The Hawkeye State's legendary catfishing will live up to its storied fame this year. Whether you're looking for eating-sized channel cats or monster flatheads and blues, you'll want to try these waters. (June 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
If you live in the Hawkeye State, you're near some great catfishin'.
Cats are found just about everywhere in Iowa. There aren't many waters without a cat or two in them, and in some rivers and lakes, the fishing is downright excellent.
Here's a look at waters you'll want to try this year for plenty of eating-size catfish as well as a few line-breakers.
DESOTO BEND OXBOW
DeSoto Bend has been a channel catfish hotspot for years and it's still pumping out more than its share of fish, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries management biologist Chris Larson.
"The Desoto Bend Oxbow in Harrison County has some nice channel cats up into the 10-pound range and lunker flatheads up to 50 pounds," said Larson. "The fishing is considered good for a Missouri River oxbow lake and the reason is because of the stocking efforts of both the Iowa and Nebraska DNR hatcheries.
"Each fall, 8,000 fingerling channels are stocked and since the lake is so fertile, they grow fast. Because the stocked cats are 7 to 9 inches when they're released, the survival rate is good and they're harvestable within a year. The 2006 DNR fish survey showed decent numbers of keeper-sized fish with some 24-inchers weighing in at about 6 pounds."
According to Larson, anglers also have a chance at taking lunker-class flatheads. About a thousand flatheads were stocked in the mid-1990s to help control the overabundant bullheads.
"These flatheads have grown tremendously since then," said Larson. "A netting survey in 2005 yielded 12 flatheads that ranged from 26 to 49 inches with an average weight of 23 pounds. One angler landed a 39-incher in May of 2006."
Catfish guides like Jim McDonnell have a few tricks up their sleeves on smaller lakes.
"I use a bobber or long float ahead of a hook just high enough to keep the bait off the bottom if there's a lot of silt," said McDonnell. "Have just enough weight to keep it there."
Anglers have access to a hard-surfaced ramp on this 118-acre lake. A no-wake restriction is in place with no motor size restrictions.
Additional information is available from the Southwest Management Region office at (712) 769-2587.
BADGER CREEK LAKE
Badger Creek Lake has long been known as a hotspot for channel cats. It gets a lot of pressure being just a 15-minute drive from Des Moines.
"The catfish that we've sampled in Badger Creek Lake are quite large," said Gary Sobotka, a fisheries management biologist with the Mount Ayr Fish Management office.
According to Sobotka, some of the channel cats are up to 30 inches and weigh about 13 or 14 pounds. More common are the 2-pounders that dominate the lake.
Much of the best fishing in the early summer months is in the upper end of the lake. This area has lots of shoreline access and a few fishing jetties to set up on. The shallow flats are a good bet at night, said Sobotka.
Locals set up on the point located off the cove near the bridge in the evening to intercept channel cats moving up onto the flats to feed. A little later in the night, after the fish have moved up into the cove, these experienced catfishermen move right on into the cove with the fish.
During the daytime, try drifting across the deeper holes. Any significant changes in the lake bottom or rock and wood cover can be productive.
"The biggest mistake I see anglers make once the water warms up is to fish below the thermocline," said Sobotka. "We found that the mid-July thermocline at Badger Creek last year was only about 5 feet deep. Fishing any deeper wouldn't be very productive as there isn't much oxygen."
According to Sobotka, biologists stock fingerlings in the 7- to 10-inch range, and a higher number than usual hit the water last year.
Badger Creek Lake covers 270 acres and is located five miles southeast of Van Meter in Madison County.
For more information contact the Mount Ayr Fish Management office at (641) 464-3108.
"Lake Geode produces several very large channel catfish every year," said fisheries management biologist Don Kline. "These fish are in the 15- to 20-pound range."
Last summer the IDNR did an intensive survey with baited hoop nets to find out what was happening in the catfish population. By August, a total of 625 cats had been collected and biologists estimated the small lake's channel cat population to be well over 4,000 fish that measured at least 8 inches.
"That's a very good number and the lake produces some very good catfish angling," said Kline. "There were a lot of pan-sized fish in the 15- to 21-inch range but about 10 percent of the population is from 22 to 32 inches. Those are the big ones that provide the trophy fishing. We presently have a very good number of fish growing into the 10- to 15-inch range so the prospects are excellent. All of the fish we sampled were plump and looking good."
Ramps are readily available. One is located on the east side of the lake about a half mile up from the dam and the other is located at the upper end of the lake near the beach. There are several shoreline access points scattered around the lake, including the boat ramps and several small parking areas where shorebound anglers can park and walk down to the lake.
"Experiment on the depths to fish," advised McDonnell. "I sometimes only fish 2 or 3 feet deep. You've just got to try different depths until you connect."
Lake Geode covers 187 acres four miles south of Danville in Henry County. There is good shoreline access and camping in Geode State Park. The lake is under a no-wake restriction.
For more information contact the IDNR at (319) 694-2430 or Geode State Park at (319) 392-4601.
"Rathbun is an outstanding catfishery," said Mark Flammang, the local fisheries biologist.
The good fishing starts in March and April and by Ju
ne it's just getting fired up.
"Rathbun never really goes through lulls," said Flammang. "Even in years when the other fishing is a bit slow, the catfishing generally remains excellent."
The density of channel cats is high, a fact which is mirrored by angler success. The lake enjoys a larger percentage of bigger fish than most other Hawkeye lakes, and there are large numbers of 17- to 24-inch fish.
"We collected fish in excess of 12 pounds in the fall of 2006," said Flammang. "We commonly see fish larger than 28 inches, and those are some big catfish!"
The flathead population is also on the upswing. Good numbers of flatheads are showing up with many of them in the 36-inch range. The best time to see large numbers of these fish is in late June to mid-July when they're in the rocks along the bridge near Bridgeview Park. This hotspot is on the western side of the lake in the Chariton River arm. Other good summer flathead spots are the South Fork bridge, Ranger Point and Prairie Ridge areas. Concentrate on the riprap rocks when the fish are actively spawning.
Locals target cats in the South Fork Arm near Griffinsville, the North Arm west of the Highway 142 causeway up in the bays and the Buck Creek section on the lake's western end just north of the dam.
Other spots on Lake Rathbun hold summer cats as well. Shoreline rocks and points are hotspots during the summer months when the wind is blowing across the surface and drifting food starts to stack up.
Lake Rathbun covers 11,000 acres in Appanoose County in south-central Iowa.
Call the Rathbun Fish Hatchery for additional information at (641) 647-2406.
NORTH TWIN LAKE
Bullheads are the name of the game in this shallow 453-acre lake in northwestern Iowa.
According to fisheries management biologist Lannie Miller, there are lots of them, and they're willing biters. During the 2005 fisheries survey the IDNR conducted on the lake a lot of bulls showed up in the 1-pound range. Nobody knows how many bullheads roam the lake, but the uncontested fact is that there are a lot of these fish.
Bullheads will be up in the shallows at night to feed. The northern section of the lake is often the best bet for nocturnal anglers using anything from night crawlers to chicken livers.
Inflowing water from rainfalls seem to excite bullhead feeding activity. Food is washed into the lake and the cats will move up to intercept it. Even in the daylight hours, heavy rains will sometimes start the bulls feeding.
Look for nice-sized bullheads up along windswept shorelines where dead fish, insects and other catfish delicacies have been washed up. Bullheads are bottom feeders and the wave action helps to stir things up on the lake bottom.
Anglers will occasionally take a channel cat or two along the shoreline or even out in the deeper water. The deepest spot on the lake is only 13 feet deep.
North Twin Lake is located four miles north of Rockwell City in Calhoun County. Two ramps are available off Highway 124 on the south side of the lake.
For more information contact the Blackhawk Fish Management office at (712) 657-2638 or Twin Lakes State Park at (712) 297-7131.
"The lower portion of the Wapsipinicon River is a good catfish stream here in southeastern Iowa and is one of those rivers you don't want to overlook when you're thinking about catfishing," said biologist Kline.
From Scott and Clinton counties up past Independence the fishing is good. Kline favors the Wapsipinicon because of the continuous meander of cut banks and point bars with associated runs and riffles between them. This type of winding pattern creates abundant habitat for large catfish along with the drifts, logjams and fallen trees.
According to Kline, anglers who know the Wapsi expect to be jostled and jolted by woody structure in attempting to navigate the river. They're also aware that tough structure like this usually implies the presence of catfish.
"The Wapsi has a lot of good catfishing," said Glen Nichols, owner of Nick's Rod & Reel Service Center in Davenport. "Live bluegills and bullheads are great bait for the flatheads while the channel cats are taken on stink baits."
Access is a problem, said Nichols. Most of the small boat and shoreline access is at the bridges. A lot of anglers put a canoe in at one bridge and drift-fish down to the next.
A couple of years of low water have concentrated catfish into the deeper holes and logjams, many of which are bordered by sand bars.
"There's a lot of activity at the sand bars with overnight camping and fishing being a big event," said Kline. "If you can locate the riffle crossover spots you can let a good chunk of bait drift down into the pool and into the pile of tangled cover below them. You'll pull cats up out of these pools. The entrances of the creek channels can also be good when they're flowing and bringing in new food. Try slipping a bait down under one of those logjams."
Catfish up to 30 pounds are common, said Kline, and include channels and flatheads. The potential for a lunker is good. There are lots of eating-sized fish in the 2- to 5-pound range.
Anglers can gain access to a productive section of the river at McCausland.
Contact the Lake Darling Fish Management Unit at (319) 694-2430 for additional information or Nick's Rod & Reel Service Center at (563) 391-1517.
"The Boone River in Hamilton County below Webster City to the confluence with the Des Moines River has some of the best channel catfish habitat in the state," said James Wahl, fisheries biologist in north-central Iowa. "The average-sized channel collected in a recent electrofishing survey was about 14 inches and ran about a pound. Larger fish are available and it is not uncommon to see 4- and 5-pound catfish in the creel."
The riffles and pools in the Boone provide outstanding catfishing opportunities in the roughly 25-mile stretch of river from Webster City downstream to the Des Moines. Channel cats predominate but the occasional monster-sized flathead is taken from under tangled wood, deeper pools and off deeper rocks. Look for cats in the pools that have developed on the outside bends.
"Dip baits are very effective in June," said McDonnell. "I carry four or five kinds in a bucket and try them all until I find what the fish are wanting. If you're after the bigger cats, go after dark."
Try a float trip downriver with stops wherever you find productive water. There are several access sites which include the Riverside Park in Webster Cit
y, the Briggs Woods Park two miles south of Webster City, the Bells Mill Park five miles northeast of Stratford and the Boone Forks Wildlife Management area two miles north of Stratford.
For more information contact the Clear Lake Fish Management Unit at (641) 357-3517.
The Missouri is one of the state's only haunts of the legendary blue catfish.
They're rarely seen but have been found by lucky anglers as far north in Iowa as the Sioux City area, according to blue catfish expert and tournament angler Jim Yowell.
"There are a few blues up around Sioux City but there aren't many of them," said Yowell. "Further south in the Missouri they actually dominate the fishery in some places but in Iowa, channels and flatheads are much more common."
The draw of the blue catfish is probably due to its nearly unbelievable size. A blue can easily reach 40 pounds and sometimes will top the scales at 60, but it's not out of the question to hope for an 80- or 90-pound fish.
Big blues are opportunistic feeders, said Yowell. They'll take a live bluegill like a flathead or a cut-up skipjack, carp or bluegill like a channel cat.
Cold weather finds blues hunkered down in the deepest water they can find and as the water warms they'll cruise closer to shore. Blues lie in deep cuts, the shipping channel and river-bottom holes, and as summer progresses will cruise into surprisingly shallow water, sometimes only 3 or 4 feet deep.
Flatheads will be found in the rocks and deeper holes when they finish spawning in late spring. Live bluegills make great bait when weighted to keep the bait close to the bottom.
Channel cats will be anywhere you can find slack water that connects to logjams, rocks or other submerged cover.
Boat access is available in the Sioux City area at the Sioux City Municipal Boat Docks, Weedland, Snyder Bend Oxbow and Highway 175 ramps.
For more information contact the IDNR Northwest Management Region office at (712) 336-1840 or the Southwest Management office at (712) 769-2587. Guide Jim McDonnell can be contacted at (712) 933-5532.