It would be hard to find any relatively unpolluted body of fresh water in North America that does not contain one or more species of catfish. The U.S. climate is the perfect compromise between warm growing seasons and cooler winters to allow fish longevity. Longevity equals large fish.
Before we get into techniques, it is important to understand some of the biology of the different catfish species in the US. There are 4 main species that are normally targeted. The most popular is with out question, the Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus). Not only do millions of anglers seek after the Channel Cat, but they are also raised commercially for restaurants and grocery stores.
Channel Catfish is considered a delicacy in the South (and by me). They are available to just about anyone. They thrive in lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams equally. They are seldom moody, and when you find them, they are almost always happy to cooperate, day or night, winter of summer. They can get very large, occasionally exceeding 50 pounds. 20-pounders are quite common.
Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furtatus) are close relatives of the Channel Catfish, but they are more limited in range and habitat. They grow much larger, sometimes topping 100 pounds. 40-pounders are abundant. They are big-water fish, requiring moderate to fast moving water, and lots of it. They thrive in large reservoirs, lakes and big rivers of the Mississippi River Valley, the Ohio and Missouri Rivers, and their tributaries.
Yellow, or Flathead Catfish(Pylodictus Olivares)grow to be true behemoths, exceeding 120 pounds. 40-pounders are not rare. They are as different from their Blue, and Channel cousins as day and night, being more closely related to the bullheads. While they are found in some lakes, they are predominately river and stream fish. They like slow to moderately moving water, and deep holes surrounded by shallow water. They are pugnacious, moody, and very selective about what they eat.
Lastly are the Bullheads. There are 4 species in the US, the Black, Brown, Yellow, and White Bullheads. The main difference between them (besides basic coloring) are their ranges. They are all small, seldom exceeding 5 pounds. They inhabit slow-moving, low-oxygen water in lakes, streams, rivers and ponds. What they lack in size, they make up for by eating anything remotely edible, and are always very enthusiastic about biting. They are also great table-fare. Bullheads are not very important to the sport-fishing industry, but, like carp, they are a greatly under-used resource. Many of us, from poor backgrounds, in hard times, have feasted upon delectable plates of bullheads, suckers and carp, caught on nothing more than a cane-pole, and a worm, grasshopper or table scraps.
Tip number one is that Channel, and Blue Catfish are predominately omnivorous, locating their food by an incredibly developed sense of smell. They can detect odors in the water as dilute as 1 part per million. This is over 100 times more sensitive than a Bloodhounds nose. Yellow Cats, by contrast, only eat live fish,
and rely more on sight, and sound. Anything that has a pronounced odor, and is organic will attract Blue and Channel Cats. Obviously, live-bait is best for Yellow cats, with live bluegills (where legal) being one of the best.
Tip number 2: Blue and Channel catfish have a weird way of biting at times. They have incredibly strong jaws, capable of crushing mussel shells with ease. Many times, they will pick up a bait, hold it into their mouths, then crush it, before moving off. So, if your line goes slack while still fishing, chances are good that a catfish has picked up the bait. Wait until the fish starts to move off with it before setting the hook. Otherwise you will pull it out of their mouth. Other times, they will mouth a bait and spit it out, only to pick it up again in a few minutes. This can drive anglers nuts. Your rod will bob several times, and stop as soon as you touch the rod. It is a cat-and mouse game that requires patience on your part. Sooner or later, the catfish will take the bait and move off with it.
Tip #3: Because of the information listed in Tip #2, one of the best rigs for fishing for Channel and Blue Cats is to rig a treble hook (or large single hook if using baitfish, or other live bait), on a dropper loop, with a Lindy-typestyle, curved sinker on the bottom. By keeping a tight line, you will know when a catfish has taken the bait, because when they pick up the bait and move forward with it, the sinker will fall forward, keeping a little bit of pressure on the line, so you can hook them without too much slack in the line.
Tip #4: You can lose a lot of hooks and sinkers fishing in the rocky bottoms below tailraces. Here’s a way to make this a little easier. Instead of rigging a slip, bell or lindy sinker on the bottom, simply pinch several split-shots to the end of the line, using as many as needed. When the bottom sinker gets hung in the rocks, it will just pull it off with moderate pressure, leaving the hook, and the rest of the sinkers intact so you can keep fishing.
Tip #5: For yellow cats, the best technique is to rig a trot, or jug line with a live bluegill. They are tough, and stay alive and active for a long time on a hook. This can tempt even the most apathetic Yellow cat, eventually.