How to Catch Catfish: Reel in The Monster

How to Catch Catfish
Written by Neal Walker

Among the many skills necessary to ensure your survival should the worst happen, fishing ranks very high. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you will feed him for life. Or so the saying goes.

Truer words are rarely spoken. To be able to fish is to be capable of providing a delicious and nutritious food source. While this is great in itself, in a survival situation it may just save you and your family’s lives.

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There are many great fish out there and catfish are among some of the most prized in the world of angling. They can grow to huge sizes, are for the most part plentiful throughout the States and best of all they’re delicious.

He who knows how to catch catfish knows the thrill of the chase and the struggle.

They are by no means the easiest fish to catch and will put up a fight, but when you land one the effort is well worth it. While they are not easy to catch we will discuss some tips that will make the task far more manageable.

Catch Catfish

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It’s important to know your prey, how it behaves, where it generally hangs out and when. We’ll also look at the equipment required and the methods used to catch them.

Three Common Catfish

Fishing for catfish becomes a whole lot easier when you know what you’re up against. Catfish is a rather broad term that encompasses several species around the world.

These differ drastically from the tiny moth catfish to the huge Mekong giant. However, when folks in the States talk about catfish they are generally referring to three common types;

  • The Blue catfish
  • The Flathead catfish
  • The Channel catfish

These are all fairly common throughout the United States and they are all edible. They all thrive in freshwater but some species are able to survive in slightly salty, brackish waters as well. As we discuss how to fish for catfish, we will concentrate on the three aforementioned species.

The Blue catfish

This is the largest catfish in the United States. They can grow up to 65” long and weigh in at up to 150lb. Do not expect every blue catfish you catch to be a monster of epic proportions, there are plenty of smaller ones out there.

The Blue catfish

While they’re native to the Mississippi river drainage, they have been introduced to many other waterways and lakes throughout the Southern States and can even be found along the Gulf coast. Their name derives from the bluish gray hue of their skin which generally sets them apart from other species.

They also have the classic whiskers (barbels), a dorsal hump and a protruding upper jaw.

Contrary to popular belief catfish are predators rather than bottom feeders and the blue catfish will hunt and enjoy a varied diet. This can include smaller fish and baitfish, frogs, and freshwater mussels among other things. They have few predators other than man and can live up to 20 years.

The Flathead catfish

Flatheads are the second largest species in the States, weighing up to 125lbs and measuring up to 61”. They are ferocious predators and will feed on more or less anything smaller than them and as such respond well to live bait.

The Flathead catfish

They are found all over the country, mostly in lakes and large, slow flowing rivers. They can also be found in brackish waters. Be warned as these monsters put up a hell of a fight when they’re being caught. They are well worth the effort, however, as they are considered by many to be the tastiest species.

The Channel catfish

The Channel catfish may not be the largest species but they are the most common and the species most often fished. They can be found in the lower regions of Canada, the Northern and Eastern States and as far south as North Mexico.

They too thrive in lakes in both large and smaller rivers and hunt with their keen sense of smell. Depending on where one is in the country, the average size differs. For example in Texas, a 10lbs Channel cat would be considered large. See our various river fishing tips for your reference.

However, further North people regularly take home specimens over 20lbs. The maximum weight would typically be between 40 and 50lbs. These are the easiest of the three to catch and don’t require any specialist equipment, making them a popular target.

Understanding Catfish

All three species of catfish share several traits and it is important to have an understanding of these. This will help you figure out what makes your prey tick and how you can manipulate their behavior to work to your advantage.

  • Catfish have exceedingly keen senses in comparison to other fish.
  • They are able to taste with their entire body, with the barbels or whiskers being highly sensitive.
  • They have an incredible sense of smell.
  • They are able to hear and sense vibrations and thus are able to pick out high frequencies. This ability enables them to know exactly where a sound is coming from and how far away it is
  • While they do not rely on their eyesight it is actually quite good despite what many people will tell you.
  • They are able to communicate using drumming sounds or stridulation (similar to a cricket chirping).
  • Some species are able to defend themselves by using their stiff spine like rays to stab. Others are able to sting with these spikes. While the three species mentioned can use their spines they do not have stings. Generally, only smaller specimens will be capable of puncturing the skin.
  • Due to their heavy, bony head and reduced gas bladder, catfish are more likely to sink than float. This possibly contributes to the myth that catfish are bottom feeders.
  • Catfish are not strictly nocturnal, but many anglers swear that they are more active in the night and early morning.
  • They are predators and hunt smaller fish and frogs among other things.

With a basic understanding of how catfish behave, we are already able to plot their capture.

Understanding Catfish

For example, consider their keen sense of smell and taste and we can imagine that certain baits may work well. We will look at this further in a little bit. Check out our review of the best catfish bait to ensure a hefty catch.

Where and When to Catch Catfish?

We can have as deep an understanding of the catfish as is possible. However without knowing where or when to catch them we are still a little stuck. As previously mentioned, they are common throughout the States and you’d be hard pushed to find a State at least one species is not found in.

But we can surely narrow things down a bit. Well, they are freshwater fish and can be found in lakes, ponds, rivers and even streams. Some species are also able to survive in brackish waters and may be found where rivers empty into the sea.

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The different species will have slight preferences in some situations as to where they will dwell but in general they all inhabit similar areas. Be aware however that one day a particular spot might be great, but you may have zero luck in the exact same spot again.

Catfish, like most fish, tend to move about and may not always return to the same area. Do not despair, however, there are certain things one can look out for, as catfish do have their favorite types of environments.

Structure and cover

These terms are often used when talking about where to find catfish. Structure relates to the physical geography of the area, such as river bends, bumps, dips etc. Cover on the other hand describes additional features, such as reeds, docks, fallen timber and overhanging trees among others.

Catfish fishing guide

When talking about structure, catfish are quite fond of all of it, but in particular irregularities. Scan a body of water and seek out oddities such as where a tributary joins a river and you are bound to find some catfish lurking.

As far as cover goes look out for lily pads, timber, weedy areas, and muddy waters. Flatheads are particularly fond of more dense and complex cover paired with irregularities in the structure.

Water depth

While many anglers associate catfish with the murky depths, shallow waters can hold many catfish, small and large. For much of the year, these shallow waters are a great place to find even trophy catfish. In spring, Blue catfish, in particular, are common in shallow waters.

With this in mind, catfish are not by any means limited to shallow waters and can be found at a variety of depths. They are not always at the very bottom either and even experienced anglers often neglect the mid-depth waters, missing out on many opportunities.

Indications that catfish are lurking

Look out for visible cues that can indicate that catfish are near. This includes the food that their food eats. For example, most catfish enjoy shad for supper.

Shad, in turn, enjoys plankton. So if you see plankton, there is a good chance that catfish are nearby. Cormorants are also worth looking out for. These fish-eating birds are another good indicator of catfish action.

When to catch catfish

There is no particular season when it comes to fishing for catfish and in most areas they can be fished all year round. If you’re seeking Blue or Channel catfish, late fall and the winter months can be more productive than other times of the year in warmer climates.

When to catch catfish

For Flatheads try during fall, since this is the time they are eating more to gain weight over winter. Many anglers will insist that the best fishing is done at night or early morning and that catfish are more active.

This may be true, but that hasn’t stopped a great many anglers catching huge amounts of fish during the day. Finally, windy days are a good time try your luck. Not only does the wind aerate the water, it also concentrates plankton and baitfish. To determine the best times fish, see our article on this timely topic.

You are able to monitor the movement of plankton easier allowing you to track the movements of shad and catfish.

Methods of Catching Catfish

Now that we know what we’re up against and where and when to try our luck it’s finally time to learn how to go about getting the catfish out of the water and onto your plate.

There are several methods to do this and we will focus on the three most common.

  • Using a rod and line
  • Using a trap
  • Noodling

Using a rod and line

This is perhaps the most common method used by catfish hunters and also the method that requires the most equipment.

Using a rod and line

Like any other form of angling, a baited hook is cast into the water and when a bite is felt the fish is reeled in. That’s it in a nutshell at least, in practice, there is a little more to it. You will need the following equipment;

  • A rod: the choice of rod is of course down to the individual and the species and size of fish to be caught. For smaller catfish, such as the Channel, a medium or medium light spinning rod should be sufficient. See our expert review of the best backpacking fly rod to better equip you for a great catch. If you’re looking to hook a bigger specimen aim for a medium heavy spinning rod. The rod should be at least seven foot long with a strong backbone. It should also have sufficient flex. A more rigid rod will be harder to use. The larger the handle the better, in particular when fishing for larger catfish.
  • A line: again the choice of line depends on what you’re fishing. As a general rule of thumb a 12 – 14lb abrasion resistant monofilament line will be okay for Channels and smaller catfish. For larger Blues or Flatheads go for a line between 20 and 30lbs. A colored, high visibility line is useful and enables you to monitor slight movements with ease.
  • A reel: it simply isn’t worth skimping on a reel. A cheap reel is a temporary solution and will not last long. Instead spend a bit of money on a good quality reel, especially if you want to catch a monster. Look for a smooth drag system, ball bearings and if you really want to spoil yourself a bait clicker or alarm.
  • Bait: as with any type of fishing the best bait to use is fiercely debated (no pun intended). It is worth remembering that the catfish we are after are all predators.
    As such live bait is rather effective, especially on Flatheads. Fortunately, catfish eat a wide variety of food affording us many options. Live worms, grasshoppers, minnows and other baitfish such as shad are popular and by all means effective.
    Cut fish can also work as the oils released are attractive to a hungry catfish. It is widely agreed that the best bait is fresh rather than frozen and it’s excellent practice to catch your bait in the area you mean to catch catfish.
    Artificial baits suffer mixed responses with some swearing by them and others refusing to use them. Overly potent artificial baits may not actually be appealing to a catfish. Bear in mind their super sensitive sense of smell.
    Channel catfish seem to respond best to artificial bait. Punch baits are naturally created pungent concoctions that seem to have some success.
    Often a mix of blood, guts, cheese and other secret ingredients, the hook is punched into the mix and coated in it. This appears to be too much for some catfish to resist.
  • Hooks: the type of hook used is important. It will need to be tough enough to puncture the thick skin of a catfish and large enough to loop around the lip. Very sharp, thick, heavy duty circle hooks are great. Ensure the gap is large and not blocked when bait is attached.
  • Rod holder: an essential piece of kit unless you want to stand around waiting for a bite. Using rod holders also allows you to set up several rods.
  • Floats and weights: If this is to be your first fishing expedition, a starter tackle box can be bought which should provide the weights and floats you will need.

The actual method is fairly straightforward.

  • Attach bait to hook and set up rod and line.
  • Use weights and floats if necessary – this depends on conditions as well as the structure.
  • Cast your line into an appropriate location.
  • Use a tight lining technique to keep your line tight. The rod can be rested on the rod holder at this point.
  • When you get a bite, slacken the line slightly then quickly reel it in.
  • If fishing from the shore, use your space and walk back while reeling in, try to avoid allowing the line to go slack.
  • Once it is at the surface continue to pull it toward you, or a fishing buddy can attempt to pull it out by hand or net. Just beware of the spines when using only your hands and consider wearing thick gloves.
  • Check that the size fits in with local restrictions and regulations.

This method can be used from a boat or from the shore. If fishing from a boat it is important that the boat is well anchored. Two anchors are best and ensure the boat is facing the wind to reduce movement further.

One final tip is to use a fish rattle on your line. The noise created will be heard by inquisitive catfish that may not already be in the area.

Using a trap

This is a far easier and far more affordable method. The trap itself is pretty straightforward and you can even make your own. Essentially the trap consists of a length of pipe fitted with two “throats”. Otherwise known as slat traps, these allow the fish to enter but not escape.

The benefits of using a trap are that you can leave it in one place and return for it later. Plus you can leave several in various locations. Be aware that in some areas traps are not legal. Always check the local restrictions.

Using a trap

Simply locate a good area, fill your trap with bait as discussed above and weight the trap if needs be. Set it in the water, attach a line or rope to a float so that you can find it later. Next thing to do is cross your fingers and wait. When you return for it, see how successful you were. Again ensure any fish that don’t meet regulations are returned.


The final method is perhaps the most dangerous and foolish method and in some States, it is not even legal.

Traditionally, however, it was a popular method in particular in the Southern States. Noodling basically involves catching a catfish with just your bare hands. This is no mean feat, especially as feisty Flatheads are targeted.

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However, in a survival situation, you may not be afforded the luxury of equipment and this may be the only way to eat. No equipment or bait is required, just a certain amount of bravery. This method is always far safer with a buddy to act as a spotter.

  • As Flathead catfish live in holes they are easy to capture.
  • The noodler must dive underwater, sometimes up to 20 feet to locate a catfish hole.
  • Once a hole is discovered, the noodler places their hand in the hole.
  • The fish should dart forward and latch onto the hand.
  • The gills can then be grabbed and the fish can be pulled to the surface.
  • Your buddy then helps you pull it onto the shore.

It sounds simple enough, in theory, however, it’s a very dangerous practice. Clothes, limbs or even hair can catch on rocks or a number of other objects, trapping you underwater. Drownings are not uncommon. Noodlers will often suffer minor injuries from manhandling a catfish and some may find it difficult to swim back up with a large fish attached to their arm.

Gloves should certainly be worn to aid against cuts, bites, and infections. The final danger comes from other aquatic forms of life in the area. Crocodiles, snakes, and even beavers may not hesitate to attack. It’s best to attempt this only if there are no other options and one finds oneself in an extreme situation.

Quick Catch Up

It is certainly true that fishing is a fantastic skill to acquire but as with any practical skill practice makes perfect.

Now that you are aware of how a catfish behaves, where it thrives and when the best time to catch it is, along with a better knowledge of how to do so and the equipment required, you can get out there.

Catfish fishing tips

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Head to the river or the lake, keep an eye on the cover and structure of the waterways and look for telltale signs of catfish feeding. Remember to seek out cormorants, reeds and thick cover. Make the most of windy days and early mornings.

Select your bait carefully and you can’t go wrong. Just be prepared for a struggle if you go after the larger specimens. All in all, it is worth starting with the smaller Channel catfish to get a feel for it. These make a great supper as well even if they’re not so big.

With a great taste and a plentiful stock, it is a fantastic fish to eat. Plus they are very high in vitamin D and as such are well worth the effort.

What’s your best catfishing technique and what’s the biggest you’ve caught? Let us know in the comments.


Neal Walker

Neal Walker started fishing when he was 4. His father took him to the fishing trips all over USA and Canada. Later he took Angling Education Program at Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, but most of his knowledge comes from experience. Now he takes his sons with him to share his passion.