Photo by Ron Sinfelt
River catfishing is not for the faint of heart. Big rivers often produce big fish. And surprisingly, some smaller rivers produce big fish, too. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the big-catfish phenomenon that’s sweeping the country. They just keep getting bigger and bigger each year. Nobody seems to know why.
Regardless of why, our rivers seem to be at the forefront of the catfish action. Nearly every newsworthy catfish that’s caught in the country has come from either a major river, or from the impoundment of a major river. Kentucky is no exception.
Read on for three great picks for catfishing in the commonwealth. Take advantage of one of these waters this summer. You’ll be glad you did!
Any discussion of big-river catfishing in Kentucky must start with the Ohio River. Say what you will, it’s the best big fish venue in Kentucky, probably in the Midwest and arguably in the country. Kentucky actually recognizes four species of catfish for state records. Two of the three major species records — channel and blue — were caught in the Ohio River. Our state-record flathead came from the Green River, a tributary of the Ohio.
But not all parts of this river are equal. Some stretches are better than others. One is the metropolitan area between Newport and Covington on the Kentucky side of the river, and Cincinnati on the Ohio side. This productive ribbon of water begins at the Interstate 275 Twin Highway Bridges (mile marker 462.1) and ends near Anderson Ferry (mile marker 478.3).
Fishing spots along this 16-mile section of the river are numerous enough to keep a catfish angler busy for a couple of seasons, maybe longer than that. Especially popular are areas near the grain terminals.
The local theory is that the channel catfish eat the grain, and the flatheads are attracted to the area because minnows and forage fish also eat the grain. Now, that’s just a theory. What isn’t a theory — but rather, a fact — is that the grain terminals offer a great location to find catfish on the river.
Stink baits are the attractant of choice for those who target channel catfish. Most stink baits are bounced along the bottom on a Carolina rig or suspended below a bobber. Both homemade and commercial preparations are popular and effective.
When it comes to flatheads, live bait is king. Big shad or skipjack herring are typically fished off the bottom on three-way rigs with heavy sinkers. Shad and skipjack up to 16 inches long are common, and sinkers between 6 and 10 ounces are standard.
Channel catfish up to 5 pounds are typical, with a realistic possibility of catching fish from 10 or 12 pounds from time to time. Flatheads will go to 40 pounds, but it’ll take a 50- or 60-pounder to turn heads at the dock.
Recently, blue catfish have been showing up in the creels of some anglers. The majority of these fish are small — less than 10 pounds — but there are unconfirmed reports of some weighing in at around 40 pounds, maybe even a little larger. Most blues are caught in high-current troughs of water on cut bait.
Another renowned Ohio River spot to find catfish is along the shallow, rolling flats near Anderson Ferry (mile marker 478.3). Channel cats as well as smaller flatheads and blues are taken regularly from these waters. You won’t have much trouble finding where the hot bite is for the day or night. Just look for a large collection of boats anchored or drifting with the wind and current.
But don’t let the fishing pressure run you off. This spot has produced high numbers of catfish for over 20 years, and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it might be getting better as the fishing in the river seems to be getting better.
The usual baits — stink baits for channels, live bait for flatheads and cut bait for blues — will get the job done here.
The Anderson Ferry flats are especially productive at night. In fact, that may be the best time to fish them. A word of caution is in order, however: The Ohio River is not for inexperienced anglers after dark. She can be very unforgiving to the careless or naïve. Pay attention to what you’re doing, keep a sharp eye out for commercial traffic and always wear your PFD.
Finally, no review of catfishing on the Ohio River would be complete without a mention of the tailrace waters below the dams. Each of these dams offers fine catfishing, especially for after-dark bank-fishermen. Make a few bologna sandwiches, buy a bag of chips, pack the cooler full of your favorite soft drinks and build a fire. You’ll be good to go.
At the dams, most experienced anglers use “surf” rods or very long, heavyweight catfish rods to increase their casting distance. Stink baits, live baits and cut baits are all popular. These baits are typically rigged on large circle hooks with a heavy (6 ounces or more) flat river sinker to hold the bait in place. Line weights vary, but most anglers use at least 40- pound-test. Tailrace waters are snag-prone, so stout line is a must.
There are 10 dams in the Ohio River bordering Kentucky. Starting upriver in eastern Kentucky and working downriver, the first is the Greenup Dam (mile marker 341), then comes the Meldahl Dam (mile 436.2), then Markland (mile 531.5), McAlpine (mile 606.8), Cannelton (mile 720.7), Newburgh (mile 776.1), Myers (mile 846.0), Smithland (mile 918.5), Dam 52 (mile 938.9) and finally, Dam 53 (mile 962.6).
Pay particular attention to the waters below the Cannelton Dam. That’s where Bruce Midkiff caught his legendary 104-pound blue catfish on August 28, 1999.
Overall, biologist Doug Hanley, of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, rates the Ohio River as fair for 2006. He’s quick to qualify that rating, however, by pointing out that it takes into account the full length of the river and anglers’ widely varying skill levels. Fishing the right spots with the right bait will radically change that rating.
The Green River, located in the south-central part of the commonwealth, is home to a 97-pound state-record flathead caught in June of 1956 by Esker Carroll. Though it hasn’t produced another monster whiskerfish for over 50 years, the Green River is still one of the best catfishing rivers in Kentucky.
There are hundreds, i
f not thousands, of good spots along this river’s 360 miles of fishable waters. Darn near anywhere you can find a deep hole, some rock and a little wood, you’re likely to find a flathead or a channel cat.
Still, a couple of places deserve special mention. The first spot is the stretch of water that flows through Mammoth Cave National Park. It’s not only one of the most beautiful places on this Earth, but also one of the best catfish waters, certainly in Kentucky.
Fish this spot much as you would any other top catfish location, using stink baits for channels and live bait for flatheads. The current can be a problem in this area, however. To fish it effectively, you’ll need stout tackle and very strong, abrasion-resistant line. Make sure to use plenty of weight on your rig to keep your bait down near the bottom. If it’s floating more than a foot or two above the bottom of the river, you’re wasting your time here.
If you’re boating in this area, be especially careful. The water can get low at times, and the rocks seem to come out of nowhere. But you don’t need a boat to fish this stretch of river effectively. The area offers some wonderful bank-fishing opportunities. It’s a great place to spend a relaxing afternoon, evening or night.
Another productive spot is at the Griffith Slough, about six miles upstream from where the Green River flows into the Ohio River. This slough is large, and has plenty of shallow and deep water. It’s well known for its night-fishing potential, most notably for flatheads.
In fact, Hanley considers the entire lower stretch of the river — several miles downstream and several miles upstream from Griffith — as one of the best flathead hotspots in the state. He attributes much of the excellent fishing here to its proximity to the Ohio River.
Carolina rigs are especially popular in this spot. Relatively light line — something around 20-pound-test is about right — will suffice here, as will lighter sinkers. The fish are big, but the conditions kind. Don’t forget that flatheads are true predators, not scavengers. This is live-bait water, not stink-bait water. Locally caught minnows are the bait of choice for most successful anglers
Those two spots notwithstanding, some of the Green River’s best catfishing is along the main river itself. Nearly every mile of it is marked by sharp swings, twists and turns. These are some of the best fishing spots the river has to offer. And fishing them isn’t hard, nor does it require a lot of specialized tackle or expensive equipment.
To fish a bend or swing correctly, begin at the downstream end of it and work your way upstream. Always be on the lookout for holes or drops along the bottom. Work both the inside and outside borders of the bends. You never know where the catfish will be hiding on any given day or night.
The best holes will drop sharply, at least 5 feet deeper than the surrounding substrate. Fish each hole from the upstream side. Allow the current to carry the smell and activity of your bait downstream towards the flatheads. Under these conditions, most of them will typically hit within a few minutes, or not at all. Savvy anglers rarely fish one spot for more than 20 to 30 minutes. After that, they move along to the next potential hotspot.
Never fish a hole that doesn’t have a decent population of baitfish in the vicinity. For whatever reason, flatheads won’t stay anywhere if the baitfish aren’t around, even when they’re not actively feeding.
This is stout-tackle fishing. Heavy-duty rods and reels, lines of at least 25-pound-test and big, strong 5/0 or better circle hooks are considered minimum tackle in this country.
Expect to catch flatheads above 30 pounds on a regular basis from the Green River. Some will be smaller than that, of course, but enough 30-pound-plus flatheads are caught to make it a common occurrence, not worthy of much discussion. And big ones — at 50 pounds or better — are fairly common. It’ll take one at least that big to get anyone’s attention or give you anything resembling bragging rights.
The Barren River, not to be confused with Barren River Lake, doesn’t look like much of a catfish pick to the uninitiated. After all, this river is short, narrow and mostly flows through ordinary-looking farmland. Those facts notwithstanding, looks much different to catfish anglers in the know. To them, it looks like what it is — one of the best-kept catfish rivers in Kentucky.
Upstream from the lake, this river is little more than a creek. But when it leaves the dam at the lower end of the lake, it forms what can arguably be termed a river. And it’s at that point that the best all-around catfishing can be found.
There are plenty of places to fish from the bank along the tailrace waters. And there are numerous channels, flatheads and yellow cats for the taking. Channel catfish are typically in the 2- to 5-pound range and, of course, the yellow cats are much smaller. Most of the flatheads will go less than 20 pounds. But big ones are possible, especially when the spillway is dumping huge quantities of water and the current is swift.
One of the best places along the tailrace is the sharp bend several hundred yards below the dam. Huge numbers of channel catfish are caught here every summer by anglers fishing chicken livers or night crawlers. These fish are most commonly caught by anglers drifting bait under a bobber or along the bottom with an old-fashioned river rig. (That’s a three-way swivel with a drop line extending to a sinker and the bait line running off another ring of the swivel.)
For the tailrace waters, other popular baits are creek minnows, creek chubs and small bluegills. The best ones — no matter what the species — are fresh and caught locally from the surrounding creeks. To be fair, some channel catfish specialists swear by shad entrails, but others favor the more traditional baits discussed above.
The stretch farther downstream, along Bowling Green, is also popular. The spot where the U.S. Route 68 bridge crosses the water is especially attractive to both catfish and local anglers. There are several areas within sight of the bridge that are covered with gravel and chunks of rock of varying sizes.
This rock can be fished either from shore or from a small boat. Either way, ignore the shallowest water and concentrate your efforts on the deeper holes and cuts within the rock. The usual baits will work just fine here, but make sure you use heavy, abrasion-resistant line and retie often. The rocks’ sharp edges will nick and cut monofilament line in a matter of minutes.
Near the bridge is the local VFW Hall, a very popular spot for after-dark fishing. In fact, it’s not unusual to see scores of anglers setting up shop on a weekend night. Channel catfish arrive here in droves shortly after the sun goes down. The anglers aren’t far behind. If you want a good spot, get there early and set up immediately.
As for the river itself, the b
est advice is to float it in a small boat and fish any deep holes you can find along the channel. You’ll need a depth finder to locate them, however. The surrounding land is nondescript and gives no clue as to what lies beneath the water. And remember that “deep” is a matter of perspective. This river is shallow, so don’t expect too much depth.
If you want to fish Barren River and need to make a long drive, then check the weather in advance of your trip. It doesn’t take much rain to muddy the waters. When that happens, this one — unlike most catfish venues — shuts off quickly.
Along all three of these rivers are improved launch sites, tackle shops, bait shops and places to stay. There are also plenty of restaurants and convenience stores. For a complete list of them on the river you want to fish, visit the KDFWR’s Web site at http://fw.ky.gov. This site also offers maps, fishing forecasts, handicap-facility information and tons of other information you’ll need to know.