In the southwestern part of Nebraska is a group of reservoirs that seem specially suited for catfish -- and for the anglers who pursue them.
Photo by Tom Evans
I've decided recently that there's no reason for me to feel I have to chase bass at Lake Fork in Texas, or hunt for mallards at Stuttgart, Ark. Yes, the opportunities are excellent at these spots -- but sometimes, going where everyone else seems to be going doesn't always work out. I like the out-of-the-way places.
I like pond hopping for ducks in the Dakotas, light-years away from the cypress sloughs of the South. And I'm not trekking to the Missouri River for my catfishing this year. All I want are a few places where catfish are not the primary draw, and where anglers often ignore the fishing opportunities that go begging for these bottom feeders.
And I think I've found them.
In southwestern Nebraska, a host of lakes can give me just what I want, Enders Reservoir serving as the first indicator of the catfishing possibilities in this corner of the state. This year, walleye anglers at Enders will accidentally hook several catfish in the 10- to 15-pound range. Since most of that lake's fishing pressure falls on walleyes, diehard catfish anglers will find themselves left in peace to pursue hefty whiskerfish on purpose.
Anglers ordinarily start drifting at the shallow upper end, and then move toward the dam as the summer draws on. With more than 30,000 channel catfish stocked in the last four years, Enders Reservoir is trying to establish itself as one of southwestern Nebraska's best catfishing destinations.
For the top-producing catfish lake as revealed in the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's 2004 surveys, look no farther than Sutherland Reservoir. NGPC reports indicate that Sutherland had the highest number of catfish caught during the 2004 test period. More than 75 percent of those were in the 1- to 2-pound range, while more than 15 percent weighed over 2 pounds.
Don't expect lunker cat after lunker cat just to hop one after the other into your boat. This is a quantity-oriented lake in its part of the state, having surrendered only six reported Master Angler cats during the 2003 season. (One angler, North Platte's Monte McNeil, caught three of them.)
Despite that small number of Master Angler catfish, hopes for this summer's catch are still high. "Sutherland will have another good year," said NGPC fisheries biologist Steve Brezenski. "Since the harvest on these lakes isn't high for catfish, due to the limited amount of pressure they receive, there are always fish to be found. People are often too busy looking for wipers and white bass."
Our next stop is Jeffrey Reservoir. Boasting a healthy balance among all sizes of channel catfish, it had the highest catch-rate of fish over 16 inches in the southwest and the second-highest catch-rate for all sizes of fish during 2004!
When angling gets tough, begin traveling the lake in search of fish. Most anglers fish the upper ends of these reservoirs because of the steady movement of drifting shad left over from the winter ice. By July, when this part of the lake isn't working out, anglers also need to make sure that they focus on more-specific areas.
For example: Anglers can often search for shallow, weedy areas during the carp spawn, when those fish can be seen cruising the shallows; there, catfish can be found feeding on carp eggs. This approach is one of many that will work for summertime catfish anglers at Jeffrey, but you're probably going to have to get to these areas by boat, as public bank access along the lake is scant.
Another exciting lake in the southwest that offers boat anglers plenty of catfishing prospects is Medicine Creek, which had the highest catch-rate of white bass surveyed in the southwestern part of the Cornhusker State. That rate reveals an important tool to employ when you're prospecting for catfish.
Here's the secret: By looking out for these populous whites, catfishermen can more easily find the cats. Look for areas in which whites are chasing baitfish near the surface, and then back off these areas -- especially if they are near some sort of cover -- to fish beneath them.
A large amount of white bass activity often induces catfish to feed on wounded fry that will have drifted to the lake's bottom. Match the hatch in these areas with gizzard shad to improve your catches.
"Medicine Creek is definitely worth fishing," asserted Brezenski, "because of the work that has been done on the lake's dam. Behind Swanson and McConaughy, I would rate Medicine Creek as one of the best catfish lakes in the area."
Because of the already tight focus on McConaughy as one of the state's preeminent all-around fisheries, let's not belabor it here. But I can't ignore Swanson, another lake in the vicinity recently stocked with a large number of channel catfish -- to be exact, 12,000 9-inch fish in 2004.
While these fish will only grow 1 to 2 inches per year, there are even more reasons to fish Swanson this year. A large number of 12- to 15-inch fish will be caught this summer by anglers using a variety of techniques that they bring to bear just after the winter ice leaves. Anglers start the year on the lake's shallow western end (often moving to the northern side), looking for catfish, usually in less than 5 feet of water, on any of the lake's small ledges. Since structure is sparse in the lake, these ledges are often critical to early-year fishing success.
As the spring progresses, some large flatheads (plus the occasional channel cat) can be found concentrated at the walleye spawning areas. Anglers who know the general whereabouts these spots will typically bank-fish for cats there.
As the temperature rises through this month, cat anglers at Swanson start drifting right down the middle of the lake, where neither cover nor contour changes can be found. They tempt their quarry with baits like shrimp, gizzard shad, and marabou jigs.
"The catfish at Swanson seem to eat regardless," remarked Jeremy Dutcher, the lake's superintendent. "The lake has been as low as 28 feet down from full pool, and the catfishing will still be great. Due to the low water levels, other fish will often be a little finicky, but the catfish are not." (Get used to low lake levels during the summer, incidentally: Nearly every lake in the region is at anything from 25 percent to 60 percent of total capacity.)
Brezenski likes lower pool levels, however -- and for good reason. "I think it offers better chances to find cats in these lakes," he said
What Jeremy Dutcher says about Swanson catfish is a general truth: More than any other of the fish in these lakes, the cats want to eat. In any case, there's another positive bit of data that anglers need to be aware of respecting the survey information that the state's been giving out.
In analyzing that info, remember that it reflects a sort of randomized situation in terms of likely catfish sites. Researchers frequently target other species of fish when surveying these lakes; they aren't probing specifically for channel catfish, and they aren't purposely looking in catfish-friendly habitat.
As Brezenski put it: "These surveys are often used to focus on the walleye population, and areas on the lakes where walleyes are traditionally prevalent get more survey attention."
So while there might be a decent representation of catfish in a walleye area, anglers shouldn't assume that these are the only catfish areas on these particular lakes, or that these catfish numbers are necessarily characterize the entire lake. These surveys are often quite helpful to anglers trying to do a comparison study, but it needs to be remembered that surveys don't exhaust reality but just statistically suggest it. Anglers need to fish the lakes and see the catfishing potential for themselves.
The preceding lakes are hardly the only ones in this section of the state that are worth a visit for their catfishing. McConaughy is always an option (Sorry -- mentioned it again!). Red Willow had the second-highest rate of 9- to 12-inch catfish last year. And an avid catfisherman need go no farther than the canal system below Maloney to find pleasurable fishing for channels.
To a lot of anglers, a catfish represents happenstance -- an accidental bit of fun and no more. If, while fishing for something else, one of them happens to pick one up, that's an extra story to tell.
Others of you out there, though, like to sit back and tell a good story, but you're not really paying attention to your own punch line -- because all you can focus on is the line out the back of your lazily drifting boat.