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Out There: Chicken heads, french fries, Spam, door handles & other great fish baits

The head of a dogfish is an imposing bait. 

It was, to say the least, an unusual conversation.

"Senor, my American friend is willing to pay 50 American dollars for 10 chicken heads. Do you have any?"

"A jaguar has eaten all my chickens, sir. However, I can sell you the head from a young squirrel monkey I had for breakfast this morning. It is quite fresh, I assure you."

"Fresh or not, a monkey's head is poor bait for the giant catfish we are seeking. Perhaps if you had the whole monkey, we would consider it."

"Alas, I do not have a whole monkey or the heads of any chickens. Would you consider purchasing the pizzle from a very large pig? Or the testicles from a young bull, which has now become a steer?"

"We are fishing for catfish, senor, not piranhas. It is heads we need, not genitals."

"Then perhaps I can interest you in some dogfish heads. They are excellent baits. Yesterday, Senor Mesquita caught a filhote weighing 46 kilos on this very bait."

We arranged a trade — three cigarettes, a beer and two fishhooks for a lard bucket full of dogfish heads.

As we motored back upriver, my young fishing guide chastised me.

"Next time, Senor Catfish, do not be so quick to trade. I could have gotten the fish heads for one cigarette and a beer."

This exchange took place last September during an expedition to the Rio Preto do Igapó Acu — the Black River of the Great Flooded Jungle — in southern Amazonas.

I had come here to fish for the piraiba, one of the largest species of catfish on earth. Specimens up to 661 pounds have been reported. Individuals less than 150 pounds are called filhote — fry.

I learned soon after my arrival that jungle anglers consider chicken heads — cabeca do galinha — the best piraiba baits.

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of bait shops in the great flooded jungle.

You must catch your own bait (chickens are not easily caught here) or barter with the Cunha Indians of the region for your enticements. When you resort to the latter method, you often find something weird at the end of your line.

Take dogfish heads, for example. The dogfish, or traira, looks like a nuclear walleye. Dozens of nasty, needle-sharp teeth protrude helter-skelter from its massive maw. Its eyes glow like zombie orbs.

In fact, when I ran a 12/0 hook through the bottom lip of a half-pound head, it reacted in zombie-like fashion, chomping down on the hook — and nearly my fingers. A more wicked catfish bait never existed.

Unless, of course, that bait is a live piranha.

Piraibas and other large Amazon catfish eyeball live piranhas like kids ogling trick-or-treat candy.

Piranhas, however, have built-in razor blades for teeth. Hooking one properly behind the dorsal fin is like shaving with a shard of broken glass. You could lose a chunk of flesh in the process.

Not all fish baits are so hazardous to the user. Take the french fry, for example. Here's a bait that won't bite you or dirty your hands. And if the fish aren't biting, you can eat the bait for an appetizer.

I once watched a man standing by an urban pond cast a french fry into open water. Curious, I watched. What on earth could he be trying to catch? I wondered.

A mouth rose from the water and engulfed the fried potato. The man reared back on his rod. The fish — all 17 pounds of it — went airborne. The 30-minute battle that followed was quite impressive.

At last, the angler managed to beach his quarry. It was a white amur, also known as the grass carp.

"They're vegetarians," the man told me. "The state fisheries department stocks them here to keep the weeds down.

"Sometimes I catch them on grass clippings tied in a little bundle like a trout fly. I learned that when I saw grass carp rising to feed on the clippings sprayed in the water when the maintenance guy was mowing the edge of the pond.

"Cherry tomatoes are good baits, too, but french fries are the best. Kids come down here and feed 'em to the fish all the time. Nothing like a topwater hit on a french fry, I say."

My friend Cliff Shelby related another potato bait story while we were bass fishing one day.

"I used to fish with Conrad Wood of El Dorado, Ark.," he said. "He created such well-known fishing lures as the Dipsy Doodle and the Sonic. He once bet some anglers at a fish camp that he could catch a bass on a sweet potato. And I'll be darned if he didn't."

Obtaining a spud, Wood sliced it in half, inserted a wire holding a treble hook through the pointed end and tied his line to the protruding loop at the flat-cut end. He worked the floating tater like a chugger around cypress knees and quickly caught a fat bass.

"Just goes to show you," Shelby said. "You can catch a fish on darn near anything."

Including, apparently, car door handles and can openers.

A recent Internet report from Huntington Beach, Calif., indicated surfmen there were catching bonito and barracuda on automobile door handles to which they added hooks.

Another angler was needled by his buddies for catching a tern on a can opener he was trolling, but the man had the last laugh when his unconventional lure caught seven salmon in a row.

Want to try catching a big gar, one of the best fighters in freshwater? One top lure is a nothing more than a piece of nylon rope frayed on one end. The rope is cast and retrieved just like a fishing plug, and when a gar chomps down, its many fine teeth get tangled in the strands.

Hormel Spam is a great fish-catcher, as well. In August 2001, Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion, Ark., used a chunk of this spicy canned meat to catch a 116-pound, 12-ounce world-record blue cat in the Mississippi River at West Memphis.

When I asked Ashley what had convinced him that Spam might catch catfish, he seemed astounded.

"I thought everybody used it," he replied. "My father used Spam for catfish bait, and so did my grandfather. I rarely use anything else."

(Word has it there was a shortage of Spam in east Arkansas and west Tennessee for months after Ashley landed his record fish.)

"Some people say adding WD-40 or Preparation H to lures and bait brings added success," said Vince Travnichek in an article published in the Missouri Conservationist.

"The explanation is that both products contain shark oil, which attracts fish. The manufacturer of WD-40 said that shark oil is not an ingredient in the product, but the manufacturer of Preparation H stated that their product contained 3 percent shark liver oil.

"Both said they had heard of these angling secrets, but did not recommend using their products in such a manner."

Which leads one to ask, "How about soap? Would it not make a wonderful bait, as well?"

Indeed. Proctor & Gamble probably didn't think Ivory soap would become a popular catfish bait when it was introduced in 1879.

That's exactly what happened, however, and for a century or so now, white bars of this "100% pure" hand cleaner have been a staple in the bait boxes of hardcore cat men.

Old-timers still bait trotlines with chunks cut from bars of Ivory soap. And when they run lines they've baited in this fashion, it isn't unusual to find a cat on every other hook. A small piece threaded on a hook works equally well for rod-and-reel anglers.

You have to wonder, though, if you keep a catfish you caught on soap, do you still have to clean it?

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