Transition Blue Catfish in Rivers
June 04, 2014
Don Wirth: Let's talk about the period from early April through early June, when a great many anglers nationwide will be chasing blue catfish in rivers. In the southeastern rivers where you guys guide, what's going on with blues in the initial part of this time line?
Phil King: The water in the Tennessee River where I fish usually is between 65°F and 70°F by the first of April. Blue cats will be in a prespawn mode and will be feeding heavily, trying to pack on as much body fat as possible while their eggs are nearing maturity.
In March, I find many blues in the lower and middle sections of the river, relating to humps that rise out of 60 to 70 feet of water to around 40 feet on top. But once the water starts warming to around 65°F, I notice a major movement toward the upstream dam. How fast and how far the blues move depends on the frequency and intensity of the current flow.
Somewhere between 65°F and 75°F, large numbers of blues will be by the dam. I'm fairly certain that most of these fish still are in a prespawn mode.
Don Wirth: How do you go about catching these fish?
Phil King: Three methods work, depending on current flow. With little generation, I target slackwater areas behind current breaks and anchor with cutbait or use my trolling motor to present a combination of livebait and cutbaits directly beneath the boat, about 2 to 6 feet off bottom. When current is substantial, drifting usually works better. I drift downstream, using multiple rods to present baits off bottom.
Don Wirth: Jim, how does the blue cat spawn shape up in the Cumberland River system?
Jim Moyer: Cumberland River blues go through pretty much the same scenario, although the timetable may shift a week or two later because the water I'm fishing is north of Phil's water, so it's generally a little colder in early April. The important factor to note is that regardless of where you live, prime spawning temperature for blues is 73°F.
On the Cumberland, this usually corresponds with Memorial Day weekend. By then, many blue cats have traveled to the upstream dam, but once there, they turn around and head back downstream because there's no good place for them to spawn directly below the dam. The bottom of the tailrace has been scoured down to bedrock by decades of current generation.
Blues can tolerate some current when spawning, but tailrace current is typically too intense for nesting. Plus, they need some cover, especially wood cover, when spawning, and any wood present directly below a dam usually doesn't stay there long before heavy current sends it downstream.
Don Wirth: So where do blue cats spawn?
Phil King: Most blues in the Tennessee River spawn deep, say 15 to 20 feet. I get this information from grapplers (hand fishermen) who dive down on steep rock banks and see blues nesting in crevices and holes. Personally, I've had little experience catching spawning blues. When on beds, they're reluctant to bite, so I don't target them.
As most serious catfishermen know, though, not all fish are on beds at the same time. When the water temperature is in the low 70°F range, some blues will be getting ready to spawn, some will be spawning, others will have finished spawning. The fish I'm gunning for are either in prespawn or postspawn; these fish are far easier to catch than spawning fish.
Jim Moyer: In the Cumberland, blues spawn 5 to 15 feet deep in a slack-water area or any place with a slight current flow. Often a great many spawning fish are around the first major bend of the river below the dam. On the Cumberland, this generally occurs within a mile to a mile and a half downriver. Here, blues gather in slow-moving eddies, in slack water below gravel bars, and in other areas with slow or no flow.
Cover in the form of stumps, sunken trees, or large rocks is a major part of the spawning equation, because it forms a current break that creates a favorable nesting area immediately downstream. Wing dams, bridge abutments, and other manmade structures also provide current breaks for spawning, if they're in the right depth zone.
Don Wirth: Jim, have you had luck catching spawners in the Cumberland?
Jim Moyer: Spawn time is a lot better time to play the numbers game than to catch a trophy. Males move into spawning areas first, sometimes when the water is as cool as 68°F. They look for a gravel or clay bottom suitable for nesting, then fan the silt away with their tails. These fish will bite any livebait that presents itself as an egg predator. I've caught them on leeches, salamanders, small bluegills, and shiners fished beneath corks or jugs.
Sometimes 50 bedding males can be caught in a single morning; most will be from around a pound to 4 pounds. The females come in at temperatures right around 73°F, but they don't stay on beds long. They hit it and quit it, leaving the males to guard the fertilized eggs and fry. So from a time consideration alone, you're lucky to encounter a spawning female on any given bed. Incidentally, I've talked with biologists who believe females may deposit eggs on several nests, not just one.
Don Wirth: Obviously you guys and our readers are far more interested in catching jumbo blues than eating-sized fish. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that your best shot at a monster fish would be in the prespawn period, when the big females are even heavier with rolls of body fat and thousands of ripening eggs. Where do you look for these trophy-class blues?
Phil King: No question that prespawn, specifically the 65°F to 70°F water temperature range, is a great time to rack up some of the biggest blues of the year. I find that big females move upstream at this time, often running the deepest part of the river channel. In a normal spring when current flow remains moderate, they travel mainly at night, then spend the day holding around cover such as rockpiles, trees, and stumps. But the Southeast is a region where heavy spring rains can cause rivers to reach flood stage, and when the river is cresting and current is intense, blues travel upstream 24 hours a day and may take interesting side trips along the way.
Don Wirth: Such as?
Phil King: Blues stay deep much of the time, but during spring floods, many blues leave the river channel and travel upriver into flooded tributaries, especially one that has left its banks and inundated surrounding fields. I've caught big blues in a couple feet of water by running trotlines across these flooded fields. Many of these fish were gorged to the max on earthworms; some on soybeans or corn.
Jim Moyer: Channel ledges are my bread-and-butter structures now. In the Cumberland, prespawn females move upriver via the main channel, usually along sloping ledges between 30 and 40 feet deep. Anchoring on these structures and fanning out cutbait on the bottom, taking care to cover the 15- to 40-foot zone, is my most consistent prespawn strategy. I use fresh-cut skipjack exclusively for bait.
Don Wirth: Any other specific prespawn spots to target for big blues?
Jim Moyer: Inside channel bends, and also the downriver ends of points, bridge abutments, and big logjams hold fish. Drop your bait downstream from any significant current breaks you pinpoint on your graph.
Don Wirth: Let's talk specifically about postspawn. How do your location and presentation tactics differ from prespawn?
Phil King: A lot of catmen in my area like to fish around the dam until well into June because it's a time to catch lots of fish. A fresh hatch of shad and skipjack are in this area, and smaller cats appear in large numbers to gorge on these immature baitfish. But I've always had more luck at this time catching big cats 10 to 30 miles from the dam. I think the biggest females leave the nest soon after spawning and move back downriver. This is a time to cover a lot of water efficiently, and drift-fishing is my favorite method now.
Jim Moyer: Postspawn also is a good time to try night fishing. Big blues run those long, sloping ledges after dark. Anchor on a channel bend or near a logjam or sunken tree in the 20- to 40-foot zone to intercept big females heading downstream.
Don Wirth: Any parting thoughts?
Phil King: Be prepared to cover a lot of water. Prespawn and postspawn blues may be spread out over a wide area.
Jim Moyer: Handle those prespawn females with care, and release the big ones to replenish the resource.