What Do Catfish Like to Eat – Favorite Foods in Their Diet & Best Baits

If you like fishing for catfish and you want to catch more of them, then it pays to know what catfish eat in their natural habitat.

Once you know what kind of prey the particular species of catfish you are looking to catch likes to eat, you can tailor your baits and lures and hopefully end up being more successful.

There are thousands of different species of catfish and almost all of them eat both plants and animals, so they are omnivores. Some species of catfish are exclusively carnivorous though.

Generally speaking, catfish are not fussy eaters and they pretty much all eat fish, insects, and crustaceans like crayfish and shrimp.

But, this barely scratches the surface when it comes to learning the catfish feeding habits that will help you catch more of them.

Join me as we run through everything you need to know about what catfish eat, when they eat, how they hunt, and lots more.

What Do Catfish Like To Eat?

Depending on the species of catfish you are interested in, they eat a lot of different things.

But, since we are all anglers here, we will focus on the catfish species we like to catch including: blue catfish, channel catfish, and flathead catfish.

Here is a list of what these catfish species like to eat:

  • Crabs
  • Crayfish
  • Clams
  • Mussels
  • Minnows
  • Perch
  • Shad
  • Bluefill
  • Crappie
  • Bass
  • Walleye
  • Carp
  • Shad
  • Shiners
  • Other catfish
  • Vegetation
  • Insects
  • Snails
  • Worms
  • Frogs
  • Birds
  • Rats
  • Mice
  • Pellets (farmed catfish)

As you can see, there isn’t much that these catfish won’t eat and nothing swimming in the water or on the water is safe while they are around.

Now, let’s get more specific about what each of these species of catfish eats so you can target each one with more specific baits and lures.

two big channel catfish on top of the ground

What do Blue Catfish Eat?

Blue catfish are found mostly in rivers rather than in lakes, and they are the biggest catfish you can fish for in North America. They often grow to over 100 lbs and the world record was 143 lbs and caught in Virginia.

Blue catfish generally eat bait fish, whichever ones are most prevalent in their river such as crappie, bluegill, or shad. They also like to eat crabs and crayfish, as well as clams are mussels, so they certainly are not fussy.

Blue catfish will also happily eat other blue catfish so long as they are smaller than them.

You might not expect this, but up to 50% of a blue catfish’s diet is vegetable matter but once they grow to a large size, they look for protein and prefer large fish over everything else.

What do Channel Catfish Eat?

Channel catfish live in rivers, lakes, streams, and below dams too. They are also known as speckled, spotted, fork-tailed, or silver catfish.

Channel catfish don’t grow as big as blues or flatheads and a trophy channel catfish is around 30 lbs in weight, while the world record channel catfish is 58 lbs.

Channel catfish will eat pretty much anything that is available to them, and I mean anything. They will eat dead rotting flesh, insects, birds, rats, mice, snails, mussels, clams, and fish as their preferred food.

But, when these types of foods are not available they are happy to eat vegetation. Plants, berries, fruit, and anything else similar they find in the water will end up in their mouths.

As you might have guessed, channel catfish are highly opportunistic feeders and generally inhale any food that comes across their paths.

What do Flathead Catfish Eat?

Flathead catfish prefer dirtier waters and you will find them everywhere from lakes and rivers to canals and streams. They can also be called Mississippi, yellow, mudcat, or shovelhead catfish.

Flathead catfish grow to large sizes and a trophy flathead is around 80 to 100 lbs, and the world record is around 123 lbs.

Flathead catfish are fussier than most other catfish as adults will only eat live bait fish, and they prefer bigger ones too like shad and bass.

Smaller flathead catfish have a broader diet and like to eat perch, bluegill, crappie, minnows and some insects and crustaceans too. But, once they grow to large specimens, they will focus solely on larger bait fish like bass and shad.

cought catfish in mans hands

How Much do Catfish Eat?

Now that we know what the main species of catfish we anglers like to target enjoy eating, let’s take a look at how much they need to eat.

Generally speaking, catfish need to eat between 2% and 5% of their body weight per day during peak feeding season. This means a 100 lb catfish has to catch and eat between 2 and 5 lbs of food every day during their peak feeding system.

However, how much catfish can eat depends on where they live. If their habitat is packed full of thousands of baitfish, for example, they will go to town on them and eat more than 5% of their body weight.

But, if their habitat is scarce of resources then they probably won’t be able to eat 2% of their body weight, or may resort to other food sources outside of their normal diet to do so.

When do Catfish do Most of Their Feeding?

There are three main factors that affect when catfish do most of their feeding and these include water temperatures, abundance of food, and spawning.

Catfish spawn in late September which means that they feed actively beforehand to put weight on and after to fatten up before winter.

Catfish also become incredibly active feeders once the water temperatures warm up and stabilize after winter. This means that in April, May, and June, the catfish will go wild especially as this is when a lot of bait fish are available to them.

Catfish will also continue to feed hard until they spawn at which point they will be hard to find. Post spawning in late October, they will strap the feedbag on again and try to fatten up before winter.

You can also fish for catfish in the winter. Even though their feeding levels would have dropped quite considerably due to falling water temperatures, catfish will always be on the hunt for an easy meal.

But, the best time to fish for catfish will be between May and October.

catfish just caught on a hook

What Time of Day do Catfish Feed the Most?

Catfish tend to feed more actively at night as during the night they actually go on the hunt for food like small fish or anything else they might like to eat.

But, does this mean nighttime is the best time to fish for catfish?

During the day, catfish will sit in deeper holes where the water is cool, especially around structures that might hold bait fish. They will stay there all day and not hunt very much at all.

But, they will all be there together. If you can find where they are holding, you can catch a lot of catfish in a small spot, but finding that special spot might not be so easy.

The key difference is that at night, catfish will come and find your bait. But, during the day, you have to go and find where they are holding on the bottom.

How do Catfish Find Their Prey?

Knowing how catfish find and eat their natural prey is key to using the right baits and lures to catch with. So, how do they do it?

One thing catfish do not rely on is their eyesight. Catfish have terribly small eyes and they can not see very well. Instead, catfish rely on their incredible sense of smell and being able to pick up vibrations in the water.

Catfish are called catfish because they have “whiskers” which are actually called barbels. Their barbels are incredibly sensitive to both smell and touch and they use them to smell their way to their prey and to locate it.

Catfish also have more olfactory receptors (smell detectors) than any other freshwater species. They inhale water and run it through these detectors to pick up smells of any prey they might want to eat.

In addition to an excellent sense of smell, catfish are also excellent at picking up vibrations and can feel a bait fish swimming nearby.

It all makes sense why they hunt more actively at night now, doesn’t it? Their prey will be less likely to see them while their predatory senses are still working overtime!

fisherman caught large catfish

How Target Catfish in a Particular Fishing Spot

All this knowledge is incredibly useful, but how do you apply it to a particular river or lake when fishing for catfish?

Every habitat is a little different from the next and catfish in one lake may prefer a different prey to a catfish in another. Do your research about the fishery and look at what baitfish species live there, what catfish species you would like to target, and think about what bait might be best.

Catfish, and all predatory fish, will usually choose to eat the most abundant and easiest to catch food source. If shad are prevalent in May, you know what you should be using for bait, for example.

It’s also best to be fishing between May and September when catfish are feeding actively. Then you have to choose to find them in the daytime or let them find you while night fishing. This decision is entirely up to you.

Overall, my point is, that tweaking your approach for each different lake or river, and taking into account the time of year will have you catching more catfish.

catfish caught while fishing spinning rod

What are the Best Baits and Lures for Catfish?

Now that we know what catfish eat, when they eat, and how they hunt, let’s apply this knowledge to choosing the best catfish baits and lures to catch them with!

The Best Baits for Catfish

The best baits for catfish are going to be smelly so that they can find them with ease.

Here are some of the most popular live and dead baits that catfish love!

  • Chicken livers have a very strong scent to them and you can pick them up very cheaply at any store.
  • Dead and live crawfish are a favorite food that catfish feed on naturally.
  • Live, dead, or cut oily fish like suckers, mackerel, herring, and white fish.
  • Worms are excellent for channel catfish and smaller flatheads.
  • Artificial baits infused with strong smells like Stinkbait or Punchbait.
  • Cheese is effective.

As you might have noticed, all of these baits are oily and smelly. The oil helps the scent spread longer distances and ensures the catfish can follow the strong smell back to your baits.

The Best Lures for Catfish

Lures are not as effective as bait when it comes to catching catfish but they are a more fun way to catch them in my eyes.

When selecting lures for catfish, you want lures that make a lot of noise in the water and trigger a catfish’s vibration sensors.

There are not many lures that do this and here are the ones you should use when fishing for catfish.


Buzzbaits are usually used for bass fishing. They are made with one of two rotating blades that cause the lure to “buzz” across the surface creating noise, vibrations, and lots of splashing.

If a catfish picks up all this noise, it is going to come and eat the buzzbait.


Spinnerbaits are another popular bass lure but they also work very well for catfish. Their spinning blade sits above the lure on a wire frame.

The blade spins a lot causing lots of vibrations in the water, and the size of the lure also creates vibrations too.

Rattling Crankbaits

Crankbaits with built in rattles in the form of ball bearings are also very effective.

The ball bearings make a lot of sound while the crankbait vibrates a lot. Once a catfish picks up on the vibrations, it will come in hot to inhale it.

What Size Lures and Baits Should You Use?

Size matters when it comes to catfish baits and lures. If you want to catch a big catfish you will need to use a big bait or lure to get it interested.

Catfish have big mouths, and a 100 lb catfish can easily eat a 10 lb fish, so the bigger the better when it comes to trophy fish.

What Color Lures and Baits Work Best?

Color doesn’t actually matter at all when fishing for catfish. This is due to them having terrible eyesight that they don’t use for hunting.

angler holds catfish being in the fishing boat on the river


Do wild caught and farm-raised catfish eat the same food?

Generally speaking, farm raised catfish eat mainly fish pellets they are being fed by their carers. Wild catfish will not grow up eating pellets and have to fend for themselves, as they are not being fed.

But, farm-raised catfish will also have natural prey in their lakes or ponds, such as small fish and snails, and will instinctively feed on them.

Wild catfish may also feed on fish pellets as anglers use them to pre-bait an area and attract catfish into their fishing zone.

Overall, a wild catfish could eat similar food to a farm-raised catfish, but a wild catfish will have a much more diverse diet.

What depth do catfish feed at?

Most people think that catfish are bottom feeders, and while this is true, they do actively feed in every part of the water column from the surface to the bottom.

Winding Up

Thank you very much for reading my article. I hope you enjoyed it and have learned everything you need to know about what do catfish eat and how to use this so you can catch them more successfully.

Please let us know of any questions you have below in the comments question, plus any great catfish bait info or experiences you have had!

Bob Hoffmann

The author of this post is Bob Hoffmann. Bob has spend most of his childhood fishing with his father and now share all his knowledge with other anglers. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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