August 16, 2023
Walk through the fishing section of your local sporting goods store and you’ll find hundreds of artificial lures made to coax bites from your favorite freshwater fish. Black bass lures are especially plentiful, and depending on where you shop, you could also find lures for walleyes, crappies, trout, pike, salmon, bluegills, stripers and more.
What you won’t find are lures for catching catfish. Some manufacturers sell soft-plastic “catfish worms” or “bait pods” designed for fishing with soft stink baits, but these aren’t intended for repeated casting and retrieving. Instead, you slather them with dip bait or fill them with a squeezable tube bait, then cast to a good spot and wait for a bite. There’s little chunking and winding involved.
This lack of catfish-specific artificials might lead one to believe that lures won’t work when targeting blue catfish, flatheads and channel cats. Such is not the case, however. Anglers catch millions of whiskerfish annually on artificial lures, but they normally do so while using lures intended for other species.
For example, a flashy spinnerbait might be worked near a brushy treetop for largemouth bass, yet it’s hammered by a flathead catfish instead. A jig fished for walleyes might be eaten by a hungry channel cat or blue. Or perhaps a shad-imitation crankbait cast to a school of stripers is taken instead by a catfish that’s been feeding on the same shad the linesides are following.
Certainly, you will catch more catfish if you target them with the baits used by most catfish anglers—natural baits like shad, skipjacks, frogs, minnows, worms or crawfish; prepared offerings like stink baits; or grocery baits such as hot dogs and chicken livers. If you want to make catfishing extra challenging, however—and if you enjoy actively working a lure more than waiting while your bait soaks motionless on the bottom—there’s no reason you shouldn’t try catching cats with lures.
These popular fishing lures are so named because you just cast them out and crank them in. Many feature a lip that catches the water on the retrieve to make them wiggle temptingly. The size and angle of the lip determine if a crankbait runs shallow, deep or in between. There are lipless models, too, balanced so they wiggle properly without a lip.
The best crankbaits for catfish resemble forage animals like shad or crawfish. It pays to buy an assortment of styles and colors you can try under different conditions. Just keep changing lures until the catfish let you know you’ve got it right.
How to Fish Them
Crankbaits with rattles inside work better than those without, especially when fishing muddy water. Catfish have great hearing, thanks to special bony connections between the swim bladder and inner ear, so noisy lures draw strikes quicker than silent models. Rattles also create vibrations cats detect with their lateral lines. Models I’ve used successfully include Bomber’s Fat Free Shad, Bill Lewis Lures’ Rat-L-Trap and Storm’s ThunderCraw.
Cast the lure and retrieve it with a speed and motion that mimics the forage it’s modeled after. Give crawfish-imitation cranks short pulls that make the lure scurry across the bottom like the real thing. Try to make baitfish imitations look like injured shad or minnows.
Work your lure around cover and structure, just like when bass fishing. Banks covered with riprap are especially productive when catfish are spawning in holes under the rocks. In this situation, I prefer long-billed crankbaits that will dive and bump the bottom. Cast and retrieve as you float along the shore, targeting logs, boulders and other catfish lairs within the riprap.
Alternatively, try trolling these areas with cranks rigged on two to four rods, using a trolling speed that allows the lures to skim the bottom, bumping rocks occasionally. You’ll probably catch more bass and other fish, but this is a great tactic for nailing hungry cats, especially big flatheads.
This class of lures includes horsehead spinners like the Blakemore Road Runner, in-line spinners like the Mepps Aglia and safety-pin spinners like bass spinnerbaits and Johnson’s Beetle Spin. What all have in common is a revolving blade or blades that flash and vibrate to attract gamefish, including cats.
How to Fish Them
I’ve enjoyed several days when spinners produced channel cats on successive casts—as many as a dozen during one outing. Just cast them near cover or prominent bottom features and reel back slowly, covering the water from top to bottom.
When fishing streams, in-line spinners work best because the current activates the blade effortlessly. In lakes, try casting multi-blade bass spinnerbaits toward deep drop-offs or shad schools and let the lure gyrate down on slack line. When lures with small blades fail to produce, changing to bigger blades can trigger more hits. Color changes may help as well.
A jig is simply a piece of lead with a hook molded in it. Some are large—up to several ounces. Others are miniscule—as light as 1/100 ounce. Those used by catfish anglers typically weigh 1/8 ounce to 3 ounces. Body dressings for jigs include marabou, hair, silicone or rubber skirts, tinsel and more. You can add your own body dressing as well, in the form of trailers made from pork rind or plastics.
There are jigs with curly tails, ripple tails, broad tails and triple tails. Some jigs have spinners and others do not. There are weedless jigs and those that aren’t. And all of these come in every color of the rainbow.
How to Fish Them
Plain jigs sometimes catch catfish, but you should add additional attractants for the best results. Natural baits such as shiners, night crawlers or chunks of cut bait are the best add-ons, but anything that stimulates a catfish’s keen senses should increase hook-ups, including scent-impregnated bodies and rattling heads.
Keep your line vertical as you lower your jig to the bottom in prime fishing areas such as dam tailwaters or bottom channels in lakes. Work the jig very slowly, lifting it no more than a foot and letting it drop. Sometimes the best action is practically no action at all. Carry a good supply of jigs because if you’re fishing the right kind of water, hang-ups are certain.
A wide variety of lures fall within this category, but all of them noisemakers that create various kinds of commotion on the water’s surface. Some, like Heddon’s Zara Spook, require the angler to create fish-attracting motion. Others, like the Arbogast Jitterbug, work automatically during the retrieve.
How to Fish Them
Catfish typically feed several feet beneath the surface, often right on the bottom, so they normally show little interest in topwater lures. When large numbers of grasshoppers and cicadas are available, however, ravenous topwater action can be expected as the whiskerfish gorge on the bounty. This phenomenon occurs every few years as cicadas emerge en masse from the ground, changing from flightless nymphs to flying adults, and even more often with grasshoppers when conditions cause their populations to suddenly explode.
Many bugs wind up in the water where catfish quickly gobble them up, and a topwater plug like Rebel’s Crickhopper Popper or Savage Gear’s 3D Cicada twitched on the surface is almost sure to draw strikes, including many from catfish. Cast the lure out, then let it sit motionless for a minute or two. A sharp tug on the line creates sound and motion that quickly attracts the attention of hungry catfish nearby.
Even though I’ve spent thousands of hours casting soft-plastic lures such as worms, lizards and creature baits, you could count the number of catfish I’ve caught with them on one hand. That changed, however, when Berkley introduced its Gulp! Alive! products.
These resemble real fish forage like shad, worms and leeches, and while you use them the same as you would regular soft-plastic lures, they’re made from resins that give off scents highly attractive to catfish. A real worm or baitfish works better, but Gulp! lures work well enough to make them worth trying. They’re especially useful in waters where live bait use is restricted.
How to Fish Them
Learn to rig these lures Texas-style, with the hook buried in the body to make it weedless, and you can cast to the gnarliest catfish hideouts without worrying about snags. A bullet-shaped slide sinker mounted ahead of the hook provides proper casting weight.
There are many ways to work soft plastics, but I like to cast into or beside cover and, as the lure falls, keep it constantly under tension. With a tight line, you can better sense when a catfish bites.
The fish seldom snatch the lure. Instead, they suck it in, the same as you would with a strand of spaghetti when your mom wasn’t looking—only much faster.
UNSUNG CATFISH HAUNTS
While not well known, this trio of lakes bristle with cats of all kinds.
Other Southern lakes and reservoirs get more attention, but these unheralded catfish haunts produce quality fish year after year. When planning your next fishing road trip, consider penciling one of these into your schedule.
Lake Conway, Arkansas
Few lakes produce as many pole-bending flatheads as this 6,700-acre Arkansas Game and Fish Commission impoundment just west of Little Rock. Conway is heavily timbered throughout and rich in shad and sunfish, making it ideal for producing pot-bellied 30- to 80-pounders. Serious local cat men believe 100-pounders swim here.
Lake Ferguson, Mississippi
Casino boats loom over fishing boats in this 10-mile-long Mississippi River oxbow at Greenville. Anglers find loads of channel catfish concentrated around more than 50 man-made fish structures placed at sites such as Red Buoy Rockpile, Sunken Barge Site, Yacht Club Point, Coast Guard Pier and Willow Islands.
Squaw Creek Reservoir, Texas
This 3,228-acre lake southwest of Fort Worth produces big catches of 5- to 15-pound channel cats. Crankbaits in crawfish colors are often good choices here. They’ll produce fish in the warm waters near the nuclear power plant.