Fishing for Catfish in Lakes

Three catfish ready for the frying pan
Rebecca E Marvil/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

While catfish are found in lakes and rivers all over the U.S., this article focuses on the lake fishing. Depending on the body of water, a lake may contain some big specimens as well as plenty of smaller ones; and the subspecies can be varied. Channel, blue and flathead catfish are common lake residents, as are their smaller bullhead cousins. The world record brown and black bullheads, in fact, came from lakes.

All of these species are fun to catch and good to eat. Smaller fish are preferred for cooking because bigger ones, except for flatheads, can get tough. For the most part, catfish are bottom feeders and usually hold in deep water, although they will move into shallows to feed, especially at night.

Creek Channels, Depth and Temperature

In large lakes (those that are actually impoundments) catfish, especially big ones, will hold along old creek and river channels in deep water. They move to shallower depths to feed, especially at night, and the flats adjacent to channels offer especially good fishing. Follow a creek channel across a flat to the back of a cove, and chances are you will find catfish somewhere along it. Catfish will hold on any kind of bottom, from rocks to mud, but seem to have a preference for hard bottoms, including those of clay or gravel.

The depth of water can be critical. In winter and summer, catfish hold in the deepest water that has enough oxygen to support them, searching for temperatures in the mid-70s.

In the south, that can mean very deep water.  In the spring spawning period, they will move into shallow water with hard bottoms. In the fall, they will move shallower as the water cools down to the 70s on top, then back to deeper water as it gets colder. Catfish can be caught in cold water, even when ice fishing, but this is uncommon.

These fish are usually most active in warm water.

Baitfishing For Catfish

Catfish will eat just about anything they can get in their mouths. Liver, live minnows, earthworms, crickets and mealworms are all favorite natural foods. There is a wide range of prepared "stink" baits on the market, too. These paste- and dough-like baits can all be molded around hooks and are popular for bottom fishing. 

Cats have been caught on unusual baits, as well, ranging from pieces of hot dogs to soap, and they will hit all kinds of artificial baits, from plastic worms to crankbaits and spinnerbaits, though these are not as successful as a natural or prepared bait.

Natural or prepared bait size depends on the size of the fish you want to catch. For small, eating-size channel cats, earthworms or small minnows are good. For huge flatheads, a 6-inch or bigger bream or shad is best. Fish all baits on the bottom. In lakes, it often helps to pre-bait a hole (this is actually a form of chumming) to draw cats into a smaller area to catch them. This concentrates them and improves your odds.

Tackle To Use

You should match your rod, reel and line choices to the size of the cats you expect to catch. Smaller cats are more fun to catch on lighter spinning or baitcasting rods, and they provide good sport with this equipment.

But you need heavy-action rods, reels with a good drag and strong line to land really big catfish. When going after 50-pound or larger catfish, many anglers choose light saltwater gear.

For landing smaller fish, a 6- to 7-foot medium-action spinning rod, and a medium-duty reel that has a good drag, will cover most situations. Spool the reel with 10-pound nylon monofilament line, or a heavier braided line with a small diameter, and you can land cats from 1 to 10 pounds. You can land even bigger catfish with this tackle, too, if the reel drag is reliable and you play the fish right.

This article was edited and revised by our Freshwater Fishing expert, Ken Schultz.