From burnin' gears to greasin' skillets, the channel catfish is hard to beat. These waters are our state's best when it comes to catchin' cats.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Ted Peck
Channel catfish are held in high regard by Illinois anglers, with forktails present statewide just about anyplace you find water.
This omnivore plays an invaluable role in keeping the ecosystem balanced, chowing on just about anything edible in the water column and keeping every critter down the food chain in check. Too many little bluegills, shad, frogs, crawdads or insects in the system? Drowned raccoon, opossum or cow? No problem. Catfish will dine on the easiest and most available meal, and come back for seconds and dessert. This lack of culinary discretion makes catfish vulnerable to baits ranging from a dew worm to Ivory Soap, cheese to clams, shrimp to sardines - you get the picture.
Right now, larger male channel catfish are liable to garwoofle a spinnerbait, crankbait or jig-and-pig intended for largemouth bass as they are aggressively guarding nests in habitat ranging from old tires to gnarly stump roots. In a few weeks a slow-troll with crawler-baited spinner rigs behind planer boards will become a very effective way to catch cats in shallow-basin lakes.
Catfish hold their own in the combat department. A neighbor who is one of those muskie-fishing addicts with a "Muskies: Everything else is just bait" bumper sticker on the back of his Suburban had a photograph of an 18-pound channel cat mixed in with Kodaks of several muskies from a recent trip. When asked to comment, Jack hung his head and mumbled, "It fought harder than the 50-inch muskie I caught two years ago."
This is no revelation to folks with farmer tans who wear the perpetual aroma of slightly rancid cheese. From burnin' gears to greasin' skillets, the channel catfish is hard to beat. Following is a look at some of our best forktail options in the months ahead in Illinois.
ROCK RIVER BASIN This medium-sized river that runs through north-central Illinois to confluence with the Mississippi River near the Quad Cities continues to be a "perpetual catfish producer," according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor Dan Sallee. "Annual surveys always turn up multiple year-classes of channel catfish," Sallee said. "With good representation across the board we have every reason to expect this trend to continue."
Channel catfish limits and methods for catching them are essentially unlimited on the Rock and most other Illinois rivers. Although most anglers prefer catfishin' with a rod and reel, trotlining, jug-fishing and bankpole-fishing are also permitted on many state waters.
Most Illinois lakes that are managed and stocked by the DNR have a six-daily catfish limit in place and may have restrictions on harvest methods as well. Rod-and-reel anglers on the Rock have expressed a desire for more restriction in both limits and angling methods, adopting the Wisconsin model for fisheries management on this river.
Several years ago John Husar, the late outdoor writer for the Chicago Tribune, and I conducted a catfishing experiment on the two river pools on either side of the Illinois-Wisconsin border of the Rock. We fished an hour at three different spots with similar habitat parameters using rods and reels on both sides of the border, flipping a coin to see which state we would fish first. On the Wisconsin side of the border we caught 16 eating-sized cats, four short of the 10-catfish limit per angler. On Illinois waters that afternoon we caught just two channel catfish. Was this because of time of day or the 10-fish daily bag enforced in Wisconsin? Catmen who understand setlines can place their baits where catfish will eventually swim by. With no harvest guidelines, only conscience guides how many fish are taken.
The Pecatonica River that enters the Rock River near Rockton in Winnebago County and the Sugar River that enters the Pecatonica near Shirland both see exploitation of the catfish population by setliners. Both of these rivers also have better catfishing north of the state line where only sporting tackle is allowed. Fishing will be good in the Rock River basin in 2004. But conventional wisdom says it could be much, much better in years to come with enactment of some harvest guidelines.
There is good access on every pool of Rock River along the 155 miles it runs through Illinois. Some runs of water in this aptly named river can be profoundly shallow, especially during low-water times of late summer and early fall.
Contacts: One Stop Tackle, (815) 624-2760; T.J.'s Bait & Tackle, (815) 732-4516; Bunny's Bait, (815) 288-3812.
NORTHERN ILLINOIS LAKES Most state lakes managed by the DNR have "stable to exceptional channel catfish populations," according to DNR fisheries biologist Alec Pulley. According to Pulley, state-managed lakes are stocked annually at the rate of 25 non-vulnerable catfish per surface acre to maintain populations. Non-vulnerable catfish are stocked in the fall when fingerlings are 8 to 9 inches long.
"In some lakes, there are so many catfish that we don't have to stock them," Pulley said. "In northwest and north-central Illinois, these waters include Shabbona in De Kalb County, Pierce and Olson lakes north of Rockford, Lake Sule south of Rockford, Le-Aqua-Na in Stephenson County and Lake George near the Quad Cities. Surveys for walleyes in these lakes always turn up more channel cats than what we're looking for."
Angling pressure in heavily populated northeastern Illinois requires supplemental stocking, with several lakes always heading the list with catmen. Busse Lake between Interstate 290 and Elk Grove Village has several solid year-classes in place, with fish up to 10 pounds. Pistakee Lake in the Fox Chain-O-Lakes is another premier catfishing lake, according to DNR biologist Mike Jones.
Monee Reservoir, a Will County Forest Preserve District lake, is full of eating-sized channel cats. Renting a boat from the concessionaire is the best way to go after them.
OUR THREE MAJOR RIVERS The Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers all have exceptional catfish populations, with hundreds of miles of riverine habitat to fish.
According to DNR Boundary Rivers supervisor Bill Bertrand, 30,000-acre Pool 13 near Savanna in northwest Illinois and Pool 15 around the Quad Cities hold the best catfishing potential upstate from the standpoint of access by boat and shore to a number of different locations.
DNR biologist Butch Atwood, who manages downstate areas of Old Man Rive
r, says there are probably more catfish swimming in the southernmost 100 miles of the Mississippi along our state's western border, but some stretches of river have limited access and are downright dangerous.
"The lower Mississippi is a very unforgiving place," Atwood says. "Even those anglers who have grown up near the river here venture out with a degree of caution."
The "old riffle" on the Ohio River near Old Shawneetown in Gallatin County and the gravel bars around Mound City in Pulaski County are biologist Les Frankland's top picks on this river, with fishing good clear up to the Smithland Dam.
"Catfish are always hanging around areas where barges are being loaded," Frankland said. "If you aren't catching any channel cats and the area looks like great water, chances are larger flathead and blue catfish have probably run the smaller channel catfish out of the area."
On the Illinois River you'll find catfish usually hanging along the channel edge by midsummer around La Salle clear up to the dam above Starved Rock State Park, according to DNR biologist Mike Garthaus. The stumpfield above the dam at Starved Rock is also a consistent producer.
Catfish populations on our major rivers have their ups and downs. But the channel catfish populations in all of them are self-sustaining and in an entirely different league than on smaller rivers and inland waters. The key to success on our big rivers is simple: time on the water.
CENTRAL ILLINOIS CATHOLES Garthaus says that Clinton Lake continues to offer some of the most productive catfishing in central Illinois, with this 5,000-acre cooling lake the site of several channel catfishing tournaments over the course of the summer.
"Channels like exceptionally warm water in this lake," Garthaus said. "When the plant is generating power in the middle of the summer, one of the best places is near the buoy line in the warmwater discharge arm of the lake."
There is limited shore access to this part of Clinton Lake. Your best option is anchoring up and throwing out fresh chicken liver or a piece of shad on a modified Wolf River rig, using a Lindy No-Snagg Sinker to minimize hanging up.
Garthaus said although there is no bag limit on Clinton, catfishing is limited to pole and line only, with this lake maintaining its forktail population without any additional stocking efforts.
This biologist added that "just about any state park lake" in central Illinois will provide the average angler with a degree of catfishing success, noting that Dawson Lake in Moraine View State Park and the lake in Weldon Springs State Park are probably at the top of the heap.
Decatur Lake is "a big sleeper" this year, according to biologist Mike Mounce. "A phenomenal year-class in 1999 is reaching hefty proportions here," Mounce says. "They in turn have spawned and introduced a couple more strong year-classes of channel cats into Decatur Lake."
Charleston Side Channel Lake, located off of Route 130 about three miles southeast of Charleston, is another top pick by Mounce for producing catfish in 2004. Fishing on this 600-acre lake is pole and line only, with a six-fish limit in place.
OUR THREE MAJOR RESERVOIRS Some of the best catfishing in central and southern Illinois continues to be in three sprawling U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-managed reservoirs - Shelbyville, Carlyle and Rend.
Rend has always offered the best catfishing of the three, according to DNR biologist Mike Hooe. "The catfishery here is self-perpetuating," Hooe said. "You can come here just about anytime and catch a nice mess of catfish in a relatively short time."
Shelbyville's channel catfish are present in catchable numbers but with populations still below established trends. "Catfishing simply isn't as good as it used to be, and we don't know why," biologist Mike Mounce said. "Those folks who know how to fish for 'em still do quite well though."
Barry Neuman, who is tasked with managing Carlyle's fishery, says that catfish numbers are "holding their own," with "good representation of year-classes and a generally stable fishery."
Large reservoirs, feeder creeks, flats off of riprapped areas and windblown points in close proximity to the old creek channels are all good places to look for channel catfish. Bridges and anyplace where a lake necks down will usually have current that also draws fish. Although current may be slack in a narrows without any wind, a strong blow from either direction can cause water to "stack up" on the leeward side of the lake, creating current on a large reservoir. When the wind subsides and starts to blow from the other direction, current will run the other way as the water equalizes.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS WATERS With so many strip-mine pits, farm ponds, city reservoirs, manmade lakes, rivers and streams downstate, it's no wonder that Saluki Country is the epicenter of channel catfishing in the Prairie State.
There are over 200 ponds and small lakes in the federally managed Shawnee National Forest alone, with many of these waters so remote that catfish here seldom, if ever, see a hook. Access to other waters like the A-41 pond nestled between Devils Kitchen and Little Grassy lakes in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge are walk-in only. There is no need for restrictive harvest guidelines on places like A-41. You'll only want to carry out as many catfish as you can catch once. After that, taking just enough to grease the skillet is a good plan.
The Visitor Pond, located directly behind the Visitor Center at this wildlife refuge, is an easier walk along a mostly blacktopped path and holds several different species of fish, including channel catfish. It offers good action just five minutes from the parking lot off of the handicapped-accessible pier.
Personnel at the refuge can provide you with maps for both refuge waters and the Shawnee National Forest, with National Forest offices in both Harrisburg and Murphysboro also good sources of information. The phone number for Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge is (618) 997-3344.
The namesake lake of this refuge is one of the very best catfish waters in all of southern Illinois, with a self-sustaining population and multiple year-classes present in these 7,000 acres. Crab Orchard is managed jointly by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Illinois DNR, with DNR biologist Chris Bickers saying, "there is great catfishing on Crab just about anyplace you want to fish."
However, there is a fish-consumption advisory in place on this lake, with bottom feeders like catfish at the top of the list.
"Over 75 percent of the channel catfish biomass in Crab Orchard is over 20 inches long," Bickers said, "but if you're looking for a place to go 'catching' instead of 'eating,' Crab Orc
hard is the place."
There are few restrictions on this shallow, sprawling lake straddling Highway 13. But a portion of the lake is closed from October until mid-March as a refuge for waterfowl.
Another top catfish lake that also serves as a waterfowl refuge is Mermet, a little farther south. These 452 acres just west of Highway 45 close two weeks prior to waterfowl hunting, opening up right after the season closes. Mermet receives annual stocking of 10,000 non-vulnerable channel catfish, with most forktails averaging about 16 to 18 inches. There is no size limit, but a six-daily bag limit and 10-hp motor restriction are in place. No boat? No problem. Most of the 4.6 miles of shoreline are good for bank-fishing. If you're looking for a nearly-sure-thing fish fry, Mermet is the place to go.
Contact: Mermet Lake Conservation Area, (618) 524-5577.
OTHER OPTIONS Hundreds of small lakes and farm ponds can be found on private property, with channel catfish getting little or no pressure. Getting permission to target catfish only on these waters is often yours for the asking.
Many communities downstate rely on lakes as sources for drinking water, with these city reservoirs often stocked with good populations of channel cats and other species.
Gillespie Old City Lake and Gillespie New City Lake both illustrate this point. Biologist Jeff Pontnack says the old lake is a great place to take kids or fill a stringer with eaters. This 71-acre lake has a good population of 3- to 5- pound fish as well, with annual supplemental stockings of non-vulnerable 8-inch fingerlings every year by the DNR. Shoreline access is limited here, with a 10-hp limit in place for boat anglers. Right now, catfish in Gillespie Old City Lake are migrating from 3- to 5-foot flats into deeper water off of shoreline willows where they will spend the summer.
The Gillespie New City Lake is better known as a largemouth bass fishery. But this is the place to go if you're looking for a tussle. Pontnack said recent surveys have yielded fish approaching 20 pounds. "There are a surprising number of channel catfish swimming in Gillespie New City Lake in double digits," Pontnack said. "If you're looking for a fight instead of food, this is where you want to fish."
Contact: Carlinville Chamber of Commerce, (217) 854-2141.
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Channel catfish are one of our most abundant and tasty sportfish. No matter where you live in Illinois, the whiskered warrior is swimming within 20 minutes' drive from your home, just waiting to bend your rod and burn your reel gears!
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