June 19, 2019
By Keith Sutton
Editor’s Note: This feature runs in the July-August issue of Game & Fish Magazines, on newsstands now. Subscribe here.
If you want to catch more catfish — and who doesn’t? — it’s important to realize that catfishing isn’t complicated, but you shouldn’t oversimplify it either.
A cast from anywhere on the bank might produce a hook-up. But savvy anglers know successful fishing usually results from studying catfish behavior and learning to put the right bait in the right place at the right time. That goes for eating-size channel cats for the next fish fry or trophy-class blues and flatheads that test tackle and determination.
All Catfish Are Not Equal
A catfish is a catfish is a catfish, right? This is another way of saying all catfish are alike and tactics that work for one species work for all. 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 in order to enjoy success.
For example, trophy blue cats behave much like striped bass. They feed primarily on shad, herring and other schooling, highly mobile baitfish. Consequently, big blues are more migratory than other cats and more frequently found in open-water habitat.
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. 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 behavior differences. Yet knowing just these things, we can immediately improve our odds for success because we know we must target the predominant species of catfish in each body of water using tactics specific to that species. To do this, we must learn the specific behavior patterns exhibited by big blue, channel and flathead catfish. Failure to do so will lead to frustration because trophy cats will be caught by chance and not by design. And when we leave things up to chance, the odds for success rarely fall in our favor.
Big Waters Produce Big Cats
If you would like to catch a mess of small catfish (5 pounds or less) for the dinner table, you can fish almost anywhere catfish swim — from your neighbor’s farm pond to your state’s biggest lakes and rivers. If your goal is catching some true heavyweights, focus your fishing efforts strictly on large rivers and lakes. Trophy cats seldom come from creeks, ponds and small lakes. It happens occasionally, but not often. When seeking a big pole bender, zero in on sizeable bodies of water.
Each river and lake also has specific areas where you should focus your attention. The best waters usually are those where catfish aren’t heavily pressured by commercial fishing or excessive recreational fishing. Waters where minimum length restrictions are imposed, and where catch-and-release fishing is mandated, also produce more than their share of jumbo whiskerfish.
Catfish are well-adapted for feeding on the bottom 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 the surface to gobble up their dinner. Working a live frog topside is one of the best of all ways to catch a channel cat 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 topside, or watch your sonar for suspended fish and use a float rig to present bait at the proper level.
JUST THE FACTS
Did you know these catfish factoids?
- On May 1, 2005, villagers in Thailand netted a 9-foot-long 646-pound Mekong giant catfish, the largest catfish documented in modern times and perhaps the largest freshwater fish ever recorded. (Source: National Geographic)
- At least 3,093 species of catfish swim the waters of the world, about 10 percent of the total number of fishes. (Source: Checklist of catfishes, Carl Ferraris Jr.)
- Catfish are like swimming tongues. From whiskers to tail, they are covered with taste buds. (Source: Dr. John Caprio, Louisiana State University)
Timing & Tips
Catfishing once was considered strictly a nighttime sport. We know now, however, that cats big and small can be caught day or night using the right tactics. In ultra-clear waters, night-fishing often is best, but in the colored waters typical of the best catfish rivers and lakes, whiskerfish are landed as often at high noon as they are at midnight. Take your pick.
Also bear in mind some seasonal considerations. Trophy channel and blue cats are caught every month of the year, and in some areas, fishing during winter’s cold is considered best because it is then that trophy fish gather in larger concentrations in deep wintering holes. Both species, however, fall prey to good fishing tactics year ’round.
Flatheads become lethargic in cold water, and though they can sometimes be coaxed to bite in winter, the best fishing tends to be during high-water periods in spring, and again in late fall when big flatheads feed ravenously before a season of inactivity. Summer fishing can be excellent as well.
Many cat fans don’t have problems finding fish each season, yet they’re continually frustrated when they can’t hook those that bite. To cure this problem, always fish with sharp, exposed hooks. Run the hook point over a fingernail. Sharp hooks dig in. Those that skate across the nail without catching should be honed or replaced. And, instead of burying your hook in bait, leave the barb exposed. Catfish won’t notice. More hookups will result.
It’s also important to learn a variety of rigs, and use each when appropriate. A simple egg-sinker rig may work great in a pond but not a river. Drift rigs may be needed when cats are scattered and hard to find. A specialty rig, like the float-paternoster, is best when fishing large live baits. (Go to gafmag.com to see how to rig for catfish.) Learn more rigs, catch more cats.
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SEAGUAR Smackdown Flash Green
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ZEBCO Big Cat Camo Mono
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BERKLEY PowerBait PowerPunch
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PRO-CURE Catfish Magic Chicken Liver Cure
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Pure Gold Bait Booster on live bait, cut bait and prepared catfish baits will help you get more bites. The natural oils coax hesitant fish to strike and change washed-out cut baits into refreshed offerings big fish can’t resist. Available in three scents and 4- and 8-ounce sizes. $8
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RAPALA Folding Fish Pro Fillet Knife
Keep it in your tacklebox. This 5-inch Japanese-steel blade cuts easily through bones and tough skin. Ergonomic handle’s extended guard provides extra safety. $22
GAMAKATSU Waterproof Backpack
This pack keeps your catfishing gear dry in the worst rain and mud. Double-sealed seams are impervious to moisture even when submerged. Top closures open wide for easy access, then roll down tight and buckle quickly. $21
RAPALA Retractable Ruler
This spring-loaded 60-inch ruler features oversized, easy-to-read numbers in 1/2-inch increments and a nonreflective surface. Includes a flip-up nose board for accurate measuring. $19
This razor-sharp stainless 5-inch blade is Teflon coated, making it ideal for turning fresh baitfish into cut bait. Serrated back edge easily removes scales and cuts bone. $20