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Catfish bite when the ice melts

Tips on where and how to catch catfish in early spring

Chris Penne is an aquatics biologist in the DWR's Ogden office, where he specializes in reservoir and lake management. He works with a crew of six other biologists and is responsible for fish and amphibians in seven counties of northern utah.

Signs of early spring are all around me: robins chirp, trees are beginning to bud and lettuce has even sprouted in the garden. Another ice-fishing season is coming to a close.

It’s a Saturday and I’m in the garage doing a bit of spring cleaning. I put away the ice-fishing gear for the season. As I hang up those short rods, I reflect on the many trips I made and all the fish I caught through the ice: cutthroat trout at Strawberry, kokanee at Causey, rainbow trout at Rockport, perch and crappie at Pineview and Willard, and bluegill at Mantua. I can’t help but marvel at the variety of sportfishing opportunities Utah has to offer!

Next it’s off to the backyard to clean up those leaves that didn’t drop until midwinter. As I’m raking, my mind drifts to another sort of spring cleaning that happens at several Utah waters during ice-off. My mind is on catfish again.

If you’ve read my earlier blog entries, you may remember that I am a catfish aficionado (a-fish-ionado). So it may come as no surprise that while most Utahns think about trout fishing at ice-off, I’m thinking about catfish.

Catfish will eat just about anything, but they’re pretty fond of gizzard shad. In northern climates, cold water stresses and kills gizzard shad, particularly the small ones. During the winter, these dead shad often float to the surface and become frozen and lodged in ice forming on top of the water. When the ice thaws in the spring, a whole winter’s worth of shad carcasses are released. Wind and wave action push the shad to shore, and that’s where you can find catfish doing their “spring cleaning.” Find a shallow windblown shore where the shad carcasses have been pushed, and the fishing for catfish can be lightning fast.

Willard Bay Reservoir is the only reservoir in northern Utah where gizzard shad can be found, but if you don’t live near Willard, don’t despair. Even though the ice-off bite is more pronounced in shad waters, there will still be an ice-off bite in any water where forage fish don’t make it through the winter. So, if you think you can handle a bit of cold spring wind in your face, and you want to try your hand at ice-off catfishing, here are some tips:

  • Find a windblown shore with shallow depths.
  • Try using cutbait to mimic the dead fish the catfish are feeding on. If you have a two-pole permit, fish a different bait to get noticed. Try chicken liver or worms on your second pole.
  • Put your bait on the bottom by attaching a sinker to your line about six inches up from your hook.
  • Don’t feel you have to cast far. The catfish should be feeding in just a couple feet of water. This means you may want to limit your cast to 10–15 feet.

Good luck!

5 Responses to Catfish bite when the ice melts

  1. Hey Chris, you’re da bomb but honestly I can’t stand catfish. I love seafood, fish, any and all, except cats. When it comes to fish, you are what you eat, and cats taste like mud. Yecch!

  2. Nice story Chris, thanks for the info. This was my first year ice-fishing, and I can say “I’m hooked”. We had a great season, sad to see it go, but excited for wet-water ventures.

    Oh sorry Liz, I beg to differ!
    Catfish are some mighty fine eating. Unless your talking about the yellow-belly mudcats. Yes – THEY do taste like mud, but Channel Cats are a whole different story! Fried, smoked, baked – tender tasty white meat. Cajun blackening spice, baked until flakey. Don’t want to undercook the cats.

    Perhaps your Catfish experience has been limited to Chinese farmed imported catfish from the grocery – like Wallyworld sells. Fresh cats from Willard, Utah Lake, Cutler even – make for some great fillets (just smoked some last night!).
    Also want to probably limit your take to 5lbers and under, some call them Cookie Cutter Kitties. For bigger cats – removing the “grey” from the lateral line can further reduce any “fishy” taste. That fatty zone stores a lot of the ‘off flavors’.

  3. I AGREE WITH CHRIS. Channel cat is good any way you cook it. Ive cooked it over a fire with just salt and pepper and its still so delicious.

  4. I will have to go try fishing this time of year. A couple years back me and my dad went out to Willard in about July to catch some cats. We caught one on some smelly bait and it was fun. I have only caught a few cats in my life and hope to catch more. I hope you are right with these tips. In a couple weeks I think me and my dad will try fishing for some Channel Kitty Kats.

  5. Try hooking live med/lrg sized goldfish! The cats can’t resist them! You’d be surprised!!! Also I like to either bake my kitty fillets in shake-n-bake after letting them soak in salted water over-night or deep fry them in breaded strips. Yuuummm!!! But I have to say one of our best family fishing trip memories was this spring when I let my 4 yr. old battle an 9lb channel! (well my scale weighs in kilograms it wieghed 4 kgs) The catfish won, but i was able to retrieve his spiderman pole using a spoon equipped with a lrg treble hook. (fish still attatched)

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