June in Iowa — a time when catfish focus on reproduction, and catfish anglers focus on catching as many catfish as possible during what likely is the most misunderstood time of the catfish fishing calendar. Myriad folk tales have been told about how good catfishing is, or isn’t, during the time of year when the popular game fish spawn. The confusion is compounded by differing behaviors between the three largest species of catfish found in Iowa: channel cats, flathead cats and blue cats.
Channel catfish spawn when water temperatures range from 70 to 84 degrees. Like all catfish, channel catfish are “cavity spawners” and lay eggs in holes and crannies, then guard those holes. In lakes, ponds and reservoirs, where dish-bottomed basins offer limited spawning habitat, shorelines with large riprap or submerged rock piles, are easy to identify and are easy-to-fish hotspots for catfish during the spawn. Identifying spawning areas in rivers is more challenging due to the abundance of cavities in endless logjams, but riprapped areas associated with bridges often concentrate spawning channel cats.
Because their focus is on spawning, and feeding is secondary for channel cats during mid- to late-June in Iowa, the traditional catfish catching strategy of anchoring a stinkbait or gob of worms on the bottom isn’t especially effective. What works well is to drift, troll or float that gob of worms, a hookful of minnows or even a rock-bouncing crankbait along riprapped shorelines to trigger reaction strikes from channel cats protecting nests in the rocks.
Flatheads spawn when water temperatures are slightly warmer, in the upper 70s to high 80s, putting them on their spawning beds from late June into early July. Because of their larger size, flatheads seek areas of large riprap, big log jams or cavities eroded beneath bridge abutments, along retaining walls and below low-head dams. Like their cousins, they aren’t especially interested in eating during their spawn, but can be tempted into ferocious reaction strikes as they guard nests.
Blue catfish have limited ranges in Iowa, primarily occupying the Mississippi River south of Muscatine, the extreme lower reaches of the Des Moines River, and in the Missouri River south of Missouri Valley. An experimental population of blue cats was added to Three Mile Lake in southern Iowa a couple years ago; there have been limited reports of 5- to 10- pound blue catfish being caught from that lake, so the jury is still out on that experiment. Blue catfish are notoriously difficult to catch during their spawn. While smaller, sexually immature blue cats continue to feed, sexually active blue cats more than 10 pounds in weight have minimal appetite from mid-June through the second week of July.
With the understanding that June is the peak of the catfish spawn in Iowa; that the spawn can be a good time to fish for channel and flathead catfish (though not so great for blue catfish); and that all species of catfish will be ravenously hungry during post-spawn in July as they replenish their depleted stores of energy … where are the best places to target catfish this summer in Iowa?
Both forks of the Des Moines River hold everything a catfish wants: deep holes, tons of log jams and huge populations of suckers, chubs and crawdads. Pick a logjam anywhere south of Algona on the East Fork of the Des Moines, or Emmetsburg on the river’s West Fork, and you’ll probably catch channel cats up to 10 pounds and flatheads up to 30 pounds.
The same applies to the Big Sioux and Little Sioux rivers in Iowa’s far northwest corner. Both rivers feature channelized portions nearly void of catfish, while those not-yet-straightened sections offer holes, riffles and logjams that make them prime places for channel cats to 10 pounds and flatheads that have weighed in excess of 50 pounds.
Lake-wise, Storm Lake is always a hotspot for channel cats. Anglers consistently catch 2- to 10-pounders from the lake’s rock-lined northern shoreline during the spawn and by drifting its shallow flats during mid-summer.
East Lake Okoboji has for the past decade produced channel catfish weighing up to 20 pounds during annual surveys completed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Faint currents that develop around “The Narrows” near Eleanor Bedell State Park attract channel cats throughout the summer.
Five Island Lake near Emmetsburg is another lake with a strong population of channel cats. Currents related to the railroad bridge and causeway at the southern end of the lake attract catfish and catfish anglers, throughout the summer.
NORTH CENTRAL IOWA
Professional fishing guide Kevan Paul (phone: 641-529-2359 or online at PaulsFishingGuide.com) was surprised in recent summers at the volume of catfish bait and tackle sold from the tackle shop he co-owns near Clear Lake.
“We sold out of all the Sonny’s (commercial catfish bait) we ordered and were surprised at the number of chubs we sold,” Paul said. “I knew there’s a strong population of channel catfish in (Clear Lake) that average between 5 and 10 pounds; I just wasn’t aware of how many people were going after them. The biggest channel cat we weighed at the shop weighed 20 pounds, and I heard of a guy catching a 24-pounder.”
Click the video link above to get great catfishing tips for your future trip.
The upper forks of the Iowa and Cedar rivers mirror other rivers in Iowa, where unchanneled stretches harbor strong populations of channel and flathead catfish. The stretch of the Iowa River near Albion is famed for producing strong catches of channel cats, while the upper Cedar River below Nashua has plenty of twists and turns and logjams to produce strong catches of both channel cats and flatheads.
The Mississippi River and its endless backwaters, sloughs and channels could well be Iowa’s best catfishing opportunity. When asked for specific locations for good catfishing, one local bait-shop owner grinned, shrugged his shoulders and said, “In the water,” implying that there are few places where you can’t catch catfish from the big river.
While serious catfish hunters boat to their remote honey holes, oftentimes saying, “The harder it is to get to, the better the fishing,” plenty of catfish are caught near civilization. Never overlook the catfishing potential of riverside greenbelts, city parks and below navigation dams and dikes.
Also, never overlook the lower reaches of the Upper Iowa, Yellow, Wapsipinicon and other smaller rivers in northeast Iowa. Research by the IDNR indicates large numbers of channel cats move out of the big river each spring to spawn and spend the summer in the smaller rivers’ waters.
Again, the Mississippi River is the elephant in the room when it comes to catfishing in eastern Iowa. Channel cats to 10 pounds are abundant. Flatheads to 40 pounds are common. Find an island with trees piled along its edges, flip stinkbait, cut bait or live bait alongside the tangled wood, and prepare to catch catfish. It’s that simple.
The Cedar River from below the dams in Cedar Rapids downstream to its confluence with the Iowa River near Columbus Junction is nonstop curves, logjams and, therefore, prime channel and flathead fishing water. So is the Iowa River from Coralville Dam north of Iowa City all the way to its mouth at the Mississippi River near Toolesboro.
Coralville Lake itself is a traditional hotspot to drift or slow-troll for channel cats during the dog days of summer. Anglers don’t have to fish at night to catch catfish at Coralville. During the peak of day, drift the flats along the old river channel in 10 to 15 feet of water, using fresh-cut gizzard shad for bait. It’s not unusual for those who’ve learned the nuances to limit-out with 5- to 15-pound channel cats in an afternoon’s fishing.
With so few towns on the water, access is less than good for getting to the tremendous population of channel, flathead and occasional blue catfish in the Mississippi River along Iowa’s southeast flank. However, parks and dams at Burlington, Fort Madison and Keokuk give anglers public access, while those with boats can take their pick of logjams, wing dikes and other structure nearly guaranteed to hold catfish.
Elsewhere in southeast Iowa, the lower Des Moines and Skunk rivers are famous for flatheads. Access is an issue here, too, but the county-owned land beneath the numerous rural bridges on the lower Skunk provide not only limited public access, but inevitably collect catfish-friendly logjams around their abutments. FYI: Sonny’s Catfish Bait, one of the most popular stinkbaits in the Midwest (if not the country), was developed by self-proclaimed river rat Sonny Hootman, while he was fishing in the Des Moines River near Farmington.
Rathbun Reservoir enjoys a reputation as a perennial hotspot for great fishing for channel cats. Several years ago, state fisheries biologist Mark Flammang took his daughter catfishing during the spawn, drifting night crawlers beneath bobbers along the riprap near the Bridgeview Area at Rathbun. “We caught 5-pound channel cats all afternoon, one after the other,” he said. “If you hit it right, it’s incredible fishing (for channel catfish) during the spawn.”
Never overlook the small municipal water reservoirs in south central Iowa. Our 81-pound, state-record flathead was caught in 1958 from little Lake Ellis, near Chariton.
Lake Icaria near Corning has always produced strong catches of catfish, with the large point below Lakeview Campground being a popular place to find channel cats that range to 12 pounds. Another point west of Timber Ridge Campground also produces for catfish anglers.
East of Stanton, Viking Lake is a deep, steep-sided lake with a consistent population of channel cats that average 2 to 5 pounds, but occasionally stretch to 10 pounds. Use weed beds to identify shallow areas along those steep shorelines, then fish the deep-water sides of those shorelines around sunset as cats move toward the shallows to feed.
The Missouri River is another catfishing opportunity where limited public access hampers anglers targeting what can be huge flathead and blue catfish in that river’s fast-flowing waters. The state-record blue cat, a 101-pound leviathan, came from the river south of Council Bluffs. The swift current can approach 9 miles per hour in the main channel during floods and flushes minor logjams away, but remnant log jams offer catfish a respite from that current and are near-sure-things for catfish hunters. Beyond that, anglers who target areas of reduced current behind wingdams and navigation structures find all three species of catfish dining on baitfish hiding in those areas.
Flatheads are fond of holes eroded below the retaining walls along the Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines. They also like the large logjams in the Raccoon River in Walnut Woods Park in West Des Moines. Saylorville and Red Rock reservoirs mirrow the mid-summer, midday catfish potential of Coralville Reservoir.
“There wasn’t any place in Red Rock last year that I didn’t catch catfish,” said Des Moines-based catfishing guide Johnny Coleman (phone: 515-661-1364 or online at FlatsnCats.com). “There are so many channel cats in that lake, if you put out some fresh cut bait, you’re probably going to catch channel cats. The same goes for Saylorville. I’d say the cats at Red Rock average 6 to 7 pounds, while Saylorville’s average 8 to 10 pounds.”
When you put some effort into fishing this summer for Iowa catfish, the question shouldn’t be, “Will I catch catfish from Iowa’s waters?” Rather, you’ll be wondering, “How many catfish will I catch, and how big will they be?”