2011 Great Plains Catfish Forecast
July 13, 2011
In North and South Dakota, it's hard not to talk catfish without first discussing the Missouri River system. In North Dakota, there are two main catfishing waters connected to this system: Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe. "We saw an explosion of channel catfish numbers following the early 2000s," said North Dakota Game and Fish Biologist Scott Gangl "especially in the upper part of the reservoir in that transitional habitat between the reservoir and the river." Channel catfish numbers are still strong on this stretch of water, with many fish in the 2- to 3-pound range.
High numbers of fish can also be expected on Lake Oahe. "You can catch one after the other in the springtime in the bays that warm up faster in the reservoir's upper transitional zone back to the river," said Gangl. "That is also the region that offers the most public land opportunities for bank anglers."
Public access is also available on the reservoir's lower end, but it's hard to access much of the water from the shore because the amount of vegetation that grew during the latest drought. Now there is a tremendous amount of weed cover that is hard to navigate around from the land. Yet these weeds also make for good catfishing habitat if you're not landlocked.
But being landlocked isn't a problem when catfishing in North Dakota. Actually, with the state's limited number of catfish anglers, there are few problems at all for those wanting to fish for this species. "Most people are catching catfish incidentally," said Gangl. "Catfishing is an untapped resource in these parts."
When you do target these fish, however, you'll have a large amount to yourself. "Last year I caught catfish in back bays at Oahe by either fishing on the bottom with a cut bait or by using a slip bobber or bobber and fish were going crazy," said Gangl. "Because the water was turbid, I used something fish could quickly key in on. Dead smelt works great."
While you will have most of this North Dakota river system to yourself, the Red River, bordering North Dakota and Minnesota, is a different story. This river is a destination catfishery, and for good reason. "The number of channel catfish make this river great, year in and year out," said Gangl. "There are a large number of fish 24 to 30 inches, and your shot at a 10-pound plus channel catfish is pretty good."
North Dakota Fisheries Biologist Lynn Schlueter has spent a large number of days on the Red River and explains his successful techniques simply. "If they're not biting in one spot, I move." As a bank angler he does the same thing. "There is a huge amount of public access through public parks, county roads, etc. where anglers can move up and down the river," he said. "You, as an angler, are not tied down."
On the south end of the state, Schlueter added, are traditionally the river's smaller "fiddler and eater" fish, he said. The water is shallower in many parts, 3 to 4 feet deep, and bank and boat anglers can find good-tasting fish mixed in with an occasional big fish. "As you climb north, past Abercrombie, you're limited to boat fishing." Thus, equipment comes into play.
If the water is up, a good anchor is a must. This anchor will also help when fishing the river's currents and log jams, where boat placement is critical at times. "This river is deeply incised," said Schlueter. "The water can go from 8 feet deep to 3 feet in a matter of feet. Plus, the river has very steep banks, and I've fished from a boat very few feet from the shore in 10 feet of water."
Expect channel catfish on the river and expect a lot of them. The Red River is probably the Great Plains's most well-known channel catfish fishery. Along the river, there is a five-fish-per-trip limit, only one of which may be 24 inches or longer. This allows this fishery's big fish to grow, keeping both the trophy hunter and "fiddler" eater happy.
Catfish? "We are very focused on walleyes here," said South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Fisheries Biologist John Lott. "We generally have the luxury, especially on the Missouri River reservoirs Oahe, Sharpe and Francis Case to not have to pursue other fish because walleye are so easy to pattern." The shame, Lott continued, is that anglers don't usually take advantage of his state's excellent catfish opportunities.
At the state's northern reservoirs, expect to have the channel catfish to yourself. While big fish are few and far between, eaters can be readily caught throughout the year, and especially in the spring. Leading up to summer, catfish should be targeted in the backs of bays and creeks. In addition, from the shore at ice out, especially at Lake Oahe, a high number of catfish are caught on dead smelt while pike fishing.
For those chasing bigger fish, setlining along the Missouri River is an option, as well as looking at the James, Vermillion and the Big Sioux rivers. But most die-hard catfish anglers spend their time on the lower Missouri in South Dakota near Lewis and Clark on the Nebraska border. Longtime guide and fisherman Bruce Pitzer has fished the unchannelized portion of the Missouri River for years between Gavins Point Dam on the Nebraska/South Dakota border and the Fort Randall Dam in South Dakota and stresses the point of shallow water. "We catch a lot of our channel catfish in the cattails along the river's edge from our boat," he said, "where an island or break comes into the main water." Not fishing more than 6 feet deep with a sinker and circle hook baited with liver or nightcrawlers, Pitzer catches a good number of eaters and hopes for a couple fish per day that are in the 10-pound range and up. "The main thing to look for are those little channels. We're fishing every little stream and island we can that dumps into the main river channel."
Moving farther south for those who target flatheads on the channelized portion of the Missouri River on the eastern edge of Nebraska, huge fish, anywhere from 30 to 60 pounds and above, can be found by using live creek chubs behind wing dikes, creekmouths and other rock dikes. Because flats remain a live-bait bite wherever they are found, these live baits are a must. Large hooks, 50-pound test and up line, and heavy weights are also necessary. Talk to every flathead angler up and down the river and he'll do things a little bit different, but each path leads to the same destination: they are after a top-of-the-food-chain predator who likes slack water and live bait. Start there in your search for these river monsters.
Once you're off the Missouri River system, the first step is to look at Nebraska's fishing forecasts for 2011 as well as from past years. Because catfish numbers do not fluctuate as much as some other fish species, past surveys can also be relevant. This year Sutherland Reservoir and Wagon Train top the list. But once you get past these lakes on the sample list, many of the state's waters have similar data. Therefore, use common sense.
"Flip a coin and fish the one closest to your location," said Nebraska Game and Parks Commission Fisheries Biologist Daryl Bauer. "We have good channel catfishing from one end of the state to the other, so anglers should take advantage of that."
You can do so by, once again, being mobile when you fish. "All good catfishermen will tell you that this point is the key," said Bauer. "Move when you're not getting bites. Find baitfish and you'll find catfish." A lot of these baitfish, Bauer continued, will be in shallow water. "In our sandpits and Interstate 80 lakes, if you're fishing in deep water away from the shore, your bait may be resting where no fish are; especially during the summer. You're much better off throwing near a shallow water drop-off or near a weedbed."
If you are interested in Nebraska flatheads, many of the state's reservoirs have fishable populations, including Branched Oak and Sherman Reservoir, but historically the Tri-County and Loup River canals offer some of the state's best waters. Similarly, many waters throughout Nebraska also have blue populations, with good numbers on the Missouri River as well as Wehrspann Lake, near Omaha.
Regardless of which species you covet, Bauer said, don't always let catfish, even channel catfish, fool you into thinking that all they want is something dead. All three species are active predators, and anglers catch a good number of catfish every year throughout the state on lures and live bait. "I'd have to say that if you're targeting big blues or channels," said Bauer, "do the same live bait techniques you do for flatheads." One lake you can use this technique on is Merritt Reservoir because each year it's one of the state's best trophy channel catfish fisheries.
Merritt Reservoir is excellent, John Nadolski would agree. "Earlier in the year, around Memorial Day weekend, we always catch a lot of nice channel catfish — in the 10- to 20-pound range
— slip-bobbing for walleyes on shallow flats during late evening feeding times." While fish can be found in the lake's creek channels throughout the middle of the day into the summer, these shallow-water bites continue be available in low-light conditions throughout the year.
Nebraska's large number of catfishing options is not a secret, said Bauer. Catfish are one of the state's most popular fish resources because of an angler's ability to target large numbers of fish or big fish, as well as the number of options throughout the state, which means that there are enough catfish to go around in the Cornhusker state; good news for those willing to get their hands a little bit dirty.
For more information on recent stockings of catfish in Nebraska, or to look at the 2011 Fishing Forecast, visit www.outdoornebraska.org.
In parts of Kansas, however, catfishing hasn't necessarily caught on like it has across all of Nebraska. "Catfish are our most underutilized resource at Cedar Bluff," said guide Jeff Woodworth. "This lake has big numbers of catfish and some nice fish too, but people just aren't fishing for them."
Because the lake's wipers, walleyes, and crappie are so popular, most anglers aren't taking time out for catfish. But they should.
"The guys that do channel catfish here, they catch the fire out of them," said Woodworth. "Plus, we have flatheads in the 30- to 40-pound range at this lake." These fish can be targeted, from the first of June through the rest of the summer, in 18 to 30 feet of water near submerged roadbeds, boat docks, boat ramps, and parking lot areas that were constructed in recent years when Cedar Bluff was many feet below normal pool levels. "You can find these spots primarily on the lower end of the lake from Page Creek to the dam," said Woodworth. "There are also multiple public areas that grant bank access."
"We catch a lot of nice channel catfish on live shad throughout the summer," added Woodworth. "We're guilty of not targeting them as much as we should ourselves. But even when we're wiper fishing we catch two to three big cats in a morning not even targeting these fish on these days." And whenever Woodworth does target cats, the fishing only gets better.
At Clinton Reservoir, another one of Kansas's top fisheries, people do target channel cats a bit more than they do at Cedar Bluff. "Homemade sour soy bean baits are popular here," said Fisheries Biologist Richard Sanders. "Anglers will bait spots for several days and then fish near these areas soon after, keeping their bait just off the bottom, and catch a ton of eaters."
Eaters at Clinton are what to expect. While the lake doesn't fancy itself being a trophy channel catfish fishery, it does boast about its high density of 1- to 3-pound channel cats, of which an angler can catch 30 or 40 in a single trip. "When you're on the lake," added Sanders, "look at the Wakarusa River channel end when Clinton is getting a lot of inflows and baitfish are being pushed into the reservoir. Then, in the summer, look for the channel breaks, especially near deep, flooded timber, for good catfishing using gizzard shad."
Despite these two quality catfish fisheries, however, do not limit yourself to these two waters. Consult the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Park's online site at www.kdwp.state.ks.us and search for the state's latest fishing forecasts. Then use the techniques discussed in other parts of the Great Plains to fish for one of Kansas's most underutilized fish species. Just because the state lines change doesn't mean your techniques should. So start by looking at the large number of lakes that the KDWP surveys each year at www.kdwp.state.ks.us and start planning your Great Plains catfishing trip today.