Despite its seemingly easy-going existence, the catfish is a powerful fighter on a hook, as experienced anglers will tell you. New Mexico waters support three species of catfish: the channel
, and blue
, found in both rivers and reservoirs. Blue catfish are only found in Elephant Butte and Caballo Reservoirs.
Channel and flathead catfish each have eight black barbels (whiskers) near the mouth and thick, smooth, scaleless skin. Their fins are dark and soft, except for portions of the dorsal and pectoral fins, which are sharp, serrated, and can be venomous. Nighttime is when catfish come alive for most fishermen. During the day, catfish seek out dark, deep pools with submerged logs, rocks, or other debris.
The flathead is most easily distinguished from the channel by its mottled coloration, gray to yellowish-brown. Other identifying marks are its flattened head, jutting lower jaw, very large mouth, and squared tail fin. Flathead catfish don’t mature until they reach 15-19 inches. They may live up to 25 years, continuing to grow as they age. A flathead tends to have a home range, spending most of its time in a resting spot which it will defend from other fish, including other flatheads.
This species is widely distributed in New Mexico because it has adapted well to life in reservoirs. Young channel catfish are silvery blue-gray with black spots and a forked tail. Once they reach maturity, at about 12 inches, their coloration darkens markedly and their spots diminish. Although channel cats prefer clear, slow-moving water, they’re highly tolerant of turbid water. They can grow to over 30 inches, though 12 to 16-inchers are more common catches in New Mexico waters.
In New Mexico, catfish spawn from spring through mid-summer. Exact timing is regulated by latitude and water temperatures. The ideal time is when water temperatures are between 72-84 degrees. River channel cats migrate upstream to spawn. In rivers or reservoirs, the male catfish selects a nest site in protected locations, such as bankline holes or under flat rocks. Egg production varies, from 3,000 to 100,000 eggs, depending on the size of the female. Fertilized eggs hatch in about a week, and males guard the fry, herding them together near the nest. Young catfish school tightly after hatching. One of the parents often stays nearby to ward off predators.
Catfish tend to feed by night, especially after summer rains when they search turbid waters with their barbels for food.
In spring and early summer, when water temperatures are between 60 and 72 degrees, catfish are fairly easy to catch — so long as you remember to fish the bottom when the sun is off the water. The only thing that affects a catfish appetite is water temperature. Below 40 degrees F., it has no interest in feeding.
During daytime hours, murky backwaters of coves or slow-water stretches of river are good places to fish from the bank or with waders (check out the bottom structure first). Use a float, small weight, and chunks of bait or bait on a hook by itself.
Daytime fishing is best for flathead cats, especially from May through early June, and again from July through September, when they’re active. If you’re fishing for big flathead, make sure your bait is large, weighs a pound or more, and is alive. Try suckers, carp, shad, or sunfish, provided these are already present in the water.
One time-tested method for catching catfish is the baited hole technique. Prepare a five-gallon bucket of whole wheat (or whole milo purchased from a feed store) and water. Let it ferment for 3 to 4 days — add some dry cat food to the mixture if you like. Meanwhile, select a likely fishing spot, 20 to 30 feet deep, where you can easily anchor or tie off your boat. Once the mixture has fermented, determine the day you want to fish; the day before, pour half the contents of the bucket into the fishing hole, making sure it sinks effectively. The next day, pour about a half gallon into the same spot, move away from the area for an hour, then return and start fishing. Make sure chumming is legal in the waters you want to fish. Check the fishing regulations or call the Department for details.
Reservoirs: Ute (best for both species) and Bluewater (good mid-day summer fishing for channel cats; use lead sinkers on the bottom). Also Elephant Butte, Cochiti, Caballo, Navajo, Brantley, Conchas, Abiquiu, Sumner, and Santa Rosa. Smaller lakes, such as Bear Canyon, Eunice, and Jal, are stocked with channel catfish. Clayton Lake (black and yellow bullhead).
Rivers: Gila (Gila Hot Springs downstream to the Arizona Line); portions of the San Francisco; portions of the Rio Grande; Rio Chama (between Abiquiu and El Vado dam); Percha Dam; and stretches of the Pecos River below Sumner and Brantley reservoirs. In rivers, both species tend to congregate around brushpiles and holes below sandbars.
Fishing for Catfish: Pointers from the Pros
- Serious catfish angling is done with bait. Try shrimp, chicken or beef liver, worms, and cut bait for bottom fishing.
- Use slip sinkers but leave the bail open.
- ‘Chumming’ a baited hole is legal in New Mexico only in certain waters. Check first, and take only those catfish you plan to eat.
- Use live bluegills as legal bait to fish for large flatheads.
- Channel cats bite on stinkbait, whether homemade (form a mixture of cheese, decayed meat or minnows, animal blood, oats, flour, and anise into small balls) or commercially prepared.
- Tackle can vary from a simple throw line to heavy-duty rods and reels.
- Besides stinkbait, channel cats also hit on night crawlers, animal entrails, frogs, grasshoppers, clams, crayfish — also artificial baits, such as plugs, spoons, jigs, spinners, and plastic worms.
Channel Catfish Catfish numbers and sizes are highest in New Mexico’s larger reservoirs. Elephant Butte, Conchas, Caballo and Ute all have very good populations with some very large fish. Shallow murky water near inlets provides good fishing during late evening and night.