Spawn-Time Cats

As waters across Oklahoma start warming, catfish move to their spawning grounds. Here's an expert's advice on where and how to get in on the best catfish action you're likely to see all year. (June 2006)

May, June and July are the best months of the year to fish for catfish in Oklahoma.

That's not to say that you can't catch Soonerland catfish during any month of the year. Even in the cold months of winter, catfishing can be profitable at some reservoirs, especially for blue cats. But our "big three" catfish species -- blues, channels and flatheads -- are spawning during the above-named months, and so it's easy to find them at this time of year.

And once you know where to find them, you can fill your stringers or livewells with lots of big whiskered specimens that'll provide a lot of tasty eating for months to come.

All three species like the same kinds of spawning areas: rocky, bluff-like shorelines, piles of boulders, shores with pockets or undercut banks, and riprapped shorelines -- in short, places providing cavities within which the females can deposit eggs in a sheltered spot, and where males can fertilize and guard the eggs as they develop.

In some prime spawning areas, spawning catfish practically have to take a number and wait for the choicest spots to be vacated by one species before the next moves in.

In Oklahoma, blues typically spawn slightly earlier than do channel cats -- sometimes as early as April, but typically starting in May and stretching into June. Channel cats in this state usually begin spawning in mid to late May and continue through mid-June. Flatheads are the latest spawners. They usually move into the nesting areas in mid-June and continue through early-to-mid July.

With most freshwater fish species, spawning activity is triggered by water temperature, which, of course, can vary from year to year, depending on whether late spring brings lots of cloudy and cold weather or sunshine and warm conditions.

In general, though, you can expect blues and channels to begin spawning when surface water temperatures reach 70 degrees. Some activity may begin when water temperatures are still in the mid to high 60s, but 70 seems to be the temperature that starts many of our fish toward the nesting spots.

Flatheads usually don't begin until the temperatures pass 75 degrees. An often-cited study conducted in Oklahoma at Carl Blackwell Lake near Stillwater showed that the bulk of flatheads spawn when water temperatures are between 75 and 80 degrees.

If you look at published information about the life cycles of catfishes, you may see references to catfish spawning in March and April or as late as late July and August. But the difference is usually one of latitude. In Gulf Coast and Southern states, catfish spawn earlier, than they do in states further north because water temperatures warm up earlier at lower latitudes.

From the Kansas border down to the Red River, Oklahoma spans only about three and a half degrees of latitude, but even that small spread is often enough for anglers to see a difference of several days in the timing of the spring spawn for some fish. Crappie, black bass and other fish besides catfish usually spawn a bit earlier in southern Oklahoma than they do up in the northern third of the state.

June, though, usually sees all three species of catfish spawning in Oklahoma waters, so it's a great time to find catfish concentrated near shorelines and appropriate kinds of submerged structure, even though it may be far from shore. Some Oklahoma lakes do contain numerous rocky humps or rocky bluffs along submerged creek and river channels. The humps may not rise above the surface to become visible islands, but below the water, they provide valuable spawning cover.

If you know the whereabouts of such midlake structure, you'll probably do well to try it first. Such spots likely feel less fishing pressure than do the obvious spawning areas along shorelines. But don't neglect the shorelines altogether, as they can be very productive.

How do you fish for spawning catfish? Let me count the ways '¦

If you're really serious about catching some big flatheads, you can noodle for them -- that is, get right down in the water, stick your hands back into the caves and crannies of a riprapped or rocky shoreline to feel around until you find a catfish, and then stick your hand in its mouth, grab on to whatever you can grab, and hang on for dear life.

Sometimes you pull the catfish out of the hole; sometimes you come back with just a skinned-up forearm. Noodling isn't for everyone, but it can be fun, and if you're noodling in the right places, you can grab many a pound of tasty catfish meat in a single afternoon.

Angling with a baited hook is bound to be more appealing to most fishermen -- but even then you have many choices. You can put out trotlines, limblines or other setlines that you bait and then leave alone to do their work, running them periodically in order to gather your harvest and to rebait the lines.

And, of course, there's angling with rod and line. Notice that I don't say "rod and reel." While using rod and reel is certainly the most popular option, some do their catfishing with cane poles or doodlesocking poles. Although I haven't done it in years, I have in years past had a barrel of fun while doodlesocking at giant Lake Eufaula with 14-foot poles and a hook baited with bait shrimp or fresh cut shad; I caught dozens of catfish that way.

The late Jack Frisbie, a veteran fishing guide, tackle and bait shop owner and Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission member, showed me how to doodlesock for spawning channel cats along the riprapped highways crossing Lake Eufaula. His technique, which worked well for me, involved using the long, limber, fiberglass poles designed for doodlesocking spawning crappie out of the shallows.

Frisbie would put enough line on the pole so that about 12 or 14 feet of line could hang down from the tip. On the end of the line he tied a 4/0 or 5/0 Kahle hook -- one of those bent, rounded hooks -- and baited it with shrimp -- frozen bait shrimp such as you can buy at some grocery markets. If shrimp weren't available, he'd catch a few shad with his cast net and cut the shad into 2- or 3-inch pieces.

Sometimes he added a small split shot just above the hook, because the larger shrimp were buoyant enough to float the hook, and he needed the baited hook to sink, ever so slowly, wherever he plopped it into the water.

We'd move along the riprap with the trolling motor, dipping the baited hook into the water just inches --

rarely more than a foot or two -- from where the water met the rocks. Often, the channel cats would grab the shrimp or shad the instant it hit the water; it was more like an aggressive bass striking a topwater lure than a channel cat nibbling at a bait.

And when we'd hook an 8- or 9-pound channel cat on one of those long, limber poles, the fight was always memorable. We usually used 10- or 12-pound-test line, which, I know, isn't line as big as many people use for catfishing -- but with those very limber poles, you can wear a fish out pretty quickly, even with line of that size.

The key lay in keeping the pole's tip high and never pointing it directly at the hooked fish, because, with no reel and no drag, the fish could break the line or put enough pressure on the hook to pull free. As long as that 14-foot pole was acting as a loaded spring, it could wear down even a 10-pound catfish in just a minute or two.

Limblining and bank-pole fishing both do a good job of catching catfish near their spawning spots. You can do both effectively without a boat, although a boat does come in handy for limblining.

In limblining, you tie your baited lines to limber tree branches overhanging the water. Select your limbs carefully; my preference is to find one that has plenty of give to it -- one that's springy, and that will keep constant pressure on any catfish that is struggling to pull free, yet isn't solid enough to allow the catfish to break a line or pull the hook free. Yes, I know that some limbliners use 50-pound-test or stronger line and tie directly to big, stout branches. But I believe the springier branches wear the fish out without giving it much of a chance to pull free.

Bank-pole lines are similar to limblines, but are tied to springy poles jammed into the earth or wedged into the riprap or naturally rocky shoreline. They should be set out so as to allow the bait to hang in the water while orienting the pole so that it points at a high angle -- once again, to keep springlike tension working against the struggling fish.

Some folks employ cane or bamboo poles as bank poles; I've used willow saplings. In lots of places in Oklahoma you can find thickets of willow saplings growing so closely together that the young trees grow 15 to 20 feet tall but are still only an inch or two in diameter. You may come upon such thickets along creeks or rivers or in the frequently flooded lowlands. With a small handsaw or even a large set of pruning shears you can cut a dozen or two appropriately sized saplings in just a few minutes. Just make sure you have permission to cut the trees on private land or aren't violating some law or policy on public property before you gather your poles.

I have a drawknife that makes it easy for me to remove the bark from the sapling. That's not necessary, but it will make your poles last longer if you plan to reuse them.

I tie a few feet of braided line around the pole near the base and wind it four or five times around the pole, moving toward the springy tip section; then I tie a half-hitch near the tip end of the pole, letting just enough line down to permit my bait to hang just 2 or 3 inches beneath the water's surface. It can be tricky to get the line to just the right length, and you'll occasionally have to readjust the angle of the pole or the number of wraps of line around the pole to obtain the length you need.

I've seen limblines and bank poles tied with multiple hooks and a heavy weight on the bottom of the line, but I myself prefer a single hook. And I've had the best luck in a variety of places by placing my bait just beneath the surface, rather than deeper in the water. I don't know why that would work better, but it's done so for me, especially with flathead and channel cats.

The one disadvantage to setting your lines just inches below the surface is that the water level at many of Oklahoma's large reservoirs can fluctuate significantly overnight. I've seen many baited limblines and bank-pole lines with hooks still freighted with enticements hanging a foot above the surface, because the lake level had dropped out from under it. When water levels are falling fast, I've even seen channel cats hanging a foot above the water and still flopping.

For example: Several years ago, while I was fishing in a bass tournament at Grand Lake, I entered a big cove lined with willow trees. There I saw six channel cats, hooked on limblines, that hung half in and half out of the water, and another dozen or more lines hanging just above the water, all within a couple of hundred yards along one shore.

In limblining, you tie your baited lines to limber tree branches overhanging the water. Select your limbs carefully; my preference is to find one that has plenty of give to it.

Putting out trotlines, of course, is one of the most popular methods of catfishing in Oklahoma. A trotline placed correctly in a spawning area -- along a rocky, bluff shoreline or along a riprapped bank -- can produce a lot of catfish in one set. The key lies in setting the line shallow and very close to the spawning cover. The problem with that is that the line is often set in just the worst sort of spot imaginable for bass fishermen.

Lots of bass anglers cruise the shorelines and cast to the bank, and a trotline set properly for spawning cats will usually be right in the path of whatever lures the bass fishermen are retrieving. It's not usually a problem if an angler's using a Texas-rigged plastic worm or a crawfish with a covered hook, as those baits will usually slide right over the line. But crankbaits will grab a trotline and won't let go, so that the fisherman has to move in and free his bait from the interfering line.

Most bass fishermen will try to fish around a line that appears to be maintained and freshly baited, but may cut and destroy one that appears not to have been checked lately. Lots of algae-covered trotlines with dead fish hanging from them clutter Oklahoma lakes -- the leavings of irresponsible trotliners.

So please: Don't leave your trotlines unattended for more than a few hours. Not only is it illegal, but it's downright irresponsible as well. Run your lines and leave 'em in the water as long as you can tend them. But when you have to go back to town for a few days, pull your lines and get them out of the way of other fishermen.

There are lots of ideas about what are the best baits for trotlining, limblining and banklining. I've used shiners, sunfish, crawfish, shad and shad gizzards, goldfish, leeches, shrimp, earthworms and night crawlers, and a variety of prepared baits; quite a few more baits will probably work as well.

If you're after flatheads, use live baits -- big shiners, small sunfish or shad. Shad don't usually live long on the hook, but they can be very effective flathead bait as long as they're swimming. For blue cats, use cut baits -- cut shad or cut-up small fish, or even live minnows. For channel cats, all of the baits already mentioned can get the job done, but stinky prepared baits -- dough baits, blood baits and the like -- can also produce desirable results.

I once was acquainted with

an old retiree -- dead now several years -- who set trotlines at Lake Eufaula, where he had a lakeshore cabin. He used no bait at all -- and he caught fish. The hooks on the trotlines were shiny stainless steel models, and he swore that he caught enough fish on their undressed metal that he'd quit bothering to bait them, even though he ran his lines daily. I assumed that he was just snagging fish that swam past, but he contended that he was actually catching the channel cats and blue cats that struck at the shiny hooks.

I went with him one morning as he ran his lines from his small aluminum boat -- and sure enough, we ran three lines and gathered four nice-sized channel cats from about 2 pounds up to about 6 pounds. All were hooked in the mouth on bare hooks.

As you can see, there are lots of methods and lots of tools for catching catfish during the spawning season. It may be the best time of year to fill your freezer with tasty filets.

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