By: Matt Johnson
When one thinks about ice fishing, they
typically picture walleyes, crappies, sunfish,
perch, pike, maybe even a lake trout or eel
pout, but not many people think of catfish.
Even the mere idea of catching a catfish
under the ice results in scowls—sometimes
even laughter. But for those of you who
venture out chasing these whiskered critters,
you’ll find yourselves smack-dab in the
middle of not only an incredible tussle, but
also one of the tastiest winter fish across the
***Before moving on with this article though,
I was to stress the importance of safety.
Current—or areas where current is nearby—make-up a lot of the following
locational patterns. So please keep ice safety a top priority as you read the
following locational tips for finding catfish.
So just where do these catfish spend their winter? As a general rule, catfish will
locate in deeper water or areas where current catches their attention. These
fish will hold in those deeper pockets, but I've also found them as shallow as
five feet. It all depends on the body of water. Shallower ponds and lakes will
have catfish holding in the deepest parts—providing there aren't areas where
there is an influx of water. I prefer to target bodies of water that are connected
to rivers or creeks/streams. Off-shoots from major rivers that pool into lakes
and systems are excellent places to target as well. Finding catfish can be
relatively easy if you just spend a few minutes studying a lake map before
punching any holes, but here are a few ideas to narrow down your search...
In lakes/reservoirs with deep water, I like to search out for the "channel." Most
of these reservoirs and lake systems have main channels where rivers (at one
point) ran strong... or at least now provide some current. These channel areas
oftentimes create burrows along the bottom giving away to cuts and
depressions where catfish gather for comfort. It's almost as if these cuts are
"roads" for catfish to follow. Tough part about this equation though is that it can
be hard to pick up fish on the Vexilar in these areas unless you’re right on top
of them. Though some catfish will suspend, many of them will relate to the
bottom and need a little coaxing to come up. I see this happen more in lakes
with less current, as in current systems I tend to find more suspended fish.
Sometimes these cuts are only a few feet wide, while in other situations you can
find them several hundred feet in width. It all varies on the given body of water
and from spot-to-spot. I prefer areas where you can find deep water leading
from a shallow inlet—meaning water coming in. These areas seem to create the
best "rut" for these fish to hold in. And if you are fortunate enough to have
some current (more than the natural current of a lake) then you might have
found yourself a gold mine. I typically expect to see fish stacked up in these
Other areas of interest include spots where parts of a lake neck-down, causing
current. Flats just adjacent to these areas will generally hold catfish, especially
if those flats are deeper or even create a hole. Catfish rely heavily on their
sense of smell and will move with current to grab the bait once detected. This is
why we fish just upstream from snags during the open water months, so when a
fish smells “what's cooking,” they come out to take a taste. The scent travels
downstream and pulls the fish out. While this doesn't give you the end-all
answer for winter catfish, it does give you a few more chances and can narrow
the search when looking at a map.
Some of my personal favorite spots to target winter catfish are holes along the
main river (if ice is safe). Warning though, and to reiterate safety, as these
spots rarely see more than a foot of ice so proceed with the utmost caution.
Check the ice constantly and don’t make an attempt to target these spots at
early ice. Leave these spots for mid-winter, as even during extreme winters we
might still only see a few inches of ice over these areas because of current
conditions. But if you are fortunate enough to take advantage of these
situations, then the rewards can be great. Heavy spoons packed with pieces of
minnow will do the trick and hold on—the fish seem to find you!!
There are however, spots similar to the above mentioned holes that are along
stretches of lakes where there is less current and safer ice. Lake systems that
form off of rivers will present similar spots and can be fished just the same. In all
actuality, if you can find spots off the main river that are pushed back into lake
chains and backwaters, then you're going to also find consistent action for fish
of all sizes—not to mention much safer ice conditions.
Presentations for these whiskered fish are simple... rely on scent as your main
weapon and don’t think for a second that these fish won’t chase an active
presentation. What I mean is, use multiple pieces of minnow and don't be afraid
to have entrails hanging out, and then jig away! Walleye anglers are supposed
to be more sophisticated when attaching just a minnow head or tail, but for
catfish, you just gob those babies on! However, there are times when just a
small piece is all they want, but I oftentimes error on the side of excess and give
them meat! Jigging spoons are a great tool for these situations in my opinion.
You can pack a treble hook and present a nice “bait ball” for the fish to grab
onto. I always replace my trebles with a size larger and with a forged hook if
possible. They pull tough and can straighten-out hooks if you let them! The
Clam Outdoors Rattlin’ Blade Spoon in 1/8oz tipped with a few pieces of minnow
is tough to beat. Otherwise a larger panfish jig like the Drop XXL packed with
maggots can coax finicky catfish into biting as well. Fathead and crappie
minnows are all you’ll need, so an easy find at most bait shops.
Techniques for getting these fish to bite can at times depend on their mood—
much-like all species. Let your Vexilar be your fish's mood indicator, and let it
tell you what type of action they prefer. Oftentimes you won't have kamikaze
catfish, but rather light biters like we experience with our crappies at times.
Subtle shakes and quivers will sometimes be more than enough, and then just
watch your line! These fish are notorious for just sucking in the bait without
anyone knowing, or “tasting” the bait with their whiskers. Spring bobbers
definitely help, but by constantly moving you rod tip you can tell when a fish has
the bait, as there will be an abrupt deadening of the rod tip. When that
happens, you better set the hook into that cinderblock and get ready for a fight!
Not to only focus on finesse though, I generally deploy a more aggressive
jigging sequence to begin my day, and work down from there to find the desired
There’s no doubt that catfish can provide a lot of action and excitement out on
the ice. And most areas across the ice belt have lakes nearby where catfish are
abundant. Like all fish species though, practice selective harvest, as catfish can
and will school-up in the winter, and over-harvesting can still take a toll on the
catfish species. But if you do decide to take home some catfish for a meal,
there is nothing better than a nice Cajun-battered catfish fillet from cold water!
|Matt Johnson Outdoors 2003-2016
Cats Play In the Snow Too
Experience the Fishing...
|Watch the VIDEO!! Catfish On-Ice!!
AS SEEN ON: Across the Ice Belt with Ice Team TV
(Click the Play button on the screen to start the video)