How to Catch River Catfish: Best Rigs, Jigs, Tactics [2021]

Geoff Stadnyk in Guides on

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For most of my life I looked catfish as a nuisance. While fishing for trout and smallmouth in southeastern Pennsylvania creeks and streams, it was rare to catch river catfish. Catfish were bottom feeding trash fish that could overwhelm our great fishing spots.

At least that was what I knew growing up.

After moving south, I was exposed to a fishing culture that was more appreciative of these fish. Both the channel cats that people ate and the trophy blue catfish that people paid guides to reel in like something out of the deep sea.

I recognize catfish, now, as a ruthless and creative hunting species that can brighten your day with a powerful spinning fight just below dams and in shallow pools. Catfish are as delicious as any other if you know how to prepare them. Hooking a trophy sized blue cat is an experience every fisherman should partake in and learning how to catch river catfish is a skill every angler needs.

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Are There Catfish in your River?

One very important mission you will have to undertake first is to find out whether or not you have catfish in your local river. The good news is that most rivers in the world have some kind of catfish in them. Know your stretch of the river is very important.

You should know which kinds of catfish you have in your river and know how to tell catfish apart from carp. Some stay pretty small, like channel cats but blue catfish and flathead catfish can get MASSIVE.

One of the best ways to find out about the catfish in your area is to head to a local tackle shop and ask them about catfishing in your area rivers. Most tackle shops are run by people who chase these species and will give you all the information that you need to be successful.

Your department of game and fish website will also tell you about lakes, rivers and ponds that are stocked with channel catfish.

What Kind of Catfish Are You After?

There are several species of catfish but there are really two different kinds of catfish experiences that you are going to go after. The first is the catching of medium sized catfish that are fun to reel in on light tackle and are great for eating.

Then there are trophy sized catfish that can weigh as much as 100lbs and need serious saltwater tackle to haul in. These fish are most often caught in rivers and large lakes. This is a unique catfishing experience that requires some investment, but the payoff is outstanding.

There are few giants in the freshwater that can rival a massive blue cat or even a big flathead catfish.

Best Rig to Catch River Catfish To Eat

If you hope to land a cooler full of eating sized catfish, then you are going to want medium to light tackle to get the job done.

Best Rod To Catch River Catfish For Eating

Keep it simple and affordable for bass and catfish with a 6’6 Ugly Stick with some good backbone. These rods are good for hauling in bass, too. There is a good chance you will catch a little of both.

Best Reel To Catch River Catfish For Eating

Lew’s Speed Spin Series are great catfish reels that can take a beating while hauling in bunches of powerful fish.

Best Line To Catch River Catfish For Eating

6-10lb Test Line (low vis green)

If you are going to be catching catfish in debris laden ponds, you may want to go up to 10lb test, but most catfish are going to succumb to a good strong rod, a decent drag and 6lb test line.

Best Hooks To Catch River Catfish For Eating

16th to 8th oz weighted jig heads

Best Rig for Trophy Catfishing in a River

Trophy catfish are rig busting beasts that will do a number on your gear. I wouldn’t invest too much in the brands and things. Heavy duty gear with good line and heavy hooks is what you are after.

Best Trophy Catfishing Rods for the River

Medium Heavy Rods to Heavy Rods (Quantity over quality) Abu Garcia, Catmaxx

Best Trophy Catfishing Line for the River

50lb Test Green Braid Trilene

Best Trophy Catfishing Hooks for the River

Heavy 1/0 Circle Hooks

Jigging Techniques for River Catfish

a fisherman trying to catch river catfish

Jigging scented baits is always going to be your best bet for catching lots of river catfish. For a long time, it was thought that the bait and wait methods were the best for catch “bottom feeding” catfish. The reality is that catfish are hunters and opportunists, like most fish.

I have had exponentially more success jigging Berkley YUM baits for catfish than I ever have sinking stink bait and waiting for cats to bite. It is also much better and more fun.

Top 5 Jigging Baits for River Catfish

  • Berkley GULP Hellgrammite
  • YUM Dinger Watermelon Red Flake
  • Berkley GULP 3 Inch Minnow
  • Charlie Brewer Fluorescent Chartreuse Crappy Jig
  • YUM Craw Bug 2.5 inch Watermelon Red Flake

With any of these baits rigged on a 16th or 8th oz weighted jig head you can keep this just off the bottom by lifting your rod tip with a taught line and medium speed reel. You should feel rocks and bottom. These might mimic hits, but you will know when a fish is on.

Do not worry about getting snagged. When you are jigging baits like these an occasional snag is verification that you are doing it right.

Tactics to Catch Trophy Catfish in a River

The baits and techniques used for larger catfish in larger tidal rivers are quite different than the jigging techniques for smaller cats.

Live bait or cut bait is employed exclusively. This can be purchased or pulled directly from the river using something like a gill net or a cast net. In tidal rivers you can gather all the gizzard shad you like in gill nets and its as easy as looking on a depth finder in shallow water near inlets and tributaries.

Whether you are using cut bait shad or live eels, your best river catfish rig is going to be a slip sinker with an 8oz to 1lb weight. This rig allows a large catfish to take the bait, pull a loose drag and get hooked with your circle hooks long before they realize what is going on.

This rig also helps with serious snags on the deep river bottom.

How to Catch River Catfish: In Summary

Catfish are one of the exceedingly rare species that can be fished for in most water types and you can catch them from the size of your palm up to 100lbs, in the right rivers. You can spend a summer afternoon wading the river and casting for catfish or you can break up the ice on the boat ramp to get after trophies in January.

If you know the type of catfish, you are after it is pretty easy to find them and catch them. Now that you know the types of rigs and the baits that these fish prefer, that makes it all the easier.

There are legions of American fisherman who are missing the boat on catfishing because they think of a catfish as a bottom feeding trash fish. It doesn’t upset me. It just means more for me! That said, I do think more and more river catfish are going to be targeted by fisherman both for eating and the sport of catching a monster.

Geoff Stadnyk

Geoff started fishing as a child in the gorgeous lakes of Mammoth, while on family vacations. His fishing experience includes the use of fly rod and reel. Guided trips along the Madison and Gallatin rivers in Montana, the Frying Pan and Animus in Colorado, and the Deschutes river in Oregon have all paid off and helped make Geoff the angler and writer that he is today.