Many people start fishing by catching channel catfish at an early age, frequently in some park or farm pond. Easy to catch, these bottom feeders eat practically anything, and rank among the tastiest and most abundant freshwater fish in the Sunshine State.
"In my area, the lower St. Johns River and the Suwannee River are the best places to catch catfish," claimed Allen Martin, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist. "Catfishing is popular at some of the small fish management areas. In the north-central region, the FWC routinely stocks channel catfish in FMAs, especially in Duval, Columbia and Suwannee counties."
The longest river in the Sunshine State, the St. Johns flows through eastern Florida for 310 miles. Along the way, it passes through several major lakes as it drains an 8,840-square-mile basin. Any of these lakes can provide outstanding channel catfish fishing.
The Ocklawaha River flows into the St. Johns near Palatka. Some of the best catfishing on the river occurs between Palatka and Lake George. Dunn's Creek, another good catfish hotspot, connects Crescent Lake to St. Johns. Murphy's Creek from the St. Johns River to Dunn's Creek also holds good catfish numbers.
The Suwannee River flows out of Georgia into Florida and runs about 246 miles. It connects with the Alapaha, Withlacoochee and Santa Fe rivers before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico near the town of Suwannee. Other good places to catch big channel cats include the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes and the Harris Chain.
Anchored by the 44,000-acre Lake Kissimmee, the Kissimmee Chain spreads across more than 100,000 acres south of Orlando. The Kissimmee River links 20 interconnected lakes with various tributaries and canals that all hold fish.
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Dominated by the 15,500-acre Big Lake Harris, the Harris Chain of Lakes covers about 76,000 acres. The Ocklawaha River connects the system to the St. Johns River.
Lake Manatee covers 2,400 acres near Bradenton. Formerly called Pleasant Grove Reservoir, Medard Reservoir covers 770 acres of Edward Medard Park in Hillsborough County about six miles east of Brandon. The Tenoroc FMA includes 24 lakes ranging from seven acres to 227 acres northeast of Lakeland.
"Channel catfish are stocked all over Florida," said Eric Johnson, FWC fisheries biologist. "I usually stock a total of 250,000 to 300,000 channel catfish in 20 to 30 different locations around my region each year to include lakes, ponds, reservoirs and rivers."
Channel and white catfish occupy practically every freshwater system in the state. Native to the Atlantic Coast states, white catfish resemble channel cats, but generally run a little smaller. Most white catfish weigh about 1 to 2 pounds, but the Florida state record weighed 18.88 pounds, coming out of the Withlacoochee River in Marion County. White cats tolerate more brackish water than other catfish species and often occur in river delta estuaries.
The Clermont Chain of Lakes probably offers Florida anglers the best chance to land a big white cat. The Clermont Chain includes 11 lakes near Clermont that cover 8,692 acres. The largest lakes include the 3,634-acre Lake Louisa, 2,298-acre Lake Minnehaha and the 1,888-acre Lake Minneola. Some people catch catfish off the Lake Minneola fishing pier.
Anglers might also catch yellow and brown bullheads. Also known as yellow cats or butter cats, they are often derisively dubbed "mud cats" because they can live in waters other fish cannot tolerate; these fish make a surprisingly good meal when they come out of clean water.
Both species live in shallow lakes, slow-flowing streams and vegetated ponds, where they feed upon minnows, snails, worms, crustaceans and insects. Bullheads seldom grow more than 3 pounds, with the state record yellow bullhead weighing 5.05 pounds coming out of Crystal River in Citrus County.
In recent years, anglers began battling much bigger fish. True tackle-busting giants, blue and flathead catfish can both exceed 100 pounds. These fish give anglers a big-game battle without heading out to sea. Both species began spreading across the state a few decades ago.
Native to the lower Mississippi River Valley and its major tributaries, blue catfish began moving into the Florida Panhandle through rivers that flow out of Alabama and Georgia. Blues prefer clear, swift water with sand, gravel or rock bottoms. They first appeared in the Escambia and Yellow rivers in the western Panhandle, but expanded their range to other waters.
In May 2015, William Stewart III caught the second largest freshwater fish landed in Florida, a 69.50-pound blue cat while fishing the Choctawhatchee River in Washington County. Only a 123-pound alligator garfish, also caught in the Choctawhatchee River, tops this fish in the freshwater records.
Blue catfish accidentally entered the Choctawhatchee River in 1993, when heavy rains broke a dam forming a private lake stocked with blue cats. The third largest river by volume in Florida, the Choctawhatchee drains about 5,350 square miles. It originates in southern Alabama and flows 141 miles before entering Choctawhatchee Bay near Port Washington.
Blue cats also entered the Chattahoochee River, which runs for 430 miles, across Georgia before straddling part of the Alabama-Georgia border and flowing into Lake Seminole near Chattahoochee. The lake covers about 37,500 acres. Blues now also populate the Apalachicola, Suwanee and Ochlockonee river systems.
Blues eat almost anything, but big ones prefer oily fish like skipjack, shad or mullet. They frequently roam open water looking for shad. Although they prey upon live shad and other fish, blues also eat fish chunks, nightcrawlers, crawfish, mussels, cheese, shrimp and liver, almost anything that gives off a scent, live or dead.
"For big blue cats, I like a 1/2- to 3/4-pound chunk of skipjack," said Phil King, world champion catfish angler. "My second favorite bait would be a large shad. The bait I use depends upon the size of the fish I want to catch. For bigger fish, my go-to bait would be the head section half of a skipjack. About 90 percent of the time, I fish with dead bait, but on some days, the fish just want live bait. I might start out with a cross section of skipjack on one rod, a fillet on another rod and gut section on another rod to see what they want to hit that day."
Flathead catfish also began moving into Florida. The big mottled predators naturally range from western Pennsylvania to Arizona and from southern Canada and the Great Lakes to northern Mexico. They thrive in the major rivers of the Mississippi Valley. Flatheads do not tolerate high salinity levels, but might roam some delta estuaries.
"Flatheads are not native to Florida, but they are native to certain river drainages in other states," explained Chris Paxton, FWC biologist. "The first flathead documented in Florida was found in the Apalachicola River in 1982. Now, flatheads are well established in many Panhandle rivers, such as the Perdido, Escambia, Yellow, Choctawhatchee and the Ochlocknee. We've also found them in Dead Lake and the Chipola River."
Flatheads possibly came down the Flint River from Georgia into Lake Seminole, where the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers merge to create the Apalachicola River. The Apalachicola flows 106 miles south to Apalachicola Bay. On the Apalachicola River system, anglers can catch big flatheads all year long, but the best fishing probably occurs from spring through fall.
"The Apalachicola River is a good place to fish for flatheads," stated Don Minchew with the North Florida Catfish Tournament Trail (www.floridacatfishclassic.com). "We fish from the dam all the way down to the Pinhook. That's about 100 miles of good fishing. People can catch 30- to 50-pound fish and possibly some bigger ones."
On May 15, 2016, 13-year-old Charles Patchen landed the third largest freshwater fish ever caught in Florida, a 63.80-pound flathead catfish in the Chattahoochee River in Jackson County. It measured 48.03-inches long with a 35.43-inch girth. The fish easily topped the existing Florida state record flathead of 55.05 pounds that came from the Yellow River in 2011.
The Escambia River can also produce good flathead action. Flatheads entered the Escambia in the early 1980s. Now, the river holds quite a few fish topping 50 pounds and countless cats in the 30- to 40-pound range. The fourth largest river in Florida, the Escambia runs 92 miles before entering Pensacola Bay. It holds the biggest concentration of freshwater fish in any Florida stream with more than 85 native species, giving flatheads abundant prey.
"The Escambia River is the best place in Florida to catch big flatheads," claimed Glenn Flowers, Cat Hunters Trophy Catfishing Guide Service (www.cathunters.net) in Pensacola. "In my opinion, the Choctawhatchee is second only to the Escambia for producing big flatheads. Third on my list would be the Apalachicola River."
Other Panhandle rivers also hold good flatheads. The Perdido forms part of the Alabama-Florida line and flows into Perdido Bay west of Pensacola. The Yellow River enters Blackwater Bay, an arm of Pensacola Bay, as does the Blackwater River. The Ochlockonee River flows 206 miles through Georgia and Florida, passing through Lake Talquin west of Tallahassee before entering Ochlockonee Bay in Wakulla County.
To catch flatheads, think like a predator. The voracious predators prefer to catch their own prey. They hide near logjams, stumps, holes and other places where then can ambush pretty much any fish they can gulp with their cavernous mouths. When looking for flatheads, first find good cover and abundant baitfish.
"When I'm going catfishing, I usually get to the river a few hours early to catch my live bait," Flowers said. "It usually doesn't take long to catch a limit of bluegills. Then, I'll look for wood, especially piles that have been there a long time. I also look for lines of willow trees hanging over the shoreline in front of deep holes, but where the water comes up to about 5 feet deep. Flatheads hunt along those willow lines. I usually fish in water 10-feet deep or less."
Whether trying to break a state record or just fill a freezer, anglers throughout the Sunshine State can enjoy many opportunities to watch catfish stretch their lines.