Catfish Considered

by Louis Bignami

Catfish bite all year. Even winter produces in many parts of the country. Night fishing around a bonfire offers a welcome spring or fall break as well. Few fish offer better eating, and big catfish rank second only to sturgeon as a test on tackle and angler. Even small yellow, black and brown bullheads and white catfish offer a stout fight on trout or bass tackle. All these fish share two more characteristics. They prefer bait to lures and if skinned whole, steaked or filleted can't be beat to eat. At least we think so, and we're very experienced fish cooks as my wife and I have written a school of fish and game cookbooks.

Light tackle turns catfish into panthers.


My wife Annette and I also rank cold water channel catfish with ocean-fresh salmon, and, when we go to friends, she volunteers to "catch dinner" at their catfish pond. Given the choice, I prefer stream catfish action to lurking at lakes or sitting at sloughs. Like stream trout, catfish fight better in current, and their texture seems nicer in the pan. Catfish save trips when we travel too.

For example, we once traveled 250 miles to prime coastal steelhead waters that we were told "were clearing fast." Apparently, our informant kept geologic time. The maximum underwater visibility never reached six inches. So, instead of fretting, we switched to saltwater perch fish at the river mouth and catfish upstream. We caught two to seven pound catfish on bait and returned home with 50 pounds of fillets that justified the trip. My wife, Annette fished with light spinning tackle; I stuck to a flyrod and worms. We both enjoyed the pulling fight of catfish which, on light tackle, resembles that of saltwater game fish offshore. 

While I like lighter gear, I don't fret about catfish tackle. Everything works. Some pros use heavy bass gear and 20 to 50 pound test in rivers or still waters with shoals of snags. I stick with eight or nine foot steelhead outfits with six to twelve pound test and accept the loss of a few fish in return for a brisk tussle fight from the small fry. Longer, lighter rods also permit longer casts and a more delicate presentation.

Add a few split shot or sinkers. One or two Water Gremlin split shot -- these have ears to they can be reused and are softer than most others so they don't crimp and weaken line -- sink most baits. Flat disk sinkers work where snags are a problem, and pyramid sinkers hold in current on hard bottom. Use a sliding sinker in still water.

I once used heavy-duty hooks. However, I find that I catch many more and larger catfish with smaller size 8 to 4 light wire dry fly hooks which keep bait lively longer and sink and hold more often even on light bites.

Delicacy can count as catfish are not dumb where heavily fished. Even where lightly fished, big whiskerfish have learned that the weight of a hook or sinker means danger. So light terminal tackle works best.

Big cats can, like this one, hit crappie jigs and other artificial lures. Getting the hook out's the trick.


Add a hook disgorger or long-nose pliers to help unhook fish and a rag to wipe slime off your hands and you are set.

Please, if you are slow on the strike, and catfish swallow the bait, leave the hook in place and cut the leader off at Mr. Whiskers' mouth if you release fish. Standard steel, rather than plated hooks, soon rust out without damaging the fish.

I've caught channel cats on bass plugs, spinners and steelhead flies, and taken flatheads on Fat Gitzits and Grubs. However, bait ensures catfish results, but it need not smell out the house or car.


  • Fresh baitfish whole or filleted do well with catfish.

Most anything works; a host of commercial stink baits flood the market. Some use cheese. Others use soap. A friend caught a 27 pound catfish on cat food and that catfish had both a coot and a muskrat in his tummy. So catfish seem to sample anything they can gum. However, I find live or fresh dead minnows and nightcrawlers catch more catfish in most waters. As a bonus, live minnows and nightcrawlers also attract black bass, steelhead and other worthwhile species.

Liver seems a solid alternative bait in still water, and it freezes well. In faster currents chicken gizzards stay on hooks a bit better than most other baits.

Temperate Catfish

Muddy waters put catfish on the bite anytime temperatures top 40 degrees, but the fish do bite best in waters above 55 degrees. Bullheads prefer warmer water above 60 degrees which you can most easily find in the spring. However, if you can find a warm water discharge from a power plant in the winter you own the keys to the whisker fishing.

Writer's puff: Homer Circle, the long-time angling editor for Sports Afield wrote the following comment on my. "Live Bait Tactics is such a complete and excellently done book on nature's best fishing lures. I'll keep it handy in my 'elbow library' and know it will keep me sure of my facts when I write for these species."