Catfishing is a simple undertaking. Maybe that’s why catfish anglers are the fastest-growing segment of the fishing population.
One reason for this popularity is the availability of catfish in North America. At least one species of catfish swims in more than 95 percent of the fresh and coastal waters of the United States, almost all of them non-finicky, easily caught, hard-fighting and tasty.
The “big three” are channel, blue and flathead catfish and 20-pounders aren’t uncommon for any of these species. Flatheads and blues can top 100 pounds, and 50-pounders are relatively common in the better waters they inhabit.
Rig For Big
Think sturdy when selecting a catfishing rig. A 7- or 8-foot medium-weight saltwater rod – in spinning or bait-casting – is about right for most waters, although you can get by with standard bass-fishing tackle if you’re fishing an area where the fish aren’t likely to weigh more than 10 pounds – a farm pond or stream, for example.
Use 20-pound line minimum, even for smaller fish. Cats have sandpaper teeth around their lips, and they can saw through light line in a hurry. Also, many of the best catfishing spots are full of submerged brush, rocks and other cover.
Don’t scrimp on hooks. Catfish are strong, and they can straighten out thin-wire hooks quicker than you can tie new ones on. Use stainless steel hooks in sizes 1/0 to 5/0.
Where To Fish
Catfish will seek out a number of different habitats, and though they generally stay in or around the same areas, actual location depends on time of year, time of day, prevailing weather patterns and the preferences of each catfish species. However, there are a few good rules of thumb for finding cats in rivers, streams, reservoirs, lakes and ponds.
In rivers, catfish tend to congregate below dams and wing dams, or around rock jetties, pilings and other structure that breaks the current. Drop-offs just below a sandbar are often excellent spots as well.
On smaller streams, look for scour holes underneath the outside, overhanging bank where the stream bends, or fish in the pools below rapids or riffles. The mouth of a smaller stream pouring into a larger one is often a hotspot.
In reservoirs, look for steep drop-offs where a flat area drops into a creek channel, and fish the deeper water. The dam is another common fish magnet, as are rip-rap banks built from rocks of various sizes. For natural lakes, try deep holes away from shore, ideally with some sort of vegetation present. In farm ponds, start fishing in the deepest water, usually found near the dam.
Channel catfish are the perfect fish for youngsters.
Think Stink For Channel Cats
Channel catfish, native to the Mississippi River drainage and the Great Lakes, have been introduced successfully from coast to coast. Unlike a bass or pike, which rely more on vision and hearing when feeding, channel cats rely most on their sense of smell. They’ll eat everything from grapes to Ivory soap, but among the most effective baits are live or dead minnows, shad, nightcrawlers, crawfish, goldfish, mussels, shrimp, liver, chicken guts and commercial or homemade stinkbait. Even dog food, marshmallows, corn and hot dogs (and yes, Ivory soap) have been successfully used by many anglers. In general, if it smells bad – or at least strong – chances are it will catch channel cats.
The channel cat is a warm-weather fish and prefers water temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees F. They don’t exactly go dormant in the winter, but their metabolism slows drastically and they become much harder to catch.
Blue Water For Blue Cats
Blue catfish occur in at least 30 states, but they’re most common in the major rivers of the Missouri, Ohio and Mississippi river drainages. They’ve been introduced into Washington, Arizona and California. Blue catfish commonly reach 20 or more pounds, and the world record, from Tennessee’s Cumberland River, weighed 112 pounds. Commercial fishermen hit these fish hard, and trophies are now rare in most waters. Still, in good habitat, a 50-pound fish is well within the realm of possibility.
Big blues can be taken all year round, even in frigid water.
If you want to catch blues, fish big streams. They generally prefer clearer, faster water than other cats, and are usually found over a gravel or sand bottom. Use live bait. Blue cats, especially big ones, feed mostly on shad, herring and other schooling baitfish, and they move around in search of these food items. Other good baits include crawfish, goldfish and, where legal, small bluegills or other sunfish. Unlike other catfish, you’ll often find blues in open water and heavy current.
Blues, unlike channel cats, are active through the winter, as long as they can find water temperatures of 40 degrees or more. They tend to gather in large schools in winter, holding in deep, well-oxygenated water near rip-rap, logs or other bottom structure.
The Ugly Cousin
The flathead catfish is a bizarre-looking creature with an immense mouth and lips, flattened head, small eyes and mottled skin. This species inhabits large rivers and impoundments throughout the middle third of the country, from eastern Colorado to the Blue Ridge Mountains and from South Dakota to Mexico. They’re seldom found in small creeks or ponds. It’s the largest of the big three, with a world-record of 123 pounds.
Although their looks would lead you to believe otherwise, flatheads are active, efficient predators and eat very little dead meat. The best baits are live crawfish, live sunfish and live goldfish. Flatheads like quieter water than blues or channel cats. Fish for them in deep, sluggish pools near logs, overhanging banks or other cover.
Do It In The Dark
All three major catfish species feed mostly during dim-light periods or at night. You can catch them in bright light, but fish early, late and at night if possible. A lantern in the boat or on the shore beside you provides plenty of light for baiting hooks and watching rod tips, and catfish don’t seem to be bothered by the light.
Rig by tying a bell sinker large enough to hold in whatever current you’re fishing, 2 to 3 feet above your hook, so the bait can swing freely in the current near the bottom. After the cast, reel the line tight and prop the rod up so you can watch both the line and rod tip. (Be sure the rod butt is braced well, though – more than one catfisherman has had an unsecured rod yanked into the drink by a hard-hitting cat.)
Many fishermen rig two or more rods (where legal), using a different bait on each one until they figure out what’s working best. Check state regulations first; some states only allow one or two rods per angler.
When you get a bite, don’t be in too big a hurry to set the hook. Sometimes a catfish will snatch it and go, but often they’ll play with the bait a little while first. When the rod tip gives its first good dip is the time to drive the hook home.
Good in the Water and on the Table
Catfish are prime eating, and the ways to fix them are bounded only by imagination. Fried catfish is hard to beat, though. Here’s how: Skin and fillet the fish and cut it in pieces 1 inch thick. Soak in cold, salty water to firm the flesh. Add ice if you’re in a hurry, but it’s important to get the fish cold before you cook it. When the flesh is firm, drop the pieces into a paper bag containing yellow corn meal and your favorite seasonings. (Good choices are Cavender’s All-Purpose Greek Seasoning, Tony Chachere’s or Zatarain’s Cajun seasoning, garlic salt, table salt, lemon pepper, thyme, oregano, rubbed sage and celery salt, in any combination.)
Heat a deep pan of peanut oil until the corn meal sizzles when dropped into it. Add the fish and get them out as soon as the first piece begins to show signs of floating. Three to four minutes should be long enough if the oil is properly hot. Serve with French fries, soft-fried onions, hush puppies and your favorite “cereal malt beverage.” If a meal like that won’t make a catfisherman of you, nothing will.