Photo by Michael Skinner.
Mention the dog days of August, and many anglers immediately think of tough fishing conditions. But late summer offers many really fine fishing opportunities. In fact, this is probably the best time to chase one of Pennsylvania’s most popular (and common) species — catfish!
Quality catfishing is available across the state in a variety of venues. Flatheads and channel cats are found in many of the Keystone State’s major rivers.
Native to the waters of the Ohio River watershed, flatheads have found their way into drainages to the east. The long-term effect of flatheads moving into non-native waters won’t be known for years. But meanwhile, would you rather catch a 50-pound flathead or another 6-inch bluegill?
Many Pennsylvania reservoirs contain good populations of channel catfish. But in many cases, those fisheries are largely overlooked. It’s much more common to find anglers targeting catfish in rivers.
By late summer, chances are good that most rivers will be running low and clear. (Although with Pennsylvania weather, you never really know!) That’s the best time for catfishing — when you can beat the heat by getting on the water during the late evening.
When it comes to management, catfish populations found in the state’s large rivers are self-sustaining. Also native to the Ohio and Lake Erie drainages, channel catfish are now well distributed throughout the Susquehanna and Delaware drainages. Flatheads have been discovered in the Susquehanna River and in the Delaware watershed — specifically, the Schuylkill River.
Channel cats are able to sustain themselves in some inland impoundments. It’s more likely, however, that the ones you catch in reservoirs are there thanks to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s stocking program.
Flatheads are not exclusive to the state’s rivers. Occasionally, a big flathead shows up in a lake. Such was the case a couple of years ago on Shenango Lake. Flathead catches in reservoirs are considered incidental occurrences.
Here’s a look at some of the state’s better catfishing options for the month.
The Ohio River is the classic big-river catfishing scene, with good numbers of flathead and channel catfish of all sizes. Late last summer, the Ohio River produced a new state-record flathead, surpassing a record that had stood for over 20 years.
The fish was too big to net. Vic Zendron initially intended to release it — until a witness suggested that his catch might be a new record.
The Ohio River runs in a westerly direction from Pittsburgh, leaving the state a short distance below Midland. Along the way, the river is spanned by three locks and dams: Emsworth, Dashields and Montgomery.
Navigational dams such as these on the three rivers of western Pennsylvania tend to concentrate fishing efforts. Below the dams, there is a restricted area, marked with buoys this time of year.
Below the dams, shore-fishing options vary from spot to spot. In recent years, some access to shoreline has been lost due to poor conduct by the public.
Good shore-fishing for cats may also be found near the mouths of feeder creeks. Typically, rock bars formed at the mouths of such streams create deep holes that attract cats. These places are tailor-made for shore-anglers.
A good example is the mouth of Sewickley Creek, which enters the Ohio River a short distance below the Dashields Dam. The rock bar at the mouth of the creek quickly drops off into nearly 30 feet of water.
Many similar spots exist along the Ohio River. An enterprising shore angler need only study a map, locate creek mouths and get permission to access them, then explore the spots for catfish activity.
Boat anglers will find catfish well distributed throughout the Ohio River. Find the larger holes, which you can sometimes find along river bends. Near sunset, catfish will frequently move up out of the deep holes onto upriver flats.
Another good fishing spot along the Ohio River is where the Beaver River enters near Rochester. Along the upriver side of the river mouth, a community park provides some shore access. Boat anglers often anchor just off the river mouth. Years ago, while my partner and I were targeting walleyes and saugers, we caught channel cat after cat from this spot, vertically fishing metal-blade baits!
The Beaver River is navigable for over a mile up from the Ohio (this is a no-wake zone), and along its length are good shore-fishing spots. A dam near New Brighton stops boat travel, but good fishing from shore occurs below this dam, too.
A Fish and Boat Commission ramp at Rochester provides access to the Ohio River. The ramp at Leetsdale, which was leased by the PFBC for many years, is now under the control of the local municipality as a fee launch.
The commission also has a ramp on the Beaver at New Brighton.
Both the middle Allegheny and lower Allegheny River offer excellent opportunities for channel cats and flatheads.
The middle Allegheny is considered to be the portion that runs from Kinzua Dam down to the East Brady area, where the river is free-flowing. Below Brady, along the 70-odd miles on its way to Pittsburgh, the river is impounded by eight navigation lock and dam systems.
Anglers will find middle Allegheny catfish to be structure-oriented. Catfish will be found in the deeper holes. Shallow riffles and runs may be cooler and full of smallmouth bass at this time of year, so don’t expect to find concentrations of channel cats and flatheads nearby — at least not bigger cats.
The catfishing in the middle Allegheny picks up below Tionesta, where the river has had a chance to warm up. The Kinzua discharge is relatively cold during the summer, but by the time the river reaches Tionesta, the cooling affect has dissipated.
Several deep dredge holes exist within the middle Allegheny. Tionesta, Oil City and Reno feature such spots, which can be more than 15 feet deep. Many other deep holes exist along the way, too.
In Forest County, the Fish and Boat Commission provides boat access upriver from Tionesta off Route 62. An excellent access is in Tionesta, near the site of the old Tionesta Sand and Gravel Company.
In Venango County, boat ramps can to be found in Oil City, Franklin and at Fisherman’s Cove, about 10 miles downriver of Franklin.
The picture is a bit different along the lower Allegheny, where catfish are more widely distributed. During a creel census survey that the Fish and Boat Commission conducted on pools 3 and 4 of the Allegheny in 2000, catfish made a strong showing.
After the big three — smallmouth bass, walleyes and saugers — channel catfish were high on the list of species caught by anglers. During the survey period, which ran from May through October, nearly 2,000 channel cats were reportedly taken.
On the lower Allegheny, dams are located at Rimer, Mosgrove, Kittanning, Clinton, Freeport, Natrona, Acmeonia and Sharpsburg. Fishing platforms are located at hydroelectric plants found at the Rimer (L&D 9), Mosgrove (L&D 8), Clinton (L&D 7), and Freeport (L&D 5) plants.
Fish and Boat Commission boat access areas in Armstrong County include Brady’s Bend, Cowanshannock, Rosston and Freeport. In Allegheny County, PFBC ramps are found at Harmar, Tarentum and Springdale. Many of the municipalities lining the river also have ramps. A good example is the riverside park in Kittanning.
Like the Ohio and lower Allegheny River, the Monongahela is another great big-river catfish setting. Last season in July, it produced one of the four largest flatheads reported to the Fish and Boat Commission — a 39.5-pounder caught by Joe Mellinger Jr. The catfish took a bluegill.
While big flatheads capture the news, the Monongahela also features a very healthy channel catfish population. Anglers fishing in good areas should have no trouble finding forktails.
What’s been said of the Ohio and lower Allegheny holds true for the Monongahela, which is navigable for its entire length within Pennsylvania.
Expect to find fish below the locks and dams, located at Point Marion, Grays Landing, Maxwell (near Brownsville), Charleroi, Elizabeth and Braddock.
Holes located at creek mouths will be hot, as will deeper holes in the main river, which are better accessed from a boat.
Boat-access areas on the Monongahela are in Greene County at Rice’s Landing. Fayette County ramps are at East Fredrickstown and Point Marion. Washington County access areas include Speers Landing and Monongahela. In Allegheny County, anglers will find a PFBC ramp in McKeesport.
SHENANGO RIVER LAKE
At 3,500 acres, Shenango Lake contains an outstanding population of channel cats. During a survey conducted in 2005, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commission personnel trap-netted 750 of them. Most of the cats ranged from 18 to 22 inches, though some stretched the tape to 28 inches.
Shenango Lake is a federal flood-control lake. A multi-use lake with no horsepower limit, the lake sees plenty of boating activity during summer weekends. But things quiet down when the sun begins to set, which is when the best catfishing begins.
This lake has an abundance of structure to attract fish. Bridge piers and sunken roadways head the list. The lake’s gizzard shad population keeps the cats well fed.
Several good access areas exist, including the Shenango and Clark Recreation areas. Call (724) 962-4384 to hear a recorded message regarding daily lake level and current recreation information. You can reach the park office “live” at (724) 962-7746.
Additional information may be obtained by contacting the Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-637-2370.
Shenango Lake can be reached via Route 18 north of Sharpsville. Interstate Route 80 passes not far to the south of the lake and provides an excellent way for sportsmen coming from east and west to reach the area.
Given Lake Arthur’s impressive menu of angling options — which include largemouth bass, muskies, crappies, walleye and hybrid stripers — it’s not surprising that its channel cats are somewhat overlooked. However, this 3,300-acre lake does contain a healthy channel catfish population, including some large fish.
When the Fish and Boat Commission surveyed the lake in 2004, its nets captured well over 200 channel cats. Most of those fish ran from 18 to 25 inches, though some longer than 30 inches were collected.
Areas to fish for channel cats include the sunken railroad bed between Barbour and Neely Point. The railroad bed tops off in the 16- to 18- foot range. Many a channel cat has drilled a crankbait — a lure normally intended for walleyes — being trolled along this area.
Others spots to key in on include the bridge piers of the Route 422 and Route 528 bridges.
Lake Arthur lies in Moraine State Park. The facilities serving the lake are excellent. There is a 20 horsepower limit on outboards.
For more information, log on to www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks/moraine.aspx.
Few anglers think of Lake Erie as a catfish water, but it does hold some big channel cats. Two of the state’s top forktails, both weighing over 20 pounds, came from Lake Erie last season.
Admittedly, finding channel cats in Lake Erie proper would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But in places where fish might concentrate — such as the piers along the channel that connects Presque Isle Bay with Lake Erie — it might not be such a low-odds proposition. This is where angler Bryan Hodges took one of last year’s big channel cats.
Walleye anglers trolling fairly close to shore will also catch the occasional channel cat. Last summer, my buddy Andy Vetula caught a 15-pound-class channel cat when we were trolling in 25 feet of water.
Erie Bay’s south pier lies off Port Access Road. The north pier is accessed from Presque Isle Bay State Park.
Channel cats can be found throughout the Susquehanna River, drainage, including the North and West branches. The best action, however, may be found in the river’s main stem.
When the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission electro-shocked the river in the Marietta area last year — during research focused on smallmouth bass — it found good numbers of channel cats. In addition to forktails, fisheries personnel also collected a dozen flatheads ranging in size from 16 to 31 inches. Seven other shovelheads were seen, but not
Quality catfishing is available across the state in a variety of venues. Flatheads and channel catfish are found in many of the Keystone State’s major rivers.
Access to this portion of the Susquehanna, which lies in Lancaster County, is good. The Fish and Boat Commission has a nice ramp in Marietta. East Donegal Township has a ramp in its riverside park off Route 441.
BLUE MARSH LAKE
The 1,150-acre Blue Marsh Lake is a worthy destination for catfish anglers. Just ask James R. Shabrach Jr. of Boyertown, who recently caught the new state record — a 48-pound, 6-ounce flathead — at Blue Marsh spillway.
Also, during a survey conducted to determine crappie populations in this popular Berks County lake, personnel collected good numbers of channel cats up to 29 inches long.
A federal flood-control lake, Blue Marsh has no horsepower restrictions, so it would be best to target catfish during non-peak boating times.
Catfishing is not limited to the lake proper. The basin below the lake contains channel cats, as does Tulpehocken Creek.
Boat launches include Sheidy, Dry Brooks and State Hill. For additional information on Blue Marsh Lake, interested anglers can call (610) 376-6337.
The Delaware River, particularly the lower (tidal) portion of the river, offers excellent channel catfishing opportunities.
When the Fish and Boat Commission participated in a multi-agency creel survey in 2002, it found that over 58,000 channel cats where caught during the survey period. Only about 17 percent of those fish were harvested. Boat anglers took most of the channel cats.
Boat access on the lower Delaware includes launches at Marcus Hook and Chester City.
A major tributary to the Delaware, the Schuylkill River features a good, though perhaps changing, catfish fishery. Flatheads were discovered in the Schuylkill when the PFBC surveyed the Valley Forge National Park section during fall surveys in 2004 and ’05. Along with the flatheads were good numbers of channel cats up to 30 inches. The flatheads topped off at 36 inches.
Though the flatheads represent another large predator for anglers to target, the species may be impacting other populations. During the recent surveys, bluegill and smallmouth bass numbers were well below historic numbers.
Shore fishing and boat fishing are both good options within Valley Forge National Park. Shore-anglers may gain access to good habitat along the west bank from a parking area near Valley Creek in Valley Forge National Historic Park.
Boat anglers may use the National Park Service access area on the north side of the Betzwood Bridge. Foot access is also available adjacent to the Pawlings Road bridge.
For more information, contact the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, 1601 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17106-7000. Call (717) 705-7800, or try the agency’s Web site at www.fish.state.pa.us/dir.