Fishing for Catfish
Fishing for Catfish, a comprehensive guide
The subject of this article will be fishing for catfish. It will cover all aspects of catching catfish, including tackle, baits, techniques, species, and locations.
Catfish are growing in popularity as a game fish in North America every year. There are several reasons for this. Catfish are widely distributed and are available to most anglers in the United States. Catfish grow very large, up to and over 100 pounds. They are fairly reliable in terms of behavior and habitat and not overly difficult to hook. Finally, they are fantastic eating!
Three different catfish species dominate lakes, rivers, and streams in North America. These are the channel catfish, blue catfish and hardhead or yellow catfish. At least one species is available in every state throughout the lower 48. While there are many other species of Bullhead that are fun to catch and quite tasty, this article will focus on the larger catfish species that are regarded as game fish.
While catfish are taken occasionally by anglers using artificial lures, the vast majority of catfish are caught by anglers using live, natural, or prepared baits. Catfish have a keen sense of smell and use their barbells to help locate food. Catfish are opportunistic feeders, however they have had a bad reputation in the past for feeding indiscriminately on anything that they find.
The truth is that catfish are apex predators. In most instances, they prefer live prey. This is especially true with blue catfish and flathead catfish. One element that does make catfish so successful is the fact that they are very adaptable in their diet. They will feed on insects, worms, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, and other fish.
Tackle for catfish varies depending on the size of the fish being targeted. For most serious catfish anglers, medium heavy conventional tackle is the best choice. Landing a large blue catfish or flathead catfish near heavy cover will requires some stout tackle. A 7 foot medium heavy rod with a matching conventional real spooled up with 40-60 pound braided line is a good all-around combination.
Spinning tackle can certainly be used, especially for anglers targeting smaller channel catfish. 7 foot to 8 foot spinning rods matched with 4000 series reels spooled up with 25 pound braided line work well in multiple applications when targeting catfish. This outfit is light enough to enjoy the fight of a 5 pound channel cat while still giving an angler a chance should they hook a trophy catfish.
For the most part, catfish are bottom feeders. They are built to cruise along on the bottom and forage for food. Therefore, anglers targeting catfish do well to present their baits on the bottom. Anglers can use different types of sinkers and different rigs to present their baits naturally and effectively on the bottom. Experienced anglers do their rigging at home before the fishing trip. They then use special boxes to keep them neat and ready to go when needed.
Probably the most commonly used an effective rig is a sliding sinker rig or “Carolina rig”. This rig employs a sinker with a hole in the center. A swivel is tied onto the end of the running line. A leader is then used between the swivel and the hook. This allows the bait to move naturally in the current. It also lets the catfish pick up the bait and move off a bit without feeling the resistance of the sinker.
The other commonly used rig is a “spreader” rig, also known as a “chicken rig” in the South. This rig suspends baits up off the bottom. Where legal, multiple hooks can be used to cover the bottom few feet of the water column. Most anglers using a spreader rig use a bank sinker.
Anglers have a couple of choices when it comes to sinkers when using sliding sinker rigs. Egg sinkers have been used for many years and still work fine. However, no-roll and coin sinkers have gained in popularity of late. These sinkers lie flat on the bottom. They tend to result in less line twist and snags.
Sinker slides are a clever little device that allow anglers to change sinker size quickly and easily. It is a small plastic tube that slides on the main running line. It has a clip where the sinker can be added. This makes changing sinker weight to match the current conditions quite simple.
Sinker weight will be determined by several factors, primarily water depth and current speed. The general rule is to use the minimum amount of weight required for the bait to reach and hold bottom. As current strength and depth of water changes, so will the required weight. Of course, anglers casting out from the bank will add distance needed to the list of fishing sinker requirements.
Leaders and hooks for catfish
Leader strength and hook size will depend on the size of the bait being used and the size of the fish being targeted. An 18 inch long leader is a good all-around choice, though anglers can go longer or shorter depending on the circumstances. Shorter leaders work better and heavy current and around structure such as fallen trees. Some anglers prefer to use a longer leader, up to 5 feet long, and at a small float near the end to lift the bait up off the bottom.
Hooks come in a myriad of sizes, strength, and designs. The two most commonly used hook types are “J” hooks and circle hooks. “J” hooks have been around a long time and are your basic stout short shank live bait hooks. Circle hooks have become more popular of late. There is evidence to show that circle hooks result in more fish being hooked in the mouth, reducing catfish mortality.
A #1/0 or #2/0 short shank live bait hook or a #5/0 circle hook are good choices for anglers targeting channel catfish and using smaller baits such as nightcrawlers. A larger #5/0 live bait hook or #8/0 circle hook is a better choice for anglers targeting larger fish with larger baits. It is a tad confusing, but sizing for “J” hooks and circle hooks is a bit different.
Advanced catfish bottom rigs
While the simple slider and spreader rigs catch plenty of catfish, experienced anglers and those fishing tournaments have a few extra tricks to enhance their presentation. A Whisker Bomb is used when precise bait placement is desired. The weight right at the hook eliminates the bait swinging back on a leader.
Other devices can be placed inline between the hook and the swivel. These add flash and action and float the bait up off of the bottom. Demon Dragon and Whisker Wobbler are two examples of this. Leader lengths vary to get the bait up off of the bottom the desired amount.
Best catfish baits
As previously mentioned, catfish have a varied diet. This ability to adapt to a number of forage sources is a key element in their prolific numbers. Catfish baits can be broken down into several categories; live bait, cut bait, and prepared baits. Many different baits are effective and productive when targeting catfish. Most anglers try to have several different baits as every day is different and one bait may prove to be more productive than another on a given day.
Live baits for catfish
Nightcrawlers are very productive live bait for catfish and just about every other freshwater species. They are easily obtained at bait shops and even larger retail stores. They are easy to keep alive as long as they are kept in a cool place. Nightcrawlers are generally threaded on and hooked through the body several times. This allows the juices to leech out into the water, helping to attract the catfish.
Live bait fish are very effective and are the baits of choice for anglers targeting trophy catfish. While channel cats will take a large live bait, more often than not a large blue catfish or flathead catfish will be the target. Commercially raised minnows can be bought at bait shops. However, most serious trophy catfish anglers catch their own creek chubs or suckers and use those as bait. It is important to check local regulations to make sure that local laws are being obeyed.
Crawfish are another fantastic live bait for catfish. This is especially true for channel catfish, which are often found in flowing streams and small rivers. They are generally hooked through the tail and drifted naturally with the current. Crawfish can be purchased occasionally, but most are caught by anglers using traps. Small frogs, salamanders, and tadpoles are other effective live baits.
Using cut bait for catfish
Just about any fish that is an effective live bait can be just as effective when used as a cut bait. Suckers and chub minnows are prime examples. Many anglers prefer oily fish such as shad and herring. In the south, mullet are a popular cut bait for anglers targeting catfish. Again, anglers should check local regulations to ensure that the laws are being followed.
While frozen bait can be used, in most instances fresh dead bait is the best choice. This usually requires anglers to catch their own, though sometimes bait is available at local shops. Once acquired, the bait fish is either cut into strips or chunks. Both approaches are effective, it is mostly a matter of angler preference.
Anglers can also acquire catfish bait at the grocery store. Liver is an excellent catfish bait! Chicken livers work well, but pork liver stays on the hook a bit better. Is a very inexpensive bait. Shrimp are a bit more expensive, but are another excellent catfish bait. Ivory soap is an old-school catfish bait!
Prepared catfish baits
There are also commercially prepared catfish baits on the market. In days past, these were referred to as “stink baits”. That nickname was well earned as some of these baits smell awful! They are messy, though effective. There are different methods used to present these baits.
One great alternative is to use Catfish Bubblegum. This is a product developed by fishing ladies catfish expert Rachelle (AKA Guppy) and her husband. It has a long shelf life, is easy to use, stays on the hook well, does not smell, and most importantly, catches fish! All pink, no stink is their motto.
Dough balls are an age-old catfish bait. Recipes for dough balls are closely guarded secrets among catfish anglers. Most consist of flour, water, and some type of scent, with anise oil being a top choice. Dough balls are effective, but do not stay on the hook as long as some other baits.
Top catfish species
While all three catfish species, channel catfish, blue catfish, and flathead catfish are similar, there are enough differences in location and feeding habits to cover all three separately.
Channel catfish are by far the most widely distributed of the three catfish species. They are found throughout the United States and Canada. Channel catfish can tolerate a wide range of environments. Their ideal waters are large creeks, small to midsize rivers, and ponds and small lakes. Channel catfish average around 3 pounds with the current world record being 58 pounds. This fish was caught in Santee-Cooper reservoir in South Carolina.
Channel catfish are fairly easy to distinguish from blue catfish and flathead catfish. They have a deeply forked tail, similar to a blue catfish. However, the coloring is quite different. Channel catfish are a slate gray to olive in color with a white underbelly. Black spots are normally present, except in the largest specimens. Channel catfish also have a protruding upper jaw.
Like most fish, channel catfish spawn in the springtime. They prefer water temperature of around 75 degrees. Nests are made by the male fish in in some type of structure. Rocks, rip rap, fallen timber, and undercut banks are prime spots. Once the eggs are laid, the male guards the nest.
Juvenile channel catfish feed mostly on insects. As they grow, their diet becomes very diverse. This is certainly one of the keys to the success of the species. They will feed on just about any live prey that they run across. They are also not above scavenging off the bottom.
Blue catfish are normally found in larger river systems and lakes. Large river systems in the middle of the country such as the Ohio River, Missouri River, and Mississippi River all have good populations of blue catfish. They have been successfully stocked all over North America, offering anglers the chance to catch a true trophy fish.
Blue catfish are apex predators. They are very large and consume considerable amounts of prey. They are actually considered to be a problem in some areas, particularly the Rappahannock River in Virginia, where they are displacing native species. Blue catfish are commonly caught to 25 pounds but can easily exceed 100 pounds. The world record blue catfish is a 143 pound beast that was caught in Buggs Island Reservoir.
Blue catfish have a forked tail. Smaller fish can be confused with channel catfish. However, blue catfish do not have spots. Like channel catfish, most anglers consider them both a predator and a scavenger. Mature blue catfish do feed primarily on bait fish. Blue catfish spawn and similar areas to channel catfish. They often times live to be 30 years old.
A large blue catfish will put up a terrific battle. Anglers targeting a trophy fish will need to use fairly heavy gear. Most trophy blue catfish are caught by anglers using bait fish. A large live bait fish will not draw many strikes, but will attract larger fish. Fresh cut bait is extremely effective as well.
Flathead catfish also grow quite large, with the world record being 123 pounds. It was caught in the Elk City Reservoir in Kansas. They are also known as “yellow catfish”. Flathead catfish are fairly easy to distinguish from blue catfish and channel catfish. Flathead catfish are found in larger river systems throughout the middle part of the country.
As their name implies, they have a large, flat head. They are generally light yellow to light brown in color, thus the nickname “yellow catfish”. They also have a protruding lower jaw with a tail that is notched instead of being deeply forked.
Flathead catfish very significantly from blue catfish and channel catfish in their dietary habits. They feed exclusively on live bait fish. They are less opportunistic and do not scavenge on the bottom. Flathead catfish spawn a bit later in the year as well, preferring water temperatures up to 80°.
Mature flathead catfish are loners. They will stake out a prime ambush spot under a fallen tree, undercut bank, or other heavy structure. Flathead catfish prefer deeper holes and slow-moving water. They will move up into very shallow water at night to feed. While flathead catfish can be taken by anglers using cut bait, large live bait fish are preferred.
Fishing for catfish, locations
Catfish can be caught in a wide variety of environments. They are landed by anglers fishing in the smallest of creeks as well as the largest lakes in the country. Slow-moving, mid-sized rivers are prime habitat. Tail waters are fantastic spots to target catfish as well.
Fishing for catfish in rivers
Rivers are great waters to target catfish. Anglers fishing in rivers have an advantage over those fishing and lakes; there is simply much less water in which to search for fish. Small rivers in particular are excellent spots to target catfish, especially for novice anglers.
Outside bends in rivers are the top spots in most cases. The current flow gouges out and undercut bank as well is a deep hole on the outside bends of river channels. This results in these areas often times being the deepest portions of the river. Additionally, current deposits debris such as fallen trees and other cover which then accumulates in these holes. This is perfect catfish habitat.
Anglers can have great success by simply moving from one outside corner or bend to the next. Generally speaking, the straight portions of rivers tend to be less attractive to fish. There is nothing of interest to hold them, unless there is a significant depth change or other feature that will attract fish.
Larger rivers are a completely different situation. These rivers can be dangerous and angler should always put safety first! Strong currents and eddies along with unseen hazards can create a very dangerous situation. Commercial barge traffic is often present. However, some of the largest catfish in the world are caught in large rivers.
Outside bends are less of an issue in large rivers as they are in small rivers. Catfish will relate more to underwater bars, sunken debris and other structure, holes, ledges, points, bridges, and anything else that will break up the current and give them a good ambush location.
River conditions affect catfish
Conditions are an important factor when river fishing for catfish and other species. Water height and flow will have an impact on fish movements as well as being a safety consideration. During periods of high water, which is often times in the spring, fish will move out of the main river channels to escape the strong current. Sloughs and backwater areas off of the main channel will be better spots to fish. This can also be a dangerous time to be out an angler should be extra careful!
Conversely, during periods of low water catfish will congregate in the deeper areas of rivers. There simply will not be enough water on the shallow bars and flats to hold them. This often occurs in summer when the water is warm. The deeper holes will be cooler, which is another factor that will attract and hold fish.
Bait presentation is important in rivers, whether anglers or fishing from a boat or from shore. In most cases, the best technique is to approach the structure or area to be fished from the up current side. The bait is then presented downstream to the fish, with the bait being placed just ahead of the structure. This will result in the current taking the scent of the bait downstream to the fish and hopefully pulling it out away from the structure. Presenting the bait right in the structure will often result in a snag.
Fishing for catfish in lakes
Lakes throughout North America offer anglers excellent opportunities to catch all three major species of catfish. Targeting catfish and large lakes can be overwhelming as there is so much area to be covered. However, lakes often produce the largest catfish. The primary reason for this is simple, forage.
Many lakes, particularly Southern impoundments, are full of shad and herring that were stocked as forage for striped bass. This has resulted in an outstanding environment for catfish to thrive in.
Catfish are similar to other game fish in that they have the same basic needs. They prefer some type of structure that they can relate to. Cover and structure offer fish a feeling of safety along with a spot from which to ambush prey. While catfish are fairly tolerant to a wide range of water temperature, water that is either very warm or very cold will affect their movements and behavior.
The same types of spots that produce striped bass, largemouth bass, and other game fish species will hold catfish as well. These include bends in the sunken river channel, long sloping points, bluff banks, flats, bridges, docks, artificial reefs or fish attractors, the mouths of creeks are rivers entering the lakes, and deeper holes.
Catfish migrations in lakes
Catfish do have a seasonal migration in most lakes. As it warms up in the spring, they move up into the rivers, creeks, and tributaries in order to spawn. Areas with gravel or rocky bottom are prime spots. Once the spawning process is completed, catfish will scatter out into the main lake areas. During summer, catfish will often be found in the deepest portions of the lake, particularly near the dam. This area of the lake is often the deepest, coolest, and will attract the most bait.
As it cools off in the fall, catfish will once again move shallow as the water temperatures drop. Large flats in 10 feet of water to 15 feet of water adjacent to deep channel edges are great spots to try. Tributary mouths along with sloping points are also high percentage catfish spots in the fall. Striped bass often times will be seen schooling on the surface this time of year. Catfish can often times be found under the schools of feeding fish, gorging on the easy scraps.
Anglers targeting catfish in lakes have one advantage over river anglers; they can put out multiple lines behind the boat and off to the sides in search of fish. Often times, anglers fishing and rivers can only put out a couple of lines due to the current. However, this is not to case and lakes. Depending on local laws, anglers can put out quite a spread and cover a large area of water from a single location. This will help the catfish angler dial in the depth, presentation, and bait that is most effective on that outing.
Fishing for catfish in tailwaters
Tailwaters are fantastic spots to fish for catfish as well as just about every other freshwater species. Fish just naturally are attracted to current, and catfish are no exception. Flowing water gives game fish an advantage over bait fish. The water flowing through and/or over a dam can be quite swift. Catfish are well adapted to maneuver in this environment and they will feed heavily on the available forage.
Often times, bait fish such as shad, herring, bluegill, and other species can get chopped up going through the turbines of a hydroelectric dam. This provides an easy meal for catfish and other species as they lie in the current at the base of the dam and wait for the buffet to begin.
Boating in tailwaters can be dangerous! Anglers should always heed warnings and never anchor the boat from the stern. In many cases, these areas are accessible from shore. This is an excellent opportunity for anglers without a boat to have the chance to catch a big fish. Any lake or river system that has a decent population of catfish should have excellent fishing in the tail water area below the dam.
Fishing Ladies catfish experts
Big thanks to Fishing Ladies contributors and catfish experts Ann, Amy, Joanna, Guppy, Jocelyn, and Brandy for their help with this article. They generously shared their hard-earned information and catfish in tips in this piece. Each of them has been featured in a Fishing Ladies article with a focus on catching catfish. More about each of them along with their social media contacts can be found in these articles.
Ann White lives in Billings, Montana and is an avid catfish angler. She fishes quite a few tournaments and is on the Pro staff of many reputable catfish fishing tackle companies. Ann was a heavy contributor to several articles on this site. Anglers can learn more about her in her piece, “Ladies Catching Red River Catfish“.
Rachelle “Guppy” Doyle
Rachelle “Guppy” Doyle lives near Lake Conroe, Texas. Along with her husband, she founded catfish bubblegum and Bradley’s Guide Service. Catfish bubblegum is a no mess, no stink catfish bait that is easy-to-use and is very effective on catfish. Bradley’s Guide Service offers visiting anglers the opportunity to experience Lake Conroe, with a focus on crappie in catfish.
Rochelle is also a huge proponent of conservation and catch and release fishing when it comes to trophy catfish. She works with the Texas trophy catfish Association to promote these values. Anglers can learn more about this in Guppy’s article, “Ladies Fishing Lake Conroe“.
Joanna is a dedicated catfish angler who lives in Ohio. She mostly fishes the larger rivers in that region and targets trophy catfish. Joanna is sponsored by and pro staffs for several reputable companies. Anglers can see more great pictures of Joanna and learn more about her and catching catfish in the Midwest in her article, “Catching Ohio catfish“.
Lacey is an enthusiastic and hard-core River catfish angler. She grew up in the Northwest but now resides in Texas. Lacey loves the challenge of catching trophy catfish in Texas lakes and rivers. She enjoys fishing the Trinity River in particular. Anglers can see more pictures along with information about Lacey as she shares her tips on catching catfish and rivers in her article, Fishing the Trinity River.
In conclusion, this article, “Fishing for Catfish” will help anglers all over North America have more success. What is your favorite catfish spot?