Spring Catfishing 2023
In West Central Iowa, catfish season starts after spring rains, high water, and warmer temperatures trigger the annual pre-spawn migration upriver. In this part of the state, the major branches of the Raccoon River (north, middle, south) and their tributaries provide nearly unlimited catfishing opportunities.
Depending on the weather and water conditions, we start catfishing in earnest from late April to early May, and the critical part of the equation is water depth. Without high water, fish can’t traverse natural and man-made barriers on some of the smaller streams, so spring rains are crucial. For example, in the fall, the majority of catfish in the Middle Raccoon River migrate downstream to overwinter in Lake Panorama. As a result, it takes regular spring rains and sustained high water for these fish to travel dozens of river miles upstream to this area. As I write this article, the river is barely ankle deep in most areas, other than the deepest holes that may have 3-4 feet of water. The same situation exists for spawning creeks and ditches off the main river channel. Because of this dependency on high water, and the past several years of drought conditions, we need to start receiving weekly rains soon to have any shot at good spring catfishing on the “Middle Coon” in Carroll County. Without rain we’ll be forced to travel further south towards Lake Panorama or east to the larger North Racoon River to locate good fishing.
The equipment needed for spring catfishing is pretty standard. Any medium weight rod spooled with 8-10 pound line will suffice. However, if you’re fishing in heavy cover you may want to consider braid for your main line with a heavy monofilament leader.
My personal favorite rod is the Whisker Seeker Catfish and Carp series. These rods provide excellent sensitivity for light bites as well as plenty of power for the largest fish. I’ve had great success landing big cats as well as hard-charging hybrid white bass with these rods, and they’re my go-to when reaching in the rod locker.
Most often, the slip sinker rig with either single or double hooks is preferred for spring catfishing. As a result, terminal tackle should include hooks to match your preferred bait and a variety of split shots and slip sinkers to adapt to current speed and water depth. Whisker Seeker has tested and proven terminal tackle that makes rigging for catfish efficient and effective. Moreover, one of my personal favorites is the sinker slide, because they allow you to change weights depending on current without retying, and also let you remove the sinker when transporting rods.
Finish your equipment list with a sturdy 5 gallon bucket (padded seats are a must!), pair of rubber boots, needle nose pliers, and nylon stringer and you’re all set. If you regularly fish steep cut banks or bridges, you may consider an extendable landing net to prevent accidents and losing fish.
In the spring, you want to present your bait just off the bottom. Channel cats have an overbite, and keeping baits up out of the mud improves scent dispersion and makes it easier for them to take the bait. To take advantage of this, start by tying on a slip sinker rig, and don’t forget to use a sinker slide on your main line. Add just enough weight to hold your sinker on the bottom, set your leader length, and then add one or two hooks depending on your personal preference. As a rule of thumb, the leader should be shorter for fast water and longer for slower flows. This will help prevent excessive line twist and should also help reduce snagging. To reduce line twist even further, some guys tie on a barrel swivel between the slip sinker and leader. If you’re not using a swivel, set your leader length by simply pinching a split shot on your line at the desired length to stop your slip sinker. Pro tip: this time of year night crawlers and cut creek chubs can both be dynamite baits, and using a double hook rig allows you to use both at the same time to see what the cats want.
One of the best places to target springtime pre-spawn catfish is from gravel road bridges. Bridge pilings, and debris that collects around them, create current breaks and provide cover that make ideal ambush spots for cats to dart out, grab a quick meal, and retreat safely out of the main flow. Very often, deep cut banks, rip rap, and grassy points can be found immediately downstream from bridges and these features also concentrate fish. To entice the most active and aggressive fish, cast your bait so that it settles just upstream from holes, eddies, and current seams created by these structures. To improve your odds of landing a chunky spring cat, have someone with an extendable landing net on the bank scoop them out of the flow when they’re played out, rather than trying to swing them over the bridge railing.
As the season progresses, the waters recede and catfish spawning typically begins the month of June. At this point, it’s time to leave the bridges behind and start walking, wading, or floating deep cut banks, shallow riffles, and hidden holes. The presentation doesn’t change too much during this time, continuing to fish slip sinker rigs to keep baits suspended just off the bottom. However, to reduce spawning carp and annoying bullhead strikes, switch to live or cut creek chubs and minnows exclusively.
If you missed the ice-out catfish frenzy, there’s no need to worry, spring catfishing is just around the corner. To prepare, make sure you have all the equipment mentioned, and start catching your bait now. Nightcrawlers were laying all over the ground after dark last night, and creek chubs are easy to catch with a tiny piece of crawler under a bobber or a well-thrown casting net. For an even more exhilarating experience, bribe a buddy into seining a local cold water creek for bait. You may be surprised what you catch, and chances are a catfish will eat it.