Although the channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) doesn’t offer the superlative culinary qualities of bass, pike, or walleye, it still is a pretty tasty fish, and one of the most fished species in the United States. That’s because it’s a great game fish and puts a fairly decent fight when caught on a fishing line.
In this post, we’re going to address the most important aspects of channel catfish. We’re going to point out here what are the best places, weather conditions, water temperatures to fish for channel cats, as well as the best tackle for them.
Channel Catfish – Habitat And Diet
First of all, channel catfish can be caught all over the United States, as well as in the southern part of Canada, and northern Mexico. The channel cat is actually the official fish of Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, and Tennessee. Although they’re freshwater fish, they can live in brackish water as well.
In general, channel cats can be found in a variety of water bodies. They thrive in rivers ( both small and large), ponds and reservoirs, and natural lakes. In rivers, they prefer places without strong currents, like river bends, tributary mouths, wing dikes, inundated holes, ponds, or spots with a lot of structure and rocks that impair the water currents and provide cover. Of course, since they’re cavity nesters, you’ll almost always find them in deep holes and bottom channels, thus the term “channel” catfish.
In terms of diet, young channel catfish are omnivorous, feeding on a large variety of small vertebrates, invertebrates, and also plants. However, as they reach adulthood and grow in size past 15″, they become highly piscivorous feeding on small fishes like sunfish, perch, minnows, etc. Of course, since they’re bottom fish, snails, crayfish, other crustaceans, clams, and other bottom dwellers are high on their food list. Large channel cats also occasionally prey on small aquatic birds or small mammals like rats or mice.
It’s important to note that channel catfish have taste buds all over their body surface, plus an advanced facial taste system (their barbels). They are highly sensitive to certain amino acids released by their food, that’s why stink baits, dead fish, cut baits, and such are excellent for channel cats fishing.
Where To Look For Channel Catfish By Season
First of all, channel catfish prefer warm water. They spawn in late spring when water temperature ranges between 74° – 85° (23 – 29°C); that’s when they’re the most active. However, their feeding becomes quite aggressive when the water temperature reaches approx. 70°F (21°C).
At temperatures above 85°F (29°C) they won’t move much and typically stick to their hiding places. This also stands for water temperatures below 55°F (12°C). However, they can still be caught on rod and reel even in cold or extra-warm water.
This being said, during early spring when the water is still cold, catfish will still be in their winter holes or close to them. But as the water starts to warm up, they tend to move to shallower mud flats, in the vicinity of holes, drops, or channels. These are good places to scavenge on aquatic wildlife that didn’t make it through the winter, or to prey on living creatures that also scavenge.
During summer, when the water is warm, catfish spend most of the day in deep water, in their holes and hideouts. But starting with late afternoon and as the dusk sets in, they move out of their hideouts in search of prey. You’ll find them in shallow water bays, and chokepoints between the shallows and deep holes. Tributary mouths are also great places to look for catfish in the summer. Especially if the confluence point between a smaller creek and a main river is deep, that spot has great potential for big cats year-round.
During fall, as the nights get longer and cooler, and as the water temperature drops, catfish beging to bulk up for the winter. Sudden temperature drops and huge cold fronts can completely shut cats off, rendering them hard to catch. But in general, as water temperatures drop between 60 and 70°F (15 – 21°C), weather has been stable for a few days, you’ll find them in mid river holes, places with structure, and beds adjacent to sudden drops.
In winter, channel cats will seek the deepest holes or spots in a given body of water. They won’t move much but if provided with an easy meal, they will take it. This being said, many anglers target them when ice fishing. A depth finder can shine in this situation as it will help you locate the deepest spots and drop your baits directly on the fish.
It’s also important to add here that channel cats prefer clean water, but they do fare pretty well in murky environments as well. Evidently, in low visibility, they will rely mostly on their taste/smell when locating their food. They can be caught during the day, but they’re mostly active after dusk and at night.
Barometric pressure does seem to affect the feeding habits of catfish positively. Especially when the pressure drops slowly and steadily over a few days, cats leave their holes and hideouts and feed in the open water, current seams, etc. They will bite more aggressively before, during, and after rain. But as a general idea, after a front passes, their biting incidence will decrease.
Wind typically affects catfish feeding positively. That’s because it stirs the water, the bottom, and the plankton, so baitfish and other small aquatic wildlife that feeds on it will be more active.
Tackle and Baits for Channel Catfish
Unlike the wels catfish, the channel catfish don’t grow at monstrous sizes, so you don’t need extra-heavy gear for them. However, a 20-30 lbs specimen isn’t exactly easy to land with light gear. So, it’s always best to go with medium or medium-heavy gear.
You don’t need a super beefy rod for channel catfish, but it’s never a bad idea to go with a rod that has a fairly decent backbone. So, medium or medium-heavy power rods with fast action, in a 7-9 ft. range are the best bet. Here are a few good examples:
Again, channel cats don’t grow to monstrous sizes, so you won’t need an extra-large reel for super thick line. A reel within 4000 – 6500 range should do. Here are a few examples:
The average size of the channel catfish is 5 – 15 lbs. Therefore, 15 – 20 lbs line is generally perfect for these fish. However, if you’re targeting the big ones, 40- or 60-pound test line may be necessary. If the water is full of snags, braided line is the better choice. Monofilament can work too, but catfish aren’t exactly line-shy, so braided is the way to go for most anglers, regardless of where they’re fishing.
Also, in terms of leader, braided line takes the cake too. That’s because channel cats have small teeth that can cause abrasion to the line. Braided line is resistant to abrasion, so that’s why it should always be the primary choice. In terms of strength, it’s not really necessary to go much heavier or much lighter on the leader than on the main line.
For still fishing, the best catfish hooks are hands-down circle hooks, octopus hooks, Kahle hooks, or sickle hooks. These don’t require a strong set; they basically turn and hook the fish as it takes the bait. They have big mouths, so at least size 1/0 or 3/0 hooks are required. However, the bait you’re using can also call for a specific hook size. For example, if you’re targeting larger cats, using live bluegills, large suckers, or bullheads, you’ll need larger hooks 6/0 or 8/0.
If you’re fishing with lures, treble hooks between 6# and 2# should be enough.
Channel catfish can be caught on a wide variety of baits. If you’re targeting big ones, cut bait or live bait is the best bet. As cut bait, you can use bluegills, creek chubs, or strips of oceanic fish like mackerel. In general, oceanic fish have a stronger odor than in-land fish, and can make better baits for catfish. But if you’re going to purchase frozen fish for bait, opt for the ones that come with the skin, not for fish fillets. A strip of fish offers better hooking possibilities through the skin.
In terms of cut bait, many anglers also use chicken meat or chicken livers. They are great baits, but chicken livers are typically soft, and don’t sit too well on a hook. That’s why, if you’re going with liver, cow, or pork livers are better. That’s because they have a more fibrous structure, they sit better on the hook, and you can also cut them in strips much easier.
For live bait, shads, mullets, bluegills, perch, suckers, breams, or whatever other bait fish are available, can always catch a cat.
Shrimp or crayfish are also great choices, as well as clams or slugs. Of course, especially for smaller cats, red worms and nightcrawlers work pretty well.
Finally, stink baits are pretty much exclusive baits for catfish. These can always produce excellent results. However, some of them have such a strong odor that you won’t smell anything else around you when working with them. So, instead of enjoying some fresh air during your fishing trip, you’ll basically gas yourself with rotten cheese or carcass odor.
Catching channel cats on lures can be a lot of fun, but anglers usually catch them on lures when they’re targeting other fish. In general, the best lures for channel cats are the noisy ones, or the ones that produce a lot of vibration and movement when pulled through the water. Also, if you’re going to use lures, don’t be too shy about the size, especially if you’re after the big ones.
For topwater, poppers are great. Color doesn’t matter that much when it comes to these, but it’s best to use the ones that imitate pike or perch, in a range of 5 – 8 inches. Cats can be caught on poppers especially at dusk, in the shallows near drops, channels, or deep holes.
In terms of submerged lures, spinners, crankbaits, or multi-joined lures can produce excellent results as they generate a lot of vibration. This will definitely alert any catfish nearby.