MANCHESTER — No matter where you live in Northeast Iowa, chances are you aren’t more than a few minutes from a good catfish bite.
It’s a fish that is not only plentiful, feisty and tasty in the frying pan, but is also one of the state’s most underutilized resources, according to Department of Natural Resources rivers and streams research biologist Greg Gelwicks.
“As far as our rivers go, a lot of people fish for walleyes and smallmouth and that kind of stuff and kind of overlook the catfish we have out there,” notes Gelwicks.
Pick a Northeast Iowa river — the Cedar, Shell Rock, West Fork, Maquoketa, Wapsipinicon or Turkey — and it’s home to a strong population of channel catfish, while some of the larger waterways like the Cedar also harbor populations of flathead cats.
“We have good channel catfishing pretty much throughout the Cedar River in Northeast Iowa,” says Gelwicks. “On the Wapsipinicon, the best fishing is going to be from Littleton downstream or maybe from Independence downstream. On the Maquoketa, you’re looking at Manchester downstream, and on the Turkey River, from Elkader downstream is where you will find the channel catfish.”
Telemetry work done by Gelwicks and his staff provide information that can help an angler narrow down catfish location from season to season, although each river has slightly different characteristics.
“One of the things we’ve found is that in the fall they are going to move to the deepest water that’s available, usually into holes that are 15 foot or deeper that have very little current,” he explains. “In the Turkey River, there aren’t any deep holes like that so what we found is that they all moved downstream into the Mississippi River to overwinter.
“In April, that’s when they start moving out of those overwintering areas and become more active. They’re looking for food, and cut baits (like shad or chubs) work well because they feed a lot on fish that may have died over the winter.
“On the Wapsie, they move into connected backwater areas in the springtime and again, some of that may be associated with looking for dead fish for food.”
Once the channel cat have left those deeper, overwintering holes, they can be caught in water as shallow as a couple of feet or as deep as 10 or 12 feet. And as spring progresses, they begin to associate more with habitat like stumps and logjams where they can lurk in the eddies and ambush a meal.
You have free articles remaining.
Late summer and early fall finds channel cat migrating toward their overwintering areas where they typically arrive early in November and don’t leave until the following spring.
Catfish will eat nearly anything, including crayfish, nightcrawlers, chicken liver, leeches, various forage fish species, stinkbaits, insects and grubs. Generally speaking, the diets of larger channel cats feature more fish, both live and dead. Some anglers like to use small bluegills, which are legal bait in Iowa if they are caught by legal means (hook and line).
If it’s a monster flathead (30 pound-plus) you’re after, the Cedar River has its share. The best locations are downstream from Cedar Rapids, although sampling has turned up flatheads in the Waterloo, La Porte City and Vinton areas. Bullheads, sunfish or big chubs are good baits.
Northeast Iowa’s rivers offer the best numbers and most consistent catfishing due primarily to strong natural reproduction, but there are plenty of opportunities in area lakes, too, where catfish are typically stocked.
“One lake that’s always good for numbers and some decent fish is Casey Lake (at Hickory Hills Park south of Waterloo),” notes DNR fisheries biologist Dan Kirby.
“Another one where we don’t see a lot of people fishing but we know has really good numbers of cats is George Wyth Lake. We did some hoop netting there this summer and we had really high numbers and some good-sized cats, as well.”
Brinker Lake and Big Woods Lake can provide some decent fishing, although their connection to the Cedar River keeps their populations fluid. South Prairie Lake in Cedar Falls showed good number in sampling with fish up to eight pounds, and there’s a strong population in Mitchell Lake.
“We just don’t have people fishing them as much as we used to,” notes Kirby. “People seem to want more of the bass and bluegills and walleyes and so forth.
“We’ve actually reduced our stocking numbers of catfish the last 5 to 10 years. When we got out there and studied the catfish in some of these lakes, the numbers were so high we didn’t want to see them get any higher.”