Big catfish, like channels, flatheads and blues, are chased by thousands of anglers across North America. There are even catfish that grow to be hundreds of pounds in the Amazon River Basin of South America.
There are good reasons the whiskered beasts are popular:
- Their range, which covered much of the United States naturally, has been extended through stocking. Most anglers have access to the lakes, rivers, small streams and reservoirs which catfish inhabit close to home.
- They’re great eating.
- They can be caught from the bank or from a boat.
- You only need simple tackle to land them – a handful of weights, some hooks, a few floats, a sturdy rod and reel and strong line.
- An added attraction is that catfish won’t stunt no matter how many there are in a body of water. They’ll keep growing as long as there’s food. This means fishing for catfish offers the opportunity to catch big fish and lots of them.
True, certain times of year can be better than others. Another attraction to catfish is that they have one of the longest pre-spawn feeding periods of any game fish. When weather and water levels are stable, fish will set up on predictable spots. This can be a cat fight that lasts for several weeks. Post-spawn offers steady action, and fall is good for big fish as they fatten for winter.
No matter what the season, location is the key. But first, a word about tackle and bait.
How it works
Catfish are heavily muscled. Light line and limp rods will not cut it when doing battle with these brutes. Use long rods with lots of backbone for good hooksets. A musky type rod, 20- to 30-pound-test TUF Line braid and a heavy-duty reel are good choices for flatheads.
The best rig is simple. Thread an egg sinker or flat pancake sinker onto the line, then add a bead and tie on a barrel swivel. Add a 25-pound fluorocarbon leader. The stronger the current, the shorter the leader should be. Tie on a circle hook of 2/0 or larger and you’re set. Circle hooks are best because the point winds up in the corner of a fish’s mouth more often than not. No gut-hooking and you can release the fish you don’t want to keep.
For fishing on flats, use a large slip float, balanced with an egg sinker, and add a circle hook. Set the depth so it just ticks bottom.
Catfish are omnivorous, which means they will eat crawfish, hellgrammites, fish, even wild grapes and cotton from cottonwood trees. They often live where water is murky and light is scarce. As a result, nature has provided them with keenly developed lateral lines for sensing vibrations in the water and a highly-developed sense of taste, with taste buds spread over their bodies.
Best bait for channel cats is fresh cut bait to allow the flavor to permeate the water. Simply fillet the sides of shad or other large baitfish and pierce a fillet with the hook close to the edge to insure the hook point is exposed. They’ll also take a variety of baits manufactured to give off odors, such as cheese bait and blood bait. Dip baits spread on dip worms also are great at times. Rig them on a three-way rig or a simple bottom rig described above.
Flatheads want their dinner alive. Where legal, catch bluegills and suckers and use them on big hooks. Tail hook them on big sinkers if you want them to stay put. Lip hook them on a slip-bobber rig if you want them to cover a larger area of water. Check conservation laws. Most states require that live bait comes from the lake, river or reservoir you’re fishing.
Bait up, cast to your target, put the rod into a rod holder and watch the tip.
Streams can be divided into holes, riffles and runs. Where to look? Holes are often the best spots in current oriented areas. When actively feeding, channel catfish will move up to the upstream side and feed at will on dead or sickly minnows and crayfish moving downstream in the current.
Anchor upstream, cast your bait to the hole and wait 5 to 10 minutes. If nothing, move on to the next. In high water, check the current breaks, like fallen logs, along the shore.
In larger rivers, catfish in early spring follow baitfish into feeder creeks where the water warms first. Look for neckdowns, rapids and other obstructions, such as bridges. Fish the downstream sides.
Fish will migrate with baitfish to the main river as the water warms. The cats will then move back into the tributaries to spawn when water reaches about 70 degrees. After hatching, small catfish stay in the streams. But, adult fish move back to the main river and seek out holes at mid depths, often on the outside river bends and especially in spots that feature cover. They’ll also set up on the outside edges of wingdams.
Radio studies show flatheads love the hottest water they can find, even in the 90s. It’s unlikely you’ll find them in the strongest current.
Night fishing, especially for flatheads, can be awesome. Scout the area in daylight for hazards. Keep the floor of the boat free of clutter and take several sources of light along.
Blue catfish reside primarily in big rivers of the Mississippi Basin. Resort to big 3-ounce weights, 7/0 circle hooks and cut bait for blues.
Catfish are great food. But, remember to practice selective harvest. Biologists have found many small fish in specific areas of big rivers with heavy commercial and recreational fishing pressure.
All big fish are popular in many systems, but catfish are one of the biggest and truly fun to catch.