By Jeff Samsel
You know the names: Kentucky and Barkley lakes or the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. While there is no question that these big reservoirs and rivers are great places to go with super-sized catfish in mind, they make up only a small portion of Kentucky’s whiskerfish waters. In fact, catfish can be caught pretty much anywhere there is water in the Bluegrass State.
With so many fine fishing destinations to pick from, we turned to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) for help in selecting some of the waters that offer the best prospects for this summer’s fishing. Each year, the KDFWR compiles a fishing forecast, based on reports from biologists in all parts of the state. The forecast, which uses information from biologists’ samples, creel surveys and reports from anglers, highlights top fisheries in lakes and rivers throughout Kentucky, and rates fishing prospects for several species as fair, good or excellent.
Lakes Beshear, Herrington and Fishtrap all earned good or excellent ratings for their channel or flathead catfish offerings, with the latter two having both channels and flatheads in the mix. All three lakes are quite small when compared to Kentucky’s best-known catfish waters. Herrington is the largest of the trio at 2,500 acres. Beshear, Herrington and Fishtrap offer something for anglers in all parts of the state, with their respective locations in the western, central and eastern parts of the state.
Let’s take a look at why each of these lakes earned a high catfishing rating. As importantly, we’ll also look at how and where to find the best summer catfishing on all three lakes.
Lake Beshear was getting too much of a good thing. Years of very high catfish-stocking rates had created too many mouths to feed, and the fish just weren’t growing much. After discovering the problem in the late 1990s, the KDFWR curtailed all catfish stocking in the lake for five years. With the fishery back in balance and stocking efforts resumed at much reduced rates, Lake Beshear offers excellent catfishing prospects for anglers in the western part of the state.
A water-supply reservoir for the city of Princeton, Lake Beshear covers 760 acres in Caldwell and Christian counties. It was constructed as a fishing lake by the KDFWR, and the department continues to manage fishing opportunities, despite the lake belonging to the city. Channel catfish were stocked annually at a targeted rate of 25 fish per acre (19,000 fish) from the time the lake was built in the late 1960s until the late 1990s.
Several years ago, the KDFWR conducted surveys of catfish populations on several Kentucky lakes, including Beshear. The surveys were conducted in response to an ever-increasing demand on the state hatchery system to provide channel catfish for stocking in lakes throughout the state, according to fisheries biologist Paul Rister.
“We wanted to determine which lakes had naturally reproducing populations and did not really need to be stocked annually,” Rister said. “What we ended up finding in Lake Beshear were very low growth rates. We were capturing fish that had been in the lake for seven or eight years and were pretty much the same size as when we had stocked them.”
Seemingly angler harvest was very low, compared to stocking rates. The overly numerous catfish simply weren’t finding enough food in the lake, which is fairly infertile and cannot be artificially fertilized because it operates as a water-supply reservoir. Therefore, the department ceased all catfish stocking in Lake Beshear for five years.
More recent sampling efforts have shown a vastly improved fishery. Catfish remain quite abundant, but growth rates and size structures are much improved and still seem to be getting better. There’s now a good population of catfish up to about 5 pounds in the population.
Catfish stockings have resumed on Lake Beshear, but at a substantially reduced rate. In addition, a 12-inch minimum size has been put into place with the intention of creating more of a quality fishery. The KDFWR will continue to monitor the population, and they will adapt stocking rates as needed.
Lake Beshear is pretty clear, especially for a western Kentucky lake, and it has fairly steep sides overall. Its banks include a mix of forests, bluffs and home lots. No bank-fishing opportunities exist, unless an angler knows a landowner around the lake. Boating access is limited to a single privately owned ramp, Redden’s boat ramp, which is open to public use for a fee.
Rod-and-reel catfishing pressure remains low on Beshear, according to Rister. Most anglers who do target the lake’s channel catfish generally fish with jugs, putting several baits out on jug lines and waiting for the jugs to begin dancing.
Whether they fish with jugs or traditional tackle, anglers should expect good action on Lake Beshear, with catfish up to about 5 pounds being well represented. Trophy-caliber channel cats are rare, but anglers generally will be able to collect a good stringer of quality whiskerfish. Catfish are plentiful from one end of the lake to the other, according to Rister.
Any structural feature, like the edge of a flat or the top of a point, is apt to hold catfish on Lake Beshear. If the fish don’t start biting fairly quickly, anglers should try other areas. Because of the lake’s small size and its abundant catfish, finding fish that will bite is not likely to present many problems.
The lake is open 24 hours a day, so night-fishing is a good option for the middle of the summer. After hours, catfish will be on flats or the upper ends of points feeding actively. Anglers who prefer daytime fishing or who can’t get out at night should not be deterred, however. The catfishing action is likely to be good at all times on this lake.
Chicken livers are pretty tough to beat as bait. Other good options include shrimp and night crawlers. Whatever the specific offering, light spinning, spin-casting or baitcasting tackle rigged up with 10- to 14-pound-test is a good selection for this lake. Anglers can rig up simply, with just a rubber-core sinker or possibly a few split shots and a hook. For chicken livers, small treble hooks work best.
Redden’s boat ramp is located east of Princeton. Take U.S. Highway 62 east to state Route (SR) 672. Turn right on SR 672, which leads to the boat ramp.
Channel catfish are the most abundant species in Herrington Lake, but flatheads are the main attraction to more serious catfish anglers on this central Kentucky reservoir. Flatheads grow to heavyweight proportions in Herrington, which impounds 2,500 acres on the Dix River in Mercer and Garrard counties.
Herrington Lake floods a limestone-walled river gorge and has depths that approach 300 feet in its lower reaches. It’s a very old lake and is quite fertile, especially through its upper end. Threadfin and gizzard shad, along with sunfish and a mix of other small fish species, keep the catfish well fed. Standing timber remains in pockets and on flats off the old channel.
Herrington Lake earned a good rating for its flathead catfish offerings in this year’s fishing forecast, with a note that fish of all sizes are present. “All sizes” of flatheads indicates that there are very large fish in the mix, as flatheads grow to heavyweight proportions. Channel cats were not rated this year, but the lake supports a solid population of the flatheads’ smaller cousins.
Channel catfish can be found throughout Herrington. Because of the lake’s mostly vertical banks, most anglers fish points and the mouths of creeks and the edges of scattered flats, which are most abundant in the middle and upper portions of the lake. Chicken livers and night crawlers again are good options, as are small pieces of cut gizzard shad and live crawfish. Along with channel catfish, live craws will produce some small flatheads.
Anglers targeting full-grown flatheads need to bait up with live fish, as flatheads are predators, not scavengers. Flatheads don’t bite on most traditional “catfish baits.” Popular bait choices include bluegills and gizzard shad, which likely are the most prevalent natural forage species for flathead catfish in Herrington Lake.
Flatheads are river fish by nature and tend to stay close to any main channel. Good places to look for flatheads on Herrington include the mouths of creeks, the edges of flats in the upper end of the lake and along major bends in the river channel. Flatheads also tend to be very cover oriented, so anglers should pay extra close attention to areas that have brushpiles, standing timber, rock outcrops, boulders or downed trees to provide cover.
Serious flathead fishermen often spend quite a bit of time searching before they ever put lines down. They’ll search the tops of key structures and the edges of drops with their electronics, actually hunting for big fish they believe to be flatheads. Flatheads often are recognizable on a graph by their large size and by the locations where they tend to hold.
Flatheads can be found throughout Herrington Lake, but anglers tend to concentrate the most effort on the upper end of the lake, according to fisheries biologist Kerry Prather. He believes that probably has more to do with the depth of the water and practicalities of finding fish-holding spots and fishing them effectively than anything else.
Because cliffs bound much of Herrington Lake, anglers sometimes need to suspend baits for flatheads. Unless fish that show up on the graph indicate something different, 15 to 25 feet is a good daytime depth range.
Most anglers will use oversized Carolina rigs with 1-ounce egg sinkers, and hang them straight down from the boat, measuring the distance with pulls from the reel. An alternative approach, which allows anglers to fish their baits away from the boat, is to add a large slip cork to the line and set the stopper to suspend the cork at the proper depth.
After dark, which is when flatheads tend to become the most active, they will move much shallower, often straying up onto points at the mouths of creeks or flats along inside bends. In shallower water, anglers can cast their offerings out and simply let them rest on the bottom.
However an angler opts to set up, flathead fishing calls for stout tackle. Most anglers will use rods that have a lot of butt strength, geared-down baitcasting reels, at least 30-pound-test line and heavy-gauge 4/0 or larger hooks. Flatheads commonly weigh 25 pounds or more, and any rod that surges down could end up producing a 50-pound-plus flathead catfish.
Herrington Lake is privately owned by Kentucky Utilities Company. Sixteen boat ramps, all privately owned, provide plenty of boating access points to all parts of the lake. Fees are charged at all ramps. Because of its river-gorge character and private ownership, shoreline fishing is not a practical option on Herrington.
Narrow, steep-sided, deep and tucked among mountains in the far eastern part of the state, Fishtrap Lake is not stereotypical catfish water. However, this small lake earned good ratings for its channel and flathead catfish offerings in the current fishing forecast. Fishtrap provides some of the best cat prospects in the Kentucky mountains.
Fishtrap Lake impounds Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River in Pike County, with most of its 1,131 acres lying within a narrow main body. The lake is deep overall, although its headwaters are shallow and rocky. It tends to stay quite clear in the summer, except after heavy rains, which stain the upper end.
Channel cats of all sizes can be found in good numbers throughout Fishtrap Lake, according to the fishing forecast. Flathead numbers are best in the headwaters of the lake, but the largest flatheads that biologists have found while sampling Fishtrap Lake’s fish populations have been in the lower end of the lake.
Because Fishtrap contains a good mix of channel and flathead catfish, a good strategy for fishermen is to put out some live bait on very heavy gear, but also spread out a few lines baited with chicken livers or pieces of cut-up gizzard shad. The channel cats are apt to serve up fast action while anglers await strikes from flathead catfish.
Again, bluegills or gizzard shad make good flathead baits. For a mountain lake, Fishtrap supports a very good shad population. Therefore, flatheads along the main river certainly are accustomed to seeing and eating gizzard shad. Anglers commonly will use gizzard shad that weigh up to about 1 pound as flathead bait.
An interesting side note for anglers fishing for flathead or channel catfish is that two of the most popular baits for abundant and sometimes-large hybrid stripers in Fishtrap Lake are chicken livers and live gizzard shad. Therefore, any line that races off may just have a fish of a different stripe at the other end of it!
Similar to Herrington, Fishtrap Lake is a bit easier to fish through its shallower upper end. However, even the deepest waters have sloped banks instead of sheer cliff walls bounding them for the most part, so anglers can find some points or humps to set up in reasonable depths even in the lower end of the lake.
Anglers can find good action on Fishtrap by day or by night, but prospects get better after hours. Flatheads are highly nocturnal, and both flatheads and channels tend to stray shallower at night than they do during the day. Flats that
border deeper holes on the insides of bends in the upper river channel are good areas to set up on at night.
Even outfits rigged with cut bait should be at least the size of bass tackle and spooled up with 10- to 20-pound-test. While most channel cats weigh less than 5 pounds, double-digit weight channels will show up occasionally in this lake. As is the case on Herrington, flathead tackle needs to be quite stout.
Three access areas provide boating access to Fishtrap Lake, with bait and tackle available at Fishtrap Marina, which is located at the Dam Access Area. There is a campground at the Grapevine Access Area on Grapevine Creek. A bit of bank-fishing is possible around access areas, but the lake’s steep sides limit shoreline fishing prospects. Some anglers also wade shoals and fish the deeper holes between them in the far upper reaches of the lake.
Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South, which includes extensive catfishing how-to, plus profiles of several Southern catfishing hotspots. To order a signed copy, send $21.95 (shipping included) to Jeff Samsel, 173 Elsie Street, Clarkesville, GA 30523. For more information on the book, log on to www.jeffsamsel.com.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Kentucky Game & Fish