Catch Spawning Channel Catfish

Catch Spawning Channel Catfish

Catch More Spawning Channel Catfish

How To Catch Spawning Channel Catfish

Channel catfish offer some great table fare. Knowing where to look is your first step to catching more catfish for your freezer. This article focuses on catching spawning channel catfish and where to find channel cats and how to catch them. While the crappie and bass spawn can be hit or miss throughout early spring like we saw this year the channel catfish spawn can be a lot more stable and much easier to predict. The cold fronts and heavy rains have left the area and the water begins to stabilize. This stability will help hold channel cats, in various stages of the spawn, in an area much longer as they spawn, meaning you can return with confidence for 2 or 3 weeks and count on catching a few. Here I will explain where to find spawning channel catfish as well as how to catch them.

Channel Catfish Habitat

To catch more channel catfish you must first locate them. Spawning channel catfish love shallow coves with deadfalls and brush piles and they can be found there throughout the year, but spawning channel catfish prefer rock. Channel cats will seek rocks to spawn in. Small chunk rocks, often referred to as rip rap, is a great place to find spawning channel cats but if your lake has bigger rocks they can produce even more spawners as they create better pockets for nesting. 

Look for rock on your favorite catfish waters and when the water temps hit 70-80 degrees start looking for channel cats to move up into and around these rocky areas. Look for a large area of rock and there will be more catfish in the area during the spawn. This can be important because when the female channel cats are laying their eggs and the males are guarding them the bite can get tough or shut down completely. If you focus on areas with vast amounts of rock like rip rap around causeways or dams then you can take advantage of all stages of the spawn.

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Catfish Spawning Behavior

There are 3 stages of the channel catfish spawn, pre-spawn, spawn, and post-spawn. The great thing about locating these areas is that not all channel cats spawn at the same time and you will be fishing for fish in all stages of the spawn therefore you can catch these concentrated catfish longer throughout the spawn as new waves of fish move up to spawn or move out after they are done. Channel cats are vigorous feeders during both the pre-spawn period and the post-spawn period as well. By locating areas with enough spawning area for lots of catfish you can catch them for several weeks as new fish replenish the area looking for nests and post spawners begin to feed.

spider rigging for catfish
Channel Catfish Spider Rigging

Bait To Catch Spawning Catfish

This is a topic that gets much attention when discussing how to catch catfish. Channel cats will eat about anything but there are several go-to baits that I like to use and the success rate varies from trip to trip so I try to have my 3 go-to baits with me on every trip. These baits will vary with the area I am fishing and how much time I have to get my bait together but here are my favorite baits for channel catfish.

Chicken Livers

Chicken livers can be a great bait to catch spawning channel catfish and I love chicken livers on lakes that have shallow coves, lots of catfish, and where the catfish tend to run small say 1-3 pounds, and here is why. One great way to catch spawning channel catfish with chicken livers is with a spinning rod rigged with an 8-pound test line and a single hook. Pull up to a likely-looking area and anchor the boat sideways to where you want to fish. Rig the chicken liver on a single hook with a little sewing thread to keep it on and toss it gently into shallow water.

Use fluorescent lines with black lights at night. Leave the bail open so the channel cat can’t rip the rod out of the boat. Watch your line and when it shoots out grab the rod and cock the bail. Set the hook with steady pressure. Usually, the catfish will swallow the liver, not a technique if you plan to release your catfish. I usually purchase a hundred packs of cheap hooks for this technique. It’s much easier in the dark and less messy just to cut the line and tie on a new hook.

Stink Baits

Stink baits, like Danny King’s Punch Bait, is a great bait that will outperform all others at times at least on smaller fish. I always have some punch bait available because it always works and it’s easy to grab and go in a moment’s notice. Punch baits are also best used where there are numbers of fish that might run a bit smaller because it’s easier to deal with and when you have a hundred catfish biting using minnows or worms could get pretty expensive. I have found also that smaller fish are attracted to this bait so if you are looking to fill the freezer this is your bait for sure.

 

Bluegills

Bluegills are my favorite bait to catch spawning channel catfish. I know what you’re thinking live bluegills are for big flatheads. I am here to tell you if you want to catch some big channel catfish then live bluegills is the best bait I have found for them. Indiana has a great channel catfish fishery and is home to some big channel catfish. The only reason I don’t use live bluegills on every trip is because they can be hard to come by in a pinch. If I am looking for those 5-8 pound channel cats then live bluegill hooked in the back is money. 

When you’re using live bluegills around rocks it’s important to use a bobber. They will swim straight for a hole in the rocks and even if a spawning channel cat is in that hole you won’t get it out and you will lose your hook and bluegill. With channel cats, I use a lighted bobber and you can use either a chemical light attached to your bobber or there are several battery-operated lighted bobbers that work well too. Be sure you have a bobber large enough to float the bluegill.

Catfish Tackle Setup

When it comes to catfish tackle setups there are tons of variations and personal preferences. The catfish setup explained here is a simple yet very effective catfishing setup. Whether you fish from the bank or by boat this catfish tackle setup will work for you. Also, this article is about catching channel catfish. The setup explained here will be geared toward channel catfish. This setup will work for other catfish, but there are better catfish setups when targeting flathead catfish or while drifting for blue cats.

  • Catfish rod setup 
  • Catfishing reel
  • Catfish line setup 
  • Catfish hook setup
  • Catfishing sinker setup

THE ROD

Your catfish rod setup should be a heavy rod whether it be a spinning reel or a baitcasting rod. Your catfish rod should have strong guides with sturdy wrapping. Catfish can be very hard on your fishing rods. Rods that are specifically built whether factory or custom made will usually have strong guides and wraps to withstand the hard use that catfishing rods require. These sturdy catfishing rods are built both for spinning reels and baitcasting or closed face reels. The length of your catfish rod is personal preference but I can tell you that longer rods will help you cast further. I prefer longer rods of say 7 feet long both for casting and fighting catfish.

THE REEL

Catfish reels, like your catfishing rod, needs to be a sturdy reel. Whether you prefer a baitcaster, closed face, or spinning reel for your catfishing they should be built tough. I don’t think you have to purchase expensive reels to get a strong enough catfishing reel. However, cheaper reels could give problems down the road. It will likely occur when you hook that catfish of a lifetime. Get at least a middle-of-the-road catfishing reel and maintain it. You will get long life from your reel.

THE LINE

The catfishing line is a vital part of your catfish tackle setup. Catfish are not line shy so the heavy line is the norm. I use a lighter line than many catfish anglers mainly because it cast so much smoother than a heavy line. I still try to keep my catfish line larger than the fish I am targeting. When fishing for channel catfish I often use 12-pound test line and it’s plenty. I can get more line on the reel and make a longer cast with a lighter line. If you hook a giant catfish just loosen the drag and let it run. You might be surprised by how much catfish 12-pound test line can handle.

Hi-vis line like Berkley Trilene Big Cat Monofilament is a great line with excellent visibility both during the day and under a black light for night fishing for channel cats. Big cat monofilament is also strong and very abrasion-resistant. Channel catfish love to hang out around rocks like rip-rap as well as big log jams and brush piles. Having a line that can handle the inevitable nicks and scrapes created by this cover is important. Plenty of other lines that would work for catfishing for channel catfish but Berkley Big Cat is a great place to start.

THE HOOK

When it comes to catfish hooks I have two criteria, sharp and strong. Your choice of catfish hooks will be determined by the type of catfishing you are doing. This setup is for bank and boat fishing with rod holders. Because this setup is for anglers that use rod holders the hook of choice is a circle hook. A circle hook is designed to allow the catfish to hook itself. Allowing the catfish to slowly increase tension on the hook as it moves away puts the hook nicely in the fish’s lip. The design helps keep your catfish hooked up and is perfect for when you are not holding the rod to set the hook. Just let the fish do the hooking.

Circle hooks are all we used in Alaska to catch big halibuts and they work great. If you are holding the rod or need to set the hook for any reason then a J-hook is best for that application.

THE SINKER

In this application for channel catfish, I will describe a simple yet effective catfish sinker setup that works and why. This sinker setup includes a swivel, a leader, and a bobber stop for protecting the knot connecting the mainline to the swivel. No roll sinkers are the best catfish sinkers for casting. This catfish sinker is aptly named a no-roll sinker because its flat design keeps it from rolling in the current. It tends to stay where you cast it to. We’ve all fished a river with current and constantly had to reel in and cast back out with an egg sinker. The flat and low profile design of the no-roll catfish sinker allows you to use a manageable-sized sinker. Even when fishing in current.

The no roll sinker has a hole through it for the line. Feed your line through the hole in the sinker followed by a rubber bobber stop and tie to a swivel. The swivel should be rated for enough weight to handle the catfish you are fishing for and the weight you’re using. A lot of stress is put on the swivel when casting heavy sinkers. Keep that in mind.

The leader from the bottom of the swivel to the hook can be the same line your using for your mainline. I like to go with a clear monofilament that is a few-pound test bigger. As mentioned above, catfish aren’t line shy. The hi-vis leader would work but I like to use clear for the leader. I also like the contrast from the mainline to the leader. The heavier leader allows me to use the lighter line on the reel but more abrasion resistance at the business end of my catfish tackle setup.

Some catfish rigs have the sinker stationary on the mainline. This is common when fishing for flatheads in big log jams or rocks. The sinker will slide up the line when not stationary. This can cause a 10-inch leader to become a 3-foot leader by the time it hits the water. This can increase hangups considerably in gnarly cover. However, I feel that a channel catfish is so sensitive to tension. When they pick up the bait I prefer it to be able to swim away before feeling tension so it doesn’t drop the bait. This is a personal observation and is sure to vary among anglers.

More Tips to Catch More Channel Catfish

There are a couple of tips I learned from a much better cat-fisherman than myself on how to catch spawning channel catfish. The first is to use a cooler instead of a live well. When you’re catching 20-50 catfish they can mess up a livewell. The warm water and toxins that catfish release will kill your catch. It’s better to toss them in a cooler of ice as you catch them. This not only keeps your livewell clean but also cools your catch quickly. Filleting a cold channel catfish is much easier. 

Another great tip is how to keep your chicken livers fresh. The best way to keep your livers fresh and easily accessible for the fast and furious bite that channel cats often provide is two coffee canisters. Place your livers in the small coffee container and place it in the center of the larger one. Now pack ice around the smaller container inside the larger one. This will keep your livers fresh all night. Keep a towel handy and your set for a great time chasing spawning channel catfish this summer.

Channel Catfish are well known for their nocturnal tendencies. Most anglers target Channel Catfish after sunset and usually, this is the best time but Channel Catfish will bite during daylight hours. It might take a little more effort but you can find active Channel Catfish at this time. My favorite method is running and gunning in the search for those fish willing to stray outside their daytime haunts for a midday snack.

Run & gun is usually associated with bass fishing running from one point to another searching for active bass willing to bite. The same method works for daytime Channel Catfishing with some modifications. Instead of running and gunning points and ledges you want to run & gun brush piles inside coves. Many people think that Channel Catfish retreat to deep water during the day. Channel catfish can be found in very shallow water, even during the day.

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Catfishing Shallow Water

Channel Catfish in shallow water still prefer low light. They will bury themselves deep inside brush piles and root wads. Their intentions are to wait out the day in these dark domains but can be lured out with the right catfish bait. Not all Channels will venture out but there are always a few, for whatever reason, that will aggressively take your presentation. These are the fish you are looking for and the reason that the run & gun catfishing can put more Channel Cats in your live-well than any other method during the day.

Daytime Catfishing

What I look for when searching for catfish during the day is shallow coves with brush or standing timber. The brush seems to be better during the day while the standing timber is a great structure for nighttime pursuits. I usually hit all the coves as you just don’t know what is underwater and unseen. There could be plenty of brush below the surface, so leave no cove un-fished in your run & gun catfish approach.

I usually only give a spot 15 minutes or so before running to another spot. Don’t waste too much time if the barren-looking cove actually is. If it is holding some fish you might put a couple of good channels in the boat.

I prefer to fish out of the back of the boat and have my rod holders set up for this. When approaching the cove I shut off the big motor and maneuver into position with my trolling motor on a low setting. Channel catfish can be easily spooked.

Drop an anchor off the front of the boat. Then back the boat into position letting out a little rope as you go. This scope in the line will ensure that moving in the boat won’t break loose the anchor in the front. When in the back of the boat I then drop a second anchor with just a little slack so the boat can not swing. Once in position bait the rods and set them out strategically in the cove.

Fish The Brush

If there is a visible brushpile be sure to surround the brush with your baits. It is important to let the fish come to you and keep your baits out of the middle of the brush where you will end up hanging every line and wasting time re-tying instead of running & gunning. Hang-ups will also run every fish out of the brush where you might pull two or three out of the same brush pile if you make them come to you, leaving the brush somewhat undisturbed. Besides that, I have returned later and caught more fish out of a brush pile that was produced an hour or two earlier.

Spider Rigging for Catfish

I began spider-rigging several years ago to target crappie in the winter. I eventually found that spider-rigging worked great all season long. Soon I was prowling the shallows for springtime crappie. I began to take note, that as the spring spawn began to wind down I would catch catfish with my spider-rig setup. I would finally give up on the crappie as they moved out to deeper water and target catfish as they moved up to spawn.

Catfish spawn a little later than crappie. This creates a great overlap for the multi-species angler. When the crappie bite slows the catfish bite will begin to get hot. It took a few seasons, but I finally decided I was going to try targeting catfish by spider-rigging. The tactic worked and many catfish, mainly channel catfish, have been put in the freezer using the spider-rig method. Here are a few changes I make to spider-rig for catfish.

Locations & Tactics When Spider Rigging For Catfish

spider rigging for catfishChannel catfish love shallow coves with deadfalls and brush piles to spawn in. They will also seek rocks to spawn in. Small chunk rocks, often referred to as rip rap, is a great place to find spawning channel catfish. When the water temps hit the upper 60’s and the crappie have left the shallows, start looking for channel catfish to move up into and around these areas. They will be moving up and down the banks searching for food in preparation for the spawn that’s coming.

The spider-rig setup allows you to slowly move around in these bays intercepting these cruising fish. These early-season catfish can be aggressive and there is no mistake when you get a bite. Very seldom will you have a bite without a hookup. Just lift up on the rod like you would a crappie and keep tension on the line and lifting straight up. Have the net ready and dip it up when it reaches the surface. I like to spread my rods out more when catfishing because they can put up a pretty good fight. By spreading the rods you can eliminate some hassles of the catfish tangling into another line.

Catfish Rod And Reel 

When I first started spider-rigging for catfish I just used my long crappie poles and it worked fine for those 2 and 3 pound eaters that I was after. However, I would hook one or two good size catfish and couldn’t get them in on crappie tackle. I finally decided to get a few rods that could get those big ones in the boat when I hooked them. I made room on my rod rack for a few more rods. Much to my wife’s chagrin, until she had those delicious catfish fillets all winter long.

A long rod, like when spider-rigging for crappie, helps keep you and the boat away from the catfish not spooking them as you move along. The long rod, 10-12 feet, will help you ease up to brush piles and shallow riprap where catfish are prowling about looking for optimum spawning sites. The difference is in the power of the rod. I like to use a medium power rod when spider-rigging for catfish. As mentioned above the lighter rods work great for the smaller fish and are loads of fun to catch them on, but a medium power rod just gives you a better chance of landing a big catfish if one happens along.

The reel for this tactic can be a simple spinning reel or baitcasting reel. No need to get too fancy. Save your money for a quality rod and terminal tackle. You are only letting out line from the reel to the desired depth you want to fish. A good drag is not that important either when spider-rigging for catfish. I rig with a heavy enough line that I can tighten my drag all the way down and let the rod and landing net do all the work.

Spool your reel with heavy line. Catfish are not line shy. Use 14 to 20-pound test monofilament and with the long rods you won’t break anything off. If you do hook a giant you will have time to loosen the drag, so it can run. I like to use braid in 30-pound test and even heavier. Braid costs a little more, but it should last several seasons if kept out of the sun.

Terminal Tackle To Catch Spawning Channel Catfish  

Catfish have a very tough mouth, especially those bigger cats. A good sharp hook is a must for accomplishing good hook penetration to land your catfish. The rig I like to use is very similar to the rigs for crappie just heavier. Start with an egg sinker. Thread your line through the sinker, then add a bead, then a rubber bobber-stop. The bead will keep the sinker from sliding over your knot and swivel. Rubber bobber-stops will protect your knot from the bead sliding down onto it.

The swivel is tied on next. Channel catfish love to roll while you fight them. While the regular barrel swivels work, I prefer a rolling swivel like the VMC® Rolling Swivels. Regular barrel swivels are a little more exposed to trash interfering with their function. Grass and moss can get on the swivel and it won’t function properly when you most need it to. The slime from the catfish as it rolls during the fight can also keep the swivel from spinning.

There are so many hooks on the market now sometimes it can get overwhelming trying to pick the best one for your application. For this application a good sharp octopus style hook, like the Gamakatsu® Octopus/Circle Hooks. The octopus/circle hook isn’t as round as the true circle hook. I like these anytime I’m manning the rods and can set the hook or at least apply pressure to secure a good hook up. These hooks come sharp from the factory, but make sure they stay that way. A sharp hook will help you land more catfish.

Rod Holders For Spider Rigging For Catfish

There are many options available for fishing rod holders for boats. Catfishing has evolved into a popular pastime with many anglers choosing to target catfish as their primary species to fish for. Catfish are fun and they grow big and this is an attractive thing to many people. Catfish are also abundant so the action is great most of the time. Spider-rigging for catfish was just a technique that I stumbled onto while spider-rigging for crappie. We would catch several channel catfish as the crappie spawn began to slow down.

I’ve hooked some giant catfish spider-rigging but for the most part, the catfish are small so I just use my crappie setup to spider-rig for catfish. I do change the gold light wire Aberdeen hook for a small treble hook when fishing with chicken livers. I use a Gamakatsu octopus hook when using shad or bluegill for bait. The rod holders I use are the Millennium Spyderlok rod holders for boats. These rod holders are very adjustable and I can screw them to a false floor I built and remove it all when I want to bass fish.

This video will show how serious cat anglers drift for catfish. This rig will work for spider-rigging for catfish but because the target fish are smaller you can downsize considerably. I actually use spider-rigging poles that I use for catching crappie. The long limber rods make for a great fight with smaller catfish. They will also, like spider-rigging for crappie, will keep the bait away from the trolling motor. Channel catfish are spooky and sensitive to vibration so keep the trolling motor on low and be sure to sit still for a minute or two before hitting it again.

Baits For Spider Rigging Catfish

There are many baits that work for channel catfish. Chicken livers are hard to beat and will stay on your hook since there is no casting involved. Get fresh livers if you can. Fresh livers are tougher than frozen livers and are firmer. This helps the liver stay on the hook better. Fresh livers are also a little less messy. Frozen livers tend to be a little mushy and tend to get little messier. The main problem with chicken livers is they can mess up a nice boat. Keep a towel handy, and you will keep the mess at a minimum.

Cut-bait is another great bait. Cut-bait can be any legal baitfish you have on hand. Catfish are not picky eaters. I like to use either shad or bluegill, where legal, for my cut-bait offering. Cut-bait can be prepared ahead of time and placed on ice. This will keep the mess down considerably and keep the cut-bait fresh. I prefer fresh to rotten. Not that fresh works better just that I don’t like the smell and mess that the rotten baits tend to create.

Spider-rigging is a great way to spend the day or night catching those delicious catfish that prowl the shallows during the early summer. Leave that spider-rigging setup on your boat and with a few changes to your tackle and bait you can be enjoying another few weeks of spider-rigging and fresh fish for dinner.

My Catfish Bait Of Choice For Bigger Channel Catfish

My bait of choice might surprise some folks at least as far as channel cats go. I stay away from any kind of stink baits. They just stink up the boat. I also find that fresh meat tends to lure the bigger catfish. Don’t get me wrong, stink baits work great for channel catfish. You can catch big ones with stink bait too so don’t be discouraged. Stink baits are easy and can be the ticket with the kids as the bites are plentiful.
Channel catfish are scavengers until they reach a few pounds then they become a predator. Some may argue that flatheads are the only catfish that are predators. I’ve caught way too many big channel catfish on crankbaits while bass fishing, to convince me they are not predators. Every one of them has been over 4 pounds.

Cut bait

My personal favorite, where legal, is fresh bluegill. Cut shad is fine channel catfish bait. Bluegill bait seems to be preferred, especially in a lake that is full of shad. I think bluegill becomes a delicacy. I use cut bait because I can get more bait out of one bluegill which are actually hard to come by in my home lake. There are so many shad they have pushed the bluegill out.

I scale both sides of the bluegill then fillet both sides discarding the carcass. This seems to release more scent and make a soft bait for the catfish to easily engulf. I hook one chunk to my hook. Don’t wad the meat up on the hook just one stick is enough with the bluegill meat as the skin helps to keep it on. When you ball the meat up on the hook you tend to lose the gap and therefore losing hookups as the wad of meat will slide out of its mouth too easy as well as covering the point of the hook on the hook-set.

Apply these tips to catch spawning channel catfish this spring.

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About Ken McBroom 216 Articles
Ken McBroom is an accomplished outdoor writer and photographer. Growing up in Lynchburg Tennessee allowed him many opportunities afield as a boy and young man. Later in life, after Desert Storm, Ken’s wanderlust took him to Alaska to live and work and experience the last frontier. Married now with two beautiful children, Ken now calls Kentucky home where he continues to communicate our American outdoor traditions and the lifestyle it offers.