Chilly Open Water Cats

By Brad Durick

Spring is here (or should) be. After a long winter we all are ready to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. The ice is off but the water is still cold. It is not yet pre spawn yet catfish are starting to come alive. Spring brings new life to everything as a new year starts over. Fresh runoff is moving through rivers and lakes waking everything up for this new beginning.

To help better understand this bite I contacted two Iowa catfish anglers who have lots of experience on the Iowa rivers. I approached Whisker Seeker Tackle tournament pro Ken Miller from Cedar Rapids and I also contacted Martin Ennor from West Amana. Both men have similarities to their approach to cold water catfish but each has a unique take as well.

Spring Cold Water
The spring cold water season is from ice off to 50 degrees water temperature. Fresh snowmelt and runoff from spring rains is entering the water. Catfish metabolism is waking up and beginning to require more food each day as water warms.
Catfish are still in large groups from the wintering holes and have not yet officially begun their pre spawn migrations. Their main goals during this time are to find warmer water and feed.

Where to look
We already mentioned that cold water catfish are willing to feed and they are still bunched up from the wintering holes and sometimes it takes a while to find them. Once you do find them hang on to your rod because its going to be a drag rippin good time.
According to Ken Miller, most traditional catfishing spots such as mid river holes, eddies and sunken timber generally do not hold numbers of catfish yet at this time of year.

Both Iowa anglers, Ken Miller and Martin Ennor the best places to begin looking is in shallow water in flats out of the current expansive flats. Just keep trying and testing spots until you run into the fish. From there make minor adjustments in where you find them.
Both men agree, if the rivers are flooding look in the shallow haunts of flooded corn or soybean fields. The shallow water with the black soil will warm fast and hold catfish looking for warmer water. One great way to find fish in these fields is use your Humminbird Side Imaging to simply look for fish. Ennor has another unique take on finding these shallow fish in six to eighteen inches of water. They post a person at the bow of the boat then slowly drive through the shallow water until they see “pluff mud” from catfish they spooked with the boat. Once they see that they take a wide circle away, anchor and cast back to the area that was holding the catfish.

Here on the Red River the way we are situated getting into flooded fields generally is not an option in this case we search for areas of river that are out of the current and near structure. We also look for banks that are south facing (north shorelines) to absorb maximum sun to warm the dark river mud faster. We also fish slower sometimes to allow the catfish to find our baits as cold water sometimes does not let scent from the bait travel in current as fast.

Patience is key when fishing for cold water catfish. While this time of year it is possible to hit the motherload of catfish, it sometimes takes time to locate the active fish. Don’t sit on a spot waiting for the fish to come to you. Stay on the move working the clock and finding other locations that may hold fish. Don’t move too fast but also don’t sit on spots too long. Keep the bait fresh and stay on the search until you find active fish. Sometimes this may take hours.

Bait selection
When the ice is just coming off and the new runoff is making its way to the water the best baits are usually old stinky freezer burned bait that was left in the freezer from the year before. This is because the catfish are eating up any fish that may have died and been stuck in the ice or along the shore and is now free.

Martin Ennor agreed with this theory of rotten smelly baits such as old shad until the water warms up to near 50 and the fish begin to do more hunting. Ken Miller on the other hand said he prefers to fish with shad guts during the cold-water time. Miller says, “shad guts outfish everything at least 10-1.”

Here on the Red, I like to use last years baits that have held over in the freezer at first. When the water temperature reaches about 50-degrees I will start using cut dead sucker that has been dead 12-24 hours. This seems to have more of a pungent smell than fresh cut that fits into the middle time of when fish are between old rotten bait and hunting.

In the case of fishing during the floods and up in the fields, Miller stated that he likes to switch over to night crawlers to “match the hatch” so to speak. He says when the ground is warming and the flood water hits, the crawlers try to escape so the fish will go up and gorge on them.

Be Safe
In many places, the spring cold water period comes with flooding. Up here where I live on the Red River you get major flooding most springs making this time nearly impossible to fish safely. Luckily, many rivers and lakes do not have to deal with an annual major spring flood every year.

If your river is in a spring flood please stay safe. No fish is worth your life. If you are uncomfortable fishing in high water or fast current situations, DON’T! If you do venture out be sure to keep your cool and be aware of your surroundings to remain safe. Let someone know where you are and when you plan to return. Wear your life jacket and make sure your cell phone is charged up in case something goes wrong.

Spring cold water can be a very productive time to catch channel catfish if you put the time in to find them and are willing to look in areas that tend to be less traveled by other catfish anglers. Be patient, stay on the move, keep the bait fresh and be safe.
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