June 21, 2022
Longer days and the heat of summer bring on the spawn for channel, blue and flathead catfish in reservoirs, streams and most major river systems across the Midwest.
Attentive catfish anglers can see minor and major differences in catfish behavior and locations across these species as the summer progresses from pre-spawn, through the spawn and into the post-spawn period. A strong pattern in early June might be completely different come August. Knowing where to target catfish as the water warms and the spawn comes and goes ensures a summer full of rod takedowns and slimed-up landing nets.
Fishing guide Darren Troseth of 3 Rivers Fishing (3riversfishingadventures.com) has been a flathead catfish addict ever since leaving Minnesota’s Iron Range and settling into the Minneapolis-St. Paul area with its confluence of major rivers. He suggests that flatheads have distinct summer movement patterns, with fish moving upstream as they settle into their spawning pattern.
"Pre-spawn, they are on the move," Troseth says. "Creek mouths are active spots, especially if they have a current seam where the tributary meets the main river."
Fish try to avoid heavy current while moving steadily toward spawning sites and feeding along the way, so Troseth sets up on current seams that flatheads use as travel corridors. On the Minnesota, St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, he says flatheads move from as little as a few miles up to a couple hundred between overwinter areas and spawning sites.
As the spawn progresses and flatheads begin making nests, Troseth suggests anglers key on structure. He recommends targeting snags, sheer cutbanks or riprap. With fish guarding nests, anglers must be tight to these structures. During this time Troseth catches more nest-guarding males before eventually getting into a mix of both sexes once some fish finish up spawning.
Troseth says the exact timing of the spawn, which can extend from late June all the way to August, is kind of a mystery. The only way to know when it begins or ends is observing the fish you catch and their condition.
When spawning is done, Troseth searches for flathead catfish in several specific locations. He targets roamers feeding out on the flats, as well as fish on structures similar to those frequented during the spawn. He says there are also fish still hanging in their normal home range, usually around snags by day and in the shallows at night, when they get more active.
For targeting flatheads in all three periods, Troseth generally likes an 8/0 Kahle-style Trokar hook with live bait or a 7/0 circle hook baited with cut chubs or suckers.
Brad Durick of Red River Catfish Guide Service (redrivercatfish.com) calls North Dakota’s Red River—perhaps the world’s best channel cat fishery—home. On the Red, Durick says the stage and flow of the river greatly affect where he ultimately finds pre-spawn channel catfish each year.
With high-water spring conditions, Durick looks for slower water in the pre-spawn period. He often sets up on inside corners on the secondary current seam until the water level lowers and stabilizes a bit. At the start of his pre-spawn fishing, he estimates water temperatures are often around 50 to 55 degrees, and the action only increases as water temps rise.
"I like fishing in stretches below dams," Durick says. "The fish are moving upstream, so if I can fish 3 to 5 miles below a dam in the pre-spawn, I encounter more fish."
In lower water years, Durick seeks out fast water. He suggests targeting the current seam and tempting fish as they move upstream for the spawn. “Always hit the pinch points on the current seam,” he says. “A hole, a log or something that will hold them up and make them look at a bait.”
Durick sees the spawning process ramp up and more fish move downstream when the water temperature gets just under 70 degrees. While things slow down during the spawn, fish do still feed. Thankfully, this slowdown doesn’t last too long, and after a few weeks, Durick says, fishing starts returning to normal.
However, if the temperature gets hot and stays hot, he says fish will come into and out of the spawn around the same time. When this happens, there’s a miserable dip in the catch rate and the size of individual catches. Durick says there are usually enough fish spread throughout the river that you can find a good bite somewhere.
Post-spawn, Durick sees Red River channel cats start moving downstream to find more food. Bordering state and provincial fishery biologists have documented larger fish as you proceed downstream, likely taking advantage of more available forage, namely goldeye.
Durick says post-spawn fishing mirrors the pre-spawn, but you work it downstream instead of upstream. He looks at deeper holes, faster water and snag piles. Some years, he says, pre-spawn and post-spawn periods fish so similarly, you don’t miss a beat. But usually the spawn is spread out, and he suggests anglers will catch the same number of fish—they’ll just be skinnier after the spawn.
For his spring and summer fishing, Durick uses a Carolina rig with a 9- to 12-inch snell and a Berkley Fusion19 8/0 circle hook. He uses whatever bait is working best at the time—cut goldeye, sucker, chubs or frogs. He adjusts the weight to the current and suggests that—at least on the Red River—"any time you need more than 5 ounces, you are in the wrong spot."
Durick has started using small-engine fuel line tubing as a knot protector above his swivel. He says it’s more expensive than surgical tubing, which he’s also used, but it’s more durable.
Captain Chris Jones of Catfish Pursuit Guide Service (catfishpursuit.com), guides on Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks and absolutely loves blue catfish. He chases these fish all across the reservoir’s 92 miles from Truman Dam to Bagnell Dam, trying to pinpoint which small rivers and feeder creeks blue cats prefer and which main-lake spots are producing the best.
When spring rains or flooding adds water to the reservoir, Jones says the lake fishes more like a river due to the substantial current. Prior to the spawn, he sees fish in as little as a foot of water in long, mid-lake bays usually feeding on winterkill shad.
Fish then transition to main channels, sharp ledges and drop-offs, and Jones looks for mud flats that lead to a drop-off. He says blue cats stack up on those ledges because they’re ambush points for bait.
There’s a natural slowdown as blue cats spawn, which Jones takes in stride. He says it typically occurs in June, and while there’s a definite break in the action, you can still catch fish.
After blue catfish spawn, they often move around, spreading out a lot. Jones does the same, going on the hunt for these post-spawn fish. Compounding the issue of fish spreading out, however, is the fact that they don’t all spawn—and finish spawning—at the same time. The main way Jones combats both problems is spending a lot of time searching with his sonar.
Where he finds post-spawn blue cats often depends on the water temperature. If the lake doesn’t have a thermocline, he fishes deep water, holes in the outside bends of the river channel or along those same pre-spawn ledges. Conversely, if Lake of the Ozarks does build a good thermocline, then Jones must go shallower in order to find depth transitions or neckdowns.
Jones prefers drift fishing for blue cats in the summer so he can cover water. He usually ties a Santee rig with 2 ounces of weight and a float and goes on the hunt. Other times, he’ll drift three-way rigs. He likes using Mustad 10/0 extra-fine wire UltraPoint circle hooks on 60-pound monofilament. Then, for a dropper, he’ll use an 8-inch segment of 30-pound monofilament with a weight heavy enough to keep baits on the bottom, depending on depth.
SUMMER SWEET SPOTS
Five big Midwestern rivers with catfish to match.
You can get after some big flatheads and channel catfish in either fork of the White River in Indiana. Try hopping snags and fishing current seams for a shot at either species.
From Granite Falls to its confluence with the Mississippi River, the Minnesota has tremendous channel and flathead catfish angling. Hit the upper portions for bedrock fishing, or ply the many accumulated snags on the downstream end closer to the Twin Cities.
Tangle with channel cats and flatheads from Prairie du Sac and on downstream. The Lower Wisconsin kicks out some plus-size fish.
The Mississippi is a reliable option for Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Missouri anglers. Huge catfish can be caught on Old Man River throughout the summer period. Try setting up in backwater side channels where flow slows and baitfish are thick, which draws in flatheads. You can also find channels and blues in channel swings and tucked behind wing dams on the main branch.
The Missouri River offers opportunities for huge channel, flatheads and blue catfish. Upstream in South Dakota, you can fish it like a major river, but once it reaches Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, it gets so big that you either need to get larger gear or focus on habitat off the main channel. Seek out discharge from USGS gauging stations and find something that suits your comfort level.