Like so many of the game fish that now thrive in Arizona waters, catfish aren’t from around here.
Different types of catfish from other parts of the U.S. have been introduced to Arizona at various times over the past century-and-change, and they’ve come to thrive in the state’s deep rivers and reservoirs.
But catfish aren’t like other fish, and to some degree, catfish anglers aren’t like other anglers.
You’ll see catfish devotees lined up on the bank late at night, waiting silently in pitch blackness or campfire light for that telltale click and tap that lets them know a catfish has taken the bait. It takes a certain kind of obsession to do that.
Part of what sets catfish apart is that they can thrive in extremes.
Catfish like it hot, and during Arizona’s sweltering summer months, when most fish have packed it in and retreated to the deepest, coolest waters they can find, catfish are in their element.
That’s why the best time to catch catfish in Arizona is in summer, at night.
Catfish Species in Arizona
Arizona is home to three catfish species: channel catfish, flathead catfish and yellow bullhead.
The latter is arguably the most widespread, but because bullheads seldom exceed 16 inches and tend to be of lower table quality than channel cats or flatheads, they’re generally not sought after by most anglers.
Channel catfish, however, are prized as some of the best-tasting fish in fresh water. They were introduced to Arizona in 1905, and thrive in many of its rivers and reservoirs.
Channel cats typically weigh 1 to 5 pounds (prime eating size) but are capable of exceeding 20 pounds. They are usually olive, grey or silvery in color, with deeply forked tails.
Flathead catfish are the real giants.
Capable of reaching sizes well over 50 pounds, flatheads are the biggest fish in most Arizona lakes in which they reside.
True to their name, these fish have broad, flattened heads with large mouths. They’re typically a mottled brown color and have rounded tails.
Arizona Catfish Fishing Tips
First, try to shake off the old assumption that catfish are lazy scavengers who sit on the bottom just waiting for your stink bait to drop in front of their noses.
Catfish do indeed hunt using their senses of smell and taste more than their eyesight, and they will scavenge when and where they can. But they’re also active hunters.
Smaller cats will gobble up just about anything, but bigger catfish—especially flatheads—are more likely to strike something alive.
Anglers who go out after big flathead catfish in Arizona usually use live bluegills, small carp, shad or other baitfish. Waterdogs are a favorite bait too, if you can get your hands on some (be careful, they’re not legal everywhere).
Of course, if all you really want to do is sit back and haul in channel cats for your next fish fry, you have a lot of bait options. Chicken livers, nightcrawlers, anchovies, shrimp, chunks of hot dog, and a wide variety of dough baits and stink baits will do the trick.
Catfish do reside on or near bottom for the most part, so keep your bait down as close to the bottom as you can.
As a general rule, catfish spend their days in deeper water, and head shallow at night to feed. So if you’re fishing from shore, night fishing is your best bet.
Oftentimes the best spot is right around the drop-off that catfish use to transition between deep and shallow water. These fish have a habit of holing up between rocks, amid log jams and in deep holes during the day.
Sturdy tackle and heavy line is a must. Many anglers prefer braided line, both for its strength and its ability to get to the bottom faster. If flatheads are on the menu, it’s wise to spool up with at least 50-pound test line.
Many catfish anglers use a baitcasting reel with a clicker. This allows them to set up a rod (or multiple rods) and leave them unattended, listening for the ‘click’ of the reel to alert them when a fish is on the line.
Looking for even more whisker fish catching hints? Try our free guide, Catfish Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips.
Catfish spawn from late spring into early summer, when water temperatures are between 70 and 80 degrees.
In most Arizona lakes, catfish start to make their way toward shallow spawning grounds in April, and will continue to bite throughout the summer months.
While some type of catfish are available in many ponds, lakes and streams, the following waters are the best of the best when it comes to catfish fishing.
One of several large Salt River reservoirs in Central Arizona, Theodore Roosevelt Lake is the largest lake that lies entirely within the state lines.
The 21,000-acre lake stretches over 22 miles end-to-end, and is one of Arizona’s top fisheries for both channel and flathead catfish, among other game fish.
Arizona Game and Fish Department surveys regularly turn up impressive numbers of catfish at Roosevelt Lake, and anglers bring in 30- to 40-pound channel cats every year, as well as a few flatheads that top 50 pounds.
If all you want to do is have fun loading up on scrappy mid-sized channel cats, you can easily do so from shore at any of a dozen public access points around the lake.
Giant flatheads are more often caught out a little deeper, and the bait of choice is a live bluegill between 3 and 6 inches.
Big flatheads hunt by ambushing their prey, and they tend to hunker down among rocks, log jams and rocks where they can remain unseen.
In Roosevelt Lake, flatheads can be anywhere from 10 to 45 feet deep—toward the deeper end of that range during the day, and shallower at night.
Roosevelt is a massive lake with countless spots where you can catch catfish, but a lot of the best action is centered around the Salt River Inlet toward the eastern end of the lake. Of course, even this is a vast area with a lot of options.
Cougar point, which overlooks the Salt River Channel, is one of the best bets in this part of the lake. The point has a steep drop that catfish love.
Nearby Wildcat Shoal is also a good spot, especially at night, and Champagne Bay has a lot of productive submerged timber.
Up in the middle section of the lake, there’s another great area that is sometimes referred to as Nonesuch Shores, which extends from the Roosevelt Lake Visitors Center east to Windy Hill Recreation Site.
This whole stretch is made up of cuts and washes strewn with submerged boulders and other structures. There’s a submerged roadbed here, and the steel culverts beneath the old road are favorite hiding places for big catfish.
This is a great area for shore fishing as well, and there are numerous trails and campgrounds in the area, all managed as part of Tonto National Forest.
Roosevelt Lake also is one of the best crappie fishing lakes in Arizona, among several other premier fisheries.
Lake Pleasant is a 7,400-acre reservoir located less than an hour from Phoenix on the Agua Fria River. It’s one of the top weekend fishing spots for Phoenix anglers, and that’s due in large part to its abundance of big catfish.
Channel catfish in Lake Pleasant are especially abundant, although most are modest in size. There are loads of channel cats up to 10 pounds.
However, the lake’s flathead catfish are the target for the most serious catfish anglers. Game & Fish Department surveys of Lake Pleasant have turned up flatheads weighing over 45 pounds.
April through June are great months to be out on Lake Pleasant, as catfish invade shallow haunts to spawn. Big flatheads will dig holes or nest beneath undercut banks when possible, and there’s great fishing as the water warms up.
Lake Pleasant is over 200 feet deep at full pool, and the best fishing tends to be in its many coves and inlets. Look for a spot with thick shallow cover that also has easy access to 30- to 40-foot depths.
As a general rule, it pays to fish in the thickest wood and brushy cover you can. Heavy line is always a good idea, but it’s especially important here. Use 50-pound line at minimum, and fish straight up-and-down from your boat whenever possible to minimize snags.
The Humbug Creek Arm is a great area to catch catfish. Fish the river channel drop-off during the day, and adjacent brushy flats at night. Try a live bluegill or small carp close to the bottom.
There are some excellent catfish opportunities in the Castle Creek area too. This part of the lake includes a broad floodplain with a lot of submerged wood and brush, and there are numerous feeder creeks that can be great for catfish.
The Agua Fria River Arm of the lake is a prime summer fishing spot, but it’s closed from December 15th to June 15th every year to protect bald eagles during their nesting season.
When it opens back up, on summer nights there’s great fishing around the rocky drop-offs and submerged timber in the river channel.
Lake Pleasant Regional Park provides ample access to the lake, including marinas and boat ramps as well as shore fishing access and campground facilities.
Lake Pleasant also is one of the best striped bass fishing lakes in Arizona.
A reservoir of just over 2,000 acres formed by the damming of the Verde River, Bartlett Lake is home to Arizona’s state record flathead catfish, a 76.52-pound beast that is also the heaviest fish of any kind ever landed in the state.
Bartlett Lake doesn’t produce quite the numbers of catfish that Lake Pleasant does, but there may be no other lake in Arizona that more consistently kicks out giant-sized cats. If you’re out looking for a trophy, this might be your best bet.
Bartlett Lake is also shallower than Lake Pleasant, which means that it warms up faster, and the fish get moving earlier in the year. Expect some smaller flatheads—if you can call a 10 to 15 pound fish “small”—to start heading shallow in March.
Bigger fish usually follow in April, and there’s consistently good fishing all spring and summer long. Spring is typically when the lake is fullest though, and anglers have the most options.
Big catfish follow a lot of classic patterns here. Depths around 30 to 40 feet are often productive day or night, but cats are most likely to leave the deep and prowl shallow water after dark. At night, it’s possible to catch them in 10 feet of water or less.
One of Bartlett Lake’s great advantages is that it includes some excellent shore fishing options. The area known as Bartlett Flats, located about 2 miles from the river inlet toward the north end of the lake, is a perennial favorite spot.
Around dusk on any summer evening, you’ll see catfish devotees setting up along the shoreline at Bartlett Flats. The Game & Fish Department has sunk numerous fish habitat structures in the area, with the encouraging nickname “Fish City.”
Located just down the lake from Bartlett Flats, the Yellow Cliffs area is also productive, with steep cliffs that drop off quickly toward the main river channel. A boat is needed to really fish the Yellow Cliffs area effectively.
Lower Colorado River
Below Lake Havasu, the Colorado River emerges from beneath Parker Dam and meanders along the California state line until it eventually crosses over into Mexico.
While it tends not to get much attention from anglers, this stretch of river offers amazing catfish opportunities.
Flatheads and channel cats are both on the table here. The Lower Colorado River tends to be fished more heavily from California, mostly because flathead catfish are found almost nowhere else in that state.
Picacho State Recreation Area is a favorite catfish spot on the California side.
Fish under 10 pounds are most abundant, but giants are occasionally wrestled to the bank. Flathead catfish in excess of 70 pounds have been taken from the Lower Colorado River.
The question is, where to look? Fishing a river is a lot different from fishing a deep lake or reservoir.
A long river with many fishable miles can seem intimidating, but it gets a lot easier when you remember one simple rule: catfish don’t really like fast-moving water. With that in mind, the Colorado River is much more approachable.
You can eliminate most of the river right away and focus on deep pools, backwaters, sloughs, and other pockets of slow-moving water.
Summertime offers prime fishing conditions, and you have a solid chance of loading up on catfish any time between June and October.
For flatheads, live baitfish are the way to go. Local anglers use bluegill, goldfish, small carp, shad, or anything else that will fit in a flathead’s mouth.
As is often the case, channel cats are easier to catch and less selective. Nightcrawlers, dough baits, cut baits and chicken livers will do the trick.
Buckskin Mountain State Park is a popular fishing spot on the Arizona side of the river. Some catfish are caught from shore here, but it also pays to explore the river by boat and look for more secluded spots. Boat launch facilities are available in the park.
Farther down the river, the Fisher’s Landing and Martinez Lake area is also productive.
Along much of the river, the banks are steep and the landscape is mostly undeveloped, which means that, for the most part, you need a boat to really get to the best spots—especially if it’s flatheads you’re after.
The Colorado River is rewarding as well as challenging. Temperatures can be punishing on hot summer days, which makes night fishing the preferred method. Luckily, that’s also when the big cats bite best.
Arizona is home to a lot of great catfish lakes and rivers. The waters mentioned above represent the very best of the best, but they don’t tell the whole story.
Be sure to check out these honorable mention waters as well:
One of four reservoirs along the Salt River, Canyon Lake is the smallest of the bunch at about 950 acres. Even so, the lake is about 10 miles long and nearly 150 feet deep at full pool, and offers plenty of prime catfish habitat.
Canyon Lake occasionally yields a few big flatheads, but most of the catfish angling here revolves around channel cats. Expect to catch a ton of perfect eating-size fish up to around 5 pounds, as well as some serious 10- to 15-pound brutes.
The lake is located within Tonto National Forest, and the Forest Service operates several recreation sites along the shore.
Baitfish including shad and small bluegill often account for some of the largest catfish in Canyon Lake, but anglers catch them here on everything from nightcrawlers and shrimp to hot dogs and chicken livers.
If you’re in a boat, fishing the edges of the river channel can be most effective.
Canyon Lake is also known for producing carp in excess of 30 pounds. Some anglers target both catfish and carp using corn and dough baits.
One of the great off-the-beaten-path fishing spots in Southern Arizona, Patagonia Lake can always be counted on to crank out great numbers of catfish.
Channel cats are definitely the more common species, but there are some big flatheads here too.
Patagonia Lake is a relatively small body of water at 260 acres, but this lake punches well above its weight class when it comes to fishing.
Reeds and other aquatic vegetation grow profusely around the shallow parts of the lake, which also helped it attain status as one of the best bass fishing lakes in Arizona.
One downside is that shore access is somewhat limited. That said, Patagonia Lake State Park does provide some shore access as well as boat launch facilities. With its very manageable size, this is a fun lake to fish from a small craft.
Many anglers target channel cats using dough baits, nightcrawlers or anchovies, and use slip-bobber rigs to detect bites while keeping their bait on or near bottom. The best bite often takes place right around dusk and into the night.
Target shallow areas near a steep drop, and if you’re after flatheads, use a livelier bait.
You never know. True giants are rare, but a 56.2-pound flathead was caught here in 2014, and 30-pounders show up often enough that you’ll want to keep a tight grip on your rod.
Upper Lake Mary
Upper Lake Mary is, along with neighboring Lower Lake Mary, one of the best fishing destinations in the Flagstaff area. Spanning 661 acres, it’s a long, narrow lake with a mostly undeveloped shoreline on National Forest land.
Although flathead catfish aren’t known to swim here, Upper Lake Mary has proven itself to be one of Arizona’s most consistent producers of giant channel catfish.
Arizona’s 37.36 lb. state record channel cat and its 37-inch catch-and-release record both came from Upper Mary Lake.
Almost all of the lakeshore is walkable, which makes this an outstanding place to fish from shore. The bottom drops off swiftly and steadily, so it’s easy to get your bait into deep water without taking your feet off solid ground.
Anchovies and chicken livers are among the preferred baits, but a wide variety of dough baits and stink baits can also be effective. Set up around dusk on a summer evening and let your bait rest on or near the bottom.
Narrows Boat Launch and Picnic Area, located at the narrowest part of the lake, is arguably the best place to start.
A little farther up the shoreline, the Upper Lake Mary Boat Launch and Picnic Area is also a solid option. Camping is available nearby at the Lake View Campground.
From its headwaters in New Mexico, the Gila River flows 649 miles across Arizona until it eventually empties into the Colorado River. The upper part of the river is best known as a treasured native trout stream.
But at lower elevations, the water is warmer and species like catfish thrive. Channel cats are abundant throughout much of the Gila River, and flatheads in the 20-pound class have been caught here as well.
There’s some great fishing in and around the communities of Kearney and Winkelman, where the river is easily walkable. On foot, one can explore the river and find the deep holes that catfish favor.
For the most part, releases from the Coolidge Dam keep the river flowing steadily all year, but summer is still the season when the water is lowest.
That makes deep holes containing catfish easier to find and identify. It’s possible to stumble on a hole with 50 or more cats all huddled together.
San Carlos Lake
San Carlos Lake is a bit of a wild card. When it’s full, it encompasses over 19,000 acres, making it one of the biggest lakes in Arizona.
It’s also an amazing catfish lake… when it’s full. The problem is, this lake has proven notoriously fickle and prone to wild fluctuations.
When the water is drawn down below a certain level, the lake becomes a muddy pit and there just isn’t enough oxygen to go around. Drastically low water levels have resulted in fish kills numerous times over the years, including some particularly bad ones in 2012 and 2021.
Even so, catfish are more resilient than most fish, and populations will rebound as they always do. San Carlos Lake has produced state record flathead catfish in the past, and in all likelihood, it will be a trophy fishery again.
One benefit of the lake’s frequent drawdowns is that, when water is low, brush and small trees have a chance to grow on the lakebed. When the water rises again, they are flooded and become excellent fish habitat.
When the water is up, there’s excellent catfish action in the San Carlos and Gila River inlets, as well as Willow Creek, Blue Cove and the aptly-named Catfish Bay.
Don’t write off San Carlos Lake; it always has a chance to bounce back.