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Cats and Flies: Fly Fishing Catfish

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

Have you ever thought about chasing kitties on the fly rod?

Jason with a channel that was chasing shad around the lake

Iowa waters are known for their catfish. Many anglers in the state exclusively target catfish, and some are even drawn to the allure of the apex predator of most Iowa rivers: the flathead catfish. If you haven’t seen videos of Iowans fishing for catfish, take a look at some River Certified, Trevor Randles Outdoors Iowa, or Talleygo videos on YouTube. Check out Derek Wilkins' 515 Fishing page for tips and tricks on catching catfish. All of these guys are great resources for learning more about catfish.

Targeting catfish on a fly rod may seem like a fool’s errand to some. After all, catfish are scent-oriented creatures, and while they will eat artificial lures/flies at times, most anglers stick to the stinky stuff.

Catfish will eat nymphs and aquatic worms, as well.

In order to catch catfish on the fly rod, you need to fish high-percentage areas for them. Since catfish are mainly scent feeders, and your flies have no added scent (I hope), your flies will need to get fairly close to a catfish in order for it to see the fly and determine that it is good for food. If you are in rivers, this high-percentage area is often in the slack water off of current seams and in deeper holes. In ponds, targeting the edges of vegetation or drop offs is a good way to start. In lakes, seek out edges/drop offs that meet shallower flats where catfish can cruise the edges of the lake's structure.

What flies should you fish for catfish?

Depending on where you are targeting them, catfish aren't usually particularly willing to chase flies a long ways. If you're fishing streamers and prospecting for fish, try to fish flies that either suspend/don't sink super fast (so they stay in the strike zone for longer) or flies that cause a lot of water disturbance - think lots of rubber legs and movement in the water (maybe some bunny strips?). Minnow, crayfish, and dragonfly nymph patterns are a good place to start.

If you're in an area that you know has a lot of catfish stacked in it, you might consider throwing some nymphs for them. Attractor nymphs like San Juan worms, beadhead nymphs, and other large nymph patterns can be productive. Make sure your flies are drifting right along the bottom where these fish tend to hang out.

A nice channel cat that ate a streamer on the swing

Someday soon, I'm hoping to get my first flathead catfish on the fly rod. I was out fishing the river recently when I came across some young fly anglers looking for their first carp on the fly. One of them did end up catching his first carp on the fly, which was great; but before that, their friend who was fishing with a crankbait happened to hook into a nice fish. By the time he had it in the net, we were all very excited to witness the nice 5-10 pound flathead catfish that had eaten his crankbait. This only increased my desire to land one of these fish on the fly rod.

Fishing the river later that week, I hooked something solid on the bottom. I thought it was a snag at first, but then it started moving. It was a heavy fish, and I was quite overmatched fishing a 5 weight with 6 pound tippet. Eventually, I tired the fish out enough to see that I had foul hooked a Flathead in the adipose fin. I left the fish in the water and quickly reached down and unhooked my size 16 nymph from the fish, and he was on his way.

It was a disappointing end to my never-ending quest for a flathead on the fly rod. Hopefully, I will find one that will eat a fly soon.

This channel catfish ate a shad pattern

If you're interested in catching catfish on the fly rod, get in touch with us for more information or to book a trip. While you won't catch nearly as many on a fly rod as you might on bait, catfish are a great challenge and worthy opponent to tackle on the fly gear.

Fishing Report

Click here for the Iowa DNR's Fishing Report (8/25/2022)

Saylorville/Big Creek: Wipers/white bass are being caught in the mornings and evenings. Find the birds, find the shad, and you will likely find the fish.

Local Ponds: Some weeds are starting to thin out a bit, making ponds more accessible. Recent periodic rains and cooler temperatures are helping, too. Get out and chase some urban fish!

Des Moines River: Fishing has been good with cooler temperatures. Some nice fish are being caught around the dams in the mornings and evenings. If you're looking to chase channel catfish on the fly, now is a good time to target them!

**Use Caution below Saylorville; flows may fluctuate as work is being done to clear debris from the spillway. For more info on this project, see this link.

Get in touch with us to book a fly fishing trip in Iowa!


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