Unlike bass, crappie, bluegill, and other popular species of game fish, catfish are actually toughest to catch during the spawn.
Varying widely even within the same body of water, and driving males to avoid feeding altogether until their hatch are free swimming, spring and early summer are the hardest seasons to catch nice cats.
Many new anglers--or just those new to the unusual habits of catfish--find this to be a real problem and retreat from catfishing until summer is well and truly arrived.
But understanding catfish spawning can help you mitigate the worst of this effect and get you back on the cats quickly.
Let’s take a closer look, exploring the spawn and a solution to its problems.
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Related: How To Catch Catfish
Catfish Spawning Basics
As is the case with every species, for catfish, the spawn is triggered by water temperature. Of course, that means that everything from latitude to inflows to water depth can affect the timing of this critical activity, so let’s really bear down on the details.
You can catch big cats in the spring--if you know what you’re doing!
Much of what we know about catfish from wildlife biologists is driven by the aquaculture market, where precise knowledge of ideal temperatures to trigger spawning is critical. But keep in mind that catfish farms aren’t perfect analogs for your local river or lake, and take these marks to be rough gauges and probably measures.
Experts like Keith Sutton suggest that “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.”
Other experts like Dr. Hal Schramm think that “In the wild, channel catfish have been observed spawning at water temperatures of 70°F to 85°F. Some fish culturists consider 80°F to be optimum, but others favor a slightly lower temperature. Based on observations from natural populations, the spawning temperature range appears slightly lower for blues — 70°F to 75°F, and 68°F to 75°F for flatheads.”
The first thing to notice is that those are fairly wide ranges, suggesting a drawn-out spawning season that may begin at 70 degrees but not reach its peak until 80 or so. So while the actual spawning period for each cat is relatively short--5 to 10 days--the effect on fishing is likely to be long.
The second point to consider is that shallower water heats up earlier, so various fishing spots near you may experience the spawn at slightly different times. A shallow, stagnant lake will see the effect of the spawn much earlier than a deep river, for instance.
And even within the same body of water, some areas will warm more rapidly than others. Anywhere a shallow, warm stream empties into the main body of the lake, or anywhere the sun has nearly all-day access to the water, you can expect spawning to start sooner rather than later.
And this is the third issue to think about: expect pre-spawn, spawn, and post-spawn cats in the same body of water.
Catfish Spawning Behavior
To understand why the spawn can mean trouble, you need to know more about catfish spawning behavior.
The big three are all known as “cavity spawners.” That means that rather than a shallow stretch of muddy or sandy bottom, catfish look for holes, crevices, undercuts, and thick tangles of roots to get to work on the next generation.
The big three are all “cavity spawners.”
As the water hits roughly 70 degrees, males will find a protected spot and attract a female. She’ll lay a sticky bundle of eggs which he’ll fertilize, and then he’ll run her off the nest.
From then on out--up to 10 days depending on the water temperature--he’ll guard the eggs and fan them with his pectoral fins, keeping them well oxygenated and clean. When they hatch, he’ll ride shotgun over them until they disperse.
And all the while, he’ll skip feeding.
That spawning-triggered anorexia makes catching him virtually impossible, and while she’s engaged in the spawn, don’t expect her to take your bait either.
What Does This Mean for You?
If you track the water temperature, you can get a good sense of where the catfish spawn stands, but keep in mind those local variations.
The key is a movement in tune with the spawn.
When the most likely areas start to warm up, you can try to find a spot that’s too cool for the spawn by moving to a river that’s fed by colder water or just a deeper spot. As that colder location heats up, you may be in the post-spawn in the warmer places.
The idea is to stage your fishing in time with spawn to avoid it, staying on pre-spawn or post-spawn fish as much as you can.
That still may not make the spawn a great season to catch catfish, but it will mitigate much of the problem.
For Noodling, the Spawn is Prime Time!
For noodlers, the spawn is anything but a problem.
Precisely because catfish retreat to a hole to spawn, they’re easy to target. And the guarding males won’t move but will bite anything that comes into that spot--including a noodler's hand and arm.
If you're willing to surrender your rod and reel, the spawn can be an awesome time to catch cats by hand.