By Tom Berg
Now that summer is upon us, many Indiana catfish fishermen are likely to hit the water. The diehards are already there! But there's plenty of room for everyone else. The catfish are ready and waiting, too. Channel catfish, flathead catfish and blue catfish are all available in our waters, and some of them are absolutely huge!
When it comes to catching catfish in Indiana, especially big catfish, the Ohio River is almost always at the top of the list for serious catfish anglers. They know the Ohio River is the premier waterway for trophy-sized cats in the Hoosier State. Channel catfish, flathead catfish and blue catfish are all plentiful here, both in large sizes and in sheer numbers.
One of the reasons the Ohio River is a perennial hotspot for catching catfish is because of its excellent fish habitat. The river's big water and deep holes seem to be custom-made for catfish. Add submerged rock ledges, undercut banks, gravel beds, sand bars, jumbled logjams and large root wads. There simply are countless places for catfish to live and thrive.
Abundant forage is another reason the river is such a fantastic catfish factory. Huge numbers of skipjack herring migrate up and down the river, along with swarms of shad and other small minnows. Crappies, sunfish, white bass and other relatively small fish also end up as dinner for the larger catfish. There is an almost endless food supply for the resident catfish!
According to big rivers fisheries biologist Craig Jansen of the Indiana Department of Natural ources, the Ohio River's catfish populations are, indeed, doing very well. "We have not summarized our 2017 Ohio River catfish data yet," he reports, "but the fish are definitely there. Catfish populations don't fluctuate dramatically from year to year, and last year we saw lots of big fish."
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Likewise, Jansen's counterparts across the river in Kentucky agree the Ohio's big catfish are thriving. "I just talked to one of the Kentucky biologists about their catfish work, and he reported the preliminary data for 2017 looks very similar to last year. Sampling data for trotlines showed catch rates were slightly higher than previous years. The highest catch rates for blue cats came from Cannelton," he adds, and he reports the largest blue catfish captured by the biologists here measured 43 inches long — a big blue cat, indeed!
Since the Ohio River is such productive catfish water, catfish tournaments are held here throughout the year. In May 2017, the Cabela's King Kat Tournament Trail stopped at Mt. Vernon for one of its events. River conditions were tough in the JT Myers pool, but the winning team still brought in a five-fish limit weighing more than 91 pounds. The second-place team weighed-in more than 84 pounds of catfish, along with the big fish of the event — a 31.26-pound blue cat. Obviously, the Ohio River is a great place to fish for big cats.
The White River joins the Ohio as another of Indiana's great catfish waters. It comes into contact with an amazing number of Hoosier State anglers as it flows across the state and finally meets the mighty Wabash River. Both the East Fork and West Fork of the White River meander like slithering snakes as they wind through the Indiana countryside.
Jansen's fisheries job includes managing the fish populations on the White. The catfish survey completed in summer 2017 by he and his staff sampled four sites on the lower White River, two sites on the East Fork, and two sites on the West Fork of the river. They used a combination of electrofishing and hoop nets to capture catfish for the survey, and they caught a lot of fish. On the White River, they collected more flatheads than channel cats, identifying more than 400 flathead catfish that ranged in size from 2.3 to 45.0 inches in length. Channel catfish collected totaled 188 fish that ranged in length from 1.9 to 28.5 inches. The largest channel cat weighed 12.96 pounds.
"When looking at our data, the West Fork of the White River near Washington (Maysville) produced the largest individual flathead catfish," Jansen reports. "That fish weighed 48.5 pounds. This same area also had the greatest average size of flathead." Live bait fishermen who regularly pursue flatheads may want to target this section of the river this summer!
Although channel catfish were caught throughout the White River system, their largest sizes were found on the lower White River downstream of the confluence of the East and West forks. There were also more channel cats caught in this area than anywhere else.
"If someone was looking to catch a bunch of channel catfish for the table, the Petersburg stretch of the river looks like a good place," Jansen says. "We saw bank poles and trotlines at each place on the river where we sampled for catfish, so I'm assuming people are catching fish. There is a lot of woody debris throughout the river, including up both forks of the river, so fishing for both channel cats and flatheads should be good if you find the right spot."
The White River is not known for big blue catfish, like the Ohio River, but there are blues present, especially in the main stem of the White River between Hazelton and the confluence of the White and Wabash rivers.
"We didn't catch many blue catfish during our survey," Jansen says, "and none were really huge. Most of them came from the lower portion of the river. If I were to target blue catfish, I would fish downstream of Petersburg or Hazelton."
Patoka Lake in Orange, Dubois and Crawford counties is Indiana's second-largest reservoir. Covering a total of 8,800 acres, this expansive body of water is well-known to local fishermen and to anglers from around the state, as well, and is widely recognized as a bass and crappie lake. It is also home to an incredible catfish fishery.
Fisheries biologist Rebecca Munter of IDNR District 6 keeps tabs on the catfish in Patoka Lake. She says she hopes plenty of anglers get in on the action in 2018. "Patoka's channel catfish represent an underutilized fishery, so the more people we get out there enjoying it, the better," she says.
Munter and other biologists from her district performed a catfish survey at the lake in 2014 and found channel catfish were extremely abundant. Flathead catfish were also plentiful. A creel survey conducted the following year, however, showed that although channel catfish up to 30 inches were being caught, the overall harvest number was low. That means there are a lot of catfish in the lake, just waiting for anglers to drop them a line.
"Patoka has a very large forage base of gizzard shad," Munter points out. "These shad are a great food supply, and they support excellent growth for the catfish." It is not uncommon to catch good-sized channel catfish at Patoka with bulging bellies full of gizzard shad of various sizes. Patoka is also home to a giant crappie population and a very large population of small longear sunfish.
Brian Finch works for the IDNR, serving as a Patoka Lake wildlife specialist. He spends enough time around the reservoir and heard the 2017 catfish action was great.
"What a year! We started out with a massive 50-pound flathead catfish caught by angler Trisha McAfoose from Dubois," Finch reports. "She caught her big fish in May on a trotline, but the most amazing thing was she landed it from a kayak!" McAfoose only started fishing with trotlines two years ago; now, she routinely catches channel cats and flatheads on her trotlines, and some of them are large. Besides the 50-pound flathead catfish she caught in May last year, she also caught a 34-pound flathead and a second 50-pound flathead catfish in 2017. Those are some impressive fish!
Shoreline fishing is allowed at Patoka Lake, but some areas are difficult to reach without a boat. Boaters, of course, have access to the entire reservoir. Boat ramps are numerous — 11 are located around the lake. For more information, including pontoon and fishing boat rentals, call Patoka Lake Marina at (888) 819-6916 or go online at PatokaLakeMarina.com.
It's hard to say exactly what the 2018 catfishing at Patoka Lake will be like, but all signs point to continued success for catfish anglers. "Patoka Lake is continuing to produce large and trophy-sized channel cats and flathead catfish for those willing to put in a little time on the water," Finch says. "With any luck, the next state-record channel catfish or flathead may find itself on the end of your line at Patoka."
Patoka Lake might be big, but Lake Monroe, located southeast of Bloomington, is even bigger. This 10,000-acre reservoir in Monroe and Brown counties is Indiana's largest lake, and it is home to some really big fish, too. Although Lake Monroe is better known for its largemouth bass, hybrid striped bass and crappie fishing, it is a real sleeper when it comes to catfish.
Fisheries biologist David Kittaka of IDNR District 5, is very familiar with Monroe's resident catfish. "Catfish — both channel catfish and flathead catfish — may be the most underutilized or underestimated fish species we have here at Monroe Lake," he says. "Most anglers target largemouth bass and crappies, and catfish are usually overlooked."
Kittaka and his staff members in 2015 completed a creel survey and a general lake survey at Monroe. The results showed the channel catfish population has remained strong. "Our two surveys revealed the channel catfish population today is very similar to what it was during previous surveys in 2007," he reports. Among some 2,743 channel cats collected by local anglers, individual fish measured from 11.5 to 30 inches long.
Fishing results by anglers catching flathead catfish in 2015 also was similar to that found in the 2007 surveys. Their lengths ranged from 17.5 to 33.6 inches, with an average length of 26.5 inches. Local anglers caught the vast majority of both catfish species during the months of May and June.
Another person familiar with the catfish opportunities here is Corey Rieman, Monroe Reservoir assistant property manager. Rieman also is one of Monroe's serious catfish hunters, and he is just as happy catching channel cats as flathead catfish.
"I always use live bait, generally sunfish, but I don't target a specific catfish species," he points out. "I'm an equal opportunity angler!" In fact, live fish, such as bluegills and other sunfishes, are an excellent choice for catfish bait. Flatheads prefer live fish, and large channel cats also take them readily.
"Monroe is one of the best catfish lakes in my district," Kittaka confirms. "The catfishing opportunities are consistently good from year to year." Rieman agrees. "I've seen the same good numbers and sizes of both channels and flatheads while traveling throughout the reservoir property and talking to fishermen," he says, "so the public is still having high success rates here."
Fishing for catfish is not only fun, but it can provide some great fillets for eating, too. If you decide to keep some fish for the table, be sure to follow Indiana's catfish fishing regulations. The minimum-length limit for catfish caught in streams and rivers is 13 inches. There is no minimum size for catfish caught in lakes. There is no daily bag limit for catfish taken in streams and rivers, but the bag limit for lakes and reservoirs is 10 fish per day. However, anglers statewide daily may keep only one blue catfish longer than 35 inches, one flathead catfish longer than 35 inches, and one channel catfish longer than 28 inches.