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Fishing for New York's Big Cats

By Jim Everard

A Great Sacandaga Lake channel catfish.

Some of my fondest childhood fishing memories took place along the Chaumont River, Jefferson County. Every year around late-May to early-June, my father, a few close friends, my brother and I would head for a weekend campout along the big river. We would then spend the next few nights and days trying to catch channel catfish. At that time in my fishing career, these were the biggest and hardest fighting fish I would catch all year. Besides common carp and chinook salmon, they still are. Even though I now fish for "prettier" species of fish, I still try to get out catfishing a few times each season to relive some of those memories.

About Channel Catfish

Channel catfish are the largest member of the bullhead/catfish family (Ictaluridae) found in NY. The state record is 35 lbs. 12 oz.! The average channel catfish is much smaller, however, with fish in the 3 to 8 pound range more common. Channel catfish have a deeply forked tail which can help separate them from bullheads, which have a square tail. Catfish are bottom feeders; they use their barbels (whiskers) to help them locate a potential meal. Catfish will eat a wide variety of prey items that include worms, crayfish, amphibians, insects, and fish. Although they look clumsy and slow, catfish can chase down and feed on live fish.

Fishing Techniques

Catfish can be caught during both day and night. They can feed very effectively in low light conditions (after dark and in murky water) by using their sensitive barbels, lateral line, and taste sensory organs on their body. Generally, fishing during the day is more productive when fishing deep holes, below dams or barriers, and in reservoirs or rivers with turbid water. In clear water environments, the best fishing generally takes place early or late in the day, or after dark as catfish are more apt to feed at these times. When fishing for catfish, keep it simple. A bottom fishing rig consisting of an egg sinker, a plastic bead (helps protect the knot), barrel swivel, a short 12 to 18 inch mono-leader and a hook is all that's needed. Select a rod and reel combo for the size fish you expect to catch. For average catfish, a 6 to 7 ½ foot medium-heavy spincasting, spinning or baitcasting rod will work. Choose a reel with a good drag and capable of holding at least a 100 yards of 10 to pound monofilament. For larger catfish use a 7 ½ to 10 foot medium-heavy or heavy, spinning or baitcasting rod. Spool the reel with 15 to 20 pound test monofilament. Use a heavy enough egg sinker to keep bait on the bottom. You will need a heavier sinker if fishing in current. Use a good stout hook from size 2 to 1/0. If fishing an area with a lot of snags, use a leader that is a few pounds lighter than your main line (for example: if using 15 pound mainline use a 12 pound test leader). This will help you lose less tackle if snagged as the lighter leader should break first. If fishing an area with a lot of zebra mussels though, I would suggest using a heavier leader. This heavier leader will withstand more contact with the sharp edged mussels.

Gear up!
Catfish Size Rod Line
3-8 lb 6 to 7 ½ foot medium-heavy or heavy spincasting, spinning or baitcasting rod 10 - 12 lb test line
> 8 lb 7 ½ to 10 foot medium-heavy or heavy spinning or baitcasting rod 15 - 20 lb test line

Anglers targeting catfish often use dead minnows, cut-bait, chicken livers, night-crawlers or commercially prepared chunked or dip baits. I've even heard of people using pieces of hotdogs or shrimp for bait. Cut-bait is a good bait choice. Use worms or small jigs to catch panfish like yellow or white perch, rock bass, bluegills, or suckers on the water you're fishing. Cut the fresh fish into chunks or strips (remember that fish you have caught and are using as bait count as part of your daily panfish limit). You can further enhance a cut-bait's appeal by making numerous small slits in the meat and by removing some of the skin/scales. This helps add more scent to the water, aiding catfish in finding the bait. Cast your bait into a likely catfish holding area, and place the rod in a rod holder or good ol' forked stick. Just a warning though, many a catfish angler has returned home with one less rod then they started the trip with. Large catfish are notorious for hitting when you're not paying attention, and it only takes a second for your rod to end up in the water. When fishing from a boat, rod holders can be a big help as you can lock the rod in a rod holder and loosen the drag or use your bait clicker. Catfish make powerful runs, so have your drag set correctly. A landing net makes it much easier to land catfish. Remember to be careful when handling them as they have large pectoral and dorsal spines.

Where to go:

Catfish are found across much of the state, and you probably have a waterbody near you that has a good catfish population. For BIG catfish, try the following locations:

  • Lake Champlain
  • Great Sacandaga Lake
  • Oneida Lake
  • Susquehanna River: near Murphey's Island, Johnson City, and Hiawatha Island, Owego
  • Lower Chaumont River/Bay
  • Black River Bay
  • Lake Erie: Lower section of Cattaraugus Creek and deep holes near the mouth of other Lake Erie tributaries.

Considerations for Eating Catfish

Catfish grow large and live for a long time. This makes them susceptible to accumulating chemicals in their body. Consult the fish health advisory section of this fishing guide before keeping catfish to consume to see what's recommended for the water you fish.


Give channel catfishing a try and hopefully you will not only catch a few of these great fish, but also create some cherished memories with friends and family that will last a life time. Good Luck Fishing!

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