How to Catch Catfish: the Complete Catfishing Guide
Apr 16, 2019 | 9 minute read Comments
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 (8)
  • [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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      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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      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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      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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      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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  • 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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      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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