Channel catfish are big, bold, and beautiful—deserving of your attention this winter. Once located in deep basin areas and along drop-offs, these hard fighters can be targeted with tip-ups and automatic hook-setting devices, but they’re extra fun when caught on jigging tackle.
On rod-and-reel combos fit for walleyes, a battle with a big channel cat could last over 15 minutes—white knuckles, screaming drags, and rods bent deep into their handle section. It’s ice fishing at its finest, and it’s largely untapped throughout ice country.
The adage that big waters produce bigger fish generally holds true, but plenty of smaller fisheries in the 50-acre range (some as small as 5 acres) hold numbers of double-digit catfish. Select gear according to the size of fish you expect. In most situations, a 28- to 40-inch medium to medium-heavy rod and reel spooled with 6- to 10-pound-test line suffices. In settings with thick vegetation, a step-up in equipment is warranted.
Start by drilling sufficiently large holes. An 8-inch hole is acceptable for fish topping out at 10 pounds, but 10-inch holes are necessary when targeting trophy catfish. Channel cats get ornery during long fights, and their enormous heads and rigid pectoral fins quickly make a 10-inch hole look small. When selecting presentations, I choose from three categories of jigging lures: spoons; vibrating baits such as lipless rattlers, bladebaits, swimming minnows; and jigs.
Jigging spoons can be divided into two general types: heavy, compact spoons like the Lindy Rattl’n Flyer Jigging Spoon, Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, VMC Rattle Spoon, Clam Blade Spoon, and VMC Flash Champ Spoon; and light, fluttering spoons such as the VMC Tumbler, Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon, PK Lures Flutter Fish, and Luhr Jensen Needlefish Spoon.
When searching for catfish, a compact spoon tipped with a 1-inch piece of cut shiner, sucker, or chub is hard to beat. The heavy spoon is a quick-delivery system and fresh cutbait emits maximum scent without interfering with the spoon’s action. Rattling spoons add color and sound. For most of the winter, catfish prefer fresh cutbait to soured bait. This reverses in late season when the ice deteriorates and more deadbait becomes naturally available to cats.
Pound heavy spoons on the bottom to make small debris clouds around the bait. Using my Marcum VS385c underwater camera, I’ve seen how this commotion fires up neutral catfish. After pounding the bottom, raise the jig a foot and wait for a bite.
For a more fluid bouncing action to the spoon, and to allow catfish to suck in the bait without feeling too much resistance, I like monofilament line in the 6- to 8-pound-test range over braided line. A rod with a fast tip and plenty of backbone, such as Frabill’s 38-inch Ice Hunter rod, imparts good action to a bait and has the muscle to power big fish through the hole.
When fishing lakes and reservoirs with populations of shad that are susceptible to winter die-offs, flutter spoons can be the ticket. Since their appeal is their fluttering action, fish them slowly and use a smaller piece of cutbait so the action isn’t hindered.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer changes out the stock hook on these spoons for a Mustad Fastach clip and a #6 Owner 2X ST-41 treble for added strength. The Fastach clip provides more separation between the hook and the bait for more swinging action. It also enables hook changes without split-ring pliers. A minnow head can be threaded on the shaft of the hook, and the hook quickly reattached to the clip. The minnow head doesn’t impede the action of the spoon and adds scent to trigger bites.
I fish flutter spoons with a Frabill 40-inch Quick Tip Ice Hunter rod. The soft tip allows the spoon to be fished with a smooth yo-yo action. Pair the rod with a solid reel like the Abu Garcia Orra Power Finesse Spin. This reel has a wide spool for reduced line twist, extra line capacity for fishing deep water, and a comfortable paddle handle.
Lures that fall into this class include rattlebaits like the Dynamic Lures HD Ice, Rapala Rippin’ Rap, and Sebile Vibe Machine; bladebaits such as the Heddon Sonar, Johnson Thinfisher, and Sebile Vibrato; and swimming minnows such as the Nils Master Jigger, Northland Puppet Minnow, Lunkerhunt Straight Up Jig, and Rapala Jigging Rap.
Catfish are slow and cautious feeders under the ice, so jigging actions should be kept subtle. Lift the rod 1 to 2 feet, keeping it in a horizontal position. Avoid quick snaps of the wrist when using vibrating baits for catfish.
All of these vibrating lures benefit from adding meat, since it can be a challenge to fool cats without the scent of bait. To add livebait, remove the forward treble hook from the lure. Tie a 3-inch leader of 10-pound-test monofilament to the hook harness and the other end to a #8 Owner Stinger-36 round-bend treble hook. Tip the treble hook with a fathead minnow or shiner hooked in the back. The bait should be allowed to swim freely under the lure.
The suspended treble hook can also be tipped with a combination of cut- and livebait. My most productive combo is a lively medium-sized fathead minnow or shiner on one tine of the hook and minnow heads on the other tines. The whole minnow adds flash and vibration, while the cutbait emits additional scent. Change out the live minnow once it ceases to struggle on the hook.
Good electronics are critical when targeting catfish with artificial baits. By studying cats on my Marcum camera, I can determine the exact location and mood of the fish. At times, most catfish are positioned so close to the bottom that their sides and bellies are covered with sediment. These fish are difficult to mark on sonar, but once spotted on the camera, they can be precisely targeted.
Don’t expect aggressive strikes. A short, fast-action rod like the 28-inch medium-power Fenwick Aetos works well for vibrating lures. Match it with a spinning reel spooled with 8-pound-test Sufix 832 Performance Braid, which is designed to resist water retention and icing. For these applications, the sensitivity and no-stretch characteristics of braided line are critical for immediately setting hooks into the hard mouths of channel cats the second they alter the action of a lure or livebait. Constantly feel for the slightest change in action.
Round-head jigs and ice-fishing style teardrops work for icing cats. Select those with sufficiently large and strong hooks to deliver solid hook-sets and withstand long and hard fights. Jigs like the Northland Fire-Ball in the 1/16- to 1/8-ounce size are ideal when fishing depths of 20 to 40 feet. The Fire-Ball’s short shank and wide gap increase hooking and landing percentages, and its built-in “trailer hitch” accommodates a stinger hook if necessary.
Thread the jighook through the mouth of a large fathead minnow or medium shiner and slide the bait up the hook shank. Next, cut off the back third of the minnow for a potent scent trail. This rigging ensures short-striking cats won’t steal the bait.
In shallower water and locations where catfish aren’t feeding on minnows, tear-drop jigs baited with several waxworms, spikes, or redworms can be the winning ticket. To attract the attention of cats, use a larger profile horizontal jig like the Northland UV Forage Minnow or a vertical hanging VMC Tear Drop Jig. These jigs are available in UV bright and glow finishes that can make them more visible.
Fish jigs with a subtle action much like you would for panfish. Watch for fish on your electronics. Most cats are within 3 feet of the bottom but occasionally suspend in the middle of the water column. Raise baits up to the level of the fish and hold them there with only slight shakes of the rod. Slowly raise the bait above the fish if they initially refuse to eat while the bait is paused. Be patient with your pauses and jig with subtle motions. The bite of a 20-pounder can be subtle, so a sensitive spring bobber or some other form of strike indicator is helpful.
Jigging for winter catfish is as rewarding as icing any species. They’re among the largest fish available in many waters and go unnoticed by most ice anglers. They’ll get your attention with some of the most epic battles of the ice season. And they’re excellent on the table. Practice selective harvest—keep a few smaller fish for a meal and release trophies to battle another day. ■
In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Des Plaines, Illinois, is an avid chaser of trophy cats, from channel cats near home to exotic species in far-off lands.