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Catfish Basics

A guide to catching more catfish
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Published on FishExplorer.com
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The most I ever learned about catfish behavior was from the two upside-down catfish I owned. When I fed them, I dropped a blood worm ball into one end of a tube and then I placed the other end into a shot glass at the bottom of the aquarium. The fish would congregate around the shot glass until I lifted the tube out. Then a feeding frenzy would start. The catfish never came out from under the rock they called home until the blood worm scent got to them in the current. The smaller one would come out first and investigate the scene, while the larger one would idly sit back. Then, out of nowhere, they would cyclone around the shot glass, leaving scraps for the other fish. They were extremely fast predators and the other fish never ever messed with them.

I had underwater night lights setup and I would turn the lights off in the living room sometimes. After about twenty minutes, two distinct silhouettes of the catfish could be seen coming out of their rocky home; roaming around the aquarium for food.

When I moved to Colorado Springs, I didn’t want the fish to suffer a huge move, so I gave my setup to a friend of mine. Needless to say, most all the other fish died with the move, but those two catfish are still alive today.

The following will be educational not only for beginners, but also the most avid catfish angler. This is information has been complied not only from Southern California, but Colorado as well.


Colorado Catfish Descriptions

In Colorado there are three prominent species that are sought after, channel, blue, and flathead catfish. Channel cats are the only known Colorado native and can be found in most waters east of the Front Range. Flathead cats tend to be found in the more arid southern parts of the state. Blue catfish are mostly found in the eastern plains fisheries.

Channel Catfish: The channel catfish is by far the most popular catfish caught by Colorado anglers, primarily due to their abundance. They can be found in most waters from huge reservoirs to small ponds. Channels usually are scavengers, but will often times become more predatory as they get larger and seek live bait. The bait selection for these fish is limitless. Channel catfish, I have found, are also the most skittish of the catfish species, and will drop your bait when they feel even a little bit of resistance.

Flathead Catfish: Flatheads were introduced some time ago and have not thrived in our waters. The best place to find these guys would be Pueblo Reservoir, where there are solid numbers and they have a healthy foothold in the environment. The state record was recently caught there and will continue to be bested as the years go by. Flatheads, unlike channels, feed almost exclusively on live bait, such as crawdads, leeches, and baitfish.

Blue Catfish: The rarest Colorado species. Blue catfish are not too different than channel cats in their feeding habits. Most will be found on the eastern plains fisheries, such as Adobe Creek Reservoir. Blue catfish, however, will make a drastic change in eating habits once they are older and turn predatory. In order to land a huge blue catfish, one should be fishing strictly with live bait.

No matter which species, catfish are among the hardiest of freshwater fish in the country. They prefer clear fresh running water, but can be found in muddy, oxygen deprived ponds as well.

 

 Bait

The term bait, in regards to catfish, is widespread and open ended. When I was younger, my father and I ran out of night crawlers after getting into some decent channel cats. Being that I was just a little kid with a hunger for gum, I figured that the catfish, too, would love to have a taste of my favorite fishing standby. It turned out I was right and I caught an eleven inch channel on a chewed up piece of gum. The following is a breakdown of baits that have been successful, for me, and others.

Typical Catfish Hooks

Live Bait: Any form of bait that is actually still alive: Bluegill (per Colorado law, they are only permitted to be used from the water it is caught in), sucker, nightcrawlers, leeches, crawdads, gizzard shad, shiners, and minnows.

‘Dead’ Bait: Any form of bait that was once alive, or from a living creature: shad sides/guts, chicken liver, beef liver, carp sides, sucker, TV bait shrimp, shrimp (store bought), mussels, hotdogs/Lil Smokies, corn, steak chunks, cheese, and chicken gizzards.

Artificial Bait: Any form of bait made by people: store brand stink baits, homemade stink baits, Zote Soap (from Mexico), marshmallows, and lures.

It’s important to remember that this list is ever changing. The following is a breakdown of the various ways that I present these baits, and the tools I use to do so.

Shad sides: In my opinion, the most successful catfish bait in Colorado. These can be purchased at any mom and pop bait store and are simply sides filleted from gizzard shad. I exclusively use shad sides with circle hooks, big circle hooks. Thread the needle through one end, twist the side one hundred and eighty degrees the other way, and through the hook point again. For an added twist to this setup, tie a small strip of yarn around the hooks eye. Once the catfish takes the bait, the yarn will snag up in the catfish’s teeth, allowing you precious time for the hook set. 

Chicken/beef liver: My second go to bait. Using a treble hook, hook the liver piece through the meatiest firmest parts of the liver, while also using the shank of the hook. After doing this, wrap the concoction in panty hose. Just remember to formulate a good excuse as to why you stole your ladies panty hose. Also, leave enough space for the hooks to be exposed, and not with the ‘liver bag’ protruding out from the hooks. You want to have those hooks exposed for a good solid hook set. Not doing so, will result in you pulling the bait out of the catfish’s mouth. Want to soak them in the water for a six hour period, or cast them super far? Make them at home, and freeze them. When you pre-bait with this method, you are throwing a large frozen hunk of liver eighty yards into the water. It won’t unravel in the cast, and it will slowly spread the scent into the currents.

Good and Bad Setup for Frozen Liver Ball

Live baitfish/bluegill: Take your new large enemy (shad/bluegill) out of the live well or container. Using a large circle hook, slide the point just underneath the dorsal fin and out of the other side. This allows the fish to have a good action, while staying firmly on the hook. When using smaller bait such as minnows or shiners, use a smaller circle hook, and slide the hook point from the chin through the top of the mouth.
 
Dead baitfish and parts: Using the method described above for small baitfish, the head and entrails of a fish head can be done in the same manner. Use a hook size matching your bait, and hook through the mouth.

Shrimp: I use a vast majority of shrimp. Some bait shop shrimp, such as TV bait shrimp, work very well. Most times, shrimp purchased from any grocery store will do great as well. Simply thread the circle hook starting at the thickest part, down to the tail portion. Remember to keep the hook exposed. If having difficulty in keeping the shrimp on when casting, then simply wrap some thread around the shrimp and hook shank.

Live crawdads: Same as above. Take your live (or dead) crawdad and thread the hook through the bottom tail to the middle of the tail and then out towards the crawdads mid-section. Like mentioned, if you are casting far, you will need to wrap thread around the tail and the mid-section and firmly to the shank of the hook. DO NOT thread the hook right in the middle of the tail. Doing so, will rupture the crawdads mud vein, and it will die shortly after.

Stink baits: So, you’re tired of your ladies honey do’s, and want to chill on the couch for a few days while eating some fresh caught catfish. Rest assured that if you make your own stink baits you may need to find yourself a divorce attorney instead of a catfish. There is some controversy, as to how well they work. Rest assured they work great. Growing up, we used a bait that, at the time, was kind of a secret thing. It was called Hog Wild, and when using this awful smelling stuff, we would catch catfish left and right. I will usually use the same method described with chicken liver, wrapping panty hose stolen from your girlfriend around the treble hook. It has an amazing way spreading the scent out in cold to warm water, and shouldn’t be dismissed as a formidable bait. Just remember, that between the awful smell, and again, stealing panty hose from your lady, that you may be doing a LOT more cat fishing then you expected. Not a bad trade off.

Catfish Baits

The night crawler special: The oldest, most tried and true option for any level cat angler. Take three to six night crawlers, depending on treble kook size. Taking one-third the amount and split those worms in half before adding them to the hook. So in other words, if using six on a large treble, cut two night crawlers in half. The scent from the torn up ones will attract more catfish, not to mention the water displacement of a bunch of wiggling worms in the water. Want to know how far this goes back? My great, great grandmother showed this trick to my dad, when he was growing up.

Zote Soap: It’s a soap made in Mexico. It’s a soap made in much more traditional ways. In other words, it has actual animal fat. This fat seeps through the water, and catfish are frantic for it. Southern cat fishing method. Cut bar into thin sections. Place sections on circle hook, or wrap around a treble. It can be found on EBay.

Marshmallows: Like some shrimp, it will float up in the water column when using a slide sinker. A large bait ‘lindy’ rig. I never liked smores, so when we were camping I would save my marshmallows for fishing. Caught a lot of channels this way, and they tasted better than smores.

Lures: I am not hip to the artificial scene and catfish. I also know a lot of guy’s that do this, fly or crank bait. Word is, that bouncing a Rapala DT-4 on the rocks at Pueblo, gets you some flatheads. Any square or coffin bill will get you the same, so I have heard.

 Equipment

What is MOST important is having an understanding of the equipment you’re using, no matter what type it is, and being very aware of your drag setting. Catfish, no matter the size, put up an amazing fight. Catching a small twelve inch stocker on four pound test can be a very exciting thing. Catching a twenty pound monster will sometimes make you think you have a snag, at least until the ‘snag’ starts fighting back!

 

 

Whatever you do, use a solid setup that you know and have confidence in. Big gear setups are best for going after trophy cats, but a solid medium setup and some patience will get you the same big fish. The last thing you want to be doing while reeling in a big catfish is to be thinking too much about what you need to adjust. I will show you what works for me.

Rods: Rod choice is a very wide open subject, but I tend to rely on my medium action seven feet with a fast action tip (using monofilament line). This setup, allows me to play with catfish, and get a good sense of how hard it’s fighting. Bigger ‘heavy’ setups, tend not to work well with my personnel line choice, but are great for braided line. ‘Light’ setups are highly recommended for targeting smaller catfish. Just know that you will get snapped off by bigger catfish at times.

Reels: In regards to reel choice, just make sure that it will hold an adequate amount of line. If using twenty pound test, you should have a reel that will hold one hundred yards of line. I exclusively use spin reels, but many trophy anglers rely primarily on larger bait casters. Like any choice you make in gear, it’s a personnel one. I will say though, that you should have a good quality reel. This means that the drag has very little ‘play’, and allows for gradual adjustment. Any reel that has dramatic changes with minimal manual input is a key reason many anglers lose larger cats due to line breakage. The reel should also have minimal to no ‘slop’ in the reel shaft and allow for precise reeling. This will allow you to not ‘over reel’, and make adjustments to your drag as necessary.

Line: This is purely a personal choice. I almost exclusively use monofilament, and have found that the stretch of this line type allows me to play the fish. The stretch of the line I am using gives me some breathing room, in other words, and lets me think two steps ahead of the fish while making my drag adjustments. It’s a setup I have grown to love from my upbringing, and am comfortable with. Many cat anglers now are switching over to braided lines, as well as ‘super’ lines. I tried braided, and didn’t like it. I also know that some of my friends are getting monster cats with braided. Again, go with what you know. As a general rule, I will use four pound mono for my light setup, ten pound on my medium, and twenty pound with a fourteen pound leader, on my heavy setup. As far as knots go, I use the Palomar for all terminal connection points.

Shanto's Outfits

 

 Setting It Up

My dad had a really good friend that passed away some years ago. His nickname was “Chicken”, but I always thought it should have been “Catfish”. Anyways, this guy would catch catfish all night, and up to twenty pounds, using four pound test, with no weights, and a split shot sinker a foot and a half up from the treble hook. I have yet to catch a catfish that large, on four pound test. He was just that good.

‘Fly lining’: What Chicken taught me, was to divert from what ‘mainstream’ cat anglers attest to be ‘go to setups’. I have a few setups that I have come to love. When using a lighter line, and the currents are calmer, I will “fly line” my bait out. What this means, is that I will only use the weight of the bait and lightness of the line, to cast out. No weights, and a swivel attached two feet from the hook.

Slip sinker: My more traditional setup incorporates the use of a slip egg sinker, weight bead, leader, and then a hook. I try my best to use weights under one ounce. If working in a stronger current, a two or three ounce weight is a must, especially, when fishing spillways at high flow. I often also have to use this setup when the winds pick up at Pueblo in order to keep the bait from entangling in cover. Remember to leave space between the leader and weight after casting. Not doing so may spook the catfish when it picks up the bait and feels the resistance.

Slip bobber: This incorporates a swivel lead, instead of a traditional bobber stop, to keep the catfish from twisting my line. Below that you want to have your sliding float and hook. A split shot weight placed half way down your lead should also be used. This allows for whatever bait you use to stay down in the water, and at an angle that looks more realistic to catfish in a current (or any other fish). It’s a great setup for live baitfish, and for use where shallows meet a steep deep drop off.

 

Underwater Topography / Environment

No matter what body of water I fish. I am always looking for two things: structure and cover. Structure is the actual physical layout of what’s underwater. Cover is what is underwater and separate from the physical landscape. So, a channel next to a gradual gravel slope would be the structure. Place a dock overhead, with an abandoned car nearby, is cover. Submerged bushes and trees are cover. An old tire is cover. A point running out to meet another point is structure, and the spot in between is known as a cut. Without confusing you more, let’s break down what this all means.

Catfish are what we like to call ‘ambush predators’. This means that catfish actually devise various ways to ambush prey. Bass, for example, to me are ‘opportunistic predators’. They will seek to find prey that is hurt and generally doesn’t make them expend a lot of energy to get a meal. Catfish on the other hand will rely on thought out patterns to get from point A to point B with little energy expended. This is key to figuring out just where catfish actually are.

Think of a highway as the actual channel in a reservoir. Sure, you could take the side streets, but you will ultimately get there faster if you take the freeway. Catfish are no different and rely on the always present current of a channel or feeder creek to get there. Now that we’ve have found a channel, let’s see what other structure is around that they like.

Simple. The answer is flats. Of all the catfish I have ever caught, they are most often caught on gravel or sand flats next to a feeder creek channel in shallow water. If you can find a channel next to a flat of some sort, you will get some cats if you stay late enough. Catfish roam the shallows at night, but only when they can get there fast. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding a flat structure next to a steep deep drop.

Catfish have senses just like other fish. These senses are also much better tuned then many other fish, including sight, sound, and smell. In recent studies it was found that catfish eyesight is just as good as walleye. Their lateral lines pick up more vibrations than most other fish, and their sense of smell is second only to sharks.

That brings us to the last element, cover. If you can locate a good spot that has the above elements and an old house submerged under water, then you may get the perfect trifecta of, structure, cover, and presentation. Catfish call cover home, and when you drop bait next to one, you will most times get a strike within two hours. Imagine a steak appearing in your living room. You’re going to eventually eat it!


‘Still’ Fishing

This is the boring part. In order to make this happen, you are going to need to be patient. So you have the best bait, and a highway that you know catfish will be cruising. Or, even better yet, you found a submerged log next to the channel. The idea of traditional cat fishing, says that you should sit on the shore for twelve hours in one spot. My opinion is not to do that. You need to try different spots. In ten hours of fishing for cats in new areas, I will stay in one spot for a maximum of two hours. That make’s for five new spots!

Anything more than two hours without a fish is a waste, in waters your are unfamiliar with. If you get something within an hour, that is an indication that you are in the right spot. What you DO want to do is stick it out somewhere that provides all of the above. If fishing a spot that has garnered you some success, stick it out! The longest I’ve stayed still fishing one spot was seven hours, on the same bait (shad side). I caught a thirty-two inch channel cat, six hours into my bait soak, in seven feet of water.

Use the least possible disturbance, either sound or vibration. Catfish pick up on light, shore movement, and loud sounds. They are a very spooky fish at night! You need to find a way to lay low, while also having some form of entertainment.

 

Fishing Techniques

This is the part that is most important. I have had GREAT success on all three of the following, but the last technique is by far the best. It should be noted as well that these are all shore techniques. They will require you to have a nice and simple pole holder, set at a forty five degree angle, and sized to your pole thickness.

Closed Bail: This requires a sturdy setup, with a moderately tight line. You will want to use a nice coil pole holder and set it up so that its deepest in the ground. Some anglers I know of, use bungee cord to wrap the rod reel arm and holder together. I don’t do this myself, but also believe their stories of monsters pulling the rod out of the holder. Set the drag tight with twenty pound mono or bigger and a treble hook. Place a bell on the tip. More often than not, you will lose cats this way. It’s also a very tried and true method for catching VERY large channel cats that run with your bait. Just make sure it won’t steal your rod and reel combo, or worse, snap a cheap rod.

Closed Bail/Light Drag: Use the same pole holder setup as above. Set your drag so that the top spool drag adjuster is moderately loose, with some loose line in the water. The trick here is to use circle hooks. When a catfish starts to make your reel sing, simply pick the rod up, keep the tip down, and do a very strong sideways reel, setting the hook when you feel a pull and, HOLDING BELL FIRMLY. Once you feel that it’s hooked, quickly tighten the drag to medium. Slowly work the drag up until you feel the cat tire. Make drag adjustments as it runs.

Open Bail: There are some product’s on the market that detects a catfish strike when open bailing a spin/bait caster setup. The one I use costs nothing. It’s a straw. Actually, a typical white straw will get me six free strike indicators! Cut the straws into 1.5 inch sections. When you’re done with that, use your line clippers to cut a horizontal seam on one side, along the length of the straw. Clip this on the line between the spool and the first guide. When open bailing, the fish will run or slowly take your bait. Using a white straw will allow you to not only ‘see’ the indicator move, but it will also click against your guides. The resistance is minimalized once it gets to the smallest guide. The line will continue to move seamlessly through the straw with no tug for the cat to feel. This also allows you to lay your rod on the ground, and out the wind that will constantly pull line out of your reel, at least it does at Pueblo Reservoir. You need to watch your setup like a hawk, but it will pay off in spades. Once you feel confident, slowly close the bail, wait for the line to tug the tip, and set the hook after a second. It sounds a little intimidating at first, but it’s the best method I know to catch catfish.

Straw Strike Indicators

 

 

© 2017 Shanto Buck
Credit:
Originally from California, Shantro started fishing at the age of two, primarily saltwater. Today he calls Colorado home and can often be found plying his skills at Pueblo Reservoir. Specializing in shore fishing techniques, Shantro’s preferred targets are channel catfish, wiper, walleye, and smallmouth/largemouth bass. He continues to live by his father’s words, “Don’t take what you won’t eat, and if you eat it, eat it all.”