Ice Out Channel Catfish
April 10, 2014
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.
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.
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 11â„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.
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.
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 11â„2 to 21â„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.
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.
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.
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.
Berkley Gulp! Catfish Shad Guts
Sporting random intestinal shapes, realistic bloody colorations, and patented Gulp! fish-attracting scent, these fake guts put an end to scooping the innards out of hapless shad to sucker hungry cats. Just glom a gob around a 1/0 to 4/0 treble or baitholder, secure it on the barbs, and you're set. Available in 1.2-ounce, re-sealable packs. Click Here to View Product!
Berkley PowerBait Catfish Chunks
Studies in simplicity, these cubes are easy to fish. But more importantly, they're formulated by Berkley's scientists to tempt catfish three times faster than standard doughballs. Available in liver, blood, and fish flavors, in 6-ounce packages. Click Here to View Product!
Bowker's Catfish Bait
A staple of diehard catmen for decades, Bowker's dip excels on dip worms, tubes, and sponge strips, which the company also carries. You can also coat natural baits such as shrimp with it for extra flavor. It's available in original, blood-, shrimp-, and shad-added versions, which let you tailor taste to season and conditions. The blood bait, for example, is deadly on dog-days channels, while the shad scent shines in cool water after ice-out. Click Here to View Product!
Catfish Charlie's Dip Bait
An extra-sticky dip, Charlie's molds on and sticks to hooks, tubes, worms and other baitholders with ease. Available in 12- and 36-ounce tubs, in cheese, blood, and shad variations. As with other dip baits, Charlie's shad flavor is particularly productive in cool water. 641/673-7229
Doc's Catfish Bait
On the cat scene since 1927, Doc's knows a thing or two about stinkbait. Which explains why the company offers three temperature-driven dips — an extra-stiff blend for hot weather, an original mix for temps of 70 to 90 degrees, and a cool-weather concoction for temperatures below 70. All are available in 12-ounce, 40-ounce, and gallon-sized containers, in cheese and blood flavors, while liver is an option with the original, in 12-ounce cans only. Click Here to View Product!
Magic Bait Hog Wild Catfish Dip Bait
Cat fans seeking traditional thin, fast-oozing stinkbait will appreciate Hog Wild's ability to quickly infiltrate the water column with cheese, blood, and shad-based aromas. Available in pint-sized jars, it's a natural for tubes, sponges, netting, and similar delivery systems, but also shines for giving dough baits an upgraded coating. Click Here to View Product!
Rippin Lips Leakin' Livers
Pinch one of these all-natural chunks to activate its scent-dispersal system, and it oozes a fine flavor trail for about an hour. Easily skewered on a 1/0 treble or single baitholder, Leakin' Livers are available in original chicken liver, blood, garlic, and fish oil options, all sold in re-sealable, 15-bait packs. Click Here to View Product!
Strike King Catfish Dynamite
Better known for bass baits, Strike King also whips up this dandy kitty dip. Available in 12-ounce tubs, in cheese and blood flavors, it works well with a number of cat baits, including the company's ribbed Dipping Worms. strikeking.com
Team Catfish Secret-7 Dip
Nearly 20 years of tinkering went into the recipe for this sticky, cat-calling dip, which the company purchased from a retired chemist. Rich in fish attractants, the bait bonds with a variety of cat lures, but Team Catfish says it's especially deadly on its Furry THaNG dip holder. Available in 12 to 64-ounce jars and buckets. Click Here to View Product!
Uncle Josh Little Stinker Dip Bait
Famous for pork rinds, Uncle Josh also offers the Little Stinker line of prepared catfish baits, plus rigs for presenting them. Available in blood, chicken, and rotten shad formulations in 16-ounce allotments, the dip is a doozy for delivering a scent trail in flowing water situations, particularly when paired with the company's Sticky Worm. unclejosh.com Click Here to View Product!
The Kermit Factor
The unwary mouse that falls from a vine over a catfish hole has made its last mistake. We sometimes find rodents and snakes, as well as water-dwelling amphibians like frogs and salamanders, in the guts of catfish.
Frogs are locally popular and usually productive baits. They can be hooked through the nose or through one leg. Some anglers cut off the lower legs to make a more compact bait. Dead frogs usually work as well as live ones. As with fish and crayfish, cutting or crushing them allows the attractive amino acids to flow toward the catfish's sensitive olfactory and taste organs. Forget tadpoles, though. They apparently secrete a substance or aroma that's noxious.
The leopard frog is one of the most widely distributed frog species and the one most commonly used for bait. Leopard frogs mate in early spring, leaving clutches of eggs clinging to submerged vegetation in ponds and river backwaters, before moving to adjacent meadows and other grassy areas for the summer. With the exception of occasional visits to lakes and rivers, catfish rarely encounter leopard frogs during summer.
As the days become shorter and air temperatures cool in early fall, leopard frogs begin to congregate and prepare for winter. They gather in staging areas adjacent to water, particularly during periods of cool, rainy weather. One clue that this fall migration is underway is increased numbers of road-killed frogs. Once nighttime temperatures approach the 50ËšF range, frogs begin moving toward lakes and rivers where they'll spend the winter.
Such an abundant food source rarely goes unnoticed, and catfish often cruise shallow flats where leopard frogs make brief forays into the water during the first few hours of darkness. As the water continues to cool, frogs gradually spend more time in the water than on land, providing increasingly better feeding opportunities for prowling cats. Fish continue to consume other live or dead prey when the opportunity arises, but using frogs makes sense when they're so abundant.
Catfish take advantage of any food seasonally available, though there's no denying the appeal of human food like hot dogs. Still, wild-grown baits natural to the system and familiar to the fish, or commercial baits that duplicate them, work best most of the time.
Flathead catfish share with bass an innate love of crayfish. Often just rubbing a cat's belly reveals their lumpy remains. Tail-hook live craws and bottom rig them. But as flatheads grow, they're less likely to take these smaller baits, or maybe they have a harder time beating their 5- to 10-pound kin to the forage.
Crayfish are easy to catch, and the best time to collect them may coincide with the best catfishing. Crayfish usually hold under rocks or other cover during the day, then emerge to consume whatever living or dead prey they can find after dark. Chub creeks and bullhead ponds usually hold good numbers of craws, which are easily located and captured with the aid of a headlamp and long-handled dipnet. Wire minnow traps baited with a piece of dead fish are excellent craw catchers on any water with a decent crayfish population.
For channel cats, craw tails make a fine bait for bottom drifting or float-fishing in summer. When using a whole craw, try crushing the head a bit to release those tasty brain morsels that Cajun crawdad fans can't resist.
Catfish eat clams — freshwater mussels, Asiatic clams, snails of various sorts, even zebra mussels. Blue cats are notorious for foraging on mussel beds. Shake their bellies and you can almost hear the shells rattling. Food habits studies suggest that blue catfish feed on mussels more readily from spring through fall, especially in more southerly reservoirs, with blues turning almost exclusively to shad when they become more lethargic and vulnerable in cold water.
Across North America, white suckers are a can't-fail bait, as this most common species is suitable in size for yearling channel cats and up to 40-pound flatties. Slice 'em and dice 'em for float or bottom rigging for blues and channel cats, or tail-hook a 2-pounder to lure a mother flathead from her lair.
Note the difference, though, between pond-raised bait suckers and wild ones. Cultured baits don't flee, a movement that often triggers a lethal attack from a predator. Seine baits or catch suckers on live worms, instead. We've found that keeping pond-raised suckers in a tank with a big flathead quickly trains the suckers in survival, making them better baits.
Smaller members of the catfish clan — stonecats, madtoms, and bullheads — make excellent baits. Indeed, studies of catfish show these species can be cannibalistic. In some waters where flatheads have been introduced, bullhead populations have plummeted.
Young carp, for example, are gourmet fare for big flatheads, who may follow them onto flooded pastures at night.
The closely related exotic goldfish also makes a fine bait on setlines or rod and reel. Surprisingly, cut carp doesn't rank nearly as high for channel, white, or blue cats. As a caution, be sure to check state regulations on which baits are legal and how they may be obtained. Rules vary.
Wherever gizzard and threadfin shad abound, catfish prey on these aromatic, abundant species. Catfish guides on Santee-Cooper and many other southern reservoirs use cast nets to gather a tank full of livebait to start the day. Skewering several 4-inch threadfins through the eye socket provides a tasty bait for channel cats, blues, and flatheads. Cutting larger gizzard shad in half and rigging them on the bottom also brings action.
In early spring and fall, 3-inch shiners and redtail chubs from bait shops make fine baits for channel cats. These selections follow the general rule: Smaller baits in colder water, big stuff for summer nights.
Sunfish make great baits, remaining lively on the hook and attractive when cut. Toughest and liveliest of all is the green sunfish, a prime flathead bait on line or rod and reel. Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, redears, and the rest of their clan are appetizing, too.
Nightcrawlers remain a great bait for all cats, sometimes unequaled for channel cats. Even the biggest cats can't resist worms. Drift 'em, float 'em, or bottom rig 'em. A ball of about six crawlers on a 3/0 hook is a fine bait for flatheads early in the season. The aroma and wriggling action seem to attract the big cats. In Kansas reservoirs, catmen dabble treble hooks adorned with several juicy crawlers for spawning flatheads, targeting undercuts and rock crevices along riprap walls where cats have holed up.
Catalpa worms are a highly regarded bait in parts of the South, where they're common. These meaty green worms apparently become a focus for many fish species, where they feed on lakeside trees and tumble into the water. Freeze them for future use. The worm's flavor is said to be so irresistible that the essence of catalpa or crushed worms is added to some commercial pastebaits.