Beating the catfish spawn

Rodger Taylor said moving around is a key to success during the catfish spawn. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Catch your share of cats during the spawn with these tips

Catfishing is productive year-round, and experienced anglers have strategies for making good catches regardless of seasonal weather conditions. One time that’s seasonally dependent, and not related to daily weather, still mystifies many catfish anglers. 

Many catfishermen simply take a vacation from catfishing because of the dreaded catfish spawn.

Professional fishing guides don’t have that option because an extended break from fishing, during the prime weather month of June, would hurt business. They’ve had to learn to adapt to be successful.

The timing of the spawn varies in the Carolinas. It’s based on location as well as the species of catfish. Blues, flatheads, and channels don’t necessarily spawn at the same time. And even different lakes will have individual spawning periods.

June is typically the core month for catfish spawning, but May and July are often in the discussion, or ‘cussing,’ too. 

What’s your strategy?

Catfish can be caught during the spawn in good numbers, and catfishermen can develop strategies to deal with this issue. But having a strategy is a necessity.

Roger Taylor from Rock Hill, SC is a fulltime catfish guide on lakes Wylie and Wateree on the Catawba River system.  

Taylor said the peak of the spawn generally occurs during June, a prime month for his catfishing business. So Taylor has developed strategies and techniques that produce during this time.  

“Catfish are different than many species of fish in that when other species spawn, it’s often a prime time to catch them,” Taylor said. “Largemouth bass, bream and crappie are good examples. But catfish action does get tough, especially for really big fish. So I’ve developed strategies to keep my clients catching plenty of catfish during the spawn.”

Big catfish are harder to come by during the spawn, but good cats are still caught. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Taylor (803-517-7828) said most of the year, his catfish-catching strategy revolves around pinpointing forage and depth preferences to find catfish. But during the spawn, it’s more complex.

“During the spawn, catfish are focused on making more catfish, overriding the otherwise dependable pattern of finding forage and finding catfish,” he said. “I must think and fish creatively.” 

Taylor said understanding the timing of the catfish spawn is a key to his strategy. After years of tracking data on these lakes, he’s learned a water temperature of 78-degrees means the spawn is likely.

“Not all catfish spawn at the same time on any given lake, so I’ve got leeway on the peak of the spawn,” he said. 

Taylor said water temperatures vary on most lakes from the upper to lower end, meaning one portion of the lake may be in spawn mode, but another part may be in late pre-spawn.

“Pre-spawn means excellent catfishing for me, so I’ll move around these lakes to find situations where catfish are not yet in spawning mode,” he said. “My fishing style is mobile anyway, but hunting spots with active catfish is crucial during the spawn. As the water reaches peak spawning temperature, I’ll often move to the other end of the lake to find more cooperative fish, sometimes fish that are perhaps entering the post-spawn phase near the end of June.”

Change it up

In addition to moving around on a lake such as Wylie, Taylor literally moves from one lake to the other to find a better bite.

“I guide on two different lakes with different water temperature patterns. So I can usually find water conditions more favorable for a good bite by changing lakes,” he said. “It requires more effort, but the willingness to fish multiple lakes provides options during the spawn.”

Taylor fishes from an anchored position in pre-spawn but drift-fishes during the spawn to cover more area. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

To carry that one step further, he said when the spawn is peaking at the lake with cooler water temperatures, the other lake likely has areas nearing the end of the spawn.

“I’m able to find areas where the fish are beginning to get back on a good bite in post-spawn and into the summer pattern,” he said. “This means food is again a priority, and I can return to the reliable patterns developed over the years.”

Taylor said he’ll change fishing tactics during the spawn. Throughout the early spring and pre-spawn, he primarily fishes from an anchored setup. But when the spawn is underway he’ll primarily drift fish.  

“For drift fishing, I use the standard Santee Rig with a 24-inch leader, float and slinky weight, and I drift in the 0.5-to-0.7 mph range,” he said. 

Taylor said he primarily drift fishes because it enables him to cover more area. 

“During the spawn, some fish are not in play since big females are laying eggs, and males are guarding the nesting sites,” he said. “Covering more water makes sense to me, and I still fish areas that provide good depth and forage. I’m looking for catfish willing to bite.”

Target areas

Taylor targets humps, flats, ledges, and deeper holes in the main lake, but also drifts feeder tributaries in shallow water. He’ll often target the middle portion of the lake early, then move up or down the lake as the daily pattern develops.

Even during the spawn, some fish are still actively eating. Low light conditions are conducive to hooking big fish.

“Not all the big fish spawn at the same time. So anchoring on a ledge, point or hump to begin the day may be my best shot at a huge fish,” he said. “Sometimes it produces, and the biggest flathead ever caught by a client was during the absolute peak of the spawn in this manner. But the most consistent bite throughout the day during the spawn is drift fishing.”

Finding the right target during the spawn is crucial to success. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Taylor said he’ll target areas where he finds numbers of catfish, even if the average size is smaller than normal.

“I’ve found several areas in both lakes where I can drift during the peak of the spawn and consistently catch fish in the 5- to 15-pound class, and that generally keeps most fishermen happy,” he said. “The occasional big fish is still a possibility.”

Another tactic that works well during the spawn is fishing where local rains have produced more current than normal.

“Before, during and after spawning season, catfish also congregate downstream from big-river dams, especially after heavy rains, so the upper end of Lake Wateree or Wylie can be hotspots when water conditions are right,” Taylor said. “Good water flow attracts catfish. And simply having more fish in a confined area enhances fishing success.” 

Tackle and bait

Taylor’s basic tackle doesn’t change during the spawn. He prefers 7½-foot medium Ugly Stiks, with Ambassador 6500 reels loaded with 20-pound test main line and 50-pound test leader.

“Tackle during the spawn or anytime will be a function of where you fish and the type cover being fished,” Taylor said. “In some areas, anglers could go lighter, but plenty of lakes and rivers would require much heavier tackle. Fit the tackle to the lake.” 

Taylor said the best baits vary, but he prefers fresh cut bait from the lake he’s fishing. 

“Cut bait is very effective for me during the spawn,” he said. “Gizzard shad is always a good bet, but I do downsize the bait during the spawn.”

Taylor’s summary of fishing during the spawn is simple. He plans a strategy before the spawn. And when it begins, he works that plan.

Target shallow water around bream beds to potentially hook fat cats during the spawn. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

“I’ll even fish on days when I don’t have clients to explore new places and stay on fish when guiding,” he said. “I suggest being reasonable about big fish during the spawn. I’m grateful for every one we catch, but the big fish bite is tougher, so I adjust expectations accordingly. Big fish are still in play, and numbers of fun-to-catch sized catfish are realistic. Don’t avoid catfishing because of the spawn. Instead, adapt to the situation. It’s still a fun process.

“I love the challenge, and figuring out how to have successful trips during the spawn is fun,” he said. “Another tangible reward is I’ll learn new tactics or places that help me catch catfish the rest of the year, and following years.” 

Taylor said patience is a key to catching big catfish any time of the year, but it’s of premium importance during the spawn. Big fish may be more difficult to find, but plenty of quality fish can be caught with a good strategy. 

Use bream beds to target big catfish

Guide Rodger Taylor said big catfish love to eat bream this time of year, and a concentration of bream, such as around a shallow-water bream bed, can be a productive target during the spawn.

“These beds are great feeding areas for big catfish,” Taylor said. “If I’ve got a family group fishing with me, I know youngsters can get bored if fish are not biting fast. Throughout the time catfish are spawning, bream-bedding action is at a peak. I’ll set up on a bream bed on Lake Wylie and my clients will catch the abundant bream, which is fun for all. I’ll cast several catfish rigs out around the area, and it’s common to hook some big catfish while catching bream.”

“Catching bream off the beds keeps everyone busy and allows time for catfish to find the baits and load up,” he said. “And the worst-case scenario is that we don’t catch a big catfish here, but everyone enjoys catching bream, whether we hook catfish or not. This fast-paced bream action energizes everyone for the next place where we’ll target catfish, and we’ll have plenty of fresh bait to use.” 

About Terry Madewell 809 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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