How to Catch Catfish: The Ultimate Guide

how to catch catfish the ultimate guide featured image
Dale Shetler
By Dale Shetler
Updated November 26, 2020

The Catfish is one of those types of fish where its name just doesn't do it much justice. And its unusual name is probably the reason it is one of the most overlooked and underrated fish in the country. 

While I won't argue the title of this fish is a bit strange, their features are very unique. 

Plus, they grow to such large sizes, making them very fun to catch and fight with. On top of that, they also taste great when fried up in a thick, sweet batter! But best of all, catfish are virtually everywhere, so it's easy to get into the idea of going out to catch giant Catfish.

To help those who are new to fishing, or explicitly new at trying to catch Catfish, I've put together the following guide. 

After all, catfish are much different than your typical trout, bass, crappie, and other common fish. 

Therefore, it pays to know how to target them specifically! 

If you're in a hurry and after specific information, you can quickly jump to a certain section of this article below:

The Different Types Of Catfish 

The first and most important thing to know about Catfish is that there are several different kinds of them. 

Catfish are easily identified by the two barbs they’ll have on either side of their mouth.

Beyond that, each type of Catfish has distinct behaviours and therefore there are different tactics to catch them. 

There are three main species that fishers will target:

In some circumstances, these catfish types can be found in the same waters and might also be hunting for the same prey. But that is where their similarities end. 

Let’s take a closer look at each type of catfish.

Blue Catfish

Blue catfish drawing

These fish can grow to massive sizes, with the record currently set at a whopping 143 pounds

Even though these fish can be found in the same area as flatheads, they prefer to be around other fish like them. Therefore, when you catch one blue catfish, you can almost be sure there are others nearby. 

These catfish usually live in waters nearby flatheads, but they're limited to deeper waters in the lakes and rivers. You'll want to focus on areas with strong currents as this is where they like to wait and ambush their prey.

Channel Catfish

Channel Catfish Drawing

Compared to the other catfish, these are the smallest, and generally range in size between 5 to 15 pounds. That said, you’ll be hard-pressed to find channel catfish around 20 pounds, but it's not impossible.

Many anglers out there have these fish decorating their mantels, and the record books show the biggest channels coming in around the upper 50-pound mark.

While the size isn't as impressive as others, these catfish do get around a lot. So, you can catch Catfish in many lakes, rivers, and other locations. 

These Catfish can be found east of the Rocky Mountains, as well as into Mexico and Canada.

Flathead Catfish

Flathead Catfish Drawing

The toughest and beastliest of the three species of catfish is the flathead. 

As mentioned above, these catfish love being alone and don't want to be disturbed by other species. But when you do hook one, you’ll be pleased that they'll be fighting pretty hard. 

On top of the fact these guys can get up to a hefty 100 pounds, they can be quite the experience to reel in for even the most experienced anglers.

That said, catching these Catfish requires you to travel to Mississippi, Missouri, or Ohio River basins. They can also appear in North Dakota and even Lake Erie, or you can try your luck in the Florida Panhandle too.

Best Time Of Day To Catch Catfish

One other argument for why Catfish may not be caught so often is that you'll generally see them more often at night. 

For many anglers, this is the best time to fish for catfish, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only time. Just because many go out late at night to catch them, it doesn't mean the best catches are only at night.

Generally speaking, catfish have varying sleeping cycles. 

Flatheads are the most nocturnal of the three, wishing to stay in their cover or hiding hole all day and night long. However, you can sometimes get them to stir if you work around those areas where you know they might be hiding.

Looking at blue and channel catfish, you'll find their sleep/day schedules change as they go along, depending on a number of factors. 

The only thing to note is the bigger blue Catfish will be more active during the day, especially if there is a strong current. In slow-moving waters, on the other hand, they'll be more active at night.

Night Catfishing

man fishing for catfish at night

Nighttime seems like the ideal time to go out and catch catfish, according to most anglers. The reason many only consider going out at night is for catfish is for one main reason: because the water temperatures are generally cooler.

Both flathead and blue catfish are typically found in deeper parts of the water, suggesting they prefer colder temperatures. This makes even more sense when you consider that the topwater gets too warm for the baitfish they go after during the day.

Another reason that is often better at night is that catfish are scent-based hunters and intuitively listen to their stomachs. And, considering their size, they do a lot of feeding. So what's even better is that, since they focus on smell to find their prey, they have no issues in foraging in the dark.

With that said, it only makes sense why people often qute night as the best time of the day for catfishing. But not everyone is willing to stay up late into the night to try and catch Catfish.

Daytime Catfishing

Alternatively, catfishing can still be done during the day time. 

One great catfishing tip for going after them during the daytime is to begin fishing over natural humps, and structures where catfish could be hiding. Additionally, the goal is still to get to the deepest points of the lakes or rivers that you’re fishing. 

The one great thing about daytime catfishing, though, is that this strategy is made easier thanks to you being able to travel to deeper waters by boat. You can still do that at night, of course, but your visibility is more restrictive than in the day.

Best Season To Fish For Catfish

Man fishing during foggy sunrise

Another common misconception about catfish is you can only catch them during the summertime. Of course, this is partly true since there are more catfish during the summer thanks to their spawning season. However, targeting catfish can be a full-year endeavor in the right circumstances.

With that said, the best time of year to go catfishing has many variables. 

These variables are what species of catfish you're targeting, and whether you care about numbers or size, amongst others. 

Regardless, a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that Catfish love deep and slow-moving water during the wintertime, and shallower and faster water during the summertime.

Still, each season can satisfy your particular goals depending on what your goals are:

  • In the wintertime, blue and channel catfish are more easily targeted. That's because you'll have plenty of opportunities to catch big or catch a lot. You'll also get a chance at flatheads as well. In fact, flatheads are the most often caught during this time. The only thing is most anglers don't target them during this time because of wintery conditions.
  • Springtime is another prime time for catfish since they're going to be feeding a lot. During the wintertime, catfish lose much of their body weight, so during the spring, they'll be getting back to feeding. If you're targeting blue catfish, your best fishing times are from late March to early May. Channel catfish are also consistently caught during this time.
  • Summertime is the time many people are out there targeting channel catfish due to it being their spawning season. Although for the other species, this might be a good idea, it's not the case with channels. If you're targeting blue or flatheads, you'll have a tough time getting them. That said, the channel catfish over the summer is plentiful. It's this season where the myth that the best time to go catfishing is during the night. Catfish like it cold, and rising water temperatures during the day will prevent them from being active.
  • Fall, similar to the spring transition, can spell more challenging days locating Catfish. The fish will be moving quickly and often as water temperatures stabilize. That said, once you hit late October, water temperatures will be a bit more stable, and you can catch plenty of catfish around this time. On top of that, you'll find flatheads growing to massive sizes as they often go on a feeding frenzy around this time of year.

What Is The Best Bait For Catfish?

Man demonstrating how to bait a hook with beef liver to catch catfish

Catching catfish is a matter of using the right bait and presenting it naturally. 

But what kind of bait should you be using? 

When looking at a catfish's diet, you'll find these fish to be one the most opportunistic feeders you can find. Generally speaking, there are very few things that are suitable. Therefore, you might try any of the following as bait:

  • Worms
  • Stink bait
  • Chicken and beef liver
  • Hotdogs
  • Raw bacon
  • Other items from the fridge that you'd be throwing out soon

Why some of the unusual items appear on this list is, once again, because catfish love smells. They are not picky about eating meat that's been in your fridge for weeks. All you have to do is season it with a bit of bait scent, and you're good to go.

Getting into specifics, there are some particularly good baits you can consider. Below, I've listed some specific bait strategies for going after each type of catfish.

Best Bait For Blue Catfish

Blue catfish truly are ravenous feeders. 

They will often be chasing their prey day and night, and generally prefer smaller fish as their primary feeding source. 

Their fish of choice are threadfin shad, gizzard shad or skipjack herring. It's not uncommon to find blue catfish with bellies filled with these fish after catching them.

If you're looking for the best bait to help you nab a blue catfish, it's best to use minnows from those types of fish species.

Best Bait For Channel Catfish

Channel fish will also be inclined to go for smaller fish too. However, depending on their size, they’ll go after different species of fish, of course. 

That said, if you plan on using live bait, the ideal channel catfish bait is going to be fish like white suckers, gizzard shad, skipjack herring, Asian carp, and bluegills. You can also go for nightcrawlers and shrimp.

Again, catfish are opportunistic, so the type of bait used doesn’t matter so much as getting your bait in front of them at the right time when they’re most likely to go after it! 

Best Bait For Flathead Catfish

Like the other two, live baits also work very well with flathead catfish. 

That said, flatheads are probably the pickiest in that they focus on live baits for most in their diets. So if you're looking to catch flathead, you're better off using baits such as perch, bluegill, sunfish, or goldfish. 

Another thing to note with flathead catfishing is that it's not as action-packed as the other two. 

What this means from a bait perspective is that you'll need to be able to keep your bait healthy and alive for a long time. 

To put it into perspective, a typical fishing trip can net you between 5 or 30 channel catfish depending on your trip's length. However, even amongst expert anglers, they're lucky to manage to catch one, let alone two flatheads throughout the same length of trip.

How To Catch Catfish Effectively

man caught a big catfish

As mentioned, you catch Catfish in lake and river areas, but they need to be in deep areas. 

Furthermore, the site needs to be cool, and the water’s current needs to be just right, depending on what species you're fishing for. 

However, you'll need a few more strategic advantages on your side if you want to be catching these types of fish effectively. 

Again, these are tough fish to go after, but they can be a whole lot of fun too. So to give you the most advantages, here are some additional tips to help you with catching your next batch of catfish.

Tips For Blue Catfish

Remember that blue catfish are ravenous eaters, but also that catfish, overall, aren't that picky about what they eat. 

You can use this to your advantage by learning more about the types of bait that have more scent than others. 

Blue Catfish specifically have a keener sense of smell than the others. It's for this reason why you'll see in some lists the option of chicken liver or dried chicken blood being good options for catching them.

You'll also want to be looking at a good-sized hook for these. 

Even though you might not be setting world records, blue catfish can still be large. So you’ll want to be using hooks that range from #3 to #9. 

Another thing blue catfish are known for is their fighting prowess. 

These are very stubborn fish and don't want to get out of the water for any reason. Therefore, you'll want to have a strong rod to ensure you’ll be able to get them to the surface. This also applies to the line and tackle that you’ll be using too.

I mentioned already that all Catfish like cooler waters, but blue catfish are absolutely loyal to these waters. 

You can fish year-round for catfish if you'd like, but your best chances for catching these guys are from September to December months when the water is colder. And, they'll also be feeding a lot more than usual during these times. 

One final tip for blue catfish is that you will be rewarded for sticking to a specific spot. 

Of course, you might need to move around to find a good location, but once you find one, you'll want to stick to it. Pick for a little tributary with enough rushing water, and you'll find it easier to catch them. 

Tips For Channel Catfish

Because these fish are smaller than the other species of catfish, you don't need as tough of a rod, reel or tackle when going after them. 

What matters more is to have a properly functioning reel and a sound drag system. Also, having a fishing line somewhere in between a ten to twelve-pound test will be helpful since anything heavier will only make it easier for you to spook them away from your hook. 

You’re going to want to prioritize the bottom when targetting these as well. You'll find more consistency in catching these fish when your goal is to go to the bottom as much as you can.

Additionally, if you plan on targetting larger channels, go for live bait. For smaller channel catfish, you can aim for dead bait or anything smelly, such as spoiled meat or soap slivers.

Tips For Flathead Catfish

Flathead catfish are the sumo wrestlers of freshwater fishing. They're commonly found weighing in around 10 to 20 pounds. However, they can get much more massive in size depending on their location, and they're also quite long. Generally, flatheads measures about 5 feet in length. 

As mentioned, catching these fish is the ultimate act of patience compared to others. 

Because you could be spending several hours without even so much as a nibble, you want to have something to keep your mind occupied. Ensure you have a comfortable seat, pack plenty of snacks and cold drinks, insect repellent, and hopefully someone to chat with while you’re waiting for the big one!

While you can get flatheads during the wintertime, you can also aim to catch them during the warmer months as well. Depending on your area, May through October can be peak flathead fishing season.

If you're looking for more specific spots for these Catfish, aim for large rivers or lakes. You'll hardly find big flatheads in creeks, ponds or small lakes since there’s not as much water for them to move around in and find food. 

Beyond that location, looking at specific areas is vital. In rivers, look for steady water flow where you can see hardened mud or a gravel bottom. For lakes, seek cover near regions of the fast-breaking structure. Using a depth finder can help you a lot, especially if you’re exploring a new lake.

Even though flatheads aren't as stubborn as blue catfish, they can still put up a big fight. So, make sure your gear is prepared to fight hard. It's not out of the question for your line to be pulled a good hundred yards before you start turning its head towards the surface.

Building The Ultimate Catfishing Rig 

Fishing rods and spinnings in the composition with accessories for fishing on the old background on the table

The last section I want to cover is putting together the best catfishing rig. 

You don't always need to have a heavy-duty rod, reel, or line. But, you don't want to go with a super cheap rod or tackle either. 

Below I've put together a simple guide to setting up your rig so you can be prepared for catfish one after the other!

Reel Selection

In terms of a reel selection, the best option out there is bait casters. 

Baitcasters are massively popular thanks to their ease of use. They come in both expensive and budget-friendly versions. These are also ideal if you're looking to catch bigger catfish. 

They also generally have more reliable drag and will let you cast farther, and then fine-tune your drag on the fly. This is important, especially when you are fishing from shore since you're going to need all of the casting range you can get.

That being said, you can also get away with a spinning reel if you're planning on going for exclusively small channel catfish.

Rod Selection

Because catfish put up a good fight and are pretty tough, you're going to need a strong rod to handle it. 

So, if you choose a rod and tackle that’s too light, you’re likely to end up snapping your rod. Make it too heavy, and reeling them in will become more challenging. 

In terms of a perfect balance of that, you can take a look at these suggestions to help you build the perfect catfish rig. 

That aside, if you're catching channel catfish, aim for a 6' medium-power rod. 

For big blues and flatheads, a 7' medium-heavy or heavy-power rod will do fine. 

These lengths are assuming you're casting from a boat, so you may need them to be longer if you're casting from the shore.

You can find out more about fishing rod types here or read our spinning vs casting rod guide.

Fishing Line 

So what fishing line type should you use? First to note is that catfish will rarely show up in clear water. This means that using braided line won't be as helpful when going after cats. Instead, aim for monofilament lines, which are less visible underwater. 

You can get away with a 20 to 30 pound line for flathead and blue catfish for the weight. For channel catfish, you can reduce that to 10 to 20 pounds.

Lures To Use

For your lures, you'll want them to be exceptionally tough and sharp. A catfish's skin, as well as their insides, are pretty tough, so the hooks you use need to be able to pierce their skin. 

Many anglers prefer to use treble hooks, which is a smart choice since it’ll give you an increased chance of snagging the fish. 

Conclusion

Despite the amount of thought and consideration that can go into catching catfish, it's one of the most straightforward fish spieces to catch. 

Once again, they’re very opportunistic feeders. So as long as you’re able to find a location where catfish are common and get your bait in front of them, you’re almost guaranteed to be able to reel ‘em in, one after the other!