dip bait that is a proven bait that is known to work then your fishing in the wrong place or they are just not biting.

These types concoctions accomplish two things. First they have a very strong smell that attracts catfish almost immediately but they also break down in the water and that scent carries throughout the water and attracts more catfish into this area. They are absolutely deadly for producing numbers of channel cats and are hands down the best catfish baits for catching numbers of channel catfish.

Channels will also hit fresh dead shad, perch, bluegill used whole or in chunks as well as minnows and a variety of other dead and live baits but for day in and day out effectiveness and truly being successful catching good numbers on a regular basis the stinky concoctions are my preference and I rarely see a need to use anything else.

Many anglers that target channel catfish use what I call “grocery store baits”, things like chicken livers, turkey livers, hot dogs, shrimp and a variety of other items. While there are times these can be good, I as a general rule steer people away from them because again my experience has been if they won’t hit a good prepared concoction they are probably just not biting or you are in the wrong area.

Just like people are looking for that “magic bullet” that is going to put them over the top for catching blues, I feel the same way about channels.

Get a good bucket of Sure Shot, CJ’s, or a good proven dip or sponge bait or another proven bait and be done with it.

You don’t have to carry a buffet with you, don’t over think it.

Invest your energy in locating the catfish and learning how to pattern them.

People are constantly emailing me asking me “What about this product, what about that product, do they work?”.

The best advice I can offer you is that I use very few prepared catfish baits, Sure Shot, Bill’s and Sudden Impact Fiber Bait.

I’m not saying that the others don’t work. I am not saying that there are not other good products out there, I am saying that when rod and reel fishing between these three baits (and really primarily just one) if I cannot catch channel cat they are flat out not biting.

Just pick one, learn to use it and when the confidence develops the rest will fall into place.

I’m a firm believer that if you are fishing for numbers of channel catfish prepared bait is the best channel catfish bait.

Best Catfish Bait For Flathead Catfish

best-catfish-baits-flathead-catfishFlatheads feed primarily on live baits. Good hearty and lively baits like live perch, bluegill, sunfish, or even goldfish or mud cats are the preferred bait for catching flatheads.

If your going to target flatheads I will tell you two things. You have to have good hearty and lively bait and learn to keep it alive and healthy, and you have to be willing to spend a lot of time on the water. Flathead catfishing is not a fast and furious sport where you can expect to go out and catch 5, 10, 20 or 30 in a given trip, it just doesn’t work that way. Most of the guys I know that are really hardcore about catching flatheads consider one to two in a day or night to be a good trip (and those are often the exception as there are a LOT of outings without a catch).

Prepared and cut baits and all of the other offerings as a rule are going to be effective. Get a good perch trap or a rod and reel for perch jerkin and go catch your own perch, bluegill or sun fish and learn to keep them alive. That is the one and only option for day in and day out success.

I have heard some people claim that they catch flatheads with cut bait consistently but I have yet to see it produce on a consistent basis to justify even attempting it in lakes and reservoirs. I have seen cut bait perform well for flathead catfish many times but there seems to be an immediate correlation between moving water or moving baits (like drift fishing).

All in all the general rule to follow is that live bait is the best bait for flathead catfish.

The Exceptions

Typically when I write something like this I get bombarded with questions and comments from the “what abouts” who has a buddy that wore them out one day on a piece of bubble gum or some other off the wall concoction. These are the exceptions and not the rule.

I truly believe that investing time trying to research and hunt down all of these exceptions and find that “magic bullet” that is going to put you over the top is a total waste of time and energy. You would be better off spending your time fishing and learning, studying maps or countless other activities that are going to be much more productive.

There are always exceptions, I am telling you that this is what works for me day in and day out and works for hundreds of other people that I know and communicate with on a regular basis. That being said, if you put something in the right place at the right time and a catfish comes along that is hungry, they are going to bite it, but you are fishing by the exception and working off chance and not proven techniques that are known to work.

There is a video I posted a while back called winter flathead video. This big catfish was caught on a big chunk of cut gaspergou. I was in the right place at the right time with a hungry flathead. That is all. I would never dream or even attempt targeting flatheads with cut gaspergou.

Matching The Hatch

The only exception I will offer to everything that I have covered here is to “match the hatch”. You may have heard that before from bass anglers. Basically what that means is if you find what they are feeding on either use what they are feeding on or something that mimics what they are feeding on, which may just be one of the best catfish baits listed here.

While often times when catfishing the action or technique has more impact than the bait in these specific instances the baits I outlined above will still be very effective and will work tremendously, these are the one and only times that I will consider deviating from these techniques, and I am going to provide you a couple of very odd examples. I have a lot of them but these are some of the more oddball examples.

I was fishing some clients up in a creek one time and there was a bunch of large trees with grapevines all over them hanging over the water. Every once and a while I would see a large swirl under this area and after watching more closely I realized it was catfish and they were feeding on the muscadine grapes that would occasionally fall off the vines. I trolled into the area and flipped some punch bait into the area and we caught a few catfish. I then got curious and went across the creek and picked some grapes off the vine and rigged them up weightless on some light line and flipped them up unto the same area, catching a fish almost every time. I was matching the hatch and the action created by the grapes falling off the vine. I would never go out and fish in the big middle of the lake with a bag of grapes however because it was a specific circumstance that created this.

Over the years I have attempted to recreate this without success. I was just in the right place at the right time and thinking on my feet.

There is a marina at one of the lakes I frequent and I was sitting at the gas dock waiting on clients one afternoon and there were people sitting on the dock eating and they were throwing french fries to the ducks. Every once and a while I would see a big swirl under the water and could see the channel cats moving around. My clients showed up and I went and bought four orders of french fries inside the marina. I took a couple of the orders, got the ducks attention and went and threw them all up on the bank so the ducks would go up there to feed, and went back to the boat. I rigged these french fries weightless on a light weight line and flipped them out around the docks and we proceeded to sit there and catch fifteen or twenty channel cat. I again have had limited success recreating this situation and wouldn’t think about going out in the middle of the lake and fishing with french fries.

To sum it up, if you are fishing, you need to constantly read the water around you and if you find some specific instance where catfish are feeding on something. Try to match the hatch in addition to recreating the action and you just might have success. Just remember that doesn’t mean you need to go loading your hooks up with bubble gum or some other oddball bait.

Again, I could give you limitless examples, some would seem very odd like the grapes and french fries and some would be considerably less “off the wall” just remember to be aware of your surroundings and remember that there are at times exceptions.

Focus Your Attention

Hopefully this will help you considerably in your quest to find the best catfish baits regardless of your target species. Having the right bait at the right time and place is one portion of being a successful catfisherman and there are many other variables.

Stop focusing your energy on finding that next magic bullet and something that is going to make you catch a a big one, or phenomenal numbers, and stick with one of the simple and effective proven best catfish baits I have outlined for your target species. This will have considerably more impact on your success catfishing.

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About Chad

Chad Ferguson is a professional catfish guide and founder of Learn To Catch Catfish. Click here to subscribe for more exclusive catfish fishing tips by email and then follow on Twitter or Google


  1. Great info. Particularly, the info on channel cats. I will be putting it to the test this year! Have used chicken livers and worms for years, once, many moons ago when attempting to extend my day on the river (having run out of “normal” bait), I caught one channel cat on a chunk of hotdog!

  2. I like catfishing in The Milk River in Montana. I use half of a golden eye shad for bait on my set lines.

  3. i want to know that too how to keep the perch or sunfish alive because they die fast. thanks!!!

  4. what would you type of catfish would take rooster liver

  5. Catfish eat anything and everything…i catch just as well on rotten bait fresh bait live bait and prepared bait…once got bored and mixed up what must have been the absolute worst looking muck in the history of man…caught them on that crap as well…get a couple friends, a few diff baits and start fishing.

  6. Can I fish for flathead catfish in channels,

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