Icing Cats

by Captain Eddie White

Finding and catching channel cats through the ice.

Captain Eddie White holds a channel catfish caught through the ice at Tongue River Reservoir in southeastern Montana.

Captain Eddie White holds a channel catfish caught through the ice at Tongue River Reservoir in southeastern Montana.

Ice fishing for channel catfish is as tough as it sounds. Unless you have spent an adequate amount of time on a lake, reservoir or river it will generally take time and patience, and a small amount of homework to be successful.

As we all know when the weather and water start to cool, channel catfish will begin their migration to their wintering areas. Many books and magazines have articles informing us that the channels will find the deepest section in any given body of water in the winter months. This is like assuming that they only feed at night. It’s just not true. In a farm pond or a small lake (5 to 10 acres) this may be the case, but when you start talking bigger bodies of water, cats have many more options on where to hold for the winter.

“… drop that jig in front of the fish’s face.”

In one reservoir in particular that we fish here in the north country, the deepest water ranges from 60 feet by the dam to the 20-foot holes in the old river channel. Finding a deep hole will not guarantee finding fish though. Everything has to be right as they seek protective structure, food source, warmth, and if applicable, current.

The easiest way to get started would be to get out on a boat and start your search in the late fall before the ice starts to cover the water. Finding congregations of fish now could and will save you time and effort later. Use down imaging or side imaging sonar to mark fish and hit the waypoint function. By hooking up your fish finder to a portable battery, you can take it on the hard water with you, giving access to your contour maps and waypoints, even in the winter. Better yet, take a hand-held GPS unit or even drop a pin on Google maps.

No boat, no problem. It just means a little more work. Of course, you can shore fish in the late fall and attempt to locate fish that way. Or you can pull out the maps and start searching for those spots you think will hold fish. This is definitely the hard way but can be the most rewarding.

Troy Hansen managed to ice this nice channel in Wisconsin from 15 to 35 feet of 32-degree water.

Troy Hansen managed to ice this nice channel in Wisconsin from 15 to 35 feet of 32-degree water.

Setting up to catch the cold water whisker fish is really not much different than fishing for them any other time of year. In typical catfish fashion, they will rest in the hole and come out to feed on a flat. This could be a point, the head of a hole, ledges, the old river channel, or any other structure. Setting all of your offerings in one place is not the way to go about finding active fish. Starting deep and working shallow will allow you to key in on that day’s pattern.

JawJackers or Auto Fisherman or Tip-ups are the easiest way to spread out without having to hover over a single hole. These devices can be set to allow anglers to fish multiple holes simultaneously.

The JawJackers and Automatic Fisherman are essentially a rod holder. Anglers place the rod in the device and bend the tip down to a triggering device. Once a fish hits the bait, the rod whips up in a fast fashion setting the hook and its fish on.

A Tip-Up is a free spoiling device that anglers can set at a specific depth. Once the depth is determined, a flag is lowered to a trigger on the Tip-up. When a fish bites it trips the device and a flag pops up to alert the angler that a fish is on.

These devices are set up over multiple holes within viewing distance and the angler can monitor them while possibly jigging other holes with rod in hand. Be sure to check local regulations to make sure multiple lines are allowed.

Jigging can be difficult at first, trying to figure out what the fish want. Though we fish in different areas of the country, Troy Hansen and myself have very similar methods. Troy recommends taking a flasher when jigging to locate and mark fish. Once fish have been located, drop that jig in front of the fish’s face. Make aggressive strokes with the rod and when the fish gets close to the bait, stop. This method seems to produce more strikes than a constant jigging motion.

A good bottom contour map and sonar fish-finder are invaluable tools for finding the deeper wintering holes where channel cats tend to congregate under the ice.

A good bottom contour map and sonar fish-finder are invaluable tools for finding the deeper wintering holes where channel cats tend to congregate under the ice.

Everyone has their own preference on equipment, so I will just discuss the basics, starting with the benefits of different types of line. Most braided line will absorb water so a lower pound test, such as 20-pound test, will absorb less water and cause less ice buildup and headaches later. Monofilament will absorb water, period.

Fluorocarbon is the only line on the market that is guaranteed not to absorb water. When using floro, I kick the poundage up to at least 40-pound test for better abrasion resistance.

Keep it simple when icing cats. A Carolina rig with a split shot or a light sinker is a good starting rig. I prefer glow colors when using a standard jig head and spoons seem to be the go-to bait with most ice anglers. J-hooks are preferred over circle hooks due to the slow-moving nature of cold-water cats. Once you have a bite, you will want to ensure of a good hook up with a good hookset.

Using JawJackers, Auto Fisherman, or even a simple rubber band modification to a tip up can offer the ice fisherman more opportunities to catch catfish.

Using JawJackers, Auto Fisherman, or even a simple rubber band modification to a tip up can offer the ice fisherman more opportunities to catch catfish.

Knowing the forage in the place you decide to fish will help, as it is always beneficial to match the hatch. For the most part, cold water cats will be caught on small baits, though I have seen one engulf a whole 8-inch sucker. Wax worms stacked on a hook can do really well, especially if there is a cold-water bug hatch. The standard bait you would use during the spring/summer months will be the same, just scaled down in both size and movement. Personally, I like to stack 1-inch baits, with the heads popped off. Sometimes I will add a live one for some natural action.

Fish seem to winter in the same holes year after year. And there is no doubt that cold water cats are the best tasting. Remember though, selective harvest is key if you want to return to the same spot and catch more fish the next time.

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