How to Catch Catfish: the Complete Catfishing Guide
Nov 15, 2019 | 9 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 9 minutes

Catfish are some of the most underrated fish in the country. They grow huge, they taste great, and they put up a heck of a fight. In this short guide, you’ll learn how to catch Catfish, from catfishing basics like telling species apart to more advanced theories on where, when, and how to bring in a monster.

A happy man holding a big Blue Catfish on a boat with water and sky in the background

If this isn’t a monster, we don’t know what is!

Types of Catfish:

The first thing you need to know about catching catfish is that there’s more than one kind. You wouldn’t use the same tactics for a Steelhead as a Lake Trout, so knowing which Catfish you’re targeting is key to success.

There are three main species of Catfish that anglers target in the US: Blue Catfish, Channel Catfish, and Flathead Catfish. They can show up in the same waters and may be hunting for the same prey, but they’re very different creatures. Here’s a brief look at each species to help you pick your target.

Flathead Catfish

A smiling lady holding a Flathead Catfish at night

Flathead Catfish are probably the toughest Cats to catch. They’re solitary, hard to find, and put up a serious fight once you hook them. Even experienced anglers are happy to catch one big fish per trip. Flatheads live throughout the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River basins. They can show up from North Dakota to Lake Erie and from the Florida Panhandle over into Mexico.

Flatheads usually max out at around 100 pounds, but monsters have tipped the scales at 120 pounds in the past. They’re easy to tell apart from other species, with a long body and a square, flattened head (hence the name).

Blue Catfish

Three men holding a Blue Catfish after learning how to catch Catfish on a fishing charter

Blue Catfish are the biggest and most prized of America’s Catfish. They can grow to mammoth sizes, with the all-tackle record weighing in at an incredible 143 pounds. The great thing about Blue Cats is that they’re not as solitary as Flatheads. You can land huge numbers of them as well as individual giants. This makes for a much more action-packed fishing trip.

Blue Cats live in the same range as Flatheads but they’re usually limited to deeper waters in lakes and main river sections. They like to hang out around strong currents where they wait to ambush prey.

Channel Catfish

A male angler on a boat holding a Channel Catfish with a net on the left

Channel Cats are a lot smaller than their blue and flat-headed cousins. Most fish don’t top 20 pounds and anglers are usually looking for numbers more than size when targeting them. You do get the occasional monster, though, with fish in the 50 lb range decorating record books and mantelpieces.

Channel Catfish may not be the biggest Cat on the block, but they do get around. You can catch Channel Cats pretty much everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains and well into both Mexico and Canada.

How to Distinguish Blue and Channel Catfish

Blue and Channel Cats can be hard to tell apart. In theory, Channel Catfish are brown with dark spots, while Blue Catfish are, well, blue. Catfish vary in color, though, and Channel Cats lose their spots once they’re big enough to be confused with a Blue.

A lady holding a Catfish with water in the background

Is it a Channel Catfish or a Blue Catfish? Hint: count the rays.

The easiest way to tell the fish apart is by the tail. Blues and Channels both have forked tails, but Blue Cats have much straighter, more pointed forks while Channel Cats have more rounded tails. Blue Cats also have more rays on their anal fins – around 30–35, verses 25–28 on Channel Cats.

Best Time to Catch Catfish

Another stereotype about Catfish is that you have to catch them at night. Most people do go catfishing after dark but that doesn’t mean you can’t land monsters during the day. It depends on where you’re fishing and what species you’re after.

Flatheads are the most nocturnal. At night, they’re happier to move out of their cover or hiding hole. This is the best time to find them, but you can also land Flatheads in the sunshine by working the cover they tend to hide in.

Blue and Channel Cats seem to feed on their own schedule, regardless of the time of day. One thing to bear in mind is that monster Blues will be more active by day if there’s a strong current to hunt in. In slow-moving waters, they mainly hunt at night.

Catfishing at Night

A man on a boat at night holding a big Flathead Catfish

There are two good reasons that people go catfishing at night – it’s a lot cooler and the fish show up in much shallower water. Why? Simply put, Catfish follow their stomachs and their stomachs follow the forage. The topwaters get too warm for bait fish on a hot summer’s day. They also feel safer in open water under cover of darkness. Catfish are scent-based hunters, though, and have no problem tracking down forage in the dark.

Daytime Catfishing

A happy child ion a boat holding a big Blue Cat caught on a catfishing trip.

Catching Catfish during the day is a lot easier from a boat because you can get out to the deeper waters. You can fish from shore, you just need to be able to cast accurately to deep water. Start by fishing points and humps in the deepest reaches of the river or lake, then work your way to shallow water until you find the right depth. It requires a deeper knowledge of the waters you’re fishing in but it can be just as rewarding.

Best Season for Catfishing

Again, most people have a limited view of when to catch Catfish. You may think that catfishing is just a summer thing. Sure, summer is the best time to find Catfish, but you can catch them all year round. It’s not uncommon to even catch Channel Cats through ice! It varies based on the species but the general rule of thumb is that they like deep, slow-moving water in winter and shallower, faster water in the summer.

How to Build the Best Catfishing Rig

There’s no secret science to building a Catfish rig. Find a sturdy rod, add a quality reel, and don’t go cheap on your terminal tackle. Here are a few tips on picking out the right setup for your chosen species.

Catfish Rods

A selection of fishing rods with different colored blanks

You’re looking for a fast action rod with plenty of backbone and enough bend in the tip to set the hook properly. For smaller Channel Cats, go with a 6’ medium-power rod. For big Blues and Flatheads, you want a 7’ medium-heavy or even heavy-power rod. If you’re casting from shore, you may need a little more length to reach deep water.

Catfish Reels

A baitcaster fishing reel being held near some water.

Getting the hang of casting is an essential part of learning how to catch Catfish.

Baitcasters are the way to go if you want to take on big Cats. They have much more reliable drag and will let you cast much farther – essential for shore fishing. If you really hate casting, you can get away with spinning reels if you’re targeting smaller Channel Catfish. Whatever style you go for, save yourself a lot of frustration (and even money in the long run) by investing in a quality reel.

And Everything Else

A selection of fishing tackle: fishing line, bobbers, hooks, and more.

Firstly, line. Catfish rarely show up in gin-clear water, so you don’t need to bother with braid. Monofilament is cheaper and easier to use. On top of that, it can be recycled, reducing the risk of ghost fishing. Use 20–30 lb line for Flatheads and Blues, or 12–15 lb line for Channel Cats. Brightly-colored line and bobbers will help you notice small knocks on your baits.

Treble hooks are pretty much synonymous with catfishing. They’re especially good for dip or punch baits. Circle hooks are also an option, though. If anything, they work even better for monster Catfish. Whatever you use, make sure you keep them extra sharp to punch through the Catfish’s tough jaw.

You’re almost ready. Just make sure you grab a sturdy rod holder, a big, tough net, and some gloves to handle the fish while avoiding those nasty spines. Oh, and you’ll need some bait.

What is the Best Catfish Bait?

There are all kinds of crazy theories on what bait works best for Catfish. French fries, chicken livers – even soap and cigarette butts get thrown out there sometimes. Our advice? Steer clear of these “secret Catfish baits” – they may have worked for your buddy Mike’s uncle’s cousin that one time, that doesn’t mean they’re better than the tried and true alternatives.

As with all aspects of Catfishing, your bait choice should vary with the species you’re going after. The stereotypical “stink bait” may work well for a small scavenger but it won’t do much for an apex predator. With that in mind, here are some of the best baits for each species.

Best Bait for Flathead Catfish

An angler standing by a lake pulling in a bait net on a catfishing trip

Catching your bait on-site is the best way to match it to the fish.

Flathead Catfish mainly feed on live prey. That’s not to say that dead baits won’t work, too. But Flathead hookups are few and far between as it is, so going for live baits will maximize your chances.

You’ll get the best results with fish the local Flathead are used to eating. That could be anything from Sunfish and Bluegill to other, smaller Catfish. Save money and increase your chances by catching your own bait from the body of water you’re fishing in.

Best Bait for Blue Catfish

Blue Catfish are much less fussy than Flatheads when it comes to taking cut bait. They love oily fish and they like it fresh (frozen baits don’t work as well), but they don’t seem to mind if it’s dead.

Again, matching your bait to the fish’s natural forage is the most important rule. That could be skipjack herring, threadfin shad, or anything else that you find swimming around.

Best Bait for Channel Catfish

A fishing hook and a bait ball covered in dip bait with a lake in the distance

Dip and punch baits are like candy to Channel Cats.

This is where you can break out the stink baits. Smaller Channel Catfish are mainly scavengers and will follow scent trails that would make most people gag. Dip baits are great because they provide all the stink with none of the mess. Punch baits have a little more substance and are the bait of choice for many top Catfishers.

Once Channel Cats get big, they start hunting more and relying less on scraps. Because of this, you will catch bigger fish with fresh dead baits than stink bait. Just remember to match the hatch as always.

How to Catch Catfish

You can fish for Catfish in all kinds of surprising ways, from trolling to fly fishing to Catfish noodling (if you call that fishing). There are two classic tactics that bring in the most fish, though: still fishing and drift fishing.

Still fishing is as simple as it is effective. Just present your bait and wait for something to take it. It’s not the most refined fishing style, but it’s perfect for a relaxing day by the water. If you’re looking for more hookups and less waiting time, you can also drift your baits under a bobber. This is especially effective on lakes where there’s less current to spread your scent trail. You’ll need a boat to do it, though.

“Is that all there is too it?” Not at all! The precise tactics vary with the fish and the body of water. Here are a few tips for each species.

How to Catch Flathead Catfish

A man on a catfishing trip holding a large Flathead Catfish

Flathead Catfish like two things: current and cover. Their favorite hunting grounds are the outside of river bends, where drowned trees and boulders pile up to create plenty of cover. Flatheads don’t venture far off the bottom unless they have to, so presenting your bait a turn or two off the river bed will give you the best chance of getting their attention.

How to Catch Blue Catfish

A man and a girl holding a large Blue Catfish on a boat

In lakes, Blue Catfish like to hunt around a single piece of structure in the main body of the lake. Unlike Flatheads, Blues are happy hunting in open water as well as on the bottom, so play around with depths if you’re coming up dry.

In a river, bends and confluences are the best places to look for big Cats. Try fishing a few different spots, with your baits dropped just upstream of deep holes. This is where the fish lurk to escape the main current.

How to Catch Channel Catfish

A smiling angler in a hat holding a Channel Catfish with water in the background

Channel Cats will set themselves up anywhere they can escape the current but still jump out at fish floundering in fast-flowing waters. In small rivers, check the deep pools below rapids. Logs and boulders make these spots even more appealing to Channel Cats. In larger rivers, Channel Catfish will hold to structure or cover that breaks up the main current. Rocks, logs, holes, old tires – they don’t care what it is, as long as it makes their life easier.

More Than One Way to Skin a Cat

Catfish are often ignored by freshwater purists. People assume they’re all the same, even though they vary just as much as Trouts and Bass. They get lumped in with other “rough fish” and mostly forgotten about. Catfish may never get the respect they deserve, but for those in the know, they’re a game fish worthy of being listed with the best of them.

What’s your favorite Catfish species? Do you have any tips on how to catch Catfish? Let us know in the comments below, we would love to hear from you!

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Comments (27)
  • [email protected]

    May 18, 2019

    Couldn’t add much more to that. I been doing it for a long time and you know what your talking about. One more bit of wisdom, sometimes you have to fish when you don’t feel like it because it’s a good time to go.

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      Albert

      May 20, 2019

      Hi Melvin,

      Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you liked the article.

      You’re completely right, sometimes you’ve got to stick to the fish’s schedule, not your own.

      I Hope you land some monsters this summer!

      Tight lines!

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      Kevin Walters

      Nov 18, 2019

      Albert that’s a great article. You talked about some different things I’m going to try. Been fishing bottom at my local river can’t get anything but bowfin.

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      Albert

      Nov 19, 2019

      Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m glad you found it useful!

      Bowfin can definitely get in the way of good Catfishing sometimes. I’d advise trying a different spot if you keep catching them. Catfish and Bowfin do like the same waters but they tend to keep apart from each other in my experience.

      Tight lines!

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      Sean

      Jun 3, 2019

      Got plenty of chicken liver.and ten dollars worth of ghost shrimp.going fishing in East bay area

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  • Bonnie Sweitzer

    Jun 7, 2019

    Thanks for the Catfishing tips. My daughter and I entered the Chick Fight this year. It was a Catfish tournament for women only. It was held in Alabama at Wheeler Lake. Had an awesome time. We won our place in next year’s tournament which is going to be held in Tennessee! So looking forward to next years tournament! Look for Lil Whiskars. That’s our team name!

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      Albert

      Jun 7, 2019

      HI Bonnie,

      Congratulations on the tournament win! What was your top catch?

      I’m glad you liked the article. Be sure to let us know how you do next year!

      Tight lines

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      Bonnie

      Jun 22, 2019

      Thanks Albert, we are so excite. Since Chick Fight, we are going to another Catfish Tournament Next week. We are so excited!! Tight lines!!

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      Josh

      Jun 1, 2020

      Heading out to Lake Raystown Saturday to do some channel catfishing. Any tips for deep lake?

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      Albert

      Jun 2, 2020

      Hi Josh,

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      You should catch the spawning season for Channel Cats, depending on how warm it’s been in PA.

      My general advice is to move around the edge of the lake marking bait and looking for spots where Catfish might be nesting (rock piles, crack in cliffs etc.). Keep moving and casting. The fish might not be actively feeding if they’re holed up, but they’ll strike to see off potential threats to their nest.

      If you don’t find anything, move deeper. Look for holes or structure near the natural flow of current through the lake. That being said, Raystown is pretty darn deep by the look of it, so I doubt they’ll be down in the deepest reaches.

      I hope that helps. Sorry I can’t give any specific tips, but I don’t know Raystown Lake itself. Let me know how you get on!

      Tight lines!

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      Jazmine Geyer

      Aug 30, 2020

      I do not agree with you telling someone to fish in and/or around spawning (nesting) grounds. Doing such thing will cause less and less fish. You want them to be able to spawn and grow so there is something for you to fish for in the future. Also that could be seen as someone/you trying to cheat.

      (And yes there is such a thing as cheating when fishing even if your not in some sort of competition.)

      Due to the fact that the catfish or other breeds of cats protect there eggs till hatched.

      (White channel and some other breeds of cat will protect their young for almost 2 weeks after hatching. Which after that point they are called frys).

      So while your out there fishing in their grounds and thinking “man I’m out here killing it today”,

      (which literally you are-meaning you are in fact potentially killing thousands to hundreds of thousands of catfish.)

      You are leaving the eggs or fry unprotected to predators and lowering the population significantly.

      However Josh I do agree with his/her statement of moving around. I would just most definitely steer clear of a spawning ground if you want to be able to continue to catch catfish well in your area.

      Also a rule I have always kept with me as long as I can remember is if I have to ask myself these questions.

      “Is this fish big enough to keep”? Or, if I am second guessing myself on whether or not this is in fact a keeper, then my answer is ALWAYS NO and toss it back. You never know the next time you come back to fish that very spot/area again it just might be the big monster you catch.

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      Albert

      Aug 31, 2020

      Hi Jazmine,

      Thanks for getting in touch. You raise a lot of very valid points.

      I normally avoid retaining any fish during spawning season, whether they’re holed up or not. I didn’t bring that up in the comment, though, so thanks for calling it out.

      Great point about size, too, although catching a monster can have a dramatic effect on local numbers because the bigger fish are generally the best breeders.

      Thanks again for the comment. It’s great to see someone so passionate about fish conservation!

      Tight lines!

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  • Don Fischer

    Jul 20, 2019

    Speaking of bait. I was going through an old tackle box the other day and came across a bunch of trout power bait. Stuff is really fishy smelling and it floats. Read about fishing channels off the bottom a bit and thought maybe chicken liver float a bit with power bait. Then thought just power bait on a Carolina rig with a rather short leader. Ever tried that power bait on cats?

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      Albert

      Jul 22, 2019

      Hi Don,

      I can’t say I’ve tried using power bait for Catfish. Sounds like it could work, though.

      Be sure to let us know how you get on if you try it!

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  • Jon Stanley

    Apr 6, 2020

    Thanks for the article. Had quite a bit of wisdom and knowledge in it, some I knew from experience and some I didn’t know and I plan to put into my next fishing trip. I sure hope to catch at least a couple of monsters this year. And most of the time when I fish on the bottom I like to put a couple of sinkers at the end of the line and then put my hook a foot or 2 up the line for some still fishing.
    Tight lines!

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      Albert

      Apr 6, 2020

      Hi Jon,

      Thanks for reading. I’m glad you found it useful.

      I hope you catch that monster next time you’re out. Be sure to let us know if you do!

      Tight lines!

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  • Savannah cook

    May 17, 2020

    So my fam is going on a fishing trip next weakend at lake purdy got any advice

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      Albert

      May 19, 2020

      Hi Savannah,

      Thanks for getting in touch.

      I don’t know much about Lake Purdy I’m afraid. I think it’s better known for Bream than Catfish, but I’m sure you can find a few Channel Cats there.

      Let us know how you get on!

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  • zac

    Jun 27, 2020

    I’ve been fishing about 4 times this summer. I never seem to get a bite. Go for 6 plus hours every time. I try chicken liver , shrimp , mackerel. I usually fish at Santa Ana river lake and irvine lake . It’s shore fishing . Any tips ? Help needed thanks . Each article and videos I see. I learn more about catfish .This one was helpful.

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      Albert

      Jun 30, 2020

      Hi Zac,

      I’m afraid I don’t know either of those lakes, so I can’t really give many tips other than the general stuff I’ve mentioned here. If you can get hold of a depth chart of the lakes, look for ledges and deep pockets close to shore – that’s where you’re likely most likely to find fish.

      Beyond that, the best thing you can do is talk to other anglers you meet in the area, and see if they can share some tips.

      Have you read this article? Seems to have a lot of useful info about Catfishing in SoCal.

      Sorry I can’t be of more help. I hope you land a monster next time you’re out!

      Tight lines!

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      Mark

      Oct 28, 2020

      Buy yourself a cast net and get you some fresh bait from where you are fishing. It makes a huge difference.

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  • Stephanie

    Jul 5, 2020

    This article was full of wonderful information. I have a couple questions, Can anyone recommend the proper size hooks? Will pencil bobers work? Thank you so much for your help. I’m trying to teach myself how to catfish and can use all the advice I can get. 🙂

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      Albert

      Jul 6, 2020

      Hi Stephanie,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m really glad you liked the article!

      Pencil bobbers work fine for Catfishing. In terms of hooks, the size (and style) really depends on the fish you’re targeting.

      If you’re fishing for Channel Cats, I’d recommend using #6 treble hooks, and switching up to a #4 if the fish are really big.

      For Blues and Flatheads, You’re be better off using circle hooks. Again, it varies with the size of the fish, not to mention the brand of hook you’re using, but 8/0 hooks are a good all-rounder.

      One thing you always need to make sure of is that your hooks are good quality and kept sharp. Catfish have tough mouths and a lot of fight, so your hooks will take a real beating over time.

      I hope this helps!

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  • Gary Evenson

    Aug 27, 2020

    Hot Dog pieces work great on Channel Cats. But avoid the Turkey Dogs. We couldn’t even attract crawdads with them. Apparently nothing will eat a Turkey Dod.

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      Albert

      Aug 28, 2020

      Hi Gary,

      That’s interesting. I’d usually stay away from random “kitchen baits” like hot dogs because they never seem as reliable. Just my two cents, though. If you’re catching fish on hot dogs, keep it up.

      Thanks for getting in touch!

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  • Brooke Cottrell

    Oct 20, 2020

    Never stay in one place too long. Move around.

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      Albert

      Oct 20, 2020

      Hi Brooke,

      Great advice! Staying mobile and actively fishing multiple spots is the best way of tracking down big Cats.

      Thanks for getting in touch!

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