How to Locate, Target, and Catch Catfish on the River: The Ultimate Guide!
Channel catfish are one of the most underrated species to target. Not only do they put up an incredible fight, but they are also one of the best options for new anglers or anglers on a budget. The gear is affordable, the technique is simple, and the reward is incredible.
Personally, catfishing is something I have only experienced a few times. However, each and every time I have experienced it I’ve never been dissapointed. In fact, my last experience has been one of the best ones yet.
Not only did we get on a hot catfish bite, but we learned how to become trophy catfish anglers from the comfort of our backyard.
Whether you are a first-timer or a seasoned angler, catfishing is an awesome opportunity for anyone to try. Below we are going to go through gear, location, presentation, and the tactics you need to be successful in landing the catfish of a lifetime – even as a beginner.
ABOUT CHANNEL CATFISH
There are multiple different variations of Catfish. In North America, there are Flatheads, Channel Cats, and Blue Cats. Being we are local to the Red River, we specifically target the Channel Cats, which are the only catfish species that reside here. Compared to many parts of the country, Channel Catfish (although the smallest of the species) in this area still get very large, with 20 to 30-pound fish being relatively common.
However, they CAN get much, much bigger than that. In fact, the record Channel Catfish is 58-lbs caught South Carolina.
Catfish are also notorious bottom feeders, but they can feed at the surface as well. Anything that stinks can get their attention but you’ll find bait such as suckers, shrimp, chicken, and shad common options that we will breakdown below.
As for timing, the best time to target catfish on the Red River is from May through October. Warm water and active metabolisms increase the catfish feeding period – making this the perfect time to hit the water.
Below we breakdown all of these specifics helping you on your way to landing your own trophy catfish.
When you are targeting a fish as tough as the catfish, it’s important that your gear is tough too. That’s why we are going through exactly what you should look for when choosing a rod and reel that fit both your goals and your budget.
Catfish Rod & Reel
Rod variations can get complicated, so we are going to focus on 3 significant factors you should consider when shopping for your first catfish rod. These are:
Of course, picking the material is also important, but for most people – picking material simply means picking the price. For most people wanting to enjoy catfishing, you don’t need to go expensive. Grab a budget rod and reel and it will correlate with the material best suited for your price point.
Rod length is going to be the first factor we need to consider. Generally, the longer the better. Most “Catfish” specific rods will come in that 7′ to 8′ range – allowing for casting distance and fishing off the side. If you can find a two-piece rod that can go even longer – then do it! Length gives you both room to move away from the boat, casting distance to hit those perfect spots and extra leverage to reel in those massive channel cats.
Next is power. For simplicity, a rods power rating is really just how strong the backbone of the rod is. A lighter rod will allow for a better fight, while a heavier rod will support a heavier fish. That’s why for most catfishing endeavors, a medium to medium-heavy rod setup is going to be perfect. Not only will having a perfect power improve your overall experience, but you’ll also be able to reel-in without adding to much extra stress on the fish.
Next is rod action. Rod action is where the rod starts to bend. One of the biggest factors to consider here is what type of hook/presentation you plan on using. As you will find out, we recommend using a circle hook as a catfishing staple. Therefore, a little extra flex in the rod can help the fish pick up the hook and run with it. Too stiff of a rod doesn’t work well with hooking a fish. That’s why in most circumstances a moderate-fast to fast action rod is an ideal setup for catfish.
What to Look For in a Reel
Finally, let’s talk about what to look for in an ideal catfish reel. I’ll start by saying both a baitcasting and spinning reel will work just fine. They just need to be large enough to handle a spool full of 30 lb braid. Spinning reels are great for shore and distance casting while baitcasting reels provide better retrieving speed and a more sophisticated drag system for reeling in those monster fish.
If you haven’t used a bait caster before, I almost always recommend using a spinning reel instead.
However, if you are on a budget and have any sort of 30/300/3000 series reel or greater, then you are going to be OK. If it’s not in your budget, don’t buy it. Whether it’s a spincast, bait caster, or spinning reel, you can make it work for cat fishing as long as it’s large enough.
If you don’t target fish that reach such a large size, then your gear doesn’t need to be as large, however, big or small, catfish fight hard. Therefore, most people will have to do a little upgrading before making their first trip. Make sure you research your local area to understand a little bit of the size distribution of catfish there.
You are going to want AT LEAST 30/300/3000 series reel in most channel cat instances. If you are in big fish country, then bigger won’t hurt at all either.
Use a Combo
Finally, one of the easiest ways to buy the right setup, at the best price, is to simply buy the combo. In summary, look for a 7′ to 8′ rod, with medium power, and moderate-fast to fast action bed, and a reel that can handle big line and big fish. Popular rods with these specs include:
Next, let’s talk about the line. Your line needs to be heavy and tough – meaning in most cases you are going to want to have a heavy poundage braided line. Brad was specifically set up with a 30-pound braid, a barrel swivel, and a matching 30 lb fluorocarbon leader. This is ideal if you are chasing catfish that can often exceed 20 pounds in size.
However, one of the biggest (and unique) tips he shared was adding a plastic protector above the swivel. This helped keep the weight from constantly beating up on the knot and therefore increasing reliability in the entire setup. A more reliable setup means more fish in the boat.
CATFISH BAIT AND PRESENTATION
The presentation is simple. Most people will find success using a flat weight, circle hook, and bait of choice. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a VERY common setup for sturgeon fishing (or targeting any bottom feeder, such as a sucker) as well.
The size of the flat weight will completely depend on the depth and current of the body of water you are fishing. Obviously the faster the current and higher the water, the heavier the weight. The key is to simply make sure that the weight holds to the bottom. Don’t be afraid to try out different weights to make sure it stays in contact. In many cases, a 5-ounce weight will do the trick.
Next is to understand the circle hook. Just like with sturgeon fishing, there is NO HOOKSET here. I know it’s instinctive, but don’t do it. When a fish runs, the hook sets itself. This allows you to reel it in confidently, while also helping reduce the stress on the fish.
There are a variety of circle hook sizes, however, a 5/0 or 6/0 size hook will work just fine.
Setup along a hole, throw your bait down, and wait.
Fluorocarbon Leader (cut a 18 to 24″ leader length)
Plastic Swivel Protector
Circle Hook (size 5/0 or 6/0)
Bait – suckers, liver, shrimp
Of course, if you reside somewhere that isn’t known for its 20 lb + catfish, then a lighter line would be fine. If you are on a budget, don’t be afraid to use what you have.
I’ve used a variety of bait catfishing before, including shrimp, sucker, and liver. Cut bait, live bait, and artificial bait will all work. However, brad stayed dedicated to using sucker as bait. In fact, he had both live and frozen suckers ready to go. Anything he didn’t use this time, he froze for the next.
Suckers run in the spring and are therefore easy to find and store for bait for the rest of the season.
Cut it up into small pieces and add it to the end of your circle hook.
The most important factor when catching any fish is to understand fish behavior and location. Luckily, with catfish, it’s simple:
Fallen trees and snag piles
Holes on the inside and outside of the river
Holes with Snag Piles in it
Brad also recommends not sitting in a spot for more than a half an hour.
If you are shore fishing, this will be more challenging. Still, if you haven’t noticed any signs of life after a set period of time, try your best to move up and down the bank. Sometimes a simple location change will do the trick. If you are along a body of the water that has Navionics or LakeMaster mapping, then use it just as you would in a boat. Both mapping systems now have apps for your phone, so be sure to download the app and see if your map is available.
FINAL CHANNEL CATFISH TIPS
It’s easy to think that catfish will just pick up the bait and run. However, that was rarely the case during this adventure. Instead, they seemed to circle the bait and nibble at it. Often times, rushing to the rod during the first sign of life was a misstep. This more than likely cost us a few fish.
That’s why as previously mentioned, with circle hooks, it’s better to wait it out until you are certain the fish is on (meaning big, consistent rod bends).