Spring is a time of activity and movement in the fish world, and nowhere is this more evident than with US catfish populations. Northern lakes and rivers are now devoid of ice and water temperatures on the rise, even in the south. Catfish are in ‘pre-spawn’ mode, on the move and feeding like crazy! Here are the Top 5 tips for catching BIG early season catfish!

Monitor Water Temperature

Large catfish caught

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In the world of big cats water temperature is everything. As the winter’s bitter cold gives way to warmer more oxygenated water, early season catfish respond in a big way. Spring means spawning and reproduction for these fish, and as temps move up above 40 degrees, big cats prepare for spring migration toward traditional spawning areas of lake and rivers. They will gorge themselves with food along the way. Look for bottleneck areas around smaller tributary edges where catfish gather in their move before the spawn.

Large catfish in shallow water

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Focus where warm water feeds into main lake, or rivers, from adjacent sloughs and marshes. Big cats respond to temperature change in a big way, often moving in large groups to seek warm pre-spawn waters. As temperatures move about 50 degrees, large numbers of fish will move in unison, staging on their way to spawning areas. Locate these staging areas and monitor water temperature closely. A quick cold front could send spring cats briefly back towards wintering areas, before resuming their spring pilgrimage. Hook one pre-spawn catfish in a given spot and there are likely more. For more information on catfish spawning in the US.

Locate Dead Forage

Large early season cat freshly caught

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Early season catfish actively search for any easy springtime meal and that often includes dead forage, left over from winter. Winter kill is a phenomena experienced in many US lakes where large numbers of fish die-off due to lake of oxygen or other factors. These dead fish become easy springtime pickings for hungry catfish on the prowl. Watch for areas of your lake or river with signs of dead forage laying on shore. Cats are quick to hone-in on dead bait as it floats up during winter ice breakup. Find the dead forage and you will find early season catfish!

Migration Barriers/Manmade Structures

Happy angler with catfish caught near a dam

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As catfish begin to migrate early season during pre-spawn, the oftentimes travel great distances towards spawning areas. In many waterbodies, migration barriers such as bridge, abutments, rock riprap, and concrete causeways create fantastic holding areas. Focus on any manmade, underwater structure such as culverts, pipes or even nature structure such as boulders. Objects that interfere with migrating cats progression such as, dams or fish ladders also create areas of concentration with high numbers of catfish in some cases.

For more insight on bait options, read this H&B feature all about non-traditional catfish baits.

Small spring catfish

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Cast around any structure that interrupts waterflow in early season and you are likely to find catfish. As water temperature rises, these fish are focused on spawn and arriving at spawning grounds quickly. Barriers and submergent structure create back eddy’s for fish to rest during their pilgrimage. Cast and drift baits in these areas and you will undoubtedly hook early season catfish!

Follow the birds

Double-crested Cormorants roost in a tree

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Catfish are legendary unscrupulous feeders and spring is no holds barred in that regard. These fish will eat anything including waterfowl excrement, and any waterbody with numbers of invasive foul such as the Double-crested Cormorants as residents, will also hold feeding cats. Watch for Cormorant roosting trees as productive and lessor-known catfish spots. On some waters with copious bird population, catfish adapt to the ‘plop’ sound of bird poop hitting the water. Focus on these high density bird trees and you will locate early season catfish. Reproduce the ‘plop’ sound when casting your bait, will also catch more fish. Understanding a catfish’s early season diet goes a long way to locating more fish, as nasty as it may sound.

Pre-spawn Staging Areas

Angler with early season catfish

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Since every subspecies of catfish in the US are cavity nesters, with spawn occurring late spring across the county, finding those staging areas is key! The best catfish bite is always before spawn, and not during, since males especially stop feeding while protecting the nest. Pre-spawn cats will travel the main lake towards the ‘tribs’ and pile-up on the points, lying in wait for water temperature to rise. The tributary points where they meet the main lake are great holding areas for pre-spawn cats. Same holds true for river-dwelling fish that migrate from deep river channels, towards the smaller tributaries to spawn as temperature rises. Focus in tributary mouths where the current is broken creating slack water, and you will find early season cats lying in wait. Move from location to location to intercept migrating cats and success may be the next staging area away.

Final Word

Huge pre-spawn catfish held for photo

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These 5 early season catfish tips will surely put more cats in the boat. Always remember that early season safety is a concern while fishing in such chilly temps. Dress according with proper cold weather attire, survival suits and FPD’s at all times. Enjoy the early season catfishing bite, tight lines and be safe out there!