Catching catfish on a lure is an absolute blast, especially on light tackle. There trick is finding the right place to do it.
I find that the best places to use a lure on catfish is when you have catfish holding in river current or jigging vertically from a drifting boat.
When fishing in current you tend to find gravel bottoms with fewer snags. Additionally, the catfish are snatching up food that is drifting down stream so they rely more on their sight then then their sense of smell. The current also means they have to grab their meals fast rather than examining and picking leisurely at it. These are great conditions for lure fishing.
The best type of cat fishing lures mimic natural prey, are something that can be fished slowly across the bottom and be relatively snag free. I like to use 4″ silver tube jigs with a 1/8 oz Gamagatsu jig head. Sometimes I will tip the jig with a small strip of cut bait.
I bounce the jig across the bottom, letting it sit on the bottom for the count of 2 or 3 every other time I lift the rod tip. If I feel a nibble I twitch the rod tip a couple times.
Jigging vertically from a boat also works great. If you have relatively non-snaggy structure like a steep underwater slope or a hump on the bottom, jigging can be great. Use a fish finder to locate bait schools and jigg aggressively underneath the bait. Or if you are working without sonar, simply drift across these structures, jigging as you go. A 4″ spoon work good for this and can be tipped with cut bait if you lack faith in your lure.
I have had great times kayaking with my wife up the Potomac river and then drifting back down, jigging for catfish the whole way back.
While lure fishing rarely ever outproduces bait fishing in the exact same spot, where lure fishing gives you an edges is when you are trying to locate the catfish. Cat fishing lures allows you to cover a lot of water very quickly. Drift down a section of river with your jigs or working a stretch with a tube jig and you’ll discover the sweet spots a lot faster then you would with “bait-n’wait”.