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enter site Top 12 Channel Catfish Tips, Start Catching More Catfish
by Chad Ferguson
This information is geared towards targeting numbers of channel catfish and fast paced action.
While you very well may catch some larger channel catfish by following these tips, they’re geared towards putting numbers of fish in the boat and doing so quickly!
I catch a lot of larger channel catfish using these techniques as well as some blue catfish also (and you will too) but if you’re looking for specific information on catching larger fish this is probably not the approach for you. Many of the same principles apply but this is all about what I call “bread and butter catfish”.
Here in Texas, where I guide and fish, we don’t have the luxury of having huge channel catfish like many parts of the country.
That’s fine though because our trophy blue catfish more than make up for the lack of big channel cats.
I fish for channel catfish primarily for fast paced action, lot’s of fish and with a goal of catching as many of the them as I can as quickly as possible. if I’m after bigger fish and catching trophy class catfish I target one of the other types of catfish.
Channel Catfish – Bread and Butter Catfishing
I’ve taught many people to catch channel catfish through my career as a professional catfish guide and find that many people go about it the wrong way, making a lot of mistakes that cost them fish. These mistakes are often what make the difference between fishing and catching.
In most waters in the United States, with very few exceptions, channel catfish are going to be of “average” size. There are some places with HUGE channel catfish but in most waters, fish from one to a few pounds are going to be what is typically caught when targeting channel catfish.
Understanding this helps a lot when it comes to tailoring your approach to catching these fish.
These tips will help you avoid some of the common mistakes and start putting more catfish on the end of your line immediately.
For me, fishing for channel catfish is all about numbers, I like to catch them fast and furious and get as many in the boat as I can, as fast as I can. If I catch some bigger fish in the process (which I often do) then it’s just a “bonus”.
Catches of 100 or more fish in a few hours are entirely possible with the right gear, rigs, baits and in the right location.
Following you’ll find some “kick starter” tips to make sure you have the right tackle and gear to get started fishing for channel catfish successfully and tips on locating and catching them.
The Right Catfish Rods
Regardless of what you’re fishing for, the right gear helps. The last thing you want when you are fishing is to either not have your gear working correctly or have gear that is too heavy or too light.
That being said, don’t get too wrapped up in catfish gear, if you’ve got some rods and reels you can use then just get out there and start fishing.
For fishing rods, I like a 7’ or 7’6” length fishing rod.
The extra length on the rod helps with “finesse techniques” like flipping, pitching or shooting and getting the bait in the right areas but also helps give more control over fish.
Having a longer fishing rod also makes it easier to cast further.
The longer the fishing rod, the further you can accurately cast.
I like a rod that is light enough to hold for an extended period of time and something that is sensitive so typical heavyweight e-glass rods are out.
What you need is something that is light, comfortable to hold and sensitive, yet has enough backbone to “manhandle” a fish when needed for larger channel catfish or those times you hook into a big blue or flathead cat.
You can use a heavier weight graphite rod or look a options specifically built for catfish like my Chad Ferguson Signature Series Catfish Rod from Whisker Seeker Tackle.
I designed this rod to be light and sensitive enough for catching channel catfish and finesse fishing techniques yet heavy enough to hoist in big trophy class catfish. The blank is a mixture of s-glass and graphite for the perfect combination of strength and sensitivity.
For more in depth information on choosing the right catfish rods check out the Ultimate Guide To Catfish Rods.
The Right Catfish Reels
When fishing for channel catfish you don’t need a huge spool of line and you’re not going to use really heavy line so a low profile bait cast reel will work.
These are the same style reels popular with bass fishermen and these will work great for most people.
As long as you have a properly functioning reel and a good drag system, you are good to go.
I prefer an Abu Garcia 5000 Series reel (5500C3). This reel is a great size for channel catfish and has a good drag system. Not to mention it has been around for well over 50 years and they will last forever if you take care of them.
The price of a quality low profile baitcast reel and a Abu Garcia 5500C3 reel are going to be about the same and if give a choice I will always opt for the Abu Garcia.
What about spinning reels and spincasting reels?
These will work if you have to use them but you are going to get much better technique in the long run with a baitcasting reel.
Learning to use a baitcasting reel will be your best choice in the long run.
For more in depth information on choosing a catfish reel check out the Ultimate Guide To Catfish Reels.
The Right Fishing Line
Having the right fishing line is just as important as the rod and reel and use.
I would fish with a “snoopy pole” with the right line before I chose the best rod and reel out there with the wrong line.
When it comes to fishing line for catfish there are a few things you need to remember:
Catfish are not line shy – color of the fishing line does not matter
Many of the most effective techniques for numbers of channel cats require some “finesse” and if you are using fishing line that is too heavy you will have difficulty with these techniques.
Ten to twelve pound test fishing line (I prefer 12 lb test) is more than enough line to land channel catfish using these techniques.
Too heavy, you’ll have problems with “finesse” and too light, your line will snap.
When it comes to fishing line don’t be cheap. Stick with a well known brand from a reputable manufacturer. I’ve recently been using Whisker Seeker line and Stren Catfish Mono. I’ve used a variety of other brands over the years as well, there’s many options available.
This is the link between you and the fish and you don’t want some cheap knockoff bargain basement fishing line in any situation. The cost between the “knockoff stuff” and the “good stuff” is minimal when it comes to line so go ahead and “splurge” a little.
Before your next channel catfishing trip make sure you have the right gear and more importantly the right line so you are setup for success.
It will help you catch more fish through not only assuring it doesn’t break at that critical moment but allowing you to use the best techniques for catching channel catfish.
What about braided fishing line?
Braided fishing line is great if you’re fishing heavy cover or specifically need it for technique but it’s overused and much more difficult to fish with (and also much more expensive).
If you’re 100% sure that you need braid then by all means, use it but don’t default to using braided fishing line unless you’re 100% sure.
It’s one of the most overused catfish tackle items there is. Braided fishing line certainly has advantages and is a good fit for many applications but for the most part you shouldn’t need it using these techniques fishing for numbers of channel cats.
When it comes to weight and fishing for channel catfish you need to use the least amount of weight possible when targeting numbers of channel catfish.
Channel catfish have a very light, soft bite and when they bite and meet resistance they will often shy away. The smaller the fish are, the worse they are about shying away when they find something they don’t like.
Larger channel catfish will often shy away from weight and resistance as well.
You typically get one opportunity and the fish don’t usually come back for a second bite, so catching them the first time they strike is critical.
The more weight you add, the more resistance. The more resistance, the more fish you will miss in most instances.
When possible you only want to use enough weight to hold your bait or rig in the right area, or give you “just enough” to cast.
That’s all you need, no more.
The Right Hooks
Hooks make a huge difference. For channel catfish I prefer treble hooks.
The two factors to keep in mind when it comes to hooks are how sharp they are and size.
Sharp hooks are critical for catfish.
The mouth of a catfish is not like the “paper” mouth of bass, crappie and many species of fish.
The mouth of a catfish is hard and it takes a good sharp hook to penetrate that.
Make sure you are using a good quality hook and that the hook is good and sharp. Check them often and make sure they stay sharp. If the hook isn’t sharp enough to easily penetrate with a quick hook set, you need a new hook.
You can test this by scratching the point of the hook on the top of a fingernail. If it does not scratch the nail with very little pressure then it is not sharp enough.
Next time you catch a catfish stick your finger in its mouth and feel around some. Poke around a bit and feel how hard they mouth is inside and out.
This will give you a much better understanding of what you are faced with and why you need a good sharp hook to penetrate the mouth of a catfish when you are setting the hook.
Most people have tendency to go way too small or way too big on hooks.
I prefer treble hooks for prepared baits and a #6 size hook has always been the “magic size”.
For fishing with baits other than prepared bait I like a 3/0 kahle hook but it’s rare that I use another other than “punch bait” for channel catfish.
When using treble hooks #8 is often too small, #4 is usually too large and #6 is usually just right.
I always start with a #6 and then if for some reason the fish are being really aggressive then I will increase the size to a #4 (a #4 is larger than a #6 hook).
If your hook is too small the fish will swallow them. This makes getting them off the hook much slower and you either lose tackle or kill the fish, which eliminates being able to release any of them alive.
If your hook is too big the catfish:
Won’t get the hook in their mouth so there is no chance of hooking them
With certain hook styles they will get the hook in their mouth and the hook will not perform properly.
There are so many styles and variations of hooks that it would be impossible for me to cover the “perfect size” for all of them. Use some judgment here, or stick to the two hooks I suggest.
I know these hooks work. If you are following the tips covered here, you’ll only have a need for treble hooks.
The Right Catfish Rig
Catfish rigs, or what is on the business end of your line are something I get questioned about often.
When it comes to channel catfish the answers about catfish rigs are pretty simple.
I fish the Secret Catfish Rig almost exclusively.
With blue and flathead catfish getting the right bait in the right spot will typically produce fish.
Variances in rigs are not as important because most of the time blues and flatheads will “hammer” a bait. There are exceptions but most of the time when one of these fish hit, you know it.
Channel catfish on the other hand are much different, especially when fishing for numbers.
Most anglers don’t recognize when they’re getting a bite and when they do recognize they are getting a bite, they don’t react quickly enough, which results in missed fish.
If you are fishing in deeper water then a slip sinker rig with a very light weight is a good rig for channel catfish.
Most of the fishing I do for channel catfish is done in water five feet deep or less and a far more effective rig for channel catfish in shallow water is a slip bobber rig if you’re not Secret Catfish Rig.
The slip bobber is good, the Secret Catfish Rig is best if you’re going to target numbers of channel catfish and not bottom fishing.
The difference is all about sensitivity, detecting the bites and when you detect the bites.
When you know you are getting a bite and react at the right time, you’ll catch more fish.
The problem is that with most catfish rigs you are waiting to feel the bite or waiting to see the bite and you don’t feel or see it quickly enough.
Most people cannot react quickly enough when they feel the bite and they onlyfeel a small portion of the bites.
Here are some of the advantages of using the Secret Catfish Rig:
More sensitive than any other fishing rig
You’ll know when anything comes anywhere near your bait
You’ll know when the slightest bite is taking place
You’ll be able to react quickly when there is a bite
Typical catch ratios are as much as 600% greater than any other catfish rig**
You’ll save money and catch more fish
**Catch ratios of 600% or more have been reported by many anglers using the Secret Catfish Rig fishing next to anglers using other rigs. Some anglers report catching as many as 7 to 1 fish against other anglers not using the same setup.
If you’re looking for other options you can find more on the other top catfish rigs here.
The Right Catfish Bait
I get so many questions about baits for channel catfish it kind of makes my head spin.
I catch thousands of channel catfish over the course of a year and one thing has proven itself time and time again, no matter what I’ve tried.
There is no better bait for numbers of channel catfish than prepared bait when it comes to catching “numbers of fish” in the 1-5 pound range.
If you are after BIG channel catfish then there are better options but most people who target channel catfish are not in it for trophies, myself included.
Call them “stink baits” if you want. Although they may stink to you, they don’t stink to a catfish. That strong smell just provides a scent for the catfish to follow and bite.
Channel catfish have a keen sense of smell and taste and these senses allow them to detect molecules of substances dissolved in water.
The sense channel catfish use to detect smell and amino acids are very similar so most scientists lump them into what they call “chemoreception”.
Channel catfish use chemoreception to avoid predators, find prey, locate other channel catfish find “home areas” or spawning sites and also coordinate spawning times.
A channel catfish body is covered with “taste buds” that provide this amazing ability for them to detect these amino acids and they have approximately 20,000 internal “taste buds” and the exterior of the body has approximately 175,000 external “taste buds”.
The barbels (whiskers) have as many as 25 taste buds per square millimeter and there are small patches of the gills that have as many as 50 “taste buds” per square millimeter.
Having an entire body that allows the fish to detect smells allows it to “key in” on smells from as far as 15 feet away but some scientists speculate that could be even further.
Scent travels further in warm water so the warmer the water is, the further away the fish will be able to detect smells or amino acids within the water.
Channel catfish can detect several amino acids at 1 part per 100 million.
The best example I’ve seen is a channel catfish could detect an ounce of substance dissolved in 100,000 railroad tank cars.
Understanding that the channel catfish is a large hypersensitive “taste bud” swimming in the water provides a great understanding of why prepared baits work so well. That strong smell being placed in the water provides something for the fish to really “key in on” and follow.
There are many different types of prepared baits and there is one style of bait I really like and most anglers call this style of bait “punch bait”.
Punch bait is always the answer I give when it comes to questions about the best bait for channel catfish when rod and reel fishing.
Punch bait refers to the process used to bait the hook.
The bait is very thick and has fiber in it and the angler uses a plain treble hook to fish with. You take the hook and “punch” the hook into the bait to bait the hook and it sticks to a plain old treble hook.
The reasons I prefer “punch bait” are:
They Work – Plain and simple there are a few brands that work and work really well and have proven themselves time and time again. I couldn’t begin to count how many thousands of channel catfish I have caught on punch baits.
Easy To Fish With – These baits eliminate the need for dip tubes, dip worms, springs, sponges and other “bait holder” devices that many prepared baits need to hold on the hook. This not only saves you a lot of money but not having to fool with these devices saves you time as well.
These are still my “go to” bait for channel catfish. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are times when other baits will work better in certain situations but nearly 100% of the time I spend targeting channel catfish, I do so with punch baits.
If you came to me tomorrow and said Chad, you can only use one channel catfish bait for now on, pick one, I’d say “punch bait” without hesitation.
There are many good brands of punch bait on the market but there are a few that stand above the rest and are “readily available”.
If you are going to fish for channel catfish I strongly suggest you get a bucket of one of these baits. They always catch fish.
If you’re not catching fish with these baits you’re doing something wrong, plain and simple.
CJ’s Catfish Punch Bait in Shad or Crawfish flavor
Sudden Impact Fiber Bait from Team Catfish
Sure Shot Catfish Punch Bait made by my good friend Benny Roberts
Of course there’s other catfish baits that work also and you can even make your own homemade bait but prepared bait is without question the best option for numbers of catfish.
Set The Hook, FAST!
Most people have this image of catfish hitting and running with a long length of line with a bait clicker running on the reel, clicking away.
While this is often true of blue and flathead catfish this is not the case with channel catfish when targeting smaller fish.
Pound for pound channel catfish fight harder than blues or flatheads but when it comes to the “bite” they are much more “finicky”.
They don’t like resistance and they will often “shy away” at the first sign of resistance.
They usually have a very “light bite”, they don’t just “smack the pole” out of your hand.
It is common for channel catfish to do what many anglers refer to as a “mealy mouth” where they will swim up and just kind of “suck” on a bait.
I have a good friend I have been fishing with for years. He is some forty years older than I am and he knows a lot about channel catfish. He insists on fishing with two rods and he sits both of the rods down in rod holders waiting for a bite.
He uses the Secret Catfish Rig just like I do, but he doesn’t hold the fishing rod in his hand.
I hold the rod in my hand, one single rod, and in many instances I can catch seven or eight fish to each one that he catches, using his two rods that he doesn’t hold.
I’ve tested this against other people as well and I can always catch more fish holding the rod, even when fishing side by side against some very skilled anglers.
The reason behind this is as soon as there is an indication of a bite, I set the hook. When they have an indication of a bite, they go for the rod but by the time they grab it and set the hook, the catfish is usually gone.
If you’ll hold the rod and be ready for a bite when fishing for channel catfish, you’ll catch more fish, period.
The bottom line is you need to be able to set the hook quickly.
What about waiting to feel the bite?
Tight lining is popular for channel catfish. When tight lining you are waiting to feel the bite and the fish is meeting resistance. If you have superman like reflexes you will catch some fish but the fish is gone by the time most anglers get the hook set.
Waiting to feel a bite can work but when you can see a bite at the very first indication, even before it is about to happen you catch more fish.
This is why the Secret Catfish Rig catches so many channel catfish, because you can see every single bite, every nibble, you can often even tell when a fish is getting anywhere near the bait.
Having a visual indicator not only allows you to prepare, it allows you to set the hook quickly and land the fish.
Hold the rod and move quick regardless of what type of catfish rig you’re using.
Cover is one of my favorite places to catch channel catfish, and it produces.
Cover is basic anything the fish can hide or conceal themselves in or around and it is popular for fishing for just about every species of freshwater fish, catfish included.
Cover can include (just to name a few):
Stumps, trees, brush or timber
Rock piles and rip rap
Channel Catfish love cover because:
It provides shade
It provides protection for them from other predators
It protects them from the “elements”
It provides an area for spawning
It is rich in bait fish, insects and other food sources
If given the option of heading out and fishing open water for channel catfish or heading into or around cover and fishing it, I will always choose to fish cover.
The right kind of cover is going to vary based on time of year, depth the fish are holding in, and what the fish are feeding on. This is something I could fill hundreds of pages on. Get on the water and start fishing and experiment. You’ll find the right cover.
Keep cover in mind when you are choosing your fishing spot, and start fishing these areas.
Cover is not just above the water, most anglers focus on what they can see. When you can see something above the water that’s a good indication there is similar cover below the water as well. Remember not to focus solely on the cover you can see, but try to identify what might be there that you cannot see as well and start fishing it!
When I covered channel catfish gear and tackle I talked a bit about “finesse techniques” and the fact that you want to be able to pitch, flip and shoot, just to name a few.
There are two types of anglers.
The first goes out, throws bait in the water and waits for the fish to come to their bait.
The second goes out, finds the fish and puts the bait in front of the fish.
Which group would you guess catches more fish?
The angler that goes and finds the fish and puts the bait in front of the fish will always catch more fish, than those that sit around and wait for the fish to come to them.
This is true not only of catfish but any species of fish you are fishing for.
When you narrow your search down to a specific area where the fish are holding, and get in the general area you will often start to catch fish.
When fishing for channel catfish really “dialing it down” in these areas and finding the specific areas where the fish are holding will make you a more successful fisherman.
This is what I refer to as finesse fishing.
The anglers that get in the good general area will catch some fish.
The anglers that really “dial it in” and finesse fish will catch amazing numbers of fish.
The best example I can provide of this is one of the many channel catfish patterns I fish involves fishing in some really heavy cover.
In these areas I cast baits out and start watching for activity. We usually start getting bites pretty quickly and there will be certain areas that are more productive than others.
The area I’m fishing may be 100 square feet or so with as many as five or six baits in that area. There will almost always be small “pockets” within this area that produces bites immediately and fish. Every time you put bait into these areas you will either get bites or catch fish.
In a one hundred square foot area these “hot spots” may often be one or two areas that are as small as just three or four square feet.
125 Fish – Six Square Feet
One morning I fished five clients and within minutes we started catching fish. We pulled a five man limit (125 fish) out of an area that was about six square feet in less than three hours.
Every time we dropped baits in the water we got bit and when the anglers did their part, we caught fish, every time. When we got the baits outside of this small six square foot area we would not get bites, or would wait long periods of time to get bites.
Paying attention to what is happening, developing patterns and when applicable getting into cover and finesse fishing will pay huge rewards by putting more fish on your line.
I cover this in depth in the Summer Channel Catfish Techniques eBook and cover all the details you need to narrow these areas down and start catching more fish.
Once you find these areas to finesse fish you need to be able to get into these areas and finesse fish them.
This means you need a rig that you can cast easily, accurately and will fit into tight areas designed for this type of fishing.
Getting the bait in the right spot and setting the hook quickly makes all the difference.
Sometimes moving your bait a few feet, or even a few inches, can make all of the difference.
The First One
I have a friend named Gordon Burrell. He’s the only catfish guide I’ve ever taken a guided fishing trip with. I fished with him on a guided catfish trip over thirty years ago when I was just knee high to a grasshopper (he’s a good 30+ years older than me).
Back in the 80’s he manufactured the popular catfish bait called Gordon’s Catfish Bait and was a channel catfish guide on some of the local lakes.
Years after I fished with him on this guided fishing trip, we bumped into each other at the lake one day, started talking, quickly became friends, and started doing a lot of fishing together, especially for channel catfish.
Whenever we would start fishing for channel catfish, Gordon would constantly say “the hardest part is catching the first one”.
He’d repeat that phrase over and over again when we were getting started fishing.
“Chad, the hardest part is catching the first one”.
I knew this, but I had never really thought about it until Gordon started constantly repeating it, and it sort of “stuck” with me.
I started thinking about it a lot after that, and eventually found myself saying it.
When fishing for channel catfish, once you catch one, you can usually find a TON more. There’s exceptions but most often it’s true.
There are going to be times when you catch one channel catfish and don’t catch any more but the vast majority of the time once you find that one channel catfish, you can load the boat.
What does this mean to you?
Once you catch that first one, keep working and covering that area, you’ll usually start catching more fish somewhere in or very near the area.
Pay close attention to what you are doing and where the fish are biting. Look for the spot within a spot.
As I mentioned when I discussed finessing it, sometimes the difference of a few feet in one direction or another can make all the difference when it comes to catching channel catfish.
Then you should be paying close attention to the characteristics of the area you are fishing.
Items like depth, wind, cover, structure, water temperature, water clarity and everything that makes up that area are all important elements.
Then, when the bite slows down, or stops, start looking for other areas with the same characteristics.
More often than not, if you can duplicate that area you can start catching more fish and it’s as simple as moving from place to place and catching them.
The 15 Minute Rule
I’ve covered this time and time again, but you need to understand it.
When you are fishing for numbers of fish, especially channel catfish you should never sit around and wait for the fish to come to you.
Successful anglers go find the fish. That’s what produces numbers.
The fifteen minute rule is basically this: If you go fifteen minutes without putting fish in the boat, you move.
When fishing for channel catfish I typically know if the location I am fishing is going to produce within minutes of getting my baits in the water. At times it can take a little bit longer, but not often.
If you fish for 15 minutes and nothing happens, you need to move, you need to go find the fish.
If you are sitting around waiting for them to come to you, you’ll spend a lot of time not catching fish.
If you are getting bites and having some activity then it becomes a judgment call.
Most often when people are getting bites and missing fish (when fishing with prepared baits) it means they are not setting the hook quickly enough and not detecting the bites, which is again why you use the Secret Catfish Rig.
If you are confident the bites you are getting are catfish and you are not catching them, you can stick around a bit longer or move but if you’re not detecting the bites and setting the hook so you can actually catch the fish then no amount of moving will change things, so you might as well stay where you are and not catch fish.
You’ll save time, effort and trouble this way.
The better alternative though is to follow my instructions outlined in this guide. If you follow these steps in conjunction with fishing the secret catfish rig you’ll be detecting these bites, landing the fish and catching them every time you move.
Want more in depth information to start catching more catfish on your next fishing trip? Check out the Catfish Edge products. They’re like a guided fishing trip online. Learn everything you could learn fishing with me at the fraction of the price of guided catfish trip.
Summer Channel Catfish Techniques, The Secret Catfish Rig and Drift Fishing for Catfish are all great choices for learning how to be a better channel catfish angler. You can find all of these and more in the Catfish Edge store.