How to Fish for Channel Catfish

To be successful at any type of fishing, you need to understand the behavior of the fish you’re pursuing. Channel catfish are no exception. Channel cats prefer cooler, deeper, cleaner water than bullheads, and water with a sand or gravel bottom. During the day, they hide among rocks or logs. Channel cats feed both day and night, although they are best fished from dusk through early night. They take a large part of their food from the bottom, but they also feed at the surface. As scavengers, channel catfish will eat almost anything, dead or alive.  They prefer minnows, crayfish, and aquatic insects or invertebrates. Trot or jug lines, or rod and reel are favored fishing methods.  With their impressive size and high quality flesh combine to make Channel Catfish popular as a sport fish.


The type of bait you use depends on your imagination. Channel catfish are opportunistic feeders and will eat any item that smells like food. They also use smell to locate food. Keep those two things in mind, and you’ll do well. Using the right bait is probably the most confusing part of channel catfish fishing, and there are nearly as many concoctions as there are catfishermen. Bait selection ranges from nightcrawlers, chicken blood, chicken liver, chicken or fish guts, crawdads, grasshoppers, water dogs, live and dead minnows, cut bait, and a multitude of prepared “stink” baits. The prepared baits most often have one thing in common — cheese. All of these bait preparations and many others are excellent for catfish, and all will catch fish. Selection of a bait from this lengthy list may seem difficult but in actual experience selecting bait for catfish can be made into a rather simple process. The three most common baits are nightcrawlers, raw shrimp and hotdogs.

Stream habitats that concentrate fish are riffle areas just above pools, cut-banks, snags, rocks, and other submerged structures that are located in the stream. The outside edge of river bends usually has a cut-bank and deep water which hold large catfish populations. The catfish begin moving out of the pools and into the lower end of the riffles at dusk and return to the deep pools during the day. Fishing swift riffles at night with light tackle for these fish can provide some superior sport fishing.

Lakes also produce good channel catfish fishing. Like catfish that inhabit rivers, lake-dwelling catfish are not evenly dispersed but concentrate into specific locations. Streams that inflow into the upper ends of lakes also have the tendency to concentrate catfish, as does submerged structure such as timber, rock protected shorelines and drop-offs. The best advice is to look for diverse habitat — the more diverse the habitat, the more attractive it is to catfish.

Where and When

Channel “cats” are most active during times when there’s very little light. If you fish for channel catfish just before it gets light in the morning, or just after the last light of the day, you’ll be more successful than you will if you fish when it’s bright and sunny. Also, fishing when it’s overcast, or fishing in the portions of a lake or river that are covered by shadows, will greatly increase your chance for success.


Catfish, like all fish, are not randomly distributed, but are congregated in particular locations. Fishing success will depend on your ability to find these concentrations of fish. The best technique to catch these “whiskered fish” is to use a slip sinker with a three-foot leader and a number 6 bait-holder hook. This setup allows a catfish to take your bait without feeling any resistance from the weight on the line. Live bait is best for larger fish, those above 3 pounds. Use dead minnows or cut-bait in the late winter and early spring when the water temperature is between 35-60 degrees F. Use prepared cheese baits in the summer when the water temperature is above 70 degrees F. Cheese baits are most effective on fish 10 to 16 inches in length. The keen sense of smell possessed by channel catfish make it one of the few species of game fish that can be readily caught during high stream flows in the spring, summer, and early fall.