Two of the best periods to catch blue catfish surround the most difficult season to put big ones in the boat. It's tough to catch blues during their spawn season, generally from late May through late June, when spawning fish stop feeding. Jason Bridges, catfish guide on Wheeler Lake in Alabama, observes seasonal changes in blue cats that may demonstrate how lean their diet can be during their spawn.
"I caught a blue right after the spawn that measured 541„2 inches but weighed only 52 pounds," he says. "A fish that long should weigh more than 100 pounds. It was skin and bones. It's nothing for a big blue to lose 20, maybe 25 pounds during the spawn. That's why they're so hard to catch during that time, because they just don't eat."
That's not to say it's impossible to catch blues during the spawn. Persistent anglers who fish for them during the spawn sporadically catch fish, though bites aren't enthusiastic. Blue cats, defending their nests, may attack baits that pass nearby, but they quickly crush and release a bait rather than engulf it, making hook-sets difficult.
Aside from defensive strikes from fish on nests, Bridges says anglers interested in catching "eaters" can do well during the spawn. Younger, 2- to 8-pound sexually immature blues make instinctive "spawning" movements upriver on the Tennessee and other major river systems, congregating below dams and near spawning areas.
"You can find smaller fish concentrated in tailwaters below dams, or near steep mudbanks and riprap where bigger blues are spawning," he says. "I think big blues dig or wallow-out holes in those steep mudbanks to spawn. The younger ones feed around spawning areas, and you can catch them readily that time of year."
John Jamison, renowned catfish tournament angler from Kansas City, agrees that June is a tough time to catch big blues. "Around here, from June 15 through around July 15, it's a waste of time to fish for trophy blues," he says. "I spent years trying to figure out what I was doing wrong, why I couldn't catch big blues during that time. I can catch them like crazy all spring during prespawn, and I know that in mid-July they turn on and the bite stays strong through August and September, but I'm to the point now that I don't even try for trophy blue cats during their spawn."
Despite the challenges the Spawn Period offers, both Bridges and Jamison agree that the Prespawn and Postspawn periods are tremendous times to catch some of the biggest blues of the year. "Before they spawn, when water temperatures warm into the 60s, blues start to feed heavily," Bridges says. "On the Tennessee River, they move upstream out of lakes and into river stretches when water levels rise. They're moving and feeding heavily by early May, and by mid-May they're flirting with the spawn and eating everything in sight. That's a great time to catch big fish."
Current and river levels determine where prespawn blue cats congregate. If water levels are high and currents are strong, Bridges uses a combination of side-scanning sonar and precision anchoring to put big blues in his boat. "When I mark a big tree or hole or some sort of structure, and maybe mark some big fish associated with it, I move 60 to 100 feet upriver and anchor there," he says. "The stronger the current, the farther upriver I anchor, because the stronger current moves my sinker and bait farther downriver before it reaches the bottom. I watch my sonar and walk baits with the current down to the spot I want to fish, or to the fish I marked."
Precision anchoring works well in high flows because blues are often behind structure to get out of current. In lower river levels and moderate to low currents, they're more mobile and spread out, so Bridges favors vertical drifting to cover more water. He uses a three-way rig, with a 6- to 8-ounce weight on the dropper line to keep the rig directly below the boat.
"I let the current move me downriver and use my trolling motor to control drift speed," he says. "I try to stay around .5 mph, drifting over flats or along ledges. I use Tangling With Catfish TWC Extreme Series 71„2-foot one-piece rods because they work well for both precision anchoring and vertical control-drifting. I don't like flimsy rods or those with fast-action tips — blues aren't spooky about feeling resistance and I want rods that can handle big fish.
"Bait-wise, you have to experiment to see what blues want during prespawn," he says. "In early to mid-spring when water temperatures are still low, their metabolism is slower and they seem to favor small baits, maybe a half or quarter of a skipjack herring or shad. As the water warms, they take larger baits. In late April and into May, when shellcrackers are shallow and spawning, they're great baits. Big blue cats move into those shallow spawning areas, and you can hammer them if you use fresh shellcrackers for bait."
Target Other Spawners
Keying on the spawn of other fish species to find big blue catfish is a tactic shared by Kansas angler Michael Gingerich, who finds that spawning beds of panfish, baitfish, and rough fish are smorgasbords for blue cats throughout spring. He fishes Milford, Perry, and other reservoirs in Kansas, and focuses on shallow coves in those lakes from mid-April through the beginning of the blue cat spawn in early June.
"A lot of species spawn in May here — crappies, bluegills, carp, gar — and blues move in to feed on them as well as on eggs," he says. "There's an old saying around here, 'If the carp are jumping, the catfish are thumping.' Find a shallow bay where carp are spawning, maybe in only a foot or two of water, and there will be the fins of big blues all over that area, like shark fins. One time when I was still guiding we caught a 20-pound blue in 1 foot of water. I've never seen anything like it — it came clear out of the water. It was amazing."
"My favorite baits that time of year are shad guts with a small chunk of gizzard shad, or crappie heads with the gut pocket inside, or just crappie guts," he says. (Crappies are legal bait in Kansas if caught on hook and line.) "Small baits work best during prespawn. Blues aren't into big baits then. I think even larger, 20- and 30-pound blues feed on eggs and aren't looking for big baits."
When fishing for blue cats in areas where carp or shad are spawning, Gingerich anchors and fancasts baits toward spawning activity in the shallows. He uses 8-foot moderate-action Meat Hunter rods carrying Okuma Classic 300 baitcasting reels loaded with 80-pound-test PowerPro braided line. He slips a 1- to 2-ounce no-roll or barrel sinker, or a clip-on disk sinker on a Team Catfish Sinker Slide, on the mainline ahead of a rubber bead to protect the knot connecting a barrel swivel. He adds a 1- to 2-foot, 50-pound HI-SEAS fluorocarbon leader to the swivel, then ties on a Team Catfish 8/0 Double Action circle hook.
While Bridges, Gingerich, and Jamison back away from fishing for big blue catfish once the spawn begins, they hit the water hard as soon as the spawn is ending. Bridges says fishing for blues on the Tennessee River turns back on the week after Father's Day. Gingerich says blue cats roar back soon after the Fourth of July on Kansas reservoirs. Jamison fishes the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, where the spawn is somewhat delayed because of cooler waters, and says his hottest fishing begins in mid-July.
"They can be tough to find during postspawn because they're moving from spawning areas to summer areas," Bridges says. "Around here, they move downriver — never upriver — from where they spawned. They can be in a different place every day because they're moving all the time during that period. But if you can find them during the first two weeks after the spawn, it can be the best fishing for blues you've ever seen. They're hungry and aggressive."
In Kansas, the two weeks immediately postspawn are when Gingerich brings out his biggest baits. "During the day blues are deeper, in 10 to 20 feet of water," he says. "That's when I like to slow-troll. I use a slipsinker rig with a float just ahead of the bait to keep it a foot or so off bottom. I usually use a 3-foot leader, but I vary leader length to change the depth a float holds the bait off bottom. Postspawn, when they're feeding aggressively, is when big chunks of gizzard shad, drum, buffalo, carp, or leftover crappies work well.
"I've got four DriftMaster rod holders across the back of my boat with a Minn Kota Ulterra trolling motor at the front that I use to control speed and direction," he says. "Rods, reels, and line are the same as I use during prespawn, and I use a 11„2-ounce pencil weight with a rubber bead ahead of an Eagle Claw barrel swivel tied to a 3- to 4-foot fluorocarbon leader with a 2-inch float pegged ahead of an 8/0 Team Catfish Double Action hook. Baits on the two outside rods are 100 yards behind the boat; the middle two are 50 yards back. Two rods out off the sides of the boat fish baits 25 yards back."
Gingerich says it's more difficult to find postspawn blue cats after sunset, but it's easier to catch them. "At night they're up on shallow flats, scattered like cattle grazing in a pasture, compared to during the day when they're more concentrated and resting in deeper water," he says. "I slow-troll around to find them after dark and they bite aggressively."
Jamison, who pioneered baitwalking and using side-scan sonar to mark individual fish in big rivers and walking baits downriver to target them, says the biggest blue cats are loners. "I occasionally see a couple big arcs on sonar close to each other, but the biggest blues show as one huge arc all by itself. I don't think other fish, even 10- or 15-pound fish, are comfortable being around 80- or 100-pounders. That's when I put out the biggest baits. Those giants aren't chasing small or medium-size baitfish. They like to suck in a 5-pound carp or drum whenever they get hungry."
Big baits during postspawn have helped Jamison catch numerous 90-pound-plus blue cats, and one last summer from the Missouri River that topped 100 pounds. He baited with a 5-pound carp from which he'd filleted one side and cut off the tail. "That big bait put a lot of flavor in the water," he says. "I think we're missing some of the biggest blues because we don't fish with baits as big as what they're used to eating."
He's learned to fish the entire width of big rivers because, "blue catfish use the entire river at different times of the day and night. They shelter behind ledges and logs out of the main current along outside bends during the day. At night they slide across the river to feed on sandflats between wing dikes.
"I position my boat in-line with the tips of the wing dikes," he says. "There are holes at the ends of wing dikes, and the current coming off the end of those structures often carves a little channel or ledge downstream between the holes that blue cats follow as they move from hole to hole when they're feeding at night."
"Sand dunes" in the middle of river channels often attract fish yet are often overlooked by anglers. Dunes range from one to several feet high, creating pockets and holes where blues can lay out of current and ambush baitfish. You can spot arcs on sonar that are big blues resting behind dunes, and walk baits down to them," he says. "It's a little tricky, compared to walking baits along a smoother bottom, but if you don't pay attention to dunes, you're missing some nice blue cats."
A final tip from Jamison: "On big rivers like the Missouri and Mississippi, it's tough to fish a rising river because there's so much grass and debris coming down that catches on your line," he says. "If I have to fish a rising river and there's a lot of line trash in the water, I either fish out of the current behind navigation structures or look for big trees laying in the water and fish below them. I call those trees, "sweepers," because all the branches sweep and filter trash out of the water. I don't like dealing with debris on my line, and my experience is that blue cats don't like getting bombarded with it either, so they tend to hang out below sweeper trees."
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.