10 Top Catfish Fishing Rivers and Lakes in Iowa

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No game fish is more widely distributed across Iowa than catfish. No matter what region of the state you call home, there’s a great catfish lake or river nearby. 

Channel catfish are especially common. Typically weighing 2 to 8 pounds, channel cats are found in almost every river in Iowa, as well as most major reservoirs and the natural lakes that dot the northern part of the state. 

Giant flathead catfish are nearly as widespread. Capable of exceeding 50 pounds, flatheads are active predators. They are especially abundant in the two major rivers that bookend the state of Iowa: the Missouri to the west and the Mississippi to the east.

Blue catfish are rare in Iowa, but anglers have pulled a few giants from the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The Iowa DNR also began stocking blue cats in a select few southern Iowa reservoirs in 2016, and time will tell if they develop into a thriving fishery.

Mississippi River

The Mississippi River could easily be called the best catfish river in America, and Iowa offers access to more than 300 miles of it. Channel and flathead catfish are abundant in each of the pools created by the river’s 29 locks and dams, and blue cats are increasingly common the farther south you go.

The Iowa DNR has pointed to pools 13, 14 and 15 as especially good for catfish. Pool 15, which includes the Davenport/Rock Island area, is one of the most popular stretches.

Anglers catch catfish in the main river channel as well as the mazes of backwaters that border the Mississippi River in many areas. Sloughs and side channels with water flowing through stumps and logjams are some of the best spots.

On the main river, focus on the lock and dam tailwaters and any other structures that provide a break in the current, like wing dams, dikes and bridge pilings.

Shiners and creek chubs are highly effective on three-way slip rigs, either live or as cut bait.

Missouri River

Forming the majority of Iowa’s western border, the Missouri River is a phenomenal catfish fishery. Channel cats in every size class are abundant, and anglers catch them in backwaters, shallow areas, and around bridges and piers.

It’s an excellent river for giant flatheads, too. Flatheads over 60 pounds have been caught from the Missouri River, usually at night around tangled log jams and in scour holes below wing dams and bridge pilings. Live bluegill, bullhead and carp are the best baits.

The Missouri River is arguably Iowa’s best bet for blue catfish as well. It would be a stretch to say they’re abundant, but blues up to and beyond 60 pounds lurk in deep parts of the river. The 101-pound state record blue cat comes from this river.

Blues typically spend their days in the shipping channel and move toward shallow areas to feed after dark. 

Des Moines River

The Des Moines River and the many smaller creeks and rivers that feed it comprise what is almost certainly Iowa’s best inland catfish fishery. While channel cats are certainly abundant in the river, it’s especially noteworthy for its massive flatheads, which occasionally top 70 pounds. 

Some of the best fishing on the Des Moines River is around the capital city. A particularly good spot is where the Raccoon River—a very good catfish river in its own right—converges with the Des Moines River.

Many anglers fish from the bridge spanning the river at the confluence, right above the Scott Street low-head dam. There’s also ample bank access, thanks to abundant urban parks and trails. 

Coralville Lake

A 5,340-acre impoundment of the Iowa River, Coralville Lake is consistently one of Iowa’s best catfish reservoirs. Also known as Coralville Reservoir, the lake is a short drive from Iowa City and harbors healthy populations of channel and flathead catfish.

Fishing from the bank starts to heat up in early spring as soon as the ice has melted. There’s usually a major shad die-off around this time, and catfish take advantage. The area around the dam between Coralville Lake and neighboring Lake McBride is a hotspot. 

When catfish start spawning around June, look for them along the steep, cliff-like limestone banks where they hole up in cavities. Riprap embankments and the face of the McBride Dam are also good spots around this time.

Coralville Lake also made our list of favorite crappie fishing spots in Iowa.

Cedar River

Stretching 338 miles through Minnesota and Iowa, the Cedar River is classic catfish water. It’s a meandering, slow-moving river with long, deep pools. It’s also dammed in several places before it ultimately merges with the Iowa River and drains into the Mississippi.

Virtually the entire river has channel cat potential. There’s some great action in the upper part of the Cedar River around Nashua and throughout the Cedar Falls and Waterloo areas. 

The flathead fishing tends to be the best downriver from Cedar Rapids, the largest city along the river. You’ll find ample access in the area, including a long stretch of riprap-lined riverbank alongside 1st Street NW. 

Drifting a crawfish or leech beneath a float along the rocks is a good tactic; try to set the distance below the float so that the bait just barely bumps along the bottom.

Clear Lake

Northern Iowa’s Clear Lake is one of the largest natural lakes in the state, at 3,684 acres, and one of the best for catfish fishing. Channel cats in this lake often weigh 5 to 10 pounds, and a few giants in the 20-pound class are pulled in every year. 

Cut bait, nightcrawlers and chicken livers are effective, but big catfish often strike live minnows. Anglers targeting walleye in springtime can catch a few catfish incidentally.

The Grade, a roadside access with a rock-lined fishing jetty at the west end of the lake in Ventura, is a prime spot, especially after dark. The seawall on the lake’s east end in the city of Clear Lake is another good bet. Several rock reefs in open water, including one just north of Woodford Island, also produce excellent catfish action.

Big Sioux River

An excellent catfish river in the northwest corner of the state, the Big Sioux River forms a small section of the Iowa/South Dakota state line until it empties into the Missouri River at Sioux City.

The Big Sioux produces numerous flatheads and channel cats, as well as the occasional blue. 

Blue catfish don’t generally live in interior Iowa rivers, but anglers have landed a few monsters within the first couple miles of the Big Sioux River above its confluence with the Missouri. One beast weighed a whopping 76 pounds and was caught on an 18-inch white sucker.

The Sioux City Boat ramp is a good place to launch near the mouth of the river, and there’s excellent bank access at nearby Riverside Park. Some of the best shore fishing is during periods of high, muddy water, which often brings catfish close to the bank.

Iowa River

Often overlooked among east and central Iowa’s catfish rivers, the Iowa River harbors an abundance of channel catfish and flatheads. Though channel cats are far more common, solitary flatheads get massive here, sometimes reaching the coveted 50-pound mark. 

Most of the Iowa River is shallow, and deep spots reliably concentrate catfish. Focus on pools at river bends, especially underneath laydowns and undercut banks. Big flatheads also hole up in brush and log jams. 

The Iowa River from Marshalltown to Coralville Lake is excellent, and there are quite a few public parks and boat ramps in this stretch, as well as informal access sites at several bridge crossings. 

Three Mile Lake

Southwest Iowa’s Three Mile Lake is an 880-acre reservoir that has long been a steady producer of channel and flathead catfish. Channel cats are more common, and they weigh 2 to 6 pounds on average. 

Standing timber, humps, and an old submerged roadbed were left on the bottom when Three Mile Lake was built, and catfish utilize all of the above. The lake stratifies in summer, so focus on 15-foot depths around the thermocline.

Three Mile Lake is one of the few lakes stocked with blue catfish in recent years. Hard data on how the new residents are doing is tough to come by, but a few anglers have reported catching blue cats up to 26 inches.

With all that cover, it’s no surprise that Three Mile Lake also has a great reputation for big largemouth bass.

West Okoboji Lake

The deepest natural lake in Iowa, West Okoboji Lake is part of a chain of glacial lakes in the northwest part of the state known as the Iowa Great Lakes. It has kicked out some monster channel catfish. 

Channel cats aren’t as abundant as they are in a lot of other waters, but they get truly massive here. It’s not unusual to catch a 20-pounder, and rumors suggest the next state record is swimming in Okoboji’s depths.

Cut bait usually tempts larger channel cats, and the fishing is often excellent from right after ice-out until the cats start spawning in June. Several state and local parks on the lakeshore provide bank and boat access.

West Okoboji Lake, along with East Okoboji and several other lakes in the chain, also offer excellent fishing for several other popular gamefish, including some giant muskies.

Catch More Catfish

Read our easy guide to catfishing fishing, including tackle and bait tips.