Because there are so many species of catfish — more than 50 in North America, alone — alone, you can’t really put together a “tips and hacks” article that will apply across the board. So, we’re gonna throw in some good general tips and then look a little more closely at “the big three” catfish: Blue cats (Ictalurus furcatus), flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris), and channel cats (Ictalurus punctatus).
These three species are the most sought-after catfish in North America, as well as being the largest cats on the continent. Blues are the heaviest, flatheads are the longest (they also get damn heavy), and channel cats are the most targeted. Here are a few things to think about when chasing cats.
Put the bait where the cats are
Like many freshwater aggressors, catfish are ambush predators. They use structure like the holes carved out at the mouths of tributaries or old, sunken creek beds. Then the cats lie in wait for passing baitfish or crawdads and hit them hard, sucking the bait into their powerful jaws. Some species, like channel cats, will also attack insects on the water’s surface.
Their aggression and occasional territoriality, especially when nesting, means that if you can get a bait in front of a cat’s nose, it will likely get hit. This is why noodling — putting your hand into a catfish’s nesting hole, letting it latch on defensively, and then pulling it out — can be an effective method for catching bigger fish.
Make it attractive
Catfish have powerful chemical receptors that can pick up the scents of anything from fresh blood to rotten meat — which is why classic catfish baits smell awfully, well… funky.
The basic rule of thumb when it comes to flatheads is to use live bait. Bluegills suspended over the bottom, perhaps with added scent or a cut that’s bleeding.
Blue and channel cats — which are closely related — prefer cut bait, like shad. Adding a scent enhancer or chemical attractant to the bait, and refreshing it frequently, keeps it sexy for the cats.
Traditionally, chasing catfish was a static style of fishing. You cast. You sit. You wait.
But more and more frequently, reelers are looking at fishing
patterns that more dynamic. Drifting or trolling and suspending or dragging the bait over the bottom has proven effective. For a more vertical presentation, whether from a boat or a hole in the ice, jigging can be effective for blues and to a lesser extent, channel cats (flatheads don’t really do winter).
A lot of reelers are adding colors and spinners — things you’d more typically see on a pattern for chasing bass or pike — because they play to the aggressive nature of catfish. Whisker Seeker is one brand that is making rigs geared specifically toward catfish.
Show up with the right gear
If you’re chasing big catfish in a big river or reservoir, you’ve got to have the right gear. Catfish are not like bass or marlin, running horizontally, and leaping out of the water in an attempt to throw the hook. They are going to head for the bottom and pull your line through holes and structure.
Stories abound about boats getting towed and rods on shore getting snapped by a big, angry cat. You’ve got to be prepared. When chasing the big guys, make sure you have a heavy-duty rod, high-test line, and a reel that can handle it.
Remember: You could be pulling 100 pounds of fish from the bottom of 100 feet of water. And if it just wants to sit there, and you don’t have the right gear, it will.