How to Catch Early Spring Channel Catfish

catch spawning channel catfish

Channel Catfish- Ictalurus Punctatus is the most fished for species in America with around 8 million anglers fishing for them every year. The channel catfish also referred to as “channel cats” is widely enjoyed as excellent table fare. The love of eating catfish has spurred the commercial raising of channel catfish for consumption in restaurants. The channel catfish thrive in small and large reservoirs, rivers, ponds, and natural lakes. Channel catfish nest in cavities, laying their eggs in hollows, crevices, or debris. This protects the channel cats’ eggs from swift currents. 

Spring Channel Catfish

April is a month of activities. The Robins begin to show and the songbirds begin to sing signaling the coming of spring and the end of winter. For the hunter, it means strutting gobblers. For the angler, it means warming waters and the beginning of a great season of great fun and fresh fillets. Here are a few tips on how to catch early spring channel catfish.

Most anglers I know begin to prepare their crappie poles and sharpen their jig heads for some deep brush jigging or spider rigging some tuffies along creek channels leading to known spawning grounds or sunken stake beds. This is a great time for some cruising crappies but it can be just as good for channel cats as old man winter loses ground.

This time of year can be deceiving as the air temperature rises the catfish angler can’t wait to get on the water. The problem is that the water takes a while to warm even with bright sunny days and warmer weather. The important thing with early spring catfishing is the water temp. Finding the warmer water on any lake will be the focus and just a few degrees can make all the difference.

Rambling Angler Store

Locating Early Spring Channel Cats

Look for temp changes in shallow coves. The larger the area of shallow water the quicker it will warm providing great catfish action. Water 1 to 4 feet is a great place to look as the springtime sun is drawn to the dark bottom of the lake causing the water to warm quicker in these areas. I know it is tempting to fish deep when the water temps are so low but catfish do feed in these shallow areas as the water begins to warm. The warmer water stimulates the cold-blooded cats causing them to prowl but an even stronger motivator is the food found in these shallow coves in the spring.


In the winter there is a natural die-off of fish that occurs and if your lake has shad, which most successful catfish lakes do, then the amount of food floating below the surface of the lake can be extraordinary. This die-off provides catfish with a much-needed food source to begin the spawn that is nearing the warming of water. Instinct will prevail and the catfish know that these windswept coves have trapped lots of dead fish from the winterkill and they do take advantage of this natural occurrence.

Wind to an angler can be a nuisance or a great ally. In the case of early spring catfishing wind is your ally. Not only does wind help mix the water and help to warm these shallow coves but it also tends to push these dead fish into these coves. The important thing is to find the combination of a large shallow cove and a wind that blows directly into this cove. If the wind is not blowing directly into the cove then try to at least locate a side wind and fish the bank being lapped with the wind-blown water.

Best Bait

The choice of bait seems obvious. Cut shad is the way to go for this time of year and does work. However, I tend to mix it up a little. Most of the fish will focus on dead shad so you want a rig with cut shad. I usually rig a pole or two with something different just in case it stimulates a fish that might be attracted to something a little different. I have to say that sometimes the different bait far outperforms the shad but always have cut shad in the boat, as it will work best most of the time. Some other bait I use is fresh chicken livers and where legal fresh bluegill fillets work great.

First scale the bluegill then fillet. The scales trap the smell of the meat and need to be removed. Some will argue that the smellier the bait the better. Fresh bait has always worked well for me and seems to attract the larger fish as well. I may be wrong, but I keep the stinky stuff out of my boat and stick to fresh or fresh frozen. I have caught fish on the rotten stuff but wasted a lot of time with missed strikes and smaller fish.

Since going to strictly fresh bait the number of bites dropped off, but the action on bigger fish increased. I waste little time on small fish. I spend my time fighting nice size channel catfish to the boat. Thirty minutes in one spot is all I’ll wait before searching for another cove. Keep moving, but don’t forget that first cove later in the day. Pre-spawn catfish may move up while you search other parts of the lake.

Best Pre-Spawn Rig Setup

Tackle for Channel Cats is simple, but a couple of tricks can help your success. You want to start with at least a medium to a medium-heavy rod. I use a heavy rod because when targeting big channel catfish I’ve landed several over ten pounds. These big channel catfish can put up a fight and are often in the middle of thick brush. If you’re like me you’ll start with regular gear that you’ve used for years to catch three-pound fish. After hooking into and losing a giant channel catfish prowling the shallows you’ll decide that heavy gear is important. There are also giant flathead catfish living in the same areas that big channel catfish live. The last thing you want is to tangle with a forty-pound flathead in a brush pile with wimpy gear.

Slip Sinker Rig

Another well-known trick is the slip sinker. These fish are very sensitive to pressure and if they feel any at all they will drop the bait. I have yet to decide whether a free spool is better than tight lining. All my rigs free spool just in case I miss a bite. He can keep running until I can get to the rod. If I see the bite I set the hook immediately. I tend not to tight line because I have seen too many dropped bites when they feel the tension. The hook, I believe, will slip right out when the fish spits the bait-covered hook out of its mouth. Experiment with your pre-spawn catfish rigs and come up with the best rig for you.

Another lesson I have learned is not to cover your hook. I used to cover the hook with bait for fear the fish might feel the hook and spook. I now leave the hook point uncovered as best I can so that when the fish inhales the bait the point is exposed. If the fish decides to spit it out there is a better chance the point will find its mouth on the way out.

Sinker Slides For Catfishing

Terminal tackle for catfishing should consist of a solid hook and a heavy monofilament leader with a swivel at the top. Above the leader should be a single bead and then a slider for your weight. These sliders are inexpensive and are slicker than just a slip sinker on your mainline which tends to abrade your line causing premature breaks and the risk of losing a giant catfish.

Best Catfish Line

Your mainline should be heavy mono or braided line. I choose mono for my leader to give some stretch at the hook and also withstand the abrasion effects of heavy brush a little better than braided line. This is another trick learned the hard way. The braided line is strong for its diameter and allows me to get much more on my reels while still using a thirty to fifty-pound test line. The braided lines will not hold their strength however with the slightest abrasion so check it often.

Best Channel Catfish Hook

The octopus-style hook in the 7/0 to 9/0 size range is great when learning how to catch early spring channel catfish. I prefer to set the hook hard to help catch big pre-spawn channel catfish. I choose the octopus over the circle as my choice in hooks for this reason. Several hook makers offer the octopus-style hook. Mustad, Owner, and Gamakatsu are my favorite catfish hooks. These are all excellent hooks for catfishing.

Early spring catfishing may not be as popular as some other species. However, you might find that learning how to catch early spring channel catfish is a great activity for you and your family. You might even find yourself enjoying great fishing and a few fillets for the table.

Bluegill Jigs For Channel Catfish

I learned, by accident, that nice eater size channel catfish loved my Hairy Cricket jig.  I fish hard for Redear each Spring and while searching for Redear with the Hairy Cricket Jig under a bobber in shallow water I began to catch a lot of 1 to 3-pound channel catfish. These are my favorite size of channel catfish to eat. The channel cats prefer the chartreuse Hairy Cricket Jig. I make a Hairy Cricket Jig with just chartreuse wings. I like the wings and body to be chartreuse when I start targeting the channel catfish shortly after the bluegills and Redear are done. Tip the jig with a small piece of worm and with a bobber. Pop the bobber every couple of seconds near the bank to entice strikes from these catfish. You will find channel catfish in shallow pockets, especially near bushes and tree limb overhangs.

catch spawning channel catfish with jigs
Nice spring channel catfish caught with the Double Chartreuse Wing Hairy Cricket Jig. Photo Ken McBroom

How To Catch Spawning Channel Catfish

About Ken McBroom 307 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.

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