Make all the jokes you want about the foul, disgusting smells, but the late winter and early-spring bites associated with winterkilled shad after ice-out up North, and beneath cormorant roosts in the South, can be the hottest catfish patterns of the year. The concepts are inelegant but simple. In the North, channel catfish feed voraciously on winterkilled baitfish for several weeks after ice-out. In the South, schools of channels and blue catfish cluster beneath the night roosts of cormorants and feed on their baitfish-rich droppings. Anglers who know how and when to take advantage of these seasonal concentrations of catfish often enjoy fish-on-every-cast success for hours on end.
Just how attractive to channel catfish are winterkilled shad after ice-out? A Missouri Department of Conservation study conducted by Steven Fisher, Stephen Elder, and Elvessa Aragon at Missouri’s Pony Express Lake indicates the annual ice-out feeding frenzy may attract the majority of a lake’s catfish population and concentrate them in a relatively small area. “In our study, all eight of the channel cats we had implanted with radiotelemetry tags at various locations around the lake were in the same bay of the lake, on the same day, feeding on dead shad,” Elder says. “Statistically, that’s about as close to 100 percent of a representative sample as you can get. That tells me there can be amazing concentrations of channel cats in certain spots on lakes when they’re feeding on winterkilled shad.”
Farther north, Iowa DNR fishery biologist Lannie Miller monitors Lake Black Hawk outside his office window and grabs a special set of rods and reels as soon as the ice goes off. “I’ve caught catfish as fast as I could bait up and cast, the same day the ice went out,” Miller says. “There were still shards of ice tinkling along the shoreline. Iowa’s daily limit is 8, and the quickest I’ve limited-out on one of those ice-out trips is 24 minutes, using two rods. I kept fishing, catch-and-release, and lost count after 20 or 30 in an hour or two.”
The biology underlying the potential of ice-out catfishing is simple. In the winter, shad become cold-stressed and a substantial number die, with many floaters becoming locked in ice. When the ice goes off, a winter’s worth of dead baitfish is released all at once. The carcasses drift into shallow water and become a smorgasbord for catfish. Even in more southerly waters that don’t experience ice cover, spells of frigid temperatures can cold-stress and kill shad.
While ice-out feeding conditions are good for catfish, they’re tough on anglers. “It can be cold, nasty fishing,” Miller says. “Temperatures are generally in the 30°F or 40°F range, and I want a stiff wind in my face. I fish from shallow, windward shorelines where I can see dead shad along the water’s edge. The catfish are all along that shoreline, in as little as 1 or 2 feet of water. The best spot I’ve found is where the wind is blowing perpendicular to a shallow point. The wave action creates a current that swirls in behind that point. Sometimes you can actually see an oily slick on the downwind side of the point if there are lots of dead shad. If I see that slick, I pretty much plan on catching a catfish on every cast.”
Miller fishes solely from shore when targeting ice-out cats. “The days I’ve done best have been in the middle of the afternoon, with 35 mph winds crashing 3-foot waves at my feet. You couldn’t hold a boat under those conditions, but I hammered 2- to 5-pound channel cats till I got tired of reeling them in.”
Near Wichita, Kansas, catfish guide Mike Cook crosses his fingers every winter and hopes for a cold spell. “We’re far enough south that we don’t always get serious ice,” Cook says. “But if we get a good layer of ice on the lakes, I get all excited because I know we’re in for fantastic fishing starting the day the ice goes off.”
Cook uses bald eagles as fish locators. “Eagles know where the dead shad are piling up along the shore,” he says. “If I see bald eagles in trees along a windward shoreline, that’s the place I want to fish that day.”
Miller and Cook agree that gizzard shad are the best baits for ice-out catfishing but disagree on the need for “flavor.” Miller favors shad guts, with crappie guts (saved and frozen from crappie catches the previous summer) a close second, and soured shad sides a distant third. “I’ve used shad guts on one rod and soured shad sides on the other, and the guts outfished the sides 2 to 1,” Miller says. “The guts don’t have to be soured—they’re nasty by themselves, fresh out of the fish. If you don’t want to pay $8 a pint for shad guts at a baitshop, you can pick up winterkilled shad along the shoreline and use them. I wear disposable rubber gloves and keep a couple of cheapie rods and reels set aside just for that sort of fishing. That smell doesn’t wash off your hands, and you’re definitely going to want to keep those rods and reels out in the garage.”
Cook prefers cubes of fresh shad. “I don’t like to get my gear and boat all stunk up,” he says, “and I can’t really see any difference in my catch rates whether I use fresh or sour shad.” He delivers his baits on a 2/0 or 3/0 size hook. Cook also has good success using white dipbait worms. “The catfish are used to feeding on light-colored shad,” he says. Cook dunks his dipworms in Cat Tracker Wicked Sticky dipbait. He thins his dipbait with canned milk if cold temperatures make the dipbait unmalleable. “Cat Tracker says to use cooking oil for thinning, but if you use too much oil the bait won’t milk off the worm and chum the water. Canned milk thins it nice, the bait still milks off good, and canned milk won’t go sour like regular milk,” he says.
Some catfish aficionados maintain that ice-out catfishing produces smaller catfish. As a fishery biologist, Miller has surveyed lakes in his area and is confident that anglers fishing the ice-out bite are exposed to catfish of all sizes. “If there are 10- or 15-pound channel cats in a lake, they’re feeding with all the 1- and 5-pounders,” he says. “There just won’t be as many of the big ones, because there are more small fish than big fish.”
Miller also assures anglers that the ice-out bite isn’t limited to lakes with gizzard shad. “The ice-out bite’s more evident in shad lakes, but it’s going to occur in any lake where baitfish die under the ice. It’s the darndest thing you’ll ever experience.”
Whether you call it “plop-fishing” or “splat-fishing,” targeting channel and blue catfish beneath cormorant roosts on reservoirs is a cold-weather sure thing in southern states. Bobby Kubin guides clients to the annual catfish bonanza on Lake Lewisville in Texas. “The cormorants migrate south in the fall and that bite starts to develop in November and runs through late March or early April,” he says. “I scout for big trees back in the creek arms that look like they’ve been painted white with cormorant poop. The trick is to get out there early, before sunrise, and stay a long cast away from the trees so you don’t spook the catfish. If you’ve got a good tree with 10 or more cormorants roosting in it, you can sit there and catch 20 or 30 catfish.”
Chad Ferguson also guides for catfish on Lewisville, as well as on Ray Roberts and Cedar Creek reservoirs. He emphasizes silence, fast action, and preparation. “The ideal day is dead calm at sunrise,” he says. “It’s critical that I don’t bump the boat into trees when I’m getting it into position, and that we don’t bump around a lot in the boat—the catfish are spooky in the shallow water under those trees. You’ve got to work fast, because the wind usually starts to come up and the bite is usually done by 10:00 or 10:30 a.m.
“I use 81⁄2-foot Berkley steelhead rods with Abu Garcia 6500 baitcasting reels loaded with 50-pound-test PowerPro line, prerigged with either a 3/0 Mustad Kahle hook or a #4 or #6 treble hook and a weighted cork. I put shad heads on the 3/0 hooks early in the morning and switch to the treble hooks loaded with Benny Roberts’ Sure Shot Catfish Punch Bait as the morning progresses. At sunrise, the catfish are sight-feeding on anything white that hits the water, so the shad heads work well. Later in the day, as they get a little pickier, the Sure Shot has the flavor to keep them biting.”
Kubin finds that presentation is important when plop-fishing. “The catfish are keying on the plop of the cormorant droppings hitting the water. You want to lob your casts so that the baits really make noise when they hit the water. Most of the time I use Danny King’s Catfish Punch Bait, with just a 1/8-ounce split-shot above a #2 treble hook,” he says. Kubin keeps a tight line and watches his 15- to 20-pound-test Trilene Big Game bright green mono for twitches. “I’m pretty much watching for a hit, rather than waiting to feel it. They usually smack it within a few seconds. If it settles to the bottom, you might as well bring it in and plop it again.”
Ferguson says shallow is generally better when roosting catfish. “I fish trees standing in water as deep as 30 feet, but what I really like is 3 to 4 feet of water at the base of the trees. If I have to trim up my big motor and have trouble with my trolling motor dragging bottom, I know I’m in good water.”
Good water is the key to good catfishing any time of year. In the North after ice-out, good water has the stomach-churning stench of shad decomposing along a windward shoreline or point. In the South, prime water is identified by the plops and splats of cormorant droppings. Inelegant tactics for finding fish, but when the results are a catfish-per-cast, who cares if the fishing stinks?
Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Catfish Bait
Guide Contacts: Mike Cook, 316/655-1541; Bobby Kubin, bobby-catfishing.com, 817/455-2894; Chad Ferguson, txcatfishguide.com; 817/306-0055.