Proof of the Catfish's popularity is the great number of anglers interested in him; they total several million. It is doubtful if even the aristocratic Trout, or the little Sunfish caught in nearly every back-yard pond, claims more attention than this strange fish with the whiskers. Maybe it's because there are more of him. The Catfish family contains over 1,000 species, distributed all over the world except in the coldest regions. In this country the Channel Catfish is favored by the sportsman because he's one of the largest and he's a tough fighter who will take a bait without too much coaxing. His home is the waters east of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. South of Mexico you'll find his various cousins all the way to the southernmost tip of South America. A species in the Amazon—the Manguruyu—reaches several hundred pounds. Some varieties even take to salt water.
Our Channel Catfish averages 2 pounds in weight. His world record is 55 pounds. The Blue Catfish, or Mississippi Catfish, is larger but not as widespread, being confined to the Mississippi Valley. His world record is 94 pounds, 8 ounces. The Catfish has a firm, chunky body covered with smooth skin instead of scales. And sprouting from his chin are long and tough whiskers, called "barbels," which inspired his name since they give him a somewhat cat-like appearance. He uses them as a kind of radar to guide him in the dark during his nightly foraging. Be very careful when handling a Catfish; the front spines of his dorsal (top) and pectoral (side) fins are sharp and saw-toothed. When danger threatens he raises them and a stab in the hand from one of them isn't an experience you'll forget in a hurry. Fortunately they're not poisonous as on some South American species. The Channel Cat's back is dark gray, his sides a silvery gray, and he's sprinkled with black spots. The Blue Catfish is similar but more of a bluish-gray and he doesn't have spots. Both have deeply forked tails.
As for diet, it would be easier to list what a Catfish doesn't eat. He likes everything, even some things that seem impossible. He won't pass up any natural food such as flies, insects, minnows, frogs, worms, crawfish and the rest. And he has quite an appetite for new items introduced to him by anglers: chopped fish, chicken and hog livers, chicken entrails and coagulated chicken blood, rabbit, squirrel, beef, lamb and an assortment of ready-made commercial products accurately called "stink bait." The more it stinks, the more the Catfish seems to like it, probably because he can smell it at a greater distance. But in spite of his strange taste in foods, the Catfish likes a clean home. You'll find him generally in the pure, clean waters of lakes and fast rivers with sand or pebble bottoms. Only a few of his cousins are happy in muddy homes.
In these waters the Catfish varies his haunts and feeding habits, although he more frequently feeds on the bottom and at night. In spring in good Catfish water look for them in the warm shallow coves of ponds and lakes, and in the deep fast current of streams and rivers, where they roam feeding during the dusk, night and dawn. During the day they retreat to deep rocky shelters in a lake; to deep pools under overhanging banks and tree bottoms in a river. When the summer heat arrives, Catfish remain in the coldest waters, leaving them only at night to feed and during dark overcast and rainy days. Autumn offers some of the best Catfishing. Then they increase their activity and come into the shallows more often in search of insects as well as bottom food, and they become sport for the fly-fisherman. Use regular Trout tackle.
Although many Catfish are taken on flies and spinning lures, the most and largest always seem to be caught on bait. For this fishing, use a strong bait-casting rod stiff enough to sink your hook in a Cat's tough mouth, and a bait-casting reel with line of about 12-pound-test. Bait fishing at night, where legal, is done without a bobber. Let the bait (any of the tidbits listed above) rest on the bottom or roll with the current. When you are casting during the day and artificial lures won't produce results, try a frog, crawfish, minnow or a bunch of night-crawlers strung on a plain hook. A spinner added a few feet above the hook will help attract the Cats. In clear water, use a 3-foot monofilament leader, too.
The "stink baits," although unpleasant to smell and handle, are nevertheless the most effective if you want to be sure of catching Catfish. You can concoct your own, such as "sponge bait"—made by cutting a sponge into small cubes and letting these soak in a jar of mixed limburger cheese and dead fish for several days, after which each cube is used as a single bait. But there's a simple and deadly Catfish bait that doesn't smell bad. An old Catfisherman passed it on to me. He had learned that Catfish like soap! His bait was a small chunk of white laundry soap into which he embedded his hook. When in the water, the soap gradually dissolved, sending out a trail of scent for the fish to follow, just as the "stink baits" do. He had a string of nice Cats to prove his invention worked! And since then, I've often proved it myself.