Catfish bait:How to catch and preserve catfish bait.

The best bait for the trophy cats is fresh skip jack herring and shad but at times these bait fish can be hard to get and you’ll spend more time and energy in trying to catch the bait as you do actually catfishing.
winter catfish
Big trophy catfish require big fresh baits, just using an easy to get tub of night crawlers or chicken livers just won’t cut it if you’re looking for the big boys.
This is why this spring time bait run is an important time for catfisherman. It means, great trophy cattin and the abundance of bait that is easy to catch!
The cycle of fish/bait movement or migration happens generally twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall. Both of these windows of opportunity allows me to collect and preserve some natural bait for later use.
In the spring from April to June the skip jack will start migration to the tail waters to initially feed and stay to spawn and during this time frame, they are schooling by the thousands and this is the easiest time for a catfisherman to collect some bait. When they’re running good it’s not uncommon to catch 2 or 4 every cast.

I like to take a couple of days to catch a few hundred for stocking my freezer with bait for the coming season when the skip jack get scarce in the hot months. Packed in 2 gallon Zip lock bags the fresh frozen bait will generally last me until the fall when the skip jack return to the tail waters in the fall to feed.

HOW TO- The Skip Jack Rig
To catch skip jack you’ll need a med action rod with a spin casting reel spooled with some 14 lb mono.


Tie a barrel swivel to the 14 lb main line and tie a 3 foot piece of 20 lb mono leader to the other end of the barrel swivel. Now you will need to tie a marabou jig or other types of jigs on the leader about a foot below your swivel leaving a 2 foot piece of leader exposed, now come down anther foot and tie another marabou jig below the last jig leaving 1 foot of leader exposed and once again tie one more jig at the end of your leader completing the skip jack rig.
Look for skipjack along the faster current seams running close to the bank along rocky shores or rip rap. Cast your rig out and retrieve in quickly and steady the jacks will smash it. If quick and steady isn’t working, try to pop it and drop it. If the jacks are in there you will just have to find that patter or retrieve they want.

These fast action, hard fighting, acrobatic bait fish are an average weight of a pound and a half but it’s not uncommon to catch loads of 2-4 lbers in the spring.


Freezing/Preserving baitfish for catfishing

Some will disagree and say freezing bait will make the mushy and fall of the hook to easy. I can agree to that if the freezing process is not done properly. Frozen bait is only as good what you put into it and the process should be started as soon as you catch it, If not the bait will start to decompose very quickly, causing it to become soft and mushy.
The key to this freezing process is being able to drop the baits core body temperature quickly, as soon as it’s taken off the hook or out of the net. This will preserve the bait better as the decomposing process will be postponed immediately due to being exposed the sudden cold temperature. I never let my bait sit in a bucket for any length of time before I put ice to it.

My procedure for preserving bait is a little more involved than just catching it, putting it in bags and freezing it. It takes a bit more time but I think it well worth the time spent to have the freshest frozen bait possible.

Items needed
2 large coolers –
Cooler #1=brine solution
Cooler #2=Bait/ice
Zip lock bags (1 gal bags for shad and 2 gallon bags for skipjack)
Crushed/cubed ice
10 lb. Granular 100 % pure rock salt

A little preparation goes a long way in this process.
The key like I stated above is, dropping the baits Core body temperature quickly to postpone the decomposition cycle and this process should be started as soon as the bait is caught I do this by preparing a brine solution of super chilled ice water in one of the large coolers I’ve provided to immediately put the bait in after it is caught. . It doesn’t matter what type of bait you’re catching, shad, skip jack or other, this super chilled brine solution will work for all bait types.
Mixing the solution.

I will put one a large bag of crushed or cubed ice in the cooler and spread 2-3 handfuls of rock salt on top of the ice and repeat the process with another bag of ice on top of the first layer. Now I will pour water in the ice to make a slushy type ice mixture. Adding salt to the ice water changes the melting point of ice therefore making the solution colder preserving the bait better.
To be honest I’m not really sure about the physics of this process of changing molecules and equilibriums. So I’m not going to try to explain it, as I’m a catfisheman and not a scientist, I just know it works and take full advantage of this phenomenon, however if you want to know how it works, here is a link to the topic I found on the subject.
Once you’ve prepared the ice brine solution your ready to put the bait in it as it’s caught, always push the bait down into the solution allowing it to super chill never leave it on top exposed to air for any length of time.. The idea is to postpone the decomposition process as bait fish are very quick to decompose. You will have to add more crushed ice to the solution as you add more bait.

Now that you’ve caught enough bait to last several trips, it’s time to bag it out. I will always wait until I get home to do this so I will always top off my brine solution with more crushed ice and another handful of salt for the ride home keeping the bait super chilled until bagging time as I don’t ever want to give the bait time to warm up before I freeze it. I prefer to take it straight from the super chilled cooler to the bag and in the freezer within minutes. The salt based super chilled ice brine that the your bait is soaking in, is an old school preservative that has proven to be effective over the centuries in keeping human food fresh, it’s just as effective in keeping the bait in perfect condition for future use.

Bagging the bait for the freezer
Now it’s time to bag your bait for future fishing trips. Depending on the baits size I will fill each bag with a certain number of pieces to know what I will have for each trip.
For instance, if I’m bagging out 6-8 inch shad, I’ll use the 1 gallon bags and put 2 dozen pieces per bag but if I’m bagging 12-15 inch skip jack I will use the 2 gallon bags and only put one dozen pieces per bag.
As I’m bagging I will add more rock salt to the bait in layers so that all the bait has been touched by the salt. Put half of the bait in the bag and then a hand full of salt on it, then the other half of the bait and another handful of salt and seal the bag with the air in it and begin to tumble or mix the bait and salt thoroughly. Now open the bag and remove all the air from it and reseal the bag for the final freeze. This will preserve the bait in the best condition possible. Be careful not to get salt in the zip lock grooves and only fill the bag half way with bait; leave a little room in the top so it’s easy to close.
Some anglers choose to vacuum seal their bags of bait but I find it unnecessary for me personally as I use my bait a bit quicker than most so it really don’t have time to freezer burn but if you will not be using your bait on a weekly basis I would suggest you go through the same preserving process and vacuum seal for freshness.
Keep repeating this process until you’ve packed out all your bait.

Now lay the bags out and spread the bait flat within the bag and put it in the freezer so they all freeze quickly and evenly. You’re now all set with excellent bait for your next fishing trip. Just grab the number of bags that you’ll need, put them in a cooler with some ice and go fishing.

If you happen to take too much bait not to worry, by leaving it in the cooler on ice you can refreeze it when you get home and use the rest on your next fishing trip. The salt you used when packing it out will keep the bait in good shape even though you thawed it out some.

Winter Time Catfish Tactics

February in Kentucky is one of the best months for tying onto one of monster cats along the Ohio River and its tributaries. They will spend most of their time where the conditions are most favorable for them. Finding locations throughout the river system that will provide some sort of thermal relief from the extreme temperatures is the key to finding trophy blue catfish. Another factor is to finding huge catfish in the winter months is locating the food source or ideally, where they can find both comfort and the food source. Once you figure out where the cats preferred winter areas are in any given river or lake, you often can find fish in the same general areas day after day throughout the winter.
catching catfish in the winter

Catfish will frequent certain areas of water ways for one of three reasons.
1. Food source:
Locating schools of bait fish will help determine where you should fish for catfish. This could be in deep open water or a shallow point.

2. Cover:
Catfish are attracted to cover within the structure and deep water lairs. Wood log jams, boulders or manmade elements, all attract bait fish and allows the catfish to rest and wait for an ambush of unsuspecting prey.

3. Navigation
Catfish will use underwater structure contours such as ledges, channels and ditches to navigate throughout a body of water. Think of these types of structures as under water highways.

Seasonal patterns will often help determine locations as well. Winter is probably the most predictive time to locate catfish.
In rivers, the deep winter holes are often along outside bends or old river channels that run alongside a hard bottom bank, in reservoirs, look for the old creek and river channels. Channel confluences where the creek channels meets with the old river channels also tend to have deeper holes associated with them, run-ins or ditches will also provide some deep water habitat or HOT SPOTS.

Learning how to analyze the seasonal patterns, structure and cover to find the best winter time opportunity is the key to catching a winter trophy blue catfish. Here are three TOP HOT SPOTS to start looking for your trophy blue cats.

1. Channel bends:
A Channel bend is just simply a turn in direction of the river flow and usually associated with hard bottom and deep water as the current flow is constantly cutting the structure contour of the bottom and ledges and undercuts are formed, giving these trophy blue catfish a comfortable environment to take up residents. Channel bends will also get cluttered with big trees and logs that get washed down river and deposited over the years during high water periods, which gives the blue cats just one more reason to hang out. Now there’s a Hot Spot! Look for the cover that has lodged in the channel bends along the deep water ledges. Finding the spot within the spot is golden and will increase your chances of catching a trophy blue catfish.


2. Holes
Holes are most often going to be associated with current of some kind. Look for holes around the channel bends, below dams, around the mouths of tributaries and current breaks such as points and manmade structure like barge cells or bridge pilings. Current breaks will create scours holes down river of the break which is attractive to the big blue cats, as it makes an ideal spot to hang around and wait for food to flow by. Use your depth finder to locate the head of the hole and start there. Set up on these spots by anchoring above the holes and casting your baits back into the deeper water. Deep water holes of any structure type are always a good spot in the winter because catfish seem to stack into the deep water wintering holes making them easier to locate.

3. Mouths of tributaries
Tributary mouths are pretty much a year round hot spot. They provide many elements throughout the catfish’s seasonal patterns from staging to ambush and feeding areas. But in the winter months, the catfish will relate to the deep water at the mouth where it intersects the main river.
Bait fish along with several other species of fish will gather in these deep water areas to over winter and feed on what is washed out, in turn attracting the catfish to also take up residents for the duration.
catfishing spot

There are many structure elements that that make up a tributary giving the catfish some options in the winter months, current breaks or ledges allows them sit and wait comfortably on food to pass by out of the current.
The Deep holes associated with the tributaries provide a place to escape the current with some thermal comfort. The shallow points along the tributary will warm up on sunny days attracting the blue cats to the baitfish that have moved up on the point to the warmer water.

The best bait to use for a trophy winter time blue catfish is cut bait. Big baits equal big catfish. Use shad; skip jack herring, sunfish-bluegills, suckers and chub minnows. The best bait size for blue catfish really depends on how big the fish grow in the waters where you are fishing! But it’s not uncommon to use a 1-2 lb piece of bait cut in half or used whole.
catfish bait

Big Shad and skip jack is the popular baits among trophy blue cat anglers, but cut or whole pan fish will also work well. In the winter months you can obtain shad and skipjack around hot water discharges found around factories on the Ohio River.
But most anglers will anticipate the winter time trips and will catch these baits in the fall and freeze them for the winter time use.

The Three way slip rig is great for fishing in current. It is one the most common catfishing rigs used for winter time catfishing for a few reasons. 1. Easy to tie up.
2. Versatility
3. The slip feature allows the catfish to take the bait without detecting any resistance from the weight.
4. The sacrificial sinker feature

This rig is very versatile for catfishing a number of different situations. one feature I like about this rig is the sacrificial sinker. It allows you to pull the rig free from most snags, saving the hook and swivels which saves time and money.
This rig is great for catching all three species; Channel, Blue and Flathead catfish.

Bounding down is the best technique for locating and patterning winter time blue catfishing, Once you’re anchored on a spot give it 30-35 minutes, to see if you get any takers, if you get no bites it’s time to move but you don’t want to go far, the idea is to keep a scent trail for the catfish to follow, so bounding down is the best method, what this means, is pull your anchor up and move your boat down and re-anchor where you last placed your baits on the previous anchor, and cast them out again, keeping your bait in the same scent trail just a little further downstream. Because some of these areas can be up to a half mile long, you may need to bound down 4-5 times until you find the fish.
tTechnique for catching catfish

Winter time is a great time to land some huge trophy blue cats and there fun to catch but they are also kind of vulnerable this time of year as they are easily patterned.
Please remember to keep conservation in mind and put the big ones back after you’ve snapped some braggin pictures. Keep the smaller cats for fryin! Selective harvest works.

Steve Douglas