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Iowa's Through-The-Ice Channel Cats

Iowa's Through-The-Ice Channel Cats

Summertime's not the only time for taking the

Hawkeye State's channel catfish: You can catch

them right through winter ice -- if you'll take some tips from our specialist.

Gene Murray of Wapello has the solution for a puzzle that has for many years bedeviled ice-anglers on Iowa's lakes and ponds.

The question: What kind of fish just tore up my ice-fishing tackle? The answer, according to Murray: a catfish - a big catfish.

"Anybody who has ice-fished for any length of time has a story to tell about hooking something that just pulled and pulled," said Murray, "and they couldn't stop it until it eventually broke off. I think that the mystery fish is catfish. It's happened to me and my friends lots of times. We've hooked and managed to pull 4-pound and bigger bass through the ice, so we were pretty sure it wasn't bass. We're all diehard catfish anglers, and the more we thought about it, the more we were sure it was channel catfish."

Being diehard catfishers, Murray and friends couldn't let an opportunity to catch catfish slip away, and so have spent the past decade developing a system for consistently catching channel cats through the ice.

Murray and his friends focus on farm ponds for their midwinter catfish. Their experience corroborates data from fisheries biologists' research indicating that the majority of channel catfish in a body of water will spend their winters clustered at the greatest depth they can find. Since farm ponds generally have only one deep spot, it's easier on a 3-acre pond than on a 500-acre public lake to pinpoint a smart place to start drilling holes through the ice.


Murray and friends are quick to note that not every pond stocked with catfish will yield catfish through the ice. "It's just like with bluegills and crappies - some ponds that produce real well through the summer are tough once they ice over," Murray remarked. "We haven't figured out exactly why that is, but we've noticed that the best ponds for ice-fishing for cats are generally at least 15 feet deep at their deepest point, at least 3 acres in size, and have catfish that average 2 pounds or larger."

Murray drills a number of holes over the deepest water in ponds and then scans with a Vexilar FL-8 to find the deepest spot in those areas. "I'm not marking fish - I'm mainly trying to figure out the bottom," he explained. "Sometimes I get a green flicker or, if I'm lucky, an orange flicker that tells me there are fish down there. The cats are generally so close to the bottom that you can't register them on the sonar."

Photo by Dan Anderson

Once Murray is confident that he's over or near the deepest water, he starts probing for cats with special tackle. He mounts a small, high-quality spinning reel spooled with 3-pound diameter superline rated at 8 to 10 pounds on a 2- to 3-foot-long ice-fishing rod that's slightly stouter than what's normally used for panfishing through the ice. While he prefers the heavier tackle, he has successfully landed 8-pound channel cats with economy-type panfish tackle.

"You can land a big cat with one of those little ice-fishing rods and reels you can buy at discount stores," he asserted, "if you're careful. Loosen the reel spring so it will turn free, and as soon as you get a bite, pull the peg and use your thumb as a drag to keep from breaking that lightweight line.

"The big secret is, as soon as you know you've got a cat on the line, shove the tip of the rod right down into the hole in the ice. Catfish do a lot more side-to-side movement than panfish, or even bass, and they'll bust that light line on the edge of the hole if you try to fight them with the rod tip above the ice. Stick the rod tip into the water and use the flex of the rod tip and either the spinning reel's drag or your thumb on the spool of the ice-fishing reel to wear them down."

Getting an unwilling channel cat of the wide-bodied 8-pound variety through a 5- or 6-inch hole in the ice is no easy task. A crowd of panfish anglers who gathered to watch Murray battle a 7-plus pound catfish through the ice at Lake Odessa last winter made bets that he wouldn't get it onto the ice.

"I kept that rod tip stuffed down into the hole till it was tired out," he recalled with a chuckle. "Then I used a homemade gaff I carry just for those situations. It's only a broken fiberglass fishing rod with a flathead catfish hook glued and tied to the end, but I can ease it down into the hole, snag the fish's lower jaw and lift him right through the hole without stressing my line.

"You should have heard those panfish guys when that big ol' channel cat came squeezing up through that 6-inch hole!"

Murray and friends experimented with a range of baits to discover what cold-water catfish prefer to eat. Live minnows, dead minnows, cut bait and commercial catfish dip and dough baits were all tried, and most scored a few catfish. But none surpassed what now has become Murray's primary bait for winter catfish: wax worms.

"Nothing performs as well as two or three wax worms on a 1/32-ounce jig," he said. "They don't seem interested in large baits in the winter, or even small pieces of traditional summer catfish baits. I don't know why."

Wayne Scheffsky, owner of W-D-3 Catfishing Systems in Geneseo, Ill., thinks he understands why small baits catch big catfish through the ice. "There are all sorts of little larva and worms that emerge from the mud at the bottom of lakes, even under the ice," he said. "That's what cats feed on through most of the winter. Their metabolism is slow, they don't need a lot of food, and they aren't in the mood to chase minnows or crawdads, so they're focused on small bits of bait like waxies."

While Murray has had minimal success when ice-fishing with commercial catfish baits, Scheffsky has used his company's commercial bait to catch as many as 47 channel cats ranging from 1 to 11 pounds from a public lake in a single afternoon.

"First I want to emphasize that we put all but one or two of those cats back," said Scheffsky. "I really believe you could do serious harm to the catfish population of a lake or pond when you're fishing on their wintering hole and have them all concentrated in a small area. Second, I think my bait has some flavors that other commercial baits don't, and I use it on a downsized sponge worm to imitate the type of worms they're used to feeding on during the winter."

Like all commercial catfish bait manufacturers, Scheffsky won't divulge the secret ingredients in his bait. He'll only state that it incorporates specific amino acids and oils fo

und in live bait, cut bait, blood bait, cheese bait and other traditional catfish catchers.

"Rather than have a different-flavored bait for spring, summer and fall, I have one bait formula that has the flavors that interest cats year 'round," he said. "And my bait isn't water-based, so it's not sensitive to coagulating, and not dissolving if the water temperature is below 50 degrees."

At public lakes, Scheffsky uses topographic maps and sonar to identify the deepest holes and then drills a series of four to six holes in several promising locations. He looks for dropoffs into those holes, old creek channels that pass through deep basins or stick-ups/standing trees on the edges of old channels.

"They're catfish," he remarked. "They're going to be near structure, but it will be deep-water structure in midwinter. Except on bright sunny days, they'll sometimes move up onto shallow flats close to deep water dropoffs to feed on those little worms that emerge from the mud."

If reasonably certain that he's on top of catfish, Scheffsky uses a 10-inch blade on his gas-powered ice auger to drill larger holes. If he's panfishing through traditional 5- or 6-inch holes and stumbles on a pile of cats, he reshapes his holes.

"I take an ice spud and chip the sides of the hole at a 45-degree angle, so it's wider at the bottom than at the top, like an upside-down funnel," he said. "If I can get the catfish's head started in the wide part of the hole, I can use a gaff to gull him on up through."

Both Scheffsky and Murray believe that whiskerfish behavior limits the number of cats that can be taken from a single hole on a single day when ice fishing. "That day when we took 47 cats from three adjacent holes was a rarity," said Scheffsky. "I've talked with fisheries biologists, and we pretty much agree that catfish are different from panfish. Panfish, when they get excited, put off a feeding hormone that encourages other panfish to come and feed. Catfish, on the other hand, seem to put off a 'danger' hormone when they're fighting on a hook. After you catch two or three from a hole, you've about got to give up on that hole for the rest of the day."

Murray pointed out that cats will return to their deep-water winter hideaway within a day or two. "We can go back to those holes in a day or two and usually get more fish from pretty much the same area," he noted. "That's why you've got to be careful not to overfish small ponds."

Any private pond or public lake that yields easy catches of cats during the summer is a prime location in which to drill holes for midwinter catfish. Southern Iowa has thousands of farm ponds and hundreds of county conservation board lakes that all teem with catfish. Counties north of Interstate 80 each have at least a few county conservation board lakes that can promise the prospect of catfish through the ice. Here's a quick survey of Iowa's top midwinter catfishing holes.

Northwest Iowa
Lake Pahoja, a small county conservation board lake in Lyon County, west of the Iowa Great Lakes, is renowned for its summer catfishing. Drill holes off the face of the dam to probe for the exact location of Pahoja's midwinter catfish.

The per-acre population of channel catfish at Storm Lake is possibly the densest of all the natural lakes in the state. The basin shape of Storm makes it difficult to pinpoint cats' whereabouts, but recent dredging operations have created deeper areas that attract all the lake's catfish.

Lake Blackhawk also has dredged areas that call to the lake's well-documented population of channels. Work the edges of the dredge to find cats that venture onto nearby mudflats on sunny days.

Yellow Smoke Lake, a county conservation board lake in Crawford County, is another lake with a strong history of summertime catfish bounty. On this tidy little lake, drill holes along the old creek channel near the dam to find the cats' winter quarters.

Northeast Iowa
Volga Lake is the region's largest lake, and conversely the most difficult in which to find wintertime catfish. Probe deep water off the dam, and pay close attention to any brush piles in deepwater areas.

Kent Lake, south of Tiffin, is a smaller lake, so its single deep area makes it easier to find the catfish. The same applies to Casey Lake, north of Dysart in Tama County.

Don't overlook the "Wyeth" lakes on the north edge of Waterloo. Lying in the flood plain of the Cedar River, they're regularly "restocked" with the river's channel cats.

Southwest Iowa
All of Adair County's county conservation board lakes - Lake Greenfield, Lake Orient, and Meadow Lake in particular - have solid catfish complements. Fish these small lakes as you would ponds: by drilling holes near their dams.

Three Mile Lake, Twelve Mile Lake and Little River Lake all produce stringers of channels through the summer. The challenge in winter is to find the deeper holes that harbor catfish through the season. Identify the deepest holes near underwater springs, old creek channels, or entry points for the warm run-off water that midwinter thaws bring into the lake to find concentrations of catfish.

Cold Springs Lake in Cass County was hot for cats all summer and could surrender cats to anglers who target its deepest waters through the winter.

Green Valley Lake, near Creston, was renovated several years ago. Target brushpiles either in the lakes deepest areas or on dropoffs into deep water. The same goes for Lake Icaria, near Corning; drill in deepwater areas near the campground.

Central Iowa
Big Creek Lake, north of Des Moines, has tons of catfish. Drill holes above the dam near the old creek channel. Easter Lake, on the southeast side of Des Moines, gave up very satisfying catches of catfish through the summer, and should offer equally agreeable ice-catting in deep areas along the old creek channel in the north-south portion of the lake.

Don Williams Lake, north of Ogden, was on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' weekly "Hotspots" report throughout the summer, tallying steady catches of 2- to 5-pound channel cats from ice-out to ice-up. The deep, steep-sided lake has water 35 feet deep near the dam, a prime spot to investigate for midwinter cats.

Southeast Iowa
Though big lakes in southeast Iowa - Lake Rathbun and Coralville Lake - harbor uncounted catfish, they present real challenges for anglers trying to find those cats through the ice. The best bet for anglers in this quadrant of the state will be smaller lakes that make it commensurately easier to get a fix on the deep water.

Lake Miami in Monroe County, Lake

Wapello in Davis County and Lake Darling in Washington County can all produce catfish in the deep areas off their dams. Be prepared to drill lots of holes - holes only 10 feet apart can be boom or bust. Catfish are tightly grouped during the winter, and generally not inclined to travel to reach bait.

"Usually, if you're going to catch catfish from a hole, you'll know within two or three minutes," Murray offered. "If you don't get bit in 20 minutes, plan on moving. The cats won't come to you in the winter. That's why it's a good idea to drill a whole series of holes over the deepest areas so you can move around until you find the cats.

"It's not a sure thing, to catch catfish through the ice. We always fish for bluegills and crappies too, with some poles set for catfish. We can usually find panfish. But if we pick up a catfish, you can bet that everybody abandons the panfish holes and works the catfish holes. It's about as much fun as a person can have ice-fishing."

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