Catfishing can actually become difficult when the fish are spawning. However, with some changes in tactics and location, anglers can still be successful.
By Pat Robertson
Catfishermen often say the pre-spawn fishing boom enjoyed in April and May can turn to bust in a hurry once June rolls around — perhaps sooner depending on weather. Once the catfish spawn kicks in, the quick and ready bite of spring goes sour with the approach of summer.
"Fishing for catfish during their spawning season can be very frustrating," said catfish expert Keith Sutton. "When female cats are laying eggs and males are guarding their nests, they often are hard to find and difficult to entice."
Not all species of catfish spawn at the same time. Channel and blue catfish spawn when the water warms to 70 to 84 degrees, with 80 to 81 degrees optimal; flatheads spawn between 66 and 75 degrees. Therefore, while blue catfish may spawn as late as early July in northern states, the spawn from Virginia to Texas is pretty much over by then.
"To me, June is the worst month," said Brian Barton, a veteran fishing guide. "For the most part there is a lull from about the last week in May until the second week of July. During that time I usually just go meat fishing and try to catch 8- to 10-pound catfish. Fish that size don't seem to be affected by the June lull like the larger fish."
Catfish guide Rodger Taylor also says June is the worst time of year to go catfishing, but with children getting out of school for the summer, a lot of people are anxious to go fishing.
Fortunately, both Taylor and Barton agree there are ways to continue catching fish during the down period; anglers just have to change strategies.
The key, says Taylor, is not all catfish spawn at the same time. While some may be in the upper reaches of the lake spawning, some will have already spawned and moved back down, and others will just be starting to migrate from the lower part of the lake up to the top to spawn.
"The best fishing for blues is during the weeks before the spawn kicks in, but when that happens I move down to the middle part of the lake and drift for the late spawners moving up and the early spawners coming back down," Taylor said.
Taylor usually starts fishing in the headwaters of the lake at daylight or just before, hitting those same areas from sunset to midnight or a little later during June and through the summer in hopes of landing a big flathead catfish.
"If you want to target a big fish this time of year you can fish with big baits and wait a long time for a bite. I know people like to catch big fish, so that's why I try to get a nice flathead early in the morning then drop down the lake and get some entertainment with the blue cats," Taylor said. "Usually the flatheads will be biting pretty good at this time — they seem to spawn later than the blues — so I always have some live bream and some gizzard shad to fish for them. Fishing at night I might also use live white perch for bait," he said. "But to start off a day in June I like to get up early and maybe score a big flatty before the sun comes up, then that bite goes away."
To target flatheads, Taylor anchors on a spot on the edge of a river bend or a long point with access to deep water and spreads his lines out, hooking live baits either through the nose or at the back fin like a crappie minnow.
With a nice flathead or two in the box, Taylor heads down the lake to target pre- and post-spawn blues on shallow flats and dropoffs in the middle section of the lake.
"These fish will be scattered and holding along the edges of the channel or up on the flats, so the best way is to drift for them. I try to figure out if the fish are on the edge of the channel or back up on the shallow flat," Taylor said. "More often than not, you will find little pods of fish; it's not like they will be evenly scattered. They tend to be in specific little areas, usually associated with vertical structure and usually holding from 15 to 22 feet deep."
When drifting, he puts out six rods at most to avoid line crossover and tangling. The basic terminal rig is a slinky sinker, swivel and 28- to 36-inch leader with either a 6/0 or 8/0 Gamakatsu circle hook.
"If I am using larger baits I'll usually use the 8/0 hook because it provides a little more clearance. You don't want to hook the bait deep, just enough to firmly secure it to the hook, and you leave the end of the hook exposed," Taylor said. "If I am fishing the bottom, I'll use a 2-ounce or 3-ounce flat, no-roll sinker and I always use a little float to keep the bait suspended off the bottom so it keeps it clean on a muddy bottom and won't silt over."
For cut bait, Taylor prefers gizzard shad, blueback herring and white perch. He cuts the tail off the baitfish, saying the tail can catch the current and cause line drift. The prime piece of cut bait and the most attractive to the fish is the head, followed closely by the piece with the gut vault, which puts a lot of scent in the water when it is opened to expose the guts.
"The males guard the nest and the females head back down the lake, so when you start catching ragged-looking blues it's a sign that the spawn is in the late stages," Taylor said. "These are the big male fish that have been guarding the beds. They have not eaten well during that time and if they got too close to another bed, they've been attacked and have bite marks."
Although he doesn't target channel catfish specifically, Taylor says they do make up part of the daily catch.
"The channels are starting to hit the spawn, too, so that bite is not too good, but they are in the same area," Taylor said. "If you are catching more channel catfish than blues, it means the blue bite is just not very good. A big channel catfish will usually go about 6 to 8 pounds, but most are in the 2- to 3-pound range."
Brian Barton's strategy during the spawn is focusing on filling the freezer, rather than pursuing trophy fish, as June is better for numbers in most areas.
"Trophy catfish (40 pounds or larger) are almost impossible during the week or two of actual spawning and flatheads also seem to disappear during the spawn," Barton said. "Channel catfish seem less affected by spawning. They are aggressive by nature, making them easier to target while spawning. Smaller blue catfish are not affected like the larger fish."
Barton concentrates on shallow wood, weeds and isolated rock on a hard bottom for channel catfish and the tailrace behind dams on a river system for blue catfish this time of year.
"On impoundments or smaller lakes without generating dams, look for smaller blues to spawn on hard clay or gravel on bottoms in 8 to 25 feet of water, depending on the area you're in and the depth of the lake," he said. "Catfish love to feed on mussels, periwinkles and other invertebrates. Look for shells along the shoreline. This is likely to be good spawning ground. Catfish will spawn on relatively flat surfaces, but they like to be near a ledge or channel area. I seem to catch more catfish off beds in areas that are somewhat protected from prevailing winds or aggressive boat wave action."
Barton monitors the moon phases and believes the best time to fish for catfish is the 2- to 3-hour period when the moon is directly overhead and underfoot.
"Local current due to dam generation and weather will sometimes override its effect, but under stable conditions I fish with the moon. As far as night vs. day, I think catfish feed more nocturnally in general all year 'round."
Barton fishes four to eight rods, depending on the situation, with float rigs for trolling and Carolina rigs when anchored. For smaller fish, he prefers medium-action spinning and bait-casting rods, with 14-pound or 17-pound test line and 1/0 or 3/0 Daiichi circle hooks. For trophy fish, he moves up to 60-pound monofilament line and 5/0 to 7/0 circle hooks.
"When I am fishing shallow water for smaller fish, I use a 1/4-ounce split shot 18 inches above the hook, which is tied directly to the line. In the summer, when fish suspend, a slip-float rig can be deadly when positioned 2 to 3 feet above the depth the fish are holding."
Barton uses skipjack herring exclusively for trophy fish if available, but will use gizzard shad, live bream and squid, in that order, if required. For smaller fish, he prefers shad guts, small chunks of shad, shrimp and chicken liver.
"If I am going for 3- to 4-pound fish there is nothing better than shad guts," Barton said. "And if I just want to target channel catfish I will use the Secret 7 (Team Catfish) or chicken livers."
On an average day in June Barton might catch 25 to 30 catfish (12 to 15 on a slow day) in the 1- to 5-pound range. A good day might produce 50 to 60 catfish.
While June is generally not as good as other times of the year, fish can be caught. Anglers just need to adjust locations and tactics to have a good day on the water.