Best time to Catch Catfish? An Angler’s Guide

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Best time to Catch Catfish? An Angler’s Guide

Tackle Village is reader supported. If you buy a product through links on the site we may make a small commission

Updated on:
Best time of day to catch catfish feature image

People often want to know the best time to catch catfish. The simple answer is whenever the water temperature is favorable, and the baitfish are schooling.

In reality, the answer is much more complicated. Catching catfish relies on the weather, the water temperature, the season, and the availability of plentiful food. Catfish behavior changes in cold weather and they move to deeper water. During the spring spawning season, you will find catfish actively feeding on the fry that has just hatched. This springtime feeding frenzy is the time when channel catfish and flathead catfish gorge on food to gain back the weight they lost in winter.

Best Seasons and Times to Catch Catfish

While it is possible to catch big catfish year-round, it is easier to find catfish in the spring when the spawn is ongoing, or in the fall when they are moving out of deeper water to enjoy the shorter days and cooling temperatures.

Best Time to Catch Catfish in Summer

Daytime fishing in the summer will not be very productive. The bright rays of the sun, combined with warm water temperatures, make fish less likely to bite. During early summer, when water and air temperatures are not excessively hot, you might have some luck presenting catfish rigs in the middle of the water column if you go out in the early morning. As the sun rises, prey fish move into deeper waters and hide in debris and structures. Because catfish are low-light feeders, they will move out into the shade of cover and fallen trees or move into deep water.

Best Time to Catch Catfish in Spring

Catfish anglers love spring fishing. Not only is it spawning season, but the weather is nice and the fish are hungry. In the late spring, target catfish by using live bait or cut bait that has been allowed to ferment for a few days in a sealed mason jar. The reason this stink bait works is because it resembles the dead bait fish that float down the river in the winter thaw.

Fishing points along Ohio river basins include any places where streams or small tributaries join larger bodies of water. More catfish will be found in these transitional areas than in open water. Channel catfish and flathead catfish will gather at the mouth of an incoming river or stream, hoping to feed on small fish that are caught in the current.

Bank fishing will yield great results as blue catfish and channel cats come out of their bankside holes in search of food. Float catfish baits just above or below the hole. Stink baits will help lure the fish out and you can catch some monster catfish that are just emerging from their winter rest.

In late spring, the catfish spawning season lasts for a week or so. Fish will move close to the shore and you can catch monster catfish by shore fishing along muddy river banks. During the spawn, catfish bite anything that gets too close to the nest. The best catfish bait to use during the spawn is live natural bait, like a minnow or a worm.

Best Time to Catch Catfish in Fall

Like springtime, fall is a great time to catch catfish at just about any time of the day. Some fish species, like bass and trout, will have a seasonal spawn event that attracts big catfish.

As the weather cools and bigger fish move into deeper water, many anglers will begin drift fishing closer to river bottoms. For best results, make a catfish rig by creating a leader from a stiff monofilament line and bait it with a chicken liver or commercial catfish bait. Use a heavy egg weight to keep the bait on the bottom. Slowly float with the natural current of the river. If your vessel is moving too fast, use one or more drift socks to slow your float.

Drift fishing not only allows you to cover more water, but it puts your bait in front of more and bigger catfish. Drifting is a great technique for catching blue and channel cats on deep water rivers, although you can catch any catfish species using a similar method.

Best Time to Catch Catfish in Winter

In the winter, catfish travel down the river to find warmer water and to follow the live bait. No matter what catfish species you are after, using live natural bait is the best way to catch winter catfish. Stink bait or chicken livers won’t be the right bait to attract blue cats or channel catfish when days are short and temperatures are cool. Your best bet is to fish in the middle of the day with shiners.

Use a good quality fishing line and a reel that lets you drop the bait straight down. Catfish tackle in the winter is not any different from the rest of the year. Use a sharp hook suspended about eight to twelve inches below a heavy egg weight. Use your sonar or fish finder to locate fish beds on the bottom. Winter catfish fishing is just a matter of having the bait close enough to the fish that he will bite it.

Not all catfish species move into deep water beds during the winter like blue cats and channel cats do. Winter is the time when flathead catfish pretty much quit feeding. Instead, they hang out around standing trees in the middle depths. Getting a flathead catfish bite when water temperatures are in the 40-50° range is just about impossible.

However, if you get an occasional warm spell during the winter months you may find a day to catch catfish that have moved into shallower water to soak up some sun rays and grab a quick snack.

Most catfish anglers who winter fish choose drift fishing on deep rivers in the mid-afternoon. Rig up a Santee rig and float it over the fish beds, just above the bottom. You can try using cut bait but will have better luck if you fish for catfish with live minnows.

What’s Better: Morning vs Evening?

The fact is catfish are hungry at all times of the day and night, and they will eat when they are hungry.

Again, this is a very broad question. Factors like location, other species in the water, and spawning season are important considerations when determining what time of day to fish.

In the summer, when temperatures are extremely hot out, more anglers will fish overnight and into the early morning hours because the air temperature has cooled after dark. While many anglers claim this is because water temperatures have cooled during the night, this is not entirely true. Many other factors affect water temperature, including groundwater run-off, an influx of glacial melt, the number of upstream reservoirs and dams, and the physical geography of the body of water. While thermal air temperatures affect water temperature to a degree, the ratio of warming is so minor that there is no major difference in lake or river water within a 24-hour period unless a major weather-related event such as heavy rainfall or hail occurs.

The fact is catfish are hungry at all times of the day and night, and they will eat when they are hungry. Your likelihood of catching catfish in the morning is the same as in the evening. There is no best time to catch catfish. Catfish react to their environments. If there are more fish gathered along the shoreline in the evening, you will have a better chance to catch catfish in the evening. If the bait fish are schooling more in the morning, you will catch catfish in the morning.

What’s Better Overall For Catfish: Day vs Night?

Most anglers will tell you to fish for catfish at night during the warm months of summer and early fall. While this is a good general rule, catching catfish during the day is possible if you fish close to the bottom in deep water. If you go out during the day to catch catfish and the water temperature is above 74°, your best bet is to locate their beds and bounce the bait off the bottom in that area. Catfish tend to spend their days being lazy, hoping for a food source to come along. Look for catfish beds on the ledges of deep drop-offs, on sandy lake bottoms, or in shady spots littered with debris in shallow water pools with a muddy bottom.

If you choose to go night fishing, fish in the middle of the water column in open areas of the lake. On rivers, streams, and ponds, you can catch catfish closer to the shore as they move to shallow water to join the feeding frenzy that takes place as certain fish species seek nocturnal insects, minnows, and frogs. Catfish feed on these small panfish, as well as frogs and larger minnows. More fish in a smaller area will attract more large fish, including bigger catfish.

Other Considerations

The best time to fish for Flathead Catfish

Spring is the best time to fish for flathead. During this time, you can find flathead catfish hiding behind boulders or under submerged debris. In areas where streams join larger waterways, warm stream water creates a temperate, comfort zone, and flatheads will congregate in these areas to enjoy the feeding frenzy that occurs when eggs hatch and fry emerge. You can fish pretty much any time of the day in spring.

The best time to fish for Blue Catfish

To catch blue catfish in the spring, fish in shallow water in the morning and evening.

Like flathead catfish, blue catfish are easiest to catch in the spring months from March until May. Southern anglers fish for blue cats in the warm spring months of April and May, dragging heavy sinkers along the bottom of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

This late spring or early summer catfishing usually produces the biggest blue catfish and channel catfish. The fish have filled up on eggs and small fish and their bellies are swollen.

To catch blue catfish in the spring, fish in shallow water in the morning and evening. In the middle of the day, blue catfish will move into the middle of the water column.

The best time to fish for Channel Catfish

This angler caught this catfish on the downstream side of sandbars just before the sun sets.

Channel catfish will be most active in the early summer, between May and July, before the dog days of summer set in. These small, spotted fish prefer warm weather and are most active in the early evening. Anglers fish for catfish just before sunset. While smaller channel catfish can be found in the shallows, you will want to fish on the downstream side of sandbars for big channel cats.

Best Time for Catching Catfish in Rivers, Lakes and Ponds

In streams and smaller rivers, catfish fishing is most productive in the early spring when water temperatures are between 60 and 70°. Panfish are spawning and channel catfish are moving into those warm spots where rivers and streams come together. Smaller fish will be most active from sun up to mid-morning, and that is when channel cats will chase bait.

Blue catfish like to hang out in larger rivers. Because the water is so much deeper, it will have less fluctuation in temperature as the sun rises. One thing that will bother the blue catfish, though, is the light penetration from the mid-afternoon sun. If you are fishing for blue catfish or flathead catfish in a large river, mid-morning and just before sunset are the prime times.

Some anglers prefer night fishing on the Mississippi or Ohio Rivers when fishing for giant blue catfish. Many a catfish angler has spent the night fishing the river with a spotlight.

Another great time to catch big blue catfish is in the late summer or early fall when the fish are moving north, into the cooler water of the Missouri and upper Mississippi Rivers. Early evening seems to be the best time to catch catfish in these northern rivers.

Small farm ponds can produce massive catfish, but you are more likely to catch two to three-pound channel cats and bullheads. In the spring and fall, when there is insect larvae, fry fish, and tadpoles to eat, catfish will easily bite in the morning or early evening. In the hottest part of the summer, they will burrow into the mud, and it will be harder to catch them. Fish the bottom when it is hot out. Fish the banks and shoreline in the spring or late fall.

Worst Time of Day for Catfish Fishing

The worst time to catch catfish is whenever the water is too hot or too cold. Catfish like water temperatures between 50 and 80°. If the water is too cold, they will refuse to budge from their beds on the bottom. If the water is too hot, they will move into cooler water in the bottom third of the water column, but will not want to expend the energy to chase bait.

In the summer, when temperatures soar into the upper 90’s and 100’s, no fish is going to want to bite, including catfish. If you must fish in the summer, try night fishing, but you may or may not catch a fish.

Does The Moon Affect Fishing for Catfish?

There is much debate among anglers about the moon phases and their affect on fishing. Some swear that the fishing is better during the new moon when there is no moonlight shining on the surface of the water. Others will tell you a waning moon is better than a waxing moon. Most will agree that a full moon produces the worst results when they fish for catfish.

Professional anglers insist that water conditions and water clarity are much more of a factor than the moon phase. In stained or brackish water, it might be possible to fish for catfish in a full moon because the rays don’t penetrate the water as deeply. In very clear water, even the most minor moonlight might affect the fish.

If you want to catch more catfish while night fishing, concentrate more on water temperature and clarity rather than the moon.

Conclusion

Catching record-breaking catfish is no different than catching any prize-winning fish – it is part skill, part education, and a whole lot of luck.

It is possible to catch channel cats, blue catfish, and flathead cats just about any day of the year, if the conditions are right.

You will definitely catch more catfish in the late spring and early summer months when water temperatures are optimal and there are plenty of small fish to provide nourishment after a lazy, dormant winter.

Winter fishing is tough, but in the warmer waters of the deep south, you might find some blues in the deep water of the larger rivers or deep lakes. Try drift fishing for catfish in the mid-morning or the early evening.

The hottest part of summer can produce fish, particularly bullheads pulled out of muddy farm ponds while night fishing, but why suffer through the heat and humidity knowing that you probably won’t catch much?

No matter what time of day you fish or which season, a few constants remain in place.

First, you should always use something that resembles natural live bait. This might be a minnow, a frog, or a grub, but it should be something the catfish is going to be familiar with eating.

Second, fish when water temperatures are between 50 and 80 degrees. Catfish have been caught while ice fishing in 40-degree lakes, but it is not a common occurrence.

Third, When fishing a deep lake or river, use your sonar to locate fish along the water column or to search for submerged debris or deep holes where fish may hide.

The biggest tip for catching catfish is to educate yourself. Learn about the water bodies you intend to fish. Study average water temperature graphs. Learn which natural baits live in the waters. Ask the old-timers or hire a professional guide your first time out.

Catching record-breaking catfish is no different than catching any prize-winning fish. It is part skill, part education, and a whole lot of luck.

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AUTHOR
Teresa Taylor is a keen kayak fisher and lover of all types of fishing. She writes about a range of fish species for Tackle Village and reviews lures and gear.