Some fish are special in the eyes of the world's anglers. Some gain notoriety by being really tough to catch; others by their sheer beauty, some because they're easy to catch, and some because of how tasty they are. While America's catfish will not win any beauty contests in our lifetime, and seem hideous compared to, let's say a Peacock bass, they are on the list of most popular species. There have been songs written about catching catfish, there are reality television shows about sticking your arm into the mouth of a 50-pounder while it's sleeping in its underwater lair, and big money is spent on catfish. But underneath it all is a challenging, tasty, and in many ways attractive (albeit slimy) fish. One worth catching. This general article about catching catfish will not include every secret about how to catch catfish, and will never take the place of time on the water, but it's a good place to start.
Where to Catch Catfish
For readers with experience in both fresh and saltwater, the saltwater variety of our catfish are not seen as a fish you are dying to catch. They are not eaten (although the gaff topsail is quite edible), they have stiff barbed fins that will poison you if you're unlucky enough to step on one or grab one the wrong way, they produce a slime unlike any known creature, and they are quick to eat bait intended for other, more desirable species.
Where you will likely catch catfish depends on the bottom structure, water movement (or lack thereof) with certain species preferring mucky, stagnant water and others able to feed in brackish water. Like all fish, catfish can be found more often at structure or in places their particular food sources are likely to be found. But catfish roam around on the bottom more than any other species we know of, so baits and time in the water are critical.
People who really know the fish and catch them on open bottom are probably right in thinking that the fish come out and roam around the mud when they're feeding, but during times other than those “roam times” they are likely to be around structure like stumps, trees, holes, river bends, walls, sunken boats, and anything else that create shade near the bottom.
That said, certain catfish – and there are a number of them out there – tend to spend time in regular spots.
Flatheads are found in the Apalachicola and Escambia rivers around the Panhandle. They have flat heads, tiny eyes, and their lower jaw is longer than their top jaw – something unusual for species that eat on the bottom. They are yellowish with brown tints, and their stomach is cream colored. They like moving water. Find good structure where the water is moving and put baits low in the water column.
These relatively large catfish show a hump just in front of their dorsals. They're blue/gray and also found in the northwestern part of Florida. You can catch them along with flatheads in the Escambia, but they're also in the Suwannee. They like clear, moving water and sandy bottoms. River edges, damns, sea walls, rips (those angled walls of small stone used to diminish erosion on river turns) and estuaries hold the fish.
Channels (Ictalurus punctatus) are common all over Florida and look like Blue catfish except their anal fins are round, and they often have black dots on their backs. They behave the same way and are often caught on the same trip in the same place with the same baits.
You can catch Bullhead catfish (brown and yellow versions) pretty much anywhere in Florida except the southern canals and Everglades, where it is not common. Something to think about is that they like slow-moving or even still water, and love the mud. You will find them on sandy bottoms but more often they're in mucky bottoms. That means you will catch them in small bays, small pockets, and deeper holes in water that is relatively muddy compared to surrounding waters. They're great fish to catch in lakes and even small ponds if they're deep enough.
These light-colored catfish are found all over the state, but definitely prefer water that is moving. They also can handle more salinity than some of our other catfish, and can be found in some of the same southern canals that empty into the saltwater of places like Biscayne Bay. They are primarily fish-eaters, but in warmer waters eat plenty of larvae, bugs, and anything else with sufficient protein. They are nocturnal feeders like many of the catfish.
This invasive species is found in some of our southern waters and is a native of Pakistan, Eastern India and Bangladesh, with some in Thailand. They were introduced for some strange reason in the early sixties and are able to breathe out of the water. You will catch them by accident sometimes when fishing for indigenous catfish.
Best Catfish Tackle
The best tackle to use for catfish is the tackle you have, but in general there are two schools of thought for catfish tackle:
Spinning Tackle for Catfish
Spinning Tackle for catfish is probably the most popular if you took a big survey. A short rod – six feet, let's say, will work just fine, but since you're going to be bottom fishing, you're going to use relatively heavy leads (weights) if you're fishing in water that's moving fairly well (very good catfish fishy spots for most species), and you're likely to hook one once in a while that can move you from the spot you're standing on.
So we tend to suggest you use somewhat heavier, longer tackle. The rod should be fairly 'soft' too, bending more towards the center of the rod when you whip it in the air than just the tip – something we look for in rods that are going to be used for artificial baits. Since you're going to be using natural baits – and for the bigger fish live baits – a rod that does not have too much 'snap' is better. That means a medium-action, medium weight rod about seven or seven-and-a-half foot. There are lots of models and reels that go along with them, and for more detailed information about rod selection and a range of manufacturers, check out our article about Rods and Reels for Catching Catfish.
Conventional Rods for Catfish
If you have already read that article (Rods and Reels) you've learned all you want to learn about rods for catfish, and also learned that many very serious catfish anglers prefer 'conventional' rods. Conventional rods and reels are ones that have a reel that looks like a spool, and sits on the top of the rod, not the bottom like they do on spinning tackle. The rods are either 'flat' or they show a 'pistol' grip, a design that sits the reel further down in the axis of the rod blank.
Both flat and pistol grip rods are normally paired with a 'level-wind' reel, which controls how the retrieved line is positioned on the spool. Conventional gear is tougher to use than spinning tackle, but offers considerably more accuracy when you're casting, distance (if you're good), and the leverage factor that the top-seated reel provides is beyond compare. If you're looking to catch the real beasts of the Catfish world, learn to use conventional gear – you're more likely to actually catch them and not just fight them for a while before they break off.
When to Catch Catfish
Catfish feed in the daytime, but they are also prone to feed when the sun goes down and the lights go out. Spend time fishing for them at night, and you're going to increase the odds of becoming one of those nuts that fish for nothing but catfish. We love you all, so it's OK if you smell like catfish slime.
In the Springtime and Fall, catfish feed more often than they do in the heat of summer or in the deep winter. They feed all year though, so fishing when it's dark is smart in the summer (it's cool on otherwise sweltering days) and a bit challenging in the Wintertime. But as stated, they feed all year long and being a nocturnal angler will put you on more fish, and put more tasty fish on the hot griddle in your kitchen.
Baits and Lures for Catfish
You can put stinky bait on just about anything, and that includes spoons, jigs, and even spinner baits. All of them have been used – and are even recommended – by people who catch more catfish than we will ever catch in ten lifetimes. But those diehard plastic and metal addicts aside, we believe – and statistics probably would support the belief – that catfish are way more likely to eat something that is natural, stinks to high heaven, and feels right when they stick their slimy mouths onto the bait. So try lures, but if you do consider putting something on them.
- Stinky Strip Baits (commercially available).
- Stinky Chunks of Dead Fish.
- Live fish. Catfish love golden shiners and shad even if they're still alive. The biggest fish are often caught on live baits.
- Mixtures that should not be around your living quarters. There are recipes that call for rotten mullet heads mixed with Velveeta cheese, which we think is grosser than most things. But they work. There are even little plastic lures to hold stinky dip baits. Go for it if you're brave and live alone. Otherwise be careful.
- Soap. Yes, soap. It's often mixed into the horrific organic materials used to catch catfish, and it even works slipped onto a hook. Try Ivory.
- Hot Dogs. If you're starving you can eat them yourself, but we recommend you not eat them if you've dipped them in catfish attractors of any sort.
- Cheese. Goes with the hot dogs.
Summary of Catching Catfish...
Catfish are big, slimy, challenging, and tasty fish. They can get huge, which explains why they often find themselves the stars of viral videos. But all in all they swim all over the world, they are challenging to consistently catch and harvest, they make for great table fare, and will always have a special place in the hearts of the world's anglers.