How to Catch Catfish: Expert Tips for All Species

Fishing for catfish of many species, including channel catfish, blue catfish, flathead catfish, and more, is a popular pastime for anglers of all skill levels. Catfish is one of the …

Fishing for catfish of many species, including channel catfish, blue catfish, flathead catfish, and more, is a popular pastime for anglers of all skill levels. Catfish is one of the most commonly sought-after fish species in North America, and for good reason. Not only are they great fighters, but they are also delicious when cooked up properly.

In this article, we will provide expert tips and advice for catching all species of catfish, including where to find them, what gear to use, and what baits and lures are most effective. Whether you’re a seasoned angler or just starting out with catfish fishing, these tips will help you reel in more catfish on your next fishing trip.

Catfish Fishing: Basic How-To Techniques and Tips

Fishing scales fisherman weighs catfish
Catfish fishing is a fun hobby that anyone can enjoy regardless of experience level.

Catfish fishing is an exciting and rewarding experience that requires some basic techniques and tips to be successful. It doesn’t matter if you are a professional angler with decades of experience or someone that has just picked up a rod for the first time today; catching catfish is a fun hobby for anyone to enjoy.

First and foremost, it is essential to choose the right bait. Catfish are notorious for their love of stinky and smelly baits, such as chicken liver, cheese, and blood baits. That’s not to say they won’t take “normal” baits and lures too, but they prefer stink baits overall. If you get your hand on some smelly chicken livers or pungent dead baits, you’ll have a leg up when it comes to catching catfish.

Second, it is crucial to locate areas where catfish are likely to congregate, such as deep holes, river bends, and drop-offs. Using a depth finder or fish finder can be helpful in identifying these areas. In the Ohio River basins, catfish are often found in shallow water holed up under logs, stumps, or brush piles.

Third, when fishing for catfish in deeper water, it is important to use the right tackle, such as a medium to heavy action rod and reel, a strong and durable line, and a heavy sinker to keep the bait near the bottom. These are bigger fish, and some big cats can weigh more than 50 pounds which can snap a wimpy rod and line. Many anglers will have a gear set specifically for these monster-sized game fish species that they know can handle the size and power.

Finally, it is important to exercise patience and persistence when catfishing, as these fish are known for their stubbornness and can require some effort to catch. There may be some days when catfish will suck in your tasty bait without hesitation, but there will be many more days when these big fish will make you work for the pleasure of catching them.

Gearing Up for Catfish

Gearing up for catfish fishing requires the right equipment to ensure a successful catch. A sturdy rod and reel are essential, with the rod being able to handle the weight and power of a catfish – especially if fishing for blue catfish that can reach 70 pounds or more.

A medium to heavy-action rod with a sensitive tip is recommended. The reel should have a smooth drag system and a line capacity of at least 20-pound test lines, with an excellent high-quality drag and braking system.

A range of large and durable hooks, heavy sinkers, and thick swivels should also be included in your tackle box to ensure you have everything handy when you need it most.

Live or cut bait is the preferred bait for catfish, with options such as worms, shrimp, chicken or turkey liver, and stink bait being popular choices.

Other items such as a strong landing net, pliers, and a sharp knife are also very useful tools to have on hand for safely handling and releasing both larger and smaller catfish.

Fishing Tips for Each Type of Catfish

Channel Catfish 

Channel Catfish Diagram
Channel Catfish Diagram

Preferred Water

Channel catfish prefer to live in warm, slow-moving, and shallow water bodies of lakes, reservoirs, and wide rivers with plenty of slow-moving bays. For overall water quality, channel catfish will prefer water that has a high oxygen content without having a strong current.

The Rod and Reel Setup

A medium-heavy to heavy action rod is recommended, with a length between 7 and 8 feet. The rod should be able to handle weights of at least 30 pounds and have a strong backbone to handle the fish’s strength.

When selecting your reel, choose one with a high gear ratio for quick retrieval and a smooth drag system to handle the fish’s runs. Channel cats will absolutely give you some excitement when they run, so be prepared to fight them for a while before you land them.

Line and Hooks

A line capacity of at least 20-pound test monofilament line or braided line is the one commonly recommended for channel cats. I personally use a 30-pound braid when targeting channel catfish, but I have talked to anglers that have gotten away with something as light as a 12-pound test.

Size 2/0-4/0 Kahle hooks are normally the ones recommended. Smaller channel cats can be caught with 5/0 or 6/0 circle hooks; many catfish anglers have used this size with no problem.

Baits

Channel catfish are known to be opportunistic feeders and will take a variety of bait and lures. Live or cut bait, such as worms, minnows, or shad, is often the most effective bait for catching a channel cat.

Prepared baits, such as stink baits or dough baits, can also be effective, particularly in areas where natural bait is not available. Many anglers, myself included, have caught their biggest channel cat with stinky dough balls in deeper waters.

When using lures, jigs, spinners, and crankbaits can be effective when fished close to the bottom. Go for brightly colored lures, such as chartreuse or yellow, since these can be particularly effective in murky water or low-light conditions where catfish are commonly found.

Techniques and Tips

Bottom fishing by presenting your bait close to the bottom of the water body where catfish are known to gather and feed is probably the most effective way to catch channel cats. This can be done using a slip sinker rig or Carolina rig.

Another effective technique for channel catfishing is drift fishing, where you allow your bait or lure to drift along with the current, covering a large area of the water body. This is extremely useful when fishing in the Mississippi River or any other areas where there is a steady but not overly strong current.

Another technique is anchored fishing, where you anchor your boat in a catfish hotspot and fish with a stationary bait or lure, allowing the scent to attract nearby catfish. This is a great option for stubborn catfish populations since you can put a variety of bait on multiple rods secured in holders to see what the fish prefer to strike.

Flathead Catfish

Flathead Catfish Diagram
Flathead Catfish Diagram

Preferred Water

Flathead catfish prefer to live in large, slow-moving rivers, lakes, and reservoirs with deep holes and channels. When targeting these fish, look for water temperatures between 75 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Flatheads can also be found near underwater structures, such as logs, rocks, and brush piles, where they can ambush their prey. Make use of a good quality fish finder to locate potential hotspots for flatheads.

The Rod and Reel Setup

A 7-8′ heavy or extra-heavy action rod is ideal for flathead catfish fishing. The rod should be able to handle weights of up to 80 pounds or more and have an extremely strong backbone. A baitcasting reel is the most popular choice for flathead catfish since they can easily snap spinning rods.

When selecting your reel, choose one with a heavy-duty drag system to handle the fish’s raw power during runs and fighting. While you can get away with some variation in the rod itself, don’t skimp on a cheap reel since this is the mechanical component that will be pushed to the limit by these massive fish.

Line and Hooks

Braided line with a test of at least 50 to 80 pounds will be your best bet for flathead catfish, especially if they are actively feeding or the area you are fishing in has an abundance of larger fish.

When it comes to hooks, choose a circle hook size between 7/0 and 10/0. It is also important to consider how your bait will be presented when using circle hooks, especially if you use live bait to lure in these larger catfish.

Baits

Flatheads are primarily bottom feeders and prefer live prey, such as bluegill, sunfish, shad, crawfish, or even small mammals like mice or shrews. These baits should be taken near the bottom in deeper areas of slow-moving water where flatheads are actively feeding.

Artificial lures can also be used, but they are generally less effective than live bait for flathead catfish. Flatheads tend not to be as attracted to stink baits as other fish, such as big blues and channel cats.

Techniques and Tips

Flatheads tend to be highly active at night, so fishing during the early morning or late evening hours can be extremely lucrative. When selecting your fishing location, look for areas with good structure cover, such as submerged logs or rocks where flatheads can gather around for protection.

Blue Catfish

Blue Catfish Diagram
Blue Catfish Diagram

Preferred Water

Blue catfish prefer water temperatures between 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit and are often found in deeper water during the summer months when water temperatures are higher.

When selecting your fishing location, look for areas with deep channels and underwater areas fish might gather, like drop-offs, ledges, and underwater humps.

The Rod and Reel Setup

A heavy or extra-heavy action rod is ideal for blue catfish, with a 7-foot length being the most commonly used. The rod should be able to handle weights of up to 80 pounds or more, so be prepared to fork over a decent amount of money for a high-quality setup.

A baitcasting reel is the most popular choice for blues, with a smooth drag system and high gear ratio, so you can tire the fish out quickly without exhausting yourself. Blues are very active and will fight hard, so you need to be prepared for a workout.

Line and Hooks

Braided line is preferred over monofilament line for blues since it has more sensitivity and strength and can handle the weight and strength of a large blue catfish. A 50 to 80-pound test braided line is recommended, with a high abrasion resistance being an added bonus.

For hooks, use a large and strong hook with a long shank, such as a circle hook or J-hook. A 7/0 to 10/0 hook size is recommended but should be matched to the bait you are using. Massive hooks and tiny bait won’t work, just like a tiny hook and a giant piece of cut shad aren’t a suitable combination either.

Baits

While fresh-cut bait is the most popular choice among catfish anglers, artificial lures can also be quite successful in catching blue catfish. Blues will absolutely take soft plastic baits such as a worm or grub rigged on a jig head. The soft plastic bait mimics the movement of live bait, and the jig head provides a weight to get the bait down to the bottom, where blue catfish are known to feed.

While lures can effectively catch blue catfish, fresh-cut bait is still the preferred choice overall. Use fresh-cut shad, skipjack herring, or liver, and present it close to the bottom where these fish are hanging out.

Techniques and Tips

Fishing near structures such as logs, rocks, or drop-offs is a great choice with blues since they gather in these spots often. Most anglers also suggest fishing during the low light conditions of the early morning or late evening hours since blues are more active during these times.

When you feel a bite, wait a few seconds before setting the hook to allow the fish to fully take the bait. Having cut bait or heavily infused artificial lures is important here since it’ll give you a few seconds to react before the fish spits out the lure.

Bullhead Catfish

image 1
Bullhead catfish have square edged fins

Preferred Water

Bullhead catfish are most often found in slow-moving rivers, stagnant smaller lakes, shallower water ponds, and warm streams with clear to slightly murky water. They prefer areas with an abundance of rocks, logs, and similar structures where they can ambush their prey from the shadows. They also prefer water temperatures between 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

When selecting your fishing location, look for areas with these features, such as the edges of weed beds or near underwater structures, and use a fish finder to locate potential hotspots. Bullhead catfish are active during the day and night, so consider fishing at any time of the day.

The Rod and Reel Setup

Bullhead catfish are typically smaller than other catfish species, so a 6′ medium or medium-light action spinning rod is ideal. The rod should have a flexible tip that can easily detect light bites since bullheads won’t strike with as much power as other catfish.

A spinning reel is the most popular choice for bullheads, which makes them a great catfish species for beginners or anglers on a budget. As always, when selecting a reel, focus on the gear ratio and drag system since these are the most important parts for landing catfish of all species and sizes.

Line and Hooks

A monofilament line with a test weight of 6 to 12 pounds is perfectly fine for bullheads. This line weight is light enough to allow the bait to move naturally in the water but still strong enough to handle the fish’s size and strength.

When selecting your hooks, a size 2 to 6-circle hook is most commonly used. However, as bullheads tend to swallow their prey whole, it can be difficult to remove a traditional hook without harming the fish. Circle hooks can reduce the chance of this happening but can still be a problem with some greedy bullheads.

Baits

Live bait is often the most effective option for bullheads, with nightcrawlers, red worms, and mealworms being popular choices. You can also use cut pieces of fresh shrimp or chicken when you want to get a bit more odor into the water.

If you choose to use artificial baits or lures, it’s important to also use a scent attractant to increase the chances of a bullhead striking. Berkley Gulp and Magic Bait Hog Wild Dip Bait are two extremely popular and very successful options for scent attractants.

Techniques and Tips

To increase your chances of catching bullhead catfish, fish in areas with structures such as rocks, logs, or weeds, as these provide cover and attract baitfish.

When fishing in rivers, look for slow-moving sections of the river or backwater areas, as bullhead catfish prefer calmer waters.

It is also important to be patient when fishing for bullheads since they are notorious for nibbling at the bait before taking it fully.

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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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