June 29, 2023
During most of the year, catfish are pretty easy to catch if you’re savvy to their ways. This is not so during their summer spawning time, however.
As spring begins, catfish respond quickly to anglers’ offerings. Warm spring rains plus longer days raise the water temperature and stimulate feeding activity. Catfish are active, hungry and concentrated in dense schools this season.
As spring ends and summer begins, however, catch rates drop because mature catfish become occupied with spawning activities and eat far less. With flathead catfish, this occurs when the water temperature is 66 to 75 degrees. Channel cats and blues spawn at 70 to 74 degrees, with some spawning activities happening in the 80- to 81-degree range in shallower, warm-water lakes.
All catfish nest in cavities. Flatheads use hollow logs, holes in clay banks, root masses in downed trees or manmade structures such as old tires and metal drums. Blue catfish deposit their eggs between rocks or in root wads, depressions, undercut banks or other areas protected from current. Channel catfish prefer dark, secluded spots such as crevices in piles of woody debris, burrows in banks and spaces under rocks.
When suitable spawning habitat is absent, catfish might migrate (from a lake into a tributary stream, for example) to find it. A sexually mature male selects and cleans a nest site. A female lays her sticky yellow eggs there, then the male fertilizes the mass, chases the female away and begins guard duty. He protects the nest from predators and fans the eggs with his fins to keep them aerated and free from sediments. Eggs hatch in 6 to 10 days (depending on water temperature), and the school of fry remains nearby for several days, guarded continuously by the male before dispersing.
Male catfish eat very little during these activities. Consequently, angler catch rates fall dramatically, with a noticeable decrease in the number of bites. This doesn’t mean catfish can’t be caught, however. Despite difficulties hooking up, fishermen can still find and catch some dandy cats if they employ the specialized tactics that follow.
1. FOCUS ON TRIBUTARIES
When spawning activities peak and few fish are being caught, try fishing areas you previously passed by. For example, if the main body of a lake encompasses all your regular fishing locales, try moving into tributaries where many catfish migrate as the water temperature warms.
The same phenomenon occurs in rivers. Catfish leave the main body of water and migrate up smaller streams to spawn. Therefore, anglers might have to focus their fishing efforts in tributaries to catch them. This is especially true of blue and channel catfish, which often gather near upstream spawning areas when the water reaches an ideal nesting temperature. Flatheads are less migratory and more likely to stay in the same locales season after season.
The best tributaries have a warm in-flow, such as creeks swollen by early summer rains, and the catfish within those waters will usually be caught near humps, holes, trees and other current breaks near the confluence of the tributary with the main lake or river. Bait your rig with a nightcrawler or piece of cut bait, then cast upstream and let the rig drift downstream in the current. More bites will likely result.
2. TARGET CAVITIES IN RIPRAP
Your catch rate should also improve if you fish areas with numerous spawning holes. Catfish in these spots might not be actively feeding, but the big-headed males will attack almost anything that comes near their eggs or fry, including your baited fishing rig.
Riprap-covered banks near dams, bridges and causeways are among the best spots to try. Big channel cats especially like this habitat, but blues and flatheads might gather as well if there are numerous nesting cavities available in crevices between the boulders.
Place your bait where you find distinguishing features on long look-alike stretches of riprap. For example, a pipe or log jutting from the rocks might attract catfish. Other times, changing rock structures do the trick—big rocks changing to smaller rocks, for example, or slides of rocks creating underwater points. Cast your bait to these key spots and fish it right on bottom.
Simple fishing rigs help reduce the number of hang-ups when fishing riprap. When fishing shallow edges, try just a baited hook—nothing more. Smaller, "eating size" cats are abundant here, so a 4/0 to 6/0 octopus or circle hook usually is adequate. Cast to your targeted spot, then allow the bait to flutter down without a sinker attached. When the rig touches bottom, lift your rod tip and pull it sideways so it drifts down to a different spot. Lather, rinse, repeat until you get a taker.
When targeting deeper riprap edges, try baiting the hook on a 1/4- to 1-ounce jighead. Work this the same way you work the rig previously described. Drop, lift, move. This is an ideal way to avoid hang-ups and target cats hiding in cavities and crevices within the rocks.
The best baits are native riprap forage animals such as shad, minnows, crawfish and small sunfish.
When fishing for flatheads, a tail-hooked crawfish or a sunfish hooked behind the dorsal fin can bring smashing strikes. For blue cats, use chunks of cut shad or herring. Small whole shad and live minnows stacked several to the hook work great for channel cats. Commercial stink baits and night crawlers are effective here as well , especially on small individuals of all three species.
3. HIT THE REVETMENT
Revetment also attracts spawning cats. This type of structure is found on navigable rivers maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or other agencies. To stabilize the banks and prevent erosion, bulldozers are used to smooth the shoreline, then the soil is covered with huge mats of concrete pads connected with steel cable. This revetment might be covered with riprap to further stabilize it.
Wind and wave action often carry away soil and leave cavities beneath the revetment, particularly along edges and anywhere one of the concrete pads has broken. These openings make ideal spawning holes, and if you can pinpoint some of them with a sonar unit, you can drop a baited hook right in front of aggressive male catfish guarding eggs or fry there.
Start downstream and troll slowly upstream parallel to the bank, watching your sonar for the ups and downs of buckled revetment slabs. Cast a baited float rig directly above each hole, with the bobber set at a distance above the hook equal to the water depth above the hole. Let the rig settle and wait for a hit. If you haven’t had a bite after 5 to 10 minutes, move along the bank until you find another likely spot and anchor again. Continue doing this, working your way upstream and fishing one hole after another. Good catches of eating-size catfish often result.
4. COAX WITH CRANKBAITS
When targeting spawning flatheads, here’s another tactic that often produces hits when nothing else seems to work. Try trolling shad-imitation crankbaits like Bomber’s Fat Free Shad along riprap edges. The shovel-headed cats spawn in these areas, then frequently hang around riprap rocks to feed on shad, crawfish and other forage. They’re suckers for a tight-wiggling, fishy-looking plug darting past.
Where legal, troll with multiple rod-and-reel combos, each rigged with a differently colored crankbait, until a color preference is determined. Use just enough trolling-motor speed to keep the lures skimming the rocks and bumping them occasionally. Keep your fishing combos properly secured in rod holders or be prepared to lose them. Strikes are explosive.
5. BLOODY BAIT AND RED HOOKS
Because catfish are so tight-lipped this season, anglers should use every trick they know to draw strikes. One that often helps me is using extremely bloody bait that creates a scent-and-taste trail catfish can follow to zero-in on foods. Cats involved in spawning activities might attack, but not eat, enticements that don’t properly stimulate their senses, but bloody baits like fresh chicken liver or freshly caught shad that have been scored with a knife or divided into cut-bait chunks are almost certain to be swallowed. Using bloody baits can sometimes be the difference between no bites and at least a few.
I also like to use red hooks like Tru-Turn’s Red Catfish Hooks or Daiichi’s Bleeding Bait line. That bit of red signifies blood to predator fish and hence a wounded, easy meal. By triggering a natural feeding response, they can increase your number of hook-ups significantly.
Fishing for catfish during their spawning season can be frustrating, for sure. When female cats are laying eggs and males are guarding their nests, they often are hard to find and difficult to entice. Nevertheless, if you are diligent in your efforts and fish the proper locales with the proper bait and tackle, you’re almost certain to discover a pattern that will enable you to catch at least a few fish—even at a time when cats are at their most challenging.