The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports that catfish not only are pursued by thousands of anglers statewide but also top the charts when it comes to angler popularity.
The IDNR’s aggressive stocking of catfish and implementation of possession limits have combined to create excellent fisheries in waters across the state. Anglers looking for catfish action will find it both in the historically productive river systems and reservoirs and in sections of lesser-known rivers and smaller lakes that see little fishing pressure.
“In the late summer and early fall we stock between 200,000 and 250,000 advanced fingerling channel cats in lakes statewide,” said Dave Walljasper, a fisheries biologist with the Rathbun Fish Hatchery. “These stocked fish are from 7 to 8 inches long to protect them from bass predation. An additional 80,000 to 100,000 4-inch fish are provided to County Conservation Boards to be raised in cages before being released.
“By next fall the 7- to 8-inch fingerlings will be from 12 to 14 inches, depending on the lake. By the second fall they’re slowing down to about a 2- or 3-inch increase in length each year. I’d say a 30-inch fish would be from 12 to 15 years old.”
According to Walljasper, up to 100,000 additional catfish are sold to farm pond owners every year.
Ongoing IDNR studies have found some catfish populations reaching unheard-of densities. For example: Fisheries biologist Chris Larson reports that each acre of Adair County’s Mormon Trail Lake contains 100 channel catfish. Now that’s a catfish lake!
All in all, catfishing in Iowa is coming of age. Whether you’re looking for plenty of eating-size cats or a 50-pounder, there are plenty of waters to choose from this year. Here’s a look at a few of our top producers.
BIG SIOUX RIVER
“For catfish, we’re talking rivers,” said Jim Christianson, a fisheries biologist with the Northwest Management Unit. “We have good catfish rivers in my unit along with some lakes. The Big Sioux has been more consistent, and they’ve been catching loads of catfish in there. The catfishing has been better than it was last year.”
Christianson, who manages several counties in the northwestern corner of the state, has been hearing good reports from anglers. Though the fishing on his rivers is better downstream, where they flow slower and deeper, catfish are a mainstay on the waters throughout his area.
Darrel Carter has fished both the Big and Sioux rivers extensively. At one time he held the state record for blue catfish, but ascribed his taking the 62-pounder more to luck than to skill, since blues don’t normally swim interior waters. Carter’s skill far outpaces whatever luck he may from time to time profit from, however: A few years ago, won the U.S.C.A.T.S. national point championship — two years in a row!
“I look for habitat features in combination,” he said. “Fish the snags and compare one hole to another in terms of habitat. Pay attention to current speed and look for moderate current. Catfish want a feeding station that might be where current drops into slack water with a good snag and deep water for a resting place.”
Cats will hold in the heavy cover and, at times, down in the holes. If the river is flooding, catfish can be taken in turbid water only a foot and a half feet deep even at midday.
LITTLE SIOUX RIVER
“We saw some really nice channel catfish come out of the river in 2005,” said Christianson, “and some were in the 8- to 10-pound range. Most of the fish are of the 2-pound eating-sized variety.”
With water levels being a little higher than normal lately, catfish have made their way upstream — and into the frying pans of local anglers, catch rates having increased as channels grew more common there.
“Many anglers use cut baits from oily fish, and some even come along with home concoctions made with crackers and Cheerios and that sort of thing,” said Christianson. “Some add flavors such as strawberry. Some anglers use drop baits — and I guarantee that drop baits will catch fish.”
To keep his bait out of the rocks, Carter fishes this river with a three-way rig; an egg sinker works well in less-rocky stretches.
Catfish aren’t the only draw at this scenic river system. Linn Grove, known as the catfish capital of the state, lies along the 131-mile long Inkpaduta Canoe Trail. The Linn Grove dam area provides some excellent fishing along with great scenery, especially downstream.
Though Christianson points to the rivers in the northwestern part of the Hawkeye State as Iowa’s most productive waters, he’s quick to say that some of the region’s lakes shouldn’t be overlooked.
“We’ve stocked some of our natural lakes a little more with channel catfish to see how they’d do,” he offered. “We surveyed Silver Lake, and it has showed a really good population of catfish. The lake has produced some nice fishing opportunities.”
Finding submerged cover is the key to these cats. Absent electronics on board your boat, drift-fishing’s the best way to go. Drag a weighted bait with a sinker weighing up to 1 ounce, and move slowly; back-trolling can prove effective. Cut bait, stink baits and night crawlers are old standbys.
Silver Lake covers 1,068 acres on the west edge of Lake Park in Dickinson County.
DES MOINES RIVER
“The Des Moines River system is one of the best overall catfish fisheries in the state,” said fisheries biologist Dick McWilliams with the Boone Fish Management Station. “Anglers catch a lot of good-sized catfish just about anywhere in the river. You should check near the dams for concentrations of fish, especially near the lowhead dams near Red Rock and the series of dams in Des Moines upriver to Fort Dodge.”
According to McWilliams, early-summer cats will be holding in eddies and other deeper water anywhere from 7 to 20 feet deep. Flooding and other adverse weather conditions affect how deep fish will be. Look for both channel and flathead cats below the dams and in the holes.
The reservoirs on the river system include Red Rock and Saylorville, and although Red Rock is smaller, it offers better late spring and early summer catfishing. Red Rock tends to have more coves and backwaters to whose warming water catfish will relate to when the deeper water’s still cold. Saylorville, more riverine in character, l
acks a lot of those out-of-the-way spots in which cats can move up into shallower water.
Flatheads frequent the downstream depths in holes and cutouts. When the water’s low, flathead catfish hold in relatively limited areas and when it floods they’re on the move. No one knows how far catfish of any variety will migrate, says McWilliams, but they’ll exploit flooding to redistribute themselves throughout the system.
According to McWilliams, biologists hear of 40- to 50-pound flatheads every year. The most common way of enticing these trophy-class fish is to use a big chub.
The West Fork of the Des Moines in the northern part of the state offers up a lot of fish in the 12- to 14-inch range. Anglers will do well by targeting sections of the West Fork as far north as Emmet and Palo Alto counties. Down through Pocahontas and Humboldt counties, the fishing can also be rewarding.
“The way I like to fish for channel catfish is with a big bait or a cut bait on an egg sinker,” said McWilliams. “An egg sinker won’t create a noticeable drag. If the fish are finicky, they’ll pick the bait up, mouth it a little and then back away with the bait. If they drop it, pick it up again and then start to move; set the hook, and you’ll have a fish.
Dean Barr of Casey’s Bait Shop in Des Moines said that one of the best spots in his area is right downtown.
“There are flatheads by the ballpark up under the sidewalk,” said Barr. “Underneath, the sidewalk is washed out, and flatheads lay right there. I’ve got a photo of one that took two guys to lift up. Needless to say, they didn’t weigh it. They just took their photo and released it.”
Casey’s Bait Shop can be reached at (515) 262-2760.
NORTHEASTERN IOWA’S BORROW PITS
Though fisheries biologist Brian Hayes, of the Manchester Fish Management Unit’s office, pointed out that serious catfishermen will spend time in the Cedar and Wapsipinicon rivers, there are some excellent smaller waters to choose from as well.
Borrow pits, created when fill is extracted for highway construction, range from 30 to 100 acres in size, are generally steep-sided, and have clear water and sandy bottoms. In these pits, many of which lie in Black Hawk County, largemouth bass populations are not of great size, which leaves catfish prospects wide open.
“The lakes in my district are primarily borrow pits in the Cedar Falls and Waterloo areas,” said Hayes. “If I were catfishing, I’d concentrate on the George Wyth, Mitchell Lake, South Prairie and Greenbelt pits. The George Wyth pit is in a state park, and the others are in city parks. They’re on public land and readily accessible to anglers, as are the majority of other borrow pits.”
The George Wyth pit covers 70 acres and has a high density of channel catfish in the panfish-sized range, 12 to 14 inches. Occasionally, reports Hayes, biologists will see 20-inchers. Depths reach 18 feet.
Anglers at the Mitchell pit need to be careful of fishing too far down, as this venue is about 30 feet deep. Setting hoop nets at the Greenbelt pit revealed a solid population of channels; the South Prairie pit also produces nice stocked fish.
The Big Woods pit, which is actually connected to the Cedar River, is a real sleeper for big catfish — so much so that it doesn’t need to be stocked. “The Cedar River has developed a pretty good population of catfish and floods frequently,” said Hayes. “When it does, enough catfish make their way into the pit to populate it nicely. When we set hoop nets, we see fish over 20 inches and weighing in at 6 to 7 pounds.”
The pits are for the most part family-friendly, allowing for plenty of bank-fishing and providing restroom facilities.
More out-of-the-way catfish spots include the smaller tributaries off of the Cedar and Wapsipinicon rivers, said Hayes. “Look at these smaller tributaries for big catfish and good numbers in the summer,” he said. “The catfish have moved up to spawn, and if there’s a thunderstorm that bumps the flow up 6 inches or so, the cats are on the move, and eating a lot.”
GREENFIELD AND MORMON TRAIL LAKES
“I have two lakes in Adair County where we’re studying catfish,” said fisheries biologist Kay Hill. “We consider a lake with a catch-rate of one fish per four hours fishing time to be excellent. I’ve been doing this for 35 years and it’s rare to see catch rates at even one-tenth of a fish per hour. In Greenfield and Mormon Trail the catch rates are about two and a half times the rate of otherwise good lakes.”
Hill credits the excellent catfishing on these two study lakes to the extensive stocking that takes place every other year. The Adair County Conservation Board is provided with the catfish, which are then raised in cages to about 10 inches before being released. Greenfield receives about 25 fish per acre, Mormon Trail about 35 to 40.
“Greenfield Lake has the larger fish because it has a lower density of cats,” said Hill. “The average size of fish we catch in our hoop nets are from 18 to 22 inches, while in Mormon Trail they average from 18 to 20 inches.”
According to Hill, every acre of Mormon Trail Lake holds 200 pounds of catfish, which translates to about 100 fish per acre. The density in Greenfield is about half that.
Both lakes are open to public fishing and offer lots of shoreline access. Greenfield Lake has a hiking trail that circles the lake. Both are heavily fished, but keep right on pumping out the cats.
Boat ramps are available at both, on the east side of the lake at Greenfield and on the northwest corner at Mormon Trail.
Greenfield, covering 28 acres and having a maximum depth of 28 feet, is adjacent to the city of Greenfield. Mormon Trail, 36 acres in area and 30 feet deep at maximum, is southwest of Bridgewater.
“There are large numbers of channel cats and some big flatheads in there,” said Vance Polton, a fisheries technician in southeastern Iowa. “Anywhere from Iowa City on downriver to Wapello near the Mississippi river is good fishing. The big flatheads are up to 50 pounds.”
River-fishing in this part of the state means targeting brushpiles and other cover, notes Polton. The rivers are smaller, and channelized only in certain sections.
June cats will be from 5 to 15 feet deep. The conventional wisdom about fishing the deepest holes doesn’t always hold true here, as these fish are much more cover-oriented than depth-conscious in muddy water. Logjams, high cutbanks with washed-out holes and the occasional deep hole are all prime locations.
“At night the catfish will come in shallow to feed on minnows,” said Polton. “After a rain, use night crawlers, and as summer progresses, use stink baits and chicken liver. They’ll be looking for dead things at that point.”
Boat ramps abound at every town along the river.
“Coralville Reservoir has more than an abundance of channel cats in it,” remarked Polton. “The population of catfish is extremely high on this impoundment of the Iowa River. And it’s a great place to go right after ice-out: The shad die, and the catfish move in to feed on them. As the spring moves into summer channel cats will be off the riprap and in the dropoff areas.”
As far as fishing hotspots go, Polton asserts, hundreds exist. Prospects are excellent for locating channels below the Macbride dam; there, shad stack up and provide an easy meal. Other prime sites, especially in terms of the spawn, will be found along old cliffs, rock walls and limestone faces in which cavities and caves have developed.
Coralville Reservoir is in Johnson County four miles north of Iowa City. It covers 5,300 acres and is nearly seventeen miles long.
So to sum it all up: Where can you find some great catfishing in Iowa? Just about everywhere!