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Get Down and Dirty for Summertime Catfish

When fishing gets tough, having some less traditional tactics up your sleeve can help salvage a slow day.

Get Down and Dirty for Summertime Catfish

Preconceived notions about catfish behavior preclude many anglers from catching their summertime limits. Forget what you think you know and try something out of the ordinary this summer. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

Summer catfishing can get downright aggravating at times. In many parts of the country, whiskerfish hide out in spawning holes throughout the month. Females are laying eggs and males move in behind them to protect the eggs and fry. Neither sex feeds much until spawning activities end, so the catfish angler must dig deep in his bag of tricks for tactics that will nab these tight-lipped fish.


Because we usually find catfish feeding on the bottom in lakes, rivers and ponds, we tend to think they always feed there.

This is a common misconception. In reality, catfish often feed on the surface, too, especially if they sense a potential meal struggling in the uppermost strata of the water. This is a behavior anglers can take advantage of by using live sunfish for bait.

To do so, rig a 6- to 8-inch bluegill, green sunfish or other bream on a short line (6 inches or less) beneath a big float like a Thill 6-inch Big Fish Slider. Hook it just behind the dorsal fin with a 5/0 to 7/0 wide-gap circle hook, running the point completely through so the barb is exposed. You also can impale the sunfish on a circle hook you suspend from a green branch overhanging the water on a limb line or yo-yo. The idea is to keep the bait near the surface where it will splash. The commotion made by the struggling baitfish works like a dinner bell, attracting big, hungry catfish lurking nearby.

This type of catfishing works best in water just 3 to 8 feet deep. If it’s deeper than that, catfish won’t come up for the bait because they can’t see or hear it splashing. Good spots to try include stump fields where lots of treetops have broken off and are lying in the water, transition areas where a tributary flows into the main portion of a lake and bottom channels that rise onto shallow flats. These provide deep-water areas where catfish can retreat to and shallow-water areas where cats feed at night.

If you’re fishing with a float rig, cast it out and then give the line a short tug at regular intervals to disturb the bait and get it to struggle and splash on the surface. Limb line and yo-yo users should set their rigs so the bait hangs right at the water’s surface. Check them at least once an hour to rebait or remove fish that have been hooked.


When targeting trophy catfish in big rivers, a tactic called bumping should be on your must-learn list. Instead of sitting in one spot and waiting for a fish to follow the scent trail to your bait, bumping is an interactive approach that lets you take the bait to the fish. It’s a natural presentation that mimics food washing downstream to catfish waiting in ambush. The “bumping” name is derived from the feel of the bait bumping across the bottom as you drift.

A modified three-way rig works well for this tactic. The hook line is 50-pound braid so it can handle big cats without breaking. The sinker line is lighter mono so if the weight snags, it can easily be broken loose with only the loss of the lead. The weight’s size is based on the amount of current. In slower current use a lighter weight; in faster current opt for a larger weight. The rig should just bump the bottom while you feed your main line farther and farther behind the boat.

To begin, bait your hook with a chunk of shad or herring cut bait and position your boat over structure you identified earlier. Next, point the bow of your boat upstream and use your trolling motor to reduce your drift speed. If the current is 3 mph, for example, you want to reduce your drift speed to 2 or even 1 mph. Now your boat is going slower than the current, so your bait also travels slower downriver. Actively feeding catfish that lie facing upstream behind rocks, logs, ledges and other current breaks will be quick to dart out and grab your enticement.

Illustration by Peter Sucheski

Keep your rod in your hands while bumping, not in a rod holder. You want to place the reel in free spool and keep releasing line so the bait is eventually several hundred feet behind the boat. Slightly raise the rod tip, then let out enough line for the bait to contact the bottom again. Let it sit for a second and repeat until your rig is 500 feet back.

Ideally, when the bait is properly positioned, it will skip along 6 inches or so at a time. You want to be able to feel every log, rock and contour as your bait travels across the bottom. If the water gets shallower, reel in line to stay in touch. If your rig drops into a hole, let some line out.

Be prepared for a strike whenever you feel a rock, log or other bottom feature. Catfish use such structures as current breaks, and as your bait drops into the pocket on the downstream side, that is when a battle with a big fish is likely to begin.


Many of today’s catfish anglers never fish at night. This is a mistake. Fishing during hours of darkness can greatly improve your catch rate, especially if you target your quarry during the wee hours—1:00 to 4:00 a.m.—when most other anglers and recreationists are at home asleep and catfish have moved from deeper water to shallows to feed.

The extent to which you are familiar with prime catfish habitat in a lake, pond or river is important when night fishing. If you must search for good fishing spots in the dark on an unfamiliar body of water, you could get lost, wind up on top of a stump or sandbar or something worse. You’ll be better off fishing waters you already know or doing some advance scouting during daylight hours. You’ll catch more catfish if you can travel safely and directly to prime bank-fishing or boat-fishing locales you’ve previously identified and marked.

Catfish anglers rarely venture into the thick stuff, but cats, like bass, appreciate the shade that vegetation provides. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

Putting waypoints in your GPS is helpful if you’ll be fishing from a boat, and before fishing you also may want to flag your fishing areas with marker buoys. The best places tend to provide catfish with distinct travel routes from deeper daytime haunts to shallower near-shore reaches used for night feeding. These include points, humps, creek channels, ledges and ridges.

To avoid problems prepping gear in the darkness, have your fishing combos rigged and ready to use, and organize your tacklebox before fishing so you know exactly where everything is. Be sure you have fully charged batteries for all your navigation equipment and fishing lights. Boat fishermen will want anchors with an adequate length of rope to hold the boat stationary, and all night fishermen will want a good supply of insect repellent to ward off mosquitoes. Wear a lifejacket and stay connected to the kill switch at all times, and let someone know where you plan to fish and when you plan to return.



Although few catfish anglers bother to fish them, green jungles of aquatic vegetation (button willows, lily pads, elodea, etc.) can provide excellent summertime catfishing action for those who know how to fish this cover. Most anglers assume that since they can’t see open water, the area can’t be fished, and they go about fishing in the usual way of pecking along the edges. But catfish are usually holding deep within the greenery.

The trick to catching these cats is working methodically to cover every accessible nook and pocket on the interior. And there’s only one way to go about it: Get right in there with them for close-quarters combat. I use a bobber rig to lessen the amount of snagging. A slip bobber is best because it allows you to reel your entire rig right up to the rod tip and work it back into cover. Cut shad or carp works great for bait. Thread a chunk about 2 inches square on a 3/0 to 5/0 octopus hook; unless current is strong, don’t use any weight.

Get within a rod’s length of the cover and work slowly and precisely, moving your rig over, under, through or around the cover until you can ease the bait down into an opening. You may catch a few nice cats along the cover’s edge, but most will be buried in the vegetation, striking only when you put the bait right on their nose.

When you do get a strike, react immediately, setting the hook hard and reeling like crazy. You must pull the fish out of cover before it has time to tangle you. Heavy tackle is important—this battle requires brawn, not finesse.

Don’t be shy about fishing tiny, “impossible” looking openings in weed beds. Chances are, your bait will penetrate quite easily, and catfish in such places are more likely to strike than those found along an edge that has been pounded by every passing angler.

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