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Archive for Sunday, August 22, 2004

Commentary: Stink works on catfish, but so do other baits

August 22, 2004

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After 40 years as a reporter, I thought I knew the two worst smells in the world.

One is a corpse that's been unburied for about a week, and the other is a bait bucket of shrimp left in the trunk of a car in the tropical sun (the rental car people can get very huffy about that one).

Then I opened a jar of Bass Pro Floating Shad, one of a half-dozen catfish baits I picked up to test.

Make that the three worst smells -- one whiff was enough to ensure it met a Texas angler's criterion for catfish bait: "If it don't make you gag when you take a sniff, it ain't done yet."

Handling it gingerly, I dipped a two-inch sponge into the jar and let it soak up some of the mess.

The sponge was attached to a No. 2 circle hook, and once it was soaked, I cast it 30 yards out into Pontiac Lake to an area I had chummed with Magic Bait Dinner Bell Fish Chum, another catfish attractant.

Fifteen minutes later, the electronic alarm on my Mitchell 600 spinning reel began to chirp, and two minutes after that I landed a four-pound channel catfish.

Channel cats are one of the most underappreciated species in Michigan. Plentiful, powerful and often exceeding 10 pounds, the superb game fish largely is ignored in a state where anglers fixate on walleye, bass and salmonids.

They also are absolutely delicious when taken from waters where they are fit to eat. And if you ignore the front 10 percent, they are one of the sleekest and most beautiful fish in Michigan.

Part of the problem might be the messy baits that are most effective in catching these wide-mouthed predators. While catfish prefer live prey such as small fish and crayfish, they swim just above the bottom while feeling with their barbels (whiskers) for something to eat.

Catfish also have evolved an uncanny ability to locate potential food sources from a long way off with their incredible sense of smell, and so the most effective baits usually are things like chicken liver, cut shad and other strip baits, and odorous pastes and goos that anglers have well-named as stink baits.

I started fishing from the shore at Pontiac Lake State Recreation Area early, before the boats and jet skis got onto the water in any numbers. The result was six catfish, ranging from one to six pounds, in 90 minutes.

Then the jet skis started buzzing around, and it seemed as if half of them decided my section of the lake was a good place to do doughnuts and chase each other around. The fish stopped biting, so I picked up and went off to do other things for a few hours.

I returned about 7 p.m., just as most of the boaters were getting off the water, and in the next hour I landed and released three more channel catfish from three to five pounds and a one-pound black bullhead.

Each was at least as strong as a bass of the same size. And a catfish could tow a walleye twice its size backward all over the lake.

Of the 10 caught, three took the floating shad stink bait, two took chicken livers, two ate chunks of pickled herring bought at a supermarket, and three took the homemade dough bait.

A lesson learned appeared to be that Michigan catfish can be caught on a variety of baits, and that we don't need to use the really ghastly stuff that seems to work best in much of the South.

Second, people who don't want to go to the trouble of making their own can do nicely with commercial baits that don't have particularly objectionable odors.

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