Brothers and sisters of Iowa's First Church of Catfish, we are gathered here today to hear the good news about catfishing in Iowa. We are here to celebrate stringers full of eaters, we are here to praise 15-pound channel cats, and we are here to exult and possibly stretch the truth about catching 50-pound flatheads.
OK, comparing catfishing to a religion may be a little extreme. But it's no exaggeration that catfishing is popular in Iowa. It's safe to say that any angler who fishes regularly in Iowa will catch one or more catfish this year, if only by accident. Walleye anglers catch them on jigs, crappie anglers catch them on minnows, bass anglers hook them on crankbaits, and kids fishing with nightcrawlers for bluegills get the thrill of their lives when they wrestle a 3-pound channel cat to shore.
The ubiquitous presence of catfish in Iowa waters is natural in our rivers, but carefully orchestrated in ponds, lakes and reservoirs. Research has shown that catfish spawn successfully in lakes, but that few catfish fry and fingerlings survive to adulthood due to heavy predation by bass and other predators.
To provide catfishing in lakes, for many years the Iowa DNR and county conservation boards jumpstarted catfish populations via the Caged Catfish Program. The DNR provided fingerling catfish that were placed in cages in lakes around the state each spring. Fed commercial fish food all summer, the fingerlings grew to 7 or more inches, large enough to escape predators, and were released each fall. The result was a tremendous population of channel catfish in many lakes.
Steve Anderson, director of the Washington County Conservation Board, said the program has created outstanding catfishing opportunities in that county's CCB ponds thanks to a little extra help from CCB employees.
"I admit that we fed those catfish pretty good," he said. "We weren't trying to maximize economic efficiency as much as we were trying to maximize results, and always released bigger catfish every fall because of it. We've got a lot of catfish in all our county conservation board lakes."
In some cases, there are too many catfish to be found.
"We developed better sampling strategies, and we found that in some bodies of water we had more catfish than we needed," said Mark Flammang, DNR fisheries management biologist. "We actually had lakes with overpopulations of catfish. We'd see 100 pounds of catfish per acre, but few of the catfish were longer than 13 inches."
So the DNR changed its channel catfish management policies. The Caged Catfish Program was discontinued, replaced by improved catfish rearing strategies at the Rathbun Fish Hatchery that allows the DNR to economically and efficiently produce 7-inch catfish that are stocked each fall into lakes and ponds according to revised stocking rates.
"We've reduced stocking rates in some lakes," said Flammang. "There are fewer fish, but they're growing faster. Anglers still catch the numbers they've always caught, but the average size is larger."
While catfish are easy to catch, especially when populations are as high as they are in many lakes in Iowa, most anglers catch catfish less than 5 pounds. That's because catfish over 5 pounds transition from omnivorous (eat anything they can get in their mouth) to carnivores that prefer live or fresh-cut bait.
"Dip baits, punch baits and stink baits are fine for 2, 3- and 4-pounders," said Ken Miller, from Cedar Rapids, a tournament-winning catfish angler and Whisker Seeker Tackle Pro-staffer. "You've just about got to use live bait or fresh-cut bait to catch anything bigger than 5 pounds."
That dietary discrimination applies to catfish in both lakes and rivers. For decades, rivers in Iowa were the primary target for catfish anglers. Many became adept at reading currents and structure, and easily caught both channel catfish and flatheads from the Des Moines, Cedar, Iowa, Skunk, Raccoon and other inland rivers. Catfishing in lakes and reservoirs was largely limited to fishing from shore, or anchoring boats and waiting for catfish to find baits parked on the bottom. But a new generation of aggressive catfish anglers have developed tactics that have dramatically increased catches from Iowa's lakes.
The strategy is based on slow-trolling live or cutbait near schools of baitfish. Anglers use sonar to locate schools of shad in Lake Red Rock, Coralville Reservoir, Lake Rathbun or Saylorville Lake, then precisely slow-troll at .5 to 1.5 mph a Carolina Rig baited with fresh-cut bait below or alongside the school of baitfish.
Matt Davis, founder of Iowa-based Whisker Seeker Tackle, said that at Iowa's large flood control reservoirs, the important key to catching catfish is to find shad.
"If you find a school of shad, there are generally hungry, aggressive catfish near that school," said Davis. "Rather than anchoring in one spot and waiting for catfish to find your bait, slow-trolling targets aggressive catfish in the mood to bite, keeps your bait moving, puts flavor in the water, and it will dramatically improves your catch rates."
Many tournament catfish anglers improve the efficacy of slow-trolled Carolina Rigs by adding cigar-shaped floats just ahead of their hook. They slide a hefty egg sinker onto their main line, then tie a swivel to the end of the line. A 16- to 24-inch leader is tied to the swivel, a cigar float is slid onto the leader, and a 4/0 to 8/0 octopus or circle hook is tied to the leader.
Pegging the float just ahead of the hook raises the bait a foot or more off the bottom of the lake, putting it at eye-level for hungry catfish that hover near the bottom. Miller and Davis use Whisker Seeker Catfish Lures that incorporate swivels, floats and octopus hooks in a single unit to ease rigging and improve catch rates.
Catfish anglers on rivers are also adopting more aggressive tactics to catch more catfish. Instead of sitting around a campfire waiting for catfish to take baits anchored to the bottom with heavy weights, anglers are using run-and-gun tactics to catch more and larger catfish in places previously overlooked by catfish anglers.
Miller has had success fishing mid-river holes in the Mississippi River, moving to stay on aggressive fish.
"Underwater structure you can't see on the surface is actually better than the logjams and brushpiles where a lot of guys fish," he said. "I use sonar to find underwater structure, maybe a hole where it drops from 15 to 25 feet. I fish the upper edges or sides of those holes. Active fish will be up along the edges. Inactive fish will drift down to the bottom to rest out of the current.
The same goes for fishing around wingdams. Fish the edges of holes on the upside, the tip and the backside of wingdams. I fish a spot for 15 to 20 minutes, catch the aggressive fish, then move to another spot. There's no use sitting in one spot unless the fish keep biting."
WHERE TO FIND CATFISH
The Mississippi River south of Davenport is one of Miller's favorite places for catfishing tournaments. He said the river north of Davenport has plenty of catfish in its myriad backwaters and channels, but he's had better success in the more unified river channel along Iowa's southeast border.
"That's where I do real well fishing mid-river holes and structure," he said. "It's not uncommon for the channel cats we catch in tournaments to average 8 or 9 pounds. We're seeing more flatheads, too, and they seem to be getting bigger. It's not uncommon to see 40 pounders in the past few years."
On the other side of Iowa, Miller was impressed by the catfishing at a tournament last year on the Missouri River.
"My partner and I caught a total of 20 channel cats, and took six fish that weighed 38 pounds to the weigh-in," he said. "Some of the guys did well for blue cats. The Missouri is about the only place in Iowa you'll see blue cats. One guy had a 40-pounder, and another guy caught a 65-pounder."
All of Iowa's inland rivers support strong populations of channel and flathead catfish. The Des Moines, Iowa, Raccoon, Cedar, Skunk and Big Sioux rivers are well-known catfish producers. The lower portions of the Wapsipinicon, Maquoketa, English, Nishnabotna and Boyer rivers provide excellent catfishing for local anglers wise to the potential in those down-sized waterways.
Thanks to the DNR's catfish management programs, nearly every pond, lake or reservoir in Iowa has a strong population of catfish. Miller's experience at tournaments, along with his contacts with a network of catfishing fanatics across the state, provides an overview of some of the better places to catch catfish in 2015.
"Coralville (Reservoir, north of Iowa City) is consistently good for channel cats," said Miller. "At one tournament last year, the six fish we kept averaged 8 3/4 pounds. A lot of people catfish above the Interstate 380 bridge or up around the Mehaffey Bridge, but I've always done well fishing the bends in the old river channel in the main lake. If I had to fish from shore, I'd probably look at the Mehaffey Bridge area, where the steep shoreline indicates the old river channel is fairly close to shore."
Miller has heard good catfishing reports from Pleasant Creek Lake near Palo. He noted a couple local catfishing experts have consistently entered 20-pound channel catfish in the DNR's Master Angler Registry for the past several years.
"From what I can tell, they anchor over brushpiles and fish all night," he said. "Some guys do well fishing at night. A lot of the western Iowa tournament guys fish all night, use blood baits, and they catch a lot of catfish. I prefer to sleep at night, so I figured out how to slow-troll in lakes during the day, and I catch all the catfish I want that way."
In central Iowa, Miller is nearly reverential toward Saylorville and Red Rock reservoirs on the Des Moines River.
"For me, Red Rock is the premier catfish lake in Iowa," he said. "It's a big lake, but you can go just about anywhere on it, find a swarm of baitfish at a bend in the river channel, or around some humps or old creek channels, and catch catfish that are following those baitfish. If you know what you're doing, you can handle 20 or more fish a day that average 9 pounds. Saylorville is the same way. In late summer, slow-trolling above the Mile-Long Bridge is the way to catch catfish on Saylorville."
Shore-bound anglers at Saylorville and other reservoirs have plenty of catfishing opportunities. In June, during the catfish spawn, hordes of catfish cluster near areas that offer the nooks, crannies and cavities they require for spawning. Since most of the structure has been floated out of flood control reservoirs, that means the only "holey" structure is areas of large riprapped rock.
At Saylorville, Red Rock and other reservoirs, that means the face of their dams, riprapped bridge abutments, or jetties attract catfish from hundreds of acres of nearby water during the spawn.
"One afternoon during the spawn my daughter and I fished nightcrawlers under bobbers along the riprap in the Bridgeview area at Lake Rathbun," said Flammang. "We caught 5-pound channel cats all afternoon, one after the other. If you hit it right, it's incredible catfishing."
After the spawn, catfish are always attracted to current, so any inflow of water into a lake or reservoir is prime place for shore anglers to key on catfish. At Saylorville the spillway from Big Creek Lake, at Coralville the spillway from Lake Macbride, and at Red Rock the inflow from Roberts Creek Lake attracts catfish throughout the year.
Other lakes in Iowa are generating catfishing buzz in 2015. For years DNR surveys have shown high populations of large channel catfish in East Lake Okoboji, in far northwest Iowa. The fishing culture in northern Iowa favors walleyes and perch, and East Lake's catfish have been largely ignored. The same applies to catfish at Five Island Lake near Emmetsburg, and Clear Lake, near Mason City.
"The word is out about East Okoboji," said Miller. "Good numbers of big catfish, and nobody has been fishing for them. Those northern natural lakes are relatively shallow, smooth-bottomed, and should be perfect for slow-trolling. I've heard of a few guys pulling 20-pounders out of East Lake Okoboji. I plan to get up there this year and check it out."
New techniques and tactics are expanding the territories for experienced catfish anglers like Miller. The DNR's evolving strategies regarding stocking rates are maintaining catfish numbers while increasing their average size in Iowa's lakes. Those are only two of the many reasons the membership in Iowa's First Church of Catfish is not only fervent, but growing in 2015.