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8 Reasons You're Not Catching Trophy Catfish

8 Reasons You're Not Catching Trophy Catfish

"What can I do to catch more big catfish?"

Many anglers want a simple answer to that question, but unfortunately, there's rarely one to be found. I've been chasing heavyweight catfish for decades and have learned that no magic formula ensures success every time we fish for big blues, flatheads and channel cats.

One thing is certain, though: When we're having an unproductive fishing day, more often than not it's due to our own errors, not because trophy catfish are exceptionally evasive or tight-lipped.

At times, nothing we do can entice a jumbo catfish to bite. For reasons we don't fully understand, these fish often become inactive and darn near impossible to catch.


It's important to remember, though, that a poor catch rate may be totally unrelated to the level of catfish activity. Frequently, it's just a result of our own bad habits. To increase the odds of hooking a beefy blue, channel cat or flathead, examine your tactics now and then, and be sure you're doing everything correctly to the best of your ability. Correcting bad habits may be the best way of all to ensure success.


If you're not catching heavyweight cats, one of these eight problems may be the reason why.

Using the Wrong Bait

Remember that kid Mikey in the old Life cereal commercials? His friends try the new breakfast food on this youngster because, they say, 'He'll eat anything. '

Many anglers think catfish are like Mikey. They believe no matter what food is on the table (or river bottom), catfish will eat it. In fact, many folks believe catfish behave like underwater vultures, cleaning lake and river bottoms of carrion and garbage.

Consequently, they say, it does not matter what type of bait you use, and, indeed, the more rotten and smelly the bait, the more likely a big catfish will find and eat it.

To some extent, they're right. Catfish are scavengers and aren't picky about food. But this applies primarily to small catfish.

For example, I've caught thousands of channel and blue cats on homemade and commercial stinkbaits. But fish caught using prepared baits usually are less than 5 pounds. Trophy specimens are rarely enticed with stinkbaits.

Consider flatheads, as well. Small ones eat prepared baits, crawfish, worms and other enticements without hesitation. When seeking heavyweights, however, these baits don't work well. A meat-and-potatoes meal for a giant flathead is another fish — a live fish — such as a bullhead, chub, sucker or sunfish.

Remember this: A catfish 24-inches or longer, regardless of species, sustains itself primarily on other fish. For flatheads, this means live fish, like the river herring used to catch the big flatty pictured here. Trophy blues and channel cats devour dead baits, too, but even so, the best dead baits are fresh baits. A rotten, smelly chunk of shad won't work nearly as well as a fresh-caught baitfish.

Failure to Use Tactics Specific to Species and Locale

All catfish are alike and tactics that work for one species work for all. Right? Many anglers fish as if this were so, but it is not.

Each catfish species exhibits behaviors specific to that species. Consequently, we must gear our tactics toward the particular species we hope to catch. For example, trophy blue cats behave much like striped bass. They feed primarily on shad and other schooling baitfish. Therefore, big blues are more migratory than other cats and more frequently found in open water.

While big blues and channel cats often congregate in loose schools containing several trophy-class individuals, flatheads are more solitary. Rarely will you catch more than one trophy flathead in a single fishing hole. Flatheads are cover lovers as well, hiding in brush, log piles and cavities to ambush prey, like the only pictured here. Channel cats and blues sometimes do this, too, but not as frequently as their big brown cousins. Flatheads almost always are caught in or near some type of dense cover, while blues and channel cats most often are not.

These are just two examples showing species behavioral differences. Space does not permit an in-depth dissertation here. Yet knowing these things, we can immediately improve our odds for success. If we fail to take into account each species' behavioral differences, we're likely to be frustrated in our fishing efforts.

Ignoring the Catfish's Extraordinary Senses of Taste and Smell

This bad habit is one of the most prevalent, yet few anglers realize an inability to catch trophy catfish may be caused by something as commonplace as applying insect repellent or sunscreen.

All catfish have dense concentrations of taste buds all over their body and not just in the mouth. The densest concentrations are on the gill rakers, so the fish can taste things in water flowing over the gills. But taste buds cover the outside of the catfish as well — whiskers, fins, back, belly, sides and even the tail.

The catfish's olfactory sense is amazingly keen, too. Without going into a lot of anatomical details, let's just say they can smell some compounds at the incredibly low concentration of 1 part per 10 billion parts of water. The sense of smell has a comparable level of acuteness in fish.

These sensory abilities can benefit anglers because they help catfish find the angler's bait even in adverse conditions. But they can also cause problems because catfish easily detect things in the water they don't like.

Such turn-offs include gasoline and ingredients in sunscreen, tobacco and insect repellent. It stands to reason then, if you apply sunscreen or insect repellent with your hands, or accidentally get gas on yourself, and later handle bait with your hands, you may be repelling the catfish you're hoping to catch. Your catch rate will improve if you avoid contact with said materials as much as possible.

Casting Shadows

Other senses can work against anglers as well. For example, catfish have very good eyesight despite popular misconceptions. And while they do not rely on this sense as much in waters with limited visibility, it plays a key role in their behavior in waters that are clear.

Did you know, for instance, that catfish dart away and hide when a shadow crosses the water? This may be of no concern to a catfish angler fishing muddy water because fish in muddy water don't see shadows from above. When fishing clear water, however, you'll rarely catch a cat while fishing beneath your boat or in water upon which you're casting a shadow.

That's one reason many catfishermen are more successful at night — no shadows. And it's a good reason always to keep the sun in your face or to your side, not at your back, to avoid casting a shadow on the water you're fishing.

Being Noisy

Here's another fact you may not have known. The lateral line (shown here) and advanced hearing system of a catfish help it detect low-frequency sound vibrations. Creatures scurrying across the bottom, flopping at the surface, swimming through the water or walking along shore all create low-frequency vibrations catfish can sense.

This is not a problem for savvy anglers who fish with a measure of stealth. But go stomping along the shore and you can spook catfish — including big catfish — even when you're many yards away. And the sound of a dropped paddle or sinker is like a warning siren to your quarry.

Knowing these things, you can see why it's very important to be aware of the catfish's extraordinary sensory abilities at all times. If you don't, your catch rate will fall.

Fishing Only on the Bottom

Catfish are well-adapted for feeding on the bottoms of rivers, lakes and ponds, but if you think they never feed at mid-depths or on the surface, you're wrong. Trophy blue and channel cats often suspend at mid-depths to prey on baitfish such as shad and herring. And at times, when frogs are plentiful for example, big cats will come to surface to gobble up their dinner. Working a live frog topside is one of the best ways to catch a channel cats weighing more than 20 pounds.

If bottom-fishing doesn't produce a bite within a reasonable time, watch for surface activity (particularly in summer and near dawn or dusk) that indicates fish are taking their food at the surface, or watch your sonar for suspended fish and use a float rig to present bait at the proper level.

Fishing the Wrong Waters

Big adult catfish seldom are caught in creeks, ponds and small lakes. It happens occasionally, but not enough to merit your attention unless you are familiar with particular waters that are an exception to the rule. When seeking a true heavyweight, you're almost always better off focusing your fishing efforts on large rivers and lakes.

It's also important to determine specific waters where your trophy fishing efforts are likely to pay off. Some rivers and lakes are decidedly better than others when it comes to producing giant catfish. And these waters often change over time. A particular lake, for example, may be hot for big channel cats over the course of several years, then, as conditions change, trophy fishing efforts prove less successful. This is a natural phenomenon seen throughout the country.

To keep on top of the best trophy waters, it's a good idea to network with fellow catfish anglers on website bulletin boards or through social media channels such as Facebook. Most state fisheries agencies also provide regular fishing reports that can help you know when and where big cats are being caught, and even what types of baits and presentations are working best. Most anglers who are successful targeting big cats take advantage of the plethora of information now available and are willing to travel to the best waters to fish when conditions are right.

Lack of Persistence

Persistence is one of the most important qualities of those who frequently catch trophy catfish. Anyone can learn the tactics necessary for catching cats, but to catch trophy fish, you must keep bait in the water where the big ones swim.

Learn everything you can about a lake or river where you know those big fish are. Then stay at it, day after day after day, learning more. Catfishermen who do that have the best chance of catching the catfish of a lifetime.

Photo by Ryan Gilligan

About the Author

With a resumé listing more than 3,800 magazine, newspaper and website articles about fishing, hunting, wildlife and conservation, Keith "Catfish" Sutton of Alexander, Ark., has established a reputation as one of the country's best-known outdoor writers. In 2012, he was enshrined in the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Communicator. The 12 books he's written are available through his website.

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