Catfish rank right up there with walleye, bass and crappie in the eyes of Kansas and Nebraska anglers. One reason is they’re readily available. Just about every reservoir or pond has a population of one kind of catfish or another. Another reason is that you don’t need a whole bunch of specialized equipment to catch them.
Just about any rod and reel will do, and you can catch plenty of them right from shore. Lastly, catfish are great eating, and limits are generous in both states.
Following are some catfish destinations in both states that you’ll want to visit this season.
“Catfish rate very, very high with Nebraska anglers,” shared Daryl Bauer, Fisheries Outreach Program Manager for Nebraska Game & Parks Commission. “A lot of anglers prefer walleye, but catfish rank right up there.” Catfish are popular because you can find them just about anywhere in Nebraska from east to west and north to south. Great catfish waters are spread across the state, and some good ones are close to population centers like Omaha and Lincoln.
“I’d have to say that Branched Oak, just north of Lincoln, is one of the state’s better catfish waters,” offered Bauer. “It’s kind of unique because it has channel, flathead and blue cats in it. Fishing for the flatheads though is strictly catch and release.” Bauer said channel catfish tend to prefer stink baits, and flatheads hunt live bait. Cut bait works best on the blues, he noted.
Other Nebraska catfish waters that have produced exceptional catfish numbers in the most recent survey included East Twin, Zorinsky, Louisville 1, Sutherland, Rockford and Branched Oak. All of these waters showed excellent numbers of catfish as well as outstanding size distribution. That doesn’t mean they’re the only place to target catfish, though. Some of the reservoirs that are not known for catfish, like Merritt Reservoir, are some of the best places to catch trophy cats.
Catfish can be found in bodies of water that range from larger river systems, like the Missouri and the Lower Elkhorn, to smaller reservoirs like Wagon Train and Wildwood. Wildwood is unique in that it’s strictly catch-and-release for catfish. Most anglers, though, fish for catfish because they like to eat them.
To the west of the Lincoln area, look for Pawnee Lake, East Twin Lake, Conestoga Lake and Yankee Hill Lake for numbers and trophy catfish. To the south of Lincoln, Stagecoach Lake, Wagon Train, Lake Bluestem and Olive Creek are known for their consistent catfish action. Residents of Omaha won’t have to travel far to sample the great catfish fishing at Standing Bear Lake, Zorinsky Lake, Wehrspann Lake and Glenn Cunningham Lake. All have good catfish numbers.
The central part of the state has fewer prime catfish waters, but the ones that have catfish are exceptional. “Calamus Reservoir is really good for big channel cats up to 20 pounds,” said Bauer. Calamus Reservoir is located near Burwell, Neb. Just to the south you’ll find some trophy cats in Sherman Reservoir, which is formed by the Loup River. For information on lodging, camping and amenities in the area go to Loup City, Nebraska.
Harlan Reservoir, which is 13,500 acres and is situated right on the Kansas-Nebraska border, is known for producing a variety of species of game fish, including catfish. Water levels were extremely low for a numbers of years, which hurt the fishing, but as they have rebounded so has the catfish fishing. Harlan is good for both channel and flathead catfish. For information on Harlan Reservoir catfish contact: Fisherman’s Corner (308-928-2158), 703 Highway 183, Alma, NE 68920.
Three-thousand-acre Sutherland Reservoir is not a place to go if you’re looking for trophy catfish, but it’s great destination if you’re look for numbers and a place to fill the freezer. “Sutherland Reservoir has a very high population of catfish,” offered NEG&P Fisheries Biologist Darrol Eichner. “Historically it’s been a very good place for numbers of catfish. It’s one of the premier catfish destinations in southwest Nebraska.”
Located in Lincoln County, Sutherland Reservoir has a reputation for giving up limits of 1- to 3-pound channel cats with regularity. The fishing there gets started a little earlier than other reservoirs in the area because of the warm water discharge that heats the reservoir.
Lake McConaughy is more famous for its walleye fishing than anything else, but catfish aficionados will find plenty of opportunity to try their luck for Mr. Whiskers. “McConaughy has a good population of catfish,” said Eichner. “They tend to be slow-growing, but you’ll find plenty of channel cats in the 5- to 7-pound range and a few flatheads, although they are much lower in number.”
Eichner said that catfish are very popular with shore fishermen, although there are those who pursue them from boats. Some of the best catfish fishing occurs on the west end of McConaughy and in the Platter River itself. Anglers use a variety of baits, including shad sides or strips, shrimp and shad guts.
The catfish season can get started quite early on McConaughy. “As soon as the ice starts going off you’ll find guys fishing near Cedar Vue and Omaha Beach. Usually by March there’ll be some open water and you’ll find people fishing for cats,” shared Eichner. While the river and the west end of the reservoir are best in the spring, cats can be found throughout the reservoir during the summer months.
Many an angler trolling with crawler harnesses has hoped that the fish he hooked is a trophy walleye only to find out it’s a catfish.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has made a consorted effort to get blue catfish established in many of the state’s reservoirs and they’ve succeeded big time. Milford Reservoir was one of the first to be stocked with blues, and it’s the premier destination for blues right now in the state of Kansas. But several reservoirs that were planted shortly after Milford are beginning to bear the fruits of the KDWP&T efforts.
KDWP&T Fisheries Supervisor Chuck Bever said that Kansas’ anglers have plenty to be excited about. “We started planting Milford Reservoir in the late 1980s, and it’s a little ahead of the others in terms of trophy fish. But there are a bunch of reservoirs where the blues have really taken off.” One is Perry Reservoir.
Perry Reservoir, 11,630 acres in size and near Perry, Kan., has a burgeoning catfish population that is just going to get better and better in the years to come. “We started seeing young catfish that are probably the offspring of the fish that were originally planted in 2006,” said Fisheries Biologist Kirk “TJ” Tjelmeland. “The young cats were about 9 inches long, so we’re quite sure that they’re the result of natural reproduction. We’re also seeing some fish in the 37- to 38-inch range, which are probably fish from that original plant.”
Perry Reservoir has a 35-inch minimum length limit on blue cats. There is no length limit on channel catfish and the daily limit is 10 fish.
There’s no lack of forage for catfish in Perry Reservoir. Tjelmeland said there are lots of gizzard shad for catfish to feed on. Blue catfish will also eat the zebra mussels that were first discovered in the reservoir in October 2007. Perry Reservoir has all the ingredients to become a world-class catfish fishery. It’s very fertile, has plenty of shad and is kind of dirty, which is what catfish like. Expansive mudflats provide ideal habitat for foraging catfish.
“The top end of the reservoir and the Delaware River tends to be better for blues,” shared Tjelmeland.” The blues tend to school a lot and move in and out of the creek channels. The upper two-thirds of the reservoir is best for channel cats.” Tjelmeland said the “Hog Trough” on the west side of the reservoir near the state park is a known catfish hotspot. Anglers there chum with soybeans and then use a variety of baits that includes shad, sponge baits, catalpa worms and cut bait. “It pays to go prepared,” suggested Tjelmeland.
He said that cats are very popular with Kansas anglers and effort begins to peak in June after the crappies spawn. For more information on Perry Reservoir call 785-246-4514.
The Wichita area is blessed with four reservoirs that offer top-notch catfish action. Guide Mike Cook of Four Lakes Guides said that Cheney and Marion are among the best in the region for channel cats. Cook said he favors dip baits and targets shallow water, often under 3 feet, especially when wind is stirring things up in the coves and on secondary points. “Prime time for cats is September and October, although May and June can be really good, too,” he said.
Milford Reservoir, 16,000 acres in size, is the state’s premier reservoir for blue cats, and the fishing seems to be getting better and better. Guide Ryan Gnagy of Prime Time Catfishing (785-213-2590) said that husky blues in the 20- to 30-pound range are common and that fish pushing 50 pounds swim in Milford’s waters. Gnagy uses cut bait and shad to drift 25- to 30-foot flats where the catfish forage.
Gnagy cuts the head off 1 1/2- to 3-pound gizzard shad at an angle and then runs a 5/0 to 8/0 hook through the nostrils of the gizzard shad’s head. Doing so helps keep it on the hook and prevents the bait from being stolen. The hunk of fish is enough to choke a horse. Above the bait is a Styrofoam float that helps keep the bait off bottom and floating ahead of the string of nine 1/2-ounce bullet-head sinkers that served as a weight.
The weight is hung from a sinker slider separated from the barrel swivel by a sinker bumper. The rods Gnagy uses are 7 foot, 6 inches, paired with 65-pound braid for a main line and a 50-pound monofilament leader.
Gnagy said that March is far and away the best month for blue catfish on Milford. “In March, the catfish are warming up from winter and it speeds up their metabolism as the water starts to warm,” he noted. “They are feeding big time. March and April are the top months, but July through November are really good, too. You can find good fishing about any time of year, except June and dead of winter.”
Whether you like to fish from the bank or from a boat and prefer channel, blue or flathead catfish there’s a lot of good fishin’ waiting to be had in Kansas and Nebraska.