Most anglers believe that catfish are just scavengers. With a sense of smell more powerful than a bloodhound's, catfish can not only scavenge very efficiently, they can hunt down wounded prey like a shark. This scavenger-predator split personality has resulted in a raging debate among catfish anglers. One school of thought favors prepared baits (also known as "stinkbait") that play upon the catfish's scavenger personality, including dip baits, paste baits, and specially manufactured nuggets. The other school of thought focuses on the catfish's predator personality with natural baits, including live bait, cut bait, shrimp, freshwater clams, chicken livers and the venerable nightcrawler. These are certainly not the only baits that will take catfish, but it is a good place for any discussion of catfishing to start.
Stinkbait anglers claim that their techniques produce the most catfish, that the oily scent trail is as effective as any chum, and that catfish of virtually any size will respond to the right foul fragrance. Dip baits require a special lure, usually made out of soft plastic or sponge, that has lots of ridges, holes or pockets to hold the super-smelly dip. Many of these lures are armed with treble hooks, though some models use double or single hooks. The lure is dipped into a container of stink bait (store-bought or using a homemade recipe), usually smushed around with a stick to pack the bait in well, and then is cast out from shore or dropped down from a boat. Paste baits are usually squeezed from a tube into a soft plastic lure with a big pocket or hole inside and treble or double hooks. Nuggets are usually threaded directly onto a single hook or onto each spike of a treble hook. Limburger cheese, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied to a hook, should probably be included in this category. Any of these baits can be rigged on a leader behind a swivel and a sliding sinker, off a three-way swivel or dropper loop above a weight, or directly on the main line with split shot.
Natural bait anglers claim that their techniques produce the largest catfish and often compare to the numbers of fish that can be caught on stinkbait. They primarily use single hooks, though treble hook rigging is possible, and the variety of rigs, swivels and weights used is essentially the same as those used by stinkbait anglers. Good live baits depend on the forage available, but usually include some type of minnow or shad, menhaden, and bluegill, where legal. The selection of live bait often depends upon the species of catfish being sought. For example, many flathead catfish anglers prefer live bluegill, while anglers targeting big blue cats or channel cats often prefer live shad, minnows or menhaden. Big cats will also hit live waterdogs or crawdads, baits that are usually fished by Largemouth Bass anglers. Nightcrawlers can also catch catfish, as well as virtually any other fish that swims, which is why nightcrawlers remain so popular as an all-around fish bait. Cut bait can be local baitfish, carp (where legal), or smelly ocean fish, like mackerel or anchovies. The variety of ways to cut bait for catfish is very extensive, but the most common methods include fillets, chunks, strips, cubes and partially filleted carcasses. Shrimp, freshwater clams and chicken livers are also popular natural baits. With the exception of live bait, many of these baits can be "aged" for a day or two to add a stinkbait attraction. In the waters where carp are legal bait, aged carp strips or fillets are gaining popularity. Aged shrimp have been popular for years.
There is a growing school of thought that shows no loyalty to stinkbait or natural baits, fishing with whichever method happens to be working at the time and often combining the two. Cut bait or other dead bait can be dipped or soaked in stinkbait. Many states allow multiple-hook rigs or the use of multiple fishing rods, allowing anglers to fish both stinkbait and natural bait at the same time. Fishing with combined methods is a good way to attract fish and to learn what method is working the best.
Other methods include the use of hotdog chunks and even pieces of ivory soap. Blue catfish will even hit shiny lures and spinners. Some anglers claim to have caught blue cats on shiny, bare hooks. These methods are certainly less smelly than using aged cut bait or prepared stinkbait.
Catfish will sometimes run with or near schools of carp and will take the same baits as carp, including breads or dough baits. They are also often caught accidentally by anglers using cut bait for striped bass.
No matter what method is used, catfish have a natural ability to steal bait, due to the light and gentle manner in which they often approach bait. Some anglers use special reels with bait clickers to help detect light bites. Others set the hook at the slightest change in the pressure on the fishing line (especially when line goes slack, since some catfish pick bait up and swim with it). Another technique used primarily from boats is to drop the rod tip a few inches just after a light tap to allow the bait to float down like it's not attached to anything, then set the hook on the next tap. Treble hooks are more difficult for catfish to rob, but many anglers still use single hooks to increase the sport of their fishing or to make it easier to release unwanted or undersized fish.
Catfish respond well to chumming, but it is not legal in every state or on every body of water. Manufactured chum is available in blocks, cans or bags. Cheap canned cat food (for the furry, land-dwelling variety of cats) can be good chum. Finely chopped bait or even ground-up fish parts can also attract catfish. Road-kill in a weighted-down, biodegradable bag (such as a gunnysack) can be very effective.
Catfish can be caught during the day, but they feed mostly at night. Consequently, many catfish anglers prefer night fishing, where legal.
Most catfish anglers eat their catch, since catfish is considered a delicacy throughout much of the United States. However, a growing group of anglers practice catch and release, particularly with bigger fish, in order to promote the contributions of large catfish to the gene pool.
Freshwater catfish include numerous species. The most common catfish in North America are channel catfish, blue catfish, flatheads, white catfish, and the many varieties of bullheads.
Channel catfish (ictalurus punctatus) have both spots (sometimes faded in older fish) and a deeply forked tail. The upper jaw is longer than the lower jaw and the anal fin is rounded with 24 to 30 rays. The bluish spawning color often causes anglers to confuse channel cats with blue catfish. The maximum size for channel cats is around 60 pounds.
Blue catfish (ictalurus furcatus) lack spots, but have deeply forked tails and an upper jaw longer than the lower jaw like channel cats. The anal fin is straight-edged with 30 to 60 rays. Most blue cats have a bluish to silvery color. Blue cats are some of the largest catfish in North America, with a number of cats over 100 pounds recorded.
Flathead catfish (pylodictis olivaris) have a flat spot between their beady little eyes. The lower jaw is longer than the upper jaw, the tail is only slightly notched, and the anal fin is rounded with only about 16 rays. Flatheads are the other very large North American Catfish, with numerous recorded catches over 100 pounds and a recently set world record of 122 pounds.
White catfish (ictalurus catus) have a longer upper jaw, no spots, a moderately-forked tail and a rounded anal fin with 18-24 rays. The maximum weight is approximately 17 pounds, though white cats rarely exceed 3 pounds on most waters.
Bullheads are small catfish (no more than 8 pounds) with bulbous heads and broad shoulders. The body tapers sharply from the pectoral fins back to the tail. The brown bullhead (ictalurus nebulosus) has dark chin barbels, a square or slightly notched tail, a rounded anal fin with 20-24 rays, and there are barbs or spines on the back edge of the pectoral fin spine. The black bullhead (ictalurus melas) has dark chin barbels, a slightly notched tail with a whitish bar at the base, a rounded anal fin with a gray base and 17-22 rays, and very small barbs or teeth on the back edge of the pectoral fin spine. The yellow bullhead (ictalurus natalis) has creamy or whitish chin barbels, a rounded tail, and a more straight-edged anal fin with 24 to 29 rays. There are many other species of bullheads, including the less-common flat bullhead (ameiurus platycephalus), snail bullhead (ameirus brunneus) and spotted bullhead (ameiurus serracanthus).
The largest freshwater catfish is the wels or danubian catfish (silurus glanis), which lives only in Europe. It has a wide, flattened head with only six whiskers (American catfish have eight), a rounded tail, and a straight-edged anal fin that runs more than half the length of its body. It is known to reach a length of nearly 10 feet (3 meters) and a weight of 440 pounds (200 kg), with individuals reported over 700 pounds.