Ice-Out Tactics For Early Season Catfish

When the ice breaks in our northern states, catfishing action is never better...

Long underwear, stocking hats and surgical gloves are accessories for some of the best catfishing trips of the year. The first two are for comfort because you'll be fishing immediately after ice-out. The latter is so you'll be allowed in the house with all the catfish you'll be toting.

Brad Durick is holding one of the reasons why he thinks early spring catfishing is the best of the year. Photo courtesy of Brad Durick.

"I've caught catfish as fast as I could reel them in on the same day the ice went out of my local lake," said Lannie Miller, a retired fisheries management biologist. "There were still chunks of ice rattling along the shoreline."

Miller's catfishing success is nearly an annual event in lakes with large populations of gizzard shad, which can die easily in winter. Ice-out frees their carcasses and early spring winds drift them to windward shorelines.

A study conducted several years ago by Steven Fisher, Stephen Elder and Elvessa Aragon indicates the annual ice-out feeding frenzy may concentrate the majority of a lake's catfish population in small areas.

"In our study, all eight of the channel cats we had implanted (at various locations around the lake) with radiotelemetry tags were in the same bay of the lake, on the same day, feeding on dead shad," said Elder. "Statistically, that's about as close to 100 percent of a representative sample as you can get."

While channel catfish in an ice-out feeding frenzy will take nightcrawlers, dip baits and cut baits, the preferred baits are the dead fish that the cats already are feeding on. Some bait shops sell soured shad, but many anglers simply walk the shoreline, collect winter-killed baitfish, and then give the cats what they're used to eating.

And that's where the surgical gloves come in handy. The oils and juices of rancid baitfish defy conventional hand soaps. A box of disposable surgical gloves keeps the gag-inducing odors off your hands. Old clothes are recommended. (At some point, you will absentmindedly wipe your hands on your pant leg.)

"You may have to undress in the garage, but it's worth it when you fry up the first batch of catfish of the year," chuckled Miller.

WHEN RIVERS RUN HIGH

Ice-out also spurs catfish to action in rivers. Many anglers assume catfish activity in the spring is tied to water temperature, but professional catfishing guide Brad Durick (701-739-5808, www.braddurick.com) is confident river level strongly influences catfish behavior.

"For example, a couple of years ago they were going good when water temps were around 52 degrees," said Durick. "The next year they weren't hitting at 58 but turned on at 64. The one thing that was constant when they were hitting was the river level. My research indicates that once the water is above 50 degrees, the level of the river is more important than temperature. My best fishing, anytime of the year, is when the river is 4 or 5 feet below flood stage and steady."

Fishing in near-flood-stage currents favors simple rigging and heavy weights. Durick uses a 5- to 6-ounce no-roll sinker and a piece of surgical tubing or sinker bumper to keep the sinker off a barrel swivel, with a 1- to 2-foot-long leader from the barrel swivel to a 5/0 to 8/0 Gamakatsu circle hook. He positions baits along secondary breaklines that develop when near-flood-level rivers spread onto steps and flats within their main channel.

Durick said there's no reason to hold off for warm weather to start catfishing. The fish won't wait!

"They're aggressive, and really hungry after not eating much all winter," he said. "The high river levels can be intimidating, but once you figure out how to fish the breaklines and deal with the higher water flow, it's the best time to catch big channel catfish. My average during that time of year is 27 to 32 inches, and there are days when we'll catch (and release) a dozen or more in an afternoon.

"Anybody who waits 'til the weather gets warm to go catfishing," declared Durick, "is missing some of the best catfishing of the year."

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