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Iowa Catfish Best Bets

Get after big cats this year on some of Iowa's best old and new hotspots.

Iowa Catfish Best Bets

Catfish anglers have much to look forward to this year, whether hunting trophy flatheads or fishing for the table. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

Catfishing in Iowa is booming, both in numbers of fish caught and the average size of fish landed. Does that mean our catfish populations are larger, or are we simply becoming better fishermen able to catch more and bigger catfish?

The answer to both questions is an enthusiastic, “You betcha!” Not only has the Iowa DNR supplemented our already strong population of catfish to provide more opportunities to catch cats, but new tackle and techniques now allow anglers to take advantage of Iowa’s expanding catfishing potential.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

The stocking of blue catfish at Three Mile Lake in southwest Iowa is big news among catfish anglers, and for good reason. Blue cats in other states routinely exceed 50 pounds. The world record is 143 pounds, caught in Virginia.

Chances are slim any of Iowa’s newly stocked blue catfish will approach that world record because Iowa is at the northern edge of their natural range. An experimental stocking of blue cats at Big Creek Lake north of Des Moines in the 1970s “disappeared” except for one lonely 60-pounder accidentally caught by a crappie fisherman around 1990. Blue cats exist naturally in the Missouri River upriver as far as Onawa and are occasionally seen in the Mississippi River north of Keokuk. The Iowa state record is a 101-pound behemoth from the Missouri near Council Bluffs; though, experts believe that giant may have been a wanderer from downstream in Missouri rather than an Iowa native.


“We want to see if we can create a different kind of fishing resource by stocking blue catfish at Three Mile,” says Andy Jansen, regional fisheries management biologist for the DNR. “We renovated Three Mile in 2016 and stocked blue catfish rather than channel catfish like we normally would after a renovation.”


The DNR stocked 16,000, 7-inch blue catfish fingerlings in Three Mile Lake in 2016. Another 35,000, 3-inch blue cats were added in midsummer 2017. In late 2018 7,600, 8-inch fingerlings were added, bringing the total stocking in the 880-acre lake to 58,000.

Jensen assumes the blue cats are doing well in the lake, though proof is hard to come by. So far, he has heard of only one angler-caught blue cat, a 15-incher landed in late 2017. The DNR’s professional efforts to track the survival and growth have been stymied by the preference of blue catfish for deep, open water, which challenges the DNR’s traditional shallow-water sampling equipment and strategies.

“We’ve only handled one blue cat in our surveys so far,” says Jensen. “We caught it in 2018, and it was 21 inches long and weighed 4.28 pounds. That fish was one of the 7-inchers we stocked in 2016, so in two years it tripled in length. A channel catfish of the same age would have weighed 2 to 3 pounds. That shows how fast blues can grow. The question at Three Mile is, how many will survive, and how big will they grow?”

Blue cats are literally a different kind of catfish from the channel and flathead catfish Iowans are used to. While channel catfish and flathead catfish are structure-lovers who hover in brushpiles and along dropoffs, blues favor open water, especially deep, open water. They will take commercial “stink” baits, but anglers in other states catch most of their blue catfish on fresh — fresh, as in, still quivering — cut bait of the forage fish most common in the lake in which they are fishing.


“I worked on the reservoirs in Kansas before I came up here,” Jansen says, “and we found the blues in the deeper water, associated with old creek channels and deeper structure. The next few years are going to be really interesting as anglers figure out where and how to catch blues at Three Mile, and we see how big those fish can get.”

THE REST OF THE STORY

Blue catfish at Three Mile Lake aren’t the only big news for catfish anglers in Iowa. The average size of channel catfish in Red Rock, Clear and Okoboji lakes continues to increase.

Professional catfishing guide Johnny Coleman of Des Moines reported last summer that Red Rock’s channel cats averaged from 5 to 12 pounds, and that 50-fish days (caught and released) were not too uncommon. Last year’s flooding and erratic water levels made it difficult to establish a consistent pattern, but anglers at Red Rock (and Saylorville, Coralville and Rathbun reservoirs) traditionally hammer channel cats during mid-summer, mid-day bites. They drift fresh-cut shad over flats in 10- to 15-feet of water adjacent to submerged river channels or dropoffs.


Tackle and techniques for drifting for channel cats in Iowa’s reservoirs have become somewhat sophisticated. Experts like Matt Davis, owner of Des Moines-based Whisker Seeker Tackle Company, say trolling/drifting speed is critical. More than 1.0 mile an hour is too fast; 0.5 to 0.7 mile an hour is his goal. Santee Cooper-style rigs that drag along the bottom but use a float to elevate a chunk of cut bait several inches to a foot above the bottom have proven more effective than dragging the bait through the mud without a float. Davis is confident adding rattles, propellers or other vibration/noise makers to drift rigs improves catch rates.

“We’ve seen it hundreds of times on Saylorville, Red Rock and other lakes,” he says. “When we use floats that rattle or have propellers to create vibration in the water, we catch more catfish. I think we actually tend to catch larger catfish when we add noise and vibration, because channel catfish above 3 to 5 pounds become predators that feed on live baitfish. The combination of the flavor from fresh cut bait and vibration or noise that simulates injured baitfish is what those bigger cats are looking for.”

Lake Okoboji and Clear Lake, both in northern Iowa, are traditionally known for perch, walleye, yellow bass and other cool-water species, but channel catfish in those lakes have recently drawn the attention of local and regional catfish hunters.

“I didn’t realize how popular channel catfish are up here until we sold out of Sonny’s [commercial catfish bait] early in the season last year,” says Kevan Paul, owner of Kevan Paul Guide Service and co-owner of Clear Lake Bait Shop. “There’s a strong population of 5- to 10-pound channel cats in the lake. A couple years ago, we weighed one at the shop that weighed 20 pounds.”

Scott Grummer, regional fisheries management biologist, says Clear Lake’s current population of channel catfish is skewed toward larger fish.

“The size structure of channel catfish in our surveys at Clear Lake is dominated by larger fish,” he says. “The last time we did a survey, the average cat was around 23 inches, which is a nice channel cat. A lot of guys fish off docks along the east and north shore after dark to catch catfish, and other guys do real well fishing the edges of the bulrushes along the north shore. But I think the biggest channel cats stay deep, around the rockpiles. There’s one rockpile in particular that seems to hold big cats, especially in June during their spawn. It’s an artificial pile we made of natural fieldstone, big ones, so there are lots of nooks and crannies in it. That pile is in the middle of the lake northwest of The Island, in 10 to 14 feet of water.”

East and West Lake Okoboji don’t normally show up on catfishing reports, but when they do, they make a big splash. The channel catfish population in East Okoboji is often overlooked, but the members of that population are extremely well fed due to the enormous population of yellow bass in the lake. The few anglers who target the 5- to 15-pound channel cats in East Okoboji focus on “The Narrows” at mid-lake, where the restriction creates currents that attract catfish.

West Lake Okoboji isn’t a hotspot for catching lots of channel catfish, but it may harbor the next state-record channel catfish, if anyone can find and catch it. Several times each year catfishing forums on the internet light up with photos of 20-plus-pound channel cats from West Okoboji. Last May Calvin Grosvenor, teenaged son of professional fishing guide John Grosvenor at West Okoboji, landed and released a number of 20- to 25-pound channel cats from Okoboji. He fished from shore on the lake’s northern end, using fresh cut bait. Exact location is a “secret” because he hopes to repeat his success this year.

Fisheries biologist Grummer says almost every lake in Iowa has a strong population of channel catfish due to regular stockings by the DNR.

“In my area, Lake Cornelia is known for 1- to 3-pounders,” Grummer says. “Smith Lake at Algona is only 60 acres, but has nice catfish. If you set up on a windward shoreline on a summer evening at almost any public lake in Iowa, throw out some stinkbait, chicken livers, cut bait or anything else catfish like, you’re probably going to catch catfish.”

FLATHEAD HUNTING

Flathead catfish are the sometimes-mysterious cousins to blue and channel catfish that fuel the dreams of many trophy catfish anglers in Iowa; the state record is an 81-pounder caught from Lake Ellis in Chariton in 1958. There is no doubt there are 60-, 70- and 80-plus pound flatheads in Iowa’s lakes and rivers. The challenge is to find them, entice them to bite, and then actually land them.

Pinpointing exact locations to target mega-flatheads is difficult. Changing river levels, and the issue of public water flowing through private property, make identifying and accessing specific holes, logjams and current breaks difficult. But it’s safe to say any brushpile or cutbank in the Des Moines, Raccoon, Iowa, Cedar and South Skunk rivers may hold a 30-pound or larger flathead. The Mississippi River routinely produces 30- to 40-pounders, especially from logjams associated with its myriad islands.

The Missouri River has in recent years produced a series of near-record-breaking flatheads, but it requires dedication from anglers. The big river routinely flows at 9 miles an hour, scouring brushpiles from shorelines. Flatheads and the anglers who hunt them are left with wing dikes, short-lived logjams and mid-river holes for habitat. Anglers who use heavy, 5-ounce and larger weights to anchor huge live baits — 1-pound carp and suckers — behind wing dikes and in the top end of mid-river holes are the ones who battle some of Iowa’s biggest flatheads.

Big flatheads, a large population of channel catfish of all sizes and now a population of blue catfish. Iowa’s catfishing potential has always been good, but now — it’s bordering on great.

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