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Channel Catfish Fact Sheet
Fishing for Channel Catfish
Channel catfish are found in nearly all Iowa lakes, ponds, streams and rivers. They are the most abundant game fish in our nearly 20,000 miles of interior streams. Where to Find Them
Streams and Rivers Studies show that populations of 500 to over 5,000 pounds of catfish per mile in Iowa streams are common. Look for catfish in riffle areas just above pools, cut-banks, snags, rocks and other submerged structures in the stream. The outside edge of river bends usually has a cut-bank and deep water which hold large catfish populations. These outside bends usually have snags or log jams that provide good cover for catfish.
Lakes Lakes produce excellent catfishing thanks to an aggressive stocking program. Stocked fish grow rapidly and to a large size. The largest catfish caught in Iowa each year are taken from lakes and ponds. Fish in excess of 10 pounds caught in our man-made lakes are common. Lake-dwelling catfish are not evenly dispersed but concentrate into specific locations. Most ponds and fishing lakes stratify into three distinct thermal layers 10 to 15 feet below the surface and water in the lower strata contains no oxygen - and consequently no fish. Restrict your angling to depths above this stratification level. Streams that inflow into the upper ends of lakes concentrate catfish, as does submerged structure such as timber, rock protected shorelines and drop-offs. Look for diverse habitat - the more diverse the habitat, the more attractive it is to catfish.
Large Reservoirs Iowa’s large reservoirs offer outstanding channel catfishing throughout the open water season. Fishing typically begins in the spring at ice out as channel catfish begin to feed on gizzard shad that died over the winter. Focus fishing efforts towards the upper ends of the reservoirs fishing the shallower and warmer mudflats. Fish the windblown shorelines and points where the dead shad have been blown into to find actively feeding fish. Use cut shad or shad parts fished on the bottom.
Lake anglers use relatively short rods, while stream anglers prefer longer 6 to 8 feet rods. Many even use a fly rod. Longer rods provide better placement of the bait and allows you to fish many good holes without casting. Just drop the line near a likely spot with no more line out than the rod length. Ten-pound test line is recommended over lighter weight line since the bait is fished on the bottom and often near underwater snags.
Match the reel to the fish. Light duty reels are made to catch small fish and heavy duty reels have the power to land lunkers. Light tackle will catch more smaller fish but may not handle one of record class size.
Terminal tackle is an important consideration when setting out after "old whiskers." The sinker and hook is the most important part of the terminal tackle. Always use the lightest weight necessary and a slip sinker. The slip sinker rig allows a catfish to pick up the bait without feeling the weight of the sinker. With any resistance on the line, a channel cat will leave the tasty bait morsel in search of another.
Use a sharp hook. Hooks with bait holders on the shank are preferred. Use sponges or plastic worms when fishing with soft, prepared cheese baits. Present your selected hook and bait to the fish in the most natural manner, which requires the use of a minimum amount of sinker or weight.
Circle hooks are a popular option when using live or cut bait. There is no need to “set the hook” as they are designed to hook the fish themselves. Slowly pull back on the rod when it starts to double over as the fish takes the bait. Quick hooksets typically result in missed fish. When used properly, circle hooks reduce the chance of the fish swallowing the bait as they are typically caught in the corner of the mouth. Baits & LuresBait selection ranges from night crawlers, leeches, chicken blood, chicken liver, chicken or fish guts, crawdads, grasshoppers, water dogs, live and dead minnows, cut bait and a multitude of prepared "stink" baits. Prepared baits most often have one thing in common - cheese. Use cut bait or dead minnows in late winter and spring- just after ice-out. Composed of half-rotten fish, this bait should be fished when the water temperature is less than 60 degrees F. Catfish actively feed on fish flesh and other animals that die during winter and sink to the bottom. The stronger the rotten odor of bait, the better the success. Fish in deeper portions of the lake or stream prior to ice melt then shift your efforts to shallow water that warms faster and attracts catfish into the near-shore reaches. Catfish can be caught under ice conditions, but feeding begins in earnest after the water temperature reaches 40 degrees F.
The keen sense of smell possessed by channel catfish make it one of the few species of game fish that can be readily caught during high stream flows in the spring, summer, and early fall. Rising water levels often provide more food for channel catfish to feed on by flooding terrestrial areas along the river and food being washed in from runoff. Fish become more active during this time. Catfish become less active during falling water levels. During periods of stable or rising water levels nearly all baits will produce good catches of catfish. Use baits that are most available under natural conditions.
Easy to store prepared bait is one of the most popular catfish baits. Many catfish anglers switch to prepared baits when water temperatures warm to 70 degrees F and above. Prepared bait is most effective for pan-sized catfish during mid-summer (June, July and August). Use large-sized baits such as dead bluegill, live chubs, water dogs, crayfish and frogs when seeking larger catfish. Large catfish like a good-sized meal and the movement of these creatures will attract their attention.
Catfish eat a variety of food items and are attracted to odoriferous or "smelly" morsels. Smaller catfish (less than 14 inches) feed primarily on bottom-dwelling organisms, such as aquatic insect larvae and other invertebrates. As catfish grow, their diet changes and a wider variety of food items are eaten. Fish, alive or dead, make up the bulk of their food after they reach 16 inches.
Channel catfish diets vary with the seasons. A wide variety of organisms, including fish that have succumbed to the harsh winter, are available in late winter and early spring. Catfish devour these morsels, in various stages of decomposition, in large quantities. It is not unusual to find catfish stomachs gorged with decaying fish shortly after ice-out. As the water warms into late spring and summer, aquatic and terrestrial worms, fish, frogs, crayfish, mulberries, insects and their larvae forms, elm seeds and algae are the most prevalent foods. Many other items are eaten but usually make up only a small portion of the menu. Catfish food preferences change again in the fall as the water cools. More fish is consumed along with aquatic invertebrates and terrestrial insects. Frogs become an increasingly important food source as they move into streams before the onset of winter.
Streams and Rivers Fish upstream of river snags and log jams and cast the bait back towards it so the scent of the bait is carried downstream into the structure by the current drawing the catfish out.
Lakes & Reservoirs During the spawn in early June, target channel catfish around rock structure that provides cavities for nesting. Many smaller lakes have rip-rap (rock) along the shoreline to protect the banks from erosion. Large rock is also placed on the dams of man-made lakes or impoundments to protect the dam from erosion. This large rock provides large cavities for channel catfish to make their nests. Try drifting minnows, night crawlers or leeches under a bobber along the rock.