This steep cut bank with snags near it is a perfect example of where a catfish might find a hole to nest in.
Catfish can be caught tight up to the bank near these holes.
Strategies for the Spawn
by Brad Durick
Spawning season can be one of the toughest times to catch a catfish, but that doesn’t mean you should quit fishing
Most anglers skip the spawning season, but as a guide, I don’t get that luxury. Some years I do see a downturn in catch rates, but I have learned some tricks for dealing with a rough spawn.
Not all catfish spawn at the same time, ALMOST. What I mean here is that weather and water conditions usually are not so perfect that every fish in the lake or river one day says, “Today is the day we spawn.” Usually, the spawn is stretched out over three to six weeks, depending on how conditions come into play and how stable the weather and water conditions are. Some years you will barely even notice the spawn is going on. But every now and again, there is that one year that everybody goes together.
Most years, (say three out of five years) the water is slow reaching that magic 70 to 72 degrees that triggers the spawn. Some fish will move to the nest early, and if it does not get hot fast, the rest will slowly follow. If there is no major cold front, the best way to catch fish is to just do what you were doing during the prespawn. With not all fish spawning at the same time, you might see numbers dwindle some. But you will continue to catch prespawn fish until one day when the last of them go to the nest and the first of the postspawn fish come off. You will only notice the fish get skinnier.
Some years (I have seen this two times), we get into a hot weather pattern that drives the water temperatures up to mid to high 70s quickly, and it stays hot. It is this hot pattern that stays hot that can drive all the fish in the water to spawn at the same time. It is these times when things get sketchy to stay consistent. The good news is these spawns tend to be very short at 10 to 14 days and then back to business with the postspawn.
How to Deal with the Spawn
During this bite, one trick is to fish the faster water in the morning and evening, targeting and hoping for anything. You can almost always catch smaller fish that are still immature and not spawning.
Another idea is to fish sections of river below dams where large concentrations of fish that are not spawning that year will continue through the prespawn motions even though they are not going to nest.
Catch and Release
Many anglers are against fishing during the spawn because they don’t want to hurt the fish. If you are fishing near nests and targeting big males that are guarding the nests, it is imperative to bring them in and release them immediately. They will go right back to the nest and continue their guard duties. I have caught the same male of the same nest many days in a row, not because he was eating, but because he was protecting the nest. By letting him go right away, he went back to the nest to keep fanning it.
When the fish are set into spawn, a good strategy has been to fish OFF current, out of the current near thick, heavy structure. Part of the reason this could be overlooked is because many anglers do not fully understand how to read OFF current. Put very simply, OFF current is where the current pulls away from the structure rather than to it or ripping over it.
Fish know where to find these spots of least resistance and, in a lower activity time such as the spawn, they provide great places to rest when they are less active. Of course, during the spawn, look where the catfish actually spawn. Using today’s high-end technology, one can identify holes and high-percentage places for a catfish to have a nest. Put a bait in front of the nest and let the fish move it. If you do this, please release the fish back so it can tend to the nest. They will go back and can be caught from the nest multiple times as they are protecting the nest and not eating.
Some changes in gear that can also help catch fish during the spawn include lightening up your rods to see more of the subtle bites so you know when the fish pick up the baits. It is also a good idea to use smaller bait that fit on the hook better, leaving as little meat as possible below the hook for them to pick up without getting hooked. You can also upsize your hooks to help prevent this and force them to eat the hook.
If catfish are protecting the nest, they will move the bait but not eat it. Because of this, you either need to hold the rods in your hands to feel the pickup or watch the line so you know if the fish is moving it. You will have to set the hook because the fish will not do it for you as they are protecting the nest, not eating.
One very important thing that helps a lot during the spawn, especially if you know you are on fish, is to fish slower. We all have been brought up to fish fast for active fish. Give them 15 to 20 minutes and move. This is fine most of the time, but if you are in a rough spawn, the fish are sluggish or not really eating at all. This means give them extra time to come out and find the bait, move the bait or just decide to eat the bait. A good rule is 25 to 40 minutes on a spot to let the fish come to the bait.
Spawn can be a tough time of year to catch catfish. The good news is not all fish spawn at the same time typically. It happens about 20 percent of years. When it does, be prepared to lower expectations, sit on spots more and make some simple adjustments to be successful. It only lasts a short part of the season, so learn to deal with it and catch fish when others don’t bother fishing at all.
(Capt. 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 https://redrivercatfish.com/.)