Beginner’s Guide to Catfish Fishing

It's hard to find a species more abundant and delicious than the humble catfish. So if you're interested in filling your cooler with tasty fillets ready for the fryer, use this article as a guide to learn how to catch catfish and what gear you need to get started.

Basic Catfish Rod, Reel & Line

You can use just about any rod and reel to catch catfish. Spinning, baitcast, spincast — they all work. However, if you're in the market for a catfish-specific setup, here are a few pointers to consider when selecting a catfish rod:

  • Medium to medium-heavy action rod — This provides plenty of backbone to fight even the largest catfish.
  • 7-foot rod — This is a great all-around rod length that will give you all the casting distance you'll likely need. If you're fishing really big water and need to cast extra far, consider using an 8 or 9-foot rod.
  • Spinning reel — By far the most versatile reel style, spinning reels work great for catfishing and are easy to learn how to use. A good spinning reel for catfish should be sized to match your rod and hold at least 200 yards of line.
  • Monofilament or braided line — When in doubt, go with monofilament line in 20 to 30-pound test. Monofilament has a slight stretch which many hardcore catfish anglers feel helps get a catfish to commit to taking a bait. Berkley Big Game is great monofilament line for the money. Braided line is also a good choice for catfish and is often preferred by more advanced anglers for the opposite reason as monofilament — it doesn't stretch which leads to a stronger hook set. Plus, the thinner diameter of braided line allows you to spool your reel with more line or increase the breaking strength without sacrificing line yardage.

If you're on a budget and want a great all-around catfishing rod and reel setup, check out the Ugly Stik Catfish Spinning Combo. It checks all the boxes we just covered and is designed specifically for catching catfish with a wide range of techniques.

ugly stik

A Simple, Effective Catfishing Rig That's Easy to Tie — The Sliding Sinker Rig

This is perhaps the only catfishing rig you'll ever need. It's a bottom-fishing rig, which means it holds the bait on the bottom of the lake or river which is exactly where you'll find most catfish. The sliding sinker rig is very versatile and can be used to catch catfish of any size in any type of water including ponds, lakes, and rivers.

sliding sinker rig

Here's the tackle you'll need for the sliding sinker rig:

  • 1 to 4-ounce sliding weight — egg, bell, or flat no-roll weight
  • Plastic bead
  • Barrel swivel
  • 30 to 50-pound test monofilament leader material
  • 1/0 to 7/0 circle hook

Here's how to tie the sliding sinker rig:

  1. After stringing up your rod, take a sliding weight and slip it onto the main line coming off the reel. If you're fishing stillwater (lakes and ponds) a 1-ounce weight should suffice. If you're fishing a river, a heavier weight is needed to anchor your bait to the bottom against the current.
  2. Slide a plastic bead onto the line after the weight. This helps protect the knot we'll tie in the next step when the weight bumps into the swivel.
  3. Tie a swivel to the end of the main fishing line. The swivel provides a stopping point to keep the weight from sliding all the way to your bait. Use a simple clinch knot or Palomar knot to attach the swivel.
  4. To the other side of the swivel, tie on a 12 to 24-inch length of monofilament leader material. The length of leader isn't very important so when in doubt go shorter as it's easier to cast.
  5. Tie a circle hook to the end of the leader using a clinch or Palomar knot. J-hooks can also be used, but circle hooks offer a slight advantage as they (ideally) hook themselves in the corner of the fish’s mouth, making hook removal much easier.

To fish a sliding sinker rig, simply bait your hook and cast your line to a likely catfish-holding spot. As soon as you feel the weight hit the bottom, reel in any slack and then loosen the drag of your reel so that line can be pulled off the spool with little effort. If you're fishing a river with strong current, set the drag so that it's light enough that you can pull line, but still holds the bait against the current.

When a fish takes the bait, you'll see your rod tip bend and line will start peeling off your reel as the fish swims off with the bait. Wait a few seconds then quickly tighten the drag back down. As tension from the drag is applied to the line, the circle hook will essentially set itself and the fight is on.

Catfish Bait Options

Catfish aren't very picky when it comes to bait. Live baitfish such as shad or bluegills are popular baits used by anglers trying to catch flathead catfish, but don't worry — you don't need to fuss with live bait to catch catfish.

Here are four excellent catfish baits that are widely available, inexpensive, and appealing to catfish:

  • Chicken liver — The quintessential catfish bait, chicken livers can be found at the grocery store and are very cheap. Livers are bloody which helps draw catfish in from all over the pond or lake, and in rivers, produces a scent trail downstream that catfish can follow to your hook.
  • Hotdogs — Buy a handful of cheap hotdogs from the grocery store, break off a chunk, and thread it on your hook. A big benefit of using hotdogs is that they are much cleaner to handle than chicken livers.
  • Nightcrawlers — If you're fishing small ponds for channel catfish, nightcrawlers work extremely well. Try to find the biggest, juiciest worms you can and thread the entire thing onto your hook.
  • Commercial prepared catfish baits — Catfish bait is a huge industry and you'll find countless ready-made baits available at most sporting goods stores. There are pellets, doughs, dip baits, and many other varieties, most of which are made with scents and flavors specifically designed to attract catfish.

Where to Find Catfish

One of the most appealing aspects of catfishing — other than an epic fish fry — is that they can be found in a huge variety of waters. As a warm water species, you'll likely find catfish anywhere you find bass and panfish. Most lakes and large rivers have catfish, and many cities stock local ponds with catfish. Ask around at your local tackle shop or give your fish and game department a call to find a good catfishing hole in your area.

Once you find a body of water that holds catfish, seek out deeper holes and pockets to target. Catfish also like structure so be sure to cast your bait near submerged logs, brush piles, boulders, and other features that a catfish might call home. Then, it's a game of sitting and waiting, but don't get too comfortable, because if you used the tips we shared today, you'll be getting bites in no time!

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