May 13, 2022
My dad was my fishing mentor, a bib-overall-wearing, catfish-catching fanatic. But he was old-school. He’d swear that the fish just wouldn’t bite until the water warmed up and the catfish had finished spawning. They quit eating when they’re spawning, he’d say, and it was a waste of time even trying.
Then, one early-June evening, the local river called my name. Water levels were good, the air was sweet and I just wanted to be on the riverbank with water softly swirling at my feet. I hit all our familiar summertime hot spots—all the snags and holes—and, as Dad predicted, I couldn’t buy a bite.
Walking back to my pickup, not wanting to give up the beautiful evening, I paused at the river’s edge and flipped a wad of nightcrawlers toward a big log just upstream from a bank riprapped with large limestone rocks.
The deadfall produced no bites, and the current eventually drifted my bait along the rocks. Just as I prepared to pull the bait from the barren face of the riprap—bam—an arm-jolting hit. After an entertaining tussle, I landed a 5-pound channel cat. What the heck? I rebaited and cast back below the log. Nothing, until it drifted along the rocks and—wham—this time a 4-pound cat. Hmmm. I continued to toss baits along the rocks until my stringer was full.
That evening I learned that to catch pre-spawn and spawning channel catfish, don’t fish where you normally catch them in the heat of summer. Coincidentally, that’s the same night my 65-year-old father started fishing for catfish before the Fourth of July.
Studies of radio-tagged channel cats prove they are a seasonally mobile species. Greg Gelwicks, a fisheries biologist with the Iowa DNR, has tracked channel cats in small to intermediate tributaries of the upper Mississippi River, and has documented wholesale migrations of the fish up to 35 miles each fall. They migrate downstream to deep holes in the Mississippi where they spend the winter, then return up the same tributaries each spring when water temperatures warm above 40 degrees. However, their destinations aren’t the holes where they spent the previous summer, but specific areas where they had spawned in years past.
Gelwicks’ research suggests that individual channel cats are loyal to specific spawning areas. Those areas may be in or adjacent to previous summertime lairs, or miles away from where they’ll eventually spend their summer, depending on the availability of suitable spawning structure. Catfish are cavity spawners that deposit their eggs in holes, nooks or crevices the size of their bodies or slightly larger. Fitting cavities are easy to find in rivers, so channel cats often return and spawn in the same general stretch where they hang out in the summer. In lakes, rock riprap areas on the faces of dams or jetties can be catfish magnets because lakes often lack suitable spawning habitat in their basins.
So, let’s apply this scientific knowledge to better understand my dad’s experiences and my own. Dad’s lack of springtime success in his favorite summertime channel cat holes likely happened because local cats hadn’t migrated back from wintering areas to those traditional midsummer lairs. Meanwhile, my unexpected success during the spawn occurred because I accidentally drifted baits along a riprapped bank that provided channel cats with crevices and cavities essential for spawning.
That knowledge changed my entire catfishing calendar. I once thought catfish bait selection, time of day and, to a lesser degree, bait presentation determined if I caught catfish. That June evening I discovered that while those are all important, where I fish—based on time of year—is even more critical. A lot also depends on whether I’m fishing a river or a lake.
In rivers, catfish move from wintering areas once the water temperature is consistently above 40 degrees. They generally move upstream. This upstream, pre-spawn movement often concentrates channel cats below dams for a period of time. However, not directly below dams.
Dan Kirby, another Iowa DNR fisheries biologist, also tracked radio-tagged channel catfish on intermediate-sized midwestern rivers and noted that tagged fish migrated to the base of dams, then drifted back downstream.
“Individual fish didn’t stay right below a dam for long periods of time,” he says. “They’d linger maybe a day, then drift downstream to the major holes below the dam. They don’t sit there banging their heads against the dam. There will always be catfish below a dam, but there may be more catfish in the holes a mile or two below a dam, especially during their spring migration.”
As water temperatures approach 60 degrees, channel cats in rivers search for suitable spawning habitat. Again, this is often in the same areas where they spawned in previous years. Check out deadfall trees, root balls, beaver dens and especially shorelines riprapped with large rocks.
In lakes, look for areas of large riprap, shoreline trees with eroded roots or other “holey” habitat. The riprapped approaches to bridges that span reservoirs are particularly good for spawning channel cats during June.
Many lakes feature smooth bottoms and shorelines, which provide few nooks and crannies for spawning cats. So, if you find a good spawning location, it often attracts and concentrates lots of channel cats that are usually spread across hundreds of acres of water—and will be again after the spawn. Don’t pass up such an opportunity.
One thing Dad had right about channel catfish was that they’re not especially interested in eating during the spawn. Egg-swollen females focus on depositing their eggs in nests created by males, who then hover and protect the nest until the fry are able to survive on their own. However, just as hormone-addled human teenagers never turn down a slice of pizza, a catfish usually bites if a bait is dangled in front of its nose. Often, these are reaction strikes—protective attacks against a foreign object invading the nesting area.
This makes the spawn one of the best times to catch a channel cat on an artificial lure. Dragging a crankbait along a riprapped shoreline, jigging a crawfish lure over a submerged rockpile, or simply drifting a live bait such as nightcrawlers, cut shad or crickets along a riprapped jetty can yield vicious reaction strikes.
“My grandkids and I have an absolute ball during the spawn,” says Steve Henkel, owner of Henkel’s Hook and Arrow in Carlyle, Ill., near 18,900-acre Rend and 26,000-acre Carlyle lakes. “We use crickets under a plain old red-and-white bobber [and fish] right along riprap. The cats hit so hard, sometimes the bobbers make a ‘ploink’ sound when they go under.”
Henkel threads two or three crickets on a No. 1 or 1/0 baitkeeper hook and places a split shot above the hook so the bait gets down. He’ll use these until he starts catching mostly bluegills, which tells him that the spawn is over and the catfish have left. In Henkel’s experience, the spawn bite begins with fish staging in 6 to 8 feet of water off rocks and riprap. During the spawn’s peak, however, he says he finds them maybe a foot or less away from the waterline. He recommends moving sideways along riprap or rocks to find spawning channel cats, but he notes that when you find fish, you’ll quickly know you’re in the right spot.
Scott Linton, a catfish tournament angler, chases channel cats on large reservoirs in the Midwest. He follows the spawn from the upper ends of those lakes to the lower ends each year.
“The upper ends of most of these lakes are shallower, with more mud flats, and the water warms faster so the cats at that end spawn earlier,” Linton says. “A month later, the deeper water down around the dams has warmed up and the cats down there are spawning. I use a bobber over shad guts or any other good catfish bait and catch catfish all through the month of June by starting at the upper end and following the spawn as the deeper water warms up.”
Once the spawn is over, old-school anglers who fish the same spots summer after summer catch lots of channel cats. But anglers willing to try specific areas where channel catfish concentrate during the spawn, catch them sooner.
Channel-Cat Sweet Spots in Midwest
Fish the channel cat spawn in these Midwestern waters.
- ILLINOIS’ DYNAMIC DUO: Close enough to hit each in one day, southern Illinois’ Rend and Carlyle lakes offer anglers fantastic catfish opportunities. Fish the riprapped faces of dams in either lake to fill a stringer or livewell during the spawn.
- HAWKEYE HAVEN: The riprapped approach to the east end of the Mile Long Bridge over Saylorville Reservoir north of Des Moines provides spawning habitat close to deep water. This makes it a prime spot for channel cats in June.
- PRAIRIE GEMS: There are several shallow lakes near Manhattan, Topeka and Lawrence, Kansas, that are renowned for catfish. These include Perry Lake, Tuttle Creek Lake, Clinton Lake and others. Find riprap and cavities, and you should find channel catfish.
- BLUEGRASS BEST BETS: The Land Between the Lakes area of southwestern Kentucky offers some great year-round catfishing. Riprap areas around the Highway 68 bridges over those lakes are good starting points for catfishing during the spawn.
- K.C. CATS: Low-head dams on the lower Kansas River and riprapped dikes on the Missouri River in the Kansas City metropolitan area hold channel cats during the spawn that are otherwise spread across miles and miles of river.
- MINNY MAGIC: More than 20 urban lakes and ponds in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area are stocked with channel catfish. Check the DNR’s “Fishing in the Neighborhood” website for locations and recent catfish population survey results.
- PLATTE RIVER PARADISE: The Platte River south of Omaha, Neb., has a network of sloughs and oxbows. Any riprapped areas or deadfalls along their banks are spawning habitat for catfish and likely targets for anglers.
This article originally published in the Midwest edition of Game & Fish Magazine, May 2021. Click to subscribe