Summer is upon us, and that means it is prime time for catfish. Catfish are caught most all year long, but no time seems more fitting than summer in the Great Plains..
Some species of fish become a little more difficult to catch once the spring spawn concludes and the water temperatures start climbing. Not so with catfish; they are more than willing to bite all summer long.
Fishing for catfish is quite popular in the Great Plains states, but maybe not as much as in some other areas of the country. However, that does not mean there is a lack of opportunity. In fact, there are lots of catfish and lots of opportunity, primarily because it is a somewhat underutilized resource in certain areas of the Great Plains.
Fishing for catfish is getting more popular every year. Anglers are learning catfish are every bit as challenging and enjoyable to catch as many other more popular species. Catfishing clubs, local and national tournaments have done much to promote interest in chasing whiskerfish across the country.
For those who do enjoy a day on the water seeking catfish, there are lots of great locations from which to choose. Here, we’ll look at just a few of them.
“Kanopolis Reservoir perennially ranks near the top of the list for channel catfish reservoirs in Kansas based on annual gill net catches,” said Bryan Sowards, a district fisheries biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. The lake has an abundant population of channel cats with good size distribution. Sowards said, “Expect bountiful catches of catfish from one to four pounds, but larger fish do occur here.”
Kanopolis Reservoir is located in the middle of the state, southwest of Salina. Tucked away from most of the urban sprawl, it does not receive the amount of angling pressure that a lot of the state’s reservoirs receive, according to Sowards. The reservoir was built at the end of WWII and is the oldest reservoir in the state. Sowards said this aging has led to shallower, productive water, which greatly benefits the channel catfish.
Most anglers find success for channel cats in the upper end where there is more shallow water. However, flats adjacent to swings in the river channel are really good too, especially in late summer and early fall.
Another great destination for channel catfish is Elk City Reservoir, some five miles northwest of Independence. Elk City Reservoir totals some 4,450 acres and was built about 50 years ago, so like Kanopolis, it has a very good population of channel catfish. “Benefiting from a large and fertile watershed, channel catfish thrive in the reservoir,” said Ben Neely, a KDWPT fisheries biologist.
Neely said that despite the impressive channel catfish population, angling pressure is relatively low. “From 2012 to 2014, we estimated about 17,000 anglers targeted channel catfish,” he noted. “However, these anglers caught over 16,000 channel catfish, and more impressive, they averaged 3.5 pounds.”
Elk City Reservoir is characterized by large flats in the 10-foot range and these areas serve as prime feeding grounds for channel catfish. Drifting cut shad, stink baits or chicken liver is the approach chosen by the most successful anglers.
“Blue catfish were recently introduced and present an additional sport fish,” Neely noted. However, there won’t be many legal fish. “Harvest regulations for blue catfish are a five-fish daily creel and a 35-inch minimum length limit,” he advised. “Channel catfish are managed with a 10-fish daily creel and no minimum length limit.”
Blue catfish are also available at other Kansas reservoirs. Two of the best are Milford Reservoir and El Dorado Reservoir. The Kansas River offers opportunities for getting a line stretched by a hefty flathead catfish.
There is no shortage of places to catch catfish in Nebraska. Catfishing is quite popular in the Cornhusker State, and with good reason. The numbers and sizes of available catfish in the state are enough to satisfy even the most discriminating whiskerfish enthusiasts.
The Missouri River flows some 400 miles along the Nebraska’s eastern edge and it is full of catfish. Even better, it has channel, flathead and blue cats. And they all reach jumbo size in the river system.
Most big rivers are great locations for catfish to thrive and grow to enormous proportions. Rivers provide great habitats and ample forage. Huge blue catfish are pulled from the Missouri River every year as well as in many of the tributaries connected to the Missouri River. Quality and trophy flathead catfish and channel catfish are also present.
There are numerous lakes within the state that also have great catfishing opportunities. Some are primarily only good for channel cats, but others offer more. For instance, Branched Oak Lake has blue, flathead and channel catfish available. The channel cat fishery is especially good with abundant fish and good size distribution. Catching quality blues and flatheads is also possible, although the latter species is catch and release only. Branched Oak Lake offers one of the better catfishing opportunities in the state.
Harlan County Reservoir also offers up good flathead fishing as well as plenty of channel cats. For really big channel catfish, head to Calamus Reservoir for fish up to the 15- to 20-pound range. Sutherland Reservoir is another of the more popular catfish destinations in the state. Anglers do not necessarily go there looking to land a new state- record catfish, but rather they enjoy the fast-paced action and high catch rates.
With a total of more than 110,000 surface acres, Lake Oahe provides plenty of area for anglers to search for channel catfish. And there are certainly plenty of them available. In fact, a recent sampling effort by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks resulted in some 40 percent of the catch being channel catfish. This figure was similar to the past couple years and almost double the result five years earlier.
There are lots of catfish in the lake, and size distribution is very good. Catfish were caught in cool water gill nets ranging in size from about 8 inches up to nearly 29 inches. Additionally, seine nets used near the shoreline confirmed channel catfish reproduction in the lake.
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Channel catfish are well distributed throughout the lake. A recent creel report showed good balance in the numbers of catfish harvested in the three sections of the lake as divided for the survey. Anglers harvested 5,308 channel catfish in the middle section of the lake. The lower end yielded 4,022 cats, and in the upper end anglers harvested 3,386 channel cats. This survey was conducted during daylight hours from May through July.
Another survey at Lewis and Clark Lake resulted in a high catch of channel catfish as well. Approximately 27 percent of fish caught in the gill nets were channel catfish. A total of 13 species of fish were caught, with channel catfish being the most abundant. There is also a population of flathead catfish in the lake.
During the sampling effort, biologists caught a total of 84 channel catfish ranging in size from 8 inches to more than 30 inches. The catch rate per unit of effort was seven fish/net-night, which was above average for the lake. Data points to channel catfish recruitment staying relatively stable and size structure of the fish caught was similar to the long-term averages.
Channel catfish grow faster at Lewis and Clark Lake than at some other South Dakota reservoirs along the Missouri River. Channel cats typically reach 400 mm (15.75 inches) at Lewis and Clark Lake in their fifth growing season. At Lake Francis Case, channel catfish reach this length in their seventh growing season and in their eighth growing season at the aforementioned Lake Oahe.
Dave Fryda is the Missouri River System fishery supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. He said the Garrison Tailrace provides exceptional fishing for channel catfish and that anglers have a high degree of success. The best fishing occurs from June until sometime in October.
Fryda said, “Catfish abundance and catch rates are usually very high. However, if anglers are looking for trophy sized fish, this is not the place. While abundant and easy to catch, a 5-pound fish is large for this fishery. There is no better place though in North Dakota to catch a mess of eating sized channel catfish and the cold water throughout the year in the tailrace contributes to catfish being very good eating quality.”
Anglers have good opportunities at the tailrace for fishing from either boat or from the shore. Remarkably, even as good as the catfishing is at the tailrace, it is a largely underutilized fishery. This means lots of opportunity with little pressure for those who do fish there.
For big channel catfish, it is hard to ignore the Red River. The channel cat population there is great, and the opportunity to catch a quality or even trophy channel catfish is way above average. Catching channel cats weighing 10 pounds is a common occurrence. For big fish seekers, be encouraged to know that plenty of fish exceeding 20 pounds are swimming the Red River. Fish up to 25 pounds are possible too, just not caught as frequently.
The Red River is obviously one of the most popular catfishing locations in the state, and for good reason, but some of the tributaries off the Red River are also quite good. In fact, fisheries biologist Mike Johnson said the Sheyenne River is an essential part of the Red River’s channel catfish fishery as a whole.
“When compared to the main stem Red River, the Sheyenne has greater sinuosity, more slack water and a higher density of woody debris,” Jonson explained. “Additionally, the overall majority of our channel catfish sample consists of smaller sized fish. Combining this information paints a picture of the Sheyenne River as an important spawning and nursery grounds for channel catfish.”
Upstream from its confluence with the Red River, the first major dam on the Sheyenne River is at Lisbon. Depending on flow regimes, Lisbon Dam can act as a migrating barrier to pre-spawn fish, Johnson noted. During higher flows, nearby Fort Ransom Dam can also be a good place to fish for catfish.
“In addition to dams, snags and oxbows are great places to fish,” advised Johnson. “There are many bridges and road crossings in which these habitats can be seen within walking distance.”
Some of these locations are even accessible to the canoeist and kayaker.Trailered boats may be launched from the public boat ramp at Lisbon or Fort Ransom. An additional place that is good to fish for channel cats from the shore is the Maple River confluence in West Fargo, which has a small dam. Johnson said, “As a general rule of thumb on the Sheyenne River, the farther downstream one fishes, the more likely you will be able to catch larger fish.”
These are just a sample of the outstanding catfishing found in the Great Plains. From big rivers and reservoirs to smaller waters or even stock ponds, catfish are abundant and a lot of fun to catch. Right now is a perfect time of year to grab some bait and head out for an enjoyable day chasing whiskerfish. Perhaps you’ll secure the main ingredient for the next fish fry.