Fishing for catfish is much more laid-back than for most other species. This is a lazy person’s fish, which requires only that you sit and wait for the fish to bite.
Catfish can be caught on equipment as modest as a cane pole, and bait as simple as a worm or caterpillar. They can even be caught on things like chicken livers (the older, the better…), hot dogs, soap, dog food, etc… Catfish are a fish that just about anyone can enjoy fishing for.
Of course, there are some things you can do to increase both the numbers and sizes of the fish you catch. We’ll get into that.
First, it helps to know a little about the fish you are targeting.
Catfishology: Different Species, Different Habits
There are 3 main species of interest in the US. They are Channel Catfish, Blue Catfish, and Yellow (Flathead) catfish. For this article, we will ignore species with limited ranges and smaller sizes, such as Bullheads, White Catfish, the Potomac Catfish, etc…
Channel vs Blue Catfish
Channel and Blue Catfish are often confused with each other because their appearances are similar and their habitats sometimes overlap. Channel Cats are the most popular species, mainly due to their wide range.
If you live in the Continental US, chances are there is a place relatively nearby where you can catch Channel Catfish.
They are usually a slate to blueish gray fading to white on the belly. They will have numerous small black spots, but on larger fish, they may be hard to find. This is one reason they are sometimes confused with the Blue Catfish, which have no spots, but similar coloration and appearance. Like the Blue Cat, they have a deeply-forked tail.
If you are in doubt, count the rays on the anal fin. Channel Cats have 24 – 29, while Blues will have 30+.
Channel Cats inhabit larger streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, and reservoirs, and prefer mild currents. In fast water or below dams, they will be anywhere there is a break in the current, such as behind fallen timber, rockpiles, troughs, whirlpools, etc… They spawn when the water reaches 75⁰F and will nest in shallow water under logs, rock piles, basins, etc… Channel Cats are very cooperative and are seldom moody.
They are usually happy to bite anything that smells.
Both Channel and Blue Catfish have olfactory and taste sensors all along with their bodies that are 100 times more sensitive than a bloodhound, making them basically a swimming nose and tongue. Channel Cats grow to more than 30 pounds, with 5-pounders being pretty average. The current record is 58 pounds.
The Blue Catfish is similar to the Channel Cat minus the black spots.
They also grow bigger, up to 100+ pounds. The current record is 143 pounds. 20-pounders are very common.
Unlike the Channel Catfish, Blues are strictly Big-Water fish of large rivers.
They are seldom found in lakes unless stocked, and there is swift water. They like current and are especially fond of tailraces below dams in larger rivers. Like Channel Cats, they are both scavengers and predators…whatever is handy.
They can be caught on anything that smells, the stronger the better.
Yellow Flathead Catfish
Flathead Catfish are in a totally different category.
They are related to Bullheads, have a non-forked tail, and a very angular head, hence the nickname, “Flathead”. Their lower jaw protrudes out from the upper jaw giving them a somewhat pugnacious appearance.
They are yellowish olive-colored fading to lighter yellow on the belly, with numerous brown splotches on their bodies. They cannot be confused with either the Channel or the Blue Catfish. They can grow to over 100 pounds, and the current record is 123 pounds.
Flatheads are not scavengers and feed exclusively on live fish, including each other, when they are adults.
Young Yellow Catfish will eat crawfish, worms, and invertebrates.
Flatheads live in streams, slow-moving rivers, and lakes and will hang out under logs, rock piles, and pretty much any structure in deeper water. They are a solitary, moody fish and will sometimes just refuse to bite anything.
Catching them requires a lot of patience. But it is worth it because they are the best-tasting of the 3 main species of catfish.
Compel With Smell…
As stated earlier, both Channel and Blue Catfish are swimming noses and tongues.
They can detect odors and tastes as dilute as 1 part per million from distances of 100 yards downstream, and more…
So anything organic that is particularly aromatic will attract Blues and Channels.
Dead shad and minnows can be especially productive. Rotten meat, especially chicken, anything particularly bloody like livers, and especially malodorous commercially-prepared pastes, and chunks, are very effective on mid-sized cats. I personally prefer Danny King’s Punch Bait and Magic Bait, but I strongly advise holding your breath while baiting your hooks. The aroma from these could knock out a mule….
Stink-Baits and dead things will not work for Flatheads at all, but live Bluegills and Shad will catch all three species of catfish.
Hooking Finicky Catfish…
Blue and Channel Catfish sometimes bite weird. Instead of an explosive strike that will bend your rod almost double (and they can do this sometimes…), your line will just gently go slack.
If you take up the slack, it will just go slack again. This can drive you crazy, but that is not really their intention.
These catfish also dine on things like mussels and crayfish, which have hard shells.
Catfish have incredibly strong jaws (as anyone who has ever stuck their hand in ones mouth can attest to…), and they will pick up a bait many times, and chomp down on it, hard, moving slightly forward to get more bite power.
This is why your line goes slack, and if you try to hook them at this point, you will just pull the bait out of their mouths. If you wait, they will soon move off with it, and that is the time to set the hook. It can be a cat-and-mouse game because often the catfish will mouth the bait, drop it, and pick it up again, several times.
You just have to be patient and wait until they move off with it, then strike.
Do The Lindy…
There is a way to counter the above-mentioned situation by using a Lindy sinker
A Lindy sinker is curved with the eye at the top. When you take up slack in your line, the sinker sits straight up and down with the curve away from you.
When a catfish bites and moves forward, the Lindy sinker falls back towards you, keeping tension on the line, and allowing you to hook the fish.
It takes a little practice to get the timing right, but it does work.
Flatheads are a different story. They either smash your bait or don’t bite at all. Nothing subtle here…
Addressing Your Hang-Ups
Tailraces below dams are great places for catfish, especially Blues. But, they usually have rocky bottoms in addition to swift water.
This can cause you to lose a lot of hooks and fish. It is usually your sinker that gets trapped in the spaces between rocks that hang you up. The best way to counter this is to crimp five, six, or more ⅛ oz. or larger split shots to your line at the bottom, then make a dropper loop about 12”-14” above them.
You can also use a 3-way swivel. Attach your hook to the loop and bait it.
Now, if the current hangs your sinker up (usually the bottom one), you can just pull your line and the bottom sinker will side off your line, saving the rest of your rig.
It works even when you have a fish on, and also allows you to drift your line downstream as long as you keep slack out of your line.
Don’t Get Bugged. Use The Jug…
Flathead Catfish are notoriously moody and bad-tempered.
They are prone to just lay on the bottom and sulk. But they are still opportunistic predators, and it is hard for them to ignore a meal that is actively drifting by them, soon to be out of range.
The best way to catch Flatheads, especially large ones, is to jug fish with live Bluegills (where legal). Use a few jugs, drop them upstream from where you want to fish and follow them in your boat (a paddle-type boat like a kayak or canoe, because a motor, even a trolling motor, will spook flatheads).
When one takes off, follow it and pull the fish in. Jug fishing is a lot more fun than sitting on the bank for hours waiting for a Yellow Cat to cheer up….
Check back with us often for more great fishing articles! Happy fishing…