Catfishing is good in Oklahoma all year long.
But the period from mid-May to early July is what I consider serious catifishin’ season.
That’s because over the next few weeks all three popular catfish species — blues, channels and flatheads — move to the shorelines and shallows to nest and spawn.
That means that, even if you don’t have a boat to drift the open waters at mid-lake, or to fish the submerged structure far from shore, you’ll still have lots of opportunities to find catfish of all sizes within casting distance of shore.
I’ll grant you that some of the best shoreline areas for catching spawning cats are not always the easiest areas on which to walk or sit. Catfish like to spawn in cracks and crevices and caves, on rocky, bluff-like shorelines or river channel edges, or along riprapped shorelines where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers piled tons of boulders to control erosion. That riprapped area is excellent spawning habitat for all three species.
Arkansas outdoor writer Keith “Catfish” Sutton, one of the most knowledgeable writers on the topic of catching these whiskered critters, often writes that fishing gets tougher during the spawn.
I’ve found the opposite to be true.
Sutton’s point is that, after the male and female spawn, the male guards the nest, containing several thousand eggs, to prevent predators from raiding it. Strangely, though, sometimes the males aren’t above nibbling a little bit of the eggs themselves. But in general, they don’t feed much while serving security guard duty on the nest, and so may not attack a bait with the normal aggression.
But because so many catfish move toward the shorelines during the spawn, it’s often easy to find plenty that are willing to bite, no matter whether you are setting limblines, trotlines, or fishing with a rod and reel.
While one male may be “fasting” while on guard duty, others are moving in and looking for mates or for nesting sites.
Most fisheries biologists agree that water temperature is the most important factor in determining exactly when catfish spawn.
However, I have a whole shelf full of fish taxonomy books, field guides and literature on fish behavior, and there is a lot of variation from one book to the next on what exact temperatures trigger the spawn. Most say that flatheads spawn in water a wee bit cooler than that preferred by blues and channels. But based on my Oklahoma fishing experience, I find blues and channels moving shoreward earlier than flatheads most every year.
Several texts and Web sites say that flatheads may begin spawning when water temps reach about 66 degrees, while blues and channels prefer temperatures greater than 70 degrees. Others say the spawning usually begins above 70 and that temps around 80 are ideal.
Of course, in Oklahoma, depending on rainfall, wind and sunshine patterns in late spring and early summer, you might find water spanning a wide temperature range on a single lake on a given day.
One thing that pretty much all the books and Web sites agree on, though, is that all three popular species spawn within a few weeks of each other and, at this latitude, that usually takes place from mid-May to early July.
Oklahoma has another catfish species too, that spawns at about the same temperatures. It’s the bullhead.
Bullheads rarely grow very large and are pretty much ignored by most anglers, but there are lots of Oklahomans who grew up, like I did, catching bullheads. We caught them from prairie streams and farm ponds and called them “mud cats.”
Bullheads are tasty, too, and if you can catch them large enough, they are worth fishing for. Of the hundreds of bullheads I caught when I was growing up in northwestern Oklahoma, I doubt that I caught more than two or three that would weigh an honest pound. But a few years ago I had a friend who bought acreage with a pond on it. He bought channel catfish to stock the pond with and began feeding them commercial fish food daily.
The bullheads fed right along with the channels, and within a year or two he had some 2- to 3-pound bullheads mixed in among the channel cats. The state-record bullhead (black bullhead), caught in 1984 from a Jackson County farm pond, weighed a whopping 6 pounds, 13 ounces — twice as big as any bullhead I’ve ever seen.
The rod-and-line records for the other catfish species are considerably larger.
The state-record channel weigh, from Taft Lake west of Muskogee, weighed 35-15. The state-record flathead weighed 78-8. And the state-record blue weighed 98 pounds.