All About Catfish
February 01, 2017
Catfish are among the most popular groups of fish with over 7 million catfish anglers nationwide. In a recent survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, catfish ranked only behind bass, panfish, and trout in popularity among U.S. anglers. Their wide distribution, fighting abilities, potential size, table-fare qualities, and relative simplicity to catch make them a favorite among beginners and advanced anglers alike, young and old.
Anglers target several catfish species, including the ever-popular channel, flathead, and blue catfish, as well as bullheads and white catfish. Each species possesses unique qualities as gamefish, so each requires unique tactical know-how about where and how to catch them.
Many details regarding catfish presentations are based on the various waters catfish inhabit and their remarkable set of senses. They thrive in rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and small streams, in a host of water quality conditions, from clear water to highly turbid (muddy) systems. Such adaptability demands highly acute senses.
Catfish have exceptional smell and taste capabilities, being able to detect minute traces of scents down to the parts-per-billion level. This is why catfish anglers often use stinkbaits and other odiferous offerings such as cut fish. Catfish also have good vision in clear water and can hear well, and can detect vibrations using their lateral line sense.
When to go — day or night? Any time can be good for catfishing. It's not always nighttime that's best. Sometimes the bite can be excellent during the day, especially during cool- and coldwater periods, and often during prespawn when catfish are feeding aggressively. Once the fish settle into summer patterns, many anglers prefer to fish at night, but you often can still catch fish during the day.
The most widespread member of the catfish family, channel catfish appear in many river and reservoir environments and often are stocked into ponds to provide easy angling opportunities.
Pieces of freshly killed baitfish, like suckers and shad, make excellent bait. Catfish anglers also are known to concoct batches of homemade stinkbait using cheese, blood, chicken, and fish parts, allowing it to ripen in a jar before smearing it on a hook or dipworm to attract catfish using their superior sense of smell and taste. While mostly caught on the bottom, in clear-water lake and reservoir environments, channel cats can suspend and are known to strike moving lures.
To succeed in catfishing, sometimes it helps to understand their seasonal movements and habitat preferences. Channel catfish use a variety of habitats in rivers and reservoirs. In rivers, including small streams, they often make movements upstream in spring, so you can find them below dams and riffles, or other structures that might obstruct, or slow, movements. Tributary mouths — where smaller creeks enter larger rivers — also can be good spots.
In summer, channel catfish can be found in holes of streams and rivers as well as mid-depth runs. River stretches with woodcover often are ideal. In larger rivers, channel catfish live around wing dams and other structures like bridge abutments and barge mooring areas that break up current and create habitat diversity. Don't overlook areas with logjams, too.
As waters cool later in fall, channel cats move to wintering holes, especially in northern regions. Often, movement is downstream, and sometimes considerable distances. In the South, they may reside in shorter stretches of water year-round. Despite the cold, channel catfish can be tempted to bite in winter, and are a target of a growing number of ice anglers on lakes in the ice-belt. Understanding the how catfish behave during different parts of the year helps you pinpoint location and choose the best presentation options.
Slipsinker rigs work well for channel catfish in rivers, streams, and reservoirs. This is an easy rig to tie with few components. Slide a slipsinker such as an egg sinker or no-roll sinker onto your mainline and tie on a barrel swivel. Then attach an 8- to 10-inch leader and finally a hook. J-style hooks such as baitholder and Octopus styles work well. Hook size depends on the size of fish you expect to catch. Sizes in the 1/0 to 5/0 range should cover most situations. Instead of using a barrel swivel, you can use a splitshot to pin a sliding sinker a set distance above the hook.
Circle hooks are other good options. Used properly, circle hooks almost always hook catfish in the corner of the mouth so they're easily unhooked. Because of low hooking injury, circle hooks are an ideal choice if catch-and-release is desired.
Float (bobber) rigs and other setups can work well in specific situations. Floats, for example, can suspend baits above a snaggy bottom, or drift baits to cover a large area. For all riggings, monofilament line in the 12- to 20-pound-test-range is a good all-around choice on a medium to medium-heavy baitcasting or spinning rod-and-reel combo.
Flatheads grow large, feed mostly at night, and prefer to eat live fish. Fishing in and around downed trees and tangled wood and in deep holes in rivers using a large (sometimes over a pound!) sucker, carp, or bullhead for bait may tempt big flatheads at night, and sometimes during the day.
Like channel catfish, flatheads have seasonal movement patterns in rivers, which is typically upstream during the spring and downstream to wintering holes during late fall. Flatheads like cover, such as wood and rock, and can spend up to 23 hours a day in a single logjam or other cover spot. They generally leave cover to feed at night.
Anglers fish for flatheads using two primary strategies. One involves fishing close to cover, while the other focuses on catching flatheads while they are on their nightly feeding forays. To target flatheads that are on the move, set baits on channel edges, flats, and other areas close to their daytime cover — travel routes they may take on their feeding forays.
Regardless of season, cover is important in finding fish, and fishing close to cover ups your odds. This isn't the case just for rivers. Flatheads in reservoirs stay near cover such as standing timber, log- and brushpiles, and boulders.
In large rivers, look for flatheads near drifted piles of wood on river bends, around bridge abutments, barge mooring areas, and on flats. Boulder piles formed from landslides off steep banks also can hold fish. Scour holes behind wing dams always are worth a look.
Slipsinker rigs are good choices for flatheads. Rigging follows the same design as mentioned above for channel catfish, but the components are beefed up to tackle heavier fish. Sinkers weighing up to 8 ounces may be needed in heavy current. Braided or mono lines up to 100-pound test with rods and reels to match aren't out of the question where fish are big and cover is prevalent. Hooks (J-style and circle hooks) from 5/0 to 10/0 cover most situations.
Big "blues" are found in rivers and reservoirs of the eastern, southeastern, and south-central regions of the U.S. They eat dead and live baitfish on the bottom, and also can be caught suspended in open water when they are feeding on open-water baitfish, like shad.
Top baits for blue cats include shad and skipjack herring. Recent giant blue catfish over 80 pounds have been caught on cut chunks of Asian carp (bighead and silver carp). Depending on the size of fish sought, whole baitfish or cut chunks and fillets of a variety of baitfish types can be used.
Blue catfish like current, and in rivers they can be found along channel edges, steep ledges, wing dams, shallow flats, and deep holes. Which habitats they use often depends on the season and flow conditions. In colder water, they're generally deeper in rivers and reservoirs. But even in mid-winter, a few days of mild weather can draw them shallow to feed. On reservoirs, structure such as points, humps, saddles, and submerged creek channels attract baitfish such as shad and blue cats that move in to eat them.
Blue cats move seasonally, typically downriver in cold water and upstream in spring to eventual summer locations. Similar movements occur in reservoirs, where blues generally spend winter in deep water near structure, moving uplake into shallow creek arms and feeder rivers in spring. After spawning, they settle into summer patterns, following and feeding on baitfish schools in the main basin, although they can ben found lakewide depending on how widespread baitfish are distributed. Blues also can suspend in open water.
Slipsinker rigs are good for catching blue cats where a stationary rig on bottom is desired. Another favorite is the three-way rig, which can be used as a stationary rig or drifted along bottom or higher in the water column in rivers and reservoirs. On a three-way rig, a dropper line holds a sinker, while the leader terminates in a hook. Lengths of dropper and leader depend on the situation. The dropper can be made longer, for example, to position the bait farther off bottom. J-style and circle hooks up to size 8/0 and 7- to 8-foot medium to medium-heavy rods cover most situations.
Drifting can be accomplished using the wind or current to propel the boat and bait. Some anglers troll, using the trolling motor or outboard motor to move baits along. Using a motor can give you more control over bait position and speed. Baits are usually drifted at 0.5 to 1.5 mph. The key is to drift baits on or near structure that holds fish, so boat control is important. Depth finders and other fishfinding electronics are very helpful.
If we think back to some of the first species of fish we ever caught as kids, bullheads are sure to be in the mix. But they seem to get forgotten by more serious anglers who are pursuing larger species. Bullheads are a great way to introduce kids to fishing — the action's fast, and tackling up is simple.
Brown, black, and yellow bullheads are present in many lakes, rivers, and reservoirs throughout North America. Considered scroungers by some, but fine table fare, they're easy to catch with a hook baited with angleworms, a piece of nightcrawler, or dead fish. One-half to two pounds is a common size.
Bullheads can be found in slow moving stretches of rivers and creeks, as well as ponds, natural lakes, and reservoirs. In springtime, the swim to shallower backwaters and bays as the water warms. They concentrate in funnel areas, near the edges of vegetation, as well as on shallower flats.
A 6- to 7-foot medium-power rod, and a medium-capacity spinning reel spooled with 8- to 10-pound test does the trick. They're a lot of fun on ultralight tackle, too. Simple splitshot rigs and float rigs work great. Leadhead jigs also work well. Choose a stand-up type jig with a 1/0 or 2/0 hook, and loosely thread on a nightcrawler or two, leaving enough crawler free to wriggle. The leadhead helps keep bullheads from swallowing the hook, and it makes a great handle for unhooking fish.
There are many reasons why catfish are such a favorite among anglers. They are willing biters requiring minimal equipment. Even shore anglers enjoy many opportunities for great fishing. Some of the largest catfish ever landed have been caught from shore.
Whether you fish from boat or shore, learning the fundamentals improves your chances for success. Then you can study the details, which is what In-Fisherman is all about. Here at in-fisherman.com, as well as in In-Fisherman magazine, Catfish In-Sider Guide, and In-Fisherman Television, you'll find a wealth of information on cutting edge tactics, advanced topics, and more, to help you catch more and bigger catfish. Good fishing!