Many anglers will agree…catching more fish can increase your enjoyment of an outing. It’s not the only factor, but it is a major contributor.
Answering the question, “When do flathead catfish spawn,” can help increase your odds. Understanding the flathead catfish spawn is a mystery for many…
But it doesn’t have to be!
In this article, we’ll discuss the flathead catfish spawn, key factors, and some tips and tricks to arm you for your next outing. Understanding some key factors can take your time on the water from okay to great!
Table of Contents
- Flathead Catfish – A Few Facts
- Flathead Catfish Spawning Season
- The Major Factors that Affect Flathead Catfish Spawning
- Flathead Catfish Spawning by State
- How to Fish for Flathead Catfish During the Spawning Season
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When do Flathead Catfish Spawn?
Flathead catfish spawn at water temps from 66-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Flatheads leave the depths and move into shallower waters with plenty of firm structure as the water temps begin to rise.
Just before the spawn, when water temps are in the high 50’s to low 60s, flatheads will be moving in structured, firm areas from 10-20 feet deep. During the spawn, they move into shallower water, 4-10 feet deep, but can be hard to target. They’ll hold there for around 10 days.
After the spawn, they’ll move off the shallows and continue cruising 10-20 feet of water and eat voraciously. Pre and post-spawn flatheads are probably your best bet for great flathead catfish fishing.
Flathead Catfish – A Few Facts
If you’re wanting to pull a monster from the deep, you may want to look at flathead catfish, also known as yellow cats, mudcats, Johnnie cat, goujon, appaluchion, opelousas, pied cats and Mississippi cats.
They can live for nearly a quarter of a century and reach sizes of over 60 inches and 120 pounds!
Isn’t that crazy!?
Their native range spans the Mississippi River Basin and beyond, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico (including north east Mexico), and from West Appalachia to Texas. They’re suited for moderately turbid (cloudy), slow flowing and still freshwater but can tolerate mild brackish water too (mix of sea and freshwater).
But that’s not all…
Introductions have been made elsewhere like Arizona, the Midwest (North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma), the Great Lakes region, and the East Coast from Florida to New York.
To grow big, flatheads are voracious eaters. Insect larvae, annelid worms, mussels and other crustaceans, forage fish, other catfish, carp, sunfish, crawfish, and drum all fall victim to flathead cats.
Flathead catfish seem to have some sort of defined home range: a specific territory that they will travel that includes deeper water, mid level, shallows, and some sort of heavy cover. Different fish or groups of fish may have differing home ranges in different parts of the same lake, river, or reservoir.
Flathead Catfish Spawning Season
Flatheads are a late spring spawning species. So late, in some areas, that some consider them “early summer” spawners. Late May through early July, area depending, is when the conditions will be right for flatheads to begin the spawning ritual.
In winter, unlike other catfish species, flatheads remain rather deep and dormant. Some studies show they’ll even bury themselves in mud in the depths of a lake or reservoir and “wait out” the winter.
As spring arrives and ambient air temps begin to rise, so too will the water temps. A slight rise from winter water temps brings lazy flatheads up from the depths. As the water temps begin to crest 55 degrees and continue to rise, Flatheads will move into preferred spawning areas.
At this “pre-spawn” time, you’ll often find fish moving in water 10-20 feet deep. Pre-spawn cats are generally on the prowl searching for food. With winter semi-dormancy behind them and the spawn just ahead, flatheads are looking for easy prey.
Studies suggest that bigger flatheads move into the spawning shallows first. This is probably because they want the first choice on the best structure for spawning.
When the water hits the high 60s-low 70s mark, which is flathead catfish spawning temperature, the fish will move into even shallower water to make spawning nests or beds. Generally, 4 feet -10 feet of depth is preferred.
A flathead pair (one male, one female) move into well-structured areas and seem to prefer cavity structures to build nests. This could be a hollow, sunken tree or a submerged rocky overhang.
The male builds the nest then the female deposits. The male fertilizes and then heavily defends and fans the bed. Fanning the eggs provides fresh water and better oxygen for the clutch (group of eggs).
The process takes around or just under 2 weeks unless temps fall and the water cools. Cooling water slows the process down. A rise back to normal temps will continue the spawning process.
After hiding out in their spawning cavities, flatheads will leave the nest but continue to range around in structure-rich waters less than 20 feet deep. Feeding activity once again increases as movement increases.
After winter “holding” and the slowing down for the spawn, post-spawn cats are generally on the hunt for food. They need to fuel up from the strain of the spawn and lack of winter movement/feeding.
The Major Factors that Affect Flathead Catfish Spawning
65 degrees to 75 degrees Fahrenheit is seen as the magic window for flathead spawning. Coming out of winter, rising temps get fish moving again.
As the temps near 60 degrees, flatheads know the spawn is near so they’ll move into shallower structure to look for suitable beds and continue feeding.
When the water temp rises to the high 60s/low 70s, they know it’s time to build a nest.
Flathead catfish live and spawn in both lakes and rivers. Rivers tend to have more flow than lakes, but lakes…while slow…also have a flow of their own.
Flatheads tend to prefer slow to slack water in lakes. River-dwelling flatheads prefer relatively slow flows as well…less than other species of cats (like blue cats).
Since flatheads prefer slower currents or slack water and thrive in turbid lakes and rivers, the relative oxygen level can be a little low…too low for the eggs to survive. That’s why males will often fan their nests with their tails. This increases flow and oxygen to the eggs.
Flatheads may enjoy soft structure in the winter but, in spring and during the spawn, they prefer fairly firm bottoms and other firm structure. Docks, bridge pylons, industrial walls, dams, rip-rap, etc all make for great structure.
This firm structure provides habitat for flathead cats’ food sources and for building nests during the spawn.
Flathead Catfish Spawning by State
- Alabama – May to early June
- Arizona – May to early June
- Arkansas – May to early June
- Colorado – June to early July
- Florida – May to early June
- Georgia – May to early June
- Indiana – late May to mid June
- Iowa – late May to mid June
- Kansas – late May to mid June
- Louisiana – May to early June
- Kentucky – late May to mid June
- Michigan – June to early July
- Minnesota – June to early July
- Mississippi – May to early June
- Nebraska – late May to mid June
- New Mexico – May to early June
- New York – June to early July
- North Carolina – late May to mid June
- North Dakota – June to early July
- Ohio – late May to mid June
- Pennsylvania – June to early July
- South Carolina – late May to mid June
- South Dakota – June to early July
- Tennessee – late May to mid June
- Virginia – late May to mid June
- Wyoming – June to early July
How to Fish for Flathead Catfish During the Spawning Season
In the spawning season, there are a few ways to target flathead catfish. Bait is by far the most popular. Lures are the second most popular but fly fishing for catfish has been catching steam as well.
Pre-spawn flatheads are generally hungry and looking for food. They’ve left deeper water and are cruising depths and structures that are easily fishable. Find the right depth, 10-20 feet, with firm structure, and you’ll likely find cruising fish.
The pre-spawn might be the best time to target flatheads. Watching water temp gauges (in-person or online) and heading out a little before spawning temperature is reached is a great strategy to target flathead catfish.
When flatheads are in the middle of the spawn, they can be a little more difficult to target. This is because they tend to be in or around heavy structure, hollows, or overhangs and fiercely guard the nest.
Other than fanning the nest, activity slows, including eating. Fish can be caught but generally not regularly. While many fish are holding, some (females mostly) may move off of spawn nests or roam a bit and can be caught.
Regarding fishing, many anglers call the high or mid-spawn times the “spawn lul.”
After the spawn, flatheads begin to move around again. They’ll leave the spawning shallows for the mid range depths (10-20 feet) to forage for food again. This point, before the summer warmup and heading back to deeper water, can also be a great time to target flatheads.
Some anglers regard this time as the best time to target flatheads. Others prefer the pre-spawn, though it probably depends on the specific water body.
- Live Shad
- Live Perch
- Live Bluegill
- Live Sunfish
- Cut baits – shads, sucker, carp
- Chicken livers
- Pack/Dough Baits – Store bought or homemade. Usually consist of a firm, water resistant dough and smelly attractants like corn, cod oil, or chopped chicken livers.
- Jigs w/ Swim baits – pre-weighted/rigged or separate jig heads/swim baits.
- Luminous Shrimp/Crawdads – bright attractor style, bottom crawlers.
- Rat-L-Trap – noisy and flashy.
A note about lures: soft lures by themselves will work fine but adding a fishing spray scent will increase your odds dramatically.
- Game Changer – bright with great movement.
- Wooly Bugger – classic fly to represent many things from baitfish to crawdads.
- Meat Whistle – great movement, pushes water (vibrates/moves water so fish can “hear” it. Comes in many colors to imitate shad, crawdads, and a host of other catfish favorites.
Fly fishing for flathead catfish can be a challenging endeavor. Using weighted flies, adding weight to your leader or tippet, or using sinking lines will help you reach proper depths.
Most fly fishers prefer to not add any scent but it is a possibility.
How many eggs do flathead catfish lay?
Up to 100,000. The average flathead lays around 1,200 eggs for every pound of body weight.
What is the best time to catch flathead catfish?
Spring to late summer. The pre-spawn and post-spawn are both really great times to fish for flathead cats. Contrary to popular belief, flatheads don’t eat exclusively or heavier at night. They feed when hungry and daylight can be just as productive.
How long does spawning last for flathead catfish?
2 weeks. The fry hatch in 6-10 days and the adults will stay on the nest until the fry leave.
Can you catch flathead catfish during the spawning season?
Absolutely! In fact, it’s one of the best times to fish for flatheads!
What depth do flathead catfish spawn at?
4 feet to 10 feet of depth is the preferred spawning depth.
Do flathead catfish bite during the spawning season?
Generally speaking, during the actual spawn, the answer is no. They are in a holding pattern while on the spawn bed.
Some fish may move a little during the spawn; different size fish will enter spawn beds at slightly different times… females leave nests before males… so fish can still be caught. It is not the most productive time, however.
Understanding the flathead catfish spawn is key to catching big numbers and even big fish!
Using the listed baits, lures, or flies and targeting pre-spawn flatheads or post-spawn flatheads should bring some great success.
Understanding the depths and structure of the lake or river will help you hone in on high concentrations of feeding fish. Flathead catfish spawning season is a great time to fish!
Please comment below and tell us about your catfish spawn and fishing experiences!