Ohio catfish — channels, bullheads, flatheads and blues — are on the prowl when the heat is on.
By Dan Armitage
“Catfish can be found in just about every stream, river, pond, reservoir, and lake — including Lake Erie — in Ohio,” according to Richard Zweifel, the acting Inland Fisheries Program Administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “There are quality catfishing opportunities within a short drive of every Ohio angler, no matter where they live.”
Zweifel notes that the primary species of interest to Ohio anglers are bullheads, channel cats, flatheads and blue catfish.
“Bullheads, mostly yellow bullheads, can be found everywhere but are generally in low abundance,” he said. “Channel catfish are ubiquitous and can be found in just about every stream, river and reservoir throughout Ohio. Lake Erie also provides some quality opportunities for channel catfish as well.
“Flathead catfish are also found throughout the state but generally in lower numbers than channel catfish,” he added. “Flatheads do get much larger than channel cats; flatheads in the 30- to 60-pound range are not uncommon.”
Blue catfish currently have a relativelty limited range in Ohio, but he points out that they are common in the Ohio River, with blue cat numbers generally increasing the further downstream you go.
“Blue cats can get really big,” he said. “The current state record is 96 pounds. The Division of Wildlife initiated a limited blue catfish stocking program in 2010 and we are currently stocking Hoover, Clendening, and Seneca reservoirs. We are hoping to expand this program to include other reservoirs in the future but are limited by the number of blue cats our hatcheries are able to produce.”
TRACKING OHIO’S CATFISH POPULATIONS
As to how Ohio’s catfish populations are assessed, Zweifel said, “In the past, we opportunistically collected information on reservoir catfishes, when they were captured during saugeye, walleye, white bass, and hybrid and striped bass netting surveys. We recently (2016) started conducting targeted catfish assessments. We are adapting the techniques that other agencies have used to assess catfish populations to suit our needs. We are using hoop nets baited with commercial soy and cheese bait to assess channel catfish and low-frequency electrofishing to assess blue catfish populations.”
He added that low frequency electrofishing is proving to be effective for assessing flathead numbers too.
“While these assessments are still in the preliminary stages, both techniques are showing a lot of potential to provide us with the information we need to manage these fisheries,” he said. “We are currently in the third year of a research project that is tracking the movements and catch/harvest of larger, up to 25 inches long, blue and flathead catfish in the Ohio River.”
The factors that affect Ohio’s catfish populations are varied, he explained. “It takes a long time for catfish to reach large sizes, on the order of decades to produce really big catfish. Our current statewide catfish regulations are aimed at protecting these larger ‘trophy’-sized fish from excessive harvest.”
In order to boost the population of catfish in Ohio, the Division stocks blue and channel catfish annually in a number of waters.
A portion of the catfish stocked in Ohio are large enough to keep when they are stocked. The state annually raises and stocks about 9,000 channel cats that are 10 to 12 inches long, throughout the year in association with kid or family fishing events, such as the Kiddie Fishing Pond at the Ohio State Fair. But the larger portion of the stocking involves smaller fish.
“A majority of the channel catfish we produce are stocked as 16-month-old ‘yearlings,’ which measure 7 to 8 inches in length. We produce about 150,000 yearlings each year and these fish get stocked into small reservoirs,” Zweifel said, explaining that by small he means waters up to 500 acres in surface area and that the fish are typically stocked in October, every other year, at a rate of 10 per acre.”
“We are currently sponsoring a research project through Ohio State University that is aimed at evaluating the contribution of stocked fish and naturally reproduced channel catfish in our reservoir populations and evaluating the survival of channel catfish when stocked as 4-month-old fingerlings (3- to 4-inch fish) or as 16-month-old yearlings.”
He said that blue catfish are stocked as 4-month-old fingerlings into Hoover, Clendening, and Seneca reservoirs annually at a target rate of 20 per acre.
“Fingerling and yearling catfishes are stocked as part of a put/grow/take management approach,” said Zweifel, explaining that the catfish are stocked at small sizes and that it takes 1 to 3 years in the reservoir to grow to sizes that anglers are interested in catching and harvesting.
What preys on catfish? According to Zweifel, catfish “are mostly vulnerable to predation when they’re young. Large predatory fish, such as largemouth bass and saugeye, will opportunistically consume young catfish when there is little else for them to prey on, but young catfish are only a small proportion of their diets, especially in reservoirs with abundant shad populations.”
On the other hand, what Ohio catfish eat is a key to catching them and a major reason they are so popular among anglers.
“The prey catfish consume depends on the particular habitat they’re living in, in flowing water versus reservoir environments, their age, and the particular catfish species,” Zweifel said. “Young catfish of all species are omnivorous and will eat just about anything they can. Their diets are primarily composed of insects and to a lesser extent crayfish.
“Channel catfish remain omnivorous and forage on or near the bottom throughout much of their life,” he continued. “Larger channel cats will consume fish prey when the opportunity presents itself.”
The diets of adult flathead and blue catfish are almost exclusively composed of fish, according to the fisheries administrator.
“Flatheads are ambush predators and hide in rocks or woody tangles in shallow areas and wait for their meals to swim by their hiding spot,” he explained. “Blue cats are open-water predators, often feeding on schools of shad near the surface.”
CATCHING OHIO CATFISH
“One of the most common mistakes that anglers make when fishing reservoirs for catfish during the summer is fishing too deep,” Zweifel said. “A common perception is that big catfish are found near the bottom in deep water. From mid-May to mid-September, the deepest portions of our reservoirs have no oxygen and are uninhabitable for all fishes. A majority of catfish are found in less than 10 feet of water during the summer.
Catfish can be caught on a variety of natural or prepared baits. Channel catfish have a very good sense of smell, and use their sense of smell to find their meals. If it’s made of meat and will fit in their mouths, a channel catfish somewhere is likely to eat it.
The standard bobber over a split shot and a hook baited with a worm works well for near shore fishing, especially for kids. Adjust the amount of line between the hook and the bobber so the bait stays near the bottom to target catfish. Although messier, chicken liver is another excellent and inexpensive bait.
Tight-lining a bait on the bottom is also a popular, and productive, approach for catching Ohio’s channel catfish. A bell/egg sinker on the main line tied above a swivel with a 1- to 2-foot leader with a baited hook at the end is a common rig for tight-lining.
“Cast out, prop the rod at an angle, reel up the slack in the line so it’s tight, and watch the line and rod. The end of the rod will start to bounce when a catfish has taken the bait. When tight lining in flowing water, the amount of weight will need to be increased to hold the bait in place and prevent it from getting washed downstream,” Zweifel said.
Zweifel expects good fishing this season for catfish, and offers the following destinations to consider.
Central Ohio/Wildlife District 1
The Fish Ohio program recognizes channel catfish over 28 inches as trophies, and no inland lake in the state produces more of these fish than Hoover Reservoir. Zweifel says that the north end of the reservoir is typically the best basin for catching the larger catfish. The Division of Wildlife started stocking blue catfish in 2011 and “the fish are doing very well.” In fact, he says, an angler reported a 35-inch fish this summer, the first official Fish Ohio blue catfish caught from Hoover.The majority of the blue catfish there, he said, are in the 20- to 24-inch range, “but some are fast growers, like the 35-inch fish.” In addition to channels and blues, Hoover also contains flathead catfish.
The Scioto River is a very popular fishery throughout its flow through central Ohio, says Zweifel, who points out that the sections north of Columbus are dominated by channel catfish.
“During summer months channel cats can be found feeding heavily in shallow runs below riffles, sometimes stacked up one on top of another trying to get the best feeding spot,” he advised. “Downstream of the Greenlawn Dam, the last dam down to the Ohio River, the fishery is still dominated by channels but also offers a mix of channel and flatheads. The deeper pools and woody debris found throughout the river south of Columbus really provide the perfect habitat for catfish to thrive.”
Northwest Ohio/Wildlife District 2
Charles Mill Reservoir in Richland County is a top producer in District 2. Recent creel surveys indicate that as much as 20 percent of the fishing effort at the lake is aimed at catfish. Maximum sizes run into the mid-20-inch range and anglers also catch a few flathead in the reservoir.
The best upground reservoir in the region is Bressler, according to Zweifel. “An active bank fishery there results in channel catfish catches averaging in the 25-inch range. Our fish surveys have seen channel catfish caught there as large as 31 inches long.”
Maumee River anglers catch a lot of flatheads in the 40-pound range each season. Most of the fishing goes on in the downtown Defiance area and below Independence Dam as well as the Grand Rapids Dam at Mary Jane Thurston State Park.
Northeast Ohio/Wildlife District 3
According to Zweifel, other than at North Reservoir where catfishing in popular, the Portage Lakes don’t get a lot of catfishing pressure. However, the catch rates are periodically excellent, as is the size, and the structure is good — making them a good place to fish this season.
The same is true with the Tuscarawas River, which he described as being a good pick for anglers seeking channel catfish and some flathead catfish. Reports from his field staff show that the best area runs from Dover/New Philadelphia to the intersection of SR36 and I-77.
Southeast Ohio/Wildlife District 4
Local biologists say that Seneca Lake has excellent numbers of channel catfish, with many of the fish between 14 and 18 inches, although fish longer than 26 inches are not uncommon. In early summer, shore anglers should focus their efforts along the face of the dam and Cadillac Bay. Boat anglers can find fish around the small island in the lower end or by drifting the flats along the channel in the upper end of the lake or the two main coves on the north side of the lake.
“Seneca Lake also has a good population of large flatheads,” Zweifel said. “Numerous fish exceeding 50 pounds have been reported in recent years. A good place to start looking for flathead would be around brush piles, as these provide good habitat for flatheads. A bonus on this lake is that blue catfish were stocked here for the first time in fall of 2016 and should start showing up in the catches in the next few years.”
The Muskingum River has excellent numbers of channel catfish, some of which are large fish, according to Zweifel and his field crew. They suggest that shore anglers should target any one of the 10 dams located from Zanesville down to Marietta. Flathead fishing on the Muskingum is excellent, and reports of “shovelheads” in the 60-pound range are documented every year, with Devola a favorite. Boat anglers should focus their efforts for channels and flatheads at any one of the dams or look for deeper pools with woody debris.
Southwest Ohio/Wildlife District 5
C. J. Brown Reservoir offers both good numbers and size for channel catfish, according to Zweifel and his team. The Ohio River’s Markland and Meldahl pools are this season’s best bets for good numbers and size for both channel catfish, flatheads, and blues for anglers who prefer to fish flowing waters — and want the option of hooking a world class catfish to boot!