Out There: Secret-formula catfishing

I'll never forget The Great Stinkbait Explosion.

I was 12. My friend Bubba and I were experimenting with a new concoction of fish guts, moldy cheese and secret ingredients we swore on a blood oath we'd never reveal. We hoped to discover that which has always eluded catfishermen — the perfect, catch-'em-every-time, never-fail stinkbait recipe.

Uncle Johnny loaned me an ill-fitting World War II gas mask to wear while preparing the malodorous brew. Bubba doled out the aged ingredients, then backed a safe distance away while I opened each and poured it into a gallon pickle jar.

One container — an old paint can with moistened cheese scraps — was swollen. When I broke the seal, a rush of mephitic fumes burped out and filled the gas mask. Seconds later, I filled the mask with that morning's breakfast.

Bubba speculated it was the addition of my breakfast that caused the stinkbait mixture to explode later that night.

"Gastric acid," he said. "That was the catalyst."

As I reminisce on the scene that evening, after the explosion awoke us, I remember most the nauseating odor, the sting of the hickory switch my grandma used to skin my backside and the piles of broken jelly jars in the shed where we hid the tightly sealed pickle jar so our catfish potion could age. Gases from the fermenting stinkbait pressurized the jar, causing it to explode.

As we scrubbed the shed, tears streaming down, Bubba and I absorbed the cardinal rule of stinkbait manufacturing: Never tighten a lid on the mix.

Catfish love stinkbait like kids love candy. Every dedicated catfisherman has a favorite version. Secret recipes are passed down from generation to generation with explicit instructions never to reveal the contents. KFC's secret blend of herbs and spices is more loosely guarded than some stinkbait formulas.

One catfisherman told me, "There are more stinkbait recipes than there are food recipes, and not all of them have been invented yet. The fun part is experimenting. When you come up with a brand-new formula, you're just as proud as you'd be if you made a delicious new barbecue sauce or a tasty marinade."

This particular catfisherman mixes his stinkbait with the solicitude of a French chef preparing a sumptuous bouillabaisse.

Working in his hog barn, where the odors are less noticeable, he stirs together a pinch of this, a cup of that, a dollop of some secret additive. Then, like a connoisseur sampling the bouquet of an expensive wine, he lifts a cupful to his nose and inhales. His eyes water, his knees shake, his stomach convulses and he proclaims, "Whew! That would gag a maggot. But it needs to be stronger."

Indeed, catfishermen seem to believe the worse it smells, the more cats it will catch. To make it so, they add some fetid ingredients to their potions.

Limburger cheese, for example. This semi-soft cheese reeks. Normal humans can't eat it without holding their nose. Stinkbait manufacturers and catfish love it.

And putrid fish. Nothing will vaporize nose hairs quicker than fish parts stewed several days in the hot sun, and nothing makes a catfish lick its whiskers quicker.

To keep the coons from getting it, to be sure it's fully exposed to the sun's hot rays and, more important, to avoid unnecessary exposure to the toxic fumes, one of my catting buddies hides his "Putrid Pudding" (that's what he dubbed his rotten-fish stinkbait) in a container atop a neighbor's barn.

The poor neighbor believes wild animals are dying mysteriously on his property, and has searched unsuccessfully for years, trying to locate the source of the terrible odors.

To make Putrid Pudding, my friend lets two quarts of dead shad decompose until only an oily residue remains. Then, on a camp stove outside, he boils the residue and stirs in one quart of soured milk, two packets of dry yeast and a half-pound of Limburger cheese. He heats this while adding flour and stirring until thick.

The mixture then is placed in a plastic jug plugged with cheesecloth. The jug sits on the neighbor's barn a few weeks, bubbling like a witch's cauldron, and when my friend can smell the horrific aroma from home, he knows it's ready to use.

Should the user get a drop of Putrid Pudding on his clothes, the garments must be burned. If it got on your skin, God knows what would happen. Great care must be taken to avoid contact.

My buddy handles the mix like it's radioactive waste. He fishes it by pushing a hooked sponge into the goo with a long stick. The sponge absorbs the mess and stays on the hook when cast.

Does he catch catfish with it? Absolutely. And when he's there, his favorite bankfishing spot isn't crowded with other anglers. No one can stand to fish near him.

Not all stinkbait recipes involve disgusting ingredients. Some resemble chemistry experiments, where the practitioner combines various tinctures, resins and oils to create irresistible catfish enticements.

Decades ago, many hardcore catmen concocted productive scents this way. And one ingredient almost all of them used was asafetida. Also called stinking gum and devil's dung, asafetida works on catfish like catnip on cats.

When a cotton trotline is soaked in an asafetida solution, catfish will rub against it and get foul-hooked. Men I fished with in the 1960s added a few drops to a can of water, then soaked a piece of cloth in the mixture and put it on a hook. We caught many catfish using these scented strips of fabric.

The other ingredients used in these formulations remain secret for the most part. But one night after sharing a bottle of branch water, I extracted a recipe from an old-timer with whom I had fished.

When he sobered up, he made me promise I wouldn't reveal it until he died. Now that he's gone, I can share what he'd written on the scrap of paper he gave me that night:

To one pint of pine tar oil (in a quart container), add one ounce each oil of sweet anise, oil of rhodium, banana oil, sassafras oil and tincture of asafetida. Finish filling the quart container with used motor oil. Stir the ingredients together. Paint hooks and about one inch of the line above the hook, or tie a few turns of cotton twine around the bend of the hook and soak in bait mixture. Good for all kinds of catfish.

I've never tried this formula because I never could find all the ingredients. I can't say how well it works. I can say this, though: The old man caught many huge cats on just a hook wrapped with twine.

I share it now because someone needs to leave a written record of this fascinating aspect of our catfishing heritage. No other angling sport is so rich and multifaceted, and this facet has roots going back more than a century.

I hope it also will encourage you to share your stinkbait recipes with this ol' catman. My e-mail address is below. I'd like to hear your stories and know how you concoct that magic formula catfish can't resist.

If you've never tried making your own bait, but you're encouraged to do so after reading this, again I stress to always remember the cardinal rule of stinkbait manufacturing: Never tighten a lid on the mix!

Bon appetit!

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.