Understanding Catfish Spawning

Understanding Catfish Spawning
Old-time catfishermen know that cats love liver. Chunks of beef or sheep liver with special flavorings added (cheese, blood, fish oil or similar \"loud\" offerings designed to bring catfish in via scent trails in the current) have always been a staple of summer anglers.

Spring cats go for liver, too, but some fishermen complain about the difficulty of keeping tainted or aged liver on a hook. The stuff can be quite mushy, but here's a trick: Use deer liver instead! Whitetail livers are much denser and tougher than domestic livers and will stay on the hook even after several catches.

If you can't find deer liver, tie your beef liver chunks in mesh or nylon bags to keep them from washing away in the current.

Unlike many game fish, catfish can be harder to catch during the spawn. Here are some strategies for dealing with the catfish spawning and reluctant fish.

It was late March last year when one of my fishing buddies called to say the white bass were making their spawning run up the tributaries of a local lake.

"They're swimming up the creeks and piling onto the shoals," he said. "We need to get out there soon if we're going to catch some."

The next evening we each caught more than 50 fat white bass apiece.


In April, when the dogwoods bloomed, the crappie started bedding on my favorite lake. Catching 30 or more a day was a cinch. Largemouth bass were spawning at the same time, and a lure worked near shoreline shallows produced one on nearly every other cast. May was bluegill time; scores of these fat panfish could be taken from a single bed when using crickets for bait.


Spawning season is peak time to catch many game fish, but when catfish are considered, it's a different story. The spawning habits of catfish differ greatly from those of other game fish, and fishing success may take a nosedive when blues, flatheads and channel cats are on their nests. Unless you understand why this occurs, you're likely to return from a late-spring or early-summer fishing trip frustrated and perplexed.

All of our major catfish species spawn during spring or summer when the water warms to an optimal temperature. Channel and blue catfish spawn at 70 to 84 degrees, but 80 to 81 degrees is considered best. Flatheads spawn at 66 to 75 degrees.

Not surprisingly spawning begins at different times in different latitudes, progressing from south to north.

Even more important to anglers in their home waters, spawning also may occur at different times within a single body of water. For example, nesting activity often begins first in the headwaters area of a large lake. Creeks and small streams above the lake warm first because they are shallow and fed by the first warming rains. These in turn feed larger streams flowing into the lake, and they, too, warm up before the deeper main lake. Thus, headwater reaches attract catfish early in the season and are among the best catfishing areas this time of year.


NESTING FACTS

All our catfish are cavity nesters. Blue catfish deposit their eggs between rocks, in root wads, depressions, undercut banks or other areas protected from strong current.

Flatheads select sites such as hollow logs, excavated caves in clay banks, root masses from downed trees or manmade structures such as old tires, car bodies and metal drums. Channel catfish usually select dark, secluded spots such as crevices in piles of woody debris, burrows in banks, and spaces between and under rocks.


A sexually mature male selects and cleans a nest site and spawns with a female he lures there. After the female lays her mound of sticky yellow eggs, the male fertilizes the mass, drives the female from the nest 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. The eggs hatch in six to 10 days (depending on water temperature), and the compact school of fry remains near the nest a few days before dispersing. The male guards the fry until they leave.

FISHING DURING THE SPAWN

Catfish enthusiasts who fish during the spawn may notice a sharp drop in catch rates because male catfish eat very little while protecting the nest. Fortunately, the peak of the spawn is over in a few days. And because fish in a system don't all spawn at the same time, a section of river or lake may contain pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn catfish. If water conditions are favorable, some active feeders will always be available to catch, so there may be no noticeable decline in fishing success. If poor fishing is noticed and can't be attributed to other causes, the angler can wait a few days until the spawning peak passes and male cats are feeding more actively once again.

When catfishing success is poor, it also may help to focus your fishing efforts in areas you might not previously have considered fishing. For example, if you normally fish in the main portion of a lake, you may find that catfish bites are rare during the spawning period if you continue fishing your flat-water hotspots. The best fishing often is in tributary streams instead because, as the water temperature warms, catfish migrate upstream into tributaries to spawn.

The same phenomenon occurs in rivers as well. Catfish leave the main body of water and migrate up smaller streams and creeks to spawn. Therefore anglers may have to focus their fishing efforts in tributaries in order to catch them. This is especially true of blue and channel catfish, which often gather near upstream spawning areas when the water reaches the ideal nesting temperature. Flatheads, on the other hand, are less migratory and more likely to be found in the same locales season after season. Anglers are less likely to be stymied by flatheads that have seemingly disappeared.

KEY FISHING AREAS

Because tributary mouths are staging areas for ready-to-spawn catfish, they're among the top hotspots this time of year. The best are those tributaries with a warm in-flow, such as creeks swollen by spring rains. Catfish usually ambush prey from behind current breaks -- humps, holes or trees -- near the confluence of the tributary with the main lake or river. Cast your rig upstream and allow it to drift past these honeyholes.

Before, during and after spawning season, catfish also congregate downstream from big-river dams. Their numbers increase in these tailwaters when their upstream spawning migrations are blocked, and many cats stay in these areas for weeks to feast on the abundance of baitfish, crayfish and other foods. Fishing in "grooves" of slower-moving water between open gates often is productive.

Banks covered with riprap also are key fishing areas during spawning season. Look for them near dams, bridges and causeways where engineers place the rocks to prevent erosion. Big channel cats especially like this habitat, but blues and flatheads may gather as well if there are numerous nesting cavities available in crevices between the boulders. The best fishing areas tend to be those where a small section of the bank has slightly different cover or structure than the rest of a long, look-alike stretch of riprap. For example, a pipe or log may attract catfish. Other times, a difference in the rocks does the trick. Watch for big boulders changing to smaller rocks or slides of rocks creating underwater points. Cast your bait to the rocks in these areas and fish it right on bottom.

Concrete revetment also attracts spawning cats. This type of structure is found on big-river navigation systems maintained by government agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To stabilize the river banks and prevent erosion, bulldozers are used to smooth the shoreline, then the soil is covered with concrete matting, or revetment. The revetment may be covered with riprap to further stabilize it. Catfish nest in holes eroded beneath these structures, and if a hole can be pinpointed with sonar, the angler can drop a bait right in front of the fish. Often, catfish strike simply because they view the bait as a threat to the nest.

Start downstream and troll slowly upstream parallel to the bank, watching the sonar screen for the ups and downs of buckled-up revetment slabs. Then, when you find a hole and feel like the boat is directly over it, pick out a reference spot on the bank. You can now motor upstream and anchor the boat casting distance away from the hole. Cast a baited float rig directly to the hole, let the rig settle and wait for a hit. If you haven't had a bite after 15 to 20 minutes, troll up the bank until you find another likely spot and anchor again. Continue doing this, working your way upstream and fishing first one hole and then another.

Fishing for catfish during their spawning season can be very frustrating. When female cats are laying eggs and males are guarding their nests, they're often are hard to find and difficult to entice. Nevertheless, if you are diligent in your efforts and fish the proper locales, you're almost certain to discover a pattern that will enable you to catch fish even during this difficult time.

Editor's Note: An autographed copy of Keith Sutton's latest book, Catfishing: Beyond the Basics, is available for $22.45 (Arkansas residents, add sales tax) by sending a check or money order to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Costa

Costa's Award Winning Waterwoman Sunglasses

Costa's Amanda Sabin tells OSG's Lynn Burkhead about all of the great features that made the new Waterwoman frame a big winner at the 2019 ICAST show as well as out on the water.

As KVD tells OSG's Lynn Burkhead, innovative Humminbird products and cutting-edge technology like that found in the new Mega 360 Imaging sonar are major reasons contributing to his unparalleled success.

New 4-Liter Dry Creek Gear Pouch from Simms

New 4-Liter Dry Creek Gear Pouch from Simms

Outdoor Sportsman Group writer Lynn Burkhead gets new product details from Simms Fishing Product's John Frazier about the new waterproof 4-Liter Dry Creek Gear Pouch.

MLF BPT angler and former Classic champ Casey Ashley has been with Costa del Mar sunglasses his whole career. At ICAST 2019, he shows OSG writer Lynn Burkhead some new products and talks how to pick the right lens color for the water.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

The colder waters of early spring are prime times to use bait rigs for stripers. Striper & Hybrid

3 Deadly Bait Rigs For Stripers

J.B. Kasper

The colder waters of early spring are prime times to use bait rigs for stripers.

Unless you live in Antarctica, the only continent they aren't known to inhabit, there is a species Catfish

10 Biggest Catfish World Records of All Time

Jack Vitek - December 08, 2014

Unless you live in Antarctica, the only continent they aren't known to inhabit, there is a...

Fishing for nighttime crappie gets you out of the summer heat and puts more fish in the cooler.

By Other Freshwater

6 Tips for Nighttime Crappie

Keith Sutton - June 19, 2017

Fishing for nighttime crappie gets you out of the summer heat and puts more fish in the...

Want to test the outer limits of your shooting skill? There's more to successful long-range Ammo

10 Best Long-Range Cartridges Ever Made

David Hart - January 14, 2015

Want to test the outer limits of your shooting skill? There's more to successful long-range

See More Trending Articles

More Catfish

The Lone Star State is loaded with opportunities for catfish. Here's what to expect this year and a look at some of the hottest spots to hit. Fishing

Texas Catfish Best Bets

Todd Davis

The Lone Star State is loaded with opportunities for catfish. Here's what to expect this year...

While catfish are still catfish, the difference between day and night tactics and strategies can be profound, even when fishing the same lake or river. Fishing How-To

How to Catch Catfish Day and Night

Terry Madewell

While catfish are still catfish, the difference between day and night tactics and strategies...

Learn where you can find the best prospects for channel, blue and flathead catfish this summer. Fishing

Georgia Catfish Best Bets 2019

Steven Johnson

Learn where you can find the best prospects for channel, blue and flathead catfish this summer.

Get after big cats this year on some of Iowa's best old and new hotspots. Fishing

Iowa Catfish Best Bets

Dan Anderson

Get after big cats this year on some of Iowa's best old and new hotspots.

See More Catfish

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now