From the Wabash River to Patoka Lake, along with three other waters, here's where you'll find wonderful whiskerfish action right now. (August 2009)
The author lifts two dandy blue catfish that he caught in quick succession on the Ohio River. When blue catfish school up in deep water, the action can be fast and furious!
Photo courtesy of Tom Berg.
Some Indiana catfish anglers fish year 'round. It can be cold, rainy or even snowing -- nothing stops them. But those are the die-hards. Most whiskerfish lovers wait until the heat of the summer to grab their gear and head for the water. An evening or night of catfishing with a warm summer breeze is exactly what the doctor ordered. It's part of their annual summer ritual, and they wouldn't have it any other way.
Summertime fishing for catfish in the Hoosier State is always great, because the heat of summer doesn't really slow down these game fishes' ravenous appetites. As a matter of fact, the warmer water increases their metabolism and makes them feed even more often. At night or during the day, catfish always seem to be willing to bite. What could be better?
Although Indiana is home to a wide variety of lakes, reservoirs and river systems where catfish thrive, Indiana Game & Fish magazine has chosen five exceptional waters to help narrow your search this summer. Read on to find out more.
When it comes to excellent catfish waters in Indiana, the Wabash River always ranks near the top. This river flows across much of the state, providing access to thousands of fishermen, regardless of their ages or locations. This river is also absolutely full of catfish, including channels, blues and flatheads.
From its northernmost point near Huntington, flowing across to the western edge of the state and then down to where it meets the Ohio River, the Wabash is certainly one of the best places for Hoosier whiskerfish anglers to make a catch. This river has tremendously varied habitat, from deep water to shallow, from straight sections of silt-covered bottom to winding bends and exposed gravel bars. Most of these places can provide good catfish action at one time or another.
According to Tom Stefanavage, one of Indiana's big rivers biologists for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Wabash River is an extremely diverse river system.
"The river is so different from upstream to downstream," he said. "Around Lafayette, the distance between river bends and pools might be only be a half mile, while in downstate Posey County and Gibson County, the distance between bends might be 20 miles in some places."
The long, straight stretches of river really don't have much fish-holding habitat, so look for deeper pools, river bends, sandbars and shorelines with an abundance of logjams or other structure. Flatheads, in particular, are usually associated with heavy structure. Thick logjams and piles of broken concrete along the shoreline are favorite flathead hideouts. Channel catfish also frequent these same areas, but they can actually be found almost anywhere on the river.
Blue catfish are not very common in the shallower northern sections of the Wabash. They are much more common down south nearer to the confluence with the Ohio River, where the Wabash is a much bigger river.
"We typically only find blue cats in the Wabash in the deepest water," said Stefanavage. "The stronghold for blue catfish in the Wabash is from about Mt. Carmel, Illinois (where the White River joins the Wabash), downstream to the Ohio River. That's about the lower 100 miles of the river."
Of course, there are always a few fish that don't follow the rules. In 2008, Wabash River angler Ben North caught a giant blue catfish while fishing the river near Lafayette. His catch measured 47 inches long and was estimated to weigh about 65 pounds. Like many trophy catfish anglers, North practiced catch-and-release on his big blue cat to help protect the resource.
Although the Wabash River is popular with catfish anglers from all around the state, the mighty Ohio River is definitely the premier catfish water in Indiana. Flowing all along our southern border, the Ohio is home to staggering numbers of all three major species of catfish. And there aren't just plenty of small catfish -- there are some real monsters out there, too!
Biologist Tom Stefanavage also works on the Ohio River, and last year, he and one of his crews were able to get out on the river to do a little electrofishing near the Newburgh dam.
"We did pretty well," he said, "but not as good as we did in 2007. We still saw a lot of blue catfish, ranging in size from a half pound up to about 40 pounds. There were probably some 50-pounders out there, too."
Schools of blue catfish tend to congregate in the deep water around the dams and along deep channels, and once you find one fish, you are likely to find others.
"Blue catfish are a big-river fish," said Stefanavage. "They tend to travel around a lot and don't really establish a home range. They also like to move around as a group and stay a little higher in the water column."
Big flathead catfish also abound on the Ohio, but they don't behave like the schooling blue cats. "It's my impression that the bigger flatheads are homebodies," Stefanavage said. "Individuals do establish a home range; a deep hole somewhere with nice structure on the bottom, and that particular flathead is going to stay around that area."
Average flatheads can weigh anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds, but big ones exceeding 40 pounds are not unusual.
Even though most tournament catfish anglers don't target the smaller channel catfish on the Ohio, the river is just loaded with them. Channels typically weigh anywhere from 2 to 5 pounds, but bigger ones are always possible.
"Channel catfish up to 5 pounds are a dime a dozen on the Ohio," said Stefanavage. "There are millions of them out there!"
When asked where he would recommend fishermen concentrate their efforts on the Ohio, he pointed to the river's dams.
"The best water quality for the fish is immediately below the dams. When the Corps is releasing water, you've got a lot of turbulence and oxygen going into the water. The dams are always killing a lot of shad, so it's easy for the catfish to find food there, too," he said.
"We have a fantastic catfish fishery on the Ohio River,
" continued Stefanavage. "It seems like there are more catfish tournaments out there every year, and people are really learning how to catch them."
One recent Duracats tournament on the Ohio was held in December of 2008, and the Big Fish prize went to the team of Jim Noles and Tom Petrowski. Their winning fish was a blue catfish that tipped the scales at more than 70 pounds! For more tournament info, check out the Duracats Web site at www.duracats.com.
The main stem of the White River in southwest Indiana draws water from both the East Fork and the West Fork of the White River. Those two branches of the river meander across much of the southern half of the state, and they provide an excellent fishery for catfish (and other species). Blue cats, flatheads and channel catfish are all found in good numbers in the White River.
There are countless places to fish on the White River and its two branches, but some of the best fishing takes place in the main stem of the river, between the Forks and the Wabash. This is the largest and deepest section of the river, so it provides the best habitat for really big fish (and big numbers of fish).
Tom Stefanavage also points to the main stem of the White River as a great place for catfish anglers to wet a line.
"There are holes that are at least 20 feet deep there, and deeper holes hold bigger fish. With the long bends in that part of the river, you might have a quarter-mile-long hole that is 20 feet deep. Some bends might be even longer."
During especially hot, dry summers, all of the big catfish retreat into the deep holes. Unfortunately, when the river level is down because of lack of rain, those deep holes can be difficult to reach in a boat. Some of the long, straight stretches of river might only be 1 or 2 feet deep!
"There is a place near the Pike-Gibson County line where a railroad bridge used to span the river a long time ago," said Stefanavage. "The bridge may have gone down 100 years ago or so, and there was a really deep hole there. It might be as deep as 30 to 40 feet. During the heat of summer that's the place for blue catfish, in particular, and big flatheads, too."
Those same areas will also hold plenty of channel catfish, but channels will be roaming throughout the rest of the river, too. Every logjam and root wad has the potential to hold one or more channel cats, and some of the best spots will hold flatheads, too.
Not all catfish are found in Indiana's rivers, however. There are quite a few excellent lakes and reservoirs that offer plenty of catfish action. Patoka Lake in the southern part of the state is an 8,800-acre reservoir, and it definitely fills the bill as a great catfish water. Although there are no blue cats in Patoka, there are more than enough channel catfish to keep local catfish anglers happy. There are quite a few flatheads present, too.
Patoka Lake is just south of the town of French Lick, and its many winding creek arms sprawl into Orange, Crawford and Dubois counties. These creek arms and the deeper creek channels that run through them are magnets for catfish. The reservoir's abundant flooded and submerged timber provides the perfect habitat for these catfish. Although the lake is better known by anglers for largemouth bass and crappies, catfish are becoming more popular every year.
Dan Carnahan, one of the District 7 fisheries biologists, knows that Patoka Lake is literally teeming with catfish.
"We did a general lake survey there in 2008. We saw lots of catfish. There are some flatheads, but it's primarily channel catfish. This lake is absolutely full of catfish!"
During Carnahan's 2008 sampling, channel catfish up to 28 inches were found.
"I'm sure there are bigger ones out there, but that's about as big as our nets can catch," he said.
Although the 2008 report was not complete at press time, earlier surveys proved that the catfish population is thriving.
"Our 2007 creel survey showed that 4,400 channel catfish were harvested in 2007," he said. "That's represents a 267 percent increase from 2003 when we did the same survey."
That's good news, especially for catfish anglers. There are more catfish in the lake because of less predation by largemouth bass, and those catfish are growing faster because of the abundance of gizzard shad.
"The average length of harvested catfish has definitely increased," stated Carnahan. "In 2007, the average length of channel catfish was 20.2 inches, while in 2003 the average length was 17.3 inches."
Happily, catfish can be found almost everywhere on the lake.
"You can fish just about anywhere and catch catfish, but especially by the creek channels," he said. "These catfish like big structure features like points and roadbeds, especially if those things come close to the creek channels."
One of the best things about fishing for catfish on Patoka is that there is very little competition from other anglers.
"A few more people are fishing for catfish now than in the past, but it's still a pretty untapped fishery," said Carnahan.
The most recent creel survey numbers confirmed that only 3 percent of anglers were specifically targeting channel catfish.
For more information on Patoka, call Patoka Lake Marina and Lodging at (888) 819-6916 or check the Web site at www.patokalakemarina.com.
EAGLE CREEK RESERVOIR
Eagle Creek Reservoir in Marion County is a 1,350-acre water-supply impoundment that is very popular with local anglers. Located just to the northwest of Indianapolis, this lake gets plenty of fishing pressure from both weekend warriors and fishermen who have extra time to spend on the water during the week.
Although most anglers will target species like largemouth bass, crappies, bluegills, walleyes and white bass on this reservoir, catfish aficionados would do well to devote some time to this spot, too. There are actually some diverse catfish populations in Eagle Creek Reservoir, including channel catfish, flathead catfish, white catfish and two species of bullheads.
According to Rhett Wisener, one of the District 5 fisheries biologists, Eagle Creek Reservoir is an excellent place for catfish anglers to try their luck.
"It's one of those lakes where if you want to go catfishing, and you are actually targeting them, you are going to catch some," he said. "Eagle Creek has a ton of catfish in it."
Wisener conducted a general lake survey on Eagle Creek during May of 2008 to help assess the fish populations in the lake.
"By far, channel catfish w
as the predominant catfish species that we found," he said. "A total of 271 channel catfish weighing 292 pounds were collected. They ranged in length from 6 to nearly 29 inches. Over half the catfish were at least 12 inches long, and 17 percent of them were 18 inches and longer."
Not many flathead catfish were found during the recent survey, but that is not unusual.
"Flatheads are usually an incidental catch out there for us," explained Wisener. "They are one of those species of fish that if they are holding out in deeper water, we aren't going to shock them. It's uncommon to catch large numbers of them in our gill nets, too."
Flathead catfish up to 22 inches were recorded in 2008, but larger individuals are definitely present.
Eagle Creek's population of white catfish is somewhat unusual, because white catfish are not common in Indiana.
"It is not a species of catfish that we find in very many places in central Indiana," said Wisener. "I couldn't say with 100 percent certainty that we find them in any other lake in the district. Eagle Creek is the only one that stands out to me."
Unfortunately, the local white catfish are not terribly large here. All of the individuals sampled during the 2008 survey varied in size from 6.3 to 10.1 inches in length.
There are lots of places to hunt for catfish on Eagle Creek Reservoir, but Wisener says that summertime fishermen like to fish near the causeway on 56th Street.
"There are certainly opportunities for shore-fishermen from the causeway," he said. "You see a lot of fishing activity there. For boaters, there is a fairly well defined channel running through the lake that is good. There is also a large flat to the north of the ramps on the east side of the lake where catfish might be feeding."