Catfish were the fish of my childhood. They were the fish that my grandfather would tell me about catching when I was 6 years old and would climb into his lap and ask him to tell me stories. To this very day catching a catfish evokes memories of sitting in the darkness with him and my uncles, holding a cheap lantern out over the water while they fished, the flickering light illuminating the struggling form of a catfish on the end of one of their lines.
Catfish became a fish that I loved, and the first fish I really pursued beyond panfish and perch. I’ve fished for them using dozens of different techniques—from setting trotlines in creeks, to grabbing them out of holes with my hands—I’ll happily land a catfish anytime and anyplace, but my absolute favorite spot to chase catfish is in the flowing waters of a river.
Though most anglers know at least a bit about catching catfish in large lakes, reservoirs, swamps, and ponds, it seems that many fishermen out there aren’t up for specifically targeting cats in rivers. Many in fact don’t believe that catfish can live in rivers at all. However, every catfish species, from the tiny bullhead to the popular channel cat, to the giant blue and flathead, all survive and thrive in rivers, and all of them can be targeted and caught by anglers who know where to look for them.
Most catfish species living in rivers are migratory, moving to and holding in deep holes in the fall and winter and moving back upstream or downstream of these late-season holdings in the summer months to hunt for food. They can be caught during both of these seasons, so long as you fish in the right spots and use the right baits at the right time of year.
During the summer when catfish are on the move, you’re best bet is to target fish in the evening. Catfish become more active at night, during this time of year, relying on their fantastic sense of smell to find food. Finding these fish on a river means setting baits in slower water along areas where the catfish can find a lot of sustenance. Like trout, catfish in rivers will move in and out of the current to feed on anything edible that’s swimming or floating by them. Catfish don’t discriminate and will eat anything from small baitfish and panfish, to worms, crayfish, and leeches. They’ll even feed on dead fish, mammals, and amphibians floating along the river bottom.
You’re going to want to set your baits in the best spots possible. Look for areas of slow-moving water along or behind large obstructions in the river like brush piles, log jams, large boulders, and especially beneath dams. Confluences of streams are another good bet, especially if the inflowing water is slower or warmer than the river itself. These spots can be river catfish havens with dozens of the fish stacking up below the inflowing current like aquatic piglets at a trough, waiting to eat anything edible that’s dumping into the main river from the stream.
If you don’t have any spots like this in your local catfish hole, then your best bet for targeting river fish is on flat banks with a slow-moving current that runs along sharp drop-offs. In the evening, large catfish like flatheads, blues, and channels, will cruise these shorelines, moving up into the shallow water to indiscriminately feed and then move back out into deep water. These make for great places to try and fill your cooler and your freezer with some cats.
During the fall and winter when the river is getting cold, catfish move into their winter holes. These will be the deepest, darkest, slowest moving holes in the river and while you can fish them from shore, they’re usually best approached from a boat rigged with electronics that will help you locate both the holes and the fish. Wintering holes will be near the mouth of rivers and streams where the stronger current has had years to dig out the bottom, at the bases of dams, as well as other man-made structures such as bridges and piers. Fish will usually stack up in holes of 20 feet deep or more, where they will swim slowly and jockey for position in the best feeding area. Unlike summer fish, these cats will be most active during the warmest party of the day and can really give you a lot of late-afternoon action, so long as you have the right gear to catch them.
Whatever time of year you’re targeting catfish in rivers, finding fish is only half the challenge. Catfish are naturally strong fish and can grow to some truly humongous sizes. Combine that with a strong river current, and you can find yourself hooked into a situation that will shatter your average fishing gear. So, if you’re going down to the river for cats you might want to beef up your setup.
Finding the right rod and line for chasing catfish in a river all depends on what species of catfish you’re after. If you’re hunting smaller fish like bullhead or fiddlers, you’ll be fine using a light to medium action rod, strung with 6- to 10-pound test. If you’re fishing a river with larger species like channels, blues, or flatheads, you want to use some heavier gear. Choose a heavy action rod with a lot of backbone and pair it with a reel that has a decent drag. Sting the reel with heavy 40- to 50-pound braided line and you’ll be loaded for bear.
Rigging for river cats is pretty basic. Though you can do some more complicated techniques, the quintessential hook, line, and sinker will work just fine for river cats. Set up by attaching a heavy ¼- to 4-ounce casting sinker to your line and tie a heavy-duty barrel swivel to one end. Tie an 18 to 24-inch length of heavy 50- to 80-pound braided line to the other end of the swivel and then tie on your hook. Hooks for catfish will vary depending on the species you are pursuing and what sort of bait you’re using, but all of them should be large to ensure a quick and efficient hookset in a catfish’s bony maw.
If you’re using live bait, cut bait, or any other sort of solid bait like chicken livers or nightcrawlers, then I’d recommend rigging with a large size 2 to 4/0 circle hook. These hooks are fantastic for catfish as they let the fish pick up the bait and run with it without feeling the point and the unique curved design will essentially set itself in the fish’s mouth as soon as you pick up the rod. If you’re using something more unstable like a dip bait or a dough bait, then your best bet for catching cats is by using a large 1 to 1/0 treble hook which will do a much better job at keeping the bait on the hook when making long casts or when setting the hook on a false alarm.
Fish your baits by casting them into likely-looking spots, letting them hit the bottom, and then letting them soak. While this may seem boring, when catfish are really feeding you will barely have a moment to crack your first beer before your line comes tight with a fish. If you’re an impatient sort (and if it’s legal in your state) you can try fishing several rods at once. This can be incredibly efficient because it allows you to fish several different spots and run a variety of baits simultaneously until you’re keyed in on some big river catfish.
Everyone has their favorite fish. A species that you love not just for its beauty or size, but for the pure sentiment. This is because some fish become more than just a pursuit or even an obsession, but a comfort. They remind us of a simpler time in our lives and become almost a part of our soul as a fisherman. Though I work as a trout guide and spend most of my free time chasing challenging species like steelhead, muskie, and walleye, I always find my mind wandering back to those days of sitting on a muddy riverbank in the dark, baiting hooks, and watching my rod tips with anticipation, waiting for them to twitch. I think about my grandmother showing me how to clean a flathead and about fried channel cat sandwiches at the county fair. When someone asks me about my favorite fish, there’s no doubt that I’ll be talking about cats.