by Tim Lilley
Call the Kansas River the king of Sunflower State catfish waters.
When it comes to producing truly large, whiskered game fish, this eastern Kansas drainage offers the best of the best. Some anglers might argue with that assessment, claiming there are other places in the state with extremely large cats – especially flatheads.
But the Kaw, as many Kansans know this river, has something no other totally in-state river can boast: record-setting blue cats.
The Missouri River, which serves as Kansas’ northeast border with Missouri, has blues. In fact, it’s a good bet that the huge blues that turn up in the Kansas River have journeyed upstream from the Mighty Mo. It also has big flatheads and channel cats, but its waters are not totally contained within the Sunflower State’s borders. The Kansas River is.
More than any other fishery in the state, this meandering, generally off-color stream with what some will tell you is a truly living nature is home to a legitimate triple threat – monstrous examples of blue, channel and flathead catfish.
It doesn’t seem like 14 years since an otherwise quiet evening in my Johnson County home was forever changed by the phone call that reported a new state-record blue cat – a whopping 83-pounder – having been taken from the Kansas River not far from DeSoto. Longtime readers of this magazine may remember the report and photos published on that 1988 catch. At the time, biologists considered the big blue to be an enigma of sorts – not an everyday occurrence, but something that anglers frequenting the banks and sandbars of the Kaw could possibly encounter. I tried a couple of times – including a magical evening spent fishing from the sandbar that had given up that very blue – but with no success.
As time went on, I chalked that big blue up as an anomaly: a chance-of-a-lifetime catch for a lucky fisherman who was in the right place at the right time. If that truly was the case, then Johnson County angler James Edmiston proved that history can in fact repeat itself. He did it on July 14, 2000. Also fishing the Kaw, and using shad as bait, Edmiston hooked and landed a 53-inch blue that tipped the scales at 94 pounds. His new state record is an awesome example of the big-cat potential the Kansas River had, and still has today.
Also consider that it was nine years ago this month, in June 1993, when Lansing resident Kennith Bradford used a perch as bait to claim the state channel-cat record with another Kansas River catch – a 40-inch channel that weighed 34 pounds, 11 ounces.
In fact, Elk City Reservoir is the only water in the state keeping the Kaw from holding all of the state’s big-catfish records. It was at Elk City in May 1998, when angler Ken Paulie of Caney landed a flathead measuring more than 5 feet long and weighing an amazing 123 pounds. Paulie was fishing with a minnow-tipped jig, likely not for flatheads, when the leviathan hit.
Having reported all of this, let me quickly try to answer the question (posed in this story’s title) as to where you should go for big Kansas catfish.
Without a doubt, the Kansas River is the place if you’re just interested in a trophy – or if you intend to focus on a really big blue. You’ll find plenty of spots from Lawrence downstream, but giving exact big-fish locations is impossible for reasons to be explained later.
If your wish is a truly large flathead, you can just about pick a spot in Kansas. Plenty of places hold flatheads exceeding 50 pounds. They have been caught at city lakes, state fishing lakes and large impoundments. Honestly, big flatheads are my personal favorites because they can be so aggressive. (I’ll have more about that in a little bit.)
If you prefer channel catfish, as so many of our state’s anglers do, keep in mind that the Kansas River also holds the state record for those cats. But there have been true trophies taken from many of the state’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments. Really, if channels are your preference, you might want to think about what constitutes a trophy in your mind. If it’s a 10-pounder or larger, you likely can catch a channel of that size in any state water the channel cats call home – including a good many of our farms ponds. If 20 pounds sounds more like your ideal, then you probably will have to concentrate on something larger than a pothole. But you still are likely to encounter fish of that size in a wide variety of Kansas’ fishing spots.
My best trophy channel cat only weighed about 5 pounds. But I caught him from a tangle of brush in a dogleg turn of Fall River, above the southeastern Kansas lake of the same name, on a tiny crawdad-imitation crankbait. Given the size of the water and the bait, catching that 5-pounder would’ve been like catching a 15-pounder on the Kaw, which is why I still recall the fish so fondly and so vividly.
Although crappie might outpace channel cats for the number of good spots for fishing for them listed on the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks’ annual fishing forecast, it’s doubtful. Beyond doubt is the fact that channel cats and crappie are at the top of state anglers’ lists of fish they prefer to go after for their combination of action and table fare.
State fisheries biologists know that, and they devote considerable time to developing and maintaining as many good fishing waters as they can for the species. This is plainly evident when you look at the 2002 fishing forecast for channel cats.
Milford is the only large reservoir in the state whose channel-cat fishing is not rated as either good or excellent; it’s assessed as only fair. Every other Corps of Engineers impoundment is rated as at least good, and many are rated as excellent as far as channel cats go.
Seven of them produced channel cats heavier than 10 pounds in the annual samplings that help produce these forecasts. And more notably, those seven are spread all over the state. They include Cheney in the southcentral region, Kirwin out west, and Clinton and Hillsdale in the east, among others. What this suggests is that no matter where you live in Kansas, you likely have a fishing spot close to you that displays potential for giving up truly large channel catfish.
Even more exciting is the fact that no fewer than 20 of Kansas’ smaller lakes are rated excellent for channel cat fishing by the KDWP, and there are dozens more rated as good. And that doesn’t include any of the hundreds of farm ponds around the state that are home to large channel cats.
What about flatheads? You’ll find 40- to 50-pounders in the Kansas River, and also in the Marais des Cygnes River. They likely represent the two best flathead rivers in the state, but that is open to discussion.
Every major impoundment has decent numbers of flatheads, and the forage bases of these largest of Sunflower State lakes means that the cats in them will grow to very large size. Flatheads, however, can exceed weights of 50 pounds in lakes of 200 acres or less. You likely hear of big ol’ flatheads being caught in community and state fishing lakes near where you live every season.
Flatheads hold the top spot in my catfishing heart of hearts because they are so predatory. I’ve had flatheads of more than 20 pounds come after green sunfish I was trying to land on a fly rod; come after a soft plastic jerkbait I was trying to use for bass; and even come after that little crawdad imitation lure I mentioned earlier. That scene – which took place on a warm evening on Johnson County’s Lake Olathe – was like something out of a freshwater version of Jaws. It was time to head in, and what I thought would be my last cast turned incredibly exciting when my tiny bait seemed to grow huge shoulders and a gigantic dorsal fin.
My mind played that unforgettable shark-attack music from Jaws as I watched this huge flathead follow my bait almost all the way in to the boat. Apparently, the sight of the boat hull’s form in the lengthening evening shadows caused the big cat to veer off at the last second, but its appearance to chase such a tiny little plug told me a lot about how opportunistic and truly predatory these whiskerfish can be.
Many catfish fanatics will tell you that regardless of the species, cats tend to get a bad rap as being bottom-hugging scavengers that require anglers to use the most rancidly awful cut and prepared baits known to man if they expect to have any real success. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Anglers using fresh live bait are the ones with the best chance to catch a truly large catfish of whatever species. Some swear by the biggest goldfish they can find as top baits for channels and flatheads. Others prefer to start every catfish outing early by using light or ultralight gear to catch black perch or green sunfish to use as bait. Big cats just love them.
Still others, taking a cue from their fanatical striper-fishing brethren, learn to throw hand nets into wads of baitfish near the surface of their favorite lakes at sunset to catch shad that they can use to fool plenty of monstrous catfish.
Live bait definitely is the way to go for big cats. As noted earlier, catfish are predators and they will hit lures. But that is not a consistent way of catching truly large cats. That is reserved for live bait.
Probably the best places to fish for cats, whether from shore or from a boat, are those areas that give anglers access to a shallow flat or run with a nearby deeper hole. Cats generally will stay in the deep holes throughout the day, venturing from them up into the shallows to feed after dark. Finding a spot that gives you the chance to use two rods and reels – casting one bait shallow and the other deep – is absolutely the best way to fish for Kansas’ big cats.
You’ll find spots like this at the mouths of feeder creeks on lakes of any size. You also can find them in many farm ponds, where a shallow lip drops into the deeper main “bowl” of the pothole. And you can find them on rivers like the Kansas and Marais des Cygnes. But, it’s impossible to pinpoint exact locations in this story. When dealing with a living river like the Kaw, it’s even more difficult that talking about certain hotspots on a given lake.
I know, for example, that there’s a spot on Lake Olathe, which was my home lake for almost a decade, where a gently sloping flat of sand and gravel drops into 35 feet of water in a heartbeat. I fished the lake for the first time in 1983, but I know that even now that spot will still offer me the combination of shallow and deep access that I prefer for cats.
However, the area I fished in the late 1980s for a big Kansas River blue looks a lot different today than it did then – and it’ll look different again in a few weeks. Sediment is a fascinating building material in rivers like the Kaw, and current a powerful tool of change.
When it rains and the river swells, the power of the swift currents rearranges the underwater face of the Kansas and other rivers like it. And periods of low water without a lot of rain – the kind we’ll be getting into as June turns into July and August – expose more dangers and limit the number of deep-water hideouts the big cats have.
Without question, Kansas’ rivers are the most dynamic ecosystems the state’s catfish have to deal with. There are some general tendencies you can count on, but you’ll have to spend time on the river actually scouting the best locations for a given outing.
Among the tendencies alluded to earlier is the fact that any major turn in the main channel is going to have a deep bank – the bank the water flows into and against as it makes its turn – that will likely sport plenty of cover in the form of old trees and other debris. Think of it this way. If you’re looking downstream at a dogleg left in the river, the right bank in that dogleg will be the deeper side, the one with all the structure. If it’s a dogleg right, then the left bank will be the primary fish-holding area.
What you can’t count on is a given spot staying the same for more than a week or two, especially during seasons with average or higher amounts of rain. Currents can rearrange the bottom of a given stretch of river overnight. That makes every trip like visiting a brand new fishing spot. You have to scout the river, locating the spots that offer big cats the best combination of deep cover and access to shallow, slow riffles and bars where they can feed after dark.
This is one element that makes river fishing so challenging and enjoyable. With every trip, you know you’re likely to find a new spot you never fished before – because it didn’t exist the last time you were on the river. Or, you may encounter a spot that had once been good – only to find that it has since got filled with too much sediment or junk, or that it has been scoured fairly clean and new by the most recent period of high and swift waters. For me, there are no more dynamic and changeable fisheries in Kansas than its rivers – especially the Kaw, which is one of the largest and, as such, is subject to vast differences in water levels and current intensities.
Should this story pique your big-cat curiosity, and should you decide to check out the Kansas River from a boat, be sure to wear a life jacket. Also be sure to engage and wear the lanyard connected to your outboard motor’s kill switch. It might be more important to focus on safety when boating the Kansas River than when boating any other water in the state.
Of course, you should always be safe when you’re on the water. But on the Kaw, the ever-changing positions of sandbars, submerged trees and other debris make navigating an unfamiliar stretch a lot like walking a field of land mines while blindfolded.
If you’re on the river for your first time, use all of the safety equipment mentioned, and maneuver your boat as slowly as you can while checking out unknown stretches of the river.
Your best bet will be to take someone along who knows the river. When you can’t do that, be as careful as possible and let someone know where you intend to go and how long you intend to be gone. There are stretches of the Kansas River where, if you’re boat were to run aground on a sandbar, they would seem as isolated to you as the Amazon in remote South America.
The point is there are places along the Kansas River in Douglas and Johnson counties that are off the beaten path. They will take you awhile to get in and out of, even without incident. Letting someone know your plans and even carrying a cell phone with you are good ideas.
But don’t worry: What you’ll find in the way of big catfish will make all the effort more than worth it.
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