Cats Galore, Bass No More?

Cats Galore, Bass No More?

Once known for its white and smallmouth bass fisheries, central Illinois' Powerton Lake has become a catfish mecca for anglers chasing trophy channels, flatheads and blues. (August 2008)

A Powerton channel cat surrendered to this Prairie State angler.
Photo by Windigo Images.

Monsters lurk in Powerton Lake these days.

Blue catfish, some weighing 50 pounds or more, are faring remarkably well, leaving one to ponder whether they are supplanting the thriving resident smallmouth fishery.

Not so, say bass anglers and Illinois Department of Natural Resources biologists. All indications suggest the two species are cohabitating nicely, providing two great fisheries for anglers to target.

Merle Keefer owns Pekin Bass & Bow. He sees many bass anglers in his store and hears all the opinions and gossip, both good and bad. He said he hasn't heard any negative feedback from anyone, including bass anglers. He said the smallmouth fishery is still doing great and anglers are reporting as much success as ever.

DNR biologist Wayne Herndon, who oversees the 1,426-acre lake, said they haven't noticed or documented any negative effect at all on the smallmouth fishery. Furthermore, Herndon and his fellow biologists don't anticipate blue catfish ever creating a problem for the bass fishery or the anglers who pursue them. There does appear to be a significant decline of white bass, according to Herndon. In past creel surveys, white bass typically accounted for about 36 percent of fish harvested by anglers. However, in the latest creel survey, no white bass were recorded in the harvest. Although the downturn is cause for concern, Herndon said he doesn't believe the decline has anything to do with blue catfish.

Blue cats weren't always part of the overall fishery at Powerton.

In 1999, 35,000 blue catfish fry purchased from Arkansas and raised at the Little Grassy Fish Hatchery near Carbondale, were introduced by the IDNR. Another stocking in 2001 introduced 38,804 more blue cats ranging in size from 4 to 8 1/2 inches.

"We were hopeful that the blue catfish would be able to take advantage of the temperature regimen at Powerton Lake," Herndon said. "Evidently, they have been able to do so."

Growth rate data suggests the cats are adapting to the lake phenomenally well.

Stocking resumed in 2003 with 20,000 to 35,000 fish -- 10 to 20 fish per acre -- stocked every year through 2007. The number of stocked fish fluctuated dependent on what the hatchery could provide. Hatchery space is divided between numerous fish species and demands for individual species can fluctuate depending on statewide needs, with preference given to the most-needed species.

Biologists haven't been able to determine whether there has been any natural reproduction. Future management plans include a study to determine if natural reproduction is occurring at the lake. If natural reproduction is determined adequate to maintain the fishery, stocking efforts will be suspended.

Fin clipping is the most likely method to determine reproduction. The biologists clip the fins of blue cats before they are released into the lake. If, when they return to sample the lake in a year or two, they find similar sized fish with unclipped fins, it will indicate that those fish were likely spawned within the lake.

According to Herndon, the DNR may also look into the possibility of enhancing spawning habitat to encourage reproduction. Because catfish are cavity nesters, habitat enhancement may involve placing artificial structure such as barrels or similar items into the lake for use as spawning locations. Similar work has been done to help manage other species in the lake.

When Powerton's shoreline habitat resulted in a green sunfish population explosion, smallmouth bass were introduced to help stymie the growth. It was successful to a degree.

Extensive shoreline rehabilitation removed the green sunfish and facilitated channel catfish reproduction and fry survival. Channel catfish were one of the first fish stocked in Powerton when the lake was constructed. They flourished for a long time because of excellent habitat and availability of forage. After channel catfish numbers declined slightly, the DNR took steps to ensure its future and the fishery has bounced back very nicely. There are some very large channel cats pulled from the lake each year, although most average 1 to 2 pounds.

Whiskerfish anglers are equally treated to yet another dynamite catfishery. Flathead catfish are in abundance and grow to excellent sizes, as do blue and channel cats. Flatheads are frequently caught in the 15- to 30-pound range with some whoppers tipping the scales at more than 60 pounds.

The blue cat stocking program has been a nice addition to the catfishery already present at Powerton. The fish have adapted well to the environment and have grown very rapidly, approaching 50 pounds in a very short time.

An excellent forage base is one of the predominant reasons for the rapid growth. Young blue cats take advantage of the ample supply of threadfin and gizzard shad, as well as brook silversides.

With so many big catfish in Powerton, many folks wonder if a new state-record catfish will someday be hauled from the lake. Experts say the possibility exists, but only time will determine whether the larger catfish survive the temperature extremes at the lake.

Powerton, a cooling lake for a power plant, is classified thermally loaded, meaning the discharge water is very hot. This aids increased fish growth because their metabolism remains elevated, but at the same time, it changes normal life-patterns to a point that it usually affects longevity once they become sexually mature. Even so, with 50- and 60-pound cats already showing up, a new state record may be just around the corner.

Keefer at Pekin Bass & Bow said he's heard quite a few people say Powerton is the best place around to fish for blue cats. Even people from out of town are traveling to the lake to tangle with the jumbo cats. Keefer said 18- to 20-pound fish are frequently caught.

"I think anybody can go down there and catch them if they try," he said. "It's a pretty good fishery."

The best fishing action for blue cats usually occurs in areas of strong current. This is especially true in the spring and fall when water temperatures aren't quite so high. Catfish prefer comfortable temperature ranges, so they

tend to move from warmer water after springtime to cooler water in the main lake.

Blue and channel cats prefer different habitat and depths. Most people target channel cats along the bottom and near structure like humps, drop-offs and woody debris. Blue cats, on the other hand, prefer open water and are often found suspended similar to hybrid white bass. Many people catch blue cats by happenstance while targeting hybrids or striped bass.

Blue catfish are very aggressive predators, well equipped to prey on shad and other smaller fish. Therefore, the best success for the biggest blues comes with using live bait, such as bluegills and green sunfish. Keefer said shad and cut bait also work well at times.

"The guys that seem to be having the best luck are those who are using a heavy enough weight to keep the bait down in the heavy current," he said. "Bait without enough weight tends to roll in the current."

Flatheads are very similar in appetite to blue cats, even more so when it comes to live bait. While blue cats can be caught on a variety of baits, flatheads almost always feed on live bait unless it is in limited supply.

Good flathead baits include bluegills and green sunfish, crayfish, minnows and other live offerings. Of course, one should always consider live bait regulations for individual waters before fishing. Not all baits are legal in all areas.

Unlike blue catfish, flatheads don't usually suspend in open water. They almost always prefer some form of structure -- large brushpiles, logjams, single trees or large rocks. Flatheads often spend daylight hours in deep water far away from the penetration of sunlight. By late evening, they begin cruising shallow flats or along points in search of food.

Remember when chasing blue and flathead catfish, everyday fishing tackle may not be enough. A rod and reel may function admirably on average-sized fish, but a 50- or 60-pound catfish may send your favorite setup to an early grave. Heavy-duty rods and reels, heavy poundage line and stout hooks are a must to tackle the big boys.

Channel catfish could easily hold the distinction of America's favorite catfish. Not only are they the most widely distributed catfish of the big three; they are also the easiest to catch. Many a young person was introduced to the treasure of catfishing by hooking their first channel cat.

Channel cats are found in all depth ranges and in a wide variety of habitats, although they are typically known as bottom dwellers and usually targeted by tight-lining baits right on the bottom or suspending baits just off the bottom.

Anglers can catch channel cats on just about anything. They are opportunistic feeders and will bite nearly any kind of live bait along with the traditional smelly catfish baits. Red worms, night crawlers, grubs and mealworms work exceptionally well. Cut bait, shad guts, chicken livers and dough balls all catch channel cats along with commercial stink baits, cheese baits, blood baits and homemade concoctions.

Channel catfish can be caught all day and all night when conditions are right. They are by far the easiest to put in the boat or haul onto the bank. Shore-bound anglers are especially fond of channel cats as they are much more in reach of casting from the bank than blues or flatheads.

Look for channel cats to hang out in deep-water locations during the daytime. They can be found along dropoff edges along the line between shallow and deep water.

When night approaches, they move to shallow waters, prowling points, coves and shoreline structure in search of forage. Many anglers wait until dark to target channel cats and fish until sunrise.

No matter whether one is targeting a fiddler size channel cat or a monstrous blue or flathead catfish, Powerton Lake seems to be the place to find them. All three species are doing exceptionally well and look to remain so into the near future.

So, that brings us back to our initial query: Will catfish at Powerton Lake one day supplant the bass population? Probably not, but they should offer some fantastic fishing opportunities for those enamored with chasing whiskerfish.

Powerton Lake, located southwest of Pekin in Tazewell County, opens to boaters on Feb. 15 and closes the day before regular duck season. Other regulations apply, so consult the 2008 Illinois Fishing Information booklet for details. It may be obtained at license vendors or by contacting the Illinois DNR at (217) 782-6302 or online at dnr.state.il.us .

There is only one access point on the lake with a boat ramp. The ramp area has parking available for approximately 60 vehicles, which is usually sufficient except for the busiest weekends or if a bass tournament is held on the lake. There are no facilities, so bait, food or fuel should be purchased in Pekin.

To reach the ramp from Pekin, take Illinois Route 29 south approximately one mile. Turn right onto Manito Road and travel two miles to the entrance.

Because of the power generating station, access is limited to the lake only. Additionally, groups of 25 or more are required to register in advance before accessing the area. For more information, call (309) 968-7135.

The nearest camping is located about 12 miles south of the lake at the Spring Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area. From the lake, turn west on Manito Road and travel approximately eight miles to Spring Lake Road. Turn right and go another three miles to the North Park entrance. Follow the signs to the South Park. You may contact the area at the telephone number listed above or by e-mail to dnr.R1Parks@illinois.gov.

Other lodging is available in the city of Pekin. For more information, contact the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce at (309) 346-2106 or by e-mail at chamber@pekin.net. The chamber may be accessed on the Internet at pekin.net . Traveling anglers may also want to contact the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs Bureau of Tourism at 1-800-2Connect.

Two stores in Pekin specialize in fishing tackle and live bait -- Pekin Bass & Bow at 1304 Derby Street, (309) 347-3334 and Riverside Hunting Bait & Tackle at 921 South 2nd Street, (309) 347-3793.

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