Give Mr. Catfish his due. For some reason, far too many anglers ignore the great fishing action that catfish can provide. That’s a shame.
Anytime I’m fishing for bass or other sportfish and a fish I hook turns out to have whiskers, that realization paints a broad grin on my face. I’m a major fan of catfish and enjoy catching them. When one comes as an unexpected bonus, that delivers only delight.
Unfortunately, not every angler feels that way. Many grumble something like, “Slimy old cat” when they discover what they have been battling. And far too many anglers — in my opinion at least — never intentionally target whiskered fish.
Catfish have so many virtues as sportfish, they certainly deserve more respect than they tend to receive.
One extra-nice thing about catfish is they are extremely widespread. If you have a river, creek, pond or lake nearby, chances are quite good it has some kind of catfish living in it. In fact, chances are good the catfish in the fish population are plentiful. Also, catfish tend to swim in schools, and so where you find one catfish, you often find many more, which makes for fun and fast-action fishing.
Catfish also are quite predictable in their feeding behavior and in the types of areas they use. That translates into dependable fishing action in familiar and unfamiliar waters. Just as important, once you learn a bit about catfish behavior, you typically can figure out where they should be holding and can find and catch fish in unfamiliar waters.
Because catfish feed largely by scent, you don’t necessarily have to land a cast right in front of a fish’s nose. If you’re in an area that catfish are using, you often can “call” fish to you with your bait. Closely related, catfishing techniques generally involve holding a rod stationary or watching the tip of a rod in a holder, as opposed to making repeated casts around cover and working lures. That “laid-back angling attitude” makes catfish outstanding quarry for youngsters and other new anglers.
You also can keep your equipment fairly simple for catfishing. Like almost anything, you can spend as much money as you want on catfishing gear. However, terminal tackle for most bait presentations is certainly simpler and less expensive than a box loaded with lures, and there is less need for technique-specific rods and reels or electronics that are as sophisticated as those most commonly used for many other kinds of fishing.
Once hooked, a typical catfish offers a very good fight for its size.
Most don’t show off with acrobatics. Instead, they make fast runs and keep their heads down with bulldog tenacity. And they continue fighting hard until you get them in a net or swing them onboard.
Finally, catfish are excellent on the table. Catch-and-release catfishing certainly has grown in popularity, and sport alone offers plenty of reason to go catch them. That said, catfish are prolific, and most populations aren’t harmed by normal sportfishing takes, and their meat is sweet and tender and lends itself to preparation in many different ways. As a general rule, the largest fish are the least flavorful, and those tend to be the best breeders and the best fish to release anyway. Bear that in mind next time you are on the water and catfish are on the menu.
Throughout our discussion about finding and catching catfish, we’ll talk primarily from a perspective of the channel catfish’s normal behavior because channels are by far the most prevalent catfish in most places. If other species prevail in the waters you fish, you’ll have to adjust a bit in regard to finding likely holding areas and gearing up for catfishing. There is significant crossover in behavior traits, though, so building a better understanding of channel catfish behavior and fishing approaches definitely can help you catch more of other kinds of catfish as well.
For starters, catfish generally are bottom feeders. Although cats will sometimes swim higher in the water column, most catfish, including the most active ones, will stay close to the bottom.
That helps with the fish-finding process for several reasons. For one thing, you can eliminate so much of the water column, and for another it helps make catfish more recognizable on a graph. In addition, it’s far easier to place baits on the bottom and keep them there than to make presentations at prescribed depths partway down in the water column.
Throughout the summer, catfish like to have a good range of bottom depths available in a small area. They tend to spend their days in deeper water and move shallower at night. They also like current and current breaks, hard bottoms when available, and places where they can find food — dead or alive.
In streams and rivers, the most dependably good and easy places to find catfish habitat are along hard bends in the channel. Most have deep holes scoured along outside bends and are shallow along the inside. Most bends also offer complex combinations of current lines and eddies, creating many ambush points. Meanwhile, trees downed by bank erosion or washed into holes from upstream and settled in eddies add cover to many river-bend holes.
The head of an outside bend hole, where the water begins getting deep, is often a key spot and a good place to set up. It’s easily recognizable by a change in the bank slope or makeup, or in the kind of vegetation on the shore.
It’s worth noting that creek and river channel bends offer the same sorts of appeal to catfish in ponds and reservoirs as they do in free-flowing streams. Channel catfish are stream fish by nature and still relate to original channels in most impounded waters. They may gather atop points or flats, but the structures typically are close to creek or river channel edges.
In natural lakes, where a channel is not a factor, look for flats that have hard bottoms and that are adjacent to deep holes, humps or points that drop into deeper water. Areas near outflows of creeks or rivers that flow into a natural lake also tend to hold good numbers of catfish.
Channel catfish are most widely known for their scavenging ways, but adult fish also feed significantly on live prey, especially mollusks of various sorts, large aquatic insect nymphs, and crawfish. They feed on live baitfish as well, but usually only when the bait is quite concentrated and minimal chasing is required.
Whatever the food source, catfish follow their noses, so to speak, to find forage. A catfish is something like a giant tongue, as it has taste buds and scent receivers all over its skin, with the greatest concentration on its whiskers or barbels. A catfish can pick up a miniscule amount of scent in the water and effectively follow a trail to the scent’s source.
If you know what catfish are eating in an area, “matching the hatch” with, say, mussels or cut shad can be highly productive. Other extremely good natural baits for catfish include nightcrawlers, dead minnows and frozen shrimp. All are meaty and strong smelling.
Among the least expensive and most effective catfish baits for many situations are chicken livers, which put off a strong scent that the fish can follow all the way to the source — and the hook, of course!
If there’s even a hint of current to spread a scent, various catfish dip baits (whether those commercially created or home-brewed) work wonders for the same reason that chicken livers are effective, except even more so in some cases. These baits are designed to dissipate over time, sending a scent trail downstream, and therefore they serve double duty as bait and chum.
For many situations, the simplest and most effective way to fish for catfish is to sit on the bank or in an anchored boat within casting distance of where fish should be, cast out a bottom rig, let it sink, and wait for the fish to bite. A sliding sinker rig, like a bass fisherman’s Carolina rig, is a good fit for this approach because you can keep your bait in place at the bottom but can let fish take line without feeling the weight’s resistance before setting the hook — all by simply opening your reel’s bail. String a sliding egg weight that’s just heavy enough to keep the rig on the bottom onto the main line. Then add a bead and barrel swivel, a couple of feet of leader, and a hook.
The best hook depends on the size and type of bait. A No. 2 to 1/0 circle hook or J-hook is well suited for most channel catfish applications. Dip baits fished with bait worms or sponges to hold the bait or chicken livers, which are very soft and need to be hooked a few times, call for treble hooks.
Trebles can be a bit smaller than single hooks, with something in the No. 2 to No. 4 range being a good choice for most situations.
At times catfish get widespread across an area, instead of being stacked in a hole, and a more mobile approach is needed. If fish are spread along a channel edge or other structural feature that is more than about 10 feet deep, a good approach is to use a tightline rig, usually with the weight on the bottom, and to move the boat very slowly over the structure with the trolling motor, moving the rod tip up and down and adjusting the amount of line out as needed to keep the line straight down and the weight just ticking the bottom. Slow is a key word for this approach. The idea isn’t to be pulling the bait, like trolling, but to gradually work a structure with an almost-stationary approach.
When catfish are even more widespread in a lake’s main basin or possibly in a very long bend in a large river, another good approach is to look for active cats by drifting and dragging a baited rig along the bottom. An elongated weight with a swivel at the end that strings onto the main line works better than most other kinds of sinkers for drifting because it tends to walk across the bottom without hanging. If a lake or river has significant cover on the bottom, a good trick for keeping from snagging quite as much is to add a small foam float to the leader, halfway between the weight and the hook. This keeps the hook slightly elevated even though the weight is dragging right on the bottom.
Finally, don’t overlook the virtue of targeting catfish at night, especially during the summer. Catfish tend to move up out of the deep holes at night, and they generally feed more actively after the sun goes down than they do during the day. Fishing in the dark, when sound and feel become even more important, takes a bit of getting used to, but it is a fun and productive way to catch catfish.