20 Things You Should Know About Iowa Catfish

In catfishing, tales of monster whiskerfish hooked, caught and sometimes lost are as much a part of the curriculum as the inside scoop on what bait to use.Consider this your course review. (August 2009)

Size doesn't always indicate age in flathead catfish. IDNR biologist Greg Gelwicks says forage availability or genetics may have as much to do with size as age does. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Indeed, some catfish stories are akin to an evening spent fishing from a sandbar. Sit back, relax and watch the river -- or the story -- unfold in a leisurely, linear fashion.

Others -- the following notwithstanding -- are more comparable to "hole-hopping," where an angler moves from hole to hole in a river, probing for active catfish fish for no more than 15, maybe 20 minutes before moving to the next cutbank, logjam or rockpile. Perhaps it's true that no two holes are alike, but each has its own value to the angler.

Herein, we'll stick with the hole-hopping strategy for a compendium of Iowa whiskerfish wisdom, focusing on tips, tricks and tales from Iowa's fisheries biologists and some of the state's best catfishermen. We'll encounter state-record blue and flathead catfish, cutting-edge scientific research and unusual baiting strategies only catfishermen would consider.

So, in no particular order, here are 20 educational or entertaining items related to catfishing in Iowa:

1. The state-record blue catfish -- a 101-pound, 53-inch behemoth -- was caught in 2004 from the Missouri River south of Council Bluffs by Mike Rush of Bellevue, Neb. He is confident there are larger fish in that river. "I've seen 9/0 hooks straightened out like they were made of baling wire," he said. "After landing that 100-pounder, I'm convinced there are 120-pounders out there. The trick is going to be figuring out tackle that will handle and land one that big."

2. There are no blue catfish in Iowa's interior rivers. "There are blue cats in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers on our borders and maybe for a few miles up the mouths of tributaries, but there has never been a verified sighting of a blue cat very far inland in one of our interior rivers," said Marion Conover, the recently retired chief of fisheries for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "Guys catch a catfish that's so black that it has an almost bluish tint to it, and think they've caught a blue catfish. What they've got is a male channel cat in spawning colors. Our IDNR employees have sampled thousands and thousands of catfish from rivers all across the state and never seen a blue cat from an interior river."

3. The state record for flathead catfish has been unofficially broken several times. An 81-pound, 52-inch flathead caught from Lake Ellis near Chariton by Joe Baze back in 1958 still stands as the official state record, though several anglers have unofficially topped that standard. In the late 1990s, an angler in Des Moines reportedly hauled into a local bait shop a flathead that tipped the scales at more than 90 pounds before he raced to release it back into the river. He never gave the surprised bait shop owner his name, didn't want any recognition and would only say he caught the fish from the Des Moines River, "above the 6th Avenue bridge."

More recently, Mike Kemble of Panora reportedly boated, weighed and released a flathead from the Missouri River that weighed 92 pounds. Kemble has a long and verified history of landing blue and flathead catfish from the Missouri River that frequently top 60 pounds, so the potential state record surprised neither him nor the friends who were with him. "I weighed it on a scale I use to set my deer-hunting bow that I know is within a couple pounds of being perfectly accurate," said Kemble. "Even if my scale is off a little, that fish was still 10 pounds heavier than the state record. We were way up the river, and I didn't want to stress the fish by hauling it to town and then finding a legal scale. I know I caught a big fish -- that's enough for me."

4. Flathead catfish are predictable as individuals, but unpredictable as a species. Greg Gelwicks, a research biologist with the IDNR, has been tracking radio-tagged flatheads during a multi-year study in several Iowa rivers. "If other factors (water quality, river levels, etc.) remain the same, individual flatheads seem to do the same thing every year, as far as movement," said Gelwicks. "But it seems like no two flatheads behave the same. Some are wanderers that move 80 miles a year, every year, while other fish might not move a mile up- or downstream during that same time.

"Each flathead seems to have its own pattern of movement," said Gelwicks. "What's odd is that during his summer travels, the 80-mile fish may swim past the one-mile fish, first going upstream during the spring and later in the year as he migrates downstream back to his traditional wintering hole. At the other extreme, we've got a couple flatheads that are such homebodies, always in the same exact spot in the same exact logjam, that we started to think they were dead. It wasn't until we went out at night and caught them roaming around after dark that we knew they were still alive."

5. Size doesn't indicate age in flathead catfish. Gelwicks used growth rings in the bones of flatheads to determine age. "We found 12-inch flatheads that were 8 years old and 30-pounders that were only 10 years old," Gelwicks said. "It may be related to the availability of food; it may be related to genetics. It's something we hope to understand as we do more research."

6. Iowa's current state-record channel catfish came from the Missouri River in 2005 and was caught by Dustin Curtis of Bellevue, Neb. The 38-pound, 40-inch trophy bested a 36-pounder caught from the Middle Raccoon River back in 1993.

7. Channel catfish have been described as "swimming taste buds." Channel cats can have more than 175,000 taste buds on the surface of their bodies, according to research conducted by Louisiana State University biologist John Caprio. Caprio's studies indicate the highest concentrations of taste buds are in the gills, where they have up to 50 taste buds per square millimeter.

The "whiskers" (barbells) have up to 25 taste buds per square millimeter. Their skin, from head to tail, has up to 5 taste buds per square millimeter. The result? Research shows that channel catfish can detect certain amino acids at concentrations of one part per 100 million. That's the equivalent of a human tasting an ounce of steak sauce mixed into enough water to fill 100,000 railroad cars.

8. Channel catfish are omnivores, meaning they will eat nearly anything they can get into their mouths. The list of baits anglers have used to catch channel cats includes night crawlers, chicken, turkey or beef livers, beef spleen, leopard frogs, grasshoppers, garlic cheeseballs, bubblegum, mulberries, wild grapes, minnows, hot dogs,

crawdads and Ivory-brand soap.

9. Dave McClure of Cedar Rapids favors hot dogs as channel catfish bait. "At a family outing at a farm pond we were having trouble catching anything but bullheads on night crawlers," he said. "I remembered reading somewhere that channel catfish will bite hot dogs, so I put on a chunk and almost immediately caught a nice channel cat without being bothered by bullheads. We switched to using hot dogs and caught a dozen or more nice channel cats in a hour or less."

10. Nobody knows why channel catfish will bite chunks of Ivory soap, but they do. Vern Kalkbrenner of Waterloo had difficulty molding the bar soap onto his hooks. Notorious for experimenting with catfish baits, Kalkbrenner tried to warm chunks of soap in the microwave. "I can't really recommend doing that," he said. "Ivory soap does weird things in a microwave. It expands and packs the entire compartment full of weird spongy white stuff. My wife wasn't real happy about that experiment, but at least it didn't stink up the house like some of my other catfish bait experiments."

11. Catfish baits rarely benefit from exposure to microwave ovens. Lannie Miller, an IDNR fisheries biologist and a fan of using shad guts as bait when fishing for ice-out channel catfish, warns that thawing frozen shad guts in a microwave oven is potentially dangerous. "For whatever reason, shad guts go directly from a frozen solid to a liquid mush, without any intermediate stage," reports Miller. "I can assure you that they don't lose any of their odor during the time they're frozen. It's all right there, full-force, when they make that transformation from solid to liquid. It's a very nasty, persistent odor that's easily absorbed by many surfaces in the average kitchen and really tough to get rid of.

"The dangerous part," said Miller, "is when your wife comes home and finds out what you've done."

12. Dip baits are great channel catfish baits, but keeping them on the hook can be a challenge. Adding cooking flour, cornmeal or other additives to dip baits can improve retention. Home testing avoids time wasted experimenting on the riverbank. "I came up with the Kalkbrenner Test for dip baits," said Waterloo's Kalkbrenner. "I take batches of dip bait, mix in some oatmeal or corn meal or whatever I'm experimenting with, then load up a rubber dip worm and hold it in the toilet while I flush it. Any bait that stays on through four flushes is pretty sticky and good enough for me to take to the river."

13. Iowa is home to more commercial catfish bait manufacturers than any other state. Catfish Charlie, Sonny's, Cat Tracker Bait Co. and Doc's Catfish Bait Co. are just a few Iowa-based bait makers. Each company guards its secret recipe, but most will concede that cheese is a base ingredient. At Catfish Charlie's manufacturing plant south of Oskaloosa (on a dead-end road, far from any neighbors), co-owner Buddy Holub stores hundreds of sealed 55-gallon drums filled with scrap or reject cheese on a concrete slab outside their plant. Cheese ages in those unshaded barrels for three Iowa summers before it is mixed into catfish bait.

"You know you've been making catfish bait too long when you open one of those barrels and think, Hmmm, this doesn't smell all that bad," laughed Eileen Holub, Buddy's wife and co-owner.

14. Anglers are welcome to guess at the ingredients behind successful catfish baits. "I tell folks to taste it, tell me what they think is in it, and I'll tell them whether they're right or wrong," promised Catfish Charlie's Buddy Holub.

15. Good catfish bait doesn't have to stink. Holub has experimented with a wide range of catfish-catching concoctions and said some of them actually smelled good. "We marketed a grape-flavored bait for a while," he said. "I had real good luck with it when I fished for channel cats. Old catfishermen know that cats will lie under wild grape vines and grab any grapes that fall into the water. At certain times of year when the wild grapes were ripe, it was a dynamite bait, but it never caught on commercially. Maybe it didn't stink enough for catfishermen to believe it would work."

16. Mulberries are great channel catfish baits for a brief period each summer. Veteran catfishermen scout rivers, lakes or ponds to find where a fruiting mulberry tree overhangs the water. They pick mulberries and thread them onto a long-shanked hook. Then they pull on a branch or use an oar to shake the tree to drop mulberries into the water, and toss their unweighted, fruit-baited hook among the slowly sinking mulberries to catch channel cats waiting beneath the tree.

17. Flathead catfish favor a variety of live baits. The late Ted Hirtes was a fishing guide on the Missouri River near Council Bluffs who regularly caught flatheads up to 60 pounds from the river. "Green sunfish are really good, and bluegills aren't bad," he once said. "I'll use chubs, suckers and bullheads, as long as they're a pound or larger. Carp are good, too, 'cause they're so tough and stay alive longer on the hook. Big flatheads won't mess with dead or sluggish bait. You need fresh, active live bait to catch the big boys."

18. Size matters when targeting the biggest catfish. Ryan Wassink of Hull caught a 79-pound blue catfish from the Big Sioux River on Iowa's far northwest border using an 18-inch white sucker for bait. "The sucker was so big I couldn't actually cast it," he recalled. "I had to sort of sling it out there by hand." Wassink and his brother, Vaughn, have experimented with other mega-baits for blue and especially flathead catfish. Because of availability and durability, they've settled on bullheads as their primary bait.

"There's no such thing as a bullhead that's too big for flathead bait," said Ryan. "I've seen a little 8-pound flathead inhale a 12-inch bullhead without even trying hard. A 50- or 60-pounder could probably swallow a 5-pound carp without blinking, so I'm never worried about using a bait that's too big."

19. Time and location are the keys to catching flatheads. The Wassinks have perfected a run-and-gun strategy on rivers in northwest Iowa that favors daytime fishing trips. "Flatheads roam around and can be hard to find at night, but in the day they're tight in log piles and the deepest holes," said Ryan Wassink. "If I fish in the day, I know exactly where to look for them. The trick is to get your bait to them and then to annoy them into biting when they're buried in a logjam and not really in feeding mode."

The Wassinks use 7-foot-long medium-heavy action Abu Garcia fishing rods bearing Abu Garcia Ambassadeur C3 baitcasting reels spooled with 40-pound-test Berkley high-visibility Solar monofilament line. They flip baits deep within tangled logjams. The trick to pulling flatheads from their daytime lair is patience.

"Once you get a bite, set the hook and then just hold on," said Ryan. "Don't reel, don't try to horse them out of that brush. Just keep a steady pressure on them. Nine times out of 10, they'll come out just to the edge of the log pile on their own, and then you've got them in the open and can work with them."

20. Finally, a baiting tip applicable to any species of catfish: Research by fisheries biologists has proven catfish are sensiti

ve to subtle electrical signals in the water. Special cells on their whiskers, and possibly along their bodies, pick up microscopic electrical signals emitted by the muscle movement of other fish. Some studies indicate catfish may be able to not only locate other fish in murky water through those electrical impulses, but identify size and possibly species simply by "reading" their electronic signature.

Greg Gelwicks, an IDNR biologist studying radio-tagged flatheads, said he's noticed that in a large logjam that's home to several flatheads, the largest flathead usually claims the "best" spot, with lesser flatheads taking positions elsewhere in the logjam. If the big cat leaves or is removed, within a relatively short time another flathead moves into the prime location.

"Even if the water is really murky and they're yards away from each other, they seem to be aware of each other," said Gelwicks. Some researchers have compared the ability of catfish to sense electrical impulses in water to the way humans, immersed in air, hear sounds and use that information to pinpoint the distance, position and possibly the identity of the source of a sound.

Researchers surmise that subtle electrical signals emitted by the movements of live night crawlers, minnows, chubs and other live bait may be the reason that fresh, wriggling baits attract channel, blue and especially flathead catfish better than dead or sluggish baits.

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