Catfishing gets a bad rap as being a lazy man’s sport. There’s no denying that it’s not as active as casting a bass lure all day or waiving a fly rod for trout, but learning how to catch a catfish is still a ton of fun. Catfishing can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. It just depends on what drives you—are you looking for fish fry fodder or, say, a world record catfish?

Regardless, you have to start with the basics and have a general understanding of which types of catfish are out there to target, where they live, and what they like to eat. So, here’s a breakdown of the four most sought-after catfish species in the country, including the ideal rig for each one to get you started. You can tweak and tailor your approach as you spend more time on the water, but this information is guaranteed to help you learn how to catch catfish.

Table of Contents

  1. How to Catch a Catfish: A Species by Species Guide
  • Fishing for Bullheads
  • Fishing for Channel Catfish
  • Fishing for Flathead Catfish
  • Fishing for Blue Catfish
  • Catfishing Gear

2. Essential Gear for Catching Catfish

  • Tackle of Bullheads
  • Tackle for Medium-size Catfish
  • Tackle for Catfish
  • Tackle for Big Catfish

3. Best Seasons for Catching Catfish

  • Winter
  • Spring
  • Summer
  • Fall

4. The Best Times to Fish for Catfish

  • Day vs. Night
  • Water Clarity
  • Water Temperature

5. How to Cook Fried Catfish

How to Catch a Catfish: A Species by Species Guide

How to Catch Bullheads

Bullheads may be the smallest member of the catfish family—or at least the smallest one targeted by rod-and-reel anglers—but what they lack in size they make up for in fun and quality eats. The only thing is, if you’re planning to have a fish fry with a bunch of friends, you’d better catch a mess of these little guys. Luckily, that’s not very difficult.

There are several species of bullheads swimming in U.S. waters, with black, brown, and yellow bullheads being the most targeted for the table. There’s a strong chance that no matter where you live, there are bullheads close by. Bullhead fanatics often guard the locations of their favorite creeks and ponds, but while bullheads thrive in smaller water bodies, they’re just as at home in large rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. In many cases, folks don’t even know they’re present in local bodies of water because they’re not fishing with small enough tackle to catch them effectively. Scaling down is key, and while these little cats will chow down all day, they tend to become more active at night, especially during the warmer months.

The Perfect Set-Up for Bullheads

Any light-action spinning rod you’d use for trout or panfish is perfect for bullheads, and if your reel is already spooled with 4- to -6-pound-test monofilament, you’re all set. Start by sliding a quarter-ounce tear drop sinker onto your line. Next, crimp a split shot about one foot up from the end of your line. This will act as a stopper for the sliding tear drop. To finish, tie a size 14 baitholder hook to the end of your line. Bullheads will eat almost anything from bread to a tiny piece of hotdog, but it’s hard to beat a little nip of nightcrawler.

How to Catch Channel Catfish

man holding record channel catfish.
Scott Alexander broke the New Hampshire channel cat record with this beast. NHFG

Like bullheads, channel cats are widely distributed across the country. The difference between them is that tying into a channel weighing north of 15 pounds isn’t uncommon. Even though the average fish will fall in the 1- to 5-pound range, you only need to catch a couple for a superb fish fry. It’s also worth noting that channel cats are just as happy living in muddy environments as they are in clear, rocky environments, and the cleaner the water you catch them in, the better they taste.

Most major rivers from the East Coast to the Continental Divide are chocked full of channel cats. By and large, they are thought of more as a current-oriented fish, though they thrive in still-water lakes and reservoirs as well. These catfish can be slightly finicky during daylight hours, especially if the water is clear, but in stained or murky water, or in times of high flow, they’ll get on the feed.  Target deep holes and drop offs where the current is slower.

The Perfect Set-Up for Channel Catfish

Any spinning or baitcasting outfit fit for largemouth bass will get the job done with channel cats from the boat or the bank—though many devout bank anglers opt for longer 8- to 10-foot rods to get more casting distance. Fifteen to 20-pound braided line is ideal, as it provides strength and better hook sets due it its lack of stretch. The best all-around rig is a slip sinker rig, which starts with a sinker slide slid down the braid followed by a plastic bead to thwart chaffing. Next, tie a barrel swivel to the end of your braid, then tie a 1- to 2-foot length of 20-pound leader material to the other side of the swivel. Finish with a size 1 circle hook and clip a bank sinker to the sinker slide. As for bait, there’s not much a channel cat won’t eat. Dough baits, worms, and chicken livers are very popular, but fresh shad or sucker meat is tops.

How to Catch Flathead Catfish

learn how to catch catfish like this record flathead catfish.
Ethan Evink caught this massive flathead in South Dakota. SDGFP

Flathead catfish are native to the Midwest, South, and West as far as Texas. They’re also found in many rivers along the East Coast, though they’re considered an invasive species. Part of what makes them such a threat in waters where they don’t belong is that they are the meanest most aggressive catfish in the United States.

Whereas other catfish species are happy feeding on dead forage on the bottom, flathead prefer a live meal. They go out hunting, and a 30-plus-pound specimen has a mouth big enough to wolf down a 2-pound bass in the blink of an eye. Even smaller flatheads present more of a challenge than other species, because they tend to live around nasty bottom structure like jagged rocks, submerged wood, and even rebar-laden concrete. When you hook one, it’s going to do everything it can to break you off in the “junk,” which means some specialized gear is in order whether you’re targeting these brawlers in a mighty river or massive reservoir. Just keep in mind that flatheads tend to lay low during daylight hours and feed infrequently unless the water is extremely murky. Nighttime is the right time, as the big fish will leave their dens and come out searching for a meal.

The Perfect Set-Up for Flathead Catfish

Strength is critical when targeting flatheads, as you’ll need to muscle them away from any submerged cover. A stiff spinning or baitcasting rod with plenty of backbone—like something you’d more commonly see in inshore saltwater fishing—will get the job done. You’ll want your reel spooled with 50-pound-test braid at minimum, though many flathead pros beef up to 65- or 80-pound. As for the ideal rig, start by sliding a ½- to 1-ounce egg sinker onto the braid followed by a plastic bead. Tie a barrel swivel to the end of the braid, then tie a 12- to 18-inch leader made of 60-pound fluorocarbon to the other end of the swivel. Next, add a 3-inch peg float to the fluorocarbon, then finish the rig with a size 10/0 circle hook. The float will help keep your bait off the bottom so it can swim and struggle and grab a cat’s attention, and the best bait is whatever the catfish are eating naturally. Live bluegills are a great choice, just check legality in your state before using them. Live suckers, shad, rock bass and herring all work, too.

How to Catch Blue Catfish

Fisherman with record blue catfish
This record blue catfish was landed by Mika Burkhart in Tennessee. TWRA

If want to catch a catfish that breaks the 100-pound mark, you need to target blues. These behemoths are the biggest catfish species in America. The downside to them is that they’re not as readily available to as many people as channel cats and bullheads. On the bright side, it’s not that difficult to stick a true giant if you can just get yourself to one of their strongholds.

Though native to the Mid-South, blues have been introduced to many major rivers and lakes throughout the country to promote recreational angling. Coastal tidal rivers like the James and Santee Cooper in the Mid-Atlantic host monsters, though many inland impoundments and reservoirs grow beasts as well. In fact, there are urban legends in many regions about divers seeing blues so big around dams they were worried the fish would grab a limb and drown them.  Though there’s never been a confirmed blue cat attack, the idea of humungous, elusive blues that would crush the current world record drives lots of anglers to target them.

The Perfect Set-Up for Blue Catfish

Pegging the perfect blue cat outfit is no easy task, because anywhere you find them you have the potential to catch really big ones and plenty of small ones. So, with that in mind, we’ll shoot for the middle of the road—a set-up that won’t overpower 3- to 10-pound fish but can handle a 20-plus-pounder if you need it to. You’ll want a spinning or baitcasting rod rated to throw up to 3 ounces of weight. Your reel should be big enough to hold 300 yards of 30-pound braided line. Thirty-pound is thin enough that you’ll feel every shake of a smaller fish, but it’ll have the strength to beat a giant. The ideal rig would simply be a beefed-up version of the channel cat rig, starting with a sinker slide and bead on the main line, followed by a barrel swivel. Tie a 12- to 20-inch length of 40-pound fluorocarbon leader to the other end of the swivel and finish with a size 6/0 circle hook. Given that blues often hold in heavy current and deep holes, opt for a flat-sided sinker to stop your bait from rolling. Blues are not as keen on dead, rotting, stinky baits as other species, so make the effort to secure fresh shad, sucker, or carp.

Essential Gear: How to Catch a Catfish

Tackle for Catching Bullheads

The beauty of targeting bullheads is that you don’t need much. In fact, many people across the country target them with cane poles, but let’s assume you want a little more casting ability. An ultra-light spinning rod in the 5- to 6-foot range is ideal. It should have a sensitive tip, and you can match it with any small, affordable reel. Spool up with 2- to 4-pound monofilament and tie a size 10 baitholder hook to the end. (For more on catfish hooks, check our our guide to the best hooks for catfish.) Add a few split shot above the hook and a piece of garden worm and get after it.

Tackle for Catching Medium-size Blue Cats, Flatheads, and Channel Cats

If your local waters are rife with blue or channel cats that top out at 12 or 15 pounds, you still don’t need to break the bank on tackle, but you do want gear that can handle a bit more strain. I’m a huge fan of St. Croix’s Mojo Cat spinning rods, as they’re light enough to let me enjoy the fight but have ample backbone for muscling up hefty fish. Too much for your budget? Grab an Ugly Stik Tiger. While any spinning reel in the 3000- for 400-size range will work, consider a reel with a baitfeeder function, which allows a cat to run with your bait without the need to keep the bail open or set the drag lightly. Spool up with 20-pound braided line, and grab some 30-pound leader material. Start by sliding an egg sinker or sinker slide up your main line, then connect a barrel swivel to the end of the line. From the swivel, attach a 12- to 15-inch piece of leader, ending with a circle hook appropriate to the size of the cats if your water.

Tackle for Large Blue Cats and Flatheads

If the possibility of hooking cats weighing 20 pounds or better exists in your local waters, it’s wise to beef up your outfit. Catfish in this class not only fight hard but casting the big live and cut baits they crave might mean launching a 5- to 10-ounce weight along with them, and a light rod won’t handle the stress. Ugly Stik Special Catfish casting rods are a great choice, as they’re affordable and available in a variety of lengths that work well on the boat or from shore. Classics like the Abu Garcia Ambassadeur level-wind reel have been a favorite among trophy catfish anglers for decades, as they’ll cast heavy sinkers a mile and lay line back on the spool evenly during the battle. Fill your spool with 50-pound braided line. Thread a sinker slide up the main line, and tie a heavy-duty barrel swivel to the end. Off the swivel, run a 10- to 13-inch length of 60-pound leader, and finish the rig with a 7/0 to 10/0 circle hook.

Tips on How to Catch a Catfish in Any Season

People sometimes believe catfish are lazy. At any time of year, they think they’re just rooting around in the mud, laid up in the deepest holes in the lake or river. This couldn’t be further from the truth. All species of catfish are dynamic. Throughout the year, they move around, hunt in different areas, migrate, and gravitate to different food sources. Depending on the body of water and type of catfish in question, they can be miles away from summer haunts in winter, or simply on the other side of the pond. A basic understanding of how catfish alter their location seasonally will help you learn how to catch catfish year-round.


Let’s start with how to catch a catfish in winter, which is one of the trickiest times to catch catfish in many areas. The good news is that no matter how cold the air and water get, all species of catfish will continue to feed. Flatheads, which prefer live prey, will slow down the most, but blue cats, channel cats, and bullheads will continue to bite pretty consistently if you can find them and doing so is both easy and challenging.

Winter is the time to look for the classic holes people associate with catfish. In a bullhead pond, that might be the deep area near an old spillway or along a manmade berm. In larger lakes, anglers with boats should look for depression surrounded by shallower water, while shore-bound anglers should focus on drop-offs within casting range. In moving water, any deep eddies or holes positioned behind current breaks are prime, because catfish seek the slowest current possible so they can expend less energy. The beauty of winter fishing is that if you find one in a hole, you’ve likely found a pile, so stay put. If you find a hole and don’t get a bite in the first hour or so, consider moving, because something unseen about the location may not make it as prime a winter holding area as you thought.


Spring is arguably the best time to fish for catfish—all species, that is. As the water begins to warm, these fish will stray from wintering holes and begin actively hunting prey versus relying on whatever ends up drifting or riding to current into their cold-season lairs. In both lakes and rivers, catfish get in tune with spring migrations of baitfish like shad and herring. Flatheads, which will start fattening up to spawn in early summer, go on feeding tears, and can often be found around submerged hard structure in 8 to 20 feet of water, as well as around shoreline laydowns surrounded by deeper water. Both blue and channel cats in lakes gravitate to coves and bays, often gorging themselves on shad that die off in late winter just before ice-out. Bullheads, meanwhile, will seek submerged channels and feed on flats that surround them.

In moving water, channel cats often transition to areas of moderate flow. Any stretches with plenty of large boulders to break the current near the bottom are good places to start a hunt. Likewise, if the water is just slightly off color (as it often is in spring) don’t be afraid to cast onto flats or the edges of gravel bars, as these fish will root around in the shallows for crayfish. River blue cats are often found near wintering holes, in submerged channels, and around creek mouths. They, too, will be eating heavily in preparation for an early summer spawn.


It’s funny because so many folks think of catfishing as a summertime game. That’s not to say catfishing isn’t good in the summer but depending on where you live and the kind of water you’re targeting, it can also be a challenge.

Catfish are not fans of hot water. They can survive in it, but like winter water, it can make them sluggish. Early in the summer, it’s not uncommon to see a decrease in action, as all catfish in the U.S. spawn around this time. While they’ll certainly still bite, most of them get so focused on making little catfish that the task takes up most of their attention. This means bite windows on any given day can be very short.

After the spawn, if the water is above 75 degrees, many cats retreat back to wintering areas seeking cooler water temperatures near the bottom. Frankly, catfishing during the day in the hottest part of the summer can be very slow. The good news is that all species of catfish go on the hunt hard at night this time of year. For flatheads, focus on shallow rock piles not far from deeper structure, as these giants will slide shallow looking for a bluegill to chomp. Blue and channel cats will roam areas will 5 to 10 feet of depth both in river systems and around lake points and coves. Any areas in lakes with an abundance of weeds is also prime. Bullheads in smaller ponds and creeks will also be out and about after dark, and it’s often on a hot summer night that you can rack up numbers of these little guys the fastest.


As water temperatures creep below 50 degrees, catfish will begin to seek deep water once again, but the period of transition between summer and winter patterns offers great opportunities. Knowing that food will become more difficult to find in winter, all species of cats can gorge in the fall. The trick to knowing how to catch a catfish in fall is simply understanding that bite windows can get more limited, and locations can change quickly.

Catfish can often be found in areas similar to where they feed in spring. In rivers, flats near deeper water can produce on warmer days, or during the period of peak heat on any given day. Flatheads will feed in summer haunts right up until the water gets cold enough to push them into wintering holes and forces them to shut down almost entirely. Blue and channel cats will gravitate to slower, shallower flats with a muddy bottom, as mud retains heat better than rock or gravel. If you’re having success in relatively shallow water and suddenly stop catching fish in these areas after a few days of productivity, it’s time to refocus on the deeper holes or areas close by where transitional cats.

The Best Times to Fish for Catfish

Sometimes you can only get out catfishing when your schedule allows, and you’ve got to deal with whatever conditions are presented. We can all relate to this, though ideally, you’d be able to pick your fishing days based on a number of factors like time of day, water temperature, and water clarity. Breaking down how each affects a catfish’s willingness to feed will help you not only learn how to catch a catfish, but also better determine when to sneak out—or call out sick—to maximize the odds of bent rods.

When to Catch Catfish: Day Vs. Night

The time of day you choose to catfish should really be based on season. During the winter, suffering through frigid overnight temperatures won’t offer much advantage, as the fish tend to be grouped in holes, and with food scarce will happily gobble anything that winds up in the hole regardless of water clarity or the clock. Conversely, in the heat of the summer when the lake or river is practically boiling, cats will lay low during the day, relying on their acute sense of smell and nocturnal hunting instincts to dine all night long. As for the in between seasons of spring and fall, opting for a day or night pursuit must be based on the two next factors—temperature and water clarity.

Water Clarity

Catfish are highly adept at finding food without ever relying on their eyes. Their whiskers feel the bottom, they can smell a meal from a mile away, and they can sense prey with their lateral lines. During the summer when the water is often gin clear, they are not only capable of finding plenty of grub, but they’re also more comfortable under the cover of darkness. That same level of comfort and willingness to roam, however, can happen at high noon if the water is stained or muddy. In these conditions, fishing at night becomes less of an advantage, and while spring water tends to be more frequently stained up, any time rain raises the lake or river level and gives it some color, you should be out catfishing regardless of the season.

Water Temperature

Ideal temperatures to get catfish on the chew can vary depending on where you live, but as a general rule, all species of catfish will be the most active in water between 55 and 70 degrees. Will they bite when its much colder and warmer? Absolutely, but you should still monitor temperatures because doing so can help you figure out your approach. As an example, if river water is running at 55 degrees in spring at midday, you can expect it to drop off a degree or two at night. This means it’s reasonable to expect that the fishing will slow down after dark. Likewise, if the water is in the 80s, you can expect it to be cooler overnight, as well as first thing in the morning. So, if a night patrol is out for you, consider a dawn patrol instead.

How to Cook Fried Catfish

fried catfish filets
Nothing beats a plate of catfish filets right out of hot oil in the skillet. David Draper

Now that you’ve learned how to catch a catfish, all that’s left to learn is how to cook your catch. (Well, that and learning how to clean a catfish.). Catfish can be some of the best-tasting freshwater fish, and while there are several ways to cook it, no method comes to frying. Here are some of our favorite recipes for fried catfish.