How To Catch Early Season Channel Catfish
May 14, 2013
The ice-out bite for channel cats on dead shad can be phenomenal from Colorado to New Jersey. "It can be so easy that after the first couple trips each spring, I'm ready for warm-water fishing when patterning cats is more challenging," raves Ken Alberts, a catfishing fanatic from North Liberty, Iowa. Of course, early spring fishing isn't guaranteed and there's a learning curve, but once you find the bite, the fishing can be fantastic. The principle behind the ice-out shad bite is straightforward. In waters containing gizzard shad, thousands can die in a typical winter, especially in waters at the northern edge of their range. While shad can tolerate cold water, as evident in their overwinter survival in ice-capped lakes, mass mortalities can occur just prior to ice up if water rapidly cools several degrees over a short period, hindering the ability of shad to acclimate to colder water. Winters with long periods of ice cover also increase chances for mortality. Threadfin shad, which occur south of the ice-belt, also are intolerant of sudden drops in temperature brought about by strong cold fronts.
Little decomposition occurs during winter. At ice-out, shad carcasses are subject to wind and wave action that drift and concentrate them in shallow bays or along wind-blown shorelines. Channel catfish are opportunistic omnivores and enthusiastically feed on the winterkill after a lean winter under the ice.
A study conducted by Steven Fisher, Stephen Elder, and Elvessa Aragon at Missouri's Pony Express Lake showed that up to 90 percent of their radio-tagged channel catfish were in the same bay on the same day, feeding on the early spring smorgasbord. "There can be amazing concentrations of channel catfish in certain spots on lakes when they're feeding on winterkilled shad," Elder says.
At Coralville Lake in eastern Iowa, the ice-out bite is well appreciated by local anglers. Alberts says it's shoulder-to-shoulder fishing in certain locations during the weeks following ice-out on that flood control reservoir. "There's an old railroad embankment where you'll see a couple dozen fishermen hauling in catfish on a good afternoon," he says. "That area is perfect for the ice-out bite. It's at the upper end of the lake where it's silted in and shallow, so the water warms quickly. A south wind pushes winterkilled fish into that area and concentrates them along shorelines and points. Catfish follow the drifting dead fish, so about all you have to do is cast a chunk of dead shad and you catch them."
Alberts' tackle is as simple as his strategy. "Just a hook about a foot below a slipsinker, held in place by a split shot," he says. "I used to use egg sinkers and had trouble with them rolling in current or with the waves in that shallow water. So I've switched to a flat, teardrop-shaped sinker, called a no-roll, that has a lengthwise hole through it like a regular egg sinker. That shape reduces rolling.
"Smaller pieces of cutbait work better than big chunks. The catfish I catch are in the 2- to 3-pound range during this bite, and a 1/0 to 3/0 baitholder hook with a one-inch square of shad guts or a small dead shad works well."
Lannie Miller is a retired Iowa DNR fisheries biologist who was featured in a previous article in In-Fisherman about the ice-out bite for channel cats at Blackhawk and Storm lakes in Northwest Iowa. I asked him if he's had any changes or innovations to his early spring catfishing outings. "It's so simple and effective that I haven't figured out anything I can do to make it better," he says. "One thing to keep in mind is that people think you have to have a gizzard shad population in a lake, but just about any lake that has a decent population of channel catfish should have some sort of ice-out bite.
"Winter is tough on small fish, so you always have winterkilled bluegills or other sunfish or shiners in just about any body of water. You can use the same strategy on small lakes or farm ponds because channel catfish are channel catfish no matter how big or small the body of water is. If there's abundant food piled up on a windward shore, the cats will be in there feeding."
Miller shops for the optimum spot to fish for ice-out cats. "My favorite situation is to have the wind blowing toward me at an angle, along a shoreline or across a point. I've found a good spot if I see calm, smooth water on the backside of a point. I want to fish where the waves move into that smooth water. It's okay to fish from the back of a bay with the wind blowing straight into it, but it seems to be better if the wind is moving along a shoreline and creating a slight current."
Miller uses prepared cut shad, frozen shad, or dead shad he collects along the shore. "Shad guts are probably best, but anything dead and nasty catches cats that time of year," he says. "I wear latex disposable gloves because once that smell gets into the skin of your hands you can't get it out. On cold days, I wear cheap cloth gloves over the latex gloves to keep my hands warm. The main problem is that your rods and reels get raunchy smelling, so you might want one or two rod-reel combos that are dedicated to this kind of fishing — something you leave out in the garage. It's worth it because it's some of the best and easiest catfishing of the year."
Rollin' on the River
Prophetstown, Illinois, catfishing guideMatt Jones knows well the potential of ice-out catfishing on lakes, but has never found the need to travel farther than his beloved Rock River in northern Illinois to enjoy early season, cold-water cattin'. It's a continuation of a fishing bonanza he experiences all winter long.
"I fish all winter because the river around here is generally open," he says. Jones specializes in finding and fishing for channel catfish clustered in wintering holes. "It can be incredible fishing. I've had days when we've boated 100 channel cats from 1 to 10 pounds. I keep one or two to eat, but return the rest to the river. It's good fishing all winter, but it's unbelievable just before and immediately after what would be ice-out on other waters."
The mouths of tributaries are prime targets, especially if a harsh winter has frozen the main river. "Tributaries warm sooner than the main river, so sometimes you see an area of open water at the mouth of the tributary," he says. "Channel cats concentrate in any hole receiving warmer water coming in from that tributary. On one trip, my brother-in-law and I caught 75 channel cats in an afternoon from an area of open water in the Rock River at the mouth of Elkhorn Creek."
That bonanza reinforced one of Jones' strictest rules for cold-water catfishing success. "Bait placement is absolutely critical," he says. "We were sitting shoulder to shoulder on a big log that stuck out in the river, pointed at an angle downstream just below the mouth of the creek. He was fishing on the upstream side, like you would in the summer, and I was fishing straight down under the tree, in the branches and limbs. Of the 75 fish we caught that afternoon, I caught most, because they were out of the current below us in the tree and not aggressive and I had to put the bait right on their nose. When the water temperature is below 35°F, they won't move to the bait, so the hard part is finding where they are and putting the bait right in front of them."
When fishing from his boat, Jones has learned that wind plays a role when river levels are low and current is mild. "If I'm fishing a hole that drops from 5 to 15 feet at its upper end, and the wind is blowing upstream toward that drop-off, catfish tend to concentrate right below the drop-off. If the wind is blowing downstream, they're toward the tail of the hole, and if the wind is blowing across the hole they're on the windward side. They won't move as individuals toward a bait; they seem to move as a group in response to changes in wind and current."
Jones says the potential for catching cats clustered in wintering holes lasts until water temperatures surpass 40°F. "That seems to be the trigger that starts them moving around, toward shallow feeding flats or up into tributaries where the water is warmer and worms and other food are washed in by runoff. That time of year, it's a bloodworm bite, and it's a small bait bite. I always have bloodworms, nightcrawlers, and shad guts in my boat on those trips. The fish are hungry but they seem to favor small baits. I use a #2 to 2/0 hook, break a nightcrawler into three chunks, or use a small piece of shad gut.
"I don't use circle hooks that time of year because they require the fish to take the bait and then move away to turn the hook and set it in their jaw. But the channel cats I catch on the Rock River in cold water slurp up the bait, then just lie there. They often don't swim away, so instead of circles, I use Matzuo J-hooks on high-visibility line and watch for twitches, or maybe the line stops moving. That's my signal to set the hook."
Both Jones and Alberts agree that the ice-out bite for channel cats favors anglers who fish from shore. "Often they're feeding in only 1 or 2 feet of water," Alberts says. "It can be tough to get a boat into those areas, so anglers on shore who are willing to do a little walking often have the advantage."
Jones says that when rivers are still cluttered with floating chunks of ice, shore anglers have a better "angle" on catfishing. "If you're in a boat, chunks of ice move you around and catch on your lines," he says. "If you're fishing from shore, you can cast and let your line sink below the chunks of ice, and fish in places that you couldn't from a boat."
Whether you dodge ice floes on rivers or face icy winds on lakes, ice-out is prime time for channel cats. Fish shallow and with cut shad or another baitfish that's just a bit "soured" and you can cash in on the hot winterkill bite.
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Contact Guide Matt Jones at 815/590-1469, catfishacademy.com.