An Expert Guide to Catfishing Gear

Want to start fishing for catfish? Fishing Expert Adam Fox shares all the essential gear and tackle for chasing down those big cats.

Photo by Milos Prelevic

Hello, again to all of my fellow anglers! It is time for another article to shed a little light and give some guidance in the art of catfishing. Yes, I am talking about getting hooks baited and lines wet, not posting that picture of yourself from twenty years ago! So, a lot of folks look at catching catfish at the beginner’s level of fishing or as something that is easily achievable compared to other types of fishing. While catching a catfish is definitely easier than tracking down a big musky, that is not to say that there is no challenge in the act. In fact, catfish are likely to be some of the largest predatory fish in your local bodies of water!

An old picture of the author holding up a catfish.

This is the first “big” flathead catfish I ever caught (10 lbs and 32.5 in). These fish can be upwards of 70 lbs! Photo courtesy of Adam Fox

Some of you might be questioning my expertise at this point because I just referred to catfish as predators, however, my title of expert is backed by years of amassing knowledge about this passion of mine. Catfish are, in fact, predators, not bottom feeders. This confusion comes from the fact that most catfish lie near the bottom waiting to ambush their prey, sort of like a flounder. Another reason people think that catfish are bottom feeders is because they are known to be caught on a variety of baits ranging from worms and fish to soaps and candies. On that note, sand tiger sharks are known to have all sorts of odd objects in their stomachs, yet nobody questions their status as a predator because of their terrifying smile.

Now, before you get bored and start wondering why I’m talking about all of this instead of what hooks to use (don’t worry, we will get there soon!), I want to say that knowing how catfish function is crucial to understanding how to gear up for them. Catfish prefer to take injured fish or slow-moving targets, for the most part. When a catfish senses food it will typically have to move toward it slowly, searching for the chemical trail in the water. Again, this is similar to how sharks find food. When the fish does find its food, or the bait, it will inhale it and move away. This is what causes that tell-tale sound of the screaming drag as line peels off the spool! There are some exceptions to this that I will touch on near the end, but generally, the rule of thumb is to use slow-moving or stationary baits. This is a waiting game.

Rod, Reel, and Line

Product image of the Daiwa Harrier X Jigging Spinning Rod.

The Daiwa Harrier X Jigging Spinning Rod

Before you decide to just grab the nearest rod and chuck some soap out on a hook, (which I don’t recommend for environmental reasons, by the way) you should take into consideration the amount of power that a catfish is going to fight you with. Most species of catfish are basically a block of muscle laid on top of an incredibly sturdy set of bones, and this is very apparent when you hook on to one! It is very important that you have a rod and reel that are capable of handling fish like this. I know from personal experience that catfish series rods are powerhouses, and I would look to get set up with a medium-heavy to heavy power rod. An example of a great rod to handle large catfish is this Daiwa Harrier. Any reel that has a bait-runner (a.k.a bait clicker) and is size 4,000 or larger would be optimal. The bait-runner is great because you can hear when you get a run from a distance, and you can get better hooks set due to how quickly you can lock down the drag. The large reel size is not really as important as maximum drag strength, but larger reels tend to have better gear design, and less flex for more power and control when fighting a fish.

When it comes to choosing line type, a lot of that is simply personal preference. I like to use a heavy braid as my main line, then I will tie a slightly lesser-strength monofilament or fluorocarbon leader to that for presentation and anti-abrasion purposes. Also note that you can use metal leaders like steel or titanium, for extra durability and abrasion resistance when fishing around sharp rocks or other jagged structures. These types of leaders are also useful when targeting fish with teeth. The downside is that these metal leaders tend to get bent beyond use after one or two good hook-ups with a catfish. Swivels can help prevent this by countering the catfish’s roll or spin, but it is not a perfect fix. Swivel strength should be equal to or greater than the strength of your main line. I have seen it all: mono, braid, braid to fluoro, mono to fluoro, heck I’ve even seen mono to braid! There is a huge variety of ways to set up your fishing line, but simple methods like all-mono or all-braid are tried and true. When it comes to the rod, reel, and line type, these things are basically a constant no matter where you are catfishing.

Terminal Tackle

The author's tackle is laid out on a storage box.

Before I get started with the different types of hooks and sinkers to use, I want to mention that swivels are technically terminal gear, but they are so closely associated with attaching leaders, adding “snag lines,” and other line-related things that I felt it appropriate to mention them above. Speaking of what I call “snag lines” or “break lines,” you might be wondering what I am talking about? What I’m referring to here is a line of much lesser breaking strength that is used specifically to tie your sinker to your main setup. The purpose of this method is to ensure that if your sinker gets snagged, it will break off before the rest of your setup. This has saved me countless hooks and leaders, as well as a few fish that I’m very glad I did not miss.

On the topic of sinkers, there are a few types that I have come to love for catfishing over the years. Now, the weight and style of your sinkers is greatly dependent on where you are fishing. I will get into where to use which setups in a bit. In the meantime, the sinkers that I have found to be the most effective are disc or no-roll sinkers, pyramid sinkers, and bank sinkers (in that order). The no-roll sinkers or disc sinkers are great for holding your bait in one place, even in fast currents. The rounded edges make these the least likely to snag, as well. Pyramid sinkers are designed to bury into sand or mud, like an anchor, which is great for holding the bottom but it can lead to snags in areas with a lot of structure (where you should be fishing!). Finally, bank sinkers have semi-round features, and some edges as well. They are like a mix between no-roll and pyramid sinkers. These are great for fishing in shallower water and making less of a splash when casting, but they don’t hold the bottom as well, and they still have a chance of snagging up pretty severely. Overall, I find that disc and/or no roll sinkers are the most versatile, making them my go-to! Sinker slides and beads are another worthy investment. These clips allow you to attach the sinker indirectly to the line, allowing the sinker to slide up and down. This makes it so that a fish cannot feel the weight of the sinker when taking the bait. The beads simply prevent abrasion and damage when the slide comes to its stopping point.

When it comes to deciding which hooks to use for catfish there are really only two options: treble and circle hooks. Single point hooks are more likely to make better hook sets because all of the pressure is in one point (less surface area = more pressure). In my personal opinion, circle hooks are the way to go for catfish 99% of the time. The shape of the hook makes it so that it practically sets itself when the fish runs and it does not come out as easily when the fish rolls. On top of that, these hooks are much harder to straighten out than others. Circle hooks are great for using live or cut bait as well as any bait chunks like chicken liver or dough baits. Now, as many of you may know, not all catfish bait likes to stay on the hook when casting. This is one of the main uses of treble hooks. When fishing with loose baits like chicken liver or dough bait, you can stuff the bait into a stocking that is cut to the size of the bait. I absolutely MUST mention here that you should NOT use bread (moldy or fresh) as bait. Mold on bread causes illnesses in fish, and the fact that bread is plant-based makes it nutrify the water when it decomposes. This will kill the fish and over-grow the aquatic vegetation. Nobody wants to find that their favorite fishing spot has turned into an algae pool. Always be conscientious and considerate when outdoors!

Anyway, if there is too much stocking, it will be unappetizing to the fish and scare them off. Even though they don’t have the best eyesight, catfish can have over 10 times the amount of taste buds as humans (upwards of 175,000!). The larger the fish, the more taste buds. This incredible feature of these fish is one of the reasons your bait should be heavily scented (or bloody) and relatively unobscured by things like mesh or stockings. Once the bait is secured in the stocking, hook one of the three hooks into the stocking and leave the other two points uncovered so that they can penetrate the catfish’s hard jaw pads. The other use for a treble hook when fishing catfish is as a tail hook in a large live bait. This works for many other target species as well. If you have a baitfish 6” or larger (big bait = big fish), you can use a single hook through the front of its face and a treble hook through the fish, right before the tail. This rig ensures that the target fish will take a hook no matter which end of the bait it eats first. When tying this rig, make sure the line that attaches the treble hook is as strong as the line or leader you are using and that it is tied tightly to the main line or leader. When it comes to terminal tackle, these are the basics that you would need for a successful trip. Before the end, I will touch on some less common, and frankly unusual terminal tackle that can be used in the instances of the exceptions that I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Water Types

An image taken on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Photo by Mathew Benoit

Catfish are some of the most widespread fish, and they can be found in virtually every livable body of water in the world. That being said, I would be remiss if I did not mention where different gear types should be applied. For the sake of letting you get on with your life and getting back on the water, I will classify water into two types: fast water and slow water. For ALL water types, catfish are more active in murky water or at night, as they have poor eyesight, are photosensitive (don’t like a lot of light), and are ambush predators. When fishing fast water, especially that is deep, it is important to use heavy weights. Sizes between three and eight ounces (depending on rod and line strength) should be plenty for most fishable conditions. When fishing slow water, especially shallower like ponds, lighter weights between one-half and two ounces are optimal. The lack of splash when entering the water makes them less likely to scare fish, they are less likely to get stuck on the bottom, the fish is less likely to feel the weight, and there is not a heavy current that can shore your bait. If you do find yourself fishing clear water during the day, try to fish around shade lines and structures where the fish might be hiding out from the sun and use fresh baits that are bloody and preferably have movement of their own.

Extra-Extra!

As I mentioned a couple of times in this article, there are some exceptions to the general rules of catfishing and some odd gear choices that go along with them. The first thing that I’d like to touch on, is that catfish do not always run with your bait. It has been the case, more than once, that after hours of waiting I go to reel in and realize that there is a lazy catfish that has just been sucking on the hook the whole time! My leading theories for this happening are that the bait landed close enough to the fish’s hiding spot that it did not feel the need to move after eating, or that the fish felt the hook and became hesitant to move after realizing the situation. Granted, the first theory certainly has more credibility than the latter.

Another odd-ball situation is that catfish, particularly channel cats, will come up to feed on the surface at night. In some rare cases, they will actually jump out of the water! I have seen this in person before in the Allegheny River in Western Pennsylvania. When the fish are acting like this, it is actually easier to catch them with a bobber and a worm. The bobbers, a.k.a. floats, in the link also have lights for use at night, when catfish would surface. I did not mention bobbers in the terminal tackle section because catfish are typically bottom-dwelling fish. On that note, bobbers can be used as a detection system when you get a bite. Simply hang the bobber on the line below the first guide then let some line out. When a fish strikes, the bobber will fly up and slap the rod. This provides visual and auditory cues for when a fish bites.

Some other unusual tactics that I have seen are using old plastic chewing tobacco cans as bobbers or as dry-storage in a tackle box, using fish-based oil as an attractant on baits, and even letting baits rot intentionally to increase the scent of the bait. Also, there is some extra gear that, if you have it, will make your life a lot easier: needle nose pliers or forceps, fish-grip gloves, hand wipes, latex, or rubber gloves. The pliers make it easier to get the hooks out of the tough lip or jaw of the fish, the grip gloves make it easier to hold the slimy, scaleless fish still, the hand wipes help get the gunk off from the bait and the fish, and the latex gloves can help prevent that in the first place.

Now that we have gone over a little bit about what a catfish is and how they live, the gear you need to catch them, and the places in which you can find them, I’d say you are all set for the next time you decide to kick it by the lake with a rod and a cold drink! Plus, you even got some expert tips that some of the best catfish anglers out there have employed over the years. While catfishing may not get the glory that it deserves due to it being centered around a fish that people consider a bottom feeder (like linemen to a receiver in American football), I hope that you can see there is more complexity and craft to this than just casting and hoping.

Of course, I couldn’t possibly cover everything there is to know about the art of catfishing in this article. With that, you can always find me or one of my fellow Fishing Experts here on Curated to give you more detailed insights and even more advanced pro tips on how to catch the best fish of your life. In the meantime, I will be casting my lines and hoping that you are out there doing the same thing!

“Water may be the thing that separates us in distance, but it connects us in spirit.” -Adam Fox

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Written By
Adam Fox
Conventional Fishing Expert
I've been fishing and hunting as long as I can remember, and it has always been the thing I'm most passionate about! I've been in sales for many years; my previous job was working in a beer distributor, but now I get to sell fishing gear and improve the wonderful company that we call Curated! I real...
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