Catfish on a Wooden Surface

How To Catch Catfish 101 (Comprehensive Guide)

Mostly found in freshwater environments, they can grow to monstrous proportions, they have a smooth, skin-like membrane instead of scales and they can live out of water for 1 – 2 hours.

Catfish are downright freaky!

Before you set off on your catfish fishing quest, learn catfishing tips, and prepare like a pro by delving into our expert guide on how to catch catfish.

Let’s get to it…

In the US there are three main species of catfish.

Each one is a little different….

You need to be aware of which one you’re targeting, so you can adjust your catfish game accordingly.

This information will be of great help on your catfishing journey.

We’ll go through all three. But let’s start with the Blue Catfish….

Blue Catfish.

These cats lurk in the Mississippi River Basin, from Pennsylvania to South Dakota.

They also live in waters around the Gulf of Mexico. 

Blues like to hang out around strong, deep water currents in rivers and channel edges…

Blues like to hang out around strong, deep water currents in rivers and channel edges.

They also like to lurk in flats, wing dams, and deep holes. 

Blue catfish feed in shallows, open water, and on the bottom.

Use variety when fishing, it’s smart to experiment with water depths until you find what’s working. 

FUN FACT

Blue Catfish can weigh over 100 pounds. So don’t be shocked if you hook one that feels like a baby whale when fishing. The record blue catfish is a whopping 143 pounds. 

Flathead Catfish.

Flathead catfish are broader than blue cats and have a different tint.

They dwell in waters throughout the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River Basin.

You can go fishing for them in other regions as well…

Flathead catfish are in ponds, lakes, and rivers across the US.

You can also find them in North Dakota, and as far south as the Florida Panhandle.

Flathead catfish love cover…

They like to hunt for food outside of river bends, nuzzled next to downed trees and boulders.

They prefer to be in a place where they can keep cool, so they stay close to the bottom in the cool water as much as possible.

TIP

There are plenty of monster flathead catfish to be caught out there.

They can become big fish and can weigh up to 120 pounds, so don’t take them lightly.

Photo of a Channel Catfish near the River Bed
Photo of a Channel Catfish Above the River Bed

Channel Catfish.

You’ll find channel catfish pretty much anywhere east of The Rockies.

They’re more of a mid-size fish, so catfish anglers attempt to catch them in bunches.

Channel cats like to lurk on the edge of the water current and pounce on unsuspecting baitfish.

In small rivers, they congregate in deep pools by logs and boulders. 

In big rivers, channel catfish cling to cover that breaks up the main current.

They roost in cover such as rocks, trees, holes, and sunken debris.

Not Quite as Big

Channel cats max out at about 40 – 50 pounds. They are small compared to flathead catfish.

Most of them are under 20 pounds, not quite as big but they make for some good eating.

TIP

Channel cats look a lot like blue cats. A good way to tell them apart is to look at their tail. Channel cats have a rounded tail, and blue catfish have straight tails.

Catfish use their freakish sense of smell and taste to hunt food. It’s no secret they’re attracted to ‘stinky’ stuff like chicken liver. 

These kinds of bait might work well…

But that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get outstanding results, just by simply using chicken livers or stink baits when catching catfish.

Each species has its own live bait preference.

Below is a short video regarding catfish bait preferences including chicken livers and other types of baits.

Top 5 Best Catfish Baits

Best Bait for Blue Catfish. 

The key to blue catfish fishing is using fresh bait, not frozen. They prefer fresh shad and skipjack.

Try threadfin shad and gizzard shad. Ask locals which types work best and use baitfish that are indigenous to the area.

That’s what blue catfish want —what food they hunt.

Use cut bait —like carp, drum, perch, bluegill and buffalo fish. Remember, the oilier the fish used for cut bait, the better.

RECOMMENDATION

You can try stink baits, but blue cats prefer their natural diet —which is dead bait fish.

Using dead bait fish for fishing blue catfish has proven to work quite well.

Best Bait for Channel Catfish.

First and foremost, channel cats are hardcore scavengers. They’re slaves to their appetites and sense of smell. They live to eat. 

Channel catfish fishing is a bit different than going after flatheads or blues.

This is because most people prefer to catch lots of medium size channel cats rather than going after big cats.

RECOMMENDATION

If you’re aiming for quantity, dip and punch baits are a great choice for catfish fishing. They allow you to quickly bait up after each catch.

A Different Approach

If you’re looking to land a trophy channel cat, then go with a more complex rig.

Either way, what bait you have on the hook is very important.

What bait should you use when fishing channel cats? Nightcrawlers.

Pop 5 or 6 night crawlers on a three inch hook for the most success.

Channel catfish love the scent and flavor of these worms. Anglers everywhere swear by them.

TIP

If you prefer to keep it simple, you can use the good ole hot dog trick when flathead fishing.

Just get some all-beef hot dogs and cut them into chunks then put them on a hook. They can be used as bait if you’re fishing on a budget.

Best Bait for Flatheads

If you’re catfish fishing during daylight hours, try jigging live green sunfish.

It’s an aggressive technique that can antagonize flathead catfish into biting. 

The logic? These sunfish tend to “fight the hook” and produce vibrations that flathead catfish love.

Jig them slow and work them into catfish holes for best results.

Bait them on a 5/0 or 6/0 catfish hook with a slip sinker about 15 inches above the hook. This is one of those “best-kept secret” sort of things. 

TIP

Another splash of wisdom —try using dead eels to catch flathead catfish. Use 8-inch chunks.

Some people prefer to use live eel.

But it can be annoying if the eel crawls into a hole and becomes snagged. So keep an eye on your line.

The Skinny on Stink Baits

The myth is somewhat true. On the whole, catfish are attracted to stinky stuff.

This is especially true with channel catfish.

Small to midsize channel catfish are true scavengers. They follow the trail of foul odors and gobble up the source. 

Dip baits work like a charm.

Whatever you’re using, add a little stink bait to it.

This will sweeten the pot for smaller catfish like a trolling channel cat.

RECOMMENDATION

Lunkers are less inclined to respond to the rotten odor of stink baits.

If you’re targeting bigger cats, then stick to cut bait —chunks of shad, eel or much smaller catfish.

Spinnerbaits

You may end up catching other fish when catfish fishing.

But you can definitely target blues, channels and flatheads with reflective spinnerbaits.

Just remember one thing — blade size matters!

If you’re fishing moderate-sized cats, then a size two or three spinner blade works great.

Image of a Spinnerbait
Image of a Spinnerbait

If you’re feeling brave and want to go fishing for bigger catfish, then bump the blade size up to a #4 or #5.

Just ensure that your fishing line weight and rod can handle a big catfish.

RECOMMENDATION

Deep running spinners and spoons work exceptionally well.

Catfish are hyper-sensitive to vibrations and shiny flickers.

This great combination pulls cats out of their hole and makes them bite.

Rattle Traps and Buzz Bait.

Old school catfish anglers know what drives blues and flatheads to pounce.

That’s why seasoned catfish anglers usually troll with lures that rattle and buzz.

They say buzzer rigs work like a charm because it gives fish strong feeding cues

Catfish have something called a “lateral line system” they use to detect vibrations.

The crazy part?

You can land catfish on top-water buzz plugs, like jitterbugs.

That’s a sign of how effective using vibrations can be. They actually come up to strike! 

Minnow Imitations.

When catfish come to the shallows for food, they’re looking for minnows.

The key is to imitate the food source.

Know what minnows are indigenous to the body of water you’re fishing.

The key is to imitate the food source…

Depending on the place where you’re catfish fishing, certain minnow lures are more likely to work.

Peek into the shallows and see what kind of minnows are usually found roaming.

Then you’ll know what sort of minnow lure to use when catching catfish in that area.

Collection Of Different Fishing Lures
Collection Of Different Fishing Lures

The Best Lure Colors for Catfish.

Now that you know what lures work when catfish fishing, what about color? No worries, it’s pretty simple. 

Flatheads and blues aren’t known for their razor-sharp vision.

If you’re fishing them, don’t worry too much about catching their eye.

Plus, it’s good to use colors that blend in with the water. 

However, channel cats have exceptional eyesight.

If you’re going after them, go ahead and use some chartreuse, or maybe some red or blue —especially in clear waters. If it looks like prey, they might bite it.

NOTE

In summary, channel cats have excellent vision. If you’re fishing them, lure color is a significant factor. But since catfish rely mostly on vibrations and smell —it’s not a huge priority.

Catfish Gear

  • 6 or 7-foot long rod (medium heavy)
  • quality spinning fishing reel
  • 14 pound or stronger fishing line
  • bait hooks
  • treble hooks
  • Sinkers
  • pliers
  • split shots
  • lures and live baits 
  • bobbers
  • long nosed pliers
  • capture net 

Make sure you choose a quality spinning fishing reel with a smooth drag.

Remember, catfish can grow to monstrous sizes.

Test your reel drag on a “loaded” rod and ensure there’s adequate slippage on strike.

There should be enough slack to allow big cats to run, but not pull freely into logs, rocks, or other types of cover.

Another option is to set your drag tight and back-reel.

This will provide you a good sense of when the fish is about to run.

Hookups with large powerful catfish on light gear make you rely on the reel’s drag.

If you decide to go light, be patient, and make certain that you have a full spool of fishing line.

How to Handle Catfish

The adrenaline rush of landing a nice catfish is incredible.

But don’t get so excited when catching catfish that you negate safety.

It’s good that you’re excited to start to catch fish but be sure not to ignore your own safety.

don’t get so excited when catching catfish that you negate safety…

Remember, catfish are slick and slimy. Make sure you have a pair of fish pliers to grip these fish.

You also need a capture net. It’s to keep these fish from thrashing at the boat.

This is very important because catfish have a razor-sharp dorsal fin and some have venom along with it.

It can easily cut your hand wide open if you’re not careful.

How To Hold a Catfish (and Do Catfish Sting)

From Visually.

The Best Time of Day to Catch Catfish

So you’ve got your baits, lures, and gear. What time of day should you hit the water?

Everyone seems to think that catfishing is best done at night. Sometimes that is true, but not always.

Again, it depends on the species you’re targeting and time of year.

Flatheads are known for being the most nocturnal of the species…

Flatheads are known for being the most nocturnal of the species. Target them after dark, it’s the time when they’re brave and hungry enough to leave their hole and feed.

During hot months, they come into the shallows after the water temperature has cooled. They tend to stay below in the chilly waters when the sun has been up a while.

Active During The Day

They would also bite during the day. The trick is to cast into the hole or recess where they’re hiding. It drives them to strike your lure or bait.

Channel and blue cats are more likely to bite during daylight hours. They leave their holes and feed at random times —day and night.

TIP

If you want to catch a monster blue catfish, pay close attention to the strength of the water current.

When the current is strong, they tend to eat during the day. When the current is slow, they hunt at night.

Fisherman Holding a Line with Hooked Catfish
Fisherman Holding a Monofilament Fishing Line with Hooked Catfish

The Right Way to Day-Fish 

Ah, you’ve decided to do catfish fishing on a day-trip. Don’t forget your sunblock and shades especially in the summer season.

But more importantly, go catfish fishing in deeper waters!

Cast into points and drop-offs. If you’re not having any luck catching them in deep waters, work your way into shallower waters.

Once you find the perfect fishing depth, stay in it to get many catfish. The golden rule for catfishing is to stick with what’s working.

Night Fishing for Catfish

The temperature drops at night. This triggers catfish to move into shallow parts to hunt baitfish.

Shads and other small fish come out to the shallows once the water is cooler. These baitfish have a false sense of confidence in the dark.

catfish are scent and vibration-based hunters…

What they don’t realize is catfish are scent and vibration-based hunters.

They can easily track them. So don’t be afraid to cast into the shallows once nature turns the lights out. 

It’s also a good idea to be an eager beaver – start catfishing at sunset.

This is the time when flatheads move to leave their lairs before hitting the shallows.

This is the perfect time of day to use live green sunfish as bait. Flatheads are aggressive towards them and tend to pounce.

Basically, they eat dead, floating shads that can’t handle the water temperature.

A study conducted at Missouri’s Pony Express Lake reinforces this statement.

Data showed that 90% of the radio-tagged channel catfish they monitored fed on dead shads across the shoreline.

The White Tree Trick

You can also catch catfish in cold water.

In places like Texas, cormorants (birds) gather around tree stumps and excrete waste. I know, great mental imagery, right? 

Catfish have learned they can wait on these birds to take a poop (for lack of a better term) and get a free meal.

So when fishing for catfish, search for tree stumps speckled with bird excrement.

You might find some hungry catfish on the move, waiting to get caught.

What is Catfish Noodling?

Now that we’ve got the basics covered let’s dive into something borderline crazy technique used by some anglers for catching catfish.

You can do it without a rod, reel, or bait, it’s called noodling. This link could provide you more information about noodling.

Basically, it’s when you go into the water and use your hand and arm as bait to get catfish.

You search and feel for catfish holes, make a fist and reach inside.

Watch this clip of a man catfish fishing by using the noodling technique.

Man Using the Catfish Noodling Technique

Comes with its own Dangers

When the catfish latches onto your hand and arm, you pull it out. Yes, it’s a bit dangerous. 

What if a snake is in the hole, you ask? Well, that’s a chance noodlers take. 

What if the fish caught by my hand is so massive it drowns me? That’s another chance hardcore noodlers take.

There is at least one documented case of someone drowning when catfish noodling. Do it at your own risk. 

Wrapping up

I think we covered almost everything about catfishing.

Now you see that catfishing isn’t as easy, or as hard as you might have thought.

It’s not all cut and dry. There are factors and nuances you need to ponder.

Whether you’re going after flatheads, blue or channel cats, we wish you the best of luck! Are you ready to go out on the water? Good!

We are looking forward to your success. Soak in everything we mentioned in this guide, and use it to land some beautiful cats for us. And don’t forget to take some pics to share for FB and Insta!

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