January 25, 2024
Ice anglers tend to focus on panfish, walleyes, perch, lake trout and pike throughout much of the Ice Belt, leaving numerous overlooked species, which I’ve written about in the past—fish including eelpout, tullibees, whitefish, white bass, and both largemouth/smallmouth bass.
That said, you might want to seek out less-pursued species for lots of fun when you’re done putting together a Zip-Lok of panfish or walleye fillets for the table.
For many of us, the tug is indeed the drug. And when it comes to the tug, it’s dang hard to beat the Olympian sprints, longer, drag-peeling runs, twists, and turns of channel catfish on ice fishing gear.
For most of us, when someone mentions channel cats, images of sliding down muddy riverbanks or slathering stinkbait on stout hooks come to mind. Now, what sticks in my memory is the hilarity of trying to squeeze a pot-bellied fish through an 8-inch hole. Paraphrasing Roy Scheider’s character in the movie JAWS: “We’re gonna need a bigger auger!” Honestly, if you have access to it, you might just want to substitute a 10-inch auger bit over the 8-incher for cats on hardwater.
Over the years, I’ve fished channels a bit through the ice—and it’s been a hoot. Didn’t know jack about how to do it 15 years ago but I was quickly brought up to speed by some buddies.
What did I learn? First, it’s not rocket science. The biggest thing? Find a body of water with both numbers and quality cats to pursue. The rest is fairly easy, making it a great opportunity for fishing with kids and newbies to the sport.
As far as finding catfish on ice, they can be anywhere, from near river inlets, deep holes, turns, and submerged structure—even roaming flats. With today’s forward-facing sonar, (which I have not personally utilized for locating channel cats), anglers tell me that you can find them quite easily. And contrary to what you may think, schools of channel cats are often higher up in the water column than where you might associate the “bottom-dwelling fish.”
So, technology can help. However, a simple flasher works (as it has for decades)—but the one piece of gear I do recommend is some kind of underwater camera to help you discern species, and then help you set the hook when catfish are investigating your bait. I’ve used various Aqua-Vu camera for ice fishing since my very first outing years ago and they help a lot.
A fun way to catch channels in winter is to use deadstick/auto-setter devices that utilize a rod-in-holder and actually allows you to fight the fish versus hand-over-hand tip-up fishing. If using the auto-setting feature on a device, just make sure that’s legal in your state first—otherwise you’ll have to set the hook with a sweep of the ice rod—ultimately, no big deal and part of the fun.
Products like iFish Pros, Jaw Jackers, the Automatic Fisherman, Finicky Foolers, and even simple rod-holders—or a rod placed on top of a 5-gallon bucket with the drag loosened will all work. New bait-runner reels are also a great option which allow two drag settings—one to let the fish inhale the bait and peel line; the other, a flip of the switch to change back to your primary drag setting and set the hook and fight the fish.
As far as deadstick rigs, all you need is a 1/8-ounce jighead or treble hooks and some split-shot sinkers.
Standard rail and insulated, disc-shaped tip-ups are also effective rigged the same way.
If you prefer jigging rod-in-hand tactics, top presentations include jigheads, as well as spoons. I’ve had good luck with both the Custom Jigs & Spins Pro Series Slender Spoon and Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon in 1/4-ounce. As far as the latter, I’m curious to see if their new 2024 line of Super-Glo makes any difference to largely visual deficient channel cats.
If fishing inside a portable or hard-sided shack, a good line to use on a 2000- to 2500-size spinning reel is 8- to 10-pound braid to a 10- to 12-pound fluorocarbon leader. If fishing in subzero conditions outside, since braid ices up easily, 8- to 10-pound mono, co-polymer, or fluoro will all work.
As far as rods, 32- to 38-inch medium-heavy power sticks work well.
Stinkbait and Cut-Bait
This begs the question of using stinkbait on hardwater. But science and experience indicates that it doesn’t work as well in winter as the warm-water seasons. However, scent can play a factor, and it’s not a bad idea to spray your bait with PowerBait or any number of scents available today like Rippin’ Lips Scent Trail, a potent brew of omega-3 rich natural fish oils, blood and amino acids that has proven its merit on the open-water catfish tournament trail.
The deal is really cut-bait, strips of sucker, golden shiners, or large fatheads. Wisconsin-based guide Eric Haataja has also had success in his region using sections of frozen shrimp on his spoons.
“Some days the cats go absolutely bonkers for it,” said Haataja.
Catfish have an incredible sense of smell—which I’ve observed on my Aqua-Vu camera—and it’s common procedure for cats to rub taste buds—located all over of their bodies and barbels—on the bait before they commit to eating your bait.
Want a super fun day on the ice? Chase channel cats through the ice. They are a largely untapped species across the Ice Belt and provide great fight potential. Not only that, the smaller to midsize fish offer excellent table fare, cubed and deep fried with some Cajun seasoning—or used as protein in gumbo. To prepare, throw the cubed meat in a Zip-Lok bag with a can of cheap beer some lemon or citrus slices—or milk/buttermilk—the latter used by anglers for decades—and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator. You will be surprised with the results.