January 22, 2024
Chances are channel catfish aren’t the first species that comes to mind when you’re planning an ice-fishing adventure. It’s understandable, given the relative obscurity in which these whiskered wonders dwell in the wintertime scene. But on lakes where abundant channel cats bite regularly beneath the ice, the opportunities for fine fishing for hard-fighting, great-tasting cats are well worth exploring.
To speed your search for catfish nirvana, we’ve enlisted the aid of two leading winter catfishing experts: In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan and veteran cat guide Matt Johnson. Together, they offer a wealth of foundational information plus insider observations on the latest strategies to help you catch more cats and have more fun.
Where The Action Is
Before we delve into locational and presentational intricacies, all the tactical expertise in the world isn’t worth a hoot on lakes where catfish don’t bite. “It’s really lake-specific on how active the fish are during the winter,” Ryan says. “Year after year, catfish consistently remain more active throughout the winter in some systems than others.”
Why this happens remains a mystery. “It doesn’t seem related to fish abundance,” he notes. “Plenty of lakes with plenty of catfish offer lackluster winter fishing, as the fish remain largely inactive during winter.” Likewise, theories on oxygenation, current, forage base, water clarity, and other conditions have yet to hold water. “Dialing in lakes with good fishing is more trial and error,” he says, noting that advance research such as monitoring fishing reports and talking to local biologists, guides, and baitshops can help find hot bites. “So can anglers posting social media pics of catfish from a given lake,” he says. “It’s old-school but still a good indicator. And a lot faster than trying out a bunch of lakes, hoping catfish are active in one of them.”
Johnson started targeting channel catfish through the ice in 1999 while in high school and began guiding in 2002. He mainly targets them on the Horseshoe Chain of Lakes in Richmond/Cold Spring, Minnesota. “I’ve caught them in other lakes, but the Chain is where I spend most of my time,” he says. When asked about his favorite fishing locations (structure, cover, depth, current, etc.) and times of day or winter for fishing them, he replies, “This is an open-ended question for sure, as channel catfish roam just about everywhere. I’ve caught them as shallow as 5 feet and as deep as 50. Generally speaking though, they prefer to relate to current (where available) or steep edges of basins. They may not sit directly in the current but breaklines or basins just out from current areas are common spots.
“Channel catfish always follow the food,” he continues. “They love all kinds of baitfish, bluegills, you name it, so it’s not uncommon to find them making moves like any other predator. Most cats relate to the basin in winter, but understand that the basin in a particular area could be 15 feet deep or it could be 45 feet.”
Channels tend to frequent different areas in winter than during the open-water period, Johnson notes. “During the open-water period I find them shallower on a more consistent basis, where during the winter months they relate to deeper water, or more-distinct edges,” he explains. “They also roam in schools more during the winter and can be more lethargic, while open-water channel catfish spread out throughout the entire system and you catch them on everything from topwater lures to deep crankbaits—they are apex feeders at times.”
Johnson cautions would-be cat catchers that icewater channels are challenging adversaries. “Channel catfish in the winter will test just about everyone,” he says. “They can be the most finicky species that swims one day, and then absolutely devours everything in their path the next day. I’ve seen them suspend 20 feet off bottom in 40 feet of water, and I’ve also seen them rub their bellies on bottom to the point where your hands are covered in mud when you handle them.
“Winter channel catfish are in a league of their own, often defying all sorts of ‘typical’ catfish behaviors,” he continues. “They don’t always school by size—at least that hasn’t been my finding. They can certainly make migration movements during the winter, namely shallower movements at late ice just like most other species. I believe they are chasing baitfish and sometimes even looking for specific bottom content, like mud or something soft.”
Johnson has experienced behavioral differences between large-lake cats and pond fish, or reservoir vs. natural lakes. “Pond catfish hold in the basin, as there is usually an absence of current and offers the deepest water available, which generally isn’t too deep to begin with. Winter catfish in lakes relate to deeper basins and edges as well, and if current is present, they won’t be too far away—usually just off the first break or basin area away from any sort of current. Electronics have allowed us to find these schools of catfish easier than ever, so even in larger lakes and reservoirs we can find these fish ‘relatively’ easily.”
As is the case in so many other areas of fishing, forward-facing sonar has become a factor on the catfish front—and both Johnson and Ryan factor it into their strategies.
“I used to cut a pile of holes and burn a lot of calories but now lean on more calculated movements and watching my electronics,” Johnson says. “Forward-facing sonar changed the game for winter catfish. I still spend a lot of time studying lake maps though, and oftentimes look for new spots to target these fish. Angling pressure is at an all-time high, and the massive schools are being broken up, so I’ve had to get more creative to stay on the fish. I’ve also learned that they will relocate into spots where I never would have guessed—shallower flats, in the weeds, back bays—I meant it when I said ‘they roam just about everywhere’ at times.
“As far as forward-facing [live-imaging] sonar goes, I use it strictly as a fish-locating tool, not to actively catch fish,” Johnson continues. “I’m looking for schools of fish, or sometimes even smaller groups. You won’t always see huge schools, but you almost always see more than one fish in a group though. Sometimes these groups aren’t catfish, as they can also be carp, suckers, or walleyes. It’s definitely not uncommon to catch a handful of walleyes while targeting wintertime catfish. The marks on your forward-facing sonar are certainly more distinct for catfish than let’s say crappies or panfish, so it’s obvious they are a larger species. It’s a small learning curve, but you quickly realize what you’re looking for.
“Once I feel like I’m ‘in the zone’ for a potential catfish spot (by locating schools or small groups), I then put the forward-facing sonar away, grab my Vexilar, and go to battle,” Johnson adds. “I punch holes in and around the areas I located the fish—sometimes on them and off both directions down the breakline—then work each hole, sometimes more than once, to determine if catfish slide back in and investigate. They usually don’t go far, but they generally move away from the hole you just punched, as they don’t like the noise. Oftentimes they slide back through though.”
Johnson is adamant about shutting down forward-facing sonar when it’s time to fish. “Once we locate fish we put the forward-facing sonar away, as I truly believe catfish can ‘feel’ that sonar below the water and may shy away from it. I also know that they don’t like a lot of noise, so chasing them around with sonar and ripping holes over the top of them is a no-no. It’s better to locate fish, punch your holes, then grab your Vexilar and go back through and fish the holes that you punch, giving each hole a few minutes to see if a fish comes in and investigates.”
Ryan also incorporates forward-facing sonar into his tactics. “It’s the number-one thing I’m doing differently in the last couple of years and has totally changed how I target channel catfish,” he says. “My traditional program entailed setting up on the edge of a deep basin often sweetened by incoming feeder creeks, major bends, or funnels along the break, then sitting and waiting, hoping I had the right presentation when a fish showed up.
“I still focus on the same types of locations, but use forward-facing sonar to scout for catfish and watch for fish moving into the fishing area,” he continues. “This allows anglers to adjust the locations of their lines, such as spreading out or tightening a spread, as well as raise or lower baits in the water column as needed. On very slow days, we do more scouting with sonar, often exploring areas we’d normally fish.”
Where legal, Ryan also adds another new twist to the game—chumming. “This isn’t like saltwater fishing, where you throw out handfuls of bait and fish immediately show up,” he cautions. “It’s a much slower and more subtle process.” Yet still undeniably deadly. Ryan offers an example for a group of anglers fishing multiple lines—again, as legal. “We may have a wide spread of lines spaced out over 100 yards, with three anglers fishing them,” he begins. “But in the middle of the spread, or at key locations within it, we have 4 or 5 holes within 60 feet of each other. At the heart of that cluster will be three holes within 30 feet of one another, which is the epicenter of the chumming.”
Ryan starts by dropping 6 to 10 pieces of chum down the closely spaced holes. After 15 minutes, he deploys a “slightly smaller dose.” He favors finely cut chunks of baitfish such as finely cut shiners or shad, but notes, “Pieces of shrimp, liver, anything that has scent also work.” While most of the group’s anglers tend lines, one member of the party is designated to scan the area with forward-facing sonar to watch for incoming cats. Chumming efforts and hole placement can be tweaked according to fish movements. Meanwhile, stationary anglers use down-viewing sonar to watch for fish and note their depth, which is more critical when chumming than with other methods of traditional winter catfish fishing, Ryan says. “With other systems, catfish tend to be within 6 inches to 4 feet off bottom. But when chumming, it’s not uncommon to have them come up within 4 feet of the ice in 30 feet of water,” he explains.
“The key with chumming is not to chum too much to begin with; overkill brings in other species that can be a nuisance,” he warns. “Better to chum gradually, watch your forward-facing sonar for fishing moving in, and go from there.” When catfish infiltrate the fishing area, the group may spread out the chum to call fish from a wide area. Conversely, if no cats come in within the first 20 to 25 minutes, chumming ceases and shortly thereafter, Ryan pulls the plug on the location.
Johnson leans toward presentations geared to small walleyes or large panfish. “Many anglers think they need large spoons and big baits, but that’s not the case,” he explains. “Actively feeding catfish are still finicky when closing the deal and taking the bait. I favor flutterspoons like a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Clam Pro Tackle Ribbon Leech Flutter Spoon or 1/8-ounce standard Leech Flutter Spoon.” Tipping takes a chandelier tack, with each treble tine adorned with a minnow head. “They like that,” he says. “I also tie my own fluorocarbon droppers with a single hook or Clam Pro Tackle Drop XXL jig tipped with a crappie minnow or back half of a minnow.”
Johnson recommends ice rods with sensitive tips and strong backbones. He relies on 32- and 36-inch Clam Dead Meat rods, matched with a Shimano Vanford 1000 series or Clam Tatsumi or Misago reel. Spooled with 5- to 6-pound mono, such combos easily tame even supersize channel cats (Johnson and clients have iced tanks topping 18 pounds on them).
Johnson’s jig strokes match the phase of the chase. “You can certainly fish aggressively to draw in fish,” he says. “Catfish are curious and often come in to investigate different things, so aggressive jigging strokes can draw fish in. But then you have to slow way down to actually entice the bite and let them eat. It’s a weird sequence and usually a complete 180 is necessary to seal the deal. Draw them in, then almost do nothing or slowly work the bait away from them to get them to bite. When a catfish takes the bait, he quickly sets the hook. “They spit the bait the second they don’t want it,” he says. “However, I wait for the rod tip to load a little, as sometimes they mouth or even rub up against the bait before taking it. I also use a lot of setlines, especially tip-downs like the Sullivan Tip-Down to position additional rods for clients.”
When chumming deeper water, Ryan prefers a heavier spoon in the 1/8- to 3/8-ounce range, tipped with “some form of bait that has strong scent, like the head of a fathead or shiner,” presented on top of the fish at right depth. “I’m not jigging too aggressively, just giving it a sense of movement and dispersing scent with a light shake or quiver, then holding it and waiting for a bite. If they don’t bite, a slow, gradual rise and jiggle often seals the deal,” he adds. Ryan has written extensively on winter catfish for In-Fisherman; find more of his lure and rigging specifics at in-fisherman.com.
One of the other new twists to Ryan’s catfish game—not found online—is targeting fish related to woody cover. Depths range from 4 feet of water along shorelines out to 30 feet, but he says, “Most active fish are in 15 feet or less—though it can vary from lake to lake.” The best cover is in a horizontal orientation rather than vertical, which allows catfish to lurk beneath flatlined trunks and limbs. Jigging with stout tackle next to such wood is a solid option, as is setting up an Automatic Fisherman, which instantly sets the hook when a catfish takes the bait. Ryan runs 12-pound fluorocarbon mainline with half a cut shiner riding 2 to 3 inches off bottom on a large single hook. “A tight drag setting makes it hard for catfish to move back under cover,” he says. If it does, the abrasion-resistant fluoro is a godsend. So is the single hook, which tends to lodge inside the fish’s mouth—with no wayward treble tines dangling outside the mouth, ready to snag timber at the first opportunity.
Field Editor Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications and marketing manager for LVC Companies. Guide contact: Matt Johnson, mattjohnsonoutdoors.com, 612/385-3379.