Chasing Spring Channel Catfish
Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012 Species: Catfish,
The spring channel cat season has arrived at reservoirs, lakes and ponds throughout the northern California foothill region. How do I know? Well for starters we are well into May, the month that marks the traditional beginning of channel cat fishing at most foothill destinations. More specifically, I’ve come across some evidence that indicates that we are only days or at the most weeks from the catfish spawn.
The first clue came about 10 days ago when I headed out to Lake Camanche with Don Paganelli of Paganelli’s Bass Fishing Experience. While working our way along a rocky bank in search of black bass, Don hooked and husky 10 pound channel cat on a plastic grub rigged on a darter head. In addition to that I’ve gotten a couple different reports of hefty channels being landed by trout trollers probing the waters of Collins Lake with worms and spinners.
So three channel cats were caught, big deal right? Well the key clue is not that they were caught, but that they were taken on moving baits and lures. This indicates that the channels were out and about during the daytime hours actively pursuing prey. For channel cats this is classic prespawn behavior.
During the spring channel cats go through three loosely defined phases. The prespawn phase kicks in when the water temperature reaches the upper 60’s. At this temperature channel cats loose the sluggishness they displayed earlier in the spring and go about the business of vigorously feeding to replace weight they lost over the winter and to prepare their bodies for the spawning season looming right around the corner.
Areas were tributaries enter a lake and long narrow areas that are boarded by rock are good areas to find prespawn channels. Such areas typically hold plenty of forage and are often warmer than other areas of the lake. The prespawn period typically takes place between the middle of April and the middle of May, but this is only a general guideline, since everything depends on the water temperature.
The second phase is the period when the catfish are actively engaged in spawning. Spawning activity is most prevalent between the end of May and the beginning of July. Generally, the bulk of the spawning will not take place until the water temperature reaches 72 to 75 degrees.
Channel cats are very particular about the location where they spawn. As a rule they prefer to nest in quiet dark confined locations. Pockets formed within rip rap and rock piles, undercut banks, downed trees, submerged muskrat or beaver holes, the rear portion of low docks and submerged tires all represent preferred spawning locals.
Prior to laying eggs the spawning pairs often accompany each other for days or even weeks, but once the eggs are laid the romance is over. The male drives the female away from the nest and then spends the next 6 to 10 days guarding the eggs until they hatch.
While channels are on the move and feeding during the prespawn period, they become relatively immobile during the actual spawning period and as a result they don’t encounter too many opportunities to feed. When confronted with food, they will still react aggressively, yet because they roam around very little channel cats have the reputation of being hard to hook while spawning. In reality hookups can come pretty easily if you spend some time scouting out potential spawning locations and tailor your approach to catching fish that are not actively seeking out food.
The final phase is the post spawn period. At this time channels adopt a summer behavior pattern. During the daytime they like to post up in moderately deep water near cover. The best daytime holding areas are generally in close proximity to shallow water areas where catfish the catfish feed during low light periods. A classic summer time holding area is a gently sloping submerged creek bed that is bordered by a relatively shallow flat. If the creek and flat are dotted with timber or rock piles they become all the more attractive to channel catfish.
Now that we’ve got an idea of where we will likely find spring channel cats, lets consider how we might go about hooking them. Most casual catfish anglers view the sport as a sedentary endeavor in which you plunk out some natural bait, crack open a beverage and wait for ‘ol mister whiskers to come along. This tactic will catch plenty of fish over the course of the year, but the best channel cat anglers take a more aggressive approach to the game.
Channel cats are often maligned as lethargic bottom feeders that use their sense of smell to seek out rotting morsels on the lake bottom, but if you take a close look at them, their physical appearance tells a different story. Take their eyes for example. Channel cats have the largest eyes in the catfish family and correspondingly acute eyesite. Their body is sleek and aerodynamic and their broad deeply forked tailed is designed for short distance bursts of speed. Conventional wisdom says, “scavenger”. But the physic of the channel cat screams predator and that is just what they are. Channel cats, particularly large ones feed almost exclusively on baitfish and crawfish, so it is no surprise that live minnows and crawfish are two of the best baits to employ during the prespawn and post spawn periods, but I also like to have some night crawlers and sardines on hand too. A lot of anglers like to use liver. While liver will certainly catch plenty of fish, it is messy, doesn’t stay on the hook well and at least in my experience, it doesn’t out fish the other baits I’ve mentioned.
While baits are effective when fished in a stationary manner on the bottom, if you’ve got access to a boat you’ll often get more bang for your buck by drifting so long as the wind isn’t a factor and the drift isn’t too fast. Drifting can be done with several different rigs, but my personal favorites are the 3 way rig and the Carolina rig (for descriptions of these rigs check out the accompanying illustration).
It is important to note that you don’t want to drift these rig across the bottom. If you do it will be a snag fest. The proper approach is to drop the baited rig to the bottom and then raise it up a foot or two. As you drift you’ll want to keep an eye on the sonar unit and make adjustments to keep your rig in close proximity to the bottom without actually dragging. When drifting a bite might be signaled by several taps or dead weigh. When you feel either sensation give the fish a moment to take the bait before slamming the hook home.
As we determined earlier, actively spawning channel cats post up in isolated locations and remain fairly immobile. The same baits that are used for drifting are effective for tempting spawning cats, but the end tackle and presentation used are quite different.
To get bites from spawning channels you’ve got to put your bait right in front of their face. Since the cats will be holding in snaggy areas such pockets in rocks and timber or posted up beneath undercut banks a vertical tight line presentation offers the best chance for success. For this work a stout drop shot style rig or a bare jig head adorned with natural bait make the most sense. Once again my favorite baits are live shiners or crawfish. Not only are they both favored forage items of catfish, but they also represent a threat to the channel cat’s eggs, giving them a double incentive for striking.
When attempting to hook spawning catfish, don’t stay in one location for and extended period of time. Strikes will come almost instantly if a catfish is present, so drop your bait down into the hole, wiggle it around a bit and move onto another spot. Finding spawning channels is challenging, but the rewards can be great. It is often possible to catch very large cats during the spawn, because the largest catfish in a given area will take up residence in the most attractive spawning locations.
As a final thought I’d like to urge all the budding catfish anglers out there to release all the fish they catch that are over 5 pounds. Big catfish tend to be rubbery and not as good to eat as their smaller brethren, yet they produce far more eggs than the little guys. If you let the behemoths live, you’ll be ensuring a good supply of channel cats for the future. A 10 plus pounder is generally 10 to 15 years old. They’ve already beated the odds to reach such a golden age and it seems fitting to let them keep on living once you’ve had your fun with them!