By Mark Fike
Cutbait is a staple for anglers that are fishing for supper. In the South and even elsewhere in the United States, cutbait is generally used for catfishing. However, saltwater anglers find it extremely effective as well. Using cutbait is really not as simple as hacking off a piece of fish and sticking it on a hook.
To be effective and up your catch rate, cutbait should be obtained, cared for, cut, and hooked in one of several ways.
First of all, unless you are crabbing, cutbait should be as fresh as possible. The fresher the fish that it is being cut from, the better. Some catfish anglers may want to disagree, but with years of experience behind me I will say that hands down, the fresher the fish is that I cut the bait from, the more fish I catch.
That is not to say you won’t catch fish on an old smelly slab of cut shad. It definitely happens and sometimes anglers have to use what they can get. If you can catch your shad or panfish or mullet ahead of time but have to freeze them, consider getting as much air out of the freezer bag as possible. I even vacuum seal some of my shad filets to keep them fresh.
Leave the scales on your cutbait, fresh or frozen, because when you go to hook the bait, the skin and scales will help it stay on the hook. Keep the bait cold or frozen until use. If your bait gets old, hot, smelly etc., the smell may draw more catfish but the bait becomes mushy and falls off the hook much easier, sometimes when being casted.
When cutting your bait, consider a few things. How big are the fish you are targeting? How big is their mouth? Do you need something that will have motion to it in the water to attract predators or will your quarry likely be searching by smell such as catfish? How big is your hook?
Obviously, if you are targeting a big fish, larger bait is the way to go. The same goes for using a large hook. You want your bait to be large enough you can hide the hook in the bait as much as possible.
When I am targeting eating-size fish, I use small rectangles or squares of cutbait or even small strips. When I am looking to catfish drum, flounder or even large catfish, I will usually use a long, wavy strip of a filet or even the whole filet so it flips enticingly in the current while sending a scent trail downstream to bring my supper to the hook.
Don’t be afraid to use a large filet or even the whole filet or fish for a large predator fish. You would be surprised at what a fish can swallow. I once kept a tiny largemouth bass in an aquarium to study his feeding tendencies. The bass was five inches long at first. He would chase down and inhale four tiny minnows nearly an inch, some bigger, in size with the last one’s tail hanging out of the bass’s mouth! They can swallow a lot when they are feeding.
Tips for Cutbait
When cutting your bait, use a sharp filet knife like the one you would use to clean your fish.
Filet the whole fish first and then cut or dice up to size, leaving scales on. Don’t throw away the head; consider using it for a large fish. Otherwise, dump it overboard after you are done fishing. No sense feeding the fish a free meal before you get a hook in one!
When freezing bait, don’t cut up in small pieces. Large pieces do better in the freezer and get less freezer burn.
When you have an old cutting board at home that is about to get tossed, toss it in your boat. Give it a second life. Otherwise, a pine board will work. Avoid treated wood.