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Catfish for Bait

They make excellent baits for tarpon, cobia and probably more.

In foreground is gafftopsail catfish; in back, hardhead. Whole or dressed, they'll catch big fish.


Saltwater catfish are slimy, wiggly, and possibly injurious to the uninitiated angler. Their malevolent reputation is understandable if you've been stuck by a dorsal or pectoral fin spine. But, don't look at this versatile, easy to acquire, big-fish bait with disdain.

Years back I used to surf fish on Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina. Occasionally I'd get a chance to fish with the locals in Pamlico Sound, mostly for weakfish and red drum, our redfish.

The Hatteras men would have what they called a cobia stake on a submerged bar. Although I never got to fish those stakes in the Sound, it always intrigued me how the staked areas were supposed to attract cobia. I knew they dumped fish heads, chicken guts and other food waste products there.

It wasn't until lately that I figured out how these stakes really worked. The fishermen were attracting forage fish, lots and lots of catfish, which was their secret bait for cobia. With a little research I found out it wasn't really a secret after all, but just old-time southern “Easy Boy” smarts. Live and learn!

We may not have cobia stakes but if you're interested in catching some cats for bait just find an active fish clean station. Drop down a frozen shrimp on a jighead. You won't have to wait long.

Although saltwater catfish spines are not truly poisonous, they are covered with a protective slime layer. The slime absorbs the bacteria found in the bottom sediments and oxygen-depleted waters, where catfish have evolved to survive.

For hook removal, try long-handled needlenose pliers; I make my own by taping 14-inch lengths of ½- or ¾-inch PVC to the handles. This gives plenty of margin between my hand and the spines. A pair of wire cutters, again with long handles, to cut off the spines is a good idea. If you're into chunking the cats for cutbait or just using the tails, bring a heavy fillet knife or chef's cleaver and a cutting board. Fillet gloves are a good idea. Berkley and Mustad both make metal, tonglike “fish grippers,” excellent for securing catfish while de-hooking or de-barbing.

In other regions of the Gulf, especially in the central Gulf states, catfish are held in high esteem. The sailcats or gafftopsail catfish are considered excellent eating, nice pearly pinkish flesh. You won't hear as much praise for the hardhead variety.

Traditionally, catfish in various states of repair have been used as tarpon bait. If you head up the Caloosahatchee River at the Franklin Locks in Southwest Florida you'll see anglers drifting whole live cats or catfish tails to entice the mobs of tarpon by the dam to bite. The same approach can be seen in Estero Bay most summer mornings. Diehard local tarpon addicts sit out in the early mornings, coffee cup in hand enjoying the hassle-free bait supply available most anywhere on the flats.

A big, heavy gauge circle hook— perhaps up to 14/0, if you can find one—will secure the bulky bait. Fifty- to 80-pound mono leader is advisable. Spool up enough leader to allow a turn or two on your reel spool. This will allow easier casting and line enough to manhandle a fish at boatside. Don't forget your fillet gloves for handling cat baits, securing heavy leaders for safe releases or landings and handling the big nasties you'll catch!

My suggestion for the right gear in Southwest Florida includes reels loaded with 20- or 30-pound braid on 8-foot medium heavy spinning rods. Some anglers prefer mono for its forgiving stretch quality; 50-pound mono or 30-pound braid will both work well if your drag is set properly.

Oversized bobbers or popping corks are used by some crews when they anchor up and still-fish. If you're driftfishing you can simply dangle the cat bumping off the bottom. It's a good idea to keep a casting outfit and moderate sized live cat at the ready in the livewell, for pitching at cruisers and rollers.

Cats are sturdy, so you can hook them in several ways. I hook 'em in the lips or just behind the bony head plates. A smooth, sidearm lofting cast shouldn't rip them off or beat 'em to death. If you can feather your cast for a soft, slow, gentle flop in the water, that's best. Cat tails can be hooked by the tapered end for ease in casting, kinda aerodynamic. This allows your bigger hooks to penetrate the tough skin on both sides. FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Magazine April 2015

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