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How To Fish for Channel Catfish
When you think of catfish, what do you picture? If you said anything like “slimy bottom feeders,” we’d love to convince you otherwise. Channel catfish should be a favorite of any angler. They’re playful and require an entirely different approach from other fish to catch. Depending on where you live, there are about a million ways to go catfishing. They also make great eating if you know how to prepare them.
Once you get the chance to pull a deep water monster catfish out of a river, you’ll fall in love. We guarantee it. We put together all the need-to-know info to get you started catching channel catfish, right here. Let’s get into it.
Channel Catfish Basics
If you’ve never fished for catfish, it can be jarringly different. Catfish have unique traits and habits, but they’re not exactly complicated. Here are all the major things you need to know.
Catfish like warm, slow, deep water with lots of debris in it. They typically build burrows in the banks of slow-moving rivers near cover. They spend most of their time on or near the bottom, hunting and dredging up dead stuff on the bottom.
Catfish experience the world through smell and taste. It’s a good idea to try bait that catfish can smell. We’ll get into bait types (including “stink bait”) later.
Catfish are most active at night during the summer. Because they sense the world primarily through taste, catfish don’t rely heavily on their eyes. And because of that, hunting in the dark gives them an advantage over their prey. During the late summer, catfishing at night is almost a surefire success.
Catfish are most active in the late spring and early summer, when the water first begins to warm. Their spawning cycles begin when the water reaches around 75 degrees. This causes them to start foraging more actively during the day.
Catfish can grow to be huge. The largest species of catfish, the blue catfish, maxes out above 140 pounds. Channel cats are smaller, topping out around 60. This makes for incredible sport, but not so good for eating. It takes catfish a long, long time to reach this length, and small ones taste better, so be sure to toss the big ones down.
Channel Catfish Life History
To expand on what we just covered, let’s take a closer look at the range, ecology, behavior, and habitat of catfish. All the above species are native to the United States, and in roughly the same area. They occur naturally generally from the Great Lakes to the south, east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Appalachians.
However, catfish have been introduced to a huge number of places outside this native range. This includes lakes and rivers in just about every corner of the country and many places abroad. In particular, the channel catfish can be found far and wide in places where there is deep, dark water.
Catfish are omnivorous and detritivores (meaning they eat live prey and dead stuff). This informs us of the channel catfish’s place in nature. Channel catfish help cycle nutrients, turning dead stuff into something useful, which earns them the nickname of composting worms of the sea. But it also gives us some hints for bait we can use.
As we’ve mentioned already, catfish like cloudy, murky, deep water. They thrive in these environments because they’ve adapted to have taste buds all over their bodies. These taste buds are concentrated on their “whiskers,” or barbels. When looking for holes where there might be catfish, seek out eddies in slow rivers with good cover. This means logs, drift piles, and undercut banks.
You’re also looking for shallow flats next to sharp, deep drop offs. Catfish will hang out near shelves, close to the banks where prey like bluegill can be found. Larger areas are also preferred. Channel cats swim in schools, so where you find one channel catfish, you’ll probably find more.
Catfish activity booms once spawning starts. This usually happens in the late spring or early summer. Catfish will hunt more aggressively during the day as this is happening. As the season progresses, they will shift their habits to be more active at night.
Strategies for Catching Channel Catfish
Because the channel catfish’s diet includes so much, you can try just about anything and still catch them. If you have a preferred method, give it a go. If you feel like trying something new, catfish are a great way to dip a toe into a new method.
Using A Spin Rod
Before we get into bait, there are a few good ways to set your hook that will maximize your odds. First, get to a spot where you can see some vegetation. This will give you a vague idea for how deep it is and put you in a prime spot for catching a catfish feeding. Set your reel to accommodate some drag.
Use a float with good sensitivity like a slip bobber to suspend the bait above the vegetation. Underwater, your basic rig is a slip sinker followed by a barrel swivel, some leader, and your hook. This will give your bait a good amount of drift.
Now that you’re in position, wait for a bite. Once you’ve got one, set your rod in a rod holder and let the fish tire itself out. This is where that drag comes in. When you hook a channel cat, you want to be able to pull the line from the reel without snapping it. You don’t want to reel until he’s good and tired.
And that’s about it! Once he fights himself out, start tugging him back steadily and yank him out. Be cautious of his dorsal and pectoral fins while handling him. Channel catfish have venomous barbs that can sting if you pick them up wrong.
So what the heck do you put on the hook? Well, like most things with fishing for channel cats, there are no wrong answers.
Channel cats love what they can smell. Chicken liver, chicken blood, maggots, leeches, nightcrawlers, and shrimp are all good. You can also give stink bait a try. The idea here is to smear the stink bait around a small cage so that it disperses slowly in the water. Depending on regulations where you live, the best option is fish. Sunfish or other small fish cut up is a silver bullet for channel cats, especially big ones.
For using live bait, it can be helpful to forego the weight on your line. Just let the bait settle to the bottom of the river and wait for a lunker to come sniffing along. And believe us, he will.
There’s not much to say here other than “no wrong answers”. Crankbaits, spoon lures, Jake lures, and the like all have the potential to catch catfish. Obviously, you should use lures like these in the spring, when fishing during the day as the fish will have to see it.
Night fishing works similarly to day fishing. You may want to fish a spot a few times to figure out where the locals are hanging out before you return at night. If you know where they eat, you’ll find a lot more of them at night.
Live bait works best in the dark. If you want eating size catfish, go for nightcrawlers, crawfish, or minnows. If you’re after Moby Dick-sized catfish, using fish as bait is going to be the best move.
Either way, the game is much the same. Drop your line and let it rest. They’ll come sniffing along eventually. On good nights, you can pull channel catfish out by the tens using this method.
Noodling is a sport all of its own. Watching someone do it will give you the impression it should be a sport in the X Games. Bear in mind that it isn’t legal everywhere, so be sure to look up local regulations.
The basic concept of noodling is to find a catfish’s burrow and jam your hand or foot into it. You read that right. Catfish are highly protective of their eggs, and will bite anything that comes wandering into their nests.
No major worries though. Catfish “teeth” feel more like sandpaper than fangs. Once you’ve got a catfish clamped down on your limb, the idea is to find its gill plate, hang on tight, and haul it out. The easiest way to do this is to feel around on the fish and insert your hand into the gill plate closer to its belly. This will give you good purchase and keep your fingers away from the gill rakers, which are very sharp.
Did we mention that the whole time you’re doing this, you’re going to be holding your breath? Make no mistake, noodling is a full contact sport, and a heck of a way to spend an afternoon. It’s a fantastic way to catch massive channel catfish, and requires nothing more than your own two hands.
Recommended Fishing Gear for Channel Catfish
If we could establish a single rule for fishing channel catfish, it would be this: don’t overthink. Catfish aren’t exceptionally picky, and it doesn’t take fancy gear to catch them. There are a few important pieces of equipment that can make catfishing easier, though. Luckily, you probably won’t break the bank in the process.
If you’re planning on going the bait route, we recommend a simple two piece rod and spin reel. You want a reel with solid drag control. For most purposes, 10-12 pound braided line will do the trick. We like braided line because it’s strong enough to put up with some thrashing while the fish tires itself out, and lets you drop your bait right where you want it.
As we mentioned already, a slip float will let you know what’s going on underwater. This is important because you’re not going to be able to see the fish when you hook it. It’s also a good idea to use a circle hook for catching catfish. You want the cat to set the hook himself, and circle hooks work great for this. Sizes 1/0 to 5/0 work well for eating-size cats, where 5/0 to 8/0 are better for catching the big guys.
If you’re not using live bait, stink bait is a nice option. You’ll need a holder to put it in, which you can make or buy . There are lots of options for stink bait, from the “cookie dough” type stuff to squeezable tubes of blood.
If you’re using lures, it’s a good idea to experiment with a wide variety of crankbaits. Spoon lures, as we mentioned above, have been shown to be effective. We’re big fans of Jake’s Lures, both for spoon lures and their patented spin-a-lure. These vibrate the water, simulating the feeling of a small prey animal swimming.
If you’re going to try noodling, experts recommend a pair of gripper socks. This helps hold the fish in place while you feel around for his gill plate. It might feel a little weird to start, but the difference is noticeable.
Get After It!
There you have it. How to find and catch catfish, in a nutshell. If we could re-emphasize one point here, it would be to keep your set up simple and be patient. Catfish can take more time to get on the line than other fish.
In general, you don’t have to put too much energy into “out thinking” them, though. Like with any kind of fishing, if what you’re trying isn’t working, change something. Your main job is to be in the right place (murky, deep water) at the right time (after dark) and let the smell of your bait do the rest. You’ll be hauling up monster channel cats in no time, we’re confident of it. Have fun!