How to Catch Catfish

Catching Catfish Tips

Catfish are some of the most popular fish here in America. One of the main reasons that catfish are a top prize for anglers is their wide availability. You can find catfish just about anywhere there is water – no matter if it is a flowing stream, a muddy pond, a clear lake, or a very docile fishing hole, you’re likely to find catfish hiding somewhere. These fish can grow extremely large – the world record is a whopping 646 pounder caught in the Mekong delta in Thailand, though giant American specimens seem to top out around 150 pounds – and are known for their fighting. They don’t fight as hard as a bass, but are still good sport for the angler looking for a challenge.

These odd looking fish get their name from the “whiskers” that sprout around their mouths, though not all species of catfish have this feature. The whiskers are actually called barbels, which are used to detect food. And yes, its true what you heard – catfish can sting you. Spines on the dorsal and pectoral fins can deliver a protein-based venom that smarts like hell, and in some species (none found in America) the venom can put you in the hospital, or even result in death.

The bottom line on catfish for most Southerners is that they’re tasty. Two species in particular, the channel catfish and the blue catfish, are often “farmed” for the purpose of commercial sale, and there are restaurants all over the country, particularly in the Southern states, that prominently feature the light and flaky flesh served up any number of ways. Fried, baked, sautéed, or blackened, the catfish is a true American delicacy.

So you want to get your hands on a few specimen of this mysterious and delicious fish? Because of the odd habits of catfish, they are not a particularly easy fish to catch. They spawn their eggs under logs or other subaquatic structures, and some species even live most of their lives in underwater caves. Most catfish feed nocturnally, and stick to the bottom of a body of water, though they can be caught at middle depths and have even been seen feeding near the surface.

Here are some tips for getting your hands on a slimy, whiskered, beautiful catfish of your very own.

1. Determine the spawning time where you’re going to fish.

How to Catch CatfishThis is not as easy as it may seem – but you’ll have the best luck catching catfish if you fish for them at spawning time. During spawning, they are most active and easiest to locate. You can talk to a local biologist or even a fishing guide to find out when “the best time” for catfish is. More often than not, this “best time” will be during a spawn.

2. Fish around rocky structures

Catfish spawn in rocky underwater areas, and tend to hang out around these features as well. If you’re fishing “blind” (without a fancy sonar or fish finder) you should concentrate your hunt on areas in the lake or river that seem to offer underwater shelter. If you hit on a spawning site, you’ll catch a string full of catfish in no time.

3. Use a topographical map to find underwater contours

Before you head out for your fishing expedition, check out any map showing topographical information (those little swirly concentric circles inside the body of water) and fish near particularly deep areas – especially if these areas are “valleys”, or pockets of deep water surrounded by shallow water. Depth breaks like this are perfect living space for catfish, who prefer to spend most of their time in the deep. Another hot spot for big cats is the underwater channel . . . debris tends to build up around these areas of deep water that run across the body of a lake or a wide river, and catfish love to make their home around debris.

4. Bait your sharpest hook with something smelly

Catfish don’t go for live bait. Some will argue this point, but in my experience, and in the experience of everyone I’ve ever fished with, you’ll have better luck catching catfish with stinky dead bait than anything that’s still wriggling. Rancid bacon, day old grocery store shrimp, old bits of fish – I have fishing buddies who coat their hooks and lines in bacon grease or other foul substances and swear by it. If you eschew bait and feel you must use a rig, use a barrel swivel with a slip sinker about an inch above the swivel – let out almost a foot of line and slap your sharpest hook there, a foot below the swivel. Cats will pick up the bait and start to swim off with it before you set, giving yourself an advantage. You don’t want to just jerk the bait as soon as you get a hit. I recommend a sharp hook because catfish are tough – meaning their skin, not just their fighting style.

5. Move from deep water to shallow water

Moving back and forth like this mimics the behavior of the cats themselves. Catfish, contrary to popular opinion, don’t sit in one spot all day, they move about and search for food. By casting in deep water as well as in shallow, you increase your chances of finding their feeding grounds. This is kind of like covering a bet – maybe the cats are in the deep water today, maybe they’re in the shallow. Do yourself a favor and cover your butt either way. You don’t want to go home from a fishing trip empty handed.

6. Have a little patience . . . and a little luck

The old saying goes “They don’t call it ‘catching’, they call it ‘fishing” – you’re out there to have fun, after all. Sure you want to catch a few cats, but you may find yourself catching a few other species along the way. It is true, after all, that a bad day fishing is better than the worst day at the office. Sometimes it takes a little good luck to catch the big cats. Bring along a good luck charm or two, or wear your lucky underwear or your lucky hat. It can’t hurt, and it may be the straw that broke the cat’s back.

Catfish are a tasty and exciting fish. There’s a lot of myths out there about their behavior. The tips above have been collected over hundreds of catfish expeditions, some of it from oldtimers fishing off the bank, and some of it from fancy young anglers with fast boats and expensive rigs. Get out to your local fishing hole, prepare yourself for the trip, and you’re likely to bring home dinner.


  1. Jeffery Hamer says:

    I ‘ve been cat fishing for the past ten years, I’ve caught seven to nine pounders , I want the big fish now and i don’t know just how to go about it . I live in Michigan and I’m goinging to fish the Muskegon river in a couple of weeks and i was told there are thirty + pounders in there, I need some advice on how to land a trophy cat, I’ve been using beef and chicken liver , is there another bait that i can use that would be great, I’ve used live bait bluegills and other smaller fish.I sure would be greatfull if i could hear back from you, it sure would help me . I’m 52 and i think it’s time for me to catch the big one. Thank you so much,Jeffery.

  2. Strawberry doughballs:
    Cereal bowl filled 3/4 full of uncooked oatmeal
    1 packet of strawberry jello mix (dry) I have tryed the small and big packs, Whatever you want to try.
    Useing your hand mix the dry jello mix into the dry oatmeal.
    Keep mixing as you add in a small ammount of water and continue mixing the entire time.
    Dont over add water, you want to keep mixing and adding the water slowley untill you have a good sticky mix that you can roll into balls that will stay on your hook.
    It takes you makeing these a few times before you get the hang of the right consistancy.
    After a few fishing trips to a local pond or river will make a pro out of you makeing a proper doughball mix. GOOD LUCK and GOOD FEEEEESHEN. My son ruioned a new reel (Zeb 303 I think) on 2 fish he hooked useing these balls.

  3. Dave Chrischilles says:

    Well, from my experience I like to use frogs, leopard frogs with stripes. Sometimes hard to catch but they are worth the effort. Hook through the mouth or through mouth and hook back legs. To spare them any suffering, I would kill them first or at least knock them out. Good luck Jeffrey.

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