Catfishing in Washington

By Josh Debruler

It was November 6th of 1902 at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, where the great explorer, Meriwether Lewis, recorded in his journal that a prominent fisherman within their expedition had brought in a Goliath of a catfish that measured over 4 ft long and weighed in at 128 lbs. Whether this accounting is of historical fact, or just generally accepted as American lore, the fact remains that Catfish get BIG. The record size catfish for the same river that Lewis and Clark’s men were dropping their lines in is currently a 104 lb. blue catfish, and though we wont likely see those types of numbers coming out of our Pacific Northwest waterways anytime soon, we certainly do see some formidable sized cats here in Washington State. In 2019 a 15 year old boy hauled a 37 lb. state-record channel catfish out of Lake Terrell in northwest Washington, beating the previous record by 1.5 lbs.

If you’re looking to hook into a big catfish here in Washington State, chances are you’ll be fishing for channel catfish. Channel catfish are native to much of North America, but they didn’t make their debut here in Washington till 1892, when a load of them were dropped off in Skagit county’s clear lake. From that point forward, these fish were distributed throughout Washington State for both recreational angling opportunities, and more recently, for management of problematic forage fish. And though they can be found throughout the state, most anglers familiar with the fishery would agree, your best bet for harvesting some of these fish would be to head to the

Columbia river to fish it and its tributaries that head north from the Bonneville Damn, and meander up and across the eastern portions of the state. Rivers like the Columbia, Yakima, Snake, and Walla Walla, all provide reasonably suitable habitat for these fish to spawn and maintain self sustaining populations. Conversely, lowland lakes that are stocked with channel cats, will only provide anglers with fishing opportunities that reflect both the frequency of the WDFW stocking programs and the pressure the lake receives from anglers. Channel catfish are not known to reproduce in most Washington lakes. 

Where to fish in Eastern Washington (Eastside of cascades )

-Lake Umatilla

-Lake Wallula

-Lower Yakima River

-Lower Walla Walla

-Lake Sacajawea

-Lyons Ferry State Park (confluence of Snake and Palouse rivers)

-Roses Lake


Where to Fish in Western Washington

  • Green Lake

  • Clear Lake

  • Silver Lake

  • Lake Terrace

  • Swofford Pond

  • Lake St. Claire

When to fish

Fishing is most productive when catfish are spawning. This typically peaks around June and you can expect the bite to taper off as we move into fall. The spawning season also causes catfish to move out of the larger Columbia river and into its tributaries where the shallow waters provide better spawning grounds. Take advantage of this time to target catfish in these smaller waters, and if you can fish the confluences of the Columbia and said tributaries at this time, a bottleneck opportunity occurs, and this is where the fishing can become excellent.  


How to fish them

Being that most techniques are fairly straight forward, fishing for channel catfish should be suitable for anglers of all different experience levels. You’ll likely find that the most challenging part will be getting on top of the fish in the first place. If you are fishing at night, you’ll find catfish feeding in the shallow waters near the shore, and though night fishing is excellent for channel cats, it’s also not a very suitable time for the typical angler. For this reason, many anglers fish throughout the day, and do-so successfully. During the day, you’ll find most of your channel catfish in deeper waters beneath the column of warm water known as the thermocline. Typically, 15-20 ft down will get you past the thermocline and into the cooler waters.

Since these fish are bottom feeders, the goal should be to get your bait at the bottom where it can be detected by the catfish’s keen since of smell. There’s a wide variety of baits you can use. Many anglers opt for chicken livers, oily cut baits, earthworms, chicken skins, hot dogs, shrimp, corn, or dough balls made specifically for catfish. These fish don’t seem to be extremely particular about their food as long as it’s in front of them.

As far as rigging goes: a slip sinker rig is both simple and productive. From your main line, add your preferred slip sinker, a stop bead, barrel swivel, about 5-20” of leader, and a 2/0 to 3/0 hook. You can get the hook suspended a bit off the bottom by adding a poly ball or foam peg float a few inches back from the hook if desired (note this becomes ineffective if a substantial amount of current is present). A slip bobber rig is also a popular and effective method to get your bait suspended off the bottom while being able to detect bites visually. Just add a stop knot to your mainline, then a bead, a slip bobber, slide sinker, barrel swivel, and 10-20 inches of leader before your hook.

There are plenty of other methods available for catching channel cats, but these should be all you need to get started.