Catfish have been around for a long time. For now we're talking about freshwater catfish, but in many archeological sites around Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, several species of catfish represented the primary food source in the middens (garbage heaps) and fire pits. These included bullhead catfish from saltwater – so catfish have been in the diets and on the target list of a lot of anglers seeking both food and sport. Every state in the Union holds the fish, and many of the techniques are the same regardless of where you are catching them.
Here are the best tips we've gotten from our own experiences as well as from our field contributors, forum members, and professional guides that contribute to the content every day.
Top 10 Tips for Catching Catfish
1. Move around until you find the fish.More than any other tip, this one will result in your catching more catfish consistently than any bait, any leader, proper tackle selection, or soap and hot dogs. If you put baits in the water and you do not get strikes, move. Fish where the fish are. The move can be as little as 20 feet from one side of a sunken log pile to the other; it can be as short as a cast in another direction or getting in your car and driving for 20 minutes. But fish were the fish are (eating that day). Catfish anglers often have the habit of sticking their rods in the dirt and staying there all day. What the hell. I had a six-pack to finish off, right?
2. Before you move, try different baits.While we say that the first tip is the most important, before you move try every possible bait you have in the box or sitting outside your car because it smells like a toxic waste dump. Use stinks of different odors, try a hot dog chunk, try earthworms, try dead saltwater shrimp. Catfish consume dead flesh quickly, but they're remarkably picky; sometimes one bait will produce and another one ignored. Change baits a lot and keep different baits in different places. If you have four different baits and have three rods stuck in holders, try each bait on each rod; do not put three baits on and figure you covered it all. A fish on the left rod might have eaten the hot dog chunk that failed to produce a strike on the rod on the right side of your spot.
3. Understand how catfish behave.In the daylight they hang near and under structure and do not move. If you want to catch a catfish in the daytime, you have to put tasty catfish attractors near structure. Sticks in the water, a shadow of rocks or grass or a sunken Cadillac from the 1950s when cars found freshwater at a remarkable rate, or anything that the fish might be using for concealment. At night the catfish roam around looking for food. Even then, however, they have a natural tendency to move along structure such as ridges, sand edges where the grass starts to grow, drop-offs, sea and rock walls, hanging treelines and anything else the fish might move alongside of is key catfish land. You can put more baits out at night than you can in the day because the fish could be anywhere. Once you catch one, move towards that location with more baits because fish tend to cluster, not school.
4. Use natural baits.Regardless of the wide variety of commercially-constructed stink baits, and special jigs with plastic bodies meant to hold the slimy, sticky, and stinky material, if you talk to the pros – the people who chase the real beast catfish – they catch more big fish on dead baits than they do on live baits. They catch the biggest fish on big live baits – but they catch more monster category fish on dead chunk baits and their second favorite – crickets. Crickets are seasonable, though, so you’ll mainly use chunk baits and use cricks when you can find them. Cut baits used for saltwater – shad in particular (which are the same fresh or salt) are great chunk baits, So, too are threadfin, chunks of jack crevalle, and pinfish work too. The oilier the better, as the oil is sniffed by catfish, which eat mostly based on their sense of smell.
5. Know that catfish see and hear very well so be quiet and avoid shadows.You would think that with their barbells, their natural structure which makes them bottom feeders, and the fact that they love stinky baits would mean they do not see very well or hear very much of anything. Not true. Catfish are arguably one of the most vision-sensitive fish in the water. They're prime food when they are young for everything that lives. If the water is clear they can see as far as a trout in a stream according to the scientific community. Ditto their sense of hearing; they can hear as well as anything, and in fact use their sense of hearing to locate baits moving in unnatural ways. Stick a hook through a local baitfish like a shad or golden shiner and put it near a big fat channel cat and see what happens. It was not the stink that got them; it was the sound and sight.
6. Water temps are critical to catching catfish.There are three kinds of fish structure (four actually, but three for this argument). First, there are Superior fish. Their upper jaw is shorter than their bottoms jaws and their eyes are designed to look up. Largemouth bass or snook, for example, are Superiors. Terminal fish are next, with the mackerels and tunas on the top of the list. They are open water predators designed to chase fast baits swimming in front of them. Their top and bottom jaws are the same length and their eyes designed to look forward. The catfish we're talking about are Inferiors. Their mouths are designed to eat off the bottom much the way redfish do. But if the water temps are very hot or very cold, and the bottoms where they're normally found not quite comfortable enough, catfish will be found in the middle and upper portions of the thermoclines (the stratum, or layers of different water temperatures). Try fishing with baits on bobbers floating above the bottom in the water column when the temps are very cold or very hot.
7. Chumming works; try it.There are plenty of saltwater anglers out there that never leave home without a chum block – a frozen brick of ground fish and fish bones that melts in the water and drains slowly (or quickly, depending on the tide) into the water creating a slick. The tiny ground pieces are only enough to attract the fish, which come up the line towards where they think there might be more food. That's when they find your perfect bait and chow down. The same chum blocks will work in a lake or even a river – although they're best positioned behind structure that protects them from the strongest flows. Catfish will come to conventional chum blocks like you can drop for grouper. You can also tie a can of dog food on a string and toss it out. Just do not leave it there. Doing that is illegal and nasty. But chumming the same place for days and even all year is not an uncommon practice in the bayous of Louisiana.
8. Use the right tackle.Although catfish do not school they do tend to cluster with fish of similar sizes. If you try a new bait at a new spot and get ripped off, come back with stronger tackle. Typically we use 10-lb. braided line on spinning rods, but if you are fishing bigger baits in places where one of those 20-lb.channels or blue catfish come and grab it, you're better off with 17-30 lb. braid and flourocarbon leaders.
9. Use good leaders.Fluorocarbon is a must if you want to consistently catch catfish. There are plenty of times when the fish are in murky or muddy water and cannot see an inch where they're eating. But in most conditions the fish can see as far as the water allows – further than most, in fact. Using the invisible leaders will ensure the fish do not decide the bait smells great but looks bad. Use fluorocarbon.
10. Fish all year; catfish are year-round fish.
Most of the time they're on the bottom, hiding during the day and moving around in clusters of similar sized fish at night. A spot that should hold fish but fails to produce in the middle of the summer might be the best producers in the winter. Try natural spots that should hold fish all year four different times; winter, spring, summer and fall. In summer try using bobbers or even balloons like are used for sailfish to move baits into the middle and upper water columns.