Cold Water Catfish

By Ted Peck - April 1, 2011
Upper Midwest anglers have walleyes on the brain this time of year. Their numbers are legion, perhaps because other piscatorial opportunities remain unseen. Catfish are a virtually untapped resource with equal reputation at the dinner table and greater 'street cred' in the realm of hand-to-fin combat.

Why don't we chase this whiskered walleye on the early side of serious summer? Tradition? Social acceptance? Species specific snobbery?

I suspect all three explanations. But I also suspect each to be a cleverly veiled excuse. Most who hit the water well before Easter are of two persuasions: either they don't know where to find cold water cats and how to catch 'em or know full well and just ain't talkin'.

Those folks in the latter category are proud to call themselves River Rats. I stand within their number, although with a certain degree of angst. Telling you how to reap the river's whiskered bounty is one step removed from catching cats and selling them like my uncle did.

He used to say "you've gotta think like a cat to catch a cat," adding "when a cat is cold he thinks deep, but not too much."

Catfish-like all fish-are cold blooded creatures. They are classified as a warm water species, meaning their metabolism is most active in water temperatures above 70 degrees. Salmon and trout are cold water species. They are most active in mid-50's water. Pike and walleyes are cool water species, aggressively prowling in mid 40's to mid 60 degree water. Forget about walleyes for a minute. This is about finding and catching catfish.

From now until water temperatures warm to about 50 degrees, river catfish hold in deep, quiet water close to-but not in-current. Current brings them food, with little effort needed to get it.

Channel catfish are omnivores, with profound senses of smell and taste. My buddy Bobby Burnett calls them a "swimming tongue."

All you have to do to catch 'em is to put a hook with something smelly and tasty right in front of a channel cat's whiskers. The catfish will open its mouth and slurp lunch in by simply flaring gills to create suction.

The kicker is a cat can blow chow out just as fast. You have one quick chance to set the hook. A sensitive graphite rod, no-stretch superline and the shortest possible distance between rod tip and hook are all part of the equation. My favorite offering is a well-squished minnow on a Northland bucktail jig.

Experience is the best way to find catfish wintering holes. Good electronics can help you zero in to offer a precise presentation. Catfish will seek out the same wintering holes year after year, congregating in great numbers over a very small area.

Outside edges of main channel bends within a mile or two of barriers like dams are great places to start looking for cold water catfish.

One of my favorite spots is about midway between the Indianford dam and Highway 14 Bridge west of Janesville on south-central Wisconsin's Rock River. The railroad trestle pool half way between Beloit and Janesville is an obvious spot. There are better wintering holes both up and downstream.

There is a beauty on the west side of the river near the Newark Bridge on Beloit's north side and another not far from the Henry Avenue Bridge downstream. Perhaps the best locale on this run of Rock River is directly below the Beloit dam. Access is tough, but possible. You'll have to find it on your own.

The lower Wisconsin River has multiple wintering holes. This is the only place in the state that I'm aware of with a closed season on catfish. You can't chase 'em downstream from the Sac dam between November 30 and May 1st.

This administrative rule was placed on the books about 15 years ago as anglers kept many huge and groggy flathead cats with hooks intended for walleyes. Human nature, I suppose.

It doesn't seem right to kill a critter which has been swimming around for 20-plus years with so many 15-18 inch walleyes eager to be selectively harvested.

Catfish are stacked right now in several holes between Lake Wisconsin and the Dells dam-and similar locales clear up past Nekoosa.

Wisconsin has a 10 catfish daily bag, with no closed season and no minimum size requirement as the default setting on most state waters. Two things Cheeseland deserves credit for are a reasonable bag limit and limiting legal harvest to pole and line fishing.

Neighboring states like Illinois and Iowa have yet to see the wisdom of this move on most flowing waters.

About 20 years ago a fishing trip on Rock River with late, great Chicago Tribune outdoors writer John Husar illustrated this point.

We spent equal time fishing similar habitat in both Wisconsin and Illinois-where harvest methods like trot lines, bank poles and jug fishing are allowed.

If memory serves, we caught three channel cats in Illinois and a dozen or 15 north of the border. Husar wrote a passionate column about this trip. Champions for the resource in the Prairie State are still dragging their knuckles.

Allowing folks with outdoor savvy to place bankpoles where big cats cruise at night is akin to placing piles of corn where wintering deer can find them-a clear cut case of harvesting meat with no sporting ethic even on the horizon.

My beloved Mississippi is a target rich environment beyond most cat chaser's wildest dreams. This holds true in spite of virtually no restrictions on catfish harvest. The River Rat credo and multiple license endorsements allow me to show you these spots-for a fee.

The freedom, bounty and wildness of this place aren't what it used to be. But still light years beyond the status quo of polite society. Creature comfort while chasing cold water cats on the Mississippi often means wearing good raingear and a Polarfleece vest. But underneath it all is the loincloth and sharp knife of a River Rat.

Don't worry-the only pole dance you'll see when fishing with this old Rat has a jig and squished up minnow on the business end.

Author Ted Peck
Ted Peck
Cap'n Ted Peck has over 30 yrs. guiding experience, specializing in multi-species fishing on Pool 9-10 of the Mississippi from Genoa, Wi. to Prairie du Chien. Cap'n Ted is a pro staffer for Lund, Northland Tackle, MinnKota, Bill Lewis Lures, Evinrude, Uncle Josh, HT Enterprises and Custom Jigs & Spins. When not guiding Cap'n Ted communicates the outdoors experience via newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and through seminars. This work has taken him all over the midwest, Canada and beyond... but he always returns to the upper Mississippi which he considers the most diverse fishery in North America. Click here for more info on Ted's guide service. Cap'n Ted's new book Mississippi Musings with the Old Guide is a personal account of his long career as a professional fishing guide on Old Man River.