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Channel Catfish Biology Catfish Tips & Tactics

Ice Out Channel Catfish

by Doug Stange   |  April 10th, 2014 0

Always helps to cock your hat just so.

Just curious, that’s all. And in a real hankering mood for a meal of fresh catfish after several months of being stuck in the office in the middle of Minnesota during the dead of winter. Just curious how soon after ice out channel cats might start biting in a known hot spot. Just curious what some of the better baits might be—and would that change as spring progresses. Just curious, that’s all.

So I kept a close watch on the ice conditions at a nearby reservoir with lots of channel cats, with the intent to begin fishing on the day of ice-out and to continue fishing until I’d proven something—anything—relative to fishing for ice out channel catfish.

The hot spot I’ll be fishing when I can for the next couple weeks is a bridge area connecting two portions of this reservoir. Large numbers of catfish winter in the deeper reservoir section west of the bridge, then move through this bridge pass on their way into the shallower portion east of the bridge. Many cats also move up a small river that flows into a section of the deep portion of the reservoir, but you need a boat to fish most of these spots. I’ll keep things simple, fishing from shore at the bridge area.

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On lakes and reservoirs, by the way, bridges can be prime spots for contacting channel catfish, particularly during spring into early summer. Bridge spots with current during summer often produce fish all summer long. Some of these areas also get going again during fall, as catfish migrate back toward deeper wintering areas.

Fishing in these areas almost always is best on the downcurrent side of the bridge, unless the upcurrent side offers much better habitat, such as a deep hole or pieces of cover like logs or brush. Sometimes cats also like to hold around nearby docks that attract minnows.

March 30—Water temperature 39°F; air temperature 50°F; light westerly wind; partly cloudy.

It’s a little cool today, but after a long winter, wetting a line is a pleasant experience. This is a Tuesday, and I’ve bumped away from my desk at noon to get in a couple hours of fishing during the warmest part of the day. As I walk down to the edge of the water below the bridge, I see light current moving under the bridge from the west (deeper side) to the east (shallow side).

The channel under the bridge usually runs 5 to 6 feet deep, but the water is up a foot or so. The channel cut widens as it moves out from the bridge, shallowing slightly to 6 feet. The channel stays deeper toward the south bank. Indeed, to the north, a 3- to 4-foot-deep bar extends from the shoreline into the channel. Beyond the bar, which is on the side of the bridge I’m fishing, the water pretty much runs 5 to 6 feet deep.

My bait this day by necessity are nightcrawlers, for I’ve been unable to find chubs or suckers in any of the area baitshops, to use as cutbait. In Minnesota, most folks won’t be needing bigger bait until they begin fishing for pike and walleyes in May when the season opens. Fishing for channel cats generally doesn’t register here. The fellow in the baitshop finds me a bit strange, admitting that I’m going to fish for channel cats.

So crappie minnows are all that’s available at this baitshop. Now I’ve often caught channel cats by using four or five small minnows on a #4 hook, but this shop has only microscopic minnows for sale. It would take 700 of them to make a decent presentation. Hopefully, I’ll be able to pick up cutbait for my next fishing session. I also have along with me two popular dipbait blends, one Sonny’s Super Sticky and the other Cattracker’s Sewer Bait.

Looking at my watch, I’ll be making my first cast at just about 2 o’clock. I’m using a fat crawler run through several times on a #1 hook anchored with a one-ounce bell sinker held about 6 inches above the crawler with a single BB lead shot. Twenty-pound SpiderWire Fusion or Berkley Fireline (I don’t remember which) is on this long spinning rod-and-reel combo I use to longline for walleyes. Not much cover here, and I’m not expecting anything I can’t handle. Big fish here rarely top 10 pounds and aren’t likely to put up a mighty tussle in this cold water.

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I place my first cast on the edge of the eddy and the deeper water along the bar running slightly northeast from the bridge. While the current here isn’t heavy enough to discourage cats, at least some fish still almost always relate to current edges. Tightening up my line, I place the rod in a forked stick left over from the previous fishing season. Looking out into the lake beyond, I can see the ice is only half out. Another day or so should do it. This really is an ice-out challenge.

I don’t even have time to sit down on my cooler. No more than a minute, first bite. Easy now. Drop the rod tip slightly toward the fish but still keep the line relatively tight. Wumpa, wumpa, I can feel the fish has the bait in his mouth shut tight. The wumpa, wumpa is the fish moving his head left-right as he begins to move slightly. I ease the rod tip along with him for a foot or so, then set. Yes. Fish on. Near shore the fish, which is a solid two pounds or so, puts up a determined fight, running left, then right, then diving for the riprap at my feet. He looks so fine on my stringer. Catfish for dinner tonight. Life is grand.

Before I have time to decide on a recipe, I have another fish on. From the same spot. On a crawler. This one bites differently—punk, punk, punk (the fish’s pinning the bait against the bottom trying to pick it up). Then thunk, finally gets it into his mouth and moves off about a foot. Won’t move farther, but I can still feel the fish, so I set and connect. This one’s about 11⁄2 pounds. Nice fat fish. The fins on both fish are covered with leeches. They apparently spent a fair part of the winter resting on the bottom somewhere.

In the next 15 minutes, I catch two more cats and miss one. Need one more fish for my limit, and it takes another 20 minutes to catch it. By this time, given not getting bit right away after casting out my bait, I’m casting to different spots, hoping cats are positioned in different spots in the current area. After trying four other spots, I cast back to the eddy edge to catch the fifth fish, my big fish for the day at perhaps 4 pounds.

Time to try the dipbaits. In the 50°F air temperature, neither bait stays on a plastic dipworm well. Should have taken care to keep the bait warmer. Should have added a little vegetable oil to the dips to loosen them up. Too late now. I have enough dip on the worm, though, to fish it. The essence, that is the taste and smell, is what counts.

No bites. I note, though, that the bite was already dying before I began to fish the dips. Did I clean out the cats holding in the area? Did I hook the five fish and spook the others? I can’t get a bite. Switching back to crawlers, I still can’t get a bite. So far, I’ve been fishing for just over an hour. I move to the upcurrent side of the bridge. Nothing. Back to my original position. A bite. The fish is a small carp. Then a perch. Then a small walleye. No more cats. I take all five catfish home for the larder.

In-Fisherman Editor Steve Hoffman working the current flow at a bridge area. Current almost always attracts some cats; but as Stange here in suggests, it’s often a small number during early season—and these fish sometimes are easily and quickly caught.

April 3—Stiff east by northeast wind blowing into my spot and against the current flow. Water temperature 40°F. Air temperature 34°F. Heavily overcast skies. All the ice is out.

The water appears to have cleared since my visit four days ago, but the wind has almost stopped the current flow. Couldn’t get cutbait, so I’m relying on crawlers. Sure would be nice to at least try the cutbait.

I make a cast to the hot spot, but can’t get a bite. I try casting to different spots, letting the bait work in each one for about five minutes. Thirty minutes pass. It’s too cold to sit in this wind any longer, so I try the opposite side of the bridge. At least I’ll be out of the wind. No bites. Back to the other side of the bridge for 20 minutes. No bites. This is the first time I’ve fished this spot over the course of two years and perhaps 10 visits without catching a catfish. Didn’t try the dipbaits.

April 7—Mild (55°F) but windy (15 to 20 mph) from the west. Water temperature 44°F.

The wind is moving current steadily from west to east under the bridge. The water’s clear, and I immediately catch a two-pound catfish by casting a nightcrawler to the eddy edge, which was the hot spot on day-one. ­In-Fisherman Editor Jeff Simpson is fishing with me today. Takes 10 minutes for him to get our next bite. He swings and misses, then shortly after, so do I. The fish are tentative, bumping the bait against the bottom, probably to taste the bait, then barely picking it up. But then they won’t move off so it’s hard to get an angle on the fish to ensure a hookset.

We catch five fish over the course of the first hour, missing three fish. I fish dipbait for 15 minutes but don’t get bit. Then, curiously, redhorse suckers move in, and we absolutely can’t catch another cat. We try many different casts to different locations, but all but two of the fish and one miss have come from the general area of the eddy edge that’s been so productive. Again, no cats on the upcurrent side of the bridge.

Nightcrawlers usually are readily accessible and work well during early season.

Seems cats are present when we arrive, then we either quickly catch the ones that are present or catch a good share of them and spook the rest. Simpson scores big-fish honors this day, with one about four pounds. The rest run 11⁄2 to 21⁄4 pounds. Take two fish home to eat.

April 11—Wind at about 15 mph from the north-northeast. Air temperature 34°F. Water temperature 42°F. Overcast.

This is Sunday, and as difficult as the weather is today, it was worse on Saturday, when the wind was even stronger from straight east. Given my experience with the poor fishing when the wind was blowing into my spot on April 3, I decide not to fish Saturday, in hopes that on Sunday the weather will moderate. That might have been a mistake (and I had wanted badly to fish two days in a row to see how it affected the fishing), for I proceed, beginning at about noon, to catch five fish in 40 minutes, before, as now has become typical on each trip, the fishing slows. In the next 20 minutes I miss another fish, then catch a final fish.

This is the first day I’ve had cutbait along, but because I’ve been fishing each previous day with nightcrawlers, I decide not to use the cutbait until I can no longer catch fish on crawlers. The last fish is on cutbait. But it takes almost 20 minutes to catch it.

My guess is that the fish that are present would bite cutbait as well as crawlers if it were the first thing I presented to them. But I’ll never know for sure. Certainly, my hot spot is worth a bunch of quick fish before the fishing slows. Again, it’s impossible to determine whether or not the slowdown is due to removing most of the fish or spooking the remaining fish. That’s why I wanted to fish two days in a row. Would the fish build back up in the spot that quickly?

It’s curious how fish can be so hot, even in difficult weather conditions, that they go immediately and then shut down completely. I haven’t tried dipbaits today because of the air temperature. Haven’t caught a catfish yet on one of the dips. Yet dips have proven to be a hot option in this spot during summer. The earliest I’ve caught fish on dips here is early May, with water temperature hovering around 55°F, air temperature in the 60°F range.

Perhaps current made the difference on this otherwise difficult day weatherwise. Even with a cold wind blowing in, the increasing water level over the last weeks has made the current run steady and fairly strong. The weather report is for calm mild conditions with temperatures increasing to 65°F by Wednesday, April 14, which will be the final day of my experiment.

April 14—Clear, calm, air temperature 60°F. Water temperature 46°F.

Fishing by boat, Doug Stange lands a channel cat at a typical bridge area last spring.

I’m here late this day, making my opening cast at 3 o’clock. What a beautiful day. After taking the water temperature and noting the increase, I’m ready for my first cast, which will be with a piece of freshly cut sucker. My plan is to alternate casts between cut sucker and nightcrawler. As usual, I catch a fish within minutes of my first cast to the current edge area. Typical 2-pound cat. I mention at this point that having cleaned fish over the course of the last weeks, the only food the fish have had in their stomachs were portions of the crawlers I’ve been using to catch them. Still, these fish are fat as can be, and obviously they’re ready to feed. Five of the fish I’ve cleaned have been males, two females.

The second cast, this time with a crawler, produces another fish, within about five minutes of splashdown. This day I total six more fish (eight in all, with two misses) before the catching dies. This takes place within an hour of my arrival at 3 o’clock. I fish until 5 o’clock without another hit from a catfish, although I catch two carp and several suckers, plus a bluegill and a perch, all on crawlers. Ten to fifteen minutes of fishing with dips doesn’t produce a fish.

Observations
While dipbaits haven’t been a productive factor in this experiment, I’ve caught enough catfish on them shortly after ice-out to suggest that you keep them on hand. The main ingredient in fishing them successfully at this time of year might depend on what the cats are feeding on. Sour baits work well in rivers and reservoirs with winter-killed shad, and cats move in after ice-out to feed on them. But dipbaits also often work well in these areas at this time.

Air temperature seems to be a factor, too. Below about 55°F, unless you take particular care to keep dipbaits warm, some don’t stick well. Toad Smith used to carry a little plastic squeeze bag of the stuff held under each armpit. I usually keep the vats near the heater in the truck, then alternate between two vats, keeping one wrapped in newspaper or a towel in a cooler, while the other one’s near the heater. Baits that stick better have been developed this past year.

Light-tipped fiberglass rods often key fishing for light-­biting fish at ice-out. This is a Shakespeare Ugly Stick.

Nightcrawlers remain a readily available and potent bait for cats in early season , not just for channel cats, but for blues and flatheads, too. I’m guessing that crawlers are particularly overlooked during early season for those last two species. Bullheads could be a problem on some waters, however. But then I don’t mind a mess of bullhead fillets just after ice-out.

I also wouldn’t be on the water anywhere during early season without fresh cutbait, so long as it’s available. It remains, in my mind, overall the most consistently productive natural bait over the course of the season for channel cats and blues. Sometimes early on, sour baits will outfish it. The best sour baits are dead shad gathered along a shore of a river or reservoir where you’re fishing. Keep them in plastic bags. Doesn’t hurt if they get a little bit warm, but if they’re already soured, don’t leave them in the sun any longer because they’ll just deteriorate. If they aren’t sour enough, leave them in the sun for an afternoon or two.

My favorite sour bait remains ­winter-killed carp or buffalo. We’re talking real sour here. One 5- to 10-pound fish goes a long way filleted and cut into strips. Slip your hook once through the tough outer skin. Often these baits will last for a half dozen fish. I’ve caught a fair number of channel cats just on the skin alone—no meat left on the bait.

If I can catch cats at ice-out in Minnesota, you have a fair shot at fish where you live, especially in those portions of the country that don’t freeze. The key there is watch the weather. Even during the dead of winter an extended warm-up streak can get channel cats biting. A couple days of warm weather isn’t enough. Watch for four or five days to a week of warming weather. Cats get going best and quickest in ponds. You can almost always, though, catch some cats before most people expect it.

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