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Anglers harvest over 65 million pounds of panfish in Minnesota each year.


Chasing a Cat on the Ice - Dennis Steele

When the temperature outside is below the freezing mark, few anglers think of cat fishing. Cat fishing is typically done on the hot days of summer. Winter cats however, can produce fast action with up to 40-50 per day, some times even more. It is a rewarding and exciting way to spend a winter day. They fight hard and challenge your fishing skills while not being all that elusive with these tips.

Good anglers know to do their homework before setting out on their adventures on the ice. First choose a lake with a respectable population of catfish. You can find information on populations on DNR websites. Once you have chosen a lake, get a good map. If you have a GPS there is mapping software such as Lakemaster where you can download spots right from your computer into your GPS. Look on the map for areas with deep holes or basins with sharp breaks. A flat adjacent to the breaks will be a plus. Sharp inside turns or points along the break will concentrate the cats. Mark these locations on your GPS to locate your spots more easily once on the ice.

Staying mobile will put more fish on the ice. I travel by snowmobile and pull an Otter portable ice shack. With this rig I can move from one area to another if the fish are not biting, and even cut across land if needed. Otter portables set up fast, and break down fast to keep you on the move finding the most active fish. They are also one of the most durable portable ice shelters on the market and can withstand the rigors of being bounced along on the ice at a good clip behind your snowmobile or ATV.

Once you have found your spot, a good quality sonar like the Marcum LX3 is a must if you want to be successful. Before drilling any holes use the Marcum to shoot through the ice looking for fish. Cats will be seen on the display as larger red marks. You may see them belly down to the bottom and a flickering red mark at the bottom will indicate they are present. You may also see, and what I look for is large schools of suspended cats, anywhere from five feet off the bottom to just below the surface of the ice. The cats will at times school up as thick as bullheads. It is not uncommon to see your entire Marcum lit up like a Christmas Tree. Once you find a good school of cats, drill holes over the entire area, and beyond the school. Spread out your holes in a line up and down the break at about 10 yard intervals. Circular hole patterns work well also, when on a large break or point. The school is likely to move around the area and its best to have a hole ready. Its is important to move with the school, staying on top of them the best you can. If the bite slows move to the next hole and use your Marcum to see if they are there.

Use a sturdy but sensitive rod. Cats fight hard even in the cold months and have a unique headshake that helps them free themselves. Rod lengths of 30 inches will help absorb that shake and keep your line tight. For line I like to go with 8-pound test. Its light enough for subtle presentations, yet strong enough to do battle with a good sized cat. Jigging spoons like Scenic Tackles Go Devil or JR's Flasher or Crusher are my favorites. Depending on the activity of the fish I use 1/4 to 1/8-ounce jigging spoons. Choose colors that are highly visible. Cats not only feed by smell but especially in colder months will also feed by sight. Experiment with color until you find what they are responding to. If you are fishing areas where cats are not schooled up tight a little more attraction may be needed. JR's Flasher Spoon along with Scenic Tackles Angel Eye will pull fish in.

Once you have the fish attracted; you will need to get them to bite. Tip one of the hooks on the treble with a minnow head or tail. Shiners or fatheads work well along with pieces of sucker minnow. Pinching the minnow in half or slightly crushing the minnow will let more of the scent waft through the water. Other baits that I have had success with are shrimp, chicken livers and even crawlers if you can find them this time of the year.

Various presentations work for these guys. Sometimes jigging with large up-down sweep to attract the fish is sometimes enough to get them to slam the bait. Other times you may need to finesse the cats into biting. Watch your sonar while you jig. You will see what presentation turns the targets on the Marcum towards your bait. The active or hungry ones will move a little faster than the rest in the school and towards your bait. If they seem to stall, give the rod tip a little jiggle or just move the bait slowly away from the fish. This often triggers a bite. Sometimes the cats will hammer your bait and sometimes it will be barely noticeable. You may feel only a slight decrease in the weight of your rod tip, much like a crappie "lift bite". When the cats are biting this light I often will balance the rod on my finger and wait until I see the rod move slightly then set the hook with a sharp snap. A spring bobber or Rock and Reel will also help detect these very light bites. Once you have a cat hooked, hang on! Cats are noted as one of the most powerful fighting freshwater fish. Fight them with patience and make sure your drag is set just right. You are in for a battle!

With a little homework and some good gear, catfish can be a unique and challenging fish to angle for in the cold winter months. Get out and give it a try. I am sure you will have a blast!

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