Skip to main content

6 Best Baits to Catch Big Flathead Catfish

Flatheads can be picky compared to blues and channels. Here are six natural baits they won't overlook.

6 Best Baits to Catch Big Flathead Catfish

Here are catfish baits to consider using for big flatheads. (Photo illustration by Brian Smith)

Targeting big flathead catfish is similar to deer hunting for a giant buck. They’re smart, wary, suspicious loners with a much smaller population than the more popular blue and channel catfish.

Diehard catmen know that catching a couple of flatheads on a trip is a pretty good outing. Three or more and, well, maybe you’ve had a truly banner day unless you’re in a special area chock full of flatheads. They’re secretive, tough fish and worth bragging about when you catch a good one.

Flathead catfish are unlike their cousins, the blue and channel cat, in several ways. One is appearance. Flatheads have yellowish mottled skin tones, which in some areas has led anglers to calling them yellow cats or mudcats. Their heads are flat, all the better for probing the bottom and around rocks or log jams for food.


Similar to the blue catfish, though, they can grow to astonishing weights and lengths, thanks to a long lifespan that includes being picky about what they eat.

It’s widely known that flathead catfish prefer live bait. Anglers use everything from chicken livers to mass-production stinkbait chunks for blues and channels.


But flatheads? Oh, you most definitely have to have live bait to catch those, or so it’s believed. But as ESPN’s Lee Corso likes to say, not so fast my friend. Flatheads definitely prefer live bait, but other baits work, too.

Here are some baits to consider using to catch big flathead catfish:

1. Live Bluegill

Flathead Catfish Baits-Bluegill
A flathead almost never turns down a frisky bluegill. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Bluegill are the prolific members of the sunfish family. They spawn many times a year and school around cover or structure. Find a piece of cover (a couple of stumps, or a logjam) on a bit of structure (a bend or dropoff in a river) and they’ll probably be nearby.

Flathead catfish likely will be there, too. A flathead almost never turns down a frisky bluegill. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 2- or 3-inch pipsqueak or one you’d consider putting on your dinner table. Circle hooks and good components should be part of your arsenal, because you’ll be in for a tug. Check state fishing regulations about using bluegills for bait, too, as some states classify them as game species.

2. Live Shad

Flathead Catfish Baits-Shad
Lively shad will increase your odds to catch a flathead. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

A hearty threadfin shad likely won’t be overlooked by a flathead. Nor may a bigger gizzard shad. These nervous baitfish pack a flavorful wallop thanks to their oily meat. Keeping the shad alive and frisky may be your biggest challenge; a round, well-aerated bait tank and replenishing with fresh water periodically definitely will increase your odds of having lively baitfish. Just as with bluegills, having a hearty setup of your tackle is required. Flatheads are powerful fish. Threadfin or gizzard shad definitely should be a consideration.




3. Cut Bait

Flathead Catfish Baits-CutBait
Flatheads may prefer a live meal, they won’t overlook an easy cut-bait snack. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

Stop, stop. Don’t throw rocks or "tsk, tsk" anymore. Cut bait may not be the preferred or widely-touted flathead bait du jour, but it can work. Even if you’re fishing with live bait, don’t be afraid to add some aromatic cut bait.

Big chunks of oily, bloody gizzard shad, the fillets, the head (run the hook through the eyes) or a gob of shad guts is a tactic for big blue catfish, no doubt. Flatheads may be picky, but they’re not going to have lockjaw or swim up and think, "Hmmm, I’m being tricked by this chunk that they want me to believe is alive." Flatheads are opportunistic and a chunk of oily, bloody, meat tingling its receptors definitely may get him to chow down.

4. Goldfish

Flathead Catfish Baits-Goldfish
Where legal as bait, goldfish offer some added flash for a flathead to consider. (Shutterstock image)

Add a dash of flash with these baits — where legal — if you’re unable to get your mitts on shad or bluegills. It may sound crazy but goldfish are sometimes used by anglers to catch several species including catfish and striped bass. Best known as an indoor pet in an aquarium, goldfish may live quite a while if released in the wild. They’re pretty tough. It may take a little practice to figure out where to hook them but a couple of possibilities are through the eyes or lips (don’t hit the brain) or in the back, where they can swim freely like a shad. This definitely is one baitfish possibility you’d need to check state or local regulations about before using. Where legal, don’t be afraid to give it a shot.

Recommended


5. Black Saltys

Flathead Catfish Baits-BlackSalty
The black salty, which are raised and sold by I.F. Anderson Farms, is a specially bred goldfish used by anglers. (Anderson Farms image)

The black salty is a specially bred goldfish used by anglers for catching everything from largemouth bass and catfish to saltwater species such as redfish. Black saltys are raised and sold by I.F. Anderson Farms, a commercial baitfish supplier in Lonoke, Ark.

Selective breeding results in a tough, hearty baitfish that will often have a gold/silver hue, different from a shad or bluegill. Rig them on your tackle like a shad or bluegill so they can swim freely. Keeping them alive in the boat requires a bubble aeration tank and clean, freshwater. Don’t be surprised if you catch other species, too, because just about anything that swims will eat a black salty.

6. Crawfish

Flathead Catfish Baits-Crawfish
Crayfish will attract the attention of man y gamefish, including flatheads. (Shutterstock image)

In a bind because you can’t find any shad, saltys or bream? It may be time to grab a bucket and flip rocks to find crayfish. Found almost everywhere in the continental United States, crayfish pack about 14 grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving. That’s for us humans, so imagine what a flathead is getting by noshing on the entire bug.

If you have a clean stream or enough rocks around a boat ramp, dock or other location, take time to flip a few and get the 3- to 5-inch crayfish. Crayfish seek nooks and crannies in logjams, rocks and hard bottom, so you want to rig these to keep them off the bottom but while keeping them near the bottom. As with the other baits, you’re likely to catch a variety of species with crayfish but could indeed land a few hungry flatheads. Be sure to check your fishing regulations about using crayfish, as some may be protected in your area.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Sometimes you have to fish a bait that allows you to cover a lot of water efficiently. When you're on the search for bass that have moved into deeper water off the bank and away from obvious holding spots, a swimbait can locate them.
Fishing

On the Search with Swimbaits

One of the best imitations of a wounded baitfish is the soft-plastic jerkbait, or fluke. A fluke darting just beneath the surface can be too much for a bass to resist. Rig it and fish it according to water conditions and cover to make this great bait even more effective.
Fishing

Fun with Flukes

There are three models in SPRO's Outsider crankbait series: 55 (runs 3-4 feet), 60 (7-9) and 80 (19-21). Professional bass angler Jonathan Kelley goes over the specifics at ICAST 2022 in Orlando.
Fishing

SPRO's New Outsider Crankbait Series: First Look

Professional bass angler Jonathan Kelley highlights the features of SPRO's new lures at ICAST 2022 in Orlando.
Gear

New Essential Series Spinnerbaits and Buzzbaits from SPRO

Syd Ribes with Sea Falcon highlights four new lures for saltwater fishing. At ICAST 2022 in Orlando.
Gear

New Lineup of Lures from Sea Falcon

Syd Ribes highlights two new saltwater lures from SPRO: Flutter Tail Shrimp and Cannon Ball Jig. At ICAST 2022 in Orlando.
Gear

New Saltwater Lures from SPRO

AFTCO's Matt Florentino highlights the features of the new Barricade cold-weather suit, a Best of Category winner at ICAST 2022 in Orlando. With Game & Fish's Adam Heggenstaller.
Gear

New from AFTCO: Barricade Cold Weather Tactical Gear

Three-time ICAST Best of Category winner Bubba covers it all with new knives set. With Bubba's Matt Kinamore and Game & Fish's  Adam Heggenstaller at ICAST 2022 in Orlando.
Gear

4-in-1 Bubba Multi Flex Cutlery Kit

The innovative landing net will weigh and measure your catch while it's still in the net. Best of Category winner at ICAST 2022. With Game & Fish's Adam Heggenstaller.
Gear

Award-Winning Frabill Witness Net 'Keeps You Honest'

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now