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What Do Catfish Eat?

Three species of catfish dominate North American fishing: the channel, the blue, and the flathead.

And while they share a lot in common, including an incredible sense of smell, their feeding behavior and diet are more different than you might expect. So while the stomach of a channel cat may be filled with snails and insects, a trophy flathead will feed mainly on fish, and a big blue will eat anything in the water!

These differences aren’t just academic: the more you know about a catfish’s diet, the better you’ll be at catching them.


Keep reading!

What Do Catfish Eat? The Diet of Catfish Explained

All three species of catfish share leathery skin that’s covered in scent-detecting chemoreceptors. This gives them a super-sense, and they can detect prey in total darkness or the muddiest of water.

Now, you might take that truth and run with it, assuming that stink baits are the optimal choice for all three species.

But you’d be wrong!

Check out our top recommendations for the best catfish baits and how to use them.

Only channel cats engage in scavenging behavior, while both flatheads and blues prefer live meals. That’s why understanding diet is so critical to bait selection, as we’ve discussed before.

Let’s take a closer look.

Channel catfish

The channel catfish, or Ictalurus punctatus as it’s known to science, is the most common--and smallest--of the three species. Typically caught in the range of 2 to 4 pounds, they can grow to as large as 40 to 50.

Thomas L. Wellborn, a catfish specialist at the University of Florida, says that “Based on stomach analysis, young catfish feed primarily on aquatic insects. The adults have a much more varied diet which includes insects, snails, crawfish, green algae, aquatic plants, seeds, and small fish. When available, they will feed avidly on terrestrial insects, and there are even records of birds being eaten. Fish become an important part of the diet for channel catfish larger than 18 inches total length, and in natural waters fish may constitute as much as 75 percent of their diet.”

Channel cats, then, are omnivorous, though they turn piscivorous as they grow larger.

And while live food certainly appeals to them, time-tested stinky options like soured chicken livers and punch baits work well on channel cats, especially in warmer water where the smell will quickly disperse and alert them to a waiting meal.

I’m a big fan of homemade sponge baits on a strong #4 treble hook and dip baits like Triple S.

triple s channel cat stinky bait

For channel cats, it’s hard to go wrong with a stinky bait like Triple S.

The sponge is super easy to work with, and if you need a tutorial, this one is very clear:

Flathead catfish

Pylodictis olivaris, more commonly known as the flathead catfish, can grow to as long as 61 inches and as heavy as 123 pounds. Propelled by a voracious appetite for live prey, these fish are active hunters less interested in offerings like liver or turkey necks than channel cats are.

Texas Parks and Wildlife explains that as these catfish reach about 10 inches, they become almost exclusively piscivorous. At that point, they make a meal of “shad, carp, suckers, sunfish, largemouth bass and other catfish (including their own kind).”

If you want to attract flatheads, then, live or cut bait like shad or bluegill are the best bet, and whether you run a 3- to 4-inch live fish under a slip float or pitch a slip sinker rig with a fat sucker, you’ll be making the right move.

Slip, or sliding, sinker rigs are easy to use and very effective on both flatheads and blues.

sliding sinker rig

To tie a Slip Sinker Rig, follow these steps:

  1. Slide an egg sinker onto your main line. 
  2. Follow the sinker with a bead.
  3. Attach a heavy-duty barrel swivel with a Uni Knot, wet it, and tighten it down, trimming the tag end.
  4. Cut approximately 18 inches of tough leader.
  5. Using a Palomar Knot, attach a strong hook. Wet your knot, tighten it, and trim the tag end.
  6. Attach the leader to your barrel swivel using a Uni Knot. Wet it, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.

Blue catfish

The blue cat, Ictalurus furcatus, is the undisputed heavyweight of American catfish. Typically caught by the time it reaches 25 to 46 inches, it can grow to a rod-snapping 65 inches and 150 pounds!

Blues don’t get that size by scavenging, however, and like flatheads, these big predators are active hunters.

Shad, suckers, and sunfish are certainly on the menu, as are other catfish. But you can add to that creatures like frogs, snakes, and even small alligators. Birds foolish enough to tempt a blue cat are fair game, too.

In fact, there’s pretty much nothing alive that a blue cat won’t swallow, and they’re definitely not picky about prey!

If you’re looking for a trophy blue, large sunfish and shad are a good place to start!

And there’s probably no better way to rig them than a Three-Way.

The Three-Way Rig has been adopted by legions of catfish anglers, and it’s a great option when you’re fishing in current.

Using a heavy sinker to keep it put, while running a leader that holds live bait downstream, it’s won its reputation as cat-catcher.

Just be sure to run a robust three-way swivel: it will take a beating from a big blue!3-way rig

To tie a Three-Way Rig, follow these steps:

  1. Attach your main line to the top of a three-way swivel using a Uni Knot.
  2. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  3. Cut a length of line (dropper line) to determine the depth of your presentation. I start with 12 to 18 inches but vary that as necessary. I don’t recommend using strong line for the dropper, as you may need to break it if it snags.
  4. Using a Uni Knot, attach this line to a disc sinker.
  5. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  6. Attach the weighted line to the bottom of your three-way swivel using a Uni Knot.
  7. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  8. Cut 12 to 18 inches of leader, and using a Snell Knot, attach a strong hook.
  9. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.
  10. Using a Uni Knot, attach the hook and leader to the rearward facing eye of the three-way swivel.
  11. Wet the knot, tighten it down, and trim the tag end.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it: most adult catfish lean toward fish, though there are distinct differences between the species. If you’d like to know more about the best rigs for each species, check out our article, Catfish Fishing Tips: Catch Catfish Like a Pro.

We’ve got all your bases covered there.

We hope that this article has helped you choose the right live bait option for your next fishing trip, and if it has, we’d love to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below.


About The Author
John Baltes
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.