After all, a catfish’s whiskers are covered with taste buds

By Walter Bassano

Before trying to catch catfish raised on a steady diet of premium fish food, I thought my greatest challenge had been convincing my ex-first wife to remarry and become my second wife. Turns out, she accepted my second proposal on the first cast. Twenty-one years later, pesky catfish are the ones playing hard to get.
Lots of people want traditional channel catfish in their pond. They’re fun to watch when feeding. Quality food promotes fast growth rates. Catfish top the menu for most shoreline fish fries—if you can catch them. Don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll grow them to your preferred eating size and they’ll swim into the frying pan. Catching them takes patience and—strategy.
My friend, Chuck, and I confronted that humbling reality when starting a program to grow trophy bluegill. Bluegill found the feeder right away, put on an exciting show at feeding time, and were showing plump weight gain. It wasn’t long, however, until catfish crashed the party. The feeder was hurling pellets five seconds and we thought that would be enough for everyone. Wrong!
Have you watched a catfish cruise the surface vacuuming up high protein morsels? A bluegill doesn’t have a chance nudging its way through a school of bully catfish weighing two to 10 pounds. Even though feed was broadcast across a 20 by 45-foot area, before pellets stopped flying, the entire zone was churning with monster catfish. In less than one minute, every crumb was consumed. Bluegill couldn’t get close to the feed. Our dream of two-pound bluegill had turned into a nightmare requiring drastic action. This stock pond figured out its best option was to grow catfish, although our target was bass and big bluegills.

Chuck declared we were on a mission to drastically reduce catfish competition and achieve the bluegill goal. How hard could it be to catch these spoiled critters? You could see them leaving wakes on the surface as they swam in front of the feeder minutes before it spun. Why couldn’t we flip a bread ball or any bait among the masses and pull one out every cast? After first frustrating efforts, I renamed the project—Mission Impossible.

Since our nemesis has an appetite for “smelly” things, we thought, what’s more logical than placing a glob of stink bait one-foot under a cork and flipping it among the swirling school of 40 to 50 hungry fish? We knew this would be as easy as catching them in a barrel. After all, a catfish’s whiskers are covered with taste buds. They don’t even need to put something in their mouths to taste it. They just bump it, taste it…and if they like it, they’ll eat it. With a good sense of smell and the ability to taste without eating it, we knew success was imminent.
Kerplunk, the cork popped!! In five-minutes, I netted Chuck’s first six-pounder. There was no time for celebration. We rebaited faster than a NASCAR pit crew and cast again. Five minutes, ten minutes passed, and no bite. The surface that moments before was splashing with fanatical feeding activity was mirror smooth. A few stragglers returned within 30 minutes, but nudged the cork as if to heckle us and swam away. We felt like a high school senior whose girlfriend just broke up with him during the prom.
Lesson number one learned the hard way. Catfish quickly become spoiled to a steady, easy meal. They gorge themselves once or twice a day and just hang around the feeder waiting for the next offering. Fish associate light levels with timer settings. As you notice, they instantaneously start feeding when first pellets land on the water. I’ve tossed feed off the dock and watched them lazily swim by. Some have been so close I’ve scooped them up with a landing net. We’re playing in the big leagues. We turned off the feeder to let them “fast” while plotting next strategy.
Little did we know that our fish had become “conditioned,” a term biologists use to explain the habits of an animal without the brain parts needed to be able to “think” or “reason.”When the feeder exploded, the fish did, too. But, when we cast into the lot, that feeding habit changed. A fish on a hook sends a message to all its buddies as it flees and does what it can do to escape. Remaining fish get the message that something is different than what they are conditioned to do.
We were somewhat perplexed.
Imagine two grown men going on the Internet searching for methods to catch fed catfish. We didn’t admit it at first, but word got out. Our reputation among local fishing circles was on the line. If we could have found a Catfish Whisperer, we weren’t above hiring him. Of course, we couldn’t introduce him by his real name and probably would have snuck him to the lake after dark. I’m sure fishermen understand. I know golfers do. Heck, they take coaches onto a crowded, public practice range in broad daylight. That’s a commitment. Chuck and I reached that point with this mission. We needed consultation!
My brother is an accomplished fisherman, even with a bow. His aim is deadly on more than one front. We hadn’t ruled that option out if things got desperate. During winter months when bass and other game fish take a vacation, he trout fishes in Southeast Oklahoma. While pondering strategy, I remembered his trout philosophy—match the hatch. I felt a rush of confidence. Then just as suddenly, I came back to Earth when remembering intimidating eye contact with the catfish nudging our cork and swimming away. I paused and recalled, “match the hatch.” It had to be a sign!

We spent the next three afternoons on the dock during feeding time seeking inspiration. If scouting these cocky critters didn’t spawn a secret weapon, we must surrender. Fortunately, it paid off. Since they’re hooked on Purina AquaMax, we decided our attraction would be comparable “gourmet cuisine.”

We returned to the ranch house, rummaged through the freezer for ideas, and there it was—a bag of frostbitten shrimp. After consuming a few libations to stimulate creativity, we had a menu seemingly to suit their taste.
Our tactic?
Soured grain we cooked up.

Soured grain we cooked up.

The appetizer would be soured milo to congregate them on the bottom. For whatever reason, they don’t spook as easily when hooked on the bottom as on the surface. To brew a batch, fill a five-gallon bucket with milo, cover it with water, seal with a lid, and place in the sun for approximately two weeks. Adding some yeast speeds up the process. Keep moist. You’ll know it’s ready when walking near it. You’ll gasp for a breath and your eyes will water. Since catfish sense of smell is like radar, they’ll find it.

I’ve even heard some people ferment their concoctions underground…literally. They bury the bucket in moist soils to temper the pace and to keep from smelling the nasty stuff…and to keep the critters away at night. You certainly can’t keep the stuff in the house.
Our main course would be large cocktail shrimp from Wal-Mart served on a 4/0-offset hook…sans cocktail sauce. After much deliberation, dessert would be marshmallows dipped in wild pig attractant. We’re really thinking this through. If this plan coerced those stubborn catfish into biting, I’m recommending Chuck be made a member of the local hostage negotiator team. He could talk anybody into anything.
The big day arrived. We took a second bucket, drilled four, one-inch holes equally spaced around the base, and paddled to the drop point. We filled the bucket with fermented milo, lowered it onto a hard bottom at six to eight feet, and attached a duck decoy so we could find the target. Milo would trickle out as fish bumped the holes. We’re giving those whiskerfish quite a bit of credit here.
We returned to the dock and began setting the banquet table while milo announced dinner was served. We didn’t start peeling potatoes or heating the peanut oil for the anticipated celebration because we’d been duped too many times. We had all the “fixins” just in case we got lucky. Honestly, we also brought a turkey sandwich in case it was another “one of those days.”
Fish on!

Fish on!

Chuck made his first cast and left some slack line to detect a pickup. He went into an intense stare that looked like a quail dog on point. In no time, the line tightened, the rod tip bent slightly, Chuck set the hook, and the games began. Forty minutes later, we had 16 on the stringer. Time between bites ranged from 20 seconds to slightly over a minute. It was an experience we would share on many future outings. Oh, don’t leave your rod unattended or you’ll be fishing for it. We haven’t been asked to guest host any outdoor television shows, although our fragile egos think our phones should be ringing. I did hear someone wants Chuck to tell this story at the Rotary Club.

Good stringer of catfish.

Good stringer of catfish.

I’m trying to live in harmony with catfish, but they can torpedo a pond management plan. Big catfish compete with bass for valuable forage. You just learned how they “totally” disrupt attempts to raise trophy bluegill. In my biased opinion, catfish should have their own exclusive pond one-acre or less. Stocking rates are contingent on your decision to feed them. Should you feed them, prepare for “catching challenges.”Fish several hours away from regular feeding time. Use shrimp, chicken liver, and similar irresistible baits.

If you stock 300 per acre, start harvesting at one and one-half to two pounds. After dining on 100, simply replace them with six to eight inchers. You’ll enjoy a perpetual catfish garden. Don’t place concrete pipes, old trashcans, or similar cover in the pond that may stimulate catfish to spawn. You could experience an overpopulation of stunted fish. That’s what happened to us.
A hearty sample of our catch.

A hearty sample of our catch.

Chuck and I gained a new respect for catfish angling. If you’re fishing in a pond with a daily feeding program, leave your pride at home. Those fish live in a different world and will humble you before the experience is over. We don’t boast during fish fries commemorating our success, but on each occasion we walk to the shoreline and raise our glass to toast a formidable adversary.