The catfish is one of the most exciting fish you could ever find. They’re not hard to catch but the larger ones don’t go down without a fight. Also, in some areas, you might need to learn to tell males and females apart because of the local restrictions on catching females to keep catfish population at healthy levels.
Catfish are also a culinary delicacy. They’re famous for their distinct, tangy flavor and the many ways to prepare them. You can cook the entire fish whole or you can cut it up and serve it in strips, patties, or anything else.
Catfish have stiff whiskers, so if you plan to fish for catfish, you must know how to handle them properly.
If you’d like to hook catfish yet have no idea where to start, keep reading. This little guide is a “Catfish 101” for you to follow. You will learn how to find and catch them using the best catfish bait, as well as some surefire techniques.
To fish for catfish, here is the key information you need to know before heading out on your next fishing adventure to land one of these large and extremely tough, fighting fish.
1. Identifying Catfish
The first thing to do to fish for catfish is to know what they look like. Traditionally, catfish have whisker-like features on the mouth; hence the name. There are many different species of catfish around the world, too, such as Channel, Blue, Wells, Hardhead, and Flathead catfish.
And, each type looks a little different. Here’s what you need to look at when searching for catfish in your local fishing hole:
Catfish Colors: Catfish typically feature a slate blue or grey toned body. The scales are darker in tone around the top part and around the fins. Some catfish feature black and brown markings on their bodies, too. The Flathead catfish has a darker tone.
You are more likely to find a lighter-colored fish, but the darker, Flathead catfish is one you can find just about anywhere other catfish swim and live.
Looking at Tails: When you want to fish for catfish, be sure to look at the tail. Most catfish have forked tails. This creates a V-like shape on the tail. However, the darker Flathead catfish does not have a forked tail. It will have the same grooves as a regular catfish tail, but lacks the V-shape or any noticeable gaps.
Catfish Length: Catfish are typically around three to five feet in length. Some catfish may even be six feet long or more, but you won’t normally spot them at that size.
Overall Weight: A single catfish can be anywhere from 15 to 30 pounds. Some of the largest catfish are at least 100 pounds. Many catfish even reach 200 pounds in weight or greater, although it is incredibly rare to find one of this scale. It is difficult to predict how large catfish are in a particular area. However, they tend to be large because they are predatory fish.
Whiskers: The whisker-like points on the front of a catfish mouth is easy to notice. The whiskers should measure a few inches on average. Try to avoid touching them because they are sensitive to the fish.
2. Telling Male from Female
Depending on where you go, it could be illegal for you to fish for catfish of the female variety. With this in mind, you must understand the difference between a male catfish and a female one.
There are a few things to look for when trying to tell a male and a female catfish apart. Male catfish look differently than females because they:
- Are usually shorter in length.
- Have longer, brighter fins.
- Are narrower in the belly area. Females may be at least an inch wider than males, which is necessary to allow the to carry eggs.
- Have a head about an inch larger and wider than female catfish.
You could also look at the genitals of the fish, if you are careful. You can find the genitals in the lower belly area. The male part is nipple-shaped, while the female has a rounded look. Also, the female genital area will have a red, swollen look to it before it spawns.
It is not necessary to identify the private parts of the catfish, but you can if you are uncertain about the gender after looking at the body. Check the regulations in any area you wish to fish regarding gender before dropping a line in the water.
Also, avoid touching females, just to be safe. Leaving the females alone ensures they can produce more eggs; thus, allowing you to enjoy fishing catfish in an area for years to come.
3. Where to Find Catfish
For the next part of how to catch catfish, look at where you should go when searching for them. There are many places you can quickly find and fish for catfish, although it helps to explore the water conditions carefully. Here’s more tips that can help you find catfish quicker:
Specific Geographic Regions:
Catfish are bountiful in the middle part of the United States, including many parts of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. Look for the catfish around the rivers of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi for your best chance to find them.
You can also find catfish in many parts of the lower south, including Georgia and South Carolina.
A few parts of the southwest, particularly New Mexico and the western end of Texas are home to catfish, too. Globally, you can locate catfish in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Madagascar, as well as in the tropical parts of South America. But, catfish are the most prolific in the United States.
Favorite Catfish Areas:
Catfish prefer certain living conditions and geographic features. Once you know what they are, it is easy to find catfish fast, no matter where you go. So, aside from the geographic location, look to fish for catfish in these specific places:
- Look at the edge of river bends: Locate where the undercuts that the water bends form to produce areas where catfish love to reside.
- Search for wing dykes: Wing dykes are narrow rock surfaces that move the current into one channel, reducing erosion.
- Go to the mouth of a tributary river: A body with a warmer flow attracts catfish because it offers a relaxed area the fish prefer.
4. Depth, Temperature & Timing
Regardless of where you go catfish fishing, look at how deep they might be in the water. You can usually find catfish around 10 to 20 feet deep. You can often find them under docks, making fishing by boat something that’s not necessarily required.
But they might also be lurking in some deeper areas, depending on the weather. Catfish will swim deeper if the water is a little warmer. However, the most common areas are mid-water and on the bottom. Look out for where they might be when you are getting your kayak or boat ready.
Check the temperature of the water when looking for catfish. You can fish for catfish any time of the year. However, the best time to catch catfish at is when the water is at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Catfish typically spawn during the warmest times of the year. Although you can also find catfish in colder conditions, they tend to congregate at this time.
Time of Day and Night:
You can find catfish at any time of the day, but the best time to fish for catfish is at night. Catfish senses come to life during the hours of darkness.
Catfish use their whiskers to find food, so it is easy to spot them in weedy areas during the evening. You can still find catfish in the morning, but the evening may be your best bet.
5. Catfishing Gear
You may already have some of this equipment, so it shouldn’t be difficult to complete your catfish checklist with the following:
Rod and Reel Requirements:
Get a medium-heavy to heavy rod around six to seven feet in length to fish for catfish. The rod needs to be sturdy, but still allow you to cast your bait and get into position. The reel should be able to withstand stronger lines since it has to deal with some seriously strong beasts.
A weak reel will likely explode under the pressure and strength of a decent-sized catfish.
Big Fish Need a Jig:
You have the option to attach a jig on the end of your line to attract the catfish and get its attention. The jig should come with a natural fish-like appearance and, along with other bait in the water, will attract event the wariest of catfish.
A jig also adds an extra bit of weight to the end of your reel. This allows you to get the bait to move deep into the water.
You can also weigh the jig slightly to improve how well it can move. Remember, while the jig may look impressive, you also need to apply a strong, pungent smell to it.
The smell is attractive to catfish and will significantly increase your chances of hooking your dream catfish.
Why Smelly Bait Matters:
Potential catfish bait includes smaller fish native to the waters where you are fishing, including shad. Catfish are natural predators that will go after other types of fish. Cutting up fish you find in your target location will not make suspicious catfish avoid your bait.
Live worms are always an enticing bait for catfishing. Minnows are also useful, provided they produce a strong smell.
Cut bait is perfect when there is little current in the water. Whole bait is best if the water is slow-moving or dormant. The key is to make the bait look as realistic as possible and as though it is moving through the water.
You can also use chicken liver, smelly cheese, rotting shrimp, or another supplementary meat as bait for catfish by adding catfish chum to increase the intensity of the smell. However, this type of bait is not as successful as natural fish.
Chicken liver, however, is channel catfish’ all time favorite, due to its strong meaty flavor. But you’ll need to change the bait periodically as it loses potency in water. Also, keep in mind that chicken liver will attract mostly small catfish.
Here’s a recipe of a smelly bait by the experts at gameandfishmag.com:
Empty one can of tuna or mackerel (packed in oil, not water) into a mixing bowl, juice and all. Add the dough from a can or two of cheap biscuits. Knead by hand until the biscuit dough and fish are well blended. Add some flour if needed to get the right consistency. Store in zip-seal plastic freezer bags. To use, pinch off a suitably sized chunk and place on a No. 4 treble hook.
What’s more, since a small-to-medium-sized catfish has more than 250,000 taste buds on its body, be careful about the things you put in the water when cat fishing. Things like gas, sunscreen, insect repellent may prompt catfish to stop feeding and ruin your day.
Other Catfish Gear:
Some types of fishing gear are standard, no matter what type of fish you are trying to hook. Whether you are a beginner or an expert, your tackle box should not be without them. They may also be inexpensive, but these items can make a big difference in your fishing safety and success:
- Nets: Get a net ready, so you can grab onto the catfish after you catch it. A dip net is best as it is flexible, so it offers enough space for the fish to fit into with ease.
- Pliers: Also, bring a pair of long-nosed pliers so you can remove the hook from the catfish’s mouth quickly and without causing damage.
6. Getting Into the Water
You will be ready for catfish fishing once you have your equipment ready. A big part of how to catch catfish is to look at how well you can get your bait into the water. Add a jig onto the end of the reel to add a bit of weight. This goes along the bait and allows you to get it deep into the water. The key when moving the bait and jig into the water is to allow for slight movement.
It helps to make the jig move around in the water, especially if there is no current. A simple shaking motion should help you move the jig. Attach an additional hook to the end of the bait and jig to be safe. Sometimes, catfish play with the bait or jig before swallowing it. By adding a secondary hook, you will increase your chances of hooking into that monster.
Reeling in Catfish:
Be gentle when you reel in your catfish. The size and weight of catfish makes it tougher to bring them in most of the time. As you reel in the fish, use a soft, slow motion. Allow for enough space for the catfish to move while still maintain a steady pressure.
Do not reel too quickly or you could put too much pressure on the line. You don’t want to lose the catfish of a lifetime.
Handling Catfish Cautiously:
Catching catfish is exciting but handling such a massive fish can be a challenge. You must be cautious as you grab onto a catfish. Although many anglers assume catfish might sting them with their whiskers, in fact, catfish whiskers are no harmful than those on a real cat.
While you might feel a slight sensation when you touch their whiskers, you will not feel any pain.
What you need to watch out for are their fins. The dorsal and pectoral fins on certain species have incredibly sharp spines. They can even puncture your hands or other parts of your body. These fins are a defense mechanism against a larger fish that attempts to swallow a catfish.
Worse yet, the fins of some species contain a mild poison that can potentially cause swelling of your skin if you puncture it. This causes blood flow to increase in the area as well as significant amounts of skin irritation.
Here’s how to avoid punctures when you hold catfish:
- Small Catfish: Hold the fish along the back end of the dorsal fin. Handle it from the top with the area between your thumb and index finger resting along the back end of the dorsal fin.
- Large Catfish: Use two hands for the larger catfish. Keep one hand behind the pectoral fin and another in front of the dorsal fin. Use a dip net and some additional hooks or supports to be ready if you catch a large catfish. This might include something that lets you vertically display the massive catfish that you just caught.
Whatever you do, be careful when grabbing onto a catfish. The whiskers will not hurt you, but you must still be cautious to avoid having the fins poke your skin.
7. If You Get Stung
When you fish for catfish, you must be careful if the catfish fin pokes you. This swelling could become significant, so follow these steps immediately:
- Rub your wound on the belly of the catfish to reduce the stinging sensation.
- Next, apply an antiseptic to the wound. It’s easier to apply antiseptic when the stinging stops.
- Then cover the affected area with a clean bandage to keep the surface covered avoid infection.
If you ever get stung, follow the above steps as soon as you can to avoid complications. You could be at a risk of infection if you fail to take care of the issue fast.
Even though the risk of a serious infection is minimal, it is still vital for you to take care of the problem before the swelling gets worse. Catfish stings can be just as painful as a walleye fin poking you.
8. How to Store Catfish
Congratulations, you’ve caught your dream catfish. Here’s how to store your fish properly:
- Chill it out. A high-quality fishing cooler is necessary whenever you go fishing.
- Give it a bath. Be sure to wash your catfish in clear water. Remove any excess water and pat it dry.
- Wrap it up. Make sure to wrap your catfish in aluminum foil or plastic wrap to preserve it.
Good luck finding and landing catfish. It is challenging fish to look for, so make sure you can identify the fish and get the proper gear ready when you fish for catfish. These tips should bring you tight lines and maybe even that monster catfish.
This post was originally published on Dec. 9, 2017, and was last updated in July 2020.
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