Tidewater catfish specialists are no different from catfish anglers everywhere-or bass or carp or trout fishermen, for that matter--they all have a favorite bait.
Live bait is most effective for flatheads, agree Ostrander and Genes; blues gladly eat live or cut bait.
"I like live redbreast sunfish best when I'm targeting flatheads, then warmouth, crappie and bluegills, in that order," says Genes. "Flatheads can be pretty picky about what they'll eat. Of course, live shad are better than anything, but they can be hard to get at times."
Genes hooks live bait just below the dorsal fin and above the spine on a 7/0 circle hook. He also cuts off the tip of the bait's tail. That prevents it from swimming into a logjam and getting hung, and it keeps the bait more lively, a key ingredient for big flatheads.
Ostrander varies his bait selection and says that the biggest blues don't always favor a gigantic hunk of bait. He has caught rod-bending cats on small chunks of cut shad and pan-size fish on big pieces. He typically baits his 8/0 circle hooks with different sizes and varieties to figure out what the fish want on that day.
"It seems like it's different every day. Sometimes they want a gizzard shad head. Some days they prefer the midsection. Other days they seem to favor smaller chunks, and the next day they like a real big bait or a whole shad or a chunk of eel. I try everything until the fish tell me what they want," he explains. "I can't stress enough, however, that it needs to be fresh. Frozen bait just doesn't work very well."
One Rappahannock River catfish fanatic uses a fist-size ball of shad guts stuffed inside a small section of pantyhose. He ties a tight knot in the hose and runs his hook through the knot; the fish oil and blood ooze through the pores. Like cut eel, gizzard shad heads or tail-hooked sunfish, however, gut-filled pantyhose are mostly a product of confidence.
Summer Or Winter
Mike Ostrander used to spend many cold, dark winter nights anchored over a deep hole in the James River, anticipating another tussle with a big blue catfish. Although he eventually gave up winter fishing at night in favor of a warm bed, he catches plenty of big blues throughout the coldest months.
"I've caught some of the biggest fish in the middle of winter. I quit night fishing after I figured out I could catch just as many in the daytime," he says.
Ostrander targets the same general areas with the same types of bait no matter what the season, but he says summer cats tend to favor deeper water during the daytime, venturing onto shallow flats only under the cover of darkness.
"What really seems get the fish going is a temperature change for the better. In other words, if it's been real hot, the fishing will be good after a couple of cooler days. If it's winter, the fish get active after a couple of warmer days," he says.