Looking to match brains -- and brawn -- with some of the wiliest fish in the water? You've started in the right spot. Iowa is home to some of the best catfish waters in the country! (June 2009)
With marquee names like the Mississippi and Missouri, Iowa's rivers are tough to beat when it comes to catfish, but lakes like Rathbun, Macbride and Coralville produce their share of whiskerfish too.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
It should be another banner year for catfishing. Iowans are already tangling with trophy blues, huge flatheads and bragging-sized channel cats, and there's plenty more to go around.
Here's the lowdown on where you can get in on the catfish action for 2009.
When you set the hook on a Missouri River catfish, you never know which species is going to be on the other end of the line. The fishing isn't always fast-paced, but a Missouri cat is worth the wait.
Blues can be taken as far north as Sioux City in the deeper stretches of the river. They lurk near ledges in deep water, and then move up to feed in the shallows in the evenings and at night. These fish can top 60 pounds, and anglers will occasionally boat an even bigger brute.
Blues bite in the daylight, but you'll have to go deep to find them. They rest in the shipping channel and deep river-bottom holes where an ounce or two of weight is needed to keep your bait down. Live bait is best, but these fish will take cut bait as well. Just be sure to use a big enough bait to interest a fish that is used to dining on small channel cats and bullheads.
Flatheads and channel cats are far more common than their larger cousins on the Missouri. The flatheads will hunker down in tangled wood or along deeper rocks and bridge pilings. Bigger flatheads are live-bait-only predators and can be taken on a hooked bluegill or shad. Channel cats are generally found in shallow cover and pick up offerings washed up onto the shoreline or into the backwater areas.
Sioux City anglers have plenty of access at the Sioux City Municipal Boat Docks and the ramps at Weedland, Highway 175 and Snyder Bend Oxbow.
For more information, contact the IDNR Northwest Management Region office at (712) 336-1840 or the Southwest Management Region office at (712) 769-2587.
UPPER MISSISSIPPI RIVER
The upper reaches of the mighty Mississippi are second to none. Cats can be taken throughout the length of the Hawkeye State's portion of the Mississippi, but the northern reaches are especially productive. According to IDNR fisheries biologist Scott Gritters, the fishery has been awesome for the past four years.
The channel cats average between 1 and 3 pounds, with 8-pounders available. The spawns have been consistently good for the last few years, and the number of cats is high.
Flatheads are the big boys on the upper reaches of the Mississippi River in Iowa. There aren't a lot of encounters with fish in the 40-pound class, but they show up on occasion. Most of the flatheads weigh less than 4 pounds, which reflects the recent spawning success.
The best spots for both species are the large, flowing sloughs and side channels, in and around logjams and above wingdams or closing dams.
Gritters' top spots in Pool 9 are the Minnesota and Winneshiek sloughs. In Pool 10, try the Harpers and Wyalusing sloughs. In Pool 11, concentrate efforts on the Cassville, Jack Oak and Hurricane sloughs.
For information on the upper stretch of the river, call the Guttenberg Fish Management office at (563) 252-1156.
DES MOINES RIVER
A lot of old-time catfishermen will argue that the best catfishing in the state is found in the Des Moines River. IDNR fisheries biologist Dick McWilliams agrees. The river proper and the impoundments along the way offer excellent catfish prospects, and the fishing is as good as it has ever been.
Eddies and deep water down to about 20 feet will hold the cats early in the summer. Bigger cats frequent the low-head dams, holes and cut-outs.
Saylorville and Red Rock are probably the two top destinations on the river for both flatheads and channels. The low-head dams near Red Rock and the dams up to Fort Dodge are all hotspots. Red Rock's coves and backwaters provide cats with an escape from the current under ideal conditions. Saylorville is riverine in nature and lacks those out-of-the-way spots where cats can move up into protected water. Anglers should planning on fishing this water as a river, rather than as a lake.
Though rare, 40- to 50-pound flatheads have been taken here.
Good spots for catfish are on the West Fork up to Emmet and Palo Alto counties. The fishing is also good in Humboldt and Pocahontas counties. Downtown Des Moines is hardly a place where a lot of catfishermen would set up a pole, but there are big flatheads in the manmade structure and rocky, shoreline cut-outs.
Access ramps include the Sycamore Access, Birdland Marina and the 65/69 Bypass area.
For more information, contact the Spirit Lake Fish Management Unit at (712) 336-1840 or Casey's Bait Shop at (515) 262-2760.
The Iowa River is often -- and mistakenly -- overlooked as a serious catfish destination. Indeed, big cats roam this river. Flatheads can make it to 50 pounds in underutilized stretches of the river. From Iowa City downstream to Wapello near the Mississippi River, the cats can be huge.
Look for the big flatheads in brush, logjams and any of the stretches of deep water. Most of the river is shallow, and the deeper water concentrates the larger fish. High cut banks and washouts, deep holes created by the current under laydowns and other sporadic cover can harbor some very nice fish. Hooked live baits allowed to swim freely in the holes and under the cut-outs work wonders.
The channels cats dominate the river and are found in the same types of cover. They're taken on everything from a gob of earthworms to homemade stink baits.
Call the Macbride Fish Management office at (319) 624-3615 for more information.
CORALVILLE RESERVOIR & LAKE MACBRIDE
The Coralville Reservoir is an impoundment on the Iowa River with a good population of channel cats of its own. Lake Macbride is formed by a second dam and creates a lake off the main river system. The varying habitat on thi
s complex of waters provides everything a catfish could want.
Coralville's hotspots include below the Macbride dam, riprap banks, cut-outs and crevices below the limestone cliffs and steep shorelines.
No one knows yet how the flooding in 2008 will affect the catfishing, but it should be beneficial. Food was abundant for scavengers like channel cats, and spawning success should be high.
Coralville Reservoir and Lake Macbride are located four miles north of Iowa City and Coralville. The reservoir covers 5,300 acres and is nearly 17 miles long. Lake Macbride covers 812 acres. Plenty of boat access is available, along with camping and day-use facilities. Ramp access on the river can be found in the municipal areas.
For additional information, contact the Macbride Fish Management Unit at (319) 624-3615 or the Lake Macbride State Park at (319) 624-2200.
The channel cat population in Lake Rathbun is healthy, sporting both high numbers and some large fish. Cats topping the 25-inch mark and weighing in at 11 or 12 pounds are possible, according to IDNR fisheries biologist Mark Flammang.
In the early summer months, the channels are up and at it. Windblown shorelines with cut baits are the way to go. Flammang baits up on a 2/0 hook with about an ounce of weight to counter the wind and fishes shallow. If the weather is cold, the cats will stay on these shorelines to clean up the winterkill fish.
June generally brings warmer weather, and the cats are usually on the rocks in the Bridgeview Park or Ranger Point areas. Riprapped shoreline can be productive anywhere on the lake. The channels are spawning in these areas and the action can be fast-paced. The fishing will stay this way until early July.
The flathead bite is best during June and July. Over the last decade, the population of flatheads has seemingly increased, and Flammang now finds fish during IDNR samplings that tip the scales at 20 pounds and fill up a yard stick. The Bridgeview area and the rocks along the bridge near Bridgeview Park on the western side of the lake in the Chariton River arm are top spots. Other summer flathead hotspots are the South Fork bridge, Ranger Point and Prairie Ridge areas. There are sometimes good bites in the North Arm west of the state Route 142 causeway in the embayments, the South Fork Arm near Griffinsville and the Buck Creek section on the lake's western end just north of the dam.
Lake Rathbun covers 11,000 acres in Appanoose, Lucas and Wayne counties on the Chariton River 75 miles southeast of Des Moines.
Contact the Rathbun Fish Management Unit at (641) 647-2406, the Dam Site Depot at (641) 724-3300 or the Honey Creek State Park at (641) 724-3739 for additional information.
THREE MILE LAKE
Three Mile Lake is the place to be in southern Iowa, according to Flammang. Cats in the 2- to 6-pound range are fairly common here, and catching bigger fish is a real possibility.
This lake is one of southern Iowa's best catfish waters, and the habitat may be the key that keeps the population in high gear. When the lake was initially constructed, submerged humps were formed and trees left standing to create an environment conducive to fish development and growth. Channel cats will utilize this structure along with the submerged roadbed located between the boat ramps. The lake is loaded with weed edges, fallen timber, rocks and shoreline features.
A thermocline develops here during the dog days of summer, and cats will usually be confined in less than 15 feet of water. The fish will look for suitable cover along the shoreline or on the submerged structure that lies above the thermocline.
For a map of underwater structures, contact the IDNR at (515) 281-5918.
The lake covers 880 acres and is located three miles north of Afton in Union County.
Contact the Mount Ayr Fish Management office at (641) 464-3108 for more information.
BADGER CREEK LAKE
A half-ounce egg sinker with a 2- or 3-foot leader is all that drift-fishermen on this smaller lake will need. Keep the bait near the bottom and let the wind take you where it will. A seldom-seen version of the drift-fishing rig uses a double-hook edition that incorporates a 3-foot leader on the bottom and an 18-inch leader on the top. Tie on a second hook with a foot-long leader with a bobber to keep it up for any suspended fish and you're in business.
Drifting can be an art when it's done right. One or two drift socks or a trolling motor to help slow the boat on blustery days will keep the boat speed manageable. The faster the boat drift, the smaller the cats are going to be. Lunkers prefer a slower pace and an easier-to-catch meal. Shad, skipjack, bluegills and chubs are great baits and easy to keep on the hook.
Channel cats are the draw at Badger Creek, according to IDNR fisheries biologist Gary Sobotka. The lake gets a stocking of fingerling channel cats to the tune of seven to 10 fish per acre to keep the numbers high. The lake covers 270 acres and can be readily fished by boat or from the shore.
Depths at Badger Creek can reach 25 feet and average about 9 feet. The lake can send anglers home empty-handed in late June or early July if the water warms up fast. A thermocline develops that keeps the cats in shallow water.
Badger Creek Lake is five miles southeast of Van Meter in Madison County, only a 15-minute drive from Des Moines.
For more information, contact the Mount Ayr Fish Management office at (641) 464-3108.
ADAIR COUNTY'S 'CAGE LAKES'
The Adair County Conservation Board has aggressively stocked channel cats into four lakes in the county for two decades. Greenfield, Mormon Trail, Nodaway and Orient lakes are all small enough for family fishing outings with the kids and big enough to be absolutely loaded with channel cats. Anglers are catching channel cats here at more than twice the rate of other lakes.
The conservation board releases 10-inch fingerling channel cats into the lakes every other year. Greenfield receives about 25 fish per acre and Mormon Trail about 35 to 40 fish per acre. In Mormon Trail, the density of cats can be 100 fish per acre.
Sizes are nice as well, according to Kevin Blazek, the Adair County Conservation Board director. Lake Orient has a lot of cats from 12 to 19 inches and larger fish are occasionally taken in Mormon Trail.
Lake Greenfield covers 44 acres a half mile southwest of Greenfield on Lake View Drive. Mormon Trail has 35 acres of water and is located a mile and a half southeast of Bridgewater on Delta Avenue. Nodaway covers 22 acres two miles southwest of Greenfield on 250th Street. Lake Orient is a mile west of Orient on Orange Avenue.
All four lakes have at least on
e small ramp and good shoreline access. Day-use park facilities, parking and plenty of room for the kids to fish and roam are included.
Only electric motors are allowed. The daily bag limit for catfish on conservation board lakes is eight.
Call the Southwest Management Region at (712) 769-2587 or the Adair County Conservation Board at (515) 743-6450 for more information.
DESOTO BEND LAKE
DeSoto Bend is an old oxbow on the Missouri River that has developed a respectable fishery for big flatheads and channel cats. Some of these flatheads weigh up to 50 pounds, and channels can approach the 9- to 10- pound mark.
The lake gets a healthy dose of new cats during the stockings of fingerlings, according to fisheries biologist Chris Larson.
According to Larson, approximately 1,000 flatheads were stocked here in the mid-1990s to help control the overabundant population of bullheads. They found DeSoto to their liking and the result is a trophy-class lake that provides an opportunity to tangle with the fish of a lifetime. Flatheads have been found during IDNR samplings measuring 49 inches.
Not that they're a common sight. Flatheads are elusive even on this small lake, but they can be tempted with live bait allowed to swim freely in the deeper water and in tangled wood or rocky cover.
Channel cats can be taken on the shoreline areas during low-light hours with chicken livers, cut and live bait.
There are no motor size restrictions on this 118-acre lake, but a no-wake limit is in place. A hard-surface ramp can handle most smaller boats.
Additional information is available from the Southwest Management Region office at (712) 769-2587.