How to catch a channel catfish

Illustration of a channel catfish

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The channel catfish is an exciting sport fish and tasty table fare that is becoming increasingly popular with Minnesota anglers. Channel catfish can be found in large and small rivers, lakes and ponds. In Minnesota, they are common in the Minnesota River, Mississippi River, St. Croix River and the Red River of the North. If you have never tried fishing for channel "cats" now is a good time to start.

When to fish

Generally, a year-round season but check the fishing regulations based on where you want to fish. Some waters have special regulations for channel catfish.

  • Inland: waters within Minnesota
  • Border: waters that border other states or countries
  • Special: waters listed by name that have special or experimental regulations in place that differ from statewide regulations.
Where to fish

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Illustration of a channel catfish

Many great catfish destinations exist throughout Minnesota, and the Red River of North is truly a national treasure. The Red is one of America's premier channel catfish angling destination because of its abundance of 20-pounders and the occasional giant that grows up to 30 pounds.

Though channel and flathead catfish coexist in large, slow rivers, the channel catfish takes to smaller waters as well, sharing many riffled streams with walleye and smallmouth bass. The channel catfish originally inhabited the Mississippi River only below St. Anthony Falls but in recent years has been introduced as far upstream as St. Cloud.

Good places to fish at night include riffles and shallows. Good places to fish during the day or after a rain include pools and timber-strewn areas out of strong current that have moderate cover.

The channel catfish requires reliable flows of well-oxygenated water but can tolerate turbid water and water temperatures into the high 90s. Murky water, in fact, protects newly hatched channel catfish from sight-feeding predators. In winter, channel cat seeks deep water and protection from the current.

How to fish

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photo of circle hook

A common catfish rig is a sturdy rod-and-reel loaded with 15- to 20-pound test line. Thread the line through a one-ounce egg sinker. Next, tie a barrel swivel to the line. Now, tie about two feet of heavy monofilament or fluorocarbon line to the other end of the swivel. Finish the job by tying a 6/0 or 4/0 circle or bait hook to the other end.

Bait the hook with a nightcrawler, chicken liver or cut chunks of minnow or other legal bait. Commercial “stink baits” sold at retail outlets are a good option too because catfish primarily find their food by using their taste and smell senses.

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pictures of several hooks with different types of bait

Channel catfish feed primarily at night, which is the best time to catch them. They can be caught from either a boat or shore. Fishing with a group of friends for catfish on the shore of a river is a great way to spend an evening.

If you're ready for a different way of fishing, try your hand at catfishing.


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photo of baitcasting rod and reel

Many catfish anglers prefer rods in the seven feet long or slightly longer. Basically, you want a rod that can cast your bait a good distance and is sensitive enough to detect a light bite but strong enough to wrestle a good-sized fish. Similarly, many catfish anglers prefer bait-casting reels over spin-casting reels but either will work.

What's important to know

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illustration of how to hold a large catfish behind the spines
  • Catfish don’t sting but they can give you a painful poke if you are not careful. That’s because they have sharp spines. One spine is on the top of the fish. Two others are located on the side of the fish, one on each pectoral fin. So, when handling a catfish grasp the fish firmly behind the dorsal (top) fin and place your thumb on one side behind the pectoral fin and your index finger behind the fin on the opposite side.
  • Catfish will drop your bait if they feel too much resistance. So, fish with as little weight as necessary to keep your bait on or near the bottom.
Basic biology

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man holding large channel catfish
  • The channel catfish is a comet-shaped fish with a forked tail, flat head, barbels (sometimes called whiskers) and smooth skin. Its mouth is wide and flat with bristle-like teeth. The smooth body is silver-gray to black with scattered black spots.
  • Channel catfish eat crayfish, insects, snails, small clams, worms, fish and the seeds of elm and silver maple trees.
  • Channel catfish spawn when water temperatures reach 75 degrees, usually in late June. The eggs are deposited in a jelly-like mass. After spawning the male drives off the female and guards the nest.
  • Catfish not only have taste buds on their tongues and lips like other fish but also on their barbels, along the sides of their bodies and even the tail.
  • The state record channel catfish weighed 38 pounds.


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