Illinois catfish water can be divided into ponds, rivers and lakes. All are part of the Mississippi River drainage, but they vary from small placid bodies of water to the fast- or slow-moving big rivers. Virtually every waterway has some catfish of one species or another.
Easily identified by their forked tail, the channel catfish is found in virtually all the rivers of the state. An aggressive program of stocking by the IDNR and private organizations supplements the natural recruitment in many ponds and lakes. They are probably the most popular stocked fish. Channels in Illinois tend to run from a few inches to 4 pounds. Larger fish are present and caught, with the Illinois state record being 48 pounds.
Younger channels are blue or gray on top with a silver underside and black spots on the sides. Larger fish are almost black and have lost the spots.
Flathead catfish are found mostly in large lakes and in the rivers of the Land of Lincoln. Their rather flat skull with prominent eyes set high on the top distinguishes the flathead from other catfish species. The tail is square. The overall color is brown with the tip of the upper lobe of the tail being white.
It is common for flathead specimens to be 15 to 35 pounds in weight and for exceptional flatheads to reach 50 pounds. The state record weighed 78 pounds.
The blue catfish is similar to the channel except for a distinctive blue cast to their skin color. They are usually shorter and larger around in girth. The tail, although forked, is more rounded. The easiest way to distinguish the blue from a channel is to note that the anal fin on the blue is long and straight. In the channel, it is rounded.
Blues are the largest of the species, often exceeding 50 pounds, with the Illinois record being 124 pounds. Many anglers report catches with fish in the 20- to 30-pound range.
Tackle and bait for catching catfish are similar for all locations but not for the three species of cats found in them. Here are some of the locations, along with baits used by anglers in pursuit of these “whiskered wonders.”
When it comes to ponds, Illinois has over 80,000 of the little ecosystems. About half are on private property, leaving 33,000 acres of ponds owned by the State of Illinois and another 77,000 acres in public hands. The later includes city and county waters as well as those ponds found on federal land, such as Shawnee National Forest and wildlife refuges.
Ponds are popular places to introduce a novice to the sport of fishing. Learning the water is easy. There is deeper water near a dam and shallow flats at the other end of a pond. Fish will be hiding near points, available brush, shoreline weeds or any wood.
There are usually more fish per acre in a pond than in larger bodies of water. Ponds can also accumulate dense stands of vegetation, which interferes with fish production. Ponds choked with aquatic vegetation usually have large numbers of small fish.
To find pond fishing check with local park districts and the 2012 Illinois Fishing Information booklet available where licenses are sold and from IDNR offices. For those willing to scout locations, a plat book from your county can be obtained from a Soil Conservation office. Always ask permission from private landowners before trespassing.
Pond fishing is available on federal lands. Check with the site office to make sure which ponds you can fish and which are off-limits. Two particularly productive sites with pond fishing are the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Williamson County and Pyramid State Park in Perry County.
Generally ponds have channel catfish and not flatheads or blues. Easy to raise in a hatchery setting, the channel is a popular fish for stocking. This voracious eating machine will take virtually any bait. Good baits can be as close as the refrigerator. Hot dogs, chicken liver, worms and grasshoppers are popular baits for pond fishing. Prepared cheese (stinkbaits) concoctions are popular with those willing to mess with them.
A pond fishing rig for catfish usually consists of a light line with a slip bobber suspended about 20 inches above a small hook. You cast just beyond the suspected lair of the fish and allow the bobber to move silently into place just above the fish. If there is no action in 10 to 15 minutes, change locations. Once fish are located you should be able to take several fish from one spot.
With the exception of the large reservoirs of Shelbyville, Rend and Carlyle, most of the lakes in the state are on or border state-controlled land. The reservoirs are on river systems that have been dammed. A few power plant cooling lakes fit into both of these categories.
Governor Bond Lake, near Greenville, is typical of the impoundments popular with non-river anglers. It has 775-acres of surface area and 24-miles of shoreline. It contains a variety of woody-type cover and underwater structures. Both boat and shore fishermen use this lake. A city permit is required for boat access; there’s a 120-horsepower limit on engines. The boat ramp is at the east end of the dam and has ample parking as well as picnic facilities. Limited boat slips and campsites are available at the marina on the southwest end of the lake.
IDNR surveys found channel catfish average 4 pounds with a length of 14 to 47 inches. There is no creel or length limit.
Many catfish anglers on Bond Lake like to drift fish. They motor up to the windward side of the lake and then drift over some of the 5-foot deep flats with a live shad hooked from the tail to the back. When the catfish attacks the bait from the head the hook is in a perfect position to impale him.
Josh Adkins, of Greenville, Ill., regularly fishes this lake from either a boat or on shore. He reports that his time fishing is divided about 50/50 between the two types of fishing.
Josh prefers to fish for flatheads in the dusky hours. He looks for timber, either upright or fallen. Adkins will cast to it and wait 10 to 15 minutes for a bite. If none if forthcoming, he moves to another spot and repeats his actions.
Bluegills Josh catches himself for bait are his preference four out of five times. He prefers live ’gills that are about 7 to 9 inches in length. Josh rigs them on a standard catfish rig of a 1/2-ounce sinker about 2 feet above a 2/0 hook. The hook is inserted in the bluegill just in front of the dorsal fin. The sinker stays on the bottom of the lake and the bluegill swims in circles around it. With this rig Josh has taken some 50-pound flatheads from Governor Bond Lake.