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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 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

  • How to Catch Bullhead Catfish
  • How to Catch Channel Catfish
  • How to Catch Flathead Catfish
  • How to Catch Blue Catfish

How to Bullhead Catfish

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

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.

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