The Iowa DNR says the catfish are biting “in every stream of any size, all lakes and many Iowa farm ponds.” Don’t overlook these top spots for Iowa catfish angling action.
By Dan Anderson
The average size of channel catfish in many lakes is increasing. Traditional channel catfish hotspots are getting hotter, new venues for catfish are being discovered and there are without a doubt flathead catfish lurking in waters around Iowa that could easily break the state record for that species that has stood for nearly 60 years.
Now for the details of where, when and how to participate in Iowa’s catfishing bonanza.
The overview of catfishing across Iowa is somewhat misleading until analyzed. DNR surveys in some lakes have indicated reduced catfish growth due to overpopulation.
Some reports suggest the overpopulations are related to reduced harvest due to a decrease in angler interest in catfishing. Other reports indicate stocking rates were too high over the past few decades.
And there is circumstantial evidence that catfish anglers, especially trophy catfish anglers, are practicing catch and release for catfish over 5 to 10 pounds rather than taking them home.
Whatever the cause of catfish overpopulation in a few lakes, the DNR has reduced stocking rates in those lakes to improve growth rates.
“There are still plenty of channel catfish in all our lakes,” said Ben Wallace, DNR fisheries management biologist. “We’re just trying to optimize their growth and size for anglers.”
The sheer number of catfish available from Iowa’s waters is enough to draw the attention of catfish enthusiasts in neighboring states. Johnny Coleman, a Des Moines-based professional catfishing guide and catfish tournament-winning angler, said he’s had clients from Nebraska travel to central Iowa specifically to catch catfish.
“A father and son from Belleview made two trips last year to fish with me on Red Rock (Lake),” said Coleman. “People are realizing you can go to Red Rock or Saylorville and catch 20 or more channel cats in a day that average bigger than the biggest bass or walleye they’ve ever caught in their life.
“Red Rock, Saylorville, Coralville, Rathbun — they all have tons of catfish. I’ve had days when we put 50 catfish in the boat at Red Rock. Storm Lake, Clear Lake, Rock Creek Lake — all those smaller lakes have great populations of catfish, too. River-wise, the Des Moines is a catfish factory. So is the Raccoon, and folks I talk to say the same thing about the Iowa River, the Cedar River and all the other rivers around the state.”
Where to Go
The Big and Little Sioux rivers have for years been renowned catfish rivers in the northwest corner of the state. The dam at Linn Grove, and other dams on those rivers, are traditional focal points for shore anglers and excellent put-ins for anglers who fish from kayaks or canoes.
East Lake Okoboji, at the Iowa Great Lakes, has recently popped up on the radars of Iowa’s tournament catfish anglers.
“Doing spring gill netting surveys, we’ve handled some incredible catfish the past few years,” said DNR fisheries management biologist Mike Hawkins. “We’ve done low-intensity stocking of channel catfish in East Lake Okoboji for quite a few years. There’s not a lot of fishing pressure for catfish up here, so those channel cats have done pretty well. We net a lot of 13- to 15-pound channel cats. The largest I’ve heard of weighed 27 pounds.”
Since tournament catfish anglers treasure poundage, it didn’t take long for those numbers to attract the attention of tournament organizers and put East Okoboji on their schedule.
“At a tournament on East Okoboji last year, the weather was lousy but one team weighed 111 pounds from six catfish,” said Coleman. “Every cat my partner and I caught was over 10 pounds. There may not be huge numbers in there, but the ones that are in there are big.”
Catfish specialists are beginning to figure out how to target East Okoboji’s previously overlooked big channel cats. Thus far, shoreline habitat south of The Narrows has proven most productive, the flats in the main lake south of The Narrows are good in midsummer, and The Narrows themselves can be good when currents are moving in that area.
Storm Lake has long been famous for channel catfish. The shallow, relatively turbid natural lake offers strong numbers of 3- to 5-pound catfish, with occasional 10-pounders that keep things interesting. Drifting fresh cut baits near mid-lake dredge cuts is always productive. Shore anglers who fish the rocky northern shoreline during the spawn, or any windward shoreline post-spawn, often fill their limit.
Brushy Creek Lake, southeast of Fort Dodge, isn’t commonly considered a “catfish lake,” probably because the lake’s heavily timbered waters challenge traditional catfishing tactics.
“There are definitely big catfish in Brushy Creek,” said fisheries biologist Wallace. “We use baited hoop nets for sampling, and five years ago the average channel cat in the nets weighed 8 pounds. Twenty-five percent of the catfish we handled were over 12 pounds. Add five years to those weights and you’re looking at some pretty big channel cats in Brushy Creek right now.”
Wallace admits that the heavy timber in the lake challenges catfish specialists who like to drift cutbaits for catfish.
“That would be a lake where vertical jigging would probably be the ticket,” he said. “Or using floats. Anybody who figures out how to get them out of the timber is going to catch nice cats from Brushy Creek.”
Big Clear Cats
Fishing guide Kevan Paul partnered to open a bait and tackle shop last year near Clear Lake. He was surprised at the volume of catfish bait and tackle the shop sold during its first season.
“We sold out of all the Sonny’s (commercial catfish bait) we ordered, and were surprised at the number of chubs we sold,” said Paul. “I knew that 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 last year weighed 20 pounds, and I heard of a guy catching a 24-pounder. There’s also a small population of flatheads that the DNR stocked years ago that are getting into the 20- to 30-pound range.”
Paul and his clients routinely hook channel cats at Clear Lake while fishing for walleyes, and identified a consistent pattern during the catfish spawn in June.
“We caught a lot of catfish jigging leeches over what we call New Rock Reef (a jumble of concrete slabs near Fisherman’s Reef),” he said.
“Minnows work, night crawlers work, but leeches seem to be the hot ticket for channel cats any time of year,” Paul noted.
Clear Lake’s small population of flathead catfish has drawn the attention of a few “specialists” who have figured out when, where and how to catch the largest fish.
“There aren’t a lot of flatheads in the lake, and it would be easy to wipe them out if somebody went after them and kept everything they caught,” said Paul. “But I’ll say this, there are some guys who understand that during the spawn, the flatheads will be in deep water areas adjacent to riprapped shorelines, and those guys were catching and releasing two or three 20- to 30-pound flatheads a night.”
The Des Moines River is the focus of catfishing through central Iowa, if only because of the impoundments at Red Rock and Saylorville. Both reservoirs have near-legendary midsummer channel cat bites for anglers slow-trolling cut baits near the submerged river channel, though fishing guide Coleman had luck last year “…all over Red Rock.”
“There wasn’t any place in that lake last year that I didn’t catch catfish,” he said. “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. There are probably more channel cats in Red Rock, but bigger channel cats in Saylorville. I’d say the cats at Red Rock average 6 to 7 pounds, while Saylorville’s average 8 to 10 pounds.
“There are bigger fish than those averages in both lakes,” noted Coleman. “Last year, I won the state tournament with a 42-pound flathead I caught at Red Rock, and pulled a 20-pound channel cat out of Saylorville.”
Coleman was also involved with a huge flathead catfish that came from the Des Moines River between the two reservoirs.
“I live near Birdland Marina (in Des Moines) and me and my buddy fish the Des Moines River between the Marina and Saylorville Dam a lot,” he said. “There’s a lot of good structure in the river in that area, and he landed a flathead that totally bottomed the 55-pound scale I had in my boat. It was way, way longer than the 50-inch handle on my landing net.” (The current state record for flatheads, an 82-pounder, was 52 inches long.) I’m pretty sure it would have been state record, but it was more important for us to get the fish back in the water than to drag it around and find a scale big enough to weigh it.”
Even More Hot Spots
Iowa’s largest lake, Lake Rathbun, holds uncounted channel cats and a fair population of flatheads.
“Rathbun has an awesome population of channel cats, but they aren’t especially big,” Coleman advised. “I was down there two years ago, and we put right at 100 channel cats in the boat during a day’s fishing. None were over 4 pounds, but they made up in numbers what they lacked in size. We caught them all over the lake, just about anywhere we put bait in the water. But if I had to focus on specific spots, I’d target rocky areas during the spawn, and drift the big flats later in the summer.”
Other lakes around Iowa that get the catfishing nod from Coleman include Coralville Lake north of Iowa City, and Rock Creek Lake near Newton.
“Coralville is like Red Rock and Saylorville,” he said. “There are lots of shad in that lake, so cut shad is the best bait. Fish the rocks during the spawn, and the big flats and the river channel during the summer.”
Rock Creek Lake is a smaller lake, around 600 acres, but its catfish are “… big, for the size of the lake,” said Coleman. “There are 10- to 15-pound channel cats in Rock Creek. And because it’s smaller than Saylorville, Red Rock and the other big lakes, they’re easier to find.”
Matt Davis, founder of Iowa-based Whisker Seeker Tackle, “discovered” Blue Heron Lake in West Des Moines’ Raccoon River Park last spring. The lake is a renovated gravel pit, prone to flooding by the adjacent Raccoon River.
“It’s a catfish factory,” Davis wrote in an e-mail last spring. “Nothing huge, the cats average less than 10 pounds, but there are catfish everywhere in that lake. And nobody is fishing for them using serious catfish techniques.”
Which opens the door to discuss changes in the way many Iowa’s catfish anglers target catfish. Thousands of catfish are still caught using the tried and true catfishing techniques and baits: Fish after dark. Use some form of stinkbait. Throw it into a lake or river, then sit back and swat mosquitoes until catfish find the bait.
Davis, Coleman and others favor a newer, more aggressive approach that is more labor intensive but dramatically more productive. In lakes, they troll at precisely one-halfto 1 miles per hour during the daytime, drifting chunks of fresh cut bait just off the bottom. In rivers they fish in or close to logjams or rockpiles, anchoring cut baits (for channel catfish or flatheads) or huge live baits (for trophy flatheads) under the noses of catfish lurking in the structure.
“For flatheads, I use cut baits more often in the spring and fall, and livebaits in the summer,” noted Coleman. “For channel catfish, it’s always the freshest cut baits I can get. In a reservoir with shad as the forage base, I use cut shad. In a smaller lake with bluegills, I use bluegills. In a river, chubs are great to use for cut bait because they’re the primary food for catfish. If it’s fresh enough so it bleeds when you cut it, any cut bait will outfish any other bait you can use.”