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River Cats!

River Cats!

Pursued from shorelines or boats, the catfish in Illinois rivers bring the battle to you! (June 2009)

From sluggish oxbows to turbulent tailwaters, blue, flathead and channel catfish provide thrilling summertime fishing action on Illinois rivers north to south.

Photo courtesy of Mark Fike.

Catfishermen find great action this summer on the many rivers and streams in the land of Lincoln. Pursued from shorelines or boats, channels cats are joined by blues and flatheads, and every one of them is a great fighting fish. The food they make isn't bad either!



Although catfish are found the length of this river, the best variety and numbers seem to come from the section between Lock & Dam 22 at Hannibal, Missouri, upstream to Cairo, according to fisheries biologist Butch Atwood of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Along the way, three separate pools stand in the river behind dams 24, 25 and 26. From Alton down to Cairo, the waterway is "open" river and seems to be preferred by all three species of catfish. In fact, the world-record blue catfish came out of this stretch, near the mouth of the Missouri River. The 124-pound brute was caught in May 2005 by angler Tim Pruitt of Alton.

Along this stretch, much of the best catfish action takes place in the tailwater of Mel Price Lock and Dam at Alton. Wing dams along that stretch scour holes in the river bottom, where the catfish -- some of the biggest in the area -- lie in wait of a bite to eat.

The somewhat small gang of local anglers typically use cut bait, such as shad, which is particularly effective for channel cats in the 5- to 10-pound range. The head of a skipjack herring (there's a good population of these large baitfish in the open river) is a good choice for catching blue catfish. But flatheads prefer live bait, often taking small sunfish fished on the bottom of the scour holes. Baits are skewered on circle hooks from size 2/0 to 8/0. The bait is held on the bottom by up to 2 ounces of weight.

Boating access to the lower Mississippi River is detailed on maps obtained from the IDNR in the free booklets, Fishing the Upper Mississippi River and Fishing the Middle Mississippi River. A couple of the better ones are the ramp at Lewis & Clark State Park (about mile 195 on the river) and the ramp at Grand Tower (about mile 80 on the river).

For tackle, bait and local fishing information in the Alton area, contact Bluff City Tackle in Alton, phone: (618) 465-6175 or online at For area travel information and accommodations, contact the Tourism Bureau of Southwestern Illinois in Fairview Heights, phone: (800) 442-1488 or online at


IDNR fisheries biologist Les Frankland is the expert on the catfish populations of the Ohio River. His first recommendation is for anglers to gear up for cats at Smithland Pool, before venturing to Pool 52 and Pool 53 or the open river at its lower end at Fort Defiance, where it joins the Mississippi River.

Smithland is the largest navigation pool on the Ohio River, running some 72 miles from Uniontown, Kentucky, down to the dam. It covers some 27,000 surface acres of water and features small embayments along its way, where small tributaries were impounded when the dam was built.

Frankland says many local anglers put in on the river at Mound City landing and boat to areas around the riverside grain elevators. Two of the best sites, he points out, are found at Mound City and Old Shawneetown. In fact, any place where grain is spilled into the river while loading onto barges attracts fish.

Top baits for the areas around the grain elevators include night crawlers, blood baits, shad steaks, minnows and cheese baits. Some fishermen use floats to suspend the baits; others prefer to cast a 2- or 3-ounce barrel weight, pegged about 2 feet from the hook. The fishermen set anchor along the edge of the nearby channel and cast their baits in the area of the elevators. The cats stack up under the conveyor belts used to move grain in and out of the elevators.

Local anglers also tackle flatheads, blues and channel cats in the tailwater washout below the dams, along the edges of the Ohio's main channel, and along the dropoffs around its islands.

Those fishing below the dams and along the channel/island dropoffs frequently drift-fish with cut shad and skipjack for blues and channel cats. Successful anglers also fish around brushpiles and fallen trees, which are especially attractive habitat for flathead catfish. Anglers fishing for flatheads tend to use live bluegills hooked through the back just behind the dorsal fin. It is then suspended about 3 feet below a float and allowed to swim back into brush or log piles along the shore.

More boating access to Smithland Pool is located (upstream to downstream) at Cave in Rock, Tower Rock, Elizabethtown, Rosiclare, Golconda Marina, Golconda and Barren Creek on the Illinois side of the river.

For bait, tackle and fishing information, contact Golconda Marina, phone: (618) 683-5875 or online at Travel and lodging information is available from the Southernmost Illinois Travel Bureau, phone: (800) 248-4373 or online at www.southernmostillinois. com.


The Wabash River is one of the largest free-flowing rivers east of the Mississippi River. The Illinois portion of the river -- from about Terre Haute, Indiana, to Wabash Island at the confluence with the Ohio River -- is more than 200 miles long.

Blue, channel and flathead catfish can be found throughout the entire length. Some of the best fishing takes place in the vicinity of Darwin; Vincennes, Indiana; Mt. Carmel; New Harmony, Indiana; and the area at the mouth of the Little Wabash River near New Haven.

Particularly good catfishing occurs along the stretch of river below Maunie, and at the mouth of the Wabash River above Old Shawneetown are good locations. Rockpiles and brushpiles are the best places to begin. Many of these sites can be easily fished from shore, by wading and from boats. Boaters need to exert care so as not to strike unseen underwater structure.

The Wabash is not dredged or marked with navigational channels. Water depth can be challenging to boaters, with depths ranging from 6 inches to 50 feet. During periods of low water, some areas are cut off from the main channel. Public boat ramps are located on both banks of the Wabash. In Illinois, these include landings at Hutsonville, Westport, St. Francisville, Mt. Carmel, Grayville, Brown's Pond near Maunie, and New Haven via the Little Wabash Riv


For bait, tackle and information about catfishing on the Wabash, contact Long's Tackle Box in Robinson, phone: (618) 544-2709. The Super 8 Motel in Grayville, phone: (618) 375-7288, offers clean and comfortable local accommodations. For area travel information and other lodging options, visit the Southeastern Illinois Web site at www.southeastillinois. com.


Beginning at its headwaters in Champaign County, the Kaskaskia River flows some 280 miles to the southwest to join the Mississippi River. It's the stretch of the Kaskaskia between Lake Shelbyville and Carlyle Lake that produces good numbers of channel catfish, but their size is still relatively small. The largest channel cat recorded in the most recent IDNR survey there weighed just less than 4 pounds. Flatheads were more numerous, too, but the largest caught in the survey weighed out around 3 pounds.

Below the dam at Carlyle Lake, the catfishing begins to liven up. In fact, the tailwater area below the dam is a popular fishing spot for local catfishermen. And for the next 95 miles downstream to Fayetteville, the river holds many 1- to 5-pound channel cats, according to IDNR fisheries biologist Randy Sauer. Sauer says the river also holds quite a few flatheads in the 25-pound class. He points to the rocky section near the General Dean Suspension Bridge, which spans the Kaskasia River in Clinton County, as the best flathead area.

The meandering channel between Carlyle Lake and Fayetteville is not heavily fished. Bank-sets and hoop nets usually outnumber rod-and-reel anglers, especially near the many clubhouses along the shorelines. This area is typical of many Illinois rivers in summer. Boating can be a tricky experience. The lower summer flows and the amount of structure in the water can be hazardous to boating.

However, the in-stream habitat comprised of bank holes, brushpiles and root wads provide great fishing sites for both channel cats and flatheads. Sauer recommends summertime anglers probe the holes on the outside of bends. They are usually 10 to 15 feet deep, and the best fishing is on the upstream side of the hole. Top baits include cheese baits (stink baits), chicken livers, night crawlers and minnows. Most are suspended about 2 feet below a bobber, with adjustments to the level where fish are located.

Some anglers fish for channel cats with a barrel sinker pegged to the line to allow the bait to suspend off the bottom and move in the current. Most flatheads are taken incidental to channel catfish fishing. As with the big river fishing, circle hooks in sizes 2/0 and 3/0 are popular. Sunfish are common baits.

Still better fishing for catfish takes place, Sauer says, along the 36-mile navigation channel below Fayette — ville, where the stream flow is virtually nonexistent. Not having to contend with current, he explains, catfish devote more energy to body growth and feed aggressively on the abundance of shad and young sunfish.

A number of oxbows are attached to the main channel. Channel cats feed where the river channel meets the leading edge of these backwaters. Flathead catfish prefer the deep holes in the oxbows. The largest blue cats tend to hang in those oxbow holes, as well.

The oxbows are popular with jug-fishermen and those using trotlines. Live minnows are tail-hooked on size 2/0 hooks, and night crawlers, small shiners, shad and chicken livers also find favor as top baits. With either rig, the bait is suspended about 18 inches deep with a small split shot about 8 inches above the bait. The trotlines are placed parallel to the bank. Jugs are usually plastic bleach or milk bottles.

Rod-and-reel anglers use the same baits, rigging a slip-sinker on the line. A small split shot is attached 12 to 14 inches above the hook to keep the sinker from sliding down to the hook. The rig can be used with or without a float.

Boating access to the Kaskaskia River's best catfishing sites is found at New Athens, Becks Landing and Evansville. Many anglers choose the boat ramp off Highway 50, just below the Carlyle dam, near the city of Caryle.

In Greenville, local accommodations include the Budget Host Inn, phone: (800) 283-4678; Econo Lodge Inn & Suites, phone: (618) 664-3030; and Super 8 Motel, phone: (800) 800-8000. Boat and canoe rentals, and tackle and bait are available at Kaskaskia River Bait in Shelbyville, phone: (217) 774-4721.


The Rock River enters Illinois near the village of Rockton, just south of the Wisconsin border. It flows southwest 160 miles to the Mississippi. Excellent catfish habitat is found along its entire length, where more than 70 access sites lead local anglers to their favorite fishing sites.

IDNR fisheries biologist Dan Sallee describes the catfishing in the Rock River as "remarkable" for both channel cats and flatheads. Fishing guide Denny Halgren of Rock River Professional Guide Service in Dixon credits local anglers' awareness for catch-and-release fishing for the great quality of the local fishery.

Halgren fishes the Rock River from Oregon to Dixon, where he targets both channel cats and flatheads in the same hotspots -- deep-water holes and shallow-water brushpiles. Halgren especially likes the river's deadfalls. He says he can usually find the cats on the woody structure as long as the wood has current pushing into it. He uses live bait for both flatheads and channel catfish, choosing from among small sheepshead, bluegills and green sunfish.

His usual rig includes live bait tapped onto a circle hook through the bait's back just behind the dorsal fin. This allows the fish to swim actively and the bait lives longer. The bait becomes active and seeks out the hidden structure, he says, where flatheads lie in wait. Halgren's rig for this method does not include a float.

Boating access is located in Dixon. One ramp is located in Page Park, in the center of town. A second ramp is the Municipal Ramp, downstream in the southwest section of town. Bait. tackle and fishing information is available at Bunny's Bait Shop in Dixon, phone: (815) 288-3812; and TJ's Bait/Tackle and Canoe Rental in Oregon, phone: (815) 732-4516 or online at

Guided fishing services are available from Denny Halgren in Dixon, phone: (815) 288-6855; and Matt Jones in Prophetstown, phone: (815) 590-1469. For area information, including local accommodations, contact the Blackhawk Waterways Convention & Visitors Bureau in Polo, phone: (800) 678-2108 or online at


Small in stature, the Embarras River (pronounced AM-Brah) is best known for its bluegill fishing, but local anglers report taking many catfish from its shallow depths.

Beginning in Champaign County, the Embarras River flows southward into Jasper County, where it turns southeast and empties into the Wabash River, about six miles southwest of Vincennes, Indiana. Along the way, boat ramps are found in Villa Grove, Camargo, Greenup, Newton, Ste. Marie and Lawrenceville.

The main cha

nnel of the Embarras River, especially at St. Marie, tends to hold the best numbers of both channel catfish and flathead catfish, according to IDNR fisheries biologist Trent Thomas. He reports both channel and flathead cats in the 18-inch class are abundant in the riverway downstream from the lake. Some local anglers occasionally report taking larger catfish, but these tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

Successful tactics include fishing with cheese baits and night crawlers. Some anglers use chicken livers but only as a last resort. Single- or treble-hook rigs are used with a 1/2-ounce weight about 2 feet above the hook.

Bait and tackle is available locally at Wolf Hollow Archery in Rome, phone: (309) 274-9653. Most of the major motel chains can be located through the Mattoon Chamber of Commerce, phone: (217) 235-5661 or online at


The Sangamon River heads up in McLean County in central Illinois, providing catfish fun along much of its 250-mile length before joining the Illinois River near Peoria. The upper reaches of the river flow east into Champaign County, south through Mahomet, then west through Monticello and Decatur. It then flows along the northern city limits of Springfield, where Salt Creek joins it before making its confluence with the Illinois River, about 10 miles northeast of Beardstown.

Thomas says IDNR electro-shocking surveys have found generally low catch rates at most reporting sites. For example, a sampling of fish in Salt Creek below the Clinton Lake dam produced catfish that were less than 10 inches in length. However, one site along the riverway near Roby, in Christian County, was a standout. All the catfish measured were less than 2 pounds, but Thomas says the catch represents a thriving population of catfish for years to come.

Local anglers use cheese baits ad dip-bait worms armed with treble hooks. Enough spit shot for casting is squeezed onto the line about 18 inches above the bait. Anchor just upstream from brush and trees that have fallen into the river and cast to the brushpiles or the leading edge of a hole. Because of the current, check the bait after about 10 minutes to see if there is still cheese on it. If not, reel in the worm, dry it off and dip it again into the mixture. If no action comes in a half hour, pull up the anchor and drift downstream to the next hole or brushpile.

The Spillway Access Area, south of Highway 10, provides access for fishing below the dam in Salt Creek. Access areas for waterfowl hunters provide walk-in access to the creek for bank-fishing. Canoes and kayaks also can be portaged into these areas. The lower portion of the Sangamon River is much more productive for the angler in search of big catfish.

According to IDNR fisheries biologist Doug Carney, survey nets and electro-shocking surveys found the riverway near Riverton and Springfield was particularly strong in both flatheads and channel cats. At Riverton, he says, channel cats averaged 20 inches long and the largest channel catfish were 27 inches long, weighing more than 7 1/2 pounds. The surveys also revealed trophy flatheads, running from 17 to 43 pounds, with even distribution across all size-classes.

Access to the Sangamon River around Springfield and Riverton is best at the boat ramp on the far north side of Springfield, just to the west of Interstate 55 in Carpenter Park. The Riverton ramp is about five miles upriver from Carpenter Park on the southwest edge of the town of Riverton. In this area, the river is relatively featureless. Anglers should look for deep holes, fallen trees in the water and piles of brush washed up in shallow water along the shorelines. Use cheese baits as described above.

For bait, tackle and fishing information for the Sangamon River around Roby, Springfield and Riverton, contact Big Red's Bait & Tackle, phone: (217) 820-9674. Information about area accommodations is available from the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, phone: 800-545-7300 or online at

From backwater oxbows to main channels, the rivers of Illinois offer great summertime fishing for catfish. Don't miss it!

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