How the Catfish Spawn Works

By: Chris Marlowe
There are around 2,200 species of catfish, most of which live in freshwater.
Keren Su/Stone/Getty Images
There are around 2,200 species of catfish, most of which live in freshwater.

Though you might think he's ugly, to a female catfish, h­e's the best fish in the sea, so to speak. He makes the house, he guards the kids -- maybe this guy is a catch after all!

Catfish mature at three to four years of age, though females may mature sooner. Catfish nest in cavities. The male creates a nest, and then lures the female there to spawn, no doubt inviting her to view his etchings. After the female has deposited a mound of sticky yellow eggs, the male fertilizes the mass. He drives the female from the nest, preferring to guard the eggs himself. During the six- to 10-day hatching period, the papa catfish eats little. His work is to prote­ct the eggs and keep them aerated and free of sediment by constantly fluttering his fins to circulate water. He continues to protect the young until they leave the nest. [source: Sutton]

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Any avid angler who hears the words catfish and catch together is going to think about going fishing. But wait, spawning season isn't generally the best time to go after catfish - obviously, they're a little preoccupied. Luckily, the peak of spawning season lasts only a few days. Read on to find out when you might want to leave your fishing pole at home.


When Do Catfish Spawn?

Catfish­ w­ill generally wait to spawn until the water temperature reaches at least 66 degrees Fahrenheit, as the table below shows.



Preferred Range of Temperature


66 F to 75 F

Blue and Channel

70 F to 84 F


68 F to 72 F

[source: Sutton, Maryland Fish Facts]

Therefore, for the catfish, geography is destiny. Because water in southern latitudes warms first, catfish-spawning season begins in the south first. Most species spawn in the late spring or early summer. Obviously, it takes longer for a lake to heat up than it does for a shallow backwater to do so.

Spawn in a Jar
You can't fish for catfish in a jar, but spawning jars have been around since the 1950s. They make life easier for fisheries, because the hatching jars require less space than hatching troughs do. A further savings can come from using three-liter soft drink bottles rather than purchasing expensive equipment. If you've always wanted to have your own stocked pond, consider contacting a local extension fisheries specialist for more information. [source: Dorman]

­In Maryland's Chesapeake Bay region, for example, blue catfish may spawn from April through June. Yellow bullheads begin a month later. [source: Chesapeake Bay Program Bay Field Guide] Obviously, this is too soon for catfish in Canada to begin spawning; the water won't be warm enough that early.

Remember, too, that not all fish in a water system spawn at the same time. Any part of a lake or river may have catfish at one of three stages: pre-spawn, spawn, or post-spawn. And of course, there will be fish too young to spawn. You'll observe dark or black spots on juveniles and small adults and may want to toss them back. After all, white catfish can live to be about 14 years old, and the oldest Canadian catfish ever caught was estimated to be about 24 years old. Letting the young catfish live may allow you to catch a larger catfish in a year or two. [source: Sutton, Maryland Fish Facts]

Let's say you're determined to catch a catfish during spawning season. Where would you hide, if you were a catfish? Check out the next page for some ideas on where to cast your bait.


Where Do Catfish Spawn?

Super Size That for You?
In the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay system, channel catfish will spawn between 2,000 to 21,000 eggs. The spawn is smaller for white catfish, which share nest-guarding duties, reaching only 1,000 to 4,000 eggs. [source: Maryland Fish Facts]

Where would you go for some i­ntimate space? If you were a catfish, you'd nest in a secluded, dark cavity. Think of spaces under and between stones or heaps of debris from overhanging woods. Some fish will even choose places left by humans such as metal drums, old tires or bodies of submerged automobiles. Caves or burrows in clay banks, banks that have been undercut, crevices and hollow logs are all inviting. [source: Sutton]

If the fish aren't biting in your usual spots in the main part of a river or lake, consider moving to narrower or shallower waters. During spawning season, catfish will migrate into tributaries, which grow warm faster than the larger body of water. Tributary mouths are key locations, because catfish ready to spawn use it as a staging area. If you settle in just upstream of these places, you may be able to catch some of the catfish that waiting to ambush prey of their own from behind shelters that provide breaks in the current. [source: Sutton]

Another prime spot to try would be downstream from dams constructed on large rivers. Catfish that find their usual spawning migration routes blocked will use the dam areas as very convenient alternatives. Those tailwaters are well stocked with an abundance of food favored by catfish. Check out the water that moves more slowly between the open gates of the dam. [source: Sutton]

Some species will spawn twice in one season. After they leave the nest, the fry will stick together in compact schools until they can find a place that offers suitable cover. They will disperse and feed at night. [source: Maryland Fish Facts]

Now that you know where to find catfish during the spawn, let's take a look at how to go about actually catching them.



Catfishing During the Spawn

Taste This and Make it a Biggie!

Catfish taste food with external taste buds located on those distinctive barbels, or whiskers. Since they are bottom feeders that feed at night, the catfish use the barbels to find food in the dark, muddy water. They're also fairly indiscriminate about what they eat. Insects and larvae, mollusks, fish, crustaceans, aquatic plants and seeds -- all are welcome nourishment for catfish. [source: Maryland Fish Facts]

In Maryland, the record channel catfish, caught in Piscataway Creek, weighed in at 28.3 pounds. The sport fishing record catfish, which was caught in Georgia, weighed 32 pounds. The big boy, however, is the blue catfish, which can weigh up to 100 pounds. [source: Chesapeake Bay Program Bay Field Guide, Maryland Fish Facts]

Bait casting is a popular way to catch a catfish. For this method, you'll need a free spool, or r­evolving-spool reel, which you'll place on the topside of the fishing rod. Bait casting requires larger lures that you will cast a longer distance. Make sure that your rod has good spring action. Use a 10- to 15-pound test line, and make sure the rod also has an anti-backlash reel.

You can use lures, but if you want to use fresh bait, channel catfish are fond of cut fish, squid, shrimp and either soft or peeler crab.

Most seasons and times of day are favorable for still fishing from shore, a boat at anchor, a bridge or a pier. You'll be fishing on the bottom of the body of water, where the catfish are also looking for dinner. [source: Maryland Fish Facts, Take Me Fishing.]

To keep banks from eroding, engineers place riprap -- chunks of stone or concrete -- near causeways, bridges and dams. These banks make great fishing areas during the catfish spawn, because catfish like to spawn in cavities between the rocks. The best locations aren't where the riprap is neatly placed. Rather, look for rockslides, or even for logs or pipes. [source: Sutton]

­The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may not seem like a fishing buddy, but this group has made improvements to major river navigation systems that will help you. In an attempt to keep riverbanks from washing away, members of the agency smooth the shore and then cover the soil with revetment, or concrete matting. Underneath these structures, are prime nesting grounds for catfish. If you're fishing from a boat with a sonar screen, watch for bucked-up slabs of the revetment. Go upstream within casting distance and drop anchor. If you haven't gotten a bite within 15 to 20 minutes, move further upstream to find another hole. [source: Sutton]

Persistence and patience are always key in successful fishing. This is even truer during the catfish spawn, but determination makes a difference.


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    More Great Links

    • Take Me Fishing
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    • Chesapeake Bay Program Bay Field Guide. "Catfish." (Accessed 11/07/08)
    • Dorman, Larry W. "Spawning Jars for Hatching Catfish." (Accessed 11/07/08)
    • "Maryland Fish Facts: Channel and White Catfish." (Accessed 11/07/08)
    • Sutton, Keith. "Understanding the Catfish Spawn." (Accessed 11/07/08)
    • Take Me Fishing. "Catfish, White: Baits and Lures." (Accessed 11/07/08)
    • Take Me Fishing. "Fishing Methods." (Accessed 11/07/08)