How to Catch Catfish: A Step-by-Step GuidePublished on 05/17/2023 · 19 min readFollow Fishing expert Alex Johnson's steps to start your journey to becoming a catfish angler, or simply gather a few new tips to make you a better one.
Photo by Andy M.
Catfishing can be among the most enjoyable, rewarding, and affordable kinds of freshwater fishing available. Catfish are present in every state in the contiguous U.S., and odds are, whether you live in the middle of a big city, way out in the country, or anywhere in-between, you are not far from a catfish hole.
Catfish are unique in that they can grow to massive sizes, making them one of the only true “big-game” freshwater fish commonly available in the U.S. Blue and Flathead catfish that are up to and over 100 pounds are far from uncommon in many parts of the country.
What I love so much about fishing for catfish is its simplicity. I can head out to my local river to fish from the bank with a couple of rods, some nightcrawlers, a sandwich, and have a fun and relaxing day of fishing. I also love it if I'm able to catch one that's not too big or too small because they taste absolutely delicious. I like to fry it with a simple cornmeal breading and eat it as is or on a po’ boy sandwich, and man is it good! Catfish is by far my favorite fish to eat among the fish I can catch in my local waters here in the lower Midwest.
So, come along with me and follow my steps to start your journey to becoming a catfish angler, or simply gather a few new tips to make you a better one. I have been fishing for catfish since I was a kid, and I’ll probably fish for them until the day I die. I’m happy to share the knowledge I’ve gathered over the years because I think everybody should be able to enjoy catfishing as much as I do!
Before you get out on the water, you’ll want to know a little biology about the fish you’re after. This will give you a better perspective about the fish and will help you catch more! (Plus I just think it's fun to learn). There are many species of catfish that inhabit the waters of the U.S., but there are three species, in particular, you’ll want to know because they’re the most sought-after catfish by recreational anglers. They are also likely the most widely available, if not the only, catfish species in your area.
All three of these species are native to the Mississippi River, its tributaries (such as the Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky rivers), and their respective watersheds, which encompass a huge area and many bodies of water. Where they do not occur naturally, they have been stocked in rivers, ponds, lakes, and reservoirs, making them extremely common. Catfish are opportunistic predators that prefer the bottom, so they can all be caught with similar bait, and if you want to target a specific species, a few tweaks will increase your odds of catching what you're after.
1. Channel Catfish
This is the most common species of catfish and what you’ll probably be catching. Channel cats average about 2-4 pounds in size but have been known to get fairly big. A 20-pound channel cat is considered huge by anyone's standards, but they have been known to reach sizes of 40-50 pounds, though very rarely. They can be found in just about any body of water: rivers, creeks, ponds, lakes, and reservoirs. Channel cats will readily bite on bait such as cut shad, skipjack, and nightcrawlers (worms). They are also commonly caught with grocery store baits like cheese, hot dogs, corn, and doughballs, as well as homemade stink baits and really whatever food you have lying around the house that will stay on a hook.
2. Flathead Catfish
Also sometimes called a shovelhead catfish, Flatheads are aggressive apex predators. Just by looking at one, you can tell their place in the food chain by how camouflaged and streamlined they are. Flatheads can get BIG, so make sure you have a stout rod and a big enough reel to hold plenty of high test braided line. Flatheads reaching 100 pounds are not unheard of and are mostly found in medium to large-sized rivers, as well as reservoirs that are the result of damming a river where the fish were already present. They are sometimes stocked, but not as commonly as channel cats. Because of their tenacity, catching flatheads is most productive with live bait, meaning bait that is actually alive and still moving around. Live creek chubs, minnows, shad, sunfish, and even bullheads, a small species of catfish, are excellent bait choices.
3. Blue Catfish
Blue cats are the largest of the three and can be up to 150 pounds in some cases. If you are targeting blues, make sure you have a rod and reel setup that is meant for bigger fish, as you never know when you’ll hook into a big one. Blue catfish are prevalent in the Mississippi watershed and have been introduced in many other rivers and reservoirs, but you’re most likely to find blues in the southern U.S. below the Mason-Dixon line. Blues tend to feed a little higher in the water column, so using floats and letting it drift downstream can be a good technique. Your best baits for blues are freshly caught baitfish such as shad or skipjack. Freshness is key here, whether you get them live from the bait shop on your way to the water or even better if you can catch some yourself. Those same fish frozen will work, but having them fresh will increase your odds as the natural smell and oils from the bait mimics exactly what blues eat.
Rods, Reels, and Line for Catfish
Catfishing requires gear that is a little more sturdy than what you would use for other freshwater species. You’ll want a rod, reel, and line setup that is not overbearing, but still strong enough to handle a big fish because you never know when you’ll hook into a true monster. You don’t have to get too technical though, catfishing gear is best when simple and practical in my opinion.
Here are three rod, reel, and line setups for catfishing. You could get one of each setup to cover all your bases or just one that seems like a good fit for your situation:
Basic and Light
Start with a 4000 size spinning reel and spool with 30-pound braided line. For your rod, you’ll want a 7’-7’6” medium-heavy, fast action rod. Next, make sure you have some clear 30-pound monofilament line for leader material. This is a great setup for fishing creeks, rivers, ponds, and small lakes. If you know you’ll only be going after channel cats, this will be all you’ll ever need. It's a great, simple, and lightweight setup that makes catching catfish really fun!
A heavier spinning setup will allow you to step up your catfishing game and prepare you to bring in bigger fish. Get a 5000-6000 size spinning reel and spool with 65-70 pound braided line. For your rod, find anywhere from a 7’-8’ “big game” spinning rod with a medium or medium-heavy power. The “big game” rods are commonly saltwater rods or will be specifically designed for catfish. They are much thicker and are meant for bigger fish. My heavier spinning combo that I own is an older model Okuma Stratus Stx 55 (5500) spinning reel, Shakespeare Ugly Stik Bigwater 7’ medium-power spinning rod, and 65-pound braided line with a 50-pound clear monofilament leader.
For really big cats, or if you simply prefer baitcasting setups, start with a 5500-6500 size conventional (round) baitcasting reel, 7’6’’-8’ medium to heavy “big game” casting rod, and high test braided line. Make sure you have some thick monofilament line around for leader material too. The advantages of the baitcasting setup are that you’ll be able to hold a lot more line than a spinning reel and most conventional baitcasting reels are equipped with a bait clicker, which can help alert you when a fish is about to run off with your bait so you can be ready.
Hooks, Sinkers, and Other Tackle
The great thing about catfishing tackle is it’s not too complicated. If you have some hooks and sinkers, you're pretty much good to go after you get some bait. However, you'll want to get some essentials and the right kind of tackle for catfish.
For hooks, I only use circle hooks these days. They do all of the work for you and set the hook themselves, and always hook the fish perfectly in the corner of the mouth as they are designed to do. This helps mitigate foul hooks, and if I want to release the fish, I know it will swim off in good shape because the hook was where it was supposed to be and didn’t harm the fish or get swallowed. Go with anywhere from a size 3 all the way up to a size 8 Gamakatsu circle hook. You can go even bigger if you are targeting trophy blues or flatheads.
Sinkers, or weights, are an important part of your catfish tackle box. Catfish are bottom feeders, so most of the time your bait will be on the bottom and you’ll need a sinker to get you there. For ponds and creeks, some assorted split shot sinkers may be all you’ll need, but for general purpose, I use egg sinkers. Look for egg sinkers up to 1 ounce. Get bigger egg sinkers if you’ll be using a big bait or if fishing a body of water with little current. For a river with a swift current, use flat no roll sinkers that are 3 ounces or more if necessary. This will ensure the current doesn't move your bait away from where you want it, causing the need to re-cast frequently.
Another piece of tackle to consider are floats or bobbers, as some people call them (for some reason I call them floats for catfish and bobbers for everything else, but I don’t think I’m the only one). Catfish “pole floats” are typically 7”-8” long and are useful for weed edges, around submerged timber or laydowns, near cut banks, or drifted downstream. They excel as a means for changing up your presentation and technique if you are not getting any bites on the bottom. When bottom fishing, you can also use a small “peg float” on your leader to slightly lift your bait off the bottom. This can sometimes make the difference between getting skunked and getting some good bites.
Lastly, a couple of other essentials include barrel swivels, which allow you to easily connect your main line to your leader, and plastic beads to protect your main line knot from being messed up and frayed by the sinker. Also, you’ll probably want some rod holders for your boat or that you can put in the ground if you’re bank fishing.
A simple and tried and true catfish rig is to bring the end of your main line through an egg sinker, then through a plastic bead, then tied to one end of a barrel swivel. Next, tie a 12” monofilament leader to the other end of the swivel and tie a circle hook to the end of the leader. For the knots, I like to use an “Improved Clinch Knot '', but any strong fishing knot you like will work.
Catfish are occasionally caught as bycatch by bass anglers with crankbaits and swimbaits, but lures are usually not your most productive technique, which is why catfish are targeted and caught 95% of the time with some kind of bait.
The habitat catfish live in is typically deep, dark, and muddy, so they don’t rely much on their eyes, but heavily on their sense of smell and their whiskers (a.k.a barbels) to find food. Catfish baits that excel are oily and have a strong smell that brings cats in to investigate and hopefully take the bait.
Catfish baits can be lumped into three categories: live bait, cut bait, and grocery store baits.
1. Live Bait
Live bait is pretty self-explanatory, as it is bait that is still alive when put on the hook and fished. The whole purpose is for the vibrations of the fish or worms to attract predatory fish. Live bait works especially well for flathead catfish because that is how they prefer to eat and survive. Common live baits for catfish include shad, bluegill, or other sunfish, creek chubs, bullhead catfish, and big nightcrawlers. You’ll want to make sure you have a way to keep your bait alive, otherwise, you’ll just end up having a bucket full of dead fish only good for cut bait, which you could have bought or obtained much easier and cheaper than getting it live. A boat livewell or a bucket or cooler with an aerator/bubbler is your best bet.
2. Cut bait
Cut bait is basically anything that was once live bait, then cut into chunks. It can be more convenient because you can buy it frozen from bait shops and use it as needed. Your best cut baits will be oily baitfish that are naturally eaten by catfish in your area. The most common is shad, which is prevalent in almost every body of water in the lowland U.S. The most common species of shad you will likely use for bait is the gizzard shad. They have also been introduced in many reservoirs as a sustainable way to provide prey for predatory game fish that were introduced as well.
The next most common cut bait is skipjack or skipjack shad. These are similar to gizzard shad, but get a bit bigger with an average size of about 12”. They are mostly found in the Mississippi River watershed, especially below the mouth of the Ohio River. Try to catch your own shad or skipjack with a cast net and use it as soon as possible. This will make your bait smell and resemble what cats eat on a regular basis to survive.
Frozen cut baits will work, but try to get it as fresh as possible to increase your odds of catching catfish. An alternative version to cut bait is what's known as stink baits. To make a stink bait, you just put some cut shad or skipjack in a glass jar with water and leave it in the sun for a day or so. The name is fitting because boy does it stink! Stink baits are not my first choice personally, but they do catch fish and some people swear by them.
3. Grocery store baits
Catfish are also commonly caught with baits that you can simply get from the grocery store or that you may already have in your fridge. Chicken livers are a popular choice, as well as hot dogs, cheese, doughballs (white bread compacted and formed onto a hook), frozen shrimp, and canned corn. These are cheap, convenient, and effective baits for catfish. I’ve caught countless cats on hotdogs myself. Also lumped into this category would be homemade baits that are basically a mash of both cut bait, like shad, and grocery store items like canned dog food, garlic, and cheese. It is pretty much turned into a thick paste and formed onto a hook and they are quite pungent. I personally don’t like homemade baits because they are messy, often fall off the hook when casting, and end up getting eaten up by tiny sunfish and bullheads within a matter of minutes, but they do work, so don’t be afraid to try it.
Where to Fish and What to Look For
In my fishing experience, the most important part of fishing success is finding the right spot and habitat. You could have the best, most enticing bait in the world, but it's worthless if you’re at a bad spot where the fish don’t hang out. For catfish, the same fundamentals for finding other freshwater species apply. Finding cover, shade, structure, vegetation, and transition areas are where you’re most likely to find fish. This will vary by the type of water you’re fishing too.
For rivers and creeks, you'll want to first find deep holes adjacent to shallower areas. These spots are guaranteed to hold a catfish or two. These “transition areas,” as I call them, take a few forms. Eddies, which are slow-moving water adjacent to swift rapids or ripples, are great spots. “Foam is home” is a common adage by many anglers that rings true, so look for places where foam has built up in a river or creek. River bends are great spots too, and these often take the form of cut banks, where there’s what resembles a cliff with a deep hole directly underneath. Often at river bends, there will be a shallow gravel bank or sandbank with a deep hole directly across at the bend. Under bridges can be productive too because they are often dredged out underneath and can be quite deep, and catfish may gather there for shade on really hot days. Locks and dams are also productive and often hold the biggest fish in the river. They create deep holes below them which serve as an abrupt stopping point where baitfish and predatory fish will congregate. Lastly, confluence areas where one river or creek flows into another are great spots, as batfish will hold there and catfish will wait for their opportunity for an easy meal.
Lakes and reservoirs often hold plenty, and sometimes some behemoth catfish. Much like rivers and creeks, focus on transition areas there as well. Weed edges or mudflats adjacent to deeper water and drop-offs where there is a sudden, gradual increase in depth are good places to start. For reservoirs in particular, the submerged creek channels from before the area was flooded are great, because they will hold a lot of boulders, brush piles, and other submerged structures where cats will congregate. Any other offshore brush piles or rocks are great too, as well as stump fields, laydowns (downed trees in the water), and coves. You can find these areas by finding a fishing map of the lake, which are sometimes available through a state’s department of natural resources, and by your boat’s electronics if you have one.
Time of Day and Weather Conditions
Like other freshwater species, the magic hours for success with catfish are within the few hours around dawn and dusk. While you can catch catfish any hour of the day, if you are limited on time, focus on those hours. On the other hand, I HIGHLY suggest doing some night fishing for catfish. Catfish are very active at night and often go to shallower areas to hunt and feed. I have caught some of my biggest and the highest number of cats in one outing at night. I truly think after dark is the best time for catfishing. Don’t let it intimidate you though, night fishing can be really fun! Bring some friends, set out a few lines, and gather around a fire (if legal where you’ll be fishing) for a fun and relaxing night. There may be some slow periods, but the action could happen at any moment and it gets really exciting.
As for weather conditions, I don’t worry about it as much as I do for other species. Catfish will bite in pretty much any weather condition. I even know some people in my area that actually do fairly well-catching cats in the dead of winter in rivers. Just go out when it suits you. If you don’t like fishing in the rain or if you hate hot sunny days, don't worry, you don’t have to if you don’t want to. It won’t make or break your success on the water.
Get Some Local Knowledge
My grandfather used to love to tell hunting and fishing stories about his dad. One of my favorites was about how my great-grandfather used to do really well on the Galien River in southwest Michigan trolling Rat-L-Traps for big channel cats. His quality catches didn't go unnoticed by other locals, so inevitably folks would ask him “Where did you catch those?”, to which he would respond, “You know the spot around the bend by the grassy island?” they would reply in excitement, “Yeah!”, then he’d say “That’s not where I caught ‘em! Find your own damn spot!”
Now maybe that story is just a testament to my great-grandfather's personality, or perhaps reflects his generation, but my experience with fellow catfish anglers has been the opposite. I’ve found that catfish anglers are more willing to share information than other anglers, so don’t be afraid to ask around for some tips specific to your area, because what baits and techniques work best can vary from one area or body of water to another.
If you have a family member, friend, coworker, or neighbor that likes to catfish, that’s your best lead. They’ll probably even take you out so you can learn from them. The next best thing is to ask around your local catfish hole for some tips and what bait they’re catching them on. Another great resource is Facebook groups and online forums. You’ll probably be able to find a fishing group specific to where you want to fish, or just a general catfishing group in your region. Just by reading posts and comments, you can learn a lot, and if you have specific questions, most often people are quick to comment and get you some answers. It goes without saying with all this to just be courteous. Don’t outright ask for everybody's spot, and be polite. If you're new to fishing, people are even more willing to help you out if you ask.
Patience is Key
Catfishing is a waiting game. It’s not like other fast-paced types of fishing like bass where you’re constantly casting, moving, and changing lures. The best catfish anglers are those who are willing to sit still and be patient. Admittedly, I’m guilty sometimes of not being able to sit still, but catfishing really gives you the ability to take in and reflect on everything nature has to offer. When the bite is slow, I like to hunt for fossils or morel mushrooms, listen to music (low volume), make some riverside coffee, and even take a nap. Being able to take in the beauty of nature is one of the biggest reasons catfish are one of my favorite things to fish for and I’m loving it more every season.
Get Out There and Fish!
You won’t catch anything from the couch, so get out there! I’ll always say experience on the water is the most valuable thing you can do to make yourself a better angler. You can read all the articles, watch all the youtube videos, and read all the Facebook posts, but there is no substitute for time on the water. Fishing success is the result of knowledge, determination, experience, and trial and error. Just get out there, fight some big gnarly catfish, and have some fun!