It was late March when a fishing buddy called to tell me the white bass were making their spawning run up the tributaries of a local lake.
The swollen head on this big channel cat indicates it is a male ready to guard a nest full of eggs. When the fish is guarding its eggs, it may not feed for days, making it tough to catch.
"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, the crappie started bedding on my favorite lake. Catching 30 or more daily was a cinch. Largemouth bass also were spawning, and a lure worked in 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.
Spawning season is peak time to catch many gamefish, but when catfish are considered, it's a different story. The spawning habits of catfish differ greatly from those of other gamefish, 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/early summer fishing trip frustrated and perplexed.
Our major catfish species spawn during spring or summer when the water warms to an optimal temperature. Channel and blue catfish spawn at 70-84 degrees F, but 80-81 degrees is considered best. Flatheads spawn at 66-75 degrees.
Spawning begins at different times in different latitudes, progressing from south to north. With channel cats, for example, spawning may begin in March or April in South Carolina and Texas, May in Kansas and Iowa, and mid-June to July in South Dakota and Wyoming. Blue catfish spawn April through June in Louisiana, and early July in Iowa. Flatheads spawn in late June in Arkansas but not until weeks later in northern parts of their range.
Dams block upstream migrations of spawning season catfish. Savvy anglers know this is a good time to fish tailwaters.
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 tributaries, 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.
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 prespawn, spawn and postspawn catfish. If water conditions are favorable, some active feeders always will 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 few and far between during the spawning period if you continue fishing your flatwater hotspots. The best fishing often is in tributary streams instead because, as the water temperature warms, catfish migrate upstream into tributaries to spawn.
Female catfish lay masses of sticky, yellow eggs in underwater cavities. Fish hatchery managers provide nesting
cavities in the form of old milk cans.
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 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.
When underwater, holes in buckled revetment provide ideal catfish spawning sites.
Banks covered with riprap (large limestone rocks) also are key fishing areas during spawning season. Look for them near dams, bridges and causeways where the rocks are placed 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 distinguishing a small section of the bank on 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 revetment slabs. Then, when you find a hole and feel like the boat is directly over it, find 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 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.