By Greg Schwipps
By midnight, we were worried. Six hours is a long time to fish without a strong bite. My wife and I were waiting in Ed Brochin’s boat somewhere on the White River. My birthday had been the day before, but it looked like no presents were coming in the shape of flathead catfish. “It’s not always easy,” Brochin explained. “These fish are spawning, so we have to move around and find willing fish.”
Before he finished his sentence, the clicker on a reel started singing its song. I grabbed the rod and let the circle hook seat itself. After a few lunges and a couple of line-threatening runs, the fish swam near the boat. This was a powerful cat – certainly the strongest I had hooked – and the only light to see it by came compliments of the moon overhead. When the flathead tired, or at least paused, Brochin grabbed it and swung it over the gunnel. It looked like he was pulling a small child aboard.
The big whiskerfish was exactly 4 feet long. An hour later, I boated another flathead measuring just a little longer. We photographed and released both fish. Driving home was a pleasant experience having enjoyed the best birthday present ever. I’ve driven cross-country for good catfishing, but my biggest fish came from right here in central Indiana. Brochin showed me new things about a body of water I knew well. He has a lot of experience, but more than that, he just thinks like a catfish.
There’s a lot of exceptional catfishing found within Indiana’s borders. And while catfishing is growing in popularity, channels, flatheads and blues are still probably underfished and certainly under appreciated. To discover everything that catfishing is, you should call Brochin of Geist Lake Charters (317/826-8231 or on-line at: www.geistlakecharters.com) and book a trip to pursue giant cats. If you want to fish three superb Indiana catfish waters – Geist and Monroe reservoirs and the White River – this summer by yourself, what follows is some of what Brochin has learned from many years of fishing these waters.
Early summer is called the pre-spawn period, and catfish are looking for places to nest. They’re also feeding heavily. This means large groups of fish feeding in fairly predictable locations. Fishing gets tougher after the catfish begin spawning, sometime between late June and August. But you will not find a more enjoyable fishing experience than catfishing in Indiana during May and June.
There are two White rivers in Indiana: The West Fork begins near Muncie and flows in a southwestern direction toward Evansville, and the East Fork forms near Columbus and flows across southern Indiana until it joins the West Fork near Petersburg. The combined White River enters the Wabash near Mt. Carmel. Both are loaded with catfish, and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has provided public access ramps along both rivers. The DNR has maps available, or you can buy a state map like the Indiana Atlas and Gazetteer. Call the DNR at (317) 232-4180 for information on maps, access points.
Brochin fishes the White River with a johnboat powered by a jet outboard. This allows him to run through very skinny water, with no prop to worry about. Know this before you launch any rig here: The river is often shallow (especially in the summer) and filled with snags.
The White River is a public waterway. Still, you must stay within the high-water marks on the banks, and never trespass on private property along the river. Carry out all your trash, and release the biggest fish you catch, keeping the smaller ones to eat. The White River is one of Indiana’s best natural resources, and we need to preserve what is just downstream.
Catfish in the White seek two things – cover and deep water. Cover is often in the form of trees, either submerged tree trunks or logjams. In some areas, chunks of concrete have been used as riprap to help slow erosion. In other places, natural rock and gravel can be found. Anything that a fish can hide in or hold around is subject to attract cats, provided it is in deep enough water. You might catch a decent channel cat out of the waterlogged backseat of a sunken car.
At this time of year, especially, the cats are looking for potential spawning sites. Reading water means being able to see this cover, as it would look underwater. The places that look too snag-infested to cast into are exactly where you should be fishing.
Depending on where you fish the White, the average depth can run from several feet to over 10. Finding the deepest holes within a given stretch of water provides you access to most of the fish within that stretch. The biggest catfish will claim spots near the deepest water, and all decent-sized fish are not far from a hole of some depth, say 6 feet deep or so. Be advised, some holes are more than 20 feet deep.
Catfish are willing to travel into shallow water to feed. At night, especially, it is not unusual to catch a really big fish in water barely knee deep. “I’ve caught flatheads in water so shallow you could see their fins sticking out,” Brochin says. “Just make sure the spot you fish is near a daytime holding area.” Learning to spot these flats near deep water – thus providing both security and a place to feed – is the secret to fishing success.
Brochin says one additional thing about location when fishing the White: Move often. “I’ll often fish one hole for about 45 minutes. If I don’t catch a fish, or even if I catch a few, I’ll move to the next spot. That way I find active fish.”
But how do you fish a likely looking spot? It depends on whether you are pursuing channels or flatheads. Channel cats require different tackle and bait, and slightly different strategies. Once you have found a spot with some depth and cover, anchor above the hole. “I like to position the boat upstream from the hole,” Brochin says. “I’ll drive upstream and cut the motor before throwing out an anchor. Then I allow my boat to drift silently back into casting position.”
Brochin then throws pieces of cut bait – cut fish – toward different targets. He will place some baits in front of wood snags, for example, and others in the deepest section of the hole. Other baits go near the head of the hole, where the current slows and the water deepens. He may fish as many as three rods at one time, or even more if there are others fishing in the boat. (There is a limit of three rods per person in Indiana.) Because of the abundant cover, he spools with at least 20-pound-test line. Still, some fish will be lost. A necessary element of catfis
hing in rivers – to fish without snagging is to fish without catching.
Channel cats fall for cut baits. You can catch your own bait from ponds and creeks, and good bait shops sell frozen shad or jars of shad guts. Suckers and chubs, available at some bait shops can be effective when kept fresh and fished in chunks. Early in the summer, night crawlers will work, too. These baits, fished on 1/0 or larger hooks, will get eaten. You will often fish near the bottom, so bring plenty of lead. Depending on the current, you may need from 1- to 5-ounce sinkers. The best catfish bait shops carry large sinkers.
You can fish this way for channel catfish at night, but you can catch catfish during the day as well. During afternoon hours, fish deeper waters and closer to the snags and cover. Catfish will be hiding out, and not cruising as aggressively as they do at night, but they will bite. Another fun method is to float the river, going from logjam to logjam, dropping pieces of cut bait under slip-bobbers around logs and root balls. Many channel catfish can be caught using this fast-paced technique.
Flatheads require heavier equipment. Brochin uses up to 50-pound- test line for them. Flatheads also require fishing at night for the most part. Flatheads leave their daytime resting places in the heaviest of snags to cruise the shallows at night, looking for baitfish. Brochin sets up near the head of a hole an hour or two before dark. He casts live baits such as bluegills and sunfish toward the snags and into shallow water. Often the catfish will hit right after dark as they leave the snags. It is imperative while flathead fishing, and to a lesser extent with channel catfishing, that the fish are immediately turned away from the snags after they hit. Give them an opportunity to return to the thick stuff and your line has no chance.
For flatheads, Brochin uses big live fish. “To catch smaller flatheads, a 2- to 3-inch minnow will do,” he says. “But to catch the really big boys, you need giant baits – the bigger, the better.”
Fishing this reservoir northeast of Indianapolis will cost you because it is privately owned. There is a fee of $10 during the week and $25 on the weekends to launch a boat. Just the same, if it is channel catfish you seek, the fee may be the only negative aspect of this lake. And, again, you can catch channels during the daylight hours.
While there are flatheads found in Geist, including some huge ones, they are not plentiful or easily caught. However, the biggest channel catfish Brochin caught (and then released) weighed 26 pounds. “There are some big channels here, so you’d better tackle up,” Brochin says.
“There isn’t a lot of natural cover left here, due to the development,” Brochin continues. “But the channels have adapted to the manmade structures just as they would natural cover.” And by June, the catfish will be seeking spawning areas, just as they do in rivers. “Geist channels will dig nests and spawn up under those docks,” Brochin points out. “Sometimes the best way to catch those fish is to cast right up around the docks and boat slips.”
But there is another way to catch June catfish in Geist. “We call it straw grass, or stick grass, and the catfish relate to this cover well,” Brochin says. This thick cover is found along some shores and around islands. Casting into the grass is likely to lead to a broken line, so the best method is to cast your bait about 4 or 5 feet outside the vegetation. “They will leave the nest to go get that meal,” Brochin says. But again, it is imperative that you use tackle heavy enough to prevent any catfish from returning to its snag-filled lair.
While the lake does have some 30-foot-deep holes, in early summer, the middle section of the reservoir should hold the greatest number of fish. “They will be out of the wintering holes by then, and also out of the shallowest sections, where they go in early spring. Look for them to be in the middle depths,” Brochin explains. “Fishing near the docks and the straw grass in water anywhere from 1 to 10 feet deep should produce fish.”
Catfish in Geist feed primarily on shad, so cut shad will work well, as will shad guts. (It is illegal to fish with live shad in Indiana, except in Brookville Lake.) Other catfish baits will produce, but oily fish like skipjack herring work best. For flatheads, use live suckers or bluegills.
Indiana’s biggest body of water hardly needs an introduction, but how about this? Last summer, Brochin and I were fishing for bluegills around a dock on Monroe’s eastern side. We were catching the bluegills for flathead bait. Another boat was doing the same, and we passed small talk back and forth. “Ever catch any nice cats out of here?” I asked the father-and-son team. “Well,” the man said, “last year we got one 60- and a 70-pounder.”
Brochin thinks the next state-record flathead catfish may well come from Monroe. (The current record is 79 pounds, 8 ounces, set by Glen Simpson in 1966 from the White River.) “There are probably as many flatheads as there are channel catfish in Monroe,” Brochin says, “and some monster blues, as well.” Blues prefer cut baits, like channels, but the biggest blues eat live baits.
With just under 11,000 acres of water in Monroe, it helps to narrow your search for cats before you arrive at the lake. Order a topographical map from the DNR and study it. Monroe has several different feeder creeks and a series of channels throughout the lake. To find catfish of all species, mark the channel. Catfish will use the lake’s channel like a highway, so know where the channel runs. Look for sections where the channel runs near a bank, or other spots where there are sharp dropoffs into the channel. Catfish hang around those ledges.
There are other ways to narrow your search for cats. All catfish follow a predictable pattern, according to Brochin. In the winter, they head for the deepest sections of the lake. In the early spring, they go to the upper end, where the feeder creek or creeks bring warmer water and food into the lake. By midsummer, most fish have drifted back into the middle sections of the reservoir, ready to spawn in the relatively shallow sections (maybe 6 to 10 feet) of the midrange depths. So your search for catfish in the reservoirs may well begin somewhere in the middle one-third of a lake.
In those areas you have marked on your map, look for cover. Brochin points out: “There are acres of stumpfields near feeder creeks on Monroe, and these are super potential spawning sites.” Anchoring and casting baits in all directions will allow you to cover several targets, and place your baits in different depths. “Every species of catfish will nest in stumpflats,” Brochin explains, “so move around until you find them.”
A catfish that makes a home in a 20-foot hole in the White River or Geist may well stay near a 60-foot-deep channel in Monroe. Still, the basic principles remain the same: Catfish are going to seek and relate to depth and cover. But in a big lake like Monroe, everything a fish needs to grow monstrous is provided. “Definitely a reservoir of choice, if you are trying to break a state record,” Brochin says.
If you are already hooked on catfishing, you should hit all three of these Hoosier hotspots this summer. If you are ready to start, pick one and begin there. Do research and spend time looking around when you get on the water. Catfish are not stupid, and they are not easy to catch. Indeed, catching a good number of nice-sized fish is not something you do by accident. But by fishing waters where big cats appear in strong numbers, your odds of hooking up increase dramatically.
Indiana’s rules and limits on catfish are generous and outdated, at best. Throw your biggest fish back for breeding stock – especially now, in the pre-spawn period. Once you get into catfishing, you will want to ensure they are always there to catch.
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