While most anglers chase catfish in the hazy, lazy days of summer, die-hard catmen know that all four seasons offer their own abundance, and that with the possible exception of the spawn in late spring/early summer, there’s great catfishing to be had year-round.
That doesn’t mean that peak seasons can’t be identified for each of the big three: channels, blues, and flatheads.
If you want to know the best time of the year (and of the day) to catch catfish, keep reading!
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Related: Catfish Tips
In the south, where catfishing is a rite of passage and a time-honored tradition, “winter” is often a relative term. And while ponds can ice over and the water does get positively cold, you won’t be needing an ice auger to cut holes in the hard water.
Winter can be an excellent time to target cats.
Nevertheless, those cool temperatures do affect catfish behavior--inducing lethargy in these otherwise voracious fish--and slowing feeding behavior to a crawl. All that takes is a dip into the 50s for the water temperature, a relative certainty by January nearly everywhere you'll find cats.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not looking for a meal.
The catfish will be sluggish, slow, and stationary--but you can use that to your advantage.
Wherever you find bait fish, you’ll find a catfish waiting hopefully for an easy meal. They’ll tend to hole up--literally--on the break side of structure, where slow-moving currents carry bait fish right up to them.
And by working a good bait or live minnow in the right spots, you’ll be amazed by winter’s bounty!
Below the Mason-Dixon, guides target blue catfish in winter, as the channels and flatheads really tend to turn off in cooler water. Big blues, however, will continue to feed, just not as actively as they do in warmer weather.
But that can give you a great opportunity to catch a trophy blue while the pressure is low.
Early spring finds the catfish waking from their winter torpor, with flatheads and channel cats slowly resuming feeding after a long, cold fast. Pre-spawn, they’ll be looking to pack on weight, and it’s a great time to offer them a fat minnow or some reeking punch bait.
Don’t underestimate spring catfishing.
Typically, they’ll be engaging in a seasonal migration. You’ll find them moving from their overwintering spots to likely spawning holes, and if you want the full rundown on this behavior, check out our article on the topic: When Do Catfish Spawn.
As the water warms in the spring sun, reaching roughly 70 degrees, spawning will begin in each of the big three species. At that point, males will begin nesting in stumps, holes, crevices, and root tangles. They’ll wait and attract a female, remaining in place until the fry leave the nest.
And all the while, they won’t actively feed.
That can make later spring and early summer a very tough time to fish for cats, and I don’t know anyone who thinks spring is prime time.
Post-spawn, catfish will return to feeding with a vengeance, making up for lost time.
But soul-crushing heat can drive anglers off the water and push the catfish below the thermocline in lakes that are deep enough to have one.
Those reasons combined are why many anglers choose night fishing.
Nighttime can be the right time in the summer!
As temperatures fall after sunset, hungry cats will emerge from the depths and take to the shallows to hunt for an easy meal. And it’s important to remember that blues and flatheads are true predators, hunting the bottom for prey with their awesome sense of smell and legendary lateral lines.
And on lakes, ponds, and rivers with too little depth to stratify, the cats will find the heat stress eases after dark, making nighttime the right time. That’s doubly true for big flatheads.
As Jared Meighen explains for Game & Fish Magazine, “Flatheads inhabit shallow feeding flats at night, feasting at their discretion and moving constantly. When daylight comes, they behave much the same as a vampire does, escaping to a secluded lair or den (typically a large snag, blowdown, or undercut bank) where they remain relatively inactive until nightfall.”
Don’t forget that big cats like thick cover, just like bass. And by all means, be willing to experiment with more than a hook and a chunk of chicken liver!
I strongly recommend slip floats, big hooks, and fat minnows. Drop shot rigs tipped with live bait work well, too. And a big jig head with a 3- to 4-inch shad can work magic when you need to cover a lot of water quickly.
If these possibilities seem enticing, we’ve covered the whole topic of catfish rigs before. Just take a peek at our article, The Best Catfish Rigs: Blue and Flathead Essentials.
And keep in mind that warm water is ideal for punch baits as the smell travels more quickly--and farther--as the mercury rises.
As summer dies down, the catfish sense the coming of winter and try to pack on a bit of extra weight. Actively feeding until the water drops to 50 degrees or thereabout, fall can mean the best fishing of the year.
Big cats are putting on the pounds as winter approaches.
Oxygen levels rise as the water cools down, and without the pressure of heat to drive them into inactivity during the daylight, you’ll find blues and flatheads hunting pretty much all day.
Channel cats won’t skip a meal, either, though cooling water makes stink baits less effective.
One technique I really like on rivers for fall cats is a slip float. I rig the terminal tackle so it stays off the bottom, add a big shad, and cast upstream. I let the current carry my float as far as I dare, repeating as necessary.
This natural presentation plays into the hunting behavior of blues and flatheads, and I find it works much better than stationary presentations.
Another important strategy is to identify the cover that holds first-year fish. These are the targets of cats looking to fatten up, and if you can find them, you’ll find the hungry channels, flatheads, and blues that feed on them.
Especially where these locations intersect with a drop off, you’ll find big cats hunting. And again, a slip float armed with cut bait or a 3- to 4-inch bluegill, shad, or sucker will really be worth its weight in gold.
Check out our top recommendations for catfish tackle:
Every season has its pros and cons, but if I had to pick a winner, I’d say that late summer/early fall is the ideal time to fish for catfish.
Just as the worst of the heat breaks, and the days begin to get shorter, you’ll see the hunting behavior of big cats really turn on. And with plenty of oxygen in the water, they’re looking to feed without the interruption of the spawn.
Everything from stinky baits to soured livers to live and cut bait will work well, at least until the water cools back down below 70 degrees.
And you’ll find that the 90 minutes surrounding dawn and dusk are prime times, but in late summer, night fishing is still very productive.