Fishing for Catfish
By: Peter Egan
The Tchefuncte River is located in Washington and St. Tammany Parishes in southeastern Louisiana. It and the bayous along its edges are the primary body of water in which I do most of my fishing. However, the same principles that apply to this body of water apply elsewhere as well. The wildcard would be small, man-made lakes and ponds, which don’t have much if any natural water movement. I’ve found these the most challenging bodies of water for fishing for catfish (provided the pond or lake hasn’t been artificially stocked with fish, fish are fed, etc.).
The Tchefuncte River (on which I reside and in which I often fish) has suffered from over-fishing since Hurricane Katrina tripled the population of Saint Tammany Parish. Bass and alligator gar have been decimated. The bass by wanna-be Bassmasters tournament fishermen who hold tournaments in which the largest fish caught (out of 30-50 teams) often fails to reach 2 pounds.
The gar (both alligator and spotted gar) have been nearly eradicated entirely from the river due to a “Gar Rodeo” held every year in which the team landing the biggest gar earns a large cash prize. There are secondary categories and it used to be a great event. Unfortunately, the gar population simply hasn’t been able to withstand the fishing pressure this event produces.
Catfish on the other hand – while they’ve certainly sustained some measure of population decrease – seem to be doing well enough to still be worth investing anywhere from a few hours to an entire day fishing for them. My perception of catfish population may be skewed however, due to my proclivity toward and prowess for chumming for catfish.
I use a variety of chumming methods depending on my goals for the day, if I’m fishing from a boat or from my back porch, and the extent to which I am willing to deal with turtles on any given day.
The Tchefuncte holds all three of the major southeastern United States catfish species: channel catfish, blue catfish and flathead catfish. I’ve caught plenty of each of the three, although I’ve caught more channel cats than blue cats and more blue cats than flathead catfish.
Of all the catfish species, I’ve noticed the steepest decline in the Flathead population relative to the other two. I have no explanation for why this could be or if my anecdotal observations are even representative of the river as a whole.
Anyway, there are a few different ways to fish for catfish. I always use chum. If the water is moving, fish downstream from the chum, near it but not too close. Read below for more on each individual method.
Catfish Fishing Methods
- Weighted bottom fishing.
- Bottom fishing – no weight.
- Just below the surface using a bobber to keep the bait at the desired depth.
- Fishing near the bottom using a bobber or sliding cork to help identify when a strike occurs.
1. Weighted bottom fishing
This would typically involve a leader with a half-ounce weight about 12-14 inches above the hook (you tie the line to the leader), or with leaders which feature a clamp at the bottom for the weight with a separate line/wire part of the leader coming out of the side, this is where the bait would go. The objective of this latter leader style is to ensure the bait is near the bottom but at least 4″-6″ off the bottom.
Either way, these techniques are used when there is fast-moving water or a strong current and you need the weight to keep your bait in one place. Remember, catfish are primary scent feeders, so if your bait isn’t sitting still in moving water they will have trouble finding it provided it’s moving.
2. Bottom fishing – no weight
This method would be used in bodies of water with no or almost no water movement or current. The purpose of this method is to avoid losing fish that strike while method #1 is deployed, but spit the bait out when they feel the tug of the weight. In bodies of water that are heavily fished, the fish will learn to immediately spit out anything that doesn’t feel right. When fishing without weight, not only is the weight not needed due to the lack of moving water, but the fisherman need not be perfect in setting the hook, as an often be the case with the first method.
3. Just below the surface using bobber to keep bait at the desired depth
This is my preferred method when it’s working. The main advantage to fishing closer to the surface than the bottom is that you’re far less likely to get your hook caught on debris on the bottom, and no possibility unless a fish gets hooked and swims into some sub-aquatic structure, making it difficult if not impossible to land the fish. Still, those instances are rare if you’re careful not to fish near known structures and know how and when to work the drag on your fishing reel.
Unfortunately, this method generally is less successful with catfish considered to be well above-average in size, but can be a great way to catch as many 1-4 pound fish as one desires (provided they’re chumming effectively).
4. Fishing at or near the bottom with a bobber or sliding cork
This method is useful when you know the approximate depth of the water being fished. It’s a combination between methods 1, 2 and 3. The purpose is to give the fisherman a slight advantage by being able to watch the cork or bobber as opposed to feeling for a strike. This is especially useful when fishing with more than one rod simultaneously.
5. Jugs and noodles
Jugs and noodles are literal empty milk, 2-liter soda and detergent bottles, or pool noodles cut up into 3-4 pieces. They are used because they float and even the largest fish can’y keep them submerged for long.
This method requires a boat, as the fisherman attaches twine or fishing line with a hook at the end and baits each jug, spreading them out across a wide amount of water, then driving the boat towards any that start moving (with a fish on) and using a net to scoop both jug and fish. Obviously, this method requires a boat.
I find jugs/noodles far more effective than trot lines, in which a line is run either across a river or across a stretch of the shoreline, with individual lines with hooks every 18″ to 24″. This method leaves too much time for the fish to remove themselves from the hook, as the line is traditionally left baited in the water overnight. Some people swear by trot lines, but I’ve had far more success with jugs and/or noodles when fishing without a rod and reel.
This is a dangerous form of fishing popular in Oklahoma involving people wading into the water, feeling around until they find an ideal habitat for a large catfish, then attempting to catch the fish with their bare hands, usually by gripping it at the jaw. Louisiana waters where freshwater catfish thrive also happen to be full of alligators, so I’ve never tried this form of catfishing. If I were ever to travel to Oklahoma or parts of north Texas, I’d certainly give it a try as long as my first trip was as the guest of someone experienced in the practice.
Which method of catfishing is best depends primarily on the water conditions in a given body of water. If the water is still, you can afford to stay off the bottom more often than not. If the water is moving rapidly or if there is a strong current, you’ll need to put enough weight on your leader to keep your bait in place, with the amount of weight necessary depending upon how much it takes to keep your bait in one spot without the water being able to move it (thus making it difficult for catfish to trace the scent of your bait). By keeping it in one place, the fish can find the bait more easily.
If you’d rather not deal with a rod and reel (and you have a boat or at least a canoe), maybe jugs/noodles or a trotline are for you.
Which bait to use depends on what the fish in your area prefer, and your willingness to get your hands dirty.
It’s hard to beat Canadian nightcrawlers, but you’ll be washing your hands every time you bait up. The same goes for pre-packaged stink-bait like Magic Bait.
Other options include shrimp, hot dogs, chicken and beef livers, artificial lures that are hollow and designed to be filled with a foul-smelling paste with one large hole to insert the paste and a few smaller holes to let the paste’s scent escape the rubber container. There are also sponges with hooks attach that are designed to be dipped into a commercial catfish bait product that smells worse than death.
I keep large Canadian nightcrawlers (usually from Wal-Mart), raw shrimp (perhaps slightly rotten), Magic Bait’s “Chicken Blood” flavor bait and Magic Bait’s Dinner Bell Catfish Chum. I typically use the commercial chum when I don’t have a natural chum that’s better. I’ll mix it with Magic Bait (the bait mixed with the chum) and will throw in whatever decaying food leftovers I have that would compliment the scent.
One example is a paste I make by catching shad in a cast net when they school in the summer, putting them into a blender mixed with water and blending until all that remains is a fine paste. I freeze the paste inside a plastic bag and add to the chum bucket as needed.
That said, conditions have not been very good for shad this summer, and when I have seen them I haven’t had my cast net on me, so I’ve had to make due with mostly commercial chum for the better part of this year.
In any case, the method of fishing should be determined by the body of water in which you’re fishing. Use the guidelines above to determine which type of fishing will yield you the most catfish.
Bait is as much a matter of preference as anything. I’d recommend keeping more than one bait on hand just in case the fish don’t like whatever bait you throw out initially.