Troy Hansen is no stranger to river fishing for trophy catfish. As a Pro Staff member for WhiskerSeeker Tackle, Hansen must test new equipment in the harshest conditions, while fishing for the biggest cats that U.S. rivers can produce. When trying new waters and targeting monster catfish, Hansen has a few staples.
“My must-haves when hitting the river are a fish finder with side imaging, the chart feature to allow a topographical map chip (Humminbird Lakemaster) and fresh, fresh, fresh, bait. I look for ledges, humps, holes and 90-degree bends on the river,” said Hansen.
Since 38 of the nation’s biggest river systems are more than 500-miles long, it takes a lot of time and practice to figure out which rivers to fish, and where.
The management team for the Cabela’s King Kat Trail tournament also scouts the nation’s river systems looking for the spots that consistently produce monster cats. They look for waterways that not only produce monster catfish, but those that have healthy fishery populations and optimal safety conditions for anglers.
Game & Fish Online turned to a number of experts to uncover the best rivers for catching monster catfish. We find out the sections of rivers to target and tips for catching the biggest species in those regions.
It is an impressive day on the river when you catch so many monster catfish that you are tossing 30-pounders back because they are just too small. The Tennessee River, covering more than 650 miles in the southeastern United States, ranks at the top for expert catfish anglers.
Whisker Seeker Tackle Pro Staffer Troy Hansen says the Tennessee River produces some of the most impressive blue catfish and flatheads that he has caught anywhere in the country.
The section of river that flows through Decatur, Alabama produces catfish that can average 80-pounds in size.
“We lost count of the number of fish we caught over 50-pounds in Wheeler Reservoir,” said Hansen.
Expert guide and owner of CatfishEdge.com, Chad Ferguson agrees that Wheeler Reservoir ranks at the top for monster catfish. He adds that the Tennessee River spills into several other reservoirs like Wilson and Pickwick that are also prime locations.
“This whole area is a monster catfish mecca with Wheeler being “top dog”. Wheeler is arguably one of the top trophy blue catfish waters in the country,” said Ferguson.
The Alabama blue catfish record was broken at Wheeler Reservoir in 2012 by John Nicholas who pulled in a 120-pound, 4-ounce blue catfish. Trophy catfish in that section of river are especially active around the third week in October.
The key is fishing with fresh cut bait while targeting the bends in the main lake channels and sharp drop-offs.
Blue catfish and flatheads come up super-sized on the Missouri River and with nearly 2,300 miles to navigate, there are lots of stretches to target. Just ask Burr Edde III of Malta Bend, Missouri who broke the state record on March 21, 2015 with his 120-pound, 8-ounce blue catfish. Edde was fishing the stretch of river in Saline County using a trotline and Asian carp as bait.
Other sections of the river are also known for producing 80-to-90 pound blue and flathead catfish. These include the stretch of river where the Missouri flows near the Iowa–Nebraska border, and where the river flows past Boonville, Missouri.
Blue catfish in the Missouri River can average 20-to-50 pounds. They are most often found in the river’s large reservoirs and in areas with swift current and deeper water.
Rod and reel, trotlines and jug lines are the most successful fishing methods. Fishing with live or dead fish as bait attracts the blue catfish.
They can be caught at night and sometimes during the day along shallow flats. Flatheads are caught at night near structures like fallen trees, large rocks or off the ends of the wing dikes while using live bait.
The heavily fished Ohio River still ranks when it comes to monster catfish. Although large catfish from the 981-miles of waters have been increasingly harvested over the years, regulations are now in place to protect the trophy-sized cats.
This effort is one of the reasons that the popular Ohio River remains on the Cabela’s King Kat Trail in the sections that flow near Portsmouth, Gallipolis and Marietta.
“The sport of competitive catfishing is growing, and more and more states are placing regulations to protect the trophy cats from commercialization. This is resulting in a great influx of tourism for the areas as anglers flock to the water to test their skills in catching a trophy cat.
We are proud to be a part of this movement,” said Darrell VanVactor, operations manager Cabela’s King Kat Trail.
Flathead catfish average 20-to-30-pounds in the river, but they can grow to weights in excess of 100-pounds. Flatheads prefer structures and current. Channel catfish respond well to stink baits and average 8-12 pounds.
Night fishing during the summer months is ideal, but anglers find success here anytime the water temperature reaches above 50-degrees. Blue catfish in the Ohio River impress with 60-to-85-pound catches every year, with some occasionally topping 100-pounds.
Blues respond well to fresh skipjack or large gizzard shad drifting along the bottom or along the edges of the channels.
The Mississippi River, which stretches for more than 2,300 miles through ten states, has plenty of hot spots where blue catfish and flatheads grow beyond 100-pounds.
A top stretch of river for Whisker Seeker Tackle Pro Staffer, Troy Hansen, is along the Missouri border with Iowa where large flatheads settle along the steep ledges. Nighttime fishing with live shiners near sheltered areas like submerged logs is best.
Further south, near St. Louis, trophy blue catfish are abundant. The blue catfish respond well to live shivers, cut bait and stink bait. Even the waters in front of the St. Louis arch produce troves of channel catfish during the summer months, some ranging 20-pounds or more.
One of the best, and least explored stretches of the Mississippi River is a little-known area near New Orleans. Chad Ferguson, expert guide and owner of CatfishEdge.com says this is one of his most successful catfish spots in the country.
“Many big rivers get a lot of attention because of the tournament trails and they’re well known to be some hot spots for big cats. The Mississippi River around New Orleans is one that nobody talks about, but there are some monster blue cats in this stretch of the river,” said Ferguson.
Even the small blue catfish on this stretch of river are 10-pounders. The blue catfish in this stretch of river respond well to live bream and many anglers prefer jug fishing.
The Red River
Can you imagine pulling in channel catfish that tip the scales over 30-pounds? This is a common sight on the Red River of the North near Grand Forks, North Dakota.
“This is hands-down the top trophy channel catfish water in the country. Nothing else even comes close,” said Chad Ferguson.
The diverse habitat of The Red River makes it prime breeding ground for many species. The stretch of river from Fargo–Moorhead to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada is prime channel cat territory.
The hefty versions of channel cats result from slow growth and a long life span. Many channel catfish are 30-pounds or more and increase in size the further downstream you go.
Most fishing on this stretch of river is done using natural baits like worms, minnows and leeches. Using a dropper rig to keep the bait just off the bottom is the best position in the water.
Channel catfish are most active on the Red River during the spawning season in early summer.
Trophy blue catfish in the 60-to-80-pound range are not uncommon in the James River in Virginia. Flowing for nearly 350 miles, the topography ranges from high country in the Allegheny Mountains to offshoots of streams into valleys.
Sections of the lower James River have produced state records for blue catfish over the years, but even the non-record setting fish are impressive in the Tidewater region.
It is not uncommon to find blue catfish in the 30-to-60-pound range in the section of river from Dutch Gap to Brandon. The big blues in this river demand big bait. Using a shad head, or 10-inch cut bait is your best bet in attracting the larger catfish.
Most serious anglers rely on fish finders on the James River to help them navigate the deep cut channels, natural structures and wing dams. Winter is a popular catfishing season on the James River when the big blue catfish take shelter in the deep structures for the season, yet remain active feeders.
Late May, after spawning season is another popular time. This time of year it is best drifting bait along the bank with floats.
There is a reason the Coosa River is on the Cabela’s King Kat Trail– it produces trophy cats tipping the scales at over 200-pounds. The river flows through Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, but the 30-mile stretch that flows into Lake Weiss in Alabama is where the average catfish comes in at 30-50 pounds.
The river is known in tournament circles for the abundance of large blue catfish that hide in deep holes. Flathead and channel catfish are also frequently caught in this river system, but do not grow as large.
The most successful catfishing in the Coosa River is done at night using cut bait or large live fish as bait. Catfish activity is plentiful around the logjams that are common in this river and the bridge abutments that are a haven for feeding activity.
Anglers also find success in the river’s deep mid-channels where stronger currents flow near steep bank bluffs.
The Santee Cooper River system in South Carolina is known for being one of the best blue catfish fisheries in the United States. Located at the upper tip of the river in Manning, South Carolina, are the Santee Cooper Lakes, which are comprised of the Lake Marion reservoir and Lake Moultrie.
The 171,000 acres of water in that section is home to some of the largest catfish in the United States.
“Both lakes, connected by a diversion canal held the national record for 21 years on blue cat with a 109-pounder. This record has since been broken on the Mississippi River. Flathead cats also grow to sumo size on these lakes,” said King Kat Tournament Trail President, Darrell Van Vactor.
Winter and Spring are ideal times to reel in the largest blue and flathead catfish. Fresh bait like perch or bream are ideal for flatheads. Cut bait works best for blue catfish.
Anglers familiar with this water system suggest using a combination of both live and cut bait to increase the odds for both species.
Fishing the shallows in the spring months (March, April, May) during spawning season is generally the most successful time to fish, but targeting the ledges and drops in the deeper water works well other times of the year.
The 510-mile long Sabine River that runs through Texas and Louisiana produces more than just the occasional trophy catfish. Lake Tawakoni that is along the upper part of the river, just 80 miles east of Dallas, is home to many monster-size cats. This waterway changed the record books for the Cabela’s King Kat Trail.
“It (Lake Tawakoni along the Sabine River) has boosted the heaviest weights in our events for the past several years including our heaviest five fish weight in our 13 year history. In 2013, the winners had five fish weighing in at 239.8 pounds.
This record still holds today. This lake continues to pump out great numbers of trophy size fish annually,” said King Kat Tournament Trail President, Darrell Van Vactor.
The best results for catching the giants in the Sabine River and Lake Tawakoni are when anglers use fresh cut bait, shrimp, liver and stink baits.
Drift fishing, trotlines and bank fishing all have good results. Channel and blue catfish are most abundant, but there are also flatheads. Winter months produce the greatest numbers of the largest blue catfish.
The Potomac River is a hot ticket right now for anglers targeting large blue catfish. The river spans more than 400 miles along the eastern United States through West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C.
The stretch of river that flows through Virginia, specifically from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to Mason Neck, Virginia, produces 30-plus-pound blue catfish with some tipping the scales up to 80-pounds.
Springtime on the stretch of river from Fletcher’s Boathouse to Little Falls is the best time to target blue catfish. Late April is when the abundance of spawning gizzard shad attracts hungry blue catfish giving you a front row seat to the 50-plus-pounders.
Winter is prime time for blue catfish that remain active feeders through the winter months. Target them by bottom fishing with fresh cut bait like shad or herring or fish in the deep channels near steep drop-offs or breaks in the current.