Best Flathead Catfish Bait – The Secret To The Flathead

The best Flathead Catfish bait is highly debated as a controversial topic among anglers. Why is this the case? Simply because of the uniqueness of the behavior that the species is known for. They get huge and in the world of catching whiskers, they are picky eaters. These fish have a habit of being particularly selective in the foods that they consume. They are also known for confusing anglers. Their habits and tendencies tend to vary depending on the geographical location in which the fish live.

No matter where you go in the world, the best type of baits for Flathead will always be alive, healthy, and happy. Whether it be anything from very small minnows to giant crayfish that look like little lobsters, these fish enjoy the times when they can kill it. We are not going to go over those baits in this post. We are after the most effective producers overall. Baits like minnows and crayfish are all well and good if you are a weekend angler, but they are not the most effective nor are they the most consistent.

With this in mind, let’s take a good look at some of the most common sources of lively food used to catch these fish. The following are the recommended choices if you are after the whisker with the precariously large underbite.

The LIVE FISH They Naturally Eat Is BEST

There is absolutely no debate about what the most effective bait might be. It is the primary food that they are already eating. This is true for any species of fish. Not just the Flathead. The very first thing you should be hooking up is their primary food source. It will always get you the most bites. If you can very readily find out what that particular forage species is, make sure to do it. If it is legal to get and use as bait, catch that food and catch a lot of it.

You will catch a lot more fish and not have to worry if your choice of food is the correct one. If the main source of food is Shad, use Shad. It is the best option. If the main food is Sunfish, hook up some tasty Sunfish. There are actually bodies of water where the fish eat mainly tiny grass shrimp and insects. It may sound counter-intuitive to hook up baits this tiny when trophy hunting, but if the fish are naturally eating it, it will give you the best chance of getting bit by the biggest fish.

The most common thing that they prefer to eat is live fish. Live fish will catch just about every single one you could ever hope to hook into. If you had to choose only one producer of bites and you could choose only one, it would be live fish. Live fish is a very broad generalization but at the very least it means the natural fish they regularly eat with it alive and whole. From there, the standard changes from a body of water to another.


The very first menu option is Shad. They love Shad. In waters where they exist, Shad is usually their main source of food and for this reason, it is the best one to consider in the waters where they live. Shad are easy to eat and there is a ton of them. That means that the angler has most of their work cut out for them. Shad may not look very appetizing to a human or very filling, but hooking them up and fishing with them whole and alive will likely catch you more catfish than any other bait out there.

A container of fresh, live, American Shad with over two hundred individual fish.

It doesn’t even really have to be Shad to be successful either. Shad is usually the main source of food in bigger waters that grow trophy fish but there are some bodies of water that contain a very little population of these fragile baitfish if any. If that is the case, use the fish they naturally eat instead.  That is usually herring, Sunfish, Mooneye, Goldeneye, Shiners, Rudd, Roach, and other fish.


Next in line on the menu in the baitfish buffet are Sunfish. Sunfish are often defined by their short stubby bodies, flat sides, and spiny dorsal fins. They also make an excellent source of food for the juvenile as well as the trophy monster variants. Sunfish are regularly consumed by most predator species because they still make an excellent meal that is hard to pass up. Unlike shad and herring, all species of sunfish have spiny dorsal fins on their backs.

When big fish have the option, they will often go for bait that slides down the throat easier. The spines on the Sunfish make it a lot harder to do so especially when you compare it to fish that don’t have the spines such as Shad or herring. Believe it or not, the fish don’t care. They will still eat a ton of Bluegill or Green Sunfish whenever they get the chance. All species of sunfish make a great summertime bait because they stay alive well in a livewell. They also have a tendency to survive when pierced with a hook and are also the go-to choice whenever you want to keep bait alive because they are not bothered as much in hotter environments. In terms of effectiveness, Sunfish is one of the top contenders.

Person's hand holding a Bluegill Sunfish on a background of a body of water.

Sunfish can even be used as an alternative to more fragile baitfish to catch some trophies because they are tougher and stay on the hook much better. Once again, use it while it is alive and whole for the best results. You can catch Bluegill and other Sunfish on a rod and reel to always have a steady supply for when you go catfishing.


Bullheads are a smaller group of catfish species. Bullheads (also called mud cats by many) are another one of the recommended choices for targeting the huge and trophy-sized predators. The Brown Bullhead, Black Bullhead, and Yellow bullhead all make great options. Bullheads have the added advantage of being able to survive in poorer water qualities so they make a very versatile choice. They are also very very tough and stay on a hook very well.

Illustrated artwork of a common Brown Bullhead isolated on a white background,

Hooking up a live Bullhead can land you a very nice fish in the spring, summer time, and in the warmer months. It is recommended to switch back to Bluegill or Shad when the fall and colder weather comes around. They are used almost exclusively as whole offerings and rarely, an angler will cut them up for Channel Catfish and mistakenly catch smaller Flathead on them that way.

Rough Fish

Rough fish are fish that are not commonly fished for. Examples include fish such as Common Carp, Goldfish, Koi, Carp Suckers, Qwilback, and Buffalo. These make a good choice if you can get your hands on them. They are kind of rare (depending on your body of water’s population of certain species), but the few times you can use them are also the times when you certainly should. These types of fish do not have spines and they are much larger than your average Shad or Bluegill.

That makes them a very good option and if you are specifically trophy hunting for the big ones, probably one of the best. Since these fish are not commonly used on hooks or by anglers in general for that matter, it is very possible to catch the biggest fish in the lake using a rough fish. A lot of the time, trophy-sized behemoths are not wary around these types of fish at all. Regardless of the way the rough fish acts around them, really big fish just do not recognize it as a bad thing.

This is primarily because very few anglers will actually take the time to catch them and hook them up. All the big fish see is a big wounded meal without spines. That makes it possible to target the oldest and wisest female whiskers in the water. They have likely been caught many times before on things like Shad and Bluegill. After a few times of being caught, fish get very hook shy. Using an unconventional offering like this is beneficial because they sometimes eat rough fish anyways, yet they don’t tend to connect them with hooks, lines bobbers, or even fishermen in general.

The size of these species is another option to consider. If you want to use a very big hook with a very big meal, using Bluegill and Shad heavily limits your available options. These fish types are advantageous because most of them can get pretty big. That means that you have a range of sizes to choose from. You can use a very tiny one that will serve as an appetizer for smaller whiskers, or you can use one that is big enough to hook you into the fight of a lifetime.


Live eels are a favorite amongst many anglers to target all species with whiskers. They make a great choice if you are after really huge specimens. Although it may look more like a snake, worm, or lizard of some sort, an eel is actually a Scientific classification of different species of fish. They are usually determined and identified by way of a long thin, body. Usually, the American Eel is the species of the one used. The American variety tends to be the most common and populated so therefore, the most used. They have been known to successfully land trophy fish time after time.

Many state records and trophy-sized fish have been caught by utilizing these creatures. Just a single eel hooked live right through the bottom of the mouth will do wonders for your fishing success. The action and enticing appeal of a wiggling Eel is enough to drive big fish crazy and will even target every other size depending on the size of the eel used. In states that allow the use of live Eels to catch fish, you can use them and have great results. One will stay alive on the same hook for hours and you lose very little bait.

Illustrated artwork of the American Eel as a species isolated on a white background.

American Eels can be caught on a rod and reel and in some states, it is legal to trap them without a commercial fishing license. You can keep them for a very long time in a livewell in warm water as well as colder temperatures. They are only found in certain bodies of water and only some states allow you to fish with them. Always be sure to check your local laws about which fish you can hook up legally. They also make an excellent attractant when cut into pieces for monster Blues and Channels in addition to consistently targeting Bullheads as well as Striped Bass.


Worms are the most universal and classic options in the history of fishing. Mankind has used worms to catch fish for a very long time. The reason is simple. They catch fish. Although you will not be catching huge fish on earthworms very often, the popularity of these continues to grow in the fishing industry. Worms have been known to catch pretty much all species of gamefish and even many that are not. Worms love to wiggle around and predatory species love to hone in on them for this reason.

They are a soft and chewy offering that many fish just love. You can use them to catch the targeted species or you can even use them to catch Bluegill or other fish to use those instead. The ones you catch on these will be much smaller in general. They certainly do have big fish potential but you will have to put it in front of their faces. A common practice for fishing them is to take a very big hook, thread on a bunch of big juicy individuals and thread them on until most of the hook is covered.

A European Nightcrawler resting on a pile of dirt on the ground.

The practice works. You just have to know what you are doing. Little fish like to pick at your hook until it goes bare. This is why you often catch much smaller fish. Species like the Red Wriggler and the European Nightcrawler indirectly catch big whiskers all the time. Many anglers like to use them as a method of catching and retrieving Bluegill and other Sunfish to use as a hooked presentation. Even so, it can never hurt having some worms on hand whenever you go out on the water. They have multiple uses and are good for a variety of things.

What Is The BEST Possible Bait For Flathead?

LIVE FISH! You may have noticed a trend here. Most of these options are live fish. This is because these fish prefer them to everything else. If you want a direct, specific, and correct answer that is short, sweet, and to the point, it is live fish. Live fish is the best Flathead catfish bait out there! Not dead fish. Not something else that is alive. I have yet to see the body of water that contains these fish and has no other live fish to feed themAs far as the species of fish to use, the answer is, “it depends”.

It depends largely on if that species is the primary food of the fish in the body of water you fish in. If it is, then it is the one that will catch the most fish and you are golden. If it isn’t you can still catch fish but your success might vary. Different bodies of water have different species of forage and this will ultimately determine which one you decide to use and catch them on.

Many anglers have this idea that there is some magic bullet that you can hook up to catch every fish in the sea or pond. It just doesn’t exist. To answer the question at hand, there isn’t one. That, however, doesn’t mean that live fish are not the absolute top choice if one was to be recommended for the title.


Do you agree with our decisions? Leave a comment below to let us know.

6 thoughts on “Best Flathead Catfish Bait – The Secret To The Flathead”

  1. I’m a fisherman too. I love to fish with live bait. I use Mudcats, Goldfish, Chub, Bluegill, Pumpkinseeds, minnows and browns. I have also used Bluegill heads. What bait would you prefer? I have never used shad before or have I? I have used skipjack.

    • Hello, again Troy. Good to see you once more. If I had to pick one bait as my preference and could only use that one bait from now on, I would go with Bluegill and other Sunfish. Am I saying that Shad is less effective? Certainly not! I am just saying that Bluegill, as well as other Sunfish, maybe just as effective many days. The difference between the two is not their effectiveness that makes me pick one over the other but rather, it is the durability of the bait. While not equal to the effectiveness of Shad on certain days (very few), I can use a live gill or Pumpkinseed and catch five or six fish off of it while Shad rip off easily and die quickly on the hook as well as in the livewell. Shad is effective and is likely the best BUT that is only if you can keep it alive. Flathead love live bait and don’t like dead meals. That is why. Skipjack is actually a species of herring. It is a very oily fish. Threadfin Shad are also herring. Herring of any species is excellent but no. Skipjack is not a Shad species.

  2. Is it better to take the pinchers off the crayfish or leave them on? Also, where can I get eels at? I live in Ohio and I love catching monster Flathead Catfish.

    • Hello Troy. Depending on what body of water you are fishing in and how aggressive the fish are in that particular place, the better choice might vary. I have been in waters where Smallmouth Bass would attack a crayfish complete with claws so hard that they would rip them right out of the sockets. Then, the crayfish would become fresh sushi. I have also fished water where the fish are much more likely to hit a crayfish with a single claw or none at all. I have never seen a situation where removing the claws hurts my success. In fact, I have found removing them only helps. When in doubt, pull the claws out. Eels are not generally available as live bait from commercial bait supply outlets in Ohio. You usually have to catch them on a rod and reel to use them. Your body of water needs to allow the use of them as bait too. Eels can be found in many places but the most common are rivers and lakes.

    • Hello Joe. We have never considered using bass for bait. I imagine it might work. How did you come to find this out? This is something I want to know the answer to. Can you please tell me how you started catching flathead with bass?


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