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The Best Of Iowa Cats

The Best Of Iowa Cats

Anglers in all parts of Iowa enjoy outstanding opportunities to catch catfish this month. Let's look at the waters that promise the most success with the whiskerfish this year.

The author with a couple of eating-sized channel cats that he caught during a summer afternoon at Big Creek Lake.
Photo by Dan Anderson

Iowa's on the verge of a catfishing revolution. After decades of so-so catfishing, Hawkeye State anglers are experiencing breakthroughs in attitudes and opportunities that are changing how we fish for catfish.

Want proof? How about the 101-pound blue catfish, taken last summer from the Missouri River in southwest Iowa, that set a new state record for that species? How about reports of Iowa Department of Natural Resources biologists finding 25-pound flatheads in creeks so small that the researchers couldn't use boats to travel them? How about walleye anglers complaining that they can't troll crankbaits without being harassed by 2- to 5-pound channel catfish?

Iowans have never had so many opportunities to catch catfish. Here's why -- and where.


Iowa's rivers and streams have always been rife with cats, but our lakes and ponds weren't always as productive as they now are. Despite years of stocking fry and fingerlings in hundreds of lakes, catfish never really took off in those waters.

Largemouth bass were often the culprits, it turned out. Small catfish tend to school in tight swarms, and in just two or three passes, a wide-mouthed bass can gulp down entire schools of tiny cats. Once IDNR scientists identified the problem, they began stocking larger channels, in the 7- to 8-inch range, and catfish populations in lakes blossomed.

"It's safe to say that 99 percent of the channel catfish in Iowa lakes are there because we stocked them," said Lannie Miller, IDNR regional fisheries biologist. "Once we figured out how to help them survive predation, catfish populations exploded."


Miller cites Storm Lake, a natural lake in northwest Iowa, as an example. "We actually had to reduce our stocking rates a little bit at Storm Lake," he said. "There are so many 2- to 5-pound catfish in that lake that walleye anglers complain they can't troll or drift for walleyes without catching catfish."

One Iowa lake that has no need of stocked cats is Lake Darling. This southeast Iowa lake supports a population of flatheads that are unique in being well able to perpetuate their numbers without human intervention.

"A few years back, (IDNR fisheries biologist) Don Kline hauled a bunch of 5- to 20-pound flatheads from the Skunk River and put them in Lake Darling to see if they would help control an overpopulation of bullheads," said Vance Polson, IDNR fisheries technician. "There's now a pretty good self-reproducing population of flatheads in there, some of them better than 40 pounds."

Polson surmises that stocking larger flatheads allowed the fish to reproduce unmolested. As he explains it, a big male catfish standing sentry over its nest isn't something that a raider wants to trifle with.

"I think that a 3-pound largemouth bass doesn't have too much trouble driving a 2-pound channel cat off its nest so the bass can feed on the eggs or the fry," he said. "But if a 3-pound bass tries to bother a 20- or 30-pound flathead that's guarding a nest -- well, that bass is just going to be a snack for the flathead."

Kline's experiment with stocking flatheads ultimately reined in Lake Darling's oversized complement of bullheads. The same strategy was used at Prairie Rose Lake, near Harlan in western Iowa, to deal with an out-of-control population of bullheads in that lake. Prairie Rose now has a healthy population of flatheads up to 35 pounds, a vestigial population of (very nervous) bullheads, and a fast-growing population of crappies that came to flourish once the bullheads grew substantially fewer.

The ability of a relatively small number of flatheads to control a large number of bullheads suggests a fondness on the part of the big fish for feeding on their younger cousins. "A lot of serious flathead anglers use bullheads for bait because they're tough and stay alive longer on a hook," said Polson. "I think bullheads are good flathead bait because flatheads seem to prefer them. Think about it: In a river, you rarely catch or see bullheads, but bullheads are often thick in any backwaters to that river. I wonder if the reason you never see bullheads in a bigger river is because flatheads feed on them whenever they get the chance."


Bullheads are also used as bait for blue catfish in Iowa's border rivers. Blues are found only in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in Iowa, and have never been documented in any of Iowa's interior waterways.

"People tell me they caught a blue catfish from the Des Moines, or the Raccoon, or the Cedar, or the Iowa River, and every time we've checked, it's been a male channel cat in spawning colors," said Marion Conover, the IDNR's chief of fisheries. "Male channel cats get dark, dark black during the spawn, almost a bluish-black. But folks like to think they caught something different than a regular channel cat -- so I learned a long time ago to quit arguing and let them enjoy their 'blue catfish.'"

There's no question about the humongous critter that Belleview, Neb., resident Mike Rush pulled from the Missouri River last summer: It was definitely a blue cat. At a weight of 101 pounds and a length of 53 inches, the behemoth was far too big to be mistaken for a channel cat (the Iowa state record for channel cats is 36 pounds, 8 ounces), and it didn't exhibit the shovel-shaped head and mottled coloration of the flathead.

Rush, who caught the new state record on a setline, using a goldfish for bait, knew that he'd hooked something special as soon as he began to retrieve his line.

"I catch a lot of 30-pound flatheads -- have handled some in the 40- to 50-pound range -- but this one was way bigger," he said. "I got him close to the boat, and when he rolled on the surface, I told my dad, who was helping me that day, 'We're gonna need a bigger net.' Dad stood up and got a look at him, and said, "We're gonna need a bigger boat.'"

Rush eventually got the hulking beast aboard and took it to where he was parked on the Nebraska side of the river. He located a tank large enough to hold the fish, and got it weighed on a certified scale. Nebraska doesn't recognize record fish caught on setlines, but Iowa does; Rush took the cat on the Iowa side of the river, so his catch was certified as the Iowa record for blues.

His catch is the latest in a quick succession of ever-larger Iowa state record blue catfish. Over the past decade, the state record for blue cats has stairstepped from the 60-pound range through 70 pounds plus and the mid-80s to 90 pounds and, now, past the century mark. And both serious catfish anglers and fisheries biologists believe that the mark to beat may continue to move higher.

"Ever since they stopped commercial fishing on the Missouri back in the 1980s, the blues and flatheads have been getting bigger and bigger," said Ted Hirtes, a Missouri River fishing guide based in Belleview, Neb. "Another thing that has helped is that more and more of the guys who go after big catfish are starting to do catch-and-release. If we put those big ones back and let them keep growing, it's hard to tell how big they'll eventually get."

How big can blue catfish get in the Missouri River? Former steamboat captain William Heckman, author of the book Steamboating Sixty Five Years on Missouri's Rivers, writes that two anglers named Sholten and New "brought into Hermann, Missouri in 1868 a blue channel cat that tipped the scales at 242 pounds."

And that's how big blue catfish can get in the Missouri River.


Iowa's catfishing opportunities come in many styles and sizes, but they can be broken down into two broad categories: rivers and lakes.

Anglers who prefer to chase catfish in Iowa's moving waters have historically looked to our larger rivers for their whiskerfish. The Des Moines, Cedar, Iowa, Raccoon, and lower Skunk rivers continue to provide excellent angling for catfish enthusiasts. Though often overlooked, smaller waterways may actually provide more "precise" fishing.

"In the big rivers, you've got more water, more holes for the fish to spread out in," said IDNR fisheries technician Polson. "Personally, I like to fish in creeks for catfish. You'd be surprised the sort of catfishing you can find in some of the creeks."

Polson pointed to Indian Creek, a tributary of the Cedar River in eastern Iowa as an example. "We were doing a study on Indian Creek, using backpack electrofishing units because the creek is too shallow to get our normal survey boat down," he recalled. "It's only 15 or 20 feet wide, and there's not many places where it's more than waist-deep.

"We stuck the (electrofishing) probe under an undercut stump, and something big started rolling out of there. We were thinking we'd annoyed a big snapping turtle or a beaver, and were falling all over ourselves trying to get out of the way. It ended up being a 26-pound flathead in a pool of water that was maybe 3 feet deep."

Catters tell of flatheads "stranded" in shallow creeks, but Polson thinks that they're there by choice. "A pretty big fish can move around in less than a foot of water," he observed. "Those little creeks have a high density of forage fish. I think some flatheads just move in and make themselves at home, because the eating is easy and nobody bothers them."

Aside from stray flatheads, Polson finds many "frying-pan" channel cats in small creeks. "My personal favorite place to fish for channel cats is the English River between Riverside and the towns of North and South English," he said. "I take a lot of 2- to 4-pound channel cats out of there."

Survey work has identified other often-neglected Iowa catfish creeks. Polson points to Bear Creek, near Marengo, Indian Creek, a tributary of the Cedar River, and Old Man's Creek, near Williamsburg, as waterways that many catfish anglers dismiss as "too small" to hold catfish."

"They're all on private property, so you need permission to wade or float them, but I've never had anybody turn me down when I asked if I could fish for catfish in those creeks," he remarked. "I've been laughed at a few times, because a lot of people don't know how many catfish are in those creeks. But some of those larger creeks are about as sure a thing for channel cats, and occasionally flatheads, as I've ever found."


The IDNR stocks channel cats in nearly every lake in Iowa -- from the massive Iowa Great Lakes to tiny city reservoir ponds in southern Iowa. Almost all are rated as "good" for catfishing in annual surveys; a few are rated "exceptional."

"Lake Pahoja has a very high density of channel catfish for a lake its size," said Jim Christianson, IDNR fisheries biologist in northwest Iowa. "We did a hoop net survey last year and netted 500 catfish in only four 'sets.' They averaged between 10 to 20 inches, but we've seen cats up to 15 pounds come out of that lake pretty regular."

Near Larchwood in Lyon County, Lake Pahoja makes it easy for anglers without boats to access cats from shore. Christianson says that though you can find catfish all around the lake, it was the high numbers in the far end of the arm adjacent to the lake's dam that impressed IDNR workers in their last survey.

Those searching for channel catfish at the Iowa Great Lakes should check East Lake Okoboji near the IDNR's Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery. Christianson noted that channel cats converge on the outlet whenever water is discharged from the hatchery.

"We've also started stocking catfish in Center Lake in the Great Lakes region, as well as at Silver Lake, near Lake Park," he reported. "Our last survey showed a lot of channel cats up to 20 inches in both those lakes, especially Silver Lake."

Farther south, Storm Lake and Lake Black Hawk both have long-standing reputations as cat factories. According to fisheries biologist Lannie Miller, they may be our state's two best lakes for channel catfish.

"The population of catfish in those lakes is far above average," he stated. "We did a creel survey at Black Hawk a couple years ago, and anglers were taking 8,000 to 10,000 channel cats per year from that lake -- and they weren't even making a dent in the population."

Boaters do well drifting for catfish from midsummer through fall at both lakes. At Black Hawk, the edges of the dredged area are often productive. Shore-anglers at Storm Lake meet with success by working the north shore, especially on a warm summer evening following a day during which that side of the lake has been heated up by steady southerly breezes.

"Fish with crawdads off the riprap on the north shore of Storm Lake when the wind is blowing hard from the south," suggested Miller. "Don't cast very far -- they're right in on the rocks, maybe no more than 5 to 15 feet out. And if a thunderstorm rolls through, try fishing where the city storm sewers discharge into the lake, or where one of the temporary streams is running after the rain. Cats will lay right below those discharges, and you can really clean up on them as long as the water is running."

Thanks to ongoing stocking programs, rewarding channel cat fishing figures prominently at the smaller lakes in western Iowa, as well. In recent IDNR surveys, Crawford Creek Lake, in Ida County, revealed a strong population of

catfish, as did Yellow Smoke Lake, near Denison. Brown's Lake, near Sioux City is another consistent source of catfish. And catfish hunters often overlook Snyder Bend Lake, a few miles farther south.

"We rolled a lot of nice 2- to 5-pound catfish the last time we electrofished at Snyder Bend," said Miller. "We saw a lot of them in the downed trees along the east shoreline of the lake."

Vance Polson, the fisheries technician from southeast Iowa, says that several small lakes or ponds in his region offer above-average catfishing.

"In Keokuk County, the old pond at Belva Deer Park has a lot of nice cats in it," he noted. "Not the new lake -- I'm talking about the old pond that's over the hill from Belva Deer Lake. Another small pond that's good for cats is Yenruogis Pond, near Sigourney." ("Yenruogis" is "Sigourney" spelled backwards.)

"With our stocking program, there are plenty of catfish in just about every lake and public pond in Iowa," Polson. "Sit on a windward shoreline around sunset and fish with stinkbait, chicken liver, crawdads or cut-bait and you'll probably catch catfish. The same goes for just about any of our rivers or large creeks.

"The problem in Iowa isn't finding a good place to fish for catfish," he concluded. "It's deciding which place to fish, with so many to choose from."

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