Catfish are probably the most popular game fish found throughout the Prairie State. The forked-tailed channel catfish is the most commonly found, but blue and flathead cats also make their home in Illinois waters.
Almost every body of water in Illinois contains at least one species of catfish. But some are better than others. We have attempted to find some of the hotspots and predict the overall quality of catfishing for you in 2011.
Large reservoirs, small lakes, ponds, big rivers and small ones all yield good fish. Some will produce big fish, others smaller, eating-size ones. The key is to focus on those waters that consistently produce the fish you want, year after year.
Flowing along the west edge of the state, the Mississippi River presents some 500 miles of catfish habitat. All three species of catfish are found the full length of the river, but some areas are more conducive to finding a specific one. Generally speaking, the northern parts of the river are good channel catfish locations, the middle is flathead country, and the southern sections are where those big blue cats are found.
The various sections of the river are called pools. They each have a name designation, which runs from Pool 12 in the north to Pool 28 in the south. These designations relate to the water upriver from the various dams, which are identified with the numbers.
Boat launch and shore fishing areas are found near the dams and all along the entire length of the Mississippi. Local maps contain markers for the public approaches to the river.
From Pool 12 near East Dubuque, down to Pool 15 (Rock Island/Moline) channel catfish predominate. They are in and around the backwater sloughs, wing dams and snags. Anglers catch them on stinkbait, nightcrawlers or cut bait. In the southern reaches of these pools there is some riprap and it is possible to catch channels on a leech suspended below a bobber in the shallows.
From the Rock Island area on down to Pool 24 just north of St. Louis, the channel catfish continue to be found, as are flatheads. Blues begin to be found in the current areas. This area has produced some very large blues and, in fact, the Illinois and world record blue catfish came from waters along this part of the river.
Blues are found in the eddy breaks downstream of the wing dams and on the sand flats between the wing dams. They also like the deep holes near the man-made structures.
A creature of the open water, blues can be caught jug fishing in the main channel. Channel catfish, as said previously, can be caught on stinkbaits and nightcrawlers, and on crayfish, too. The flatheads like live bait such as sunfish, carp and goldfish. As with the channel catfish, flatheads prefer the brushpiles and logjams. They like that wood.
Along the southern border of Illinois is the Ohio River. Its entire length is a catfish factory. Boat launches are available at Golconda, Elizabethtown, Shawneetown, Tower Rock, Rosiclare, Cave In Rock and Bay City.
Large channel catfish can be found in about 15 to 30 feet of water in the river. The larger fish like shad guts, large minnows and cut bait. The smaller ones will take nightcrawlers and crayfish. The baits are best fished just off the bottom, anywhere there is a current break.
The flatheads and blue catfish are more of a main channel fish. They prefer live bait over cut bait. Large minnows, skipjack herring and sunfish make good baits. Both species of catfish will be near any kind of large structure such as concrete, fallen trees and rocks. They are usually just out of the current awaiting some hapless baitfish to float past.
The main marina service available on the river comes at Golconda Marina in the town of the same name.
Finding good fishing water for catfish on rivers is not difficult. The following guidelines apply mainly to big rivers but can be adapted to small rivers as well. Most of the small river dams in Illinois have been destroyed in order to enhance the flow of the water and to improve the fish habitat. Often the pieces of concrete are left in the water as part of the fish habitat structure.
The most popular river locations seem to be below dams. When water flows over a dam, grooves are created where water flows at different speeds. Catfish like current breaks. Shore anglers look for a point of land or a large tree that has fallen in the water blocking current. Catfish are often located behind that current break. Sometimes the current will wash out a hole in the bottom of the river and catfish take up residence there out of the flow of water.
Early in the day it is a good idea to fish any water where fast-moving current meets still water. The fish like to feed along slack water borders. Regardless of the river size or location, it is important to remember that catfish prefer cover.
In addition to the large rivers is a system of smaller waterways that all seem to eventually flow into either the Ohio or Mississippi Rivers. They generally produce good catfishing action. Take, for instance, the Fox River in the far northeastern part of the state.
The Fox enters Illinois from Wisconsin near Antioch in Lake County and flows about 115 miles down to the Illinois River. The Illinois in turn flows down to the Mississippi near Alton. Probably the best known segment of the Fox is that which backs up behind the McHenry Dam and forms the six lakes of The Chain of Lakes. The Chain is popular with recreational boaters as well as anglers and contains several species of coldwater fishes as well as channel and flathead catfish.
There is ample public access to the Fox River for its entire length. The river flows through many of the western collar counties near Chicago and provides fishing opportunities for many of the 7 million people who reside near it.
Below the dam and on down the rest of the river can be found flathead and channel catfish as well as their cousins, the black, brown and yellow bullheads. The bullheads are usually not present in large numbers. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) has tagged a number of flatheads in an attempt to gain more knowledge of this fishery. Marty Jandura, of a local flathead fishing organization, reports that his group is promoting catch and release on these river waters. Considering the time it takes to raise trophy-size flatheads, that is a good idea.
Some other northeastern Illinois rivers have good populations of catfish. According to Trent Thomas, Region III streams biologist, some of them have experienced fish kills but still have cats to be found in the deep-water pools. The Iroquois River is one of the rivers that had a fish kill last year. Still, there are catfish found in the mainstream river. Pay particular attention to large, oxygen-rich riffles.
Channel catfish are found in Beaver Creek, a tributary of the Iroquois, near Papineau. In conducting his surveys last year, Thomas found the largest channel catfish in the Iroquois to be in the Sugar Creek tributary near Milford. The largest flathead was found in the Iroquois, east of Ashkum. There are boat ramps at Watseka and Aroma Park that provide access to the Iroquois.
Another river that enters Illinois from Wisconsin is the Rock River. Long known as prime habitat for channel and flathead catfish, the river experienced a fish kill in June 2009 due to a train derailment. However, locals report that it is making a comeback thanks to major restocking efforts by the IDNR.
The river enters Illinois near Rockton and then flows southward to Rockford. From there it makes it way southwest to join the Mississippi on the south side of Rock Island. Most recent survey information indicates that the channel and flathead populations are strong. There are good numbers of 11-inch channels that anglers are catching. The second-best size class is about 16 inches in length. There are far fewer trophy-size fish, but they are on the increase. Trophy flatheads are not as numerous as prior to the spill but there are still some available in the lower reaches of the river.
Public access points are numerous all along the length of the river. Most maps of the area detail their locations. Local bait shops and IDNR offices are also a good source of information as to where the fishing is best.
Transecting the middle of the Prairie State, the Kaskaskia River provides catfishing opportunities further south. Beginning at the headwaters in Champaign County, the river flows some 280 miles to the Mississippi. It reaches its full fishing potential leaving Carlyle Lake and for the last 70 miles.
Boat access at New Athens and Evansville provide fishermen the opportunity to fish water above and below those towns. Water conditions below Lake Carlyle vary according to the flow of water over the dam. Although there are some huge flatheads taken from the river, the channel catfish are the mainstay species. They are widely distributed due to an abundance of logjams, brushpiles, undercut root systems and deep pools.
Most of the channel catfish are in the 1- to 2-pound range. But in the lower reaches of the river it is possible to find fish over 4 pounds. Most fish are taken around brush or trees near pools or around riprap. Shore fishermen find good action around some of the deeper pools. Jug fishermen like working the mouths of oxbows looking for flatheads, channels and an occasional blue catfish.
When it comes to lakes, the three largest in Illinois are the three reservoirs owned by the Corps of Engineers: Shelbyville, Carlyle and Rend. Two contain substantial populations of catfish but Rend appears to be the best bet for the angler in search of Mr. Whiskers.
District 19 Fisheries Manager Mike Hooe describes Rend as a “catfish factory.” He classifies the prospects for catching channel and flathead fish as “excellent.”
“The natural reproduction and recruitment continues to be very strong and is responsible for maintaining the large population of fish,” reports Hooe. He says that fish in the 1- to 2-pound range should be abundant and fish up to 6 pounds common.
Hooe finds that, although his numbers in the surveys were down in 2010, the population remains stable in size structure. Mike feels the fishing should continue to be good for this species. Most of the flatheads range up to 20 pounds, with some fish even larger. He found large numbers of smaller fish, which bodes well for the future of this fishery.
The other good lake for catfish is Carlyle Lake on the Kaskaskia River. Flatheads abound in these waters with fish ranging in size from less than a pound up to 50-plus pounds. The channels are mostly 1 to 2 pounds and 15 to 30 inches in length.
The third reservoir, Lake Shelbyville, is experiencing fair to poor catfishing, according to IDNR survey results. The channels range up to 29 inches in length and 11 pounds in weight. The flatheads range up to 49 inches and 58 pounds in the latest surveys. The lake record taken back in 2002 was 62 pounds, so it can produce big fish.
When it comes to smaller size lakes, we have many scattered across the length and breadth of the state. The lakes producing the largest fish are the power-plant cooling lakes that have a longer growing season for the fish. Lakes such as Sangchris, near Springfield, and Heidicke, near Chicago, produce excellent catfish. Most are channel catfish that were stocked into the lakes when they were formed. The perched lake at Baldwin contains some monster cats. All of these lakes are usually fished from boats trolling baits at a speed of less than 2 mph. Shore fishermen find the best action along riprap and near outlets and inlets from which water is taken to cool generators and then returned to the lake.
Throughout the state, forest preserves, park districts, local municipalities and state parks contain small lakes. Almost all of them contain good populations of channel catfish and a few have flatheads. The fish are stocked into these lakes in a cooperative arrangement with the IDNR. In turn, IDNR biologists managed the balance of fish to habitat and make recommendations to local officials.
A list of the lakes and their size is contained in the annual fishing information digest printed each year by the IDNR and available whereever licenses are sold, in state parks, and from IDNR offices across the state. They are also available online at www.dnr.state.il.us.
These lakes are found in large urban areas as well as small rural communities. It is impossible to live more than a few miles from at least one of these lakes. Many have youth fishing programs to teach youngsters fishing skills and ethics.