Freshwater catfish are one of the most sought after gamefish here in the United States and around the world. Catfish are known to be strong fighters and typically have tasty white fillets when filleted and processed correctly. Freshwater catfish in North America belong to the family Ictaluridae. This family contains some of the more commonly recognized names such as, blue catfish, channel catfish, flathead catfish, bullheads, and madtoms though there are 40+ other species in the family. Freshwater catfish in the United States range from Southern Canada to Northern Mexico. Typically you can find these fish in streams, lakes, and rivers that are connected to the Mississippi River. Catfish are bottom feeders, meaning that you can often find them at the bottom of the water column trying to scavenge for food whether it is snails, insects, feral cats, squirrels, other fish, crawdads, etc. They are not picky creatures.
Fishing for catfish is probably my favorite type of fishing to do. It is more relaxing for me as it is more of a cast and wait type of fishing rather than any top water fishing which requires you to monitor your jig movement/twitch and the colors/type of bait based on season, water clarity, and weather as you often do when fishing for crappie, walleye, and bass. Throughout my experience catching catfish I have learned a bit of common generalities that I hope to transfer to you in regards to the anatomy and behavior of catfish, where catfish tend to reside, what gear you need, baits that have worked well for me, and a few tips I wish I had known before trying to go target some of the various species.
1. Catfish Anatomy And Behavior
Since catfish are bottom feeders, they tend to live in dark, muddy, and murky environments where there is typically very little visibility in the water. To combat this, catfish rely upon their physiology. Catfish use their “whiskers” aka barbells to feel and smell/taste for food in the water which is a very useful adaptation in this environment. Members of the Ictaluridae family typically have four sets of the organ, no scales on their body, but still have a slime coating. A lot of the common freshwater catfish that you find here also have sharp spines on their dorsal fin and pectoral fins. These spines are typically most sharp when the fish are young and dull as they get older. These spines have venom, though the venom is specialized to deter other fish it can still inflict painful wounds in humans. I personally have been jabbed by a small catfish and while the spine is painful it is typically nothing too painful, though this varies from person to person and the type of injury.
Catfish are typically most active during the night, though they will still bite in the afternoon. I have caught my biggest fish at night and have had the most success in the evening near sunset and in the morning a little after sunrise. Catfish are relatively strong feeders in the late spring, summer, and fall months, though I and other fisherman do still catch them in during the slowest months during the winter. When the fish enter breeding season during late spring-summer when the water temperature is about 75 degrees Fahrenheit you may see a drop off in success as the fish will be more preoccupied with mating and guarding their nest(s) than actively feeding.
Channel Catfish I Caught Last Year
2. Where Catfish Live
As I mentioned previously, catfish live on the bottom of rivers streams, lakes and ponds. Beyond that, catfish are kind of picky at where they decided to set up camp. Catfish, like many other fish tend to prefer to reside in or around natural cover/protection. This includes things like fallen, rotten logs and stumps, crevasses in rocks or other concrete based structures, as well as holes in muddy river banks and streams. Typically they prefer to live in pockets of deeper water as to find more drifting food and to keep cool. You will commonly find the fish residing in pockets of slow moving water (often referred to as eddies) where the current is flowing in more of a whirl pool rather than with the main current. They choose these spots as to help reduce the amount of energy lost while trying to stay in one place and fight against the current, as well as gather food/snacks as decaying matter and invertebrates are swept into the these small pools from the main current.
3. Gear I Use
Catfishing can be as simple and cheap or as expensive and complex as you want it to be. I personally prefer to keep my hobbies as simple as possible as you can fix issues in the field more easily and it is typically cheaper. For the average person, you are not going to hook into any absolute giant most days out on the water until you find a few good holes and spots. By giants, I am talking of fish that are above 10 pounds. Typically, the average weekend warrior may stumble across a few small fish and/or a handful of eating sized catfish if fishing from the bank. Eating sized catfish are ideally one to two and a half pounds. The reason they are referred to as eating sized catfish is because they are generally thought to have a less “muddy” taste and a lower amount of mercury and other PCBs in their system (though the muddiness claim is a really dependent on how you handle and prepare your fish in my opinion).
The reason I bring this up is so that you don’t feel like you need to go but a fishing pole made to catch 50 pound fish as that is not too common here in the Midwest. For fishing poles I use an old 6.5ft pole that I’ve had since I was a kid that is made for catfishing. It can tolerate 20-25 pounds of force, but with its age and weathering I wouldn’t trust it. I also use a telescoping 7-8ft fishing pole that is rated at 25-30 pounds of force. I bought this pole through Cabela’s back in 2018, but it too was discontinued, I have used some uglystik poles and they work well. The longer the fishing pole, the further you will be able to cast general, which works well for large open lakes, rivers, and ocean fishing. For reels, currently I use cheap Walmart reals which get the job done, but I recommend spending a little more to get a little better quality. For line I like to use 15 pound Trilene monofilament for my reel, then I use 1-3 oz fishing egg weights or no roll sinkers to help cast further in windy situations and keep my bait in a certain place. I also like to use some of the eagle claw barrel swivels to attach a leader. For the leader I like to use 20-50 pound monofilament and attach a size 5-7 Gamakatsu octopus circle hook as they set themselves in the water.
4. Types of Bait
Blue Gill Sunfish I Caught For Bait
Now that you have a general idea for an ideal setup I will go over the baits that I like to use. Since these fish are scavengers, they are not typically too picky when it comes to food. They will gladly take worms, leeches, crawdads, dead fish, blood bait, stink bait, cheese, hotdog, etc. Personally I tend to have relatively good luck with bait that I find/catch in or around the same body of water as I am fishing such as bluegill/sunfish, snails, crawdads, leeches, etc. as this is more normal to the fish and they will find it hard to resist. If this isn’t an option you should consider trying a plain night crawler on a hook. If this fails or is getting stolen by sunfish or drum I tend to go to using chunks of cut up bluegill as bait either in whole chunks or in strips. If I don’t have blue gill I will use crawdads or try to purchase chicken liver to put either in pantyhose or on a treble hook to keep it on the hook. The more you use meat or fish you run the risk of having turtles steal your bait so keep that in mind.
Catfishing is one of the most relaxing and rewarding hobbies I have. It is so satisfying to watch your fishing pole suddenly get jerked by some mysterious creature in the water. Along with the magic of interacting with the animal it allows you to explore and spend a lot of time in areas that you would have never went to on your own time. You notice small things like graffiti, birds, old trash, the ecology of the area, more about how fish behave and sometimes you can find ancient artifacts. With this you also gain better quality meat than anything you can get at the store as well as more respect for the river, the animals and the area around it. It is a surprisingly cheap long term. Make sure you support your states conservation efforts by purchasing a fishing license and spending the time out there.