Baits, Tactics for Catching Big River Catfish

Video catching big catfish in a river
Baits, Tactics for Catching Big River Catfish
Photo by Ron Sinfelt

River Catfish: While many picture pond banks when thinking of catfish, rivers are also great places to pursue them.

Catfish are present in most inland rivers and are even abundant in many tidal rivers. Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Catfish species are very diverse and are literally found all over the world. In fact, catfish inhabit every continent except Antarctica. In the United States, catfish are found in waters from small farm ponds to huge reservoirs and in rivers both small and large. They come in sizes from small to large, ranging from white catfish and bullheads to jumbo flatheads and blues.

Flatheads and blues, along with channel catfish, make up “the big three” — the primary species most anglers pursue, with each providing a unique fishing experience. Although these catfish inhabit and thrive in a variety of different water bodies, one of the best places to target all three species is in major rivers.

Catfish are present in most inland rivers and are even abundant in many tidal rivers. Although there are subtle differences from one river to the next, catfish movement and behavior is very similar in most all rivers. Once seasonal movement patterns, preferred habitats and fishing techniques are learned, it is very easy to apply that knowledge to any river.

One thing to remember is that rivers and river habitats are constantly changing. Current, seasonal flooding, construction, dredging and other factors create changes in bottom contour, current flow and more. A logjam that was productive one week may be washed downstream the next. There are some spots on the river that remain constant, but anglers must stay vigilant of changes and be willing to adapt as warranted.


Catfish have the reputation for hugging the bottom and feeding on everything disgusting imaginable. But this is not a true representation. Catfish are often moving within the water column or even suspended below a school of shad or other fish the same as feeding striped bass. Sure channel catfish feed on dead or smelly forage, but blue catfish prefer other forage and flatheads prefer live bait.

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In the case of the latter, flatheads are fish eaters and feed heavily on shad, minnows, bluegills, suckers and other fish. They also feed on crayfish when available. To target flatheads specifically, most anglers use live bait, such as shad, skipjack herring, shiners, chub minnows, bluegills or sunfish where legal. Remember, not all baits are legal everywhere, especially live baits, so always check local regulations before fishing.

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Flatheads are fish eaters and feed heavily on shad, minnows, bluegills, suckers and other fish. Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Blue catfish are caught on a variety of baits, but probably the number one best bait for blues is fresh cutbait. Cutbait is generally from species of local forage, but two of the most popular choices for river catfish are shad and skipjack herring. Anglers often catch shad with cast nets and skipjack herring with rod and reel. It is best to catch these baits and use them fresh, but some anglers catch a lot of bait and freeze it for later.

The baits, whether fresh or frozen, are then cut into chunks. Some anglers prefer using strips while others prefer using heads or entrails. Both of these fish produce an oily scent stream to attract catfish and are great baits not only for blue catfish, but also for channel cats. Again, though, remember to check regulations prior to catching or using these baits.

Channel catfish are the most widely distributed of the three species. They are opportunistic feeders and forage on pretty much anything they can get in their mouths. Popular baits for channel cats include cutbait, nightcrawlers, chicken liver, cheese or dough balls, shad entrails or stink baits, commercial or home recipes. Dip baits are also a very good option for channel cats, especially for eating-size fish.

There are lots of methods for targeting catfish in rivers, including rod and reels, jug lines, limb-lines and trotlines, but once again check regulations.

One of the most used bait setups is the slip-sinker rig. The main line is run through an egg sinker and then attached to one end of a barrel swivel. Then a leader with the hook is attached to the other end of the barrel swivel. The length of the leader varies according to bottom composition and personal preference. This setup allows the catfish to take the bait and the line to slip through the sinker as the fish moves off.

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Channel catfiish are the most widely distributed of the “big three” species — flatheads and blues are the other two.

Another variation often used in rivers is a bottom-bouncing rig where the main line is tied to a three-way swivel. A leader with a sinker is attached to one eye of the swivel and a leader with the hook is attached to the last eye of the swivel. This setup allows the sinker to set or bounce along the bottom and the baited hook to remain elevated above the bottom or even drift in the current, thus keeping it out of the sediment on the bottom. Some anglers even add a small inline peg float in the hook leader to aid keeping the bait off the bottom.

Anglers fishing from the bank, off a dam wall or even in boats cast the baits and let them settle to the bottom and then crank up the slack and fish with what is often referred to as tight-lining. Boat anglers also have the option of sitting directly over target locations and vertical tight-lining with down rods.

Another method is drift fishing, which is just as it sounds. Anglers drop baits, put the rods in rod holders and then use the current and a trolling motor to drift along likely catfish haunts while keeping baits bouncing on the bottom or hovering just above the bottom. This is a very productive method for covering lots of water, but anglers need to remain vigilant and adjust bait depths to reduce hang-ups.


Catfish love holes, humps and other irregular features in the bottom contour, but these spots are sometimes difficult to find. Good electronics help, but one of the best spots to look for is along outside bends of the river. These bends coupled with current create deep gouges along the bottom and even holes or undercut banks. Big catfish love to get in these dark holes or undercuts to lie in wait for an easy meal to go by. If there are downed trees or log jams in these bends, they make the area even more attractive.

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Log jams, downed trees and submerged timber or logs are always worth a look for catfish. This woody debris attracts baitfish, which in turn attracts hungry catfish. Try fishing the edges of a jam if it is thick or if there are openings, dropping the bait within the opening, but keep in mind it may be difficult to get a large cat out of the wood.

Catfish like structure, so look for bridge pilings, wing dams or even locations where barges are moored. Cats love getting up under these barges where there is ample food available. When fishing wing dams, actively feeding cats are usually found on the current side or along the seam between the current and slack water. Less active catfish usually hang out on the downstream side out of the current.

In the United States, catfish are found in waters from small farm ponds to huge reservoirs and in rivers both small and large. Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The mouths of creeks or tributaries are often a good bet, too. These areas are especially good at certain times of the year, but some are good all year long. In some cases, cats are there to feed while at other times of the year they may be there because the tributary has water warmer or cooler than the main river.

Many big rivers have grain-loading facilities, which are terrific locations to target channel catfish. Where barges are loaded and unloaded, there is a good amount of grain spilled into the water. Catfish congregate to take advantage of the free meal.

The tailwater below a dam is also a good bet. The tailwaters attract catfish more heavily at certain times of the year, but there are almost always plenty of catfish below the dams year ’round. They not only like the holes and crevices created from the current, but forage is plentiful in the tailwater section of a river.

Rivers are great for catfish, but remember to check regulations before hitting the water, not only for fishing regulations, but also for precautions for fishing near dams or other facilities. River fishing involves a certain amount of risk, so always keep safety in mind by wearing PFDs and never taking chances just to catch a fish.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>