by Brad Durick
Catfishing through the ice offers a unique fishing experience and a great opportunity to socialize with friends.
It is no secret that the major stronghold of catfish country is in the south and east. One quick glance at social media and one might thing that catfishing is the biggest thing going, and it is in many places. In fact, it is growing quickly all over the country, including the icy cold regions of the northern states. The sport is gaining popularity everywhere that catfish reside.
Over the past 20 years normal winter catfishing has become the “best time” to catch catfish in the opinion of many. But what about places in the far north where the boats get put away for four to six months of the year due to brutal cold temperatures and freeze up?
Introduction to Ice Fishing
Those of you who don’t’ know much about ice fishing, it is the rage in the north. In fact, many northern anglers in states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas prefer ice fishing to open water fishing.
Ice fishing is a method of fishing that allows everyone to fish all parts of a lake even without a boat. If you can get on the lake, whether it be walking, riding an ATV or driving in some parts of the north, you can fish. You can get set up in ice fishing with the basics for about $100. Of course, like everything else fishing, there are power augers, depth finders, rods, and gadgets for your every want or need.
Ice fishing begins by finding a spot you want to fish, drill a hole in the ice, put bait on a hook, drop it through the hole,and you are fishing. Beyond that you can find and work structure and location for the specific fish that you are targeting.
I would guess that many readers of CatfishNOW have never participated in ice fishing. Many from southern states view ice fishing as sitting on a bucket in the middle of the lake all bundled up and miserable. This can be the case but like everything else ice fishing has evolved to meet anyone’s comfort needs.
Today, most ice fishing is done from inside heated shacks. Some of these are huge, almost tiny houses, that are pulled onto the ice providing little homes, many complete with satellite TV.
Most people use portable shelters that are either carried in backpacks or mounted to sleds for transport. This means the only time you are actually outside is when you are setting up. Once inside a portable structure you are out of the wind and cold but generally still need a sweatshirt, boots and bibs. Once inside a luxury ice houses you can fish in your pajama pants and slippers.
I have not had an opportunity to ice fish for catfish. While I have ice fished all over the Midwest for just about every fish you can imagine, I am still searching for my first ice cat. This is mostly due to how the fish in our river are in the wintering holes, and not taking the time required to find and catch them while traveling safely on the ice.
I have caught everything from northern pike and walleye to panfish through the ice. Most of the techniques and locations are the same. With experience, anglers learn to determine where they need to be for the species want to target.
Catfish are notably a warm water fish and the way their metabolism works in cold water means that they do not need to eat very much to live under the ice. In fact, a 10-pound catfish under the ice only needs the equivalent of a fathead minnow about once per week to survive. This means that anglers must find a wintering hole were numerous catfish take up residence together and play the odds that some of the fish want to feed.
Another thing to keep in mind is that scent does not travel in cold water nearly as good as it does in warmer water. With the scent dispersion slower it sometimes takes a bit longer for scent to reach the catfish. Then, that catfish that doesn’t require much food to survive must decide to eat it.
David Wyner, owner of Chasin’ Cats Guide Service, offers a limited number of catfish trips throughout the winter on small lakes and frozen ponds that are five to ten acres in size. He is a great source of ice cattin’ information.
Mr. Wyner uses Whisker Seeker Whisker Stick rods which are specifically manufactured for ice fishing catfish. He uses a reel spooled up with 20-pound monofilament line and a Tomcat rig that is also made by Whisker Seeker Tackle. This is weighted with a bit of vibration.
Wyner looks at contour maps to find drop off areas with “tight contours” to locate catfish. Once he is on the water, he uses his Vexilar FLX 12 locator to fine tune his location and drill ice holes. His strategy is to spread his lines over the contour to find where the catfish are hanging out on a specific day. He said he likes to have friends or clients along on the trip so he can set more lines out to pinpoint the bite faster.
Once the locations are picked and the rods rigged up, Wyner uses shad guts or a minnow head for bait. He sets his depth at six to eight inches off the bottom and places the rod in a hook-setting apparatus such as a Jaw Jacker or Automatic Fisherman. This contraption holds the rod in a loaded position until the fish bites and triggers the rod to set on the fish.
Jigging or motion is not needed according to Wyner. The concept is similar to regular catfishing when anchored from a boat. The bait remains still during most cold water fishing from a boat.
“Motion is not needed,” Wyner said. “It works better to leave it still so the fish have more time to find the bait.”
Once set up ice anglers sit back and enjoy a day on the ice waiting for the rod tips to jump so they can reel in their fish.
Once a location or pattern has been established, more holes are drilled in the active areas. As lines are moved closer to an area receiving bites, the odds of catching active fish increase.
Ice fishing for catfish may seem foreign to most, but to northerners it only makes sense as a method to catch their favorite fish all year long. It is different from most methods of catfishing but it offers a unique fishing opportunity and fun way to catch a few cats and hang out with friends on the water.
Captain Brad Durick is a nationally recognized catfish guide on the Red River of the North, seminar speaker, and author of the books Cracking the Channel Catfish Code and Advanced Catfishing Made Easy. For more information go to www.redrivercatfish.com.