Kentucky's Underrated Catfish Waters
October 04, 2010
Here are six overlooked lake and river systems that are prime places to catch big flathead, channel and blue catfish in our state. (June 2009)
Fishing for catfish is one of the most popular angling pursuits in Kentucky. Along with bass and crappie anglers, catfishing enthusiasts are some of the most dedicated folks on the water. Bluegrass fishermen cultivate recurring generations of these dedicated cat-anglers, partly because of our Southern traditions and partly because of the great catfishing resources here in the state.
After all, the Bluegrass State has some of the best catfishing opportunities in the nation. From farm ponds and small lakes to huge reservoirs and big rivers, we've got every conceivable type of catfishing possibility that one could imagine. Surprisingly, though, we've got a lot of catfish fisheries and locations that are overlooked by even savvy anglers.
Some of these locations are relatively unknown. Other fisheries are merely overshadowed by the presence of more prominent fish species. Regardless of the reason, it's time to shine some light on these hidden whiskerfish gems. Here's the inside scoop on some of our missed catfishing opportunities.
The first overlooked catfish hole we'll take a look at will probably be a big surprise for many people. It would probably be difficult for anyone to imagine any water as large as the Mississippi River as being overlooked. Well, overlooked may not be as accurate a description as would be the term underutilized. And when it comes to catfishing, the Mighty Mississippi is tremendously underutilized.
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) fisheries biologist Paul Rister said there are myriad opportunities on the river that remain virtually unused. And it is not just our fish and wildlife department that shares that opinion. Fisheries biologists from our neighbors in Illinois and Tennessee are also encouraging anglers to take more advantage of the vast population of catfish inhabiting the river.
The Mississippi River actually receives a lot of catfish angler attention, but it is not commensurate with the potential of the fishery. The Mississippi is chock-full of all three main species of catfish and one biologist even remarked, "There is no way the catfish population in the river could ever be impacted by sport fishing." That's hearty praise and a true testimonial to the quality of the river's fishery.
Anglers can find size distribution with all three species of cats from small fiddler size all the way up to true trophy size. It's not uncommon at all for anglers to catch some monster cats from the Mississippi. After all, the world-record blue catfish was pulled from the Mississippi just a few years ago. That fish weighed a whopping 124 pounds!
The river offers a true year-round fishing opportunity for catfish. Of course, spring and fall are usually the best times with the most action, but the summer months can be good as well. Surprisingly, some of the largest fish of the year are often caught during the winter.
There are several reasons why the river is not used as much as it could be. Safety is a major concern for some anglers and with good reason. The river can be very dangerous and anglers must have a stable, sturdy boat if they are going to be out on the water. Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) should be worn at all times. Anglers must obey all safety recommendations on the river and particularly when fishing near locks and dams.
Access is another concern. The river offers a lot of opportunity for shore-bound anglers, both on private property and on public access lands. Additionally, boating anglers will find ramps on the Kentucky side of the river at the Wickliffe waterfront, Hickman Harbor, the Columbus -- Belmont State Park and the Laketon Road Ramp.
Another huge body of water that has an overlooked catfish population is Lake Cumberland. John Williams, the KDFWR biologist who oversees the lake, said, "Lake Cumberland has an excellent population of catfish that is largely ignored. People just don't go there much to fish for catfish."
Obviously, Lake Cumberland is known nationwide for its tremendous striper fishery. Subsequently, a huge amount of the lake's fishing effort is directed toward stripers. Smallmouth bass, and to a lesser degree largemouth bass, are also popular targets with anglers there. Catfish, on the other hand, do not see a lot of action from anglers.
Williams said that creel clerk Rudy Young tallied some very nice numbers of catfish during his last survey. According to Williams, the catfish population at the lake consists mostly of channel cats. He said there are not a lot of really huge ones, but there are good numbers and many quality-sized fish present. There are really good numbers of channel cats between 14 and 20 inches, which is the perfect size for supplying your next fish fry.
Flathead catfish are also present in the fishery, but are just not as numerous as channel cats. However, there are some really large flatheads at Lake Cumberland. With the flathead catfish being such an adept predator and with the presence of a really good forage base at Cumberland, it's a recipe for producing some real trophies.
Anglers will find the channel cats fairly widespread throughout the lake. Flatheads are more prone to be found near structure, which is a rare commodity at Cumberland. However, if an angler can find some woody structure, there's a good possibility there are catfish hanging around it. Other good areas to try include river and creek channels and near the dam. Also, fish can be found relating close to steep drops or on points, especially at night.
Assistant fisheries biologist David Wyffels said Barren River Lake is underutilized for channel catfish. The KDFWR has given both the channel and flathead populations excellent ratings and Wyffels said the creel numbers from last year was very good.
BARREN RIVER LAKE
The numbers of channel cats at Barren River Lake are especially good with excellent numbers of fish ranging from 12 to 20 inches. There are also much larger fish present and anglers often catch some real dandies. Even so, the fishery doesn't get as much attention as it deserves.
Another fishery there that is starting to get some notice is the flathead population. Not so many rod-and-reel anglers are targeting them, but noodling enthusiasts are growing in number at the lake. Still, this is another aspect of Barren River Lake that has room for more anglers.
Biologists don't have a lot of data on the flathead fishery there, because they don't creel anglers and don't have the necessary gear to sample the really large flatheads. Wyffels said they are
trying to develop some new sampling gear and netting procedures in an attempt to learn more about the flathead population. They do know there are some really large fish available.
Noodling season runs during the summer months and is scheduled to coincide with the catfish spawning and nesting season. Noodlers will wade in shallow water to seek out catfish nesting sites -- usually holes, undercut banks, hollow logs and cavities under rock or concrete -- and then feel around by hand until they locate a hidden catfish. The noodler will then attempt to get a grasp of the catfish's mouth and then haul it out by hand. This can be a very dramatic and exciting way to catch huge catfish for those inclined to do so.
Check the KDFWR fishing guide for exact dates and regulations on noodling.
Blue catfish are the name of the game at Taylorsville Lake near Louisville. Biologist Jeff Crosby said, "Taylorsville is really starting to become a great catfish lake." Of course, the lake has been popular for channel catfish for years, but the recently stocked blue catfish are really coming on strong and as of yet, are not getting anglers' full attention.
Blue catfish were first stocked into Taylorsville Lake in 2002, so they have had several years to grow. Now biologists and anglers alike are starting to see some really nice fish. Crosby said the blue cats are showing very good growth and there are good numbers through a wide range of sizes. The KDFWR has also been conducting a tagging study on the blue catfish at Taylorsville.
Anglers need to fish differently to target blue cats. They are often found in open water at Taylorsville and are not just sitting on the bottom as many anglers imagine. To catch the larger fish, anglers should use heavier tackle and bigger baits, such as live fish or chunks of cut bait.
While at Taylorsville, catfish enthusiasts can also take advantage of the other two species of catfish. Channel cats are not stocked, but are present in very good numbers as the population is maintained through natural reproduction. Crosby said flathead catfish are also present in the fishery as well.
Another reservoir in Crosby's district that has an overlooked catfish fishery is Herrington Lake. The biologist said this lake is not heavily fished for catfish, but there is some very good opportunity to do so, especially for flathead catfish.
"There are good numbers of flatheads at Herrington. A lot of bass anglers unexpectedly catch flatheads, and we see a lot of flatheads when we are shocking. There are a good number of channel cats as well."
There are probably a few good reasons why the flathead population is not heavily fished at Herrington. First, it is highly likely that many people simply don't know the fishery is that good. Also, the lake is a canyon reservoir with very steep sides and, according to Crosby, this is intimidating to some fishermen. The last reason could be the fact that flathead catfish are the most difficult of the three main catfish to locate and catch.
Flatheads are topnotch predators and will choose live forage over everything else unless food sources are in short supply. They feed heavily on bluegills, sunfish and shad. Anglers must use baits accordingly if they are to get much attention from the big flatheads.
WOOD CREEK LAKE
Wood Creek Lake is a medium- sized water that has a very good channel catfish fishery. The fishery itself is not overlooked so much, but there are more whiskerfish in the lake than anglers realize.
Wood Creek Lake is about 672 acres in size; it is located in Laurel County near London. There is one boat launch with a small concession that has limited fishing supplies. To reach the lake, follow state Route (SR) 80 west out of London until reaching Swiss Colony. Turn right onto Swiss Colony Road and follow it until reaching Wood Creek Lake Road.
We've covered a few overlooked fisheries in some of our larger waters, but there are also numerous catfish opportunities at some of our smaller lakes that are overlooked by anglers. These include lakes owned by both the state and the KDFWR. Most all are regularly stocked with channel catfish, and some are even stocked with blue cats as well.
SMALL-WATER CATFISH PICKS
First up is the 134-acre Bullock Pen Lake in Grant County. Crosby said the lake is stocked annually with both blue and channel catfish, and there are some very large fish present. The KDFWR stocks some 900 blue catfish and just about 3,350 channel cats each year.
Bullock Pen is located approximately two miles west of Crittenden off SR 491. Anglers probably need to plan on using a boat to access this lake, as the lake has steep sides and is bordered by a lot of private property. There is some bank access near the boat ramp located on Violet Road.
Guist Creek Lake is a little larger and definitely one catfish anglers should know about. Crosby said the lake has a very good channel catfish population with a lot of large fish and even some trophy potential. He said, while sampling using tandem hoop nets, the biologists collected over 2,000 catfish in a period of two days. That is a lot of fish!
Anglers can find Guist Creek Lake in Shelby County just off U.S. Route 60 about two miles east of Shelbyville. From Route 60, take a left on SR 1871 and then right on SR 1779. The lake is 317 acres and there is a marina and launch ramp. Shoreline fishing is also available.
Over in Logan County is a lake that is rarely talked about except by the locals. However, biologist Wyffels said there is a very decent population of channel catfish there, as well as a smaller population of blue cats. Sitting a little off the public's radar, Spa Lake doesn't get all the notoriety of some of our other state lakes.
Spa Lake totals about 200 acres, but is narrow and spread out with many twists, turns and coves. There is a gravel ramp at the lake but no facilities. It is owned by the city of Russellville and can be found off SR 106 approximately five miles southwest of Lewisburg.
Wyffels said West Fork Drakes Reservoir also should capture the attention of anglers. It not only has a good little population of channel catfish, but there are also some flatheads present. Anglers will find good numbers and pretty good size distribution.
West Fork Drakes is owned by the city of Franklin. The lake is located off SR 73 less than two miles from Franklin. There is a concrete boat ramp and a second gravel ramp. There is bank access at the Franklin Simpson Park which is located on North Street off U.S.-31W North just outside Franklin.
Boltz Lake in Grant County is another catfish hole favored by Crosby. The lake isn't overwhelmed with huge numbers of catfish, but there is very good potential there for anglers to hook a trophy. Boltz Lake receives 2,300 channel cats and 900 blue cats each year.
Boltz Lake is located four mil
es from Dry Ridge. It totals about 97 acres and has one boat ramp. The lake can be accessed off SR 467.
Numerous other small state lakes have catfish opportunities worth mentioning. Wyffels recommends 18-acre Briggs Lake in Logan County, as well as Mill Creek Lake in Monroe County. Mill Creek is 109 acres and stocked with channel catfish every other year. Briggs is stocked with channel cats annually.
Other lakes suggested by Crosby include Beaver Lake in Anderson County and Elmer Davis Lake in Owen County. The latter receives some 7,000 stocked channel cats each year. This 149-acre lake has good numbers and numerous larger fish. Beaver Lake totals 158 acres and gets channel cat stockings to the rate of 8,000 per year.
The smaller lakes owned by the KDFWR have a 12-inch minimum harvest size restriction for channel catfish. Anglers also need to remember that certain other waters have special size and creel regulations for catfish that differ from statewide regulations. Always check for the most current regulations before fishing at a new location.