Catfish Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips

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Catfish are spread across the entire country and offer a fun angling experience, ranging from easy to challenging.

In some ways, catfish are among the most underrated game fish out there. 

There are some species of catfish that can grow to enormous size and put up a great fight, and one or more catfish types can be targeted almost anywhere in the U.S. where there is warm enough water.  

In this guide, you’ll learn everything from catfishing basics like species identification to what baits, rod types, and techniques to get you out on the water catching fish.

Types of Catfish in America

Catfish are prevalent in many waters across the country. Targeting them can lead to great fights, fast action, and great eating.

The following are four catfish species you may be able to catch near you.

Channel Catfish

columbia river channel catfish
Photo courtesy of the Oregon Bass & Panfish Club

Channel cats are very widely located across the country. They can be found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and ponds.

While channel catfish can live in very murky water, they often prefer clean, clear waters.

Most channel cats fall into the 3- to 10-pound range. They can get larger, with 15- to 20-pounders or larger showing up on occasion.

The size and fight of these fish warrant a sturdy medium-heavy action rod with a 12- to 20-pound test braid or monofilament line. Heavier tackle might be warranted when catching larger fish in heavier currents and around line-breaking habitat.

While they might not be the biggest of the catfish, channel catfish are the most commonly targeted, thanks to their healthy populations and excellent table qualities, especially for catfish medium-sized specimens like the ones you’ll also find in restaurants and grocery stores.

Chicken livers, cut fish, shrimp, worms and commercial stink baits all work well on channel cats. Try dough balls with corn as well.

Even lures often employed for bass and other species will catch these active feeders.

Flathead Catfish

Flathead catfish can be big, solitary, hard to find and more selective than other catfish species. Once found and hooked, they put up an incredible fight that makes the search worthwhile. 

Flatheads are native throughout the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River basins. They have been planted in several other waters across the country. In some areas, they are considered an invasive species.

Flatheads can get up to 100 pounds, though some have been even a bit bigger. 

Learn this fish’s local habits for the best chance of success.

Flatheads tend to hole up in cover during the day, and you’ll have to pinpoint them to catch them.

However, these big fish tend to leave their cover at night to actively hunt, so that is when many anglers will try to lure them in with some tasty bait.

Blue Catfish

Blue cats are the biggest U.S. catfish, even bigger than flatheads. For example, the record was a huge 143 pounds. 

Blues are not only bigger than flatheads, in many places they are also far more numerous. Fishing for blues can be pretty fast action, and you may occasionally hook into a giant.  

The geographic range for blue cats is very similar to flatheads, though they’re generally in deeper waters in river sections and lakes. 

Look for stronger currents when targeting blues. They hang out on the bottom of fast-moving currents and ambush their passing prey.

Monster blues tend to be active during the day in a strong current and at night in slower waters. 

Bullheads

The bullhead catfish is the most plentiful variety of catfish in the country, and they also get the least respect from anglers.

Bullheads are found in rivers, ponds, lakes and reservoirs in pretty much every state and from the Canadian boundary to the Mexican border.

Bullheads are smaller than their cousins and typically average a pound or less. It’s rare to catch one over 16 inches.

Identifying bullheads is pretty straightforward. The upper jaw hangs over the lower, the tail is squarish rather than noticeably forked, and the adipose fin is a small lobe not connected to the tailfin at all.

Bullheads have spines in their fins that can inject poison, though not a dangerous amount. It registers about the same as a bee sting, unless you get deeply stabbed and then the wound is painful.

The most plentiful versions of bullheads are the brown bullhead, black bullhead and yellow bullhead. There are a handful of less common types.

While they are prevalent in many waters, anglers tend to target other fish. Bullheads can make great live bait for bigger fish in the area, such as blue cats and any other aggressive, toothy predators.

When targeting bullheads, fish in the evening and at night. They become active in cooler temperatures and can provide pretty fast catching action, which makes them ideal for new anglers to hone their skills.

Bullheads eat almost anything. If you can get whatever bait you choose to stay on the hook, you’ll have a good chance of catching one. Try nightcrawlers, stinkbait, dough balls with corn, or anything else that resembles something edible.

Bullhead catfish aren’t as prized for eating as their fellow catfish species, partly due to their smaller size.

Also, their taste isn’t as reliably good as, say, channel catfish. However, I’ve caught bullheads in cleaner and often cooler waters that were quite tasty. (My rule of thumb is, if the water doesn’t smell good, don’t expect the catfish to taste good.)

Also note that bullheads can tend to overpopulate some waterways, stunting their own growth and drastically reducing the capacity of some lakes to grow other types of game fish. Some fish biologists have poisoned entire lakes to rid them of bullheads, and then restocked the lake with preferred game fish.

Gearing Up for Catfish

The rod, reel and other tackle you choose for catfish fishing will depend greatly on the type of catfish you’re trying to catch. Here are some good ideas.

Channel Catfish 

Channel cats are the most widely sought after of the catfish. They are in plenty of waters around the country and provide a fun fight once hooked.

The most critical things to consider when targeting channel catfish are:

The rod and reel setup

To catch channel catfish, use a fast action rod that has some bend in the tip and enough backbone to handle the strength of the fish. Channel cats can be targeted with a 6- to 7-foot medium-power rod and a good-quality reel, although you won’t necessarily need new equipment.

Your current bass or trout rod quite likely will do the job, unless there are special conditions.

Beginner anglers can benefit from buying a solid catfishing rod and reel combo set. Combos are generally reliable and less expensive than individual components. When learning to fish, saving money doesn’t hurt.

Line and hooks

Most channel catfish can be caught on 8-pound test. Still, due to the environment they may be living in, it’s not uncommon for anglers to gear up to 15- or 20-pound test monofilament (mono) or braid, with corresponding rods and reels, when fishing in some waters.

If using nightcrawlers or live bait, use circle hooks. For chicken livers, stink baits or any other doughy baits, treble hooks will help you keep the bait on and hook more fish. 

Baits

Channel catfish aren’t usually finicky and will bite on several varieties of bait. Catfish have a heightened ability to smell, so bloody baits and stink baits the release scent into the water work best, but a wide variety of natural and prepared baits will catch these fish.

Try using the following baits for both channel cats and bullheads:

  • Nightcrawlers
  • Hotdog chunks
  • Chicken Livers
  • Crayfish
  • Cut baits like fish and shrimp

Lure fishing for channel catfish can be successful, though they generally bite lures including soft plastics, crankbaits and jigs while the angler is fishing for other species.

Any catfish might bite a lure since they are opportunistic feeders, although fishing with bait is usually better for targeting these species.

Flathead Catfish

Flathead cats typically eat a live bait. Since hookups with flatheads aren’t always easy to get, use the baits that will maximize your chances while minimizing your costs. Dead baits will work, but these simply are not as effective as live baits (where legal).

Targeting flatheads can be productive, but be prepared because it will take more work than catching channels or other catfish. When you arrive at the water, focus on catching baitfish first. Flatheads are going to eat bluegill, sunfish, and even smaller catfish.

A cast net can make quick work of filling the live well.

The rod and reel setup

Flatheads are big and put up an exciting fight. Using gear that isn’t up to the challenge can turn the best day fishing into the worst quickly.Make sure the rod is strong enough to stand up to an angry 100-pound fish, and consider a bait-casting set to handle the load. 

Bait-casting reels are an excellent option for targeting huge cats. The drag is very reliable, and the casting is far more accurate than a spinning reel. If you are fishing for shore, Baitcasters paired with a complementary rod will help you get the bait farther out into deeper water.

Spinning rods and reels work great for channel cats but with flatheads they may end up letting you down when you need it the most. Big fish can put spinning reels through their paces.

Line and hooks

Flatheads and blues can use the same setup. The line should be between 20- and 30-pound test mono or braid.

Circle hooks work great for live bait and make setting the hook easier.

Baits

Try finding the local baitfish to use as live bait. Live bait increases your chances of connecting. Other baits that may work include cut baits like pieces of fish or shrimp, and prepared stink 

Blue Catfish

Thankfully, blues are less picky than flatheads. Oily fish work great for catching blue catfish, whether that bait is dead or alive, although they definitely work better if they aren’t frozen. Try using locally caught live or freshly killed bait for the best results.

A cast net can help you to gather bait more quickly and get on with the business of catching catfish. Use any fish you legally can for bait, and the blues will probably eat it.

The rod and reel setup

The setup for blue catfish is pretty much the same approach used for flatheads. 

Make sure the rod is strong and has the backbone to handle even larger fish, potentially coming near the 150-pound range. Again, baitcaster reels work well for big cats. 

Spinning rods will work as well if they are quite heavy action, perhaps a rod more often used for surf fishing.

Line and hooks

Flatheads and blues can use the same setup. The line should be between 20- and 30-pound test mono or braid. 

As mentioned previously, circle hooks work great for live bait and make setting the hook easier.

Baits

Try finding the local baitfish to use as live bait. Live bait increases your chances of connecting, but blues also are caught on cut fish (especially oily varieties) and prepared dough or stink baits.

How to Catch Catfish

There are several ways to approach catfish fishing, from fly fishing to trolling. However, the two continuously successful methods are drift fishing and still fishing with good bait. When learning how to catch catfish, mastering these techniques will pay dividends right away.

The still-fishing technique is simple. Cast your bait out into the lake or river and wait for something to come along and eat it.

When still-fishing, try different lengths of casts until you know where the best spots are. Sometimes the catfish won’t be much beyond the shoreline, especially when feeding in the shallows at night. Other times, a long cast is the ticket to hooking these whiskered fighters.

Drift fishing is equally easy but requires a boat. Drift your bait under a bobber and wait. At times drift fishing tends to produce more fish, because you’ll cover more water.

Drift fishing works well during all hours of the day, while still fishing tends to be more productive at night.

Channel Catfish

Channel Cats can be found anywhere they can set up in cover. In rivers, they often hold near enough to the current that they can ambush other fish caught in the current. 

Around logs and boulders are good places target in lakes when the catfish are holding. Channel cats don’t care what the cover is and long as it is easy to get into.

In some waters, the catfish will be moving around looking for food and you’ll be able to catch channel cats all day. Other locations will be far stingier, with only night fishing being very productive.

It can be challenging to determine if it’s your first trip to new water, so watch the locals or ask at bait and tackle shops.

Mid-spring water temperatures turn on a switch within channel cats. They become far more active and continuously feed until the spawn takes place at the end of spring, with exact timing depending on local water conditions.

During this period, fishing for channel catfish can be non-stop action all day long. Using cut bait from white bass or other local species is an excellent bait during this time. 

In the summer months, target cats from sundown until around midnight or later, when they are actively feeding, often near shore. You might get a good morning bite as well.

Flathead Catfish

Flathead catfish hang out in deep cover near the current. When they come out of cover to feed, they will move into the current while staying on the bottom. A good technique for catching flatheads is to drift the bait next to the current in river bends.

They tend to stay near but just outside the faster current, but still in cover. Night fishing for flatheads can be more productive.

Flathead fishing tends to be at its peak in spring and fall but they are catchable year-round. In the spring, they are hungry coming out of their slow feeding winter. In the fall, they are busy preparing by fattening up for the next winter winter, which makes them easier to catch.

Blue Catfish

Blue catfish are active hunters when feeding. In lakes, they will move between the bottom and open water throughout the day. In rivers, big blues like to hold in bends and at river confluences. Either way, be prepared to move around until you find the best holding spots.

In rivers, cast your bait just above the hole you are targeting and the bait’s scent will flow down and attract the feeding fish.

Deeper holes will hold fish that don’t want to deal with the primary current. 

Mid-spring through later fall is the most active season for blue cats. They are particularly active in mid-to-late spring and fall.

Warming water temperatures cause baitfish and predators to move into shallow water at the ends of reservoirs and lakes and also into shallower sections of rivers in spring.

While other game fish may be in the shallows between February and May, depending on location, temperatures eventually push fish such as walleyes and bass to deeper waters. But blue catfish tend to stay in the shallower water until they spawn, which typically takes place in June. 

Bullheads

Bullheads are the most abundant and easiest to catch catfish. They can be called mudcats, bull cats, bulls, and many other names. The art of catching bullhead requires the angler to equip bait and cast it in the water’s direction. Wait, set the hook, and reel in bullhead.

Seriously though, the best tactics for bullheads is basically delivering the bait in the right area of the lake or river to attract them.

Bullheads are the easiest to find in the evening and night, though they can be caught throughout the day.  

Like their cousins, bullheads are most active in mid-spring and fall. They are consistent biters in warmer weather, though they can also be caught ice fishing while targeting other fish.

Keep in mind that other catfish do eat bullheads, so using them as live bait is always an option.