Ice-Out Catfish Frenzy!
It was March during my junior year of college in Northeast Iowa, and I’d just returned from class. The red light was flashing on the answering machine, and the bold, red counter showed 4 messages.
“Johnson, the cats are going crazy! Grab your gear and get over here, now!”
“We just added another eater to the bucket! Ditch class and hurry up!”
“Where are you man? You’re gonna miss it!”
“I forgot to tell you, we’re at Pelikan Park. The fishing is insane, and I’m out of quarters for the pay phone. See you soon!”
When I finally met my roommates at the park, the bucket was already full of gorgeous cold-water cats. Woefully out of space, they’d ‘MacGyvered’ a tenuous stringer with an old boot lace found in the hatchback of my buddy’s Escort. This too was near capacity, and to avoid losing any fish, I transferred the catch to a sturdy nylon model out of my tackle box.
Pelikan Park was a backwater oxbow just off the Cedar River. Direct upstream access to the slough was a narrow chute that created a seasonal island. However, downstream from the island the main river channel redirected water into the bay. On this day in mid-March, occasional ice chunks were still coming down the main river channel, but the shallow, south-facing inlet was completely ice free. The air temperature was in the low-60s, and a steady southerly breeze blew into our faces on the north bank.
The catfish were undoubtedly lured into the bay by sunburnt water and the promise of an early season smorgasbord. While winter-killed and rotting fish dotted the bank, we hauled cats in hand-over-fist with a half-nightcrawler knotted onto a #4 bait keeper hook. A large split shot sank the bait a couple feet to the bottom, but most often the crawler was hammered just after hitting the water by voracious cats, eager to feast after the long, cold winter. Hooking the fish was easy, abruptly jerking our poles backward to drive points and barbs deep into the cat’s leathery mouths as they ran with the baits. This was truly one of those rare “catching”, not fishing, days on the river and by sunset we’d already caught our limit and we’re releasing fish to fight another day.
Ice-out catfishing can be spectacular on both lakes and rivers, especially when shad is the dominant forage base. Every winter a portion of the shad population winter-kills, and when ice melts and begins to break up, wind, waves, and current drive the carcasses to shoreline areas. Shallow south-facing bays and coves are the first to warm in the spring, and this warmer water and the bounty of dead fish can stack cats like cord wood.
Several large reservoirs in Iowa host large shad and catfish populations including Saylorville, Coralville, Red Rock, and Rathbun. These go-to catfishing destinations provide phenomenal ice-out fishing for hungry cats and tactics are simple.
When the majority of ice has melted, scout wind-blown south-facing shorelines for washed up dead fish. A few days of southerly winds can expedite this process and ring the dinner bell.
Once dead fish are spotted, grab a pair of rubber boots (ice-out fishing is a muddy affair), a comfortable bucket to sit on, your favorite rod (my personal favorite), reel, rod holder, and rubber gloves. Walk the shoreline, keeping the wind in your face, and locate the highest concentrations of dead shad. Next, tie on a simple slip sinker rig with a single or double 4/0 Whisker Seeker Triple Threat hook, ease on a pair of rubber gloves, and grab the nearest shad.
Using a bait knife or scissors, cut the shad into 2” or 3” cubes, thread onto the hook, and carefully cast into the wind, trying not to whip the bait off the hook(s). Under ideal conditions cats can be found in 2’ of water or less, but it may take a little experimentation with depth to find active fish. To keep your rod and reel out of the mud, drive your favorite rod holder deep and brace it with a rock or log. This will keep a hard pulling cat from dragging your set into the muddy, rotting, fish stew along the bank.
Once catfish are located, the action can be fast and furious! When fishing with a group of buddies, doubles and triples are common, and the size and number of fish can be staggering. With swollen bellies, ice-out cats hit cut bait with reckless abandon, and these cold water fish are some of the best tasting of the season.
Break up and open water season are just around the corner in the Midwest. If you need an excuse to beat the winter doldrums and ease cabin fever, blow the dust off your gear and give ice-out catfishing a try. Better yet, parlay shed hunting, turkey scouting, and catfishing into a long weekend. We could all use some fresh air and exercise, and I can’t think of a better way to spend those first warm days of March.