How To Catch Channel Catfish
Channel catfish were put into Utah Lake about 1919. I have been fishing for them since the
early 1960’s…when I was a student living in Provo. I did not have a car so I rode my bicycle down
to the Provo Boat Harbor almost every day after classes when the fish were biting. During the
summer months I did a lot of night fishing too.
Sometimes I was able to hitch a ride with fellow anglers who had cars…to other Utah Lake
catfish hangouts such as Lincoln Beach or the mouth of the Jordan River. Catfishing was also good
behind Geneva Steel but the fish from that area usually had a bad odor and taste after absorbing
the chemicals dumped into the lake by the now defunct steel making operation.
Most of my fishing was from the shoreline or by wading and casting in the shallow waters
along the east side of the lake. In those days the shoreline was much more open with none of the
invasive tamarisk and phragmites that ring the lake today.
I also fished quite a bit from an old wooden rowboat borrowed from the boat rental
concession at the mouth of the Provo River. I sometimes assisted the owner of that operation in
catching night crawlers which he sold to other anglers. I had a key to the padlock on the chain
securing the rental boats. So I could ride my bike down and take a rowboat out to fish the main
lake…even in the middle of the night.
In those days I knew much less about fishing in general and catfish in particular. I lived a
few years in California prior to moving to Provo. The catfish I caught there were usually caught
incidentally while not specifically fishing for them. In California I fished for all species with the
same old hook and worm rig I had learned to use for trout in my native Idaho. I caught bluegills,
bass, carp and catfish all from the same waters and on the same bait and tackle.
The owner of the aforementioned boat concession taught me a lot about how to fish for
catfish on purpose. He showed me how to rig nightcrawlers, shrimp and strips of carp, white bass
or other fish flesh. Yeah, verily, he did guide me well along the path toward catfish enlightenment.
One thing he taught me…of great long term value…was how to fish without sinkers and how
to leave the bail on my spinning reel open to allow the fish to take some line before setting the hook.
I have since used that technique effectively for many species and it is still a regular practice.
During my years as a student in Provo I steadily improved at chasing kitties in Utah Lake. I
almost always caught lots of average size cats…of 2 – 3 pounds…and a few up to 10 pounds. I had
much larger ones hooked a few times but the combination of inexperience, impatience and cheap
line reduced my chances of beating the bigguns and they usually broke off.
After college I moved back to southern California and entered the corporate world. I was
able to afford better tackle and to fish more places for more species in both fresh and salt water.
My knowledge of tackle rigging and handling larger fish also improved.
Over the next few years business and recreational travel took me to almost every state in the
country and across USA borders into Canada and Mexico. I got to fish a lot of waters I would have
never thought possible before. I advanced my fishing skills, caught grundles of big fish and often
dreamed of a rematch with the big ol’ cats of Utah Lake. I was ready for them now.
I returned to the Salt Lake area in the mid 70’s to join a friend in business. I also brought
along my constant fishing companion…my float tube. I had been float tubing for many years and I
suspected that the fish in Utah would be good tubing targets. There were very few other tube
fishermen in Utah at the time so my donut was the only one on the lake on most of my earlier trips.
I arrived back in Utah during a wintry February. It was still too cold for serious catfishing.
So, I kept my casting arm in shape with some white bass, walleyes and trout. But, once the rising
spring water temperatures got the kitties moving I introduced them to my tube fishing skills. They
showed their appreciation and I began to catch lots of cats…some real bigguns too.
I still fished from shore at times but always did better from my tube. Being afloat, rather
than being confined to one spot along the shoreline, made it much easier to find the fish and then to
fish them effectively. Fishing from the tube allowed me to prospect a lot more area by dragging
baits behind my craft. It also made it easier to present the baits without any added weight…which
seemed to result in more and bigger catfish.
Chasing cats from my tube, with better and more refined tackle and greater skills, resulted
in my being able to hook and land several Utah Lake cats over 20 pounds. I still lost a few of the
biggest ones…usually because they powered into some shoreline brush or jagged rocks. I was using
better gear but I did not have the monster tackle necessary for the very biggest specimens. I seldom
targeted the big fish anyway…preferring to use lighter tackle to catch more of the smaller fish.
They are more abundant and lots of fun when using tackle balanced for their size.
A career change required that I leave Utah for Arizona in the mid 80’s. During the two
decades I lived in Arizona I enjoyed lots of fantastic fishing for several species of cats, including big
nasty flatheads. I really wish we had some of them in Utah. They would help with the carp
situation in Utah Lake. The only problem is that they would also eat June suckers. That’s a no no.
When my wife and I arrived back in Utah…in July of 2004…I was pleased to find plenty of
large and willing whiskerfish awaiting our return. I caught some nice cats from my float tube on
just about every trip to Utah Lake that year…even after the autumn water temps dropped below 50
degrees. Each year since I have found them ready to play again as soon as the ice is off and the
water begins to warm into a new spring.
It is surprising to me how angler attitudes have changed in Utah since I first started fishing
Utah Lake in the 60’s. In those days Utah was predominantly trout oriented. While there were
already many of the so-called “warm water” species in Utah waters very few Utah anglers fished
for anything besides trout. In fact, folks who fished for catfish were often regarded with disdain.
Today there are seemingly as many catfish fans as terminal troutaholics. At least it looks
that way at Lincoln Beach, Lindon Harbor, the Knolls or other favorite spots when the kitties are
hitting. And the topics of conversation on Utah fishing websites often center more on fishing for
catfish than for “slimers”.
I’m only guessing but I think one factor in the increased popularity of Utah Lake has been
how much the water quality has improved since the shutdown of Geneva Steel. As I mentioned,
many fish from the “old” Utah Lake had a foul odor and flavor. They smelled and tasted like the
creosote used for coating telephone poles. Even the normally mild and tasty walleyes were
sometimes virtually inedible after they had been hanging around that part of the lake too long.
Since my return to Utah I have eaten fish of just about every species currently found in Utah
Lake. Being a published author on fish recipes…and knowing how to evaluate the quality of fish
flesh pretty well…I have been very thorough in checking for “off” odors or flavors in either the raw
or cooked fish. I am happy to report that of the many pounds of catfish fillets I have consumed
from Utah Lake since returning I have not experienced ANY quality problems. In fact, I would put
our local kittyfish flesh up against any I have had from anywhere else in the US.
So, there you have it. Channel cats are abundant in Utah Lake. They are fun and easy to
catch and great to eat. And they are only a short drive from almost anywhere along the Wasatch
Front. That is a biggie in times of higher gas prices. So, let’s discuss some of the factors involved in
finding and catching a bunch of Utah Lake kitties.
CHANNEL CAT BASICS
There are few species of fish more subject to “urban legends”, stereotypes and outright
misinformation than catfish. The fact that very few people really get to know and love them
contributes to the wild and crazy notions about them…and the bad reputation they often have.
Channel cats and bullheads are the only two species of kitties in Utah. Yet there are lots of
discussions and heated arguments about people catching other species from Utah Lake. One
contributing factor is that channel cats can exhibit several different color phases…including a dark
grey or blue color by males during the spawn. There are lots of “gobs” (good ‘ol boys) who will
fight to the death over their claim that there are “blue cats” in Utah Lake. Some pseudo
authorities give them a hybrid name…”blue channels”. Doesn’t matter. They are still just plain
old channel cats with a dark coat.
Similarly, because big male channel cats usually have bigger heads than females, there are
many of the misinformed who insist there are flatheads in Utah Lake. Large spawning males can
be really ugly compared to the sleeker females which are usually an olive brown color. In addition
to their heads being wider than the rest of their bodies the males also sport big fat lips. It is easy to
see how dimbulb anglers can assume they are another species…but they ain’t.
There is still another color phase that causes some confusion…and misnaming. Young
channel cats commonly have dark spots on a pale cream colored skin. This is likely a camouflage
adaptation to help the young avoid predators. As they grow larger they lose the spots and become
the olive coloration if female or the dark gray to blue coloration if male.
CATFISH BAITS & LURES
Catfish are well known for their weird appetites. They eat almost anything and everything.
That includes a lot of stuff that seems pretty gross and disgusting. However, they also eat live food,
such as crawdads, worms, leeches, minnows and even the occasional small bird, snake or rodent. In
short, they eat whatever they can get into their mouths…and which does not eat them first.
Cats that live in perpetually murky waters are likely to rely more on their olfactory senses
(smell) to find food. And catfish are super sniffers. They have taste receptor cells both on their
skin and on their whiskers that help them locate and sample potential food sources in even the
muddiest water or darkest night. Under these conditions catfish chasers do well with a wide variety
of stinky baits that put out a lot of smell to help guide in the kitties. Some of that stuff is bad
enough to make you retch but the catfish seem to like it just fine.
In lakes and rivers that remain fairly clear cats often become “sight feeders”. Contrary to
common opinion they do have good eyesight…good enough to enable them to hunt living prey.
They will actually seek out and chase down crawdads, minnows, worms and other living critters. In
fact, where they can make a living by hunting, they often prefer live or fresh dead baits.
Utah Lake is somewhere between perpetually murky and occasionally green-clear. There
are periods when the wind remains calm for a few days and the water levels are high enough to
keep the clarity in the “green zone”. When that happens you will catch more cats on lures and they
will also hit natural baits more aggressively…especially when fished under a bobber.
Even the most discriminating catfish will sometimes accept non-natural baits, like Ivory
soap, wieners or the prepared stink baits. But you will usually do better in most waters by using
baits that are natural to that habitat. In fact, even where stink baits are widely used you can often
catch bigger fish by using live or fresh dead bait from the primary forage species.
Plain old “garden hackle” probably catches more catfish in Utah Lake than all other baits
combined. Worms are easy to harvest, easy to rig on a hook and they are welcome food to almost
every species of fish. Catfish love worms but many Utah Lake anglers feel they catch more and
bigger channels (and fewer bullheads) by using minnows or cut bait. Still others fish a “combo
sandwich”…crawlers with a piece of shrimp attached.
Worm is a generic term including both regular earthworms and night crawlers. Both work.
Night crawlers are bigger and present a more delectable offering for larger cats. In fact, some
serious cat fishermen even use more than one crawler at a time…balling up two or more crawlers
on a large hook. It works but it’s more costly if you buy your worms rather than gathering them
yourself. It can be expensive and frustrating if a school of “mudders” and/or white bass moves in
and goes through your supply of worms without you getting any channels.
There are several ways to fish worms effectively. Probably the most common presentation is
to simply thread a crawler on a hook…with or without weight…and then just chuck it out and wait
for a bite. Depending on how you hook the crawler and how big the fish are that you expect to
catch you can use anything from a small size 6 bait holder hook to a 4/0 circle hook.
Smaller hooks are good for hooking the crawler once through the collar and letting it wiggle
enticingly. If you use larger hooks it is good to thread and/or gob the worm all over the hook. This
presents a larger bait and also helps keep the hook more snag resistant, especially if you are fishing
in rocky areas or dragging your bait across the bottom.
Another popular way to fish crawlers is to hang them below a bobber. When cats are
shallow (less than 4 feet) and/or in the rocks, a bobber not only helps signal bites but keeps the bait
(and hook) up off the bottom and out of harm’s way. It can be exciting to watch a large bobber
suddenly plunge beneath the surface. You never know whether it is a 12 incher or a 12 pounder.
Although you will typically catch smaller cats on crawlers there are plenty of big ones landed on
These nasty squirmy underwater bloodsuckers are “annelids”…in the same family as
worms…but live vastly different lifestyles. They can be easily harvested from many ditches,
streams and ponds. They are hardy and stay lively as long as they have oxygenated water and
something to snack on once in awhile…like a piece of bloody liver.
Leeches are definitely part of the basic food group chart for catfish and many other species.
They have an attractive odor and they wiggle a lot. That signals edibility and they get good
reception when presented on the right hooks. Like regular worms and crawlers leeches can be
fished by themselves or used to tip jigs. Fish them with or without weight or under a bobber.
Baby cats live on worms and aquatic insects until they grow big enough to dine on minnows
and other large meals. When times are tough and larger catfish must expand their menus they will
readily return to dining on bugs. Not only will they slurp up aquatic creepy crawlies but they will
munch any terrestrials that fall into the water too. This includes caterpillars, moths, butterflies,
beetles and grasshoppers. Adult winged hoppers make a very good catfish bait during the late
summer when numbers of them blow into the water, become waterlogged and sink to the bottom.
In some waters catfish commonly take bugs off the surface, especially in shallow water or
right next to shore. But hoppers and other terrestrial insects are best fished by adding weight and
sinking them to the bottom. It can be very effective to hook a live hopper on a size 4 or 6 hook, a
foot below a split shot or small sliding sinker. Simply chuck it out and the live and buoyant bug
floats and struggles up off the bottom. The combination of the buggy odor and the vibrations from
the insect’s dying struggles will sometimes bring cats a runnin’…well, swimmin’ anyway.
Many species of caterpillars and grubs are great for kitty bait. This involves picking them
off leaves or digging them up if they are earth dwellers. Some work better than others. If you find
some in your yard or near your fishin’ hole gather some up and give them a try. Helps the plants
and might just score some kitties.
Catfish commonly feed on whole small fish…minnows and fry. In clear water they will
actually hunt for their prey. They catch and eat live ones but readily accept dead ones too.
We cannot use live minnows in Utah. Fresh dead minnows or ones that have been frozen
fresh and are still in good condition often work better than either live minnows or “soured” ones.
Keep your minnows on ice while fishing and they will stay fresher…both for the catfish and for
your olfactory senses. Fresher ones are also firmer and stay on the hook better. When you fish
with old soft minnows you will lose a lot of bait to cats that do not get the hook inside their mouths.
They simply pull the soft minnow off the hook and make a clean getaway.
Several species of minnows are both available and legal for fishing in Utah Lake. Chubs and
shiners are the two species most commonly available for sale. They can be purchased frozen in
some bait and tackle shops. You can also catch your own with small hooks, seines or minnow traps.
Sucker minnows are great bait almost anywhere, but you can no longer use them in Utah
Lake. The June Sucker Recovery Program makes it illegal to keep suckers or use them for bait.
White bass are plentiful in Utah Lake and are excellent bait…whole or cut into chunks or
strips. In late summer or early fall the young-of-the-year whities are about 3 to 4 inches
long…ideal for use as whole minnows. Big catfish love them. So do walleyes.
Yellow perch are also legal to use in Utah Lake…whole or cut into strips or chunks.
Whenever you catch a bunch of small ones from waters where they are prolific you should keep
them (up to the limit) for use as whole minnows. By keeping them and using them for bait, you help
reduce the population where they are overabundant and have some good bait for both catfish and
walleyes in Utah Lake.
Some of the best “minnows” in Utah Lake are baby carp. Within a few weeks after carp
spawn the shallows and reed beds around the lake are teeming with 2” to 3” carp. Seines, cast nets
and minnow traps all work to harvest large quantities of them. If you get a chance you should take
home as many as you can catch, freeze and store. This size is ideal for bait year round in Utah
Lake…not only for cats but for white bass and walleyes too. They all love carplets.
As previously mentioned minnows are best when properly cared for. That means vacuum
sealing or freezing them in a little water as soon as possible after they die. The idea is to keep them
from being frozen with air next to them. Just like processing fish fillets for the table freezing
minnows improperly will result in freezer burn. That can create tough dry areas on the minnows
and will adversely affect the natural minnow scent and flavor. It can make a difference on days
when the cats are being picky.
Many minnow fans roll freshly killed minnows in salt or cover them with salt and leave them
in the refrigerator overnight before freezing. The salt removes moisture and firms the
minnows…reducing the tendency to turn mushy when thawed. It also imparts an attractive salt
flavor. Many species like a little salt with their “meat” (minnows). Freeze the minnows after
salting, either in a vacuum pack (best, but more costly) or in a small plastic bag with just enough
water added to allow you to squeeze out all the air before sealing and freezing.
When you thaw your minnows do not do a fast thaw in the microwave. Take them from the
freezer and put them in the refrigerator to slow thaw the day before you plan to use them. If you
have a sudden urge to go fishing and need to thaw the minnows faster thaw them in lukewarm
water…just until the ice is decrystalizing. Then pour off the water and let the minnows continue to
soften in your cooler. Your minnows will be soft enough to hook for bait when you get to the water.
You can fish minnows any way you would fish worms. Fish them on the bottom, with or
without a sinker. Hang them below a bobber or use a little floating cork between the sinker and the
baited hook to lift them up off the bottom. Floating off the bottom works for other species too.
When you fish with minnows you need to know something about hooks and hooking
techniques. Sure, you can just hang a minnow on the hook any old whichaway and still catch some
fish. But, using the proper hook of the proper size and placing it in the right place on the minnow
can make a lot of difference…both in how attractive the minnow looks to the fish and how effective
it is in hooking the fish when one munches your bait.
There is another consideration in rigging minnows up for bait. That is snag prevention. If
you are casting over rocks or dragging a minnow across the bottom you need to be concerned with
snags. I usually like to hook the minnow in the head…by either running the hook through the
minnow’s eyes or up through both lips.
Both of these will allow you to drag the minnow through the water in a semi natural manner,
and will still allow for good hook sets. The only “downside” is that the exposed hook points increase
the potential for snagging. That means that you sometimes have to downsize the hook, and give up
some hooking potential, in order to avoid spending most of your day fighting snags.
You better avoid snags by hooking the minnow so that it is pulled backwards. Use a larger
hook…wrapping it around the spine and pointing toward the head. When fish swallow the bait
head first you will hook a high percentage of them with this rig. And it snags less.
If you fish a minnow below a bobber you can also hook it in the top of its back right in the
middle. This will present the bait horizontally…more natural to the fish…and will make for good
hook sets when a large fish grabs the bait in the middle…as they often do.
Size is important when fishing minnows. There are days when even the largest cat will
respond better to small minnows than to larger ones. On other days you can really separate the
kittens from the big cats by soaking a larger minnow…up to several inches long. Big channels
sometimes get excited by a large chub or carp minnow laying there waiting for them to dine. You
won’t get as many bites but the ones you get will be memorable.
I seem to have the greatest success throughout the year with minnows around 3” to 4”. But,
if you have only larger ones…or if they are not hitting even the 4” minnows…try cutting them up
and fishing a half minnow or smaller chunks. Sometimes smaller bait has more appeal to a finicky
feeder. Cut bait also releases more scent into the water to call kitties to dinner.
Using a single properly placed hook is dandy for fishing most whole minnows. However, if
you are soaking a big minnow for bigger cats you may wish to rig up a “stinger hook”…a second
hook to aid in getting a hook set on a wily big catfish.
Smart kitties are notorious for grabbing just one end or the other of large baits and
swimming around with them for a while before gulping them down. A large minnow rigged with
two hooks…one in the head and one in the tail…can add fish to your count by allowing you to strike
sooner with less chance of just pulling the mangled minnow out of the fish’s mouth.
On the other end of the ledger is the possibility that your minnows are too small. Maybe you
could only catch some tiny ones, or those were all that was available when you went to buy some.
As they say in Australia, “No worries mate.” Simply string two or three small ones on a single
hook, running the hook through their eyes. This is a ploy commonly used on catfish waters where
the main forage base is zillions of tiny minnows that never get very big. Serve up a whole plateful to
a hungry kitty and they won’t bother to count.
As previously mentioned, you can cut up large minnows into pieces or chunks. Some are
best when first filleted and then fished either as whole “slabs” or cut into strips. Carp, white bass,
perch and other legal baitfish are routinely cut into such bait-sized pieces for catfish on Utah Lake.
Since the implementation of the June Sucker Recovery Program, however, you are no longer
allowed to possess sucker meat on Utah Lake.
Small strips of fish flesh can be fished on a plain hook or pinned onto jigs, spinners or other
lures, as “sweetener”. These smaller pieces are good to use when the fish are not aggressive. They
will slurp up smaller baits when they might otherwise just pick up and drop larger offerings
without getting the hook. Using the proper size and type hook in small pieces of fish flesh will allow
you to set the hook on the strike without having to let the fish run with it.
Minnows can be filleted to produce thin strips of flesh, with skin attached. However, unless
you have a small sharp blade, and know how to use it, you will mangle small minnows and end up
with mush. It is usually easier to fillet larger minnows or small perch or white bass and then cut the
larger fillets into useable strips. Of course you can make strips from the fillets taken from large fish
like carp too but the flesh is thicker and you might have to “shave off” some of the meat to get the
full benefits of using strip baits. Otherwise you are just fishing with “chunks”.
The best strip baits are usually about a half-inch wide and 2” to 3” long, with thicker flesh at
the top and a narrower and thinner “tail”. This helps create a “flutter” when the bait is moved.
That can create more appeal when casting and retrieving or when fishing a strip below a bobber. It
wiggles each time you move it adding to the attraction created by the scent trail.
Small strip baits are best fished on smaller and sharper hooks. Fish will often suck in a light
strip bait and you can set the hook quickly. It is best to hook the strips only once…in the wide end.
Ideally, you will have the hook mostly concealed but with the point exposed enough to allow good
hook penetration when you set the hook.
If you use larger strip baits you need to use larger and heavier hooks and may even want to
add stinger hooks…for extra hooking capability…as with using large minnows. Large strips may
be anywhere from 1⁄2” to 1” wide and from 3” to a foot long for really big kitties. The larger the
strip the more sense it makes to add stinger hooks.
Carp produce excellent chunks and strips. First fillet them and slice out the rib bones. If
you have a large fillet, you can simply cut the strips across the width of the fillet. Some cat chasers
prefer to leave the skin on, since it provides a good hook-hold. Scale the fish before filleting if you
plan to leave the skin on the strips. Others skin the fillets before cutting them into strips so there is
no need for scaling. Carp meat is pretty firm and stays on the hook well even without the skin.
Carp meat strips from 1⁄2” to 3⁄4” wide are just about right. Cross cut strips will be 3” to 5”
long, with a thick fleshy portion at the top and a fluttery skin at the bottom. This size strip will
work on channels from two pounds to twenty pounds. You should use large hooks if you put the
hook in the thick part of the strip. Many devoted cat chasers use circle hooks up to 4/0 or larger.
By the way, since the skin is tough, you can make it easier to get the hook into the bait by carefully
poking a small hole in the skin with a sharp-pointed knife.
Some days you will get more hookups by cutting the longer strips into two or three smaller
pieces. If you are not getting a good hookset even after letting the fish run with the whole strip of
carp meat, you should cut them into two or three smaller chunks. Then the fish grab the whole
piece of bait in their mouths and are more susceptible to getting hooked.
You can also cut the fillets from larger perch and white bass into either strips or chunks.
They make good strips for tipping jigs. Crosscut the fillets into thin strips, about 1⁄4” wide. In fact,
you might also want to cut the longer strips into smaller pieces if the fish are striking short, or if the
average size of the fish you are finding are a bit smaller. Alternatively, you can cut fillets into long
strips, lengthwise, or into two or more wider chunks. They all work, depending on how the fish are
acting and how you want to fish them.
You cannot use parts from any protected fish species for bait in Utah. No trout, crappies,
bluegill or bass…either largemouth or smallmouth. And, since the June Sucker Program started,
no sucker meat. As mentioned, however, you can use both white bass and yellow perch for bait in
Utah Lake…along with any non-protected species like shiners, chubs and carp.
ROE (FISH EGGS):
Most fish will eagerly slurp up the roe of almost any species…including their own. Fish eggs
are rich and nutritious. Caviar. There also seems to be an instinctive urge to destroy the eggs of
other fish in order to reduce competition for their own fry…more food and cover for them, etc.
The roe of all species is legal to use for bait and catfish LOVE it. They seldom seek out and
raid the nests of spawning fish but they eagerly gulp down skeins of eggs removed from other fish
before they spawn. So, if you are cleaning a batch of white bass, perch, crappies, trout or any other
species that has ripening eggs in their ovaries, cut out and save those delectable morsels.
You can use whole roe skeins or cut them into bite sized chunks. A gob of fish eggs on a jig
hook below a bobber is dynamite during the spring spawning period. Cats are conditioned to the
smell of spawning and the presence of eggs in the water. A nice cluster of fish berries is a welcome
snack. Of course you can also just pin them on a hook and soak them on the bottom…or drag them
while you drift, etc.
“Mudbugs” are freshwater crustaceans…relatives of shrimp…and catfish readily dine on
them whenever they can get them. There is a population of crawfish in Utah Lake but they are not
plentiful. However, if you trap a bunch from some other location you can use them for bait in Utah
Lake. The cats don’t care whether they are imported or domestic. Just remember that it is illegal
to transport live crawdads anywhere in Utah. So if you trap them elsewhere…for use as bait in
Utah Lake…you must kill them before leaving the waters from which you got them. Just keep
them fresh or freeze them until you can use them.
Crawdaddies may be fished whole, on a large hook, or you can twist off and use only the tail
portion. If you have a bunch of ‘dads you can create a powerful catfish attraction by peeling two or
three tails and pinning them all on a single large hook. That is catfish candy. Unfortunately, carp,
bullheads and other species like them too.
Shrimp has long been a favorite bait on Utah Lake. You can use them whole or cut into
pieces. Fish them peeled or with the shells intact. You can soak them by themselves or in
combination with night crawlers. Catfish love shrimp. Fresh or frozen shrimp is pricey but you
can sometimes work a deal with the seafood manager of a market for “out of date” shrimp.
OTHER FISH MARKET OFFERINGS:
You can legally use any salt-water crustaceans, mollusks, cephalopods or fishes for bait.
That means that you can use shrimp, clams, oysters, squid, anchovies, sardines, herring, mackerel
or a hundred other goodies you might find in the seafood section of a market.
This stuff all make great bait for catfish but can be pretty pricey unless you get a good buy
on some “aged” stuff. You may not wanna take “past prime” seafood home for the family table but
catfish won’t mind a little extra flavor enhancement. Slightly “ripe” shrimp and other seafood can
be downright delicious to hungry kitties.
Squid is one good catfish bait that is relatively inexpensive and often overlooked. It is tough
and stays on the hook well. You can also cut it into strips easily to fish below a bobber or to tip jigs.
Soaking a whole or half squid is sometimes a good way to arouse the larger cats in the area.
Anchovies are popular for bait in both salt and fresh water. This small oily baitfish is a
mainstay of the live bait fishing industry in California. They are also fished salted and frozen for
many species. In fresh water they are prime bait for striped bass which are native to salt water.
They are also great baits for catfish almost anywhere…including Utah Lake. Fish ‘chovies just like
dead minnows. Use them whole, halved or cut into bite-sized chunks. They put out a lot of scent
into the water and can sometimes be more effective than baits more natural to the local habitat.
Mackerel are saltwater fish that are plentiful, strong tasting and not highly prized as food
fish. Some folks do buy and eat them because they are cheap. However, their strong oily flavor
appeals to fish in both fresh and salt water and they are a popular baitfish. Many big cat hunters
never leave home without mackerel.
Mackerel average about a foot in length, and you can fish them as big chunks or strips of
fillets. You can even rig a large whole fillet with multiple hooks for big ol’ bigguns. If you have
problems with the soft flesh not staying on the hook try wrapping the pieces with a bit of sewing
thread. This can be a problem when smaller cats and mudders nip at the mackerel.
Sardines and herring are also great cat baits whenever you can find them. They too have
oily flesh that puts out a lot of fish-attracting scent in the water. Like mackerel, they are not large
fish but large enough to fillet and to chunk or strip for bait. Anchovy, herring and sardine oils are
also great scents to apply to other baits that you have been soaking a long time without any action.
Seasonally you can sometimes find packages of other small fish, like smelt or lake whitefish.
These are legal and lethal. Again, fish them like large minnows…whole, halves or chunks. Anytime
you can find packages of small whole fish…at a reasonable price…give them a try even if you have
no idea what they might be. Catfish can’t read the labels so it makes no difference to them.
There are many specialty ethnic markets that have seafood sections. Asian markets are
especially good places to find a wide variety of fresh fish that might make good bait. Look for
members of the mackerel or tuna family for the best-scented baitfish. But almost any salt-water
seafood is more “flavorful” than the typically bland freshwater species. Don’t be afraid to make a
minor investment if you find a good price on something. You may just discover your own top-
secret cat-killer bait.
Chicken parts are good catfish bait. The organs…livers, hearts and even gizzards…are
inexpensive “byproducts” in the poultry section of the market that make great enticements for kitty
fish. However, chicken livers break down and turn soft quickly so they should be used fresh and
kept on ice while fishing. Otherwise, you need to wrap them in mesh to keep them on the hook.
You can also use chunks or strips of chicken from other parts of the bird although those
parts are more expensive. But, if you accidentally leave a chicken thawing on the counter too long,
and it has “turned”, then by all means cut it up for bait and feed it to the cats…fish that is.
That same principle applies to other meats. Beef, pork, venison and even elk meat have been
effectively used as catfish bait on Utah Lake. No need to waste good fresh meat but if you have
some that has been in the freezer too long, or is “over-aged” and smells wrong for the table, then
drag it down to Utah Lake and invite the whisker fish to dispose of it for you. Most of these meats
stay on the hook well so they give good “mileage” before you have to replace them.
Processed meats catch lots of kitties. Wieners, bologna or other “lunch meats” are usually
very well received by the cats…whether fresh or “aged”. You can easily cut them into whatever
size and shape you want. Sometimes thin strips work well. Other times you can use larger chunks
of wieners or wad on a whole piece of garlic cheese bologna
Fish this stuff right out of the package or soak it first in your choice in flavorings or scents
overnight in the refrigerator before a trip. Use regular fish attractant scents, or kitchen cabinet
stuff, like vinegar, anise (licorice), banana extract, garlic powder, vanilla, etc. Just don’t use all
those scents at one time and/or don’t get caught by your spouse while doing it.
Many of those processed delectables are composites of multiple cuts from pork, beef and/or
poultry…chicken or turkey. They usually have some kind of smoky natural flavor but can also be
“enhanced” with different additives…such as cheese and/or garlic. At one time or another, they
will probably all work. On other occasions you will do better with the more “natural” baits.
DOUGH BAITS & STINK BAITS:
Catfish have highly developed olfactory senses. They have a basic sense of smell that is
much keener than most fish. As previously mentioned, they also have taste receptors in their
whiskers and all over the surface of their skin. They can detect minute traces of “edibility” in the
water and can zero in on the sources with great efficiency. It is no surprise then that there are
catfish baits that rely more on scent than on appearance or resemblance to any natural food.
Today, there are a variety of commercially made catfish baits. Some are in a bulk dough
form, in a plastic tub, from which you mold a ball and shape it onto your hook…single or treble.
Others are more “liquid”. These are commonly known as “dip baits” because you dip a special
plastic or foam rubber “lure” into them, swirl them around to pick up the good stuff, and then cast
downwind. Some of those dip baits are made from “well aged” fish parts and could probably
qualify as toxic waste.
Some catfish concoctions are semi-tolerable to fish with. They may be made from blood
products, cheeses, fish parts and/or a variety of special flavorings and attractants. The important
thing is that they wake up the catfish’s senses and bring them in for dinner.
Many cat fanciers have their own “secret” recipes for different dough and dip baits. The
basics are simple and you can find lots of different formulas listed on catfish websites. Some are
simple mixtures of flour, milk and/or water and choice of “flavorings”. Others involve mystical
rites of burying dead fish in jars and allowing them to magically transform, over a prescribed time,
into foul-smelling liquids that would gag a maggot…but are ambrosia to catfish.
Some Utah Lake cat chasers swear by stink baits. Others experience only minimal success
with them. There are probably more serious cat anglers that favor “natural baits” than those who
regularly soak the nasty stuff. Overall it seems that a piece of carp meat or a minnow will catch
more and bigger fish over time than will relying on those smelly concoctions.
Good old “Velveeta hackle” used to be a mainstay in the tackle boxes of Utah trout
fishermen. It was only natural that some trouters tried soaking cheese balls in catfish country. It
was also pretty much a slam-dunk that the catfish would eat the stuff. They seem to love cheeses of
all kinds and all degrees of “flavor”. Many popular prepared catfish baits contain cheeses. Some
include Limburger. You just about need a hazmat suit to fish with that stuff.
Some cheeses are too soft to be used as bait. These usually need to be mixed in some kind of
dough or paste before they can be applied to a hook. Velveeta, however, is a soft processed cheese
that is easily molded into a small gob and then formed around a hook…single or treble. If you keep
it on ice, so that it stays cold and firm, it retains its shape and firmness for several minutes, even in
warm summer waters. When it gets warm and soft, however, it will not stay on the hook for even a
careful lob cast.
Good firm cheddar cheese is both easier to keep on the hook and attractive to catfish. It
must be cut to shape, rather than molded, but can sometimes be formed into a ball around the
hook. It gives off an attractive scent and “milks” into the water like many cheeses. Adding a bit of
garlic to your cheese is often appealing to catfish but don’t lick your fingers afterward.
If you are a troutaholic too you can offer the kitties a taste of “Power Putty” if they are not
hitting anything else. Many of the same attractants incorporated in the trout concoctions appeal to
catfish too. You are not likely to catch the biggest or most fish on it, but it will catch cats.
Who knows how or when it got started but someone once decided to bait a hook with a piece
of candy…and it worked. Today there are more than a few cat fans that take soft chewy candies in
their tackle box. If the fish don’t bite on them the fisherman at least has something to nibble on if
he gets hungry while waiting. However, there are enough cats taken on these sweet artificially
flavored fruity treats that it is more than just a phenomenon. Some flavors apparently work better
than others. You will have to do your own experimentation.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES:
Catfish are opportunists. When they are hungry they will dine on almost anything they can
find that has a remote potential for edibility. Any angler who has opened up a few catfish will attest
to finding a wide variety of goodies in their innards…animal, vegetable and mineral. Mineral?
Yeah, they even swallow rocks sometimes.
In different areas of the country popular catfish baits may include berries (in season), corn
(where legal), green peas, beans, chunks of potato, apple or bananas. Some cat chasers use pieces of
onion or garlic. On a more pleasant note, strawberries are an effective bait for both carp and
catfish in some waters. You don’t even need to coat them with chocolate and serve them with
champagne. No cream and sugar either.
In Utah it is not uncommon to find large wads of green algae and water weeds in the
digestive tracts of catfish. Some of that is probably the result of cats gulping it in while chomping
on something else…leeches, snails, aquatic insects, crawdads or other natural food items. Often,
they slurp it down simply for the nutrition it provides when meatier fare is not available. They do
digest it and it does provide food value.
Wherever cattails grow in catfish waters it is not uncommon to find chunks of cattail roots in
the guts of those kitties. They have been observed wallowing around at the base of cattails and
twisting pieces of the nutritious roots off and then swallowing them. That sounds more like carp
behavior but cats do it too.
Should you throw away your worms, minnows, shrimp and cut bait…and buy your bait at
the produce market? Not yet. Cats still generally prefer meat to vegetables.
This is another one of those silly catfish baits that you have to wonder “Who was the first
person to try that…and why?” Almost any soap would probably work. However, the “natural
soap” known as Ivory is the one most often used for cats. It actually contains animal fats and other
natural products, unlike some of the newer synthetic cleaning bars on the grocer’s shelves.
To use Ivory soap you need to cut it into small squares and then impale the squares upon
your hook. Just a hint…warm soap is easier to hook than cold soap. Ivory “melts” as it soaks and
gives off a scent trail to bring in the fish. It stays on the hook well and is a good “clean” bait to use.
There are undoubtedly many other unusual types of bait that have been used successfully for
catfish over the years. However, the list supplied here is more than enough to provide a hefty
choice for your next Utah Lake catfish excursion. If you cannot catch catfish on at lease one or
more of these baits you have a problem that goes beyond mere bait selection.
LURES & FLIES:
Catfish on lures or flies? No way! That is the typical response whenever I bring up the
subject of catching Mr. Whiskers on artificials. It seems like everybody knows that catfish only eat
stinky food…on the bottom…after dark. It is sacrilegious to even suggest that they might hit a
nonedible tidbit of metal, plastic, fur or feathers being fished for more glamorous species.
The truth is that channel cats are very efficient predators…not just scavengers. They can
and do hunt live food…crawdads, worms, leeches, minnows, etc. And, they have good eyesight.
When Utah Lake has a bit of clarity they become sight feeders. Even when the water is murky
catfish can successfully hunt living prey…or lures. In addition to a superb sense of smell…through
receptors all over their skin surface…they also have super sensitive lateral lines to help them detect
and locate the source of vibrations in the water.
Not many Utah Lake anglers deliberately fish for cats with lures or flies. But, there are also
not many who have NOT caught cats on artificials while fishing for walleyes, white bass or
largemouths. I have lost count of the number of cats I have taken over the years on just about
every kind of lure I have “washed” in that lake.
I have also caught more than a few kitties on flies being fished for white bass or walleyes.
They like the small brightly colored “attractor” patterns I fish for white bass and readily slurp up
larger flies in black, purple, brown, white or chartreuse…all good walleye colors.
As you might suspect, adding a bit of “sweetener” to a lure will increase the attractiveness to
scent-oriented fish like catfish. Just a small piece of crawler can multiply the odds of having a kitty
smack your jig, spinner or crankbait. Decorate a big jig with a strip of fish flesh and you really
increase the chances of going bendo on a biggun. Even squirting on a little fish attractant will bring
in more cats…as well as more walleyes, largemouth or white bass in most cases. Use crawdad or
nightcrawler scent for best results. But there are many other scents that will help not only cover
human scent but will also attract a feeding response from more finicky fish.