If you want a trophy catfish this summer, you're in luck. No matter where you live in Iowa, you can find a promising spot nearby.
By Ed Harp
Iowa has no shortage of great catfishing. In fact, waters all across our state offer trophy catting opportunities for the anglers willing to wet a line in some of the best catfish waters in the entire country.
Trophy flatheads and blues can be found on the west or east sides of the state. Most of the better ones are taken from the Missouri River and the Mississippi River. Some of the most productive channel cat water is found in the south-central portion of the state, near Des Moines. West Lake Osceola and Big Creek Lake give up several trophies each year.
THE MISSOURI RIVER
The Missouri River, on the west side of the state, is as good a place to start as any. The stretch from Sioux City south to Council Bluffs has been especially productive over the years. Big-time catfish anglers rate this 100-mile-long ribbon of water as having some of the best flathead fishing in the state. Each year, it gives up 20-pound flatheads on a regular basis, several in the 40-pound range and an occasional fish pushing 60 pounds. There is always a chance - and a realistic chance - for one even bigger than that.
The area around Sioux City is considered prime. Upstream and downstream from this west-central Iowa city, the Missouri River offers habitat that was made for flatheads. For miles in each direction, the river is replete with holes, drops, cuts and channels. Nearly all of them hold wood debris from the spring and winter run-offs. That's flathead country.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Savvy local anglers suggest you begin by spending some time on the water with your rods and reels stowed away in the boat. Carefully survey the area with the aid of your depthfinder. Locate, as best you can, each and every irregularity in the river's bottom.
After you find them, think about them. Consider what effect, if any, these irregularities have on current flow. Do they alter it in any way? Flatheads, like all other creatures in a river system, are affected by current. If you are going to catch them, you must understand current.
Anglers should search for spots with current that also offer the catfish a place to avoid the current - a current break. Current breaks may provide resting areas or ambush points - no one really knows for sure. Either way, big fish like them. So will you after you catch a couple of big flatheads from them.
Also, understand that flatheads are not scavengers. They are predators. They do not eat trash. They eat other fish, mammals and just about anything they can get into their mouths. They are every bit as much a predator as a bass.
With that in mind, let's consider bait. Most successful trophy flathead hunters are emphatic about bait choices. They use only live or fresh-cut bait. They never use spoiled baits or stink baits. At best, these attract only small fish. Rarely is a trophy caught on them.
Most big flatheads are caught on shad, bluegills or other native fish. When fished live, they are usually hooked through the back in front of the dorsal fin. If they are cut, most anglers discard the head and tail. They fish only with the fillets that are cut by slicing along the backbone. Shad can be easily obtained from local bait shops or with the use of a cast net for those anglers skillful enough to use one.
Bluegills, on the other hand, must be caught with hook and line. Serious catfish anglers catch a few at their local pond before heading out to the river.
For trophy flatheads, bigger bait is better. Bluegills 6 inches in length, or even longer, are considered about right. When it comes to shad, there is no such thing as too big. Shad over a foot long are regularly used as bait.
Flatheads are big, powerful fish. You'll need tackle to match. Long, stiff casting rods with heavy-duty reels spooled with 40-pound-test line are the norm. Big, strong hooks, size 7/0 or even larger, are required. Circle hooks have been slow to catch on in western Iowa, but are gaining in popularity as more and more anglers learn how to use them.
Use just enough weight to keep your bait down in the current. With relatively small pieces of cut bait in slack current, this may be as little as one-half ounce. With a 12-inch shad in hard current, it may be several ounces.
On downstream from Council Bluffs to the Missouri line is considered blue catfish territory, even though a number of trophy flatheads are taken from these waters every year. The state-record blue catfish, a 77-pound, 15-ounce giant, was caught just upstream from Council Bluffs.
Wing dikes are popular with catfish anglers in this area. They are excellent locations for trophy fish. As water flows over and around the dikes, it digs a hole behind the dike offering a current break for the fish. They can rest or ambush their prey from this vantage point.
Jerry Smith (712-328-8852), a local catfish angler and president of the Iowa Catfish Drifters Inc., believes this may be the best blue catfish water in the state. He points out that a number of big ones are taken from these holes every year. He, like his flathead brothers upstream, favors shad and bluegills for bait. He is especially fond of bluegills.
He fishes his 'gills just a little different than the average angler, though. Smith always cuts them - cutting off the tail first, which he discards, then the head, which he keeps. After that, he fillets them along their backbone in the conventional manner.
Unlike most anglers, Smith fishes with the head. He believes this may be the best part of the bluegill. He hooks it through the eyes and adds just enough weight to hold it down along the bottom.
For reasons no angler fully understands, some holes produce better than others. Experienced Missouri River catmen keep moving until they find an active bite. More than 45 minutes on one hole is almost always a waste of time.
When Smith is looking for a real trophy blue, he heads farther downstream, nearly to the Missouri line. In that section of the river, there are a number of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wingdams in the river. They are much larger than the ones found upstream toward Council Bluffs. The scour holes behind them are much deeper and much larger. At times, they hold much larger fish.
In fact, they are legendary for holding giants - fish between 40 and 60 pounds. Still, bait remains the same. Cut bluegills are the way to go. Tackle
requirements do change, however. To handle a fish, especially a blue catfish, in the 40-pound-plus range requires muscle, real muscle. Rods for this type of angling typically are at least 7 feet long, very stiff and tough. They get heavy use. Nothing less will do the job.
Reels are chosen to match. The very toughest freshwater models and light saltwater models are preferred. Heavy 50-pound-test abrasion resistant monofilament line is required. Some anglers are switching to the newer super lines because of their smaller diameters and easier handling characteristics. A few anglers use braided lines with monofilament leaders.
Hooks need to be big and strong. This is not the place to try and save a few pennies. Buy the very best you can afford. Sizes ranging from 5/0 to 8/0 are standard. Many anglers are using circle hooks.
Flathead fishing is just as good on the other side of the state. The Mississippi River produces more than her share of giants. Beginning in the northeast corner of the state, quality flatheads can be caught in pools 9 through 15. The Mississippi is somewhat narrower in these pools than it is farther downstream. Nevertheless, it can be successfully fished. Unlike bass anglers, however, who target the bays, sloughs and backwater areas, flathead anglers are partial to the main river.
A typical haunt for flatheads in the upper Mississippi River includes any sharp drop, twist, turn or hole in the river's bottom. There are countless numbers of them. Spend a little time with your depthfinder before you fish and you will easily locate several likely spots. Mark them on your GPS unit, a map or with marker buoys for future reference.
Flatheads in the Mississippi like wood, and there is plenty of it. During periods of rain and snow run-off, thousands of trees are washed into the river. Some of them find their way downstream and are eventually locked through, all the way to the Gulf.
Many others, however, become waterlogged and sink below the surface. These trees collect along the main-river channel anywhere there is an irregularity in it and form huge areas of structure and cover. Big flatheads love these spots. They will inhabit them in spite of heavy barge traffic, heavy pleasure boat traffic and heavy fishing pressure.
While fishing the main-river channel, do not overlook other channels and holes along the way. There are hundreds of tributaries in this section of the river. They all have their own channels that have been cut by years of running water. They hold submerged drift just like the main-river channel.
Never neglect a spot where a tributary channel meets the main-river channel. The current washes out a hole at this point. When the tributary water runs into the main-river channel, it turns in a downstream direction. This turning digs a concave hole at the spot of the turn. The water also slows down when it turns. This allows it to drop much of what it has been carrying. These concave holes are some of the best - the very best - spots to find a trophy.
The areas in pools 9 through 15 that hold big flatheads are tough. They are choked with wood and all types of foreign material. When you hook a giant, you need to get it turned up and away from the debris. This cannot be done with light tackle. Use heavy tackle! After you get your big cat into open water, you can play with it and have some fun.
On downstream, from pools 16 through 19, the Mississippi is much wider, slower and flatter. It still holds big flatheads, but now you are likely to encounter a few blues as well. The catfish in these pools tend to be more concentrated when they are in deeper water - mostly because there are fewer places to go. When they're shallow, however, they tend to scatter more.
While conditions may change, deep and shallow roughly correlates to day and night. In the summertime, with its heat and intense sunlight, both flatheads and blues tend to go deep. They stay deep until sunset. After that, they generally move out onto the flats to feed.
Top anglers, fishing at night, will fish on shallow flats that are adjacent to the deepest water in the area. Finding these spots may take some time and effort. It is time and effort well expended, however, since it may get you your biggest catfish of the year.
Selecting bait for either flatheads or blues anywhere in the Mississippi is simple enough. Fish with live shad and you can't go wrong. The preferred rigging is to hook them behind the head and in front of the dorsal spine. Run the hook through the meat of the back taking care not to injure their spine. This will kill them, and they're practically useless to you if they're dead.
Every now and then, blues will show a preference for cut bait. If they do, make sure your fillets are fresh and change them often. Stale bait is poor bait.
WEST LAKE OSCEOLA
When it comes to trophy channel cats, Smith recommends a couple of small lakes, both of them near Des Moines. His first choice is West Lake Osceola. Located just south of Des Moines off I-35, it's rapidly gaining a big-time reputation for channel cats. Oddly, the lake doesn't look like much on paper. It's small at 325 acres and has a mean depth of just over 14 feet.
That doesn't sound like catfish water, but the channel cats don't know that. They are plentiful, fat and growing to respectable sizes.
Maybe it's the timber. The entire lake is ringed with it. This timber extends from the edge of the shoreline out into 10 feet of water. There are nearly 10 miles of standing timber in this tiny lake. The timber holds the fish, regardless of the season. In the summertime, 5 feet seems to be the magical depth. According to Smith, this is where most of the better fish are caught.
Lighter rigs are popular on West Lake Osceola, despite the wood. Most anglers fish with soft rods that sport fast tips. When asked about the popularity of fast tips, Smith replied, "You need a fast tip on this lake to see the bite. Channel cats bite soft in many cases. With a fast tip, we can see the slightest movement and still set the hook."
Smith points out that despite its small size, West Lake Osceola regularly gives up channel cats over 10 pounds, and fish up to 20 pounds are not uncommon. His summary: "Those are good ones!"
BIG CREEK LAKE
Smith's second pick is Big Creek. It is much bigger - nearly 900 acres at normal pool - and much deeper. It has a mean depth of over 17 feet and a maximum depth of 52 feet. Big Creek is located two miles north of Polk City off Highway 415.
Despite its differences with West Lake Osceola, Big Creek fishes about the same. The better channel cats tend to hold shallow and are easily caught on lighter tackle. There isn't much size difference when it comes to the fish either. Ten pounds is a quality fish here, but 20-pounders are possible.
Bait for channel cats is very di
fferent than for flatheads and blues, at least according to Smith. Chicken livers and shrimp are favorite choices of experienced anglers on both these lakes. Sometimes they are fished plain and sometimes they are dressed up a little bit.
Every angler has his or her own secret recipe for dressing them up. Keeping that in mind, popular modifications include allowing the baits to spoil in the sun, as well as adding blood, garlic, nutmeg and other assorted spices.
Both lakes offer anglers hard-surface ramps that will handle a modern fishing boat. There are no motor or horsepower restrictions, so long as the boats are being operated at idle speed.
No matter where you live in the Hawkeye State, you have choices and opportunities for big catfish. Take advantage of them this year.
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