Across the state, stories of large catfish are generally the center of conversation, and long before there were big bass, catfish were the real trophy.
After all, they are good to eat, fun to catch and a fish that every angler has access to, because the occupy a wide range of habitats, from farm ponds to reservoirs and rivers.
Not only are catfish good to eat, but they are as challenging to fish for as any fish. From a cork drifting bait along rivers to casting spoons and even artificial baits, anglers are continually experimenting with new ways to catch the next big catfish. Here’s a look at some of the best places to find strong catfish populations in the state.
According to District Fisheries Biologist Eric Cummings, Barren River Lake continues being a catfish destination for anglers looking to catch any of the “big three” catfish species — flathead, channel and blue cats. Cummings said, “The blue cats are doing very well since we stocked them back in 2010 and we now have some of these fish up in the middle 30-inch range, which is putting these cats around 20 to 30-pounds.”
The good news is, it has now become apparent these fish are spawning, too — they are beginning to show up in boxes that noodlers place in the lake — which should help maintain the fishery.
The past two years of fish surveys have shown good numbers up the Beaver Creek arm of the lake and the main Barren River channel.
Cummings said, “Although they don’t do very intensive catfish surveys, it appears Barren River continues to be doing well.”
A good deal of information biologists gather comes from routine creel surveys — and if anything, they may be under estimating actual numbers of catfish because most creel surveys are conducted during daylight hours. Even though many catfish anglers are out at night to take advantage of higher levels of catfish activity under low-light conditions, the daylight creel surveys are still indicating good trends for this reservoir.
Most anglers on Barren are using standard juglines, while some are even hand grabbing or noodling. Additionally, Cummings mentioned another somewhat unusual trend here: Some of the hook-and-line anglers are using spoons to jig for blue cats, which is not a typical catfish strategy, but is one that can work because big blue cats are active predators.
Larger catfish are also caught using lures that rattle and vibrate. If a catfish decides it wants to take a lure, it has the power and mouth to do so. Many people believe catfish lay around on the bottom all day, but nothing is further from the truth. Flathead catfish are a perfect example of a specialized predator very capable of taking anything swimming. The fact that blue catfish often cruise in the center of large rivers and lakes readily feeding on live shad is a strong indication that they are far from mere bottom feeders.
The best methods of taking a catfish will always center around some type of live bait or cut bait. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to fish with one of the catfishing legends, Phil King. Since King showed me how to rig cut bait, everything I do is consistent with his techniques. I use 50-pound test line with an egg sinker over a bead to stop the sinker from going down the line. Under the egg sinker attach a barrel swivel. On the swivel tie on a 20-inch section of 20-pound monofilament line. King relies totally on the Daiichi Circle Hook in a 7/0 or 10/0.This set produces the most scent when it is fished with cut bait and fished 18 to 24 inches off the bottom. When you troll this rig, locate a contour line and maintain the boat speed at 0.5 mph.
WESTERN KENTUCKY CATFISH
Adam Martin, the Western Fisheries District Biologist, notes that where you want to go for catfish depends on what you are after. The lower section of the Ohio River is the place for not only big blues but trophy blues. This past year, Glynn Grogan from Arlington caught a 106.9-pound blue catfish, which is now the current state record. Martin said, “what was special about this catfish was that it was caught during a memorial catfish tournament in honor of Grogan’s old fishing partner, who had passed away the previous year.”
A blue catfish of this size was not there by accident. The lower segment of the Ohio River continues producing large catfish, and because it is the largest part of the river, it is perfect habitat for these pelagic or open water catfish. By the way, that new record catfish is still in the Ohio River. After KDFWR verified the weight, Grogan released the old catfish alive. An honorable tribute to his friend.
Western Kentucky is loaded with catfish and exactly where to fish depends on what you are after. Recent surveys of anglers found that only 11 percent of anglers want trophy cats. By far, most anglers want to fill their freezer.
Martin said, “Even with most anglers fishing to fill coolers, this fishery continues maintaining numbers and good size fish.”
In either Barkley or Kentucky lakes, the favorite bait remains cut gizzard or hickory shad. Shad are abundant and make perfect bait. To use cut bait, slice the shad along the lateral line to the anal opening. By leaving some of the intestines on the bait, oil from the meat will leave an enticing trail for foraging cats.
However, if trophy cats are in your crosshairs, then the Mississippi River continues to be a top pick in this region for all catfish species.
Kentucky’s Big River Fishery Biologist Jay Herrala also said, “The Cannelton Pool in the Ohio River is another top catfish fishery.”
Herrala and other biologists sampled the pool and found both numbers and sizes of catfish were excellent. “We had a 75 pounder and several over 60 pounds on trotlines and all were returned to the water.”
Taylorsville Lake always seems to rank on top for inland blue catfish lakes. Both Central Fisheries Biologists, Eric Cummins and David Baker, agree that Taylorsville blues continue doing well; the population is stable, especially considering the pressure these catfish have on them. Big blue catfish in the 50- to 60-pound range are not being caught in big numbers but they are still there. Biologists conduct routine sampling each year and are finding that blue cats in the 20- to 30-pound range are doing very well. The regulation limiting anglers to 15 catfish per day with only one over 25 inches will help maintain this trophy-class fishery for foreseeable future.
Each summer, Taylorsville Lake tends to stratify with a shallow thermocline. Cummins suggested that, “Since blues are open water fish, fish no deeper than 10-feet as they tend to feed in the upper portion of the water column.”
Fisheries staff members have noticed on many occasions that anglers who travel form other waters, such as the Ohio River, tend to fish the bottom — a perfectly reasonable tactic for the Ohio, but on Taylorsville, if you go below 10 feet, the bait is out of reach for the catfish. Fishing with jugs or noodles can keep bait about 6 to 8-feet down, just above the thermocline. Because of the thermocline, shad, which are the primary forage for big catfish, will also be at this same depth during summer months. Baker added that “A few flatheads will also be in this mix and because they are active hunters, they may hit swim jigs or crankbaits.”
As you move up the Ohio from Louisville, anglers will continue finding pools productive, but Herrala indicated that he would begin targeting flathead cats because the habitat begins changing, supporting lower densities of blue catfish. Also, don’t overlook streams flowing into the Ohio. Several, including the Salt River, seem to be a magnet for big catfish.
Research has verified that many catfish have two peaks of movement, one in the spring and again in the fall. That can be used to an advantage by summer anglers who now know some larger fish are staying in relatively small areas.
While fishing any large river such as the Ohio, look at the habitat. If the river is wide open water with sandy shores you may looking at habitat most suitable for blue catfish, while rocky banks are perfect habitat for flatheads and channel cats. Where the river has sandy bottoms such as the Lower Ohio, catfish will tend to hang around the submerged humps or cuts along the bottom or large submerged trees.
NORTHWEST KENTUCKY CATFISH
Rob Rold, Western Fisheries Biologist says that by far Nolin is the best flathead lake in the region, while Rough River Lake has good numbers of channel cats in the 17- to 23-inch range. In late May into early June catfish here are moving on the steep banks with rocks and other structures. Because catfish are cavity nesters, any place you see overhangs, rocks or submerged logs is a place catfish will be backed into cover, guarding nests. Moving bait in front of these holes should entice catfish to hit during the spawn.
For those fishing in the state’s smaller rivers and streams, channels and flatheads don’t always obtain the size their cousins in larger rivers reach, but they are still fun to catch and at least locally qualify as a trophy. As the gradient of streams increase, clear water makes it more difficult to fool a cat into biting. In these cases, wait for muddier water. Try fishing below riffles, which may have slightly higher turbidity, making it easier to catch catfish.
NORTHEAST KENTUCKY CATFISH
District Biologist Tom Timmerman said, “Our creel surveys are always showing good catfish numbers on Grayson Lake, especially around the Bongo area near the dam.”
It seems Cave Run Lake catfishing is getting tougher due to excessive aquatic weeds like Hydrilla. Timmerman said, “Years ago you could set jugs and have a good day of catfishing, but the weeds prevent this now.”The old river channel in Cave Run is still clear of Hydrilla, but you need to know where the standing timber is located, which can make it tough on jug and pool noodle fishermen getting hung up in the timber.