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Out-of-the-(Tackle) Box Tips for Catching Channel Catfish

“Dang, I thought I had a big bass! Hey, it’s a big channel cat.”

The channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), Nebraska’s official state fish, sometimes gets misunderstood, particularly it seems, by those who exclusively fish for bass and walleye.

Catfish, especially the channel cats, have a reputation as bottom feeders that just lazily swim around sucking up stinky, dead stuff from the bottom.

And that is not entirely true!

I asked Chris Pokorny of Elkhorn, NE, who’s among Nebraska’s most avid channel catfish anglers and is published outdoor writer, why he specifically enjoys fishing for the “whiskered ones” called channel catfish.

His reply: “There are several reasons I like fishing for channel catfish. They are most abundant and thrive in almost every body of water in Nebraska. They require minimal gear, basic baits and less skill to catch compared to other species of game fish. They grow to big proportions, have strong fighting capabilities and are delicious on the dinner table. “And another thing,” he adds, “channel catfish tend to swim in schools or groups, and where you find one, you’ll often find more, which makes for some fun and fast-action fishing.”

Chris Pokorny of Elkhorn, NE shows off a nice-sized channel catfish he caught on cut bait under a bobber in a couple feet of water along the shoreline behind him. Photo courtesy of Chris Pokorny.

The channel catfish is a popular fish for anglers to pursue and catch in Nebraska waters. We all know that. Surveys indicate the channel catfish’s notoriety as a much sought-after game fish. Channel cats are even stocked in many bodies of water by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

In Chris’s view, the channel catfish may not be the most attractive fish swimming but it certainly deserves admiration and is worth the effort for anglers to tackle.

He encourages folks to fish for channel cats, most notably this time of year.

“We’re in an excellent period right now to catch pre-spawn channel catfish before they start spawning in July,” points out Pokorny.

Daryl Bauer of Lincoln, NE, a fisheries biologist and the fisheries outreach program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, says it makes sense that channel catfish would be very catchable now. “Water temperatures have risen several degrees — much to the liking of warm-water catfish. So, hungry, aggressive channel catfish are active and roaming to find food and build energy reserves for the July spawn.”

Daryl Bauer of Lincoln, NE displays a big channel catfish he caught on a lure. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Pokorny and Bauer offer these tips to help improve your odds at landing channel catfish:

Feeding Behavior, Areas Used, Bait and Move

Channel catfish are quite predictable in their feeding behavior and in the types of areas they use. “When we are fishing for channel cats, we are looking for shallow flats next to sharp, deep drop offs,” says Pokorny. “The channel cats are nearly always there.” And, he says, you don’t have to cast far from the bank to catch them either, only about 10 feet or less, because the main prey for channel catfish are bluegill that are not far from the bank.”

It is always important to use baits the channel catfish are eating. Most often that is other fish like bluegill or green sunfish. “Fresh cut bait is always our go to bait when nothing else seems to be working,” indicates Pokorny. “We use live bait to catch larger fish.”

Pokorny emphasizes: “If you’re fishing off of the bank in a lake, you likely don’t need any weight at all. The bait should settle on the bottom. Use as little weight as possible, depending on the situation, and consider using a float like a slip bobber to suspend the bait over aquatic vegetation.

Bauer says fresh-cut bait is hard to beat almost all of the time for channel catfish. “Catch a sunfish or other small fish (check regulations), then cut it up and use it for bait,” recommends Bauer.

Pokorny says if you are after eating-sized channel catfish then nightcrawlers, shrimp, liver or stink bait all work great.  But, if you are targeting Master Angler-sized fish, cut bait and live bait are definitely the ways to go.

“If you are not getting bites, move,” suggests Bauer. “Look for areas where there is an abundance of baitfish or other aquatic prey. Pay special attention to wind-swept shorelines or areas where there is a current. If there is shallow-water cover nearby, that makes a spot even better for channel catfish.”

Forget the Fancy Gear

“Honestly, my favorite rods to use for channel catfish are the same rods I use for walleye, northern pike and largemouth bass. The bend of these 2-piece, 7-foot rods help the circle hooks load up real well,” states Pokorny. He puts a spinning reel (Pflueger Purist 1335) with an efficiently working  drag system containing 10-12 lbs. of braided line on the rods. “Braided line does not stretch and assists the circle hook in setting better when the catfish swims away,” explains Pokorny. “The bottom line with all of this,” he declares, “is that you don’t need fancy, expensive setups to fish for channels.”

The Slip Sinker Rig

Slip sinker rigs work well to catch channel catfish in virtually any water, according to Pokorny and Bauer. This is a simple rig to tie with few components. Slide a slip sinker such as an egg sinker or no-roll sinker onto your mainline and tie on a barrel swivel. Then attach an 8- to 10-inch leader and finally a hook. Circle hooks are best. Hook size depends on the size of fish you expect to catch. Sizes in the 1/0 to 5/0 range should cover most situations with 5/0 to 8/0 preferred for lunker channel catfish. Instead of using a barrel swivel, you can use a split-shot to pin a sliding sinker a set distance above the hook.

Circle Hooks

Circle hooks are great to use when using live or cut bait. There is really no need to “set the hook” as they are designed to hook the fish themselves. “Slowly pull back on the rod when it starts to double over as the catfish takes the bait,” instructs Pokorny. “Quick hook sets normally result in missed fish.” When employed properly, circle hooks reduce the chance of the fish swallowing the bait as they are usually caught in the corner of the mouth. Circle hooks are ideal for catch-and-release fishing.

Lures

Bauer says talk to any hard-core largemouth bass or walleye angler, and they likely will tell you stories of some big channel cats that were caught on a variety of artificial lures. “I can think of channels I have caught on spinnerbaits, top-waters, jigging spoons, and had one smash a crankbait once and then explode from the water when I set the hook. In recent years, I have not spent much time soaking live or dead baits targeting channel cats. I just keep casting the variety of artificial baits I use for other predator fish knowing that from time to time I am going to pick up the occasional channel catfish.”

A channel catfish caught on an artificial lure (crankbait). Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

The Drag

“Ensure your drag is set correctly,” stresses Pokorny. “You never know when you are going to hook into a behemoth!” How do I know if my drag is set right?  Pokorny responds: “All I do is make sure I can pull the line freely from the reel without the risk of snapping it. It just needs to have some give to it.” By the way, Pokorny cautions to never reel while a catfish is pulling the drag! “All you are doing is twisting the line. Use the backbone of the rod to tire the fish and pump the rod while reeling on the drop to bring the fish to you.” 

The Rod Holder, Rod Tip and Reeling

Cast out your channel catfish presentation and put the rod in a rod holder. But don’t grab the rod until the rod tip is touching the water, Pokorny notes. “Let the rod do its job and set the circle hook for you as the fish swims away. Then, the first thing you do is reel, reel, reel before you pull the rod out of the rod holder to ensure the hook is set.”

Put The Big Ones Back

Bauer reminds anglers that channel catfish are slow-growing fish. “It takes several years for a channel catfish to reach 30 inches long,  so return them to the water. The smaller ones are better eating anyway. Keep in mind big fish aren’t hard to catch because their smart, it’s that they are so rare.” Bauer continues:  “There are only so many big fish that occupy a given water body or waterway. Those big channel catfish are likely to have the best genetics in the population so you want them put back in the water to live, breed and spawn.”

Take ‘Em Fishing

Utilizing all of these tips, why not take introduce a new angler to the fun world of fishing for channel catfish in Nebraska waters. In the process, be sure to register for our Take ‘Em Fishing challenge. Visit OutdoorNebraska.gov/TakeEmFishing for more information. Good “catfishing!”

Catching channel catfish is a fun outdoor activity for your blogger’s family. Photo by Rich Berggren/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media channels, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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