Conquering the Channel Catfish Spawn

by Brad Durick

Catching channel cats, even during the dreaded spawn

Channels in the spawn can be beat up from fanning a nest near a snag. This one was caught and then safely released.

Channels in the spawn can be beat up from fanning a nest near a snag. This one was caught and then safely released.

One thing that many hardcore catfish anglers notice is the lack of people fishing when the spawn is in full swing. In some areas of the country it is like someone flipped a switch turning off the anglers who frequent the river for channel catfish. While this is true in many places, it is usually an unfair assessment of how fishing really is or can be.

“…most years not all fish spawn at the same time.”

 

There is no more dreaded time for most catfish anglers than the spawn. Things are changing and fishing for many anglers gets slow or even shuts down. Shore anglers notice this annual phenomenon more than most because the amount of fish feeding decreases as they move to the nest and become spread out.

This graphic shows how to set up on spawning cats out of the current and using structure that may hold cats on the nest.

This graphic shows how to set up on spawning cats out of the current and using structure that may hold cats on the nest.

There are ways to combat this seasonal occurrence, one of which is stay home, but that one is not good. Simply understanding what the fish do and where they go will be the difference between wishing you had stayed home and not even noticing that the spawn is happening.

 

Not all Fish Spawn at the Same Time

Rule number one of the spawn is that most years not all fish spawn at the same time. Some fish go to the nest early and some late. In many cases, you can keep fishing as if you were still in the pre-spawn period without making many adjustments to tactics.

This double was unique because we caught a post spawn male and a pre-spawn female in the same area, proving that not all fish spawn at the same time.

This double was unique because we caught a post spawn male and a pre-spawn female in the same area, proving that not all fish spawn at the same time.

Keeping to this theory, you should see pre-spawn catfish even when you know the spawn is in progress and one day you will start to see skinny, post spawn fish begin to show up. Once this happens you just survived a spawn with little or no pain to you as an angler.

Consider this personal story which goes back to the beginning of my guiding career. I was on a great pre-spawn bite and just kept riding it day after day. All water conditions suggested that the spawn was on and if we set a line too close to the bank we sometimes got a male off the nest to prove it.

One Saturday in June, my clients and I were working the pre-spawn pattern and fishing fast and furious. All the fish we boated were fat, feisty and on the verge of going to the nest. The very next day, with different guests, but fishing the same tactics we were still getting our fish, but they were skinny and beat up. They even weighed about 20 percent less than the fish from the day before. This was a sure sign that the early spawners were coming back out to feed, while the fish that were late to spawn were just beginning to set on the nest. This is probably the most dramatic change-over I have seen, but it proves the point that things can happen fast during the spawn.

This big channel was under a root ball in less than two feet of water, laying comfortably out of the current.

This big channel was under a root ball in less than two feet of water, laying comfortably out of the current.

Some years, but not most, the weather conditions will warm up more quickly than normal, holding and keeping the water warm and the weather stable. These conditions can push most of the catfish to spawn at almost the same time and make the previous scenario impossible. While it’s rare for this to happen, it can happen. The good news is, when this does happen we see that the spawn is usually very short, lasting only 14 to 21 days.

Another personal story from my guiding career involved a solid pre spawn bite. About the normal spawn time (around June 10th), we had a solid two weeks of 80 degree weather. This pushed the water temperature to 75 degrees, forcing the fish to the nest. Fortunately, the weather held for another two weeks and the spawn was over in that amount of time. I will admit, that year more than any, was a difficult two weeks of fishing, but it was short lived and does not happen every year.

Be willing to set on a spot a little longer than normal during the spawn. A nice channel like this can be your reward.

Be willing to set on a spot a little longer than normal during the spawn. A nice channel like this can be your reward.

Conquering a Tough Spawn

When the spawn is in full swing and the theory of fishing pre-spawn patterns are not working, how do you still catch fish? There are a few things that you can do to help you catch more catfish.

First, channel catfish usually spawn in holes along the bank or near snag piles or spots with little or no current. They also like warmer water to help the eggs along, so they look for south or west facing areas to get the maximum afternoon sun.

Start by targeting north and east shorelines and search for cut banks or snags tight to the bank. This is pretty easy to see and find by sight, but to be precise you can use your side imaging sonar to locate the holes in the cut banks. They show up usually as a darker spot on the side image than the rest of the bank.

Be willing to sit on spots longer than you normally would, so the fish get the ambition to come out and find the bait. They are not feeling all that good during this time, so it sometimes takes a bit more to get an appetite for your bait.

Lay at least one of your baits tight to the bank near these holes. If you get close to a nest, the catfish will hit the bait. Most of the time you will catch the fish, but other times you will notice the fish will pick up the bait and move it out of the way. It does not move the bait to eat it, but to remove a possible threat from the area of the nest.

If you notice your line moving side to side, from the bank to the current seam, try this tip. The sideways movement is a sure sign the fish has it, but they will almost never pull the rod down. You can set the hook to get the fish, but first you must be able to identify the bite. This is where a good bright colored line, such as yellow, green or orange, comes into play. It makes seeing the moving line easier.

Another thing you may run into is the fish will pick up the bait, pull the rod down and as soon as you reel they are gone. Channel cats have this tendency where they grab just a little portion of the bait and let go when they feel the pressure of the rod. The way to deal with this goes against most catfish angler’s rules of bait size. But the solution is to downsize baits and upsize hooks. Thread the bait onto the shank of the hook leaving the fish no choice but to get the hook if it wants the bait.

Another key location is structure, such as hollow stumps and other places where the fish can get out of the current. These can be midriver or on the break lines to the main channel. Again, the easiest way to locate structure is with your sonar.

The spawn can be a confusing time for many catfish anglers, but with a little knowledge and patience you can learn to conquer it and catch channel cats almost like it was not happening. Remember that you won’t catch fish by staying home. The fish are there, you just have to go find them.

 

Captain Brad Durick is a nationally recognized catfish guide on the Red River of the North, seminar speaker, and author of the books Cracking the Channel Catfish Code and Advanced Catfishing Made Easy. For more information go to www.redrivercatfish.com.

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