Ice fishing catfish is one of my favorite things to do through the ice. Not little fiddler catfish but 8- to 20-pound bruisers with muscles and attitudes, power and stamina. They also possess swimming speed when agitated — enough to spool a tip-up if you're slow to the chase.
Channel catfish on ice occur throughout the ice belt in ponds, lakes, and reservoirs. They don't enter a dormant state during winter. Their winter activity levels are comparable to largemouth bass, also a warmwater species. During first ice they're relatively active, becoming less active during midwinter, and then picking back up in late winter.
They congregate as water temperatures drop into the mid-40°F range. This makes locating them a double-edged sword. Once you find them it can be quick action, and they tend to use the same wintering areas each year, cutting down on future reconnaissance time. But concentrated fish leave a lot of area devoid of fish, so locating them requires searching.
In ponds and small lakes and reservoirs, a good starting point for locating catfish is the deepest hole. Channel cats often are tight to the bottom when not feeding, and patrol edges during feeding periods. Like bass, they occasionally come as shallow as a couple feet of water to feed on weedflats. The greatest concentrations of catfish, however, are most often in deep water.
In large natural lakes, I find that channel cats tend not to favor water deeper than about 40 feet and prefer depths in the 15- to 35-foot range. Look for them on breaklines and rolling structure close to large feeding shelves. Soft bottom areas with minimal weedcover and a slightly irregular bottom hold the most fish. Load up a lake map on your GPS, make sure the auger is full of gas, and plan for a day of studying electronics and hopping holes to stay on fish.
To locate cats on big waters, I rely on a good sonar and underwater camera. I use a Marcum Showdown for identifying bottom hugging fish. With no moving parts on the screen, battery life is a full day. Keep searching until deep holes are located and the edge of nearby structure is pinpointed.
Typically, catfish aren't all doing the same thing, at the same time. Using a MarCum 385c color camera, I often see pods of 20 or more fish. A few might be lying on the bottom. Most are 1 to 3 feet off the bottom and the rest are suspended from 3 to 10 feet off the bottom.
The camera not only confirms the fish are catfish, but also reveals their activity level, behavior, and direction of travel. Even when their general wintering areas are discovered, these fish can move several hundred yards over the course of a day. That means drilling plenty of holes and thoroughly covering an area as large as 5 to 6 acres to stay on active fish.
Setting the spread
Study contour maps and identify an area of deep water to fish. Concentrate primarily along the edges of breaklines or in areas you previously located fish. From the center of the area, drill holes out to slightly deeper and shallower water to increase the target zone. The center point of this area is reserved primarily for jigging. Out from there, create a circle or cross pattern with tip-ups. Beyond the tip-ups, set Automatic Fishermans. Focus efforts in the area where fish appear in the spread, and adjust location as fish move. This approach is best done with a group of anglers. For solo fishing, hopscotch among sets of holes with jigging and setlines.
Automatic Fishermans are farthest from the center of the spread and the hook is set instantly by the device. When a catfish takes the bait, the rod snaps and the catfish is hooked. That means catfish don't have a chance to drop the bait before you get to them. On Automatic Fishermans, I run 8-pound-test Sufix Ice Line with a #6 Lazer Sharp L934 3X treble hook baited with a piece of cutbait and a split shot 12 inches above. Top baits include a 1- to 1.5-inch strip of fresh sucker meat or the head portion of a medium golden roach. Channel cats rarely eat baits bigger than a couple inches in size in winter. They also prefer fresh baits, not soured or stinky.
Change baits about every 30 minutes to maintain a scent trail and adjust bait depths until patterns emerge. Outside lines are like watch dogs that signal the arrival of cats into the area. When one rod goes off, it's common to get another hookup from an adjacent set, and a progression of bites often makes its way through the spread. Pre-drill extra holes near setlines and fish these holes with a jigging rod when the bite starts. Three or more big catfish commonly are caught in the span of a couple minutes when a hungry pack moves through.
Set tip-ups around the center of the spread and bait them with a mix of live- and cutbait. Cats can be both bait- and size-selective, so have three or four bait types available and vary the size and type used throughout the day. I typically pack both fatheads and golden roaches in an aerated Frabill bait container to keep them lively, and I also have waxworms, Gulp!, and chicken livers on hand.
One of my favorite tricks is to hook a fathead minnow head on each of two of the tines of a TroKar EWG #4 treble and hook a live fathead through the head on the third tine. This rig has scent, vibration, and is a good visual attractant. The extra-wide hook gap provides enough room for solid sets even when fully baited with minnows.
I also run livebaits such as medium suckers and golden roaches on tip-ups. Livebait may not be a top producer but it often accounts for a few bonus cats. These fish tend to be larger and take a bait more aggressively. I suspend baitfish 2 to 6 feet off the bottom with a Frabill Big Foot Tip-Up. It easily holds 50 yards of 30-pound Sufix Performance Metered Tip-Up line for fishing deep water. Plus, the Big Foot's smooth spindle allows tentative catfish to run with a bait without resistance.
Big catfish are notorious for spitting the hook within the first 10 to 15 seconds of taking a bait, so it's important to get to tip-ups quickly and set the hook immediately. If a fish is missed on the hook-set, quickly rebait. They often return and hit a second time.
There's something special about having my 32-inch Frabill MH Ice Hunter rod bent deep into the handle during a battle with a trophy catfish. Jigging for big cats is similar to jigging for walleyes, except the gear is beefier. Focus on your electronics, especially the bottom 3 feet of water. Once a mark appears, vary jigging techniques until you crack the code and you're rewarded with a thump on the end of the line.
Any baits used on setlines also can be fished on jigging rods. To target active fish, I like a red-glow Custom Jigs and Spins Demon Jigging Spoon baited with several waxworms, redworms, or a minnow head.
Many other spoons, such as the PK Lures FlutterFish, Clam Blade Spoon, Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, and Lindy Viking Spoon also work well. Also try swimming-lures like the Jigging Rapala and Northland Puppet Minnow with a minnow head on the belly treble hook.
Bladebaits such as the Heddon Sonar and Reef Runner Cicada and rattlebaits like the Yo-Zuri Rattl'n Vibe, LiveTarget Golden Shiner, and Sebile Flatt Shad sinking model also can attract and trigger fish. Plain leadhead jigs in the 1/4 to 3/8 ounce sizes tipped with cutbait are effective for working 15- to 40-foot depths.
Use subtle jigging maneuvers with an occasional pop, followed by small shakes of the rod tip and long pauses. When a mark appears on the sonar, stop jigging and allow the fish to find the bait. If it doesn't bite, slowly raise the bait a foot above the mark and pause again. This move often triggers cats. Quick movements of the bait often scare them. A bait held motionless or just barely quivered more often elicits a positive response.
I use low memory, no-stretch line like 12-pound Berkley NanoFil for jigging applications. The no-stretch property makes it easier to detect bites in deep water and allows for better hook-sets. Attach a small swivel to the end of the line, followed by a 30-inch leader of 12-pound-test fluorocarbon and a snap. The fluorocarbon adds stealth. It also aids in landing big fish as they twist and turn under the ice and resist being wrestled through the hole.
Given their vulnerability to overfishing when in wintering groups, practice selective harvest for icy catfish. Harvesting selectively helps sustain population quality and provides for a fine meal at the end of the day.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Des Plaines, Illinois, is an avid multispecies angler on ice and open water.