It’s always good to know where on the water column the fish we target feed. It just makes fishing for them so much easier. You really don’t want to try going for a bottom feeder on the surface or vice versa.
Anyway, this article will focus on the feeding habits of catfish. I’ll cover pretty much everything you need to know about catfish and bottom feeding fish. I’ll even recommend some rigs and bait that work great for catching catfish.
Are Catfish Bottom Feeders?
Catfish are generally considered bottom feeders because they do the majority of their feeding at the bottom of the water column. They have a tendency to literally bury themselves in the mud to search for food.
However, catfish do not exclusively feed on the bottom. You will often see them venturing toward the surface for food. This is especially common at night when the water is much cooler.
What Bait to Use for Catfish?
Catfish are similar to crabs – they eat pretty much anything that falls to the bottom of the water. I will say that catfish are slightly different because they usually only eat bait that has some protein content (ex. meat), but they aren’t picky eaters other than that.
I’ve caught plenty of catfish with chicken liver, nightcrawlers, crawfish, and cut bait. Bigger catfish (and flatheads) usually feed on live bait, and they especially love live shad. So I recommend using live shad for bigger catfish or flatheads.
Chicken liver works best for smaller catfish. Just make sure it stays on the hook when you cast it. Also, swap it out for fresh chicken liver every 15-20 minutes because the smell becomes much weaker. Don’t worry, one pound of chicken livers will cost you about two dollars at your local grocery store or butcher. I do recommend bringing a few because catfish sure do love chicken liver.
That said, here are some of the many baits that I’ve used to catch catfish:
- Dip bait
- Chicken livers
- Smelly chicken necks
- Chicken skin (it’s very easy to hook)
- Cold cuts
As you can see, a hungry catfish will eat anything that smells good. Some fishermen will even stick their hand straight in the mouth of a catfish to pull it out – it’s called ‘noodling.’ I don’t recommend that, but it does work for catching catfish. And it doesn’t even require any bait.
What Exactly Is a ‘Bottom Feeder’ Fish?
A bottom feeder fish is simply a fish that feeds at the bottom of the water column. For example, catfish will often bury themselves in the mud to search for dead fish, snails, algae, baitfish, or larvae at the bottom of a lake, pond, or river.
Catfish don’t always bury themselves in the mud, though. Bigger catfish will usually hunt baitfish that hide in the shade of structure at the bottom of the water column.
Where Can I Find Catfish?
You will usually find catfish at the bottom of the deepest part of a pond, lake, or river. Catfish often congregate near structure, debris, or rocks most of the year. And yes, that applies to channel catfish, blue catfish, and flathead catfish.
As I mentioned earlier, at night you will often notice catfish moving a little closer to the surface to chase bait. You will still rarely see them at the surface for long periods of time, though. If you see baitfish panicking near the surface at night, then they might be being chased by a big catfish.
Can I Catch Catfish From Shore?
Yes. You can still catch catfish from shore. It does help to know the area and have a far cast. A boat eliminates both those problems since you can move around from spot to spot, and you may have a fish finder.
I recommend fishing for catfish from a boat if possible. If a boat isn’t possible, then fishing from a dock or pier will work well. Fishing from shore can also work, but you will have to do some work finding a good location.
Do I Need a Fish Finder to Catch Catfish?
No. You don’t need a fish finder to catch catfish. However, a fish finder makes it so much easier to find structure, holes, schools of bait, and even catfish. You are also much less likely to get hung up if you’re properly using a fish finder. Improperly using a fish finder is pretty much a waste of time, though.
As good as fish finders are for catching catfish, people have been catching catfish much, much longer than fish finders have existed. Fishermen also catch catfish from the shore or docks without a fish finder, so it’s definitely possible.
Are Catfish, and Other Bottom Feeders, Good to Eat?
Yes. Catfish are excellent fish to eat. They have white, dense, moist meat. It’s not as flaky as other white meat, which is nice. Nor does it have that ‘muddy’ taste that you often find in freshwater fish. Catfish is actually my favorite freshwater fish to eat.
Bottom feeders have a bad reputation among most people despite the excellent taste of catfish. In fact, many of the fish that you probably enjoy are also bottom feeders. Some other good tasting bottom feeders include:
- Most shellfish
In reality, the taste of a particular fish depends on the water quality the fish was raised in. Bad water quality (ex. lots of pollutants) or a bad diet (ex. some farm-raised fish) will result in bad tasting fish. The location that the fish feeds on the water column really has nothing to do with the taste of the fish. Some breeds of fish, such as grouper, taste good no matter the diet, water quality, or size.
Are Catfish Good Fighters?
Yes. Catfish are very exciting fish to catch. They will fight until the very end, so you won’t have an easy time reeling them in. Plus, they like to turn into the mud, swim around rocks, roll your line, go on long runs, and (try to) swim away from you for the entire fight. It’s also important to note that catfish can get pretty big and have a lot of power, which makes everything even more difficult.
The fight doesn’t stop when you land them, either. Catfish will flop around and try to flip upside down, so keep that in mind until the catfish is dead. Many anglers have had their catfish flop right off the deck – sometimes with the tackle (and pole) still attached!
With that in mind, I’d say that all types of freshwater catfish are very fun fish to catch.
Rigs for Bottom Feeding Catfish
Catfish are usually considered bottom feeders, so it’s reasonable to assume that you should fish for them off the bottom. Here are some of my favorite rigs for fishing for catfish.
Slip Sinker Rig
The slip sinker rig (known to bass fishermen as the Carolina Rig) is the best type of rig for all types of catfish. There are literally catfish fishermen that do perfectly fine using nothing but a slip sinker rig.
It’s a fairly basic rig, too. Simply place a sliding sinker, plastic bead, and then tie a barrel swivel to the mainline. On the other end of the swivel use 3-4 feet of 50-pound mono as your leader with any type of hook.
Basically, the weight will sit on the bottom with the bait either sitting on the bottom or slightly off the bottom. Catfish just vacuum up everything edible without running (unlike trout), so you should set the hook as soon as you feel any tension on the line. Don’t wait too long or the catfish will swallow your bait, and that’s always annoying.
The slip sinker works for all types of catfish. However, it works especially well for blue catfish. There are also plenty of variations on this rig for different scenarios, but the basic slip sinker rig is a great general purpose catfish rig.
Drift fishing for catfish with a slip sinker
You can also drift fish for catfish with a slip sinker. This is also an effective method for catching catfish. I recommend fishing 3-5 feet off the bottom while trolling for catfish. Also, don’t use live bait while trolling because you will get hung up.
Slip Bobber Rig
The slip bobber rig closely resembles the slip sinker rig, but it has one major difference: it uses a bobber rather than a weight.
I know, you’re probably wondering why you would go for catfish with a bobber. Well, a slip bobber rig works surprisingly well for catching channel catfish. Remember, a bobber still has a split shot weight that takes the line lower down in the water column. I’m obviously not recommending you freeline flies to catch catfish.
If the channel catfish aren’t biting on your slip sinker rig, then it’s probably time to pull out the slip bobber. This is especially true in the winter when the catfish will come a little higher up in the water column.
That covers it for everything you need to know about catfish. They really like feeding on the bottom and will eat just about any meat or fish you put in front of them, which makes them somewhat easy to catch. Many fishermen, including myself, have successfully used their lunch to catch catfish. A world record blue catfish that weighed 116 pounds 12 ounces was caught by a fisherman using SPAM as bait.
Just don’t try freelining a worm to catch a catfish. I can pretty much guarantee that you will never catch a catfish by freelining any bait. It’s fishing, so it is still possible. But there are just so many better ways to catch a bottom feeder than freelining bait.