All About Catfish

Everything you need to know about popular catfish species and how to catch them on proven riggings.

All About Catfish

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.


Channel Catfish

Channel Catfish

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.

Flathead Catfish

Flathead Catfish

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.

Blue Catfish

Blue Catfish

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.

Bullheads

Bullhead Catfish

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!

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Adjustable Three-Way Rig

The three-way rig is an option so versatile that it should at least be considered in most catfishing situations. It's an effective rig for presenting static baits in the heavy current of a tailrace or the still waters of a lake or pond. But it's unparalleled for slipdrifting on big rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, and for drifting windblown flats in big reservoirs like Santee-Cooper.

The three-way rig consists of a dropper line 6 to 24 inches long, anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the bait near bottom. A half-ounce sinker might be sufficient in still water, but 3 to 8 ounces are needed to drift around the tips of wing dams for blue and channel cats. The leader should be slightly longer than the dropper line - usually 2 to 3 feet, depending on current velocity.

Three-way rigs also excel at extracting fish from areas where other rigs can't hold or return from. Say you're fishing for channel cats over a broken-rock bottom below a lowhead dam. Use a three-way rig with a 20-pound mainline and a 17-pound leader. Secure a 2- to 4-ounce bell sinker to the remaining rung of a three-way swivel with 6-pound line. When cast into place, the sinker hangs, anchoring the rig until a fish strikes. Big cats sometimes grab a bait hard enough to hook themselves and break the light dropper line. When a smaller fish strikes, a sharp snap of the rod tip breaks off the sinker and sets the hook.

Another versatile rig is an (pictured here) that doesn't require a three-way swivel. Instead, tie on a standard barrel swivel between your mainline and leader. Next, thread a long dropper line through one of the swivel rungs and clamp a lead shot somewhere on the dropper opposite the sinker and swivel.

The lead shot functions like a bobber stop. Where you set it determines the distance the swivel rides above bottom, and thus the depth the bait runs. To adjust the distance from bottom, simply slide the shot up or down the dropper. Should you snag, a firm pull slides the shot off your dropper line, once again losing only the sinker and saving the rest of the rigging.

Sliprig

Pictured: Basic Sliprig

Many catfishing situations call for a livebait or piece of cutbait to be stillfished on the bottom. The most popular bottom rig for all catfish species is the simple sliprig. This rig consists of an egg sinker sliding on the mainline, held in place above the hook by a lead shot. The objective is to anchor the bait near the bottom, and then allow a catfish to swim off with the bait without feeling too much tension. The idea is sound, but this rig doesn't accomplish either objective well.

The success of trotlines and limblines illustrates that catfish - particularly big cats - aren't timid feeders. Let a trout or walleye run with the bait before you set the hook, but don't wait for cats. When a decent-size cat picks up the bait, he has it. Most of the time, you could set immediately without giving any line. But your chances of a solid hookset increase if you let the fish turn first. When you feel the thump of a fish grabbing the bait, follow him with your rod tip for a foot or two, then set.

Another problem is the egg sinker. These sinkers work well when pitched directly behind a boat anchored in current. When cast across current, though, they tend to roll along the bottom and snag more often than other sinker designs like bell, bank, or flat sinkers. Slip your mainline through the top of a slipsinker and replace the split shot with a swivel to improve the effectiveness of this popular rig.

Leader length is another concern, especially for novice anglers. Don't use a longer leader just because it separates the bait from the sinker. Rather, adjust the length of the leader to vary the amount of action and movement imparted to the bait. A piece of cutbait tethered on a 12-inch leader may lie motionless on the bottom of a lake or pond, but would flail about wildly in heavy current.

Use just enough leader for your bait to attract fish without hanging up. That might mean a 3- or 4-foot leader for drifting cutbait across the clean bottom of a reservoir for blue cats; a 6-inch leader for holding big livebaits in front of a snag for flatheads; or no leader at all for probing the broken bottom of a tailrace for channel cats.

Double Barreled Float Rig

As much as floats aid strike indication, their true worth lies in the unique ways they present baits to catfish. Given that catfishing remains a game of delivering the right bait the right way, float rigs ought to play a major role in every angler's lineup. This is increasingly true as we discover how well cats respond to drifting, as well as to off-bottom presentations. A float is simply a bait-delivery tool similar to a sinker, and catfishermen ought to consider it just as important.

Regardless of which catfish species you're fishing for, the basic slipfloat rig is constructed in the same way. Before tying on a hook, cinch on a pre-made stop-knot, or tie a five-turn uni-knot around your mainline with the same or slightly heavier line to serve as an adjustable float stop. Sliding the stop-knot up the line makes the bait run deeper, while sliding it down allows for a shallower drift. Next, slip on a 5-mm bead followed by the slipfloat. Anchor cutbait and smaller livebait rigs with a few lead shot about a foot above a hook, ranging from a #2 for small baits to a 3/0 for bigger baits. To anchor larger livebaits for flatheads, add a swivel about 20 inches above a 3/0 to 7/0 hook. Slide a 1- to 2-ounce egg sinker on the line above the swivel to balance the float.

Double-Barreled Sliprigs

Pictured: Double Barreled Rig

These rigs are a combination of a sliprig and a three-way rig. They're worth the extra time they take to construct - particularly for presenting livebaits to flatheads. The low-frequency vibrations emitted by a struggling baitfish attract catfish by stimulating their sensitive lateral lines. Baitfish of all sizes must first be wild and super lively, and second be presented in a way that allows them to advertise these seductive qualities. Keep a wild bait suspended over cover and it feels exposed, vulnerable, and will panic.

Begin with a terminal leader as you would for a sliprig: A 12-inch section of monofilament or braided line with a hook on one end and a barrel swivel on the other. Before tying the swivel to your mainline, add a sinker dropper consisting of a lighter piece of monofilament with a bell sinker on one end and a swivel on the other. Thread the dropper swivel on the mainline so it slides above the leader swivel. The length of the bottom dropper determines how high the bait is held above the bottom.

This rigging is most effective when you maintain a 30- to 90-degree angle on your line, from rod tip to sinker. Fishing the head of a hole from a boat anchored slightly upstream, or fishing the edge of a flat from the sandbar on an inside river bend, or fishing the scour hole behind a bridge abutment from the top of the bridge are all top situations for double-barreled sliprigs.

Drifting Rigs - Bottom Bouncer Rig

Fixed sinker rigs usually are favored for steady drift speeds or heavy current, since active cats tend to hit moving baits fast and hard. Fish often are hooked on the strike, but always set anyway to ensure a good hookup - unless you're using a circle hook. Another advantage of fixed-sinker rigs is that the leader slackens and tightens as the weight pivots along the bottom. When pulled behind a boat moving at a steady speed, the bait slows then darts forward, often triggering a neutral fish to strike.

Slinky Rig

Slipsinker rigs usually are a better choice for slower drift speeds and lighter current. Standard slipsinkers like the walking sinker are fine over a relatively clean bottom, but more snag- resistant designs like the Lindy No-Snagg or Slinky sinkers are better in heavy cover. No sinker design is completely snag-free, but these designs glide through tangles that would devour egg and bell sinkers. Adding a panfish-size float to the leader and using weedless hooks make the rest of the rig more snag-resistant, too.

Pop Up Paternoster Rig

The paternoster is a wonderful rig in areas of relatively consistent depth. The problem is, as depth changes with cast placement, you need to adjust stop-knot position to keep the rig running properly. To some extent, the float acts like a sail, too, catching wind and riding current at speeds exceeding that of water moving below the surface. In significant current or wind, the float may drag the top of the rig into trouble spots or, occasionally, dislodge the entire rig from its position.

Again, we need to change the way we regard floats on a fundamental level. Floats aren't only bite indicators, just as they don't necessarily have to remain on the surface. Consider the pop-up paternoster rig. Rather than presenting the float above the rig on the surface, slide the float onto the dropper line between the swivel and weight, typically a 1- to 5-ounce bell sinker. Streamlined floats, such as Betts - Billy Boy or Little Joe's Pole Float, catch less current, reducing downstream drag. By submerging the float, you've eliminated worries about adjusting stop knots to changing depths. At rest, the float pops up the dropper line, holding the rig erect above bottom. The depth is a function of dropper length. Finally, by running back-to-back barrel swivels rather than a single three-way swivel, striking catfish run free with the line, similar to the action of a slipsinker rig.

Slip Float Rigging

Pictured: Slip Float Rigging

Splitshotting

If the weight of the bait alone isn't enough to keep it near bottom - either because the bait is moving too fast or the water is too deep - a lead shot or two pinched on the line may be the best solution. This is especially true in lakes and reservoirs, where tentative cats often reject a bait when too much pressure is on the line from a heavy sinker. A single 3/0 or #7 shot usually is enough to keep the bait in the strike zone, but not so heavy that a cat rejects the added weight.

This rig also is a top choice for river fishing situations that usually would call for a slipfloat rig. Pinching lead shot on the mainline about 6 to 12 inches above the hook results in a rig that can be drifted through riffles, shallow holes, and even around the edge of visible cover like snags and boulders. Round shot, as opposed to the removable type with ears, tends to drift better in current and doesn't twist as much while drifting in still water. Soft lead shot also is less damaging to lines than lead substitutes like tin or shot poured from hard lead alloys.

Standard Three-Way Rig

The three-way rig is another option so versatile that it should at least be considered in most catfishing situations. It's an effective rig for presenting static baits in the heavy current of a tailrace or the still waters of a lake or pond. But it's unparalleled for slipdrifting on big rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio, and for drifting windblown flats in big reservoirs like Santee-Cooper.

The three-way rig consists of a dropper line 6 to 24 inches long, anchored by a bell sinker of sufficient weight to keep the bait near bottom. A half-ounce sinker might be sufficient in still water, but 3 to 8 ounces are needed to drift around the tips of wing dams for blue and channel cats. The leader should be slightly longer than the dropper line - usually 2 to 3 feet, depending on current velocity.

Three-way rigs also excel at extracting fish from areas where other rigs can't hold or return from. Say you're fishing for channel cats over a broken-rock bottom below a lowhead dam. Use a three-way rig with a 20-pound mainline and a 17-pound leader. Secure a 2- to 4-ounce bell sinker to the remaining rung of a three-way swivel with 6-pound line. When cast into place, the sinker hangs, anchoring the rig until a fish strikes. Big cats sometimes grab a bait hard enough to hook themselves and break the light dropper line. When a smaller fish strikes, a sharp snap of the rod tip breaks off the sinker and sets the hook.

Another versatile rig is an adjustable three-way that doesn't require a three-way swivel. Instead, tie on a standard barrel swivel between your mainline and leader. Next, thread a long dropper line through one of the swivel rungs and clamp a lead shot somewhere on the dropper opposite the sinker and swivel.

The lead shot functions like a bobber stop. Where you set it determines the distance the swivel rides above bottom, and thus the depth the bait runs. To adjust the distance from bottom, simply slide the shot up or down the dropper. Should you snag, a firm pull slides the shot off your dropper line, once again losing only the sinker and saving the rest of the rigging.

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