How to Catch Catfish at Night

by Braxton Taylor

Every kid loves those stories about knights slaying dragons—the bold warrior venturing into a dark cave to face a mighty beast in combat. It’s about honor, bravery, and overcoming challenges. To me, those tales carried right through to adulthood. Many of us took those stories literally and are always on the lookout for an opportunity to venture into the darkness to slay our own dragons. For me, that’s night-time catfishing.

Night fishing for catfish is about as close to dragon slaying as you can get in the angling world. You go boldly out into the darkness, “sword” in hand, looking to engage an unseen beast in combat. It’s one of the most thrilling and rewarding fishing experiences on this earth. Of course, you don’t have to fish for catfish at night, the fish feed throughout the entire day and night, but night fishing for cats can often be your best bet at either catching an absolute mess of fish or the catfish of a lifetime. You just have to be brave enough to face the dark.

Nocturnal Catfishing Equipment

As with any night-fishing adventure, your number-one priority should be safety equipment. Those lakeside piers and muddy riverbanks you traverse so easily during the day can be a real hazard after the sun goes down. Start with a good flashlight or even a spotlight. You’ll want something that will both fully illuminate your pathway down to the water, as well as something that you can shine out onto the water when trying to land a struggling catfish. Aside from a flashlight, you’ll want a good headlamp as well which will give you some close-up lighting for tying knots and unhooking fish.

When it comes to rods, reels, and lines for nighttime catfish, you’re going to want a slightly beefier set-up than you’d use during the day. This is not only because you may catch a larger-than-average fish at night, but also because the heavier setup will help you unsnag your baits from the bottom, preventing the need to venture out into the water to get your hook back. Additionally, the heavier rods and reels are easier to feel on the cast and can make you more accurate, which is great when you’re hurling baits blindly into the dark. To start, you’ll want a medium-heavy to heavy-action rod strung with 25- to 50-pound test braided line. As catfish are rarely line-shy and are even less so at night, this heavy line will work for everything from small channel catfish to giant flatheads and blue cats.

Since almost all catfishing is done by casting out baits, it’s also a good idea to have some sort of alarm system that you can attach to the rods when night fishing for cats. There are a lot of great clip-on strike alarms that you can attach to the line which make small beeping sounds and/or flashing lights when a catfish grabs the bait. These can be especially effective if you’re the type of angler who might fall asleep next to their rod during a slow night on the water. If those alarms are too fancy for your taste, you can also attach a small bell to the tip of the rod or even a glow stick which will stand out in the dark and will be easy to see dip or drop when a catfish takes your bait.

One of the most important things to do before any night fishing expedition is to organize your equipment. You don’t want to be fumbling around in the dark with tangles and giant catfishing hooks and heavy weights swinging around your head. You also don’t want to struggle to find specific baits and other items when there’s fishing to be done. Instead, organize your tackle box and rig up your rods during the day so you’ll be ready to hit the water as soon as the sun drops below the horizon.

Best Baits and Strategies for Night Fishing

There are dozens of different kinds of baits for catfish, from catfish dough baits and dips to more traditional worms and minnows or baits like chicken livers and shrimp that you can buy in the grocery store. All of these baits will work during the day and the night, but you’re going to want to make sure to match whatever bait you’re using to the catfish species you’re targeting.

Channel cats are the most common catfish species and make for some of the best eating. Considered to be the “swimming tongues” of the catfish world, channel cats are opportunistic feeders and will eat anything from dead and rotting fish and vegetation on the bottom to worms, crayfish, and minnows. They’ll even eat small panfish, snakes, turtles, and frogs. While you can catch them on almost any of these items, channel cats are very scent-sensitive fish, so when you’re fishing for them at night your best bets are the smelliest things you can find. Chicken livers, animal hearts, fish guts, and that tub of nightcrawlers you left on the dash of your truck for a couple weeks will bring channel cats into your evening setup.

Blue cats are similar to channel cats in that they are very opportunistic feeders. They’ll eat cheese baits and blood balls and even big gobs of Powerbait but I’ve always found cut baits to be the most effective. Take a fresh caught shad, chub, carp, whitefish, or whatever you’ve had in your freezer for a while and slice the fish into 3- to 5-inch chunks. Fresh fish are often better for this as they’ll have more blood in their meat which will create a stronger scent in the water.

Flathead catfish are the true predators of the catfish world. These large, aggressive fish will eat anything from bullfrogs and turtles to bass and panfish. Accordingly, your best bet for getting ahold of one of these monsters is by using live bait. Personally, I like to go big. Before a nighttime flathead adventure, head out on the water during the day and fill up a bucket with some big baits. Large panfish like bluegill, suckers, and even game fish like small bass (where legal) and bullhead catfish will all be inhaled by big flatheads, especially when you’re fishing for them at night and want to attract some serious attention.

At night, catfish tend to favor areas with a lot of structure close to deeper water. The bases of dams and sharp drop-offs with boulder piles, brush, and log jams close by, are all great places to set up for some nighttime catfish action. Additionally, as catfish are less wary at night, they will also move into shallow water flats and along sand gravel bars near deep holes and channels.

Setting up for nighttime catfish is fairly basic. Just like us, catfish can’t see very well in the dark. They spend most of their time hunting near the bottom where they can use their noses and whiskers to find prey. Accordingly, you should ignore the bobbers you have sitting in your tackle box, and instead plant your baits on the bottom. The best way to do this is with a sliding bottom rig. To set it up, run your line through a large heavy bell sinker and then tie on a heavy barrel swivel to the end. Attach a 1- to 3-foot length of 20- to 30-pound monofilament line to the other end of the swivel and then attach a hook. This setup will allow a big cat to run with your bait for a few yards before you set the hook.

You’re going to want to choose a hook that matches the bait you are using. If you’re hunting nighttime catfish with a dough or dip bait, a size 2 to size 2/0 treble hook with a sponge or spring attachment specifically designed for such baits. For meatier baits like chicken livers or cut bait or when you’re using large live baits for flatheads, a large 1/0 to 4/0 circle hook is going to work better at converting bites into hooked fish.

The Nighttime is The Right Time

As previously mentioned, you don’t have to fish for catfish at night. The fish will bite just fine during the day, yet there’s something special about being out in search of cats after dark. The daytime anglers flying around on bass boats, screaming kids and barking dogs on the beach, pleasure boaters zipping by on water skis, and those annoying teenagers blasting music from their innertubes, are all gone during the evening, leaving the water to just you and the fish.

There’s a certain romance to being out there alone on the water in the dark. You cast your baits out into the distant blackness, listening so hard for that distant splash and you begin to hear the night. Owls hooting in the trees along the bank, the wet flop of a startled beaver, coyotes yapping in the distance, they all seem to condense the world into a place just beyond your vision and your mind starts to wander. You imagine a catfish swimming along the bottom with its feelers and fins extended toward your soaking bait. Your rod suddenly doubles over and your drag screams. You set the hook and battle with something too big and too strong to comprehend—that’s your dragon.

Feature image via Mike Hehner.

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