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Fishing The Oklahoma Catfish Spawn

Fishing The Oklahoma Catfish Spawn
Photo by Ron Sinfelt

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.

The unrestricted-division records are bigger. There isn't one for bullheads or channel cats, but the biggest blue caught in Oklahoma was caught on a jugline in Lake Texoma and weighed a whopping 118 1/2 pounds, while the biggest flathead, caught by former Oklahoma game warden Claudie Clubb on a trotline, weighed 106 pounds.

Texas' state-record blue cat came from Lake Texoma. It weighed 121 1/2 pounds and was caught on a rod and line.

Blue cats have taken over most of our big reservoirs in Oklahoma. By that I mean that back in the lake-building era, channel cats were the most commonly found catfish in most of our larger new lakes. But on one lake after another in the past 30 years I've seen blue cats become more numerous, and channel cats less so, in Texoma, Eufaula, Grand, Keystone — pretty much all of the large lakes I know.

It's not because of any intensive stocking program. Perhaps it's related to the characteristics of reservoirs as they grow older. I've seen a similar syndrome with crappie. When some of our lakes were brand new it was easy to find numerous black crappie in them — the progeny of black crappie that populated the impounded streams. But as the lakes age, white crappie take over and at many of our larger lakes these days it's rare to catch black crappie.

But the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has recognized that blue cats have become a more important species for Oklahoma anglers and are attempting to manage these relatively slow-growing catfish.

The department says that at some lakes, including Kaw, Keystone, Texoma and Waurika, blues demonstrate relatively good growth rates, reaching 25 inches in 10 years, while at other lakes such as Ellsworth, Eufaula and Hugo, a 10-year-old blue averages only 15 inches.

Even in the "fast-growing" lakes, the department reports, it takes 12 to 14 years for a blue cat to achieve a 10-pound weight.

The department reports that only a small percentage of blue cats grow to trophy size. It recommends that anglers catch and eat blues in the 1- to 5-pound class and take photos of larger blues and return them to the lake.

If you have a boat, fishing the big lakes for blue cats is easy. The hardest part is catching the bait, although minnows from the bait shop are a good fallback option.

But I prefer using a cast net to catch a few live shad. If larger shad are caught, then they can be cut into chunks or strips to bait hooks. If you catch shad 2- to 4-inches long, just put a whole shad on your hook.

Drifting across flats is a relatively simple way to catch blue catfish on virtually all of our big reservoirs. I learned the technique at Lake Eufaula, but I've used it successfully at Grand, Keystone, Kaw, Kerr, Texoma and elsewhere.

You just position your boat on the upwind portion of a large, relatively flat area of the lake, put out baited lines, and drift across the flat. The number of lines you can put out depends on how large your boat is, how the rods are arranged, and how many anglers you have to watch and grab the rods when a fish strikes.

A great drift rig consists of a three-way swivel, with a dropper line of 2 feet or so tied to a heavy sinker. Another dropper line, also 2 feet or so, goes to the baited hook.

I use a sinker just heavy enough to keep bouncing off of the bottom. Heavier sinkers may increase hang-ups and break-offs, while lighter sinkers may not keep your bait down near the bottom, where most catfish feeding takes place.

I know some Lake Eufaula anglers use those "bait-walker" type sinkers that have a piece of stiff wire embedded in them — like the walleye anglers in Northern states use to drift leeches or nightcrawlers over rocky bottoms. But just about any shape of sinker can be used, as long as the weight is appropriate.

One thing I like about fishing for blues is that, unlike channel cats, blues usually tend to hit a bait aggressively and get hooked quickly. Channel cats, by comparison, may nibble and nibble and play with a bait endlessly, never seeming to take the whole thing into their mouth and get hooked.

You can find productive areas just by trial-and-error drifting, but using sonar can be a big help. While it isn't always easy to spot catfish on the flats on your sonar screen, it can be done. They tend to show up as fish hugging the bottom, and you rarely see big numbers of them together like you may with crappie, shad and other fish.

I learned to find them back in the days when we used old "flasher" style sonar, but using modern units with better graphic displays makes it easier.

You can also catch them in the big lakes by anchoring near submerged river or creek channels and fishing the structure, and if you find a productive spot, it pays to work it over for a while. I have a couple of favorite spots at Eufaula, on the edge of the North Canadian River channel east of Highway 69 north of the town of Eufaula. There, I've often caught two-man limits of cats by fishing vertically over the channel edge.

On any given day, there may be fish holding above the dropoff at the edge of the flat. But on other days the fish may be suspended deeper along the dropoff or near the channel bottom.

In May and June, Oklahoma anglers might have better luck fishing the spawning areas along riprapped or rocky shorelines rather than out on the mid-lake flats. Later in the summer, those open-water areas may be better.

And during or after heavy local rains that swell the local streams and send heavy flows into the lake, fishing the mouths of incoming streams can be very productive, especially for channel cats.

The incoming water often brings in worms, crawdads and other food, and catfish may gather in such spots waiting for a meal to be washed downstream.

You can catch catfish any time of the day, but they really are more active at night than in the day, and so nighttime fishing can sometimes be very rewarding. In the hot summer months, nighttime fishing is also more comfortable.

I should mention another technique, probably less widely used than most, that has produced lots of fish and lots of fun for my friends and me over the years — fishing creeks and rivers for catfish.

I prefer streams that have a little, but not too much, current. The current pushes the baits, and the scent of the baits, downstream. Drifting baits into and under logjams or boulders, where catfish often lie in the dark during daytime hours, can yield excellent results. And you might even catch some big black bass or other species while using the method.

I add just enough weight, usually with split shot, to get the bait down toward the bottom, and let it drift into the brushpiles or into the shadowy areas around boulders. It pays to keep enough tension on the line to detect strikes, for if you leave your line too slack a catfish or bass can very quickly thread your line through a tangle or boulders or drag it into cracks between rocks.

I've even done that kind of fishing using a fly rod. Hooking a 3-pound channel cat on a whippy, 6-weight rod can lead to quite a battle. On some Southeastern Oklahoma streams, where most anglers fish for sunfish and smallmouth bass while floating a section of stream in a canoe or johnboat or with a float tube, that approach can take you to many spots where catfish lurk in the shadows.

Minnows, nightcrawlers and small crawfish are excellent baits for that kind of presentation. I've also had some surprisingly good days of catching cats in small Eastern Oklahoma streams by using grasshoppers for bait. Stinkbaits and dough baits can also work, especially if channel cats are the species you're after.

Of course, summertime in Oklahoma is when many Sooner anglers put out trotlines, limblines, juglines and other such devices targeting catfish. Any and all of those fishing methods can pay off during and after the spawning season.

We're blessed to live in a state with hundreds of thousands of acres of surface water, and many of those lakes, ponds and streams are teeming with catfish. Now's the time to take advantage of that bounty!

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