ICING CATS IS MAINSTREAM.
Coinciding with an expansion in the written word, mainly in In-Fisherman, about catfish, In-Fisherman staff members also began targeting the fish in waters farther north. Some of that early fishing transpired on what has become a well-known destination for channel cats in Minnesota, the Horseshoe Lake Chain near Richmond. As In-Fisherman wrote about and filmed television about ice fishing for catfish and explained their winter biology in the late '90s and beyond, more anglers began to fish for them. Ice fishing for channel cats went mainstream.
The advent of underwater cameras and scientific research using radio telemetry also helped decipher behaviors of catfish in cold water. In the Upper Mississippi River, angler Brian Klawitter gathered compelling underwater footage of both flathead and channel catfish. He recorded flatheads congregated in wintering areas, where they laid motionless in a state of torpor. Swimming above the flatheads in some areas were groups of active channel cats. Telemetry revealed that channel catfish can remain active through the winter, sometimes moving away from wintering areas to feed.
Those discoveries of channel cats being active in Minnesota winters inspired anglers like guide Darren Troseth to fish for them. "On our best day, three of us caught and released 105 channel cats in four hours through the ice," he says. "They ran from 16 to 24 inches, averaging about 17. That was an exceptional day, but it proved we could catch them through the ice."
Fishery research supports behavior patterns of channel catfish that anglers are now exploring. In general, they migrate to wintering areas in late fall. In shallow rivers they may move dozens of miles to holes that provide deep water with gentle currents of oxygenated water. In Iowa, for example, all the channel catfish radio-tagged during a research study on the Wapsipinicon, Turkey, and other small rivers moved out of those tributaries and wintered in holes in the Mississippi River. In lakes and reservoirs, channel cats move into the main basin but make feeding forays onto nearby middepth points and flats.
Troy Hansen frequently targets channel cats at Lake McBride in eastern Iowa. "We've drilled a lot of holes over the past years, spent a lot of time searching with flashers, and channel catfish are consistently in the deeper parts of the main basin," he says. "They're not always in the deepest water, but they're in deeper water associated with areas where middepth points stick into the basin, or where there's a shelf, ledge, or flat near that deeper water. They move up in groups and feed in those shallower areas.
"We've found areas where they feed most winters, so we drill about 30 holes, starting where the deep water meets the shallower areas where they feed," he says. "We set up auto-fisherman devices at many of the holes." Hansen builds his own auto-fisherman devices. "A lot of times we see two or three of the auto-fisherman on the deep side of the spread go down, and you can track the slow movement of that school as they move up onto the point or flat as the other auto-fishermen go down. It reminds me of a herd of buffalo slowly grazing their I way across a prairie. We try to be on the ice shortly after sunrise and usually catch fish till around 11 a.m. They seem to prefer low-light conditions."
Andrew Svoboda fishes for channel cats in small reservoirs in Southeast Nebraska. "I key on the main basin of reservoirs," he says. "Most of ' the reservoirs around here are 250 acres or less, and no more than 20 to 25 feet deep. The catfish are in the main basin associated with an edge or rise up to about 8 feet. They move out of the basin to feed. Submerged creek channels can be good spots, too. I think there can be subtle current associated with those channels, and the cats seem to like that current. They're in the same areas each winter. On one lake, we can drill on waypoints and be on fish most days."
Channel cats returning to the same areas in winter makes electronic maps invaluable. "For $10, the Navionics app on my phone lets me know exactly where deep spots, ledges, and points are," he says. "It saves a lot of prospecting. If I'm fishing with a group, we drill a bunch of holes over an area where we expect the fish to be. If I'm fishing solo, I use the app to put me on the bottom structure I'm looking for, then use my flasher to mark fish. When I fish alone, I don't drop a bait down a hole unless I mark fish. Catfish show as a big orange mark barely off the bottom."
Large numbers of catfish can cluster in relatively small areas. Hansen has noticed that only 3 to 5 holes in a 30-hole spread generally are active at one time. When the initial holes he drills are widely spaced, at times he's increased his catches by drilling more holes within 5 feet of an active hole. He's not concerned about spooking catfish by drilling new holes.
"Sometimes the noise seems to stimulate more bites," he says. "One time we were fishing on an oxbow of a river, had a bunch of holes drilled, and we were catching a few cats. Then guys showed up with a bunch of dirt bikes set up for riding on the ice. They laid out a track on the other side of the ice, and when they started buzzing around, we started catching more catfish. When they took a break, fishing slowed. They came over and apologized if their noise was interfering with our fishing, and we told them that it seemed to help, so they went back to riding and extended their track all the way around the area we were fishing. We caught catfish as long as they were making noise."
Bait and Tackle
Troseth uses 26-inch medium-power Berkley Ice Amp rods designed for walleyes and Shimano 500-series spinning reels with 6-pound Sufix 832 braid. Hansen prefers a 24-inch medium- to medium-heavy ice rod for jigging, and 38-inch Whisker Seeker catfish ice rods as his all-purpose option. "The Whisker Seekers are medium-heavy and work well with the auto-fisherman devices we use, as well as for deadsticking," he says. "I prefer 35-pound-test Whisker Seeker Tackle braided line, but Sufix 832 works well, too."
For bait, gizzard shad, both guts and pieces of fillets, works well. Cut shiners, chubs, suckers, and crushed minnows are other good options, as are cut bluegills and crappies where legal. Svoboda favors frozen smelt, dead minnows, or Berkley's Gulp! products for their catfish-attracting flavors. In farm ponds and small lakes, a gob of waxworms or a nightcrawler works for channel cats that cluster in deep water. Troseth favors fathead minnows, and also has had success with frozen chicken livers, cutting off small chunks the size of a quarter. He thinks channel cats prefer smaller meals in winter.
Hansen agrees. "I don't use a bait bigger than my thumbnail," he says. "Cats aren't interested in big baits in winter, even 20-pounders, but they sometimes prefer one bait type over another. It's always good to take several different baits so you can see which one they want on a particular day."
Effective presentations include bait on a plain hook, jigging spoons and other lures, and rigs designed specifically for ice fishing for catfish. Hansen replaces treble hooks on jigging spoons with single J-hooks. "Channel cats at this time are eating smaller items and they're less prone to get their mouth around a larger treble hook than a smaller single hook," he says. "And I'd rather reach down into a hole and grab a catfish that has a single hook in its mouth."
Circle hooks can work well at times, when the setup allows the rod to load progressively so the hook can turn and embed as designed to function. Hansen finds they don't work well with auto-fisherman devices. "Those devices jerk up too abruptly. Circle hooks work best with a steady pull, so I use J-hooks on my auto-fisherman."
Lures tipped with bait can serve two purposes: attract and trigger. The flash of a spoon, for instance, is a strong attentive signal that can draw catfish from a distance. The flash and motion of bladebaits and swimming lures also have fish-attracting qualities. Once fish are lured in, the smell and taste of bait can take over as the triggering factor.
Svoboda jigs 1/8-ounce Kastmasters or Swedish Pimples dressed with a flavorful bait. Troseth uses glow jigs. "I mostly consider a jig's function as a weight to help get a bait down to the fish, but there's something to having them glow if you're fishing after dark or in stained water," he says. Red Northland Glo Hooks have worked well for him.
Hansen believes catfish respond to noise and vibration during all seasons, and likes Whisker Seeker's TomKat Ice Jigs and MP TomKat Ice Jigs. "TomKats are chrome and have a weight and flat beads that clank when you jig them," he says. "MP TomKats are black, with a metal weight and a propeller that produce both noise and vibration."
These anglers use flashers to identify and track incoming catfish, which are often attracted by moderate jigging, but they stop jigging once catfish are near the bait. "Moderate motion seems to attract them and bring them to the bait, but once they get close it's best to hold the bait still," Hansen says. "I've watched them on an underwater camera, and they get close and use their whiskers to feel or taste the bait and sometimes rub their body against it. When they take the bait, it's gentle. Occasionally they chomp on it. But if you jig or move it when they're investigating, they usually leave."
Once a hooked channel cat is at the hole, getting it through a hole and onto the ice can be a challenge. Hansen prefers to keep the rod tip above the hole. He uses the V between his index finger and thumb to keep the line away from the edge of the hole, then reaches down to "lip" the catfish and guide it through the hole. Svoboda often sticks the end of the rod down into the hole to fight fish once they're near the hole.
"They don't fight as hard as they do in the summer, but they fight harder than just about anything else you catch through the ice," he says. "Trying to get a big channel cat through a hole is hand-to-hand combat."
Svoboda has no problem hoisting 15- to 17-inch channel cats through a 6-inch auger hole, though it has taken extra work to get a 30-incher onto the ice. "Once I caught one that wouldn't fit through a 6-inch hole, so I had to drill another hole right beside the first hole and use a spud to chip away the ice between the two holes," he says. Doug Stange has written than in his experience you can typically get a 12- to 15-pound fish through an 8-inch hole. The pectoral spines are what cause some of the difficulty.
Hansen favors an 8-inch hole. But on trips to target big channel cats in Wisconsin's Lake Mendota, he says, "I've never had one I couldn't get through an 8-inch hole, but there have been a few times at Mendota when I've had to work at it. The guys who fish there generally drill 10-inch holes. I've seen 25-pounders come through the ice there."
Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is an avid catfish angler and frequent contributor to In-Fisherman and Catfish In-Sider Guide.
Some Presentation Options
Reef Runner Cicada bladebait
PK Lures PK Spoon
Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon
Rapala Jigging Rap
Whisker Seeker TomKat rigs
flat or ledge
Caption: Troy Hansen targets channel cats near structure in the main basin of lakes.
Caption: Darren Troseth with a hardwater cat
Caption: In winter, channel catfish move to deeper main-basin areas of lakes and reservoirs, where they're often associated with structure. At times they move along and up on structure to feed. Troy Hansen drills spreads of holes from deep water toward the main basin to shallower water to intercept cats moving and feeding along structures like points and ledges. He jigs and also sets auto-fisherman devices.