By Lee Mason
Have you ever heard that to catch big fish you need big bait? I’m pretty sure we all have, but for one reason or another we usually don’t heed that advice and continue using the same baits we always have and keep getting the same results: average size fish with the occasional lunker. Big catfish are one of the best examples of this. Before switching to catching my own large live bait, I caught the same old 2 to 5 pound channel catfish we all do.
A buddy of mine, who was an adept flathead catfisherman, invited me to go after flathead catfish in the nearby Trinity river with him. The deal was that I had to provide the bait (it had to be BIG and LIVE) and he would take me to one of his secret spots. The hunt was on.
Perch fishing (meaning bluegill, sunfish, any of the myriad species we in the south call “perch”) was something I was great at. I knew several spots close to home where I could quickly fill a 5-gallon aerated bucket full of the feisty fish. We were going for flatheads at night, so starting that morning I loaded my car with what I needed and set off to catch some big live bait. Here’s how it worked out:
1. Neighborhood Ponds are Usually Stocked with Perch
The first stop on my list was a little neighborhood pond a few miles from my house. It probably isn’t more than a half-acre in size, but it is loaded with hungry bluegill and sunfish.
This pond had a large dock where people feed ducks, that is where I started. The perch are attracted to the bread and other goodies people throw to the ducks. Using a plain shank #6 hook, a single small split shot and a tiny piece of bacon for bait, I tossed it out and waited. About two seconds passed before I had a fat sunfish on the line! After 15 minutes I had half a dozen palm sized perch in my bucket.
Besides bacon, tiny marabou jigs or curly tail grubs also work great for pond bait fishing.
Not wanting to deplete the bait population in such a small pond, I moved on to try another spot.
2. Local Creeks can be Loaded with Bait Fish
There was a creek that ran through a nature park less than a mile from my house and I knew it had a lot of fish in it. I had actually caught some decent Largemouth Bass in it as well as smaller channel catfish, but I was after its plentiful perch population.
The water in small creeks is often clear, so I used a lightweight spinning rod and reel spooled with 4-pound translucent mono-filament line. For bait I used a 1/16-ounce white Road Runner jig. Road Runner jigs are great for perch in flowing water because they have a blade that vibrates as you retrieve it causing vibrations the fish can sense even in the current.
Tossing the lure across the creek, I retrieved it past some fallen brush and WHAM! It was an 8-inch long Warmouth. Warmouths look like a cross between a Largemouth Bass and a Bluegill. They fight extremely hard for their size and make great bait for big catfish.
Pretty soon I had a mix of Warmouth, Bluegill and Sunfish added to my bucket.
3. Park Lakes, Especially if Flooded, can Yield Surprising Baitfish
By now I had plenty of bait for the fishing later that night, so I will tell you about some other great bait spots I found on subsequent trips.
City parks often have man-made lakes in them. These lakes are almost always stocked with fish to help make them a healthy ecosystem. You can read about how the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department maintains a stocking program here: TPWD Stocking Report
During one bait catching outing after a good rain, I noticed the lake in a local city park was slightly flooded with water submerging the vegetation around its banks. Baitfish move into this flooded vegetation to feed on the bugs and plant matter now available to them. I parked and got a bucket and casting net out of my trunk.
Throwing the cast net over the flooded plants, right at waters’ edge quickly landed me a pile of small shad. I released those back into the water and kept throwing, moving down the bank after each toss. Soon I had several large shad and a few small carp that would be perfect for big catfish bait.
I put the shad in a ziploc bag and on ice to use as cut bait since shad don’t stay alive well even in an aerated bucket. The small carp on the other hand are very hardy fish and I kept them alive easily.
4. Golf Course Ponds have TONS of Fish, Ask for Permission
How many times have you driven by a golf course and looked at all the ponds in them thinking “I wonder if there’s fish in there?” Well, there usually are. Tons of them.
Golf courses don’t let you wander around fishing because that will disrupt play. I have been successful in getting permission to fish in golf course ponds by going into the club house and asking if early in the morning before the course opens to golfing if I can throw a net a few times to try and get some bait. The worst they can say is no, and once in a while they will be cool with it.
If you get permission, these ponds are usually loaded with fish. Throw a casting net or a small jig near any submerged vegetation you see and you will usually land something.
5. Spillways are Great Places to Throw a Casting Net
There is usually access to the base of reservoir dams to allow the public fishing opportunities and these spots are often very popular for fishing for everything from bait to monster catfish to spawning sand bass.
Try and find anywhere along the bank below a spillway or dam that is different from the rest: a creek arm coming into the river, a brush pile, rip rap, heck, even a dumped refrigerator. Throw your cast net there and see what you catch. These areas below spillways are best for shad, which while nearly impossible to keep alive, make great cut bait for big catfish, especially channel or blue cats.
Creek arm offshoots from the main river are my favorite. Walk down the creek a ways and find a deeper pool and throw your net. I have found spots like this to be LOADED with shad, catching hundreds with a single throw of the net.
You’ve Caught Your Bait! Now go get those BIG Catfish!
The best part about catching your own live bait to go after bigger fish is that the entire process is fishing! Not only do you now have the bait you need to go after pole-bending catfish, but you just got to spend time wetting a line or throwing a net in the process!
Now back to the story: After successfully catching plenty of sunfish, bluegill to keep our hooks baited with the fresh, enticing bait flathead catfish love, I met my buddy at one of his secret spots in south Dallas. The Trinity river snakes through Dallas/Fort Worth in 3 branches, the West Fork, the East Fork and the Clear Fork. Near downtown two of those branches converge and we’d be fishing downstream of that.
We hiked back to the river as the sun started to dip. We set-up on a sandy knoll overlooking the river and baited two rods each with palm-sized sunfish and casted out. After a few false alarms and a few baits getting chewed-up by gar, one of my rods doubled over and the drag began screaming. The fight was on and soon thereafter we had a fat 14 pound blue catfish in the net! Blue catfish also love big live baits, so it wasn’t a surprise to catch one even while targeting flatheads.
We did wind up catching a few smaller 5 to 10 pound flatheads that night, but the giants eluded us. I didn’t care. It had been a great time and now I knew how to target the big boys. I couldn’t wait to do it again!
Lee Mason is the owner and craftsman at Mason Leather and has been leatherworking since 2011 and hunting since he could carry a rifle and fishing since he could stand