Catfish are some of the most common and popular game fish in America. While they can be caught year-round, catching them during the spawn can be quite challenging.
To help you better understand these fish, I decided to write this in-depth article on where, how, and when catfish spawn.
While channel and blue catfish generally spawn sometime between late spring and mid-summer, flathead and bullhead catfish usually spawn between late spring and late summer. All catfish types tend to spawn in water temperatures between 70 and 80F.
If you want to learn more interesting facts about the catfish spawn and if and how you can catch them during their spawning season, all you have to do is keep reading!
What Time of Year Do Catfish Spawn?
Broadly speaking, all catfish species generally spawn sometime between spring and summer in water temperatures between 70 and 80F.
However, if one takes a closer look at the different types of catfish and their geographical distribution, the answer to this question becomes far more complex!
For one thing, changing seasons and differences in year-over-year temperatures mean that a spawning season can start earlier one year and much later the next.
For another, the wide distribution of the North American catfish species naturally leads to varying spawning times, as southern catfish in Texas or Mississippi will spawn much earlier than their northern relatives in New York or Michigan.
And then there are the species-based spawning seasons, which naturally vary from one catfish type to another!
All these factors and variations make it difficult to give a straight, one-size-fits-all answer.
Nevertheless, I think it’s a good idea to provide you with an average timeframe for each catfish species:
|Type of Catfish||Avg. Time of Spawning||Avg. Range of Water Temperature|
|Channel||Late Spring to Mid-Summer||70 to 75F|
|Flathead||Early to Late Summer||75 to 80F|
|Blue||Late Spring to Mid-Summer||70 to 75F|
|Bullhead||Late Spring to Late Summer||70 to 80F|
Again, please keep in mind that their distribution plays a major role here! Channel cats found in Minnesota or Michigan usually spawn toward mid-summer, while their southern counterparts down in Texas or Florida can start spawning as early as mid or late spring.
It all depends on the seasonal weather patterns and, most importantly, water temperatures!
Where Do Catfish Spawn?
Catfish prefer dark and secluded spawning areas on or over hard bottom types. They seek out cavities, caves, and other empty structures to build their nests and lay their eggs.
These dark and hidden spawning grounds go hand in hand with the catfish’s somewhat sinister and mythical status in many cultures.
But really, catfish are simply bottom-dwelling creatures that like to spawn in safe and quiet places.
What’s especially interesting is that different catfish types prefer different types of structures and locations for their nest building and spawning.
While both channel, flathead, blue, and bullhead catfish appear to prefer cavities, caves, and big holes in or near the river bottom, some prefer to stay close to the banks, while others seem to keep closer to the main current.
Bullheads, for example, seem to prefer river mouths with stronger currents.
In contrast, flathead, channel, and blue catfish prefer calmer areas along the river banks, in big pools or backwaters, or in bay areas away from the main current.
Channel and blue catfish often prefer to lay their eggs between rocks, root wads, woody debris, or in hollow logs.
Flatheads, while also using such crevices and structures, can sometimes even use manmade structures, such as tires, car bodies, or metal drums.
So really, they can spawn anywhere and nowhere, and you will often find them in the oddest of places. They are highly adaptable and versatile fish!
What Depth Do Catfish Spawn at?
As most catfish need relatively warm water temperatures for spawning, they generally prefer shallow depths between 1 and 5 feet.
DID YOU KNOW: The best time of year to noodle catfish is during the spawning season. As they will be in shallow water and most likely stay very close to their nests, they are easily located and caught.
During spring, the shallows will warm up faster than the deeper water areas, producing optimal conditions during the pre-spawning season.
Later on, during early or mid-summer, the exact opposite effect kicks in, as many areas along the banks are now protected by vegetation and shade.
This ensures that water temperatures won’t get too high and dissolved oxygen levels won’t get too low.
Both are essential for the survival of the catfish eggs and fry!
How Do Catfish Spawn?
As mentioned above, all four major catfish types found in the US are what are commonly referred to as cavity nesters.
It is the male that will select a suitable nest and get it ready for the act of spawning.
Catfish don’t create such nests but rather use existing structures and cavities. They merely tend to hollow them out, so there is enough room for the eggs.
When the spawning is near, meals will try to win the female’s attention by swimming up next to them. Sometimes, this is done in a rather aggressive fashion.
If and when a female chooses a mating partner, the two catfish will swim side by side to get to the nest. There, the female will deposit her eggs into the cavity.
Once the eggs are laid, the male will swim over the nest and deposit its milt over them, fertilizing them.
Immediately after the act of mating, the female will get chased off by the male, which will then start guarding the nest and eggs.
It will protect the young against predators getting too close to the nesting side.
Additionally, the male catfish will fan the eggs with the help of its fins. This helps oxygenize the eggs and keep the nest free from sediment.
Catfish eggs need around 6 to 10 days to hatch. Once the fry has found its way out of the shell, it will stay close to the nest, and the guarding male, for a few days before heading out into the great unknown.
Can You Catch Catfish During the Spawn?
While it is extremely difficult to catch catfish while they are spawning, the pre-spawn and post-spawn periods can actually be pretty productive.
Blues and flatheads especially are known to be almost impossible to catch during the spawn, but even bullheads and channel cats are challenging fish to catch during that time of year!
DID YOU KNOW: Among catfish anglers, this dreaded period is known as the spawn lull.
So if you know that the spawn is on in the lake or river you’re targeting, it’s probably better to fish for other species and wait until the cats have finished their business!
However, the periods before and after the spawn are different ball games if you know how to go about it.
I mean, you know that the fish are in the shallows, and there is a chance of getting several bites in the same spot. So if you are willing to put in some time to locate possible spawning areas, you may end up catching a bunch of cats!
Additionally, now is a great time to hit the banks if you don’t have access to a boat! You can easily reach the fish from land this time of year, and there is a lot of ground for you to cover by foot.
And that’s probably the best tip I can give you: stay active and try out a ton of spots! Of course, this goes for boat anglers as well.
If you don’t get any bites after 20 or 30 minutes, move on to a new spot and try your luck there. Eventually, you’ll likely find a honey hole and some fish willing to eat your baits.
Another helpful tip is to fish aggressively! The nest-guarding males especially aren’t really in a feeding mood right now, so you’ll have to annoy them until they angrily hit your baits just to get rid of them.
If you find structure or, even better, holes and caves, fish right on top of them or at their entrances! That’s where the fish are most likely holding up.
Some of the top baits for pre and post-spawn cats include the following:
- chicken liver
- skipjack herring
- punch baits
- stink baits
Basically, you’ll want to use anything that stinks up the fishing spot (like liver, punch, or stink baits) or moves around a lot (like nightcrawlers).
REMEMBER: During the spawning season, cats aren’t willing to feed much, as they are pretty busy. So you’ll have to make them!
How Many Eggs Do Catfish Lay?
The number of eggs a female catfish can produce varies and depends on many factors. Generally speaking, they can produce anything from a few thousand to about 70,000 eggs.
Naturally, younger and smaller females will produce fewer eggs than older and bigger females.
It is estimated that a wild female that has just reached sexual maturity (at age 3 to 5) can produce anything between 1,000 and 10,000 eggs.
On the other hand, old females that have reached their maximum size can produce anything between 50,000 and 70,000 eggs.
Furthermore, research has shown that large wild female catfish tend to produce smaller eggs, while farm-raised fish commonly lay larger eggs, resulting in a maximum of around 50,000 eggs per farm-raised female.
But again, these numbers are just a general average!
To conclude, the following factors can influence the number of eggs a female catfish can produce:
- size and age of female
- size of eggs
- egg fertility
- water quality
- population genetics
DID YOU KNOW: Due to its enormous size, the American catfish’s bigger cousin, the European wels catfish, can produce and lay up to 100,000 eggs.
Do Catfish Spawn More Than Once a Year?
Even though different catfish species can spawn during different times of the year, and their respective spawning seasons can stretch over several months, all catfish types only spawn once a year.
Although it often happens that they start producing eggs already during late fall or early winter.
And so, when anglers happen o catch these early egg producers early, they naturally tend to get confused.
Why some females carry eggs this early has yet to be completely understood.
Some say it is due to the now more common rapid temperature variations, which can sometimes trick the fish into believing that spring or summer is already on the way.
Others suggest that those females don’t start to produce eggs early but that they missed the spawn and keep carrying their eggs into the next season.
Interestingly, the same phenomenon occurs in carp, and I have had many debates with other anglers on these topics over the years.
Do Catfish Crossbreed?
Although not very common in the wild, some catfish species sometimes interbreed and manage to produce healthy offspring.
The most common form of hybridization is between a female channel and a male blue catfish. In some rare cases, it has also been observed that wild female channels crossbred with male flatheads.
On the other hand, hormone-assisted crossbreeding of farmed channel and blue catfish is more common.
The produced offspring tends to outgrow both of their parents but appears to be infertile, making further natural reproduction impossible.
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Featured image courtesy of Jori and Ted Ellenbecker