5 Fabulous Whiskerfish Waters In Our State

5 Fabulous Whiskerfish Waters In Our State

The Ohio River and Taylorsville Lake, plus three other top picks, are where you're likely to find excellent angling for flathead, blue and channel catfish this summer.

Photo by Michael Skinner

Fishing for catfish was once looked upon as being a sub-par activity to more popular sport fish, such as bass, crappie, trout and others. Times have definitely changed. In fact, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) assistant director of fisheries, Gerry Buynak, says catfish now rank second among anglers as the most popular species pursued. Bass still rank as No. 1, followed by catfish, with crappie just slightly behind in the No. 3 slot.

The KDFWR has not really had a long-term management plan for catfish per se. They have only recently begun to put more emphasis on managing specifically to enhance our catfish fisheries and to provide more opportunities for anglers. Some of these strategies involve stocking, harvest regulations, and better research to understand more about population levels, spawning, reproduction, growth rates and harvest data.

We have three main varieties of catfish here in our state: Channel, blue and flathead catfish are all present in good numbers. However, these fish have different habitat and feeding preferences and are not all found in the same locations. Many of our waters also have bullheads, but they generally do not exceed 12 inches.

Our natural populations of catfish provide tremendous fisheries throughout the state. Most all of our ponds, rivers, impoundments and large reservoirs provide some degree of catfish opportunity. Some of our waters, especially the tailwaters below major dams, provide some excellent potential to yield trophy-sized blues and flatheads.

The stocking effort by the KDFWR is greatly enhancing our natural fisheries and boosting fishing opportunities in some areas. Most of the fish stocked are channel catfish, but there is some stocking of blues and flatheads at times. The catfish are reared at the Peter W. Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery in Frankfort.

Flatheads are not often stocked. They were used during restocking efforts after two fish kills in the state. Flatheads were stocked in the Kentucky River after the spill from the Wild Turkey Distillery and also into the Tug Fork River in far eastern Kentucky after a fish kill from a coalmine mishap.

Blue catfish have been stocked in some areas and there is currently a research study ongoing to monitor their success. These catfish are being used to help control bluegill populations and also hopefully provide some trophy opportunity in the near future. If successful, some of our small state-owned lakes will be able to provide some unique trophy situations for blues as well.

Channel cats are stocked in many waters from farm ponds up to mid-sized lakes. Most of these locations are stocked every year or every other year. Waters the size of lakes Malone and Beshear are about the largest being stocked. The catfish stocked are from 6 to 12 inches long, with the average stocked fish being around 8 inches.

The KDFWR has implemented a 12-inch minimum size limit on catfish at some locations, especially in the central and north-central part of the state. This, according to Buynak, is to help slow the harvest on small fish to allow them to reach a larger size before being taken. Research indicates survival rates in some locations from one year to the next can be as low as 20 percent for channels and around 50 percent for blue catfish. By controlling the harvest of small fish, biologists hope to create more productive fisheries.

Anglers can find excellent catfishing in most every part of our state. One doesn't have to travel far to locate a fishing spot for channels, blues or flatheads. Here's a look at five areas in the state where anglers can specifically target catfish and find good success.


One of the premier destinations in the state for catfish is Kentucky Lake. Both the lake and its tailwaters provide tremendous fishing opportunity for flatheads, blues and channels. With ample space, structure and forage, all varieties of catfish have the potential to reach trophy size here.

Bill Pierson has been fishing and guiding at Kentucky Lake for a number of years. He rates the area as one of his favorite locations for catfish. He regularly boats huge catches of whiskerfish and pursues them year 'round. He says knowing the difference between fishing the lake and the tailwaters is paramount to success.

Blue catfishing is better below the dam, according to Pierson. He likes to look for changes in current. A little eddy where the water slows down near a deeper drop is a prime target.

He finds channel cats more concentrated. "You can usually catch four or five in one spot and then move either left or right and catch four or five more."

Pierson uses cut bait in the tailwaters on a rig that resembles a Carolina rig used by bass anglers. Shad and cut herring are among his favorite baits. He uses 3/0 to 5/0 hooks, 1- to 1 1/2-ounce egg sinkers, and a short leader of between 1 1/2 to 2 feet.

In the lake proper, Pierson prefers to fish along the main river channel. He looks for a bend in the channel with a large rock or broken rocks in the bend for structure. "At locations like this, you can catch a mixed bag including blues, channels, and even an occasional flathead over 20 pounds."

Deeper water -- 35-foot-plus -- holds bigger fish, according to Pierson. He says there won't be as many bites, but the fish will be larger. Most will be 10 pounds or larger.

Pierson utilizes different bait in the lake. He will generally use shrimp, leeches or a combination thereof. Lately, he has been leaning more toward the combination.

Flatheads are most active in low light said Pierson, so anglers wanting to target them specifically should have the most success just before dark and for the first part of the nighttime. He recommends a 5/0 to 6/0 hook baited with live bait. A small bluegill is a good choice.


Another fantastic location that is accessible for many Kentuckians is the Ohio River. Bordering much of the state, the river offers excellent catfishing throughout, with the best action taking place below major dams. Flatheads can be found from Ashland to Cairo and channel catfish may be found most anywhere in the river.

Ohio River biologist Doug Henley said the river is also very good for blue catfish up to about Cincinnati. After that, the fishery for blues "starts to dwindle," according to Henley. "There are not as

many and they're not as big."

Consequently, in August 1999, Bruce W. Midkiff found the blue catfish population in fine shape as he landed the new state record at 104 pounds. The fish was caught in the tailwaters below Cannelton Dam. The catch also qualified as a new world record for line-class catch-and-release.

The Ohio River also just recently yielded the state record for channel catfish. On May 26, 2004, Kyle Estep pulled in the 32-pound record fish. The catch surpassed the previous record by nearly 4 pounds!

Henley and others at the KDFWR are beginning to study catfish in the river more closely. "We want to get a better idea of what shape the fishery is in regarding size, length, weight, age and growth rate."

The biologists are concerned they don't know enough about reproduction and growth rates, and have already determined that catfish in the river grow slower than what they previously believed.

The catfish fishery is becoming much more of a challenge for the KDFWR. There is beginning to be a little friction between the different groups of catfish anglers using the river and the department needs more information in order to better manage the resource and keep everyone happy. The river is utilized by casual weekend anglers, serious sport and tournament anglers, as well as commercial anglers looking to sell their catch.

Sampling did not yield a lot of big fish, but it did show a wide range of age groups. Channel cats were caught to near 30 inches and one blue was sampled at 36 1/2 inches. Age structure was sampled up to 16 years. So far, studies indicate the fishery in the river is doing well for all species of catfish.


Catfish are not intensely sampled at Lake Malone by the KDFWR. In fact, the last creel survey results are from 1999. However, biologist David Bell said, "Overall, it's a pretty good fishery."

Malone has been stocked with catfish every year since 1961 except 1997 due to a flood at the hatchery that year. It is one of the larger lakes being stocked with catfish. It's a popular lake for catfish anglers, so the department tries to supplement the natural fishery there.

Bell said the rate of stocking has been cut back from what it was in the past. The KDFWR was stocking around 25 fish per acre, but that number has been cut back to about 12.5 fish per acre or around 10,000 fish per year. The lake was stocked heavily in 1995, 1996 and 1998 to the tune of around 20,000 fish per year.

Although there are fewer fish being stocked, the released fish are bigger now than before. In past years, the catfish ranged between 6 and 8 inches. Now the fish are stocked at 7 to 12 inches. There is a 12-inch minimum size limit on catfish at Malone, which helps protect these young fish and allows them time to grow.

The Ohio River also just recently yielded the state record for channel catfish. On May 26, 2004, Kyle Estep pulled in the 32-pound record fish. The catch surpassed the previous record by nearly 4 pounds!

Bell said Malone's main catfish fishery consists of channel cats and there are also a few flatheads along with both black and yellow bullheads. However, there aren't enough of the latter varieties for anglers to specifically target them.

The contour of Lake Malone makes it interesting to fish. Bell described it as "shaped like a bathtub." The bottom contour comes out from the shoreline a short ways, drops off sharply, and then goes across the bulk of the lake as flat as a board. Both the upper and lower ends of the lake have basically the same contour; only the end near the dam is deeper.

As mentioned, catfishing is very popular at Malone, especially through June and July. Anglers use many fishing methods to take whiskerfish. Bank-fishing, boating, as well as jugs and limb lines, are all common methods used at the lake.

Bell said anglers can find good fishing throughout the lake, although the lower end might be just a little better than the upper. The embayments off the main lake can be good also.


Both flathead and channel catfish have done well for a long time at Dewey Lake, according to biologist Kevin Frey. He said spawning and recruitment have been good for several years and the lake is very popular with catfish anglers. This popularity results in a heavy annual harvest of catfish.

Although the catfish populations there are self-sustaining, the lake has been occasionally stocked with channel cats. During some years, the hatchery has reared more fish than needed for the farm pond stocking program and Dewey received the surplus fish. The lake was stocked with between 50,000 and 60,000 fish in 1996, 1999 and 2003.

The potential to catch big flatheads is very good at the lake, according to Frey. He said that every year anglers catch fish in the 40- to 50-pound range. Sampling and angler catches indicate the potential is there for fish over 50 pounds.

Betty Perry, a local angler who bank-fishes Dewey frequently, caught a very nice flathead just recently in the fall of 2004. The fish weighed 42 pounds and measured an impressive 44 inches long. Frey's office determined the fish to be 16.5 years old.

Frey said the lake offers excellent fishing for both boat and bank anglers, but the conditions at the lake can change quickly due to it being a flood-control water. Water levels can fluctuate frequently. This affects the depth at which catfish will be and also their proximity to shore.

Flatheads like to lurk around the root balls of the many cypress trees in the lake. They can also be found around rocky banks in both the upper and lower ends of the lake. They are primarily caught on live bait.

Channel catfish are more scattered, according to Frey. They, too, can be found in rocky areas, but can also be found along sandy and muddy bottoms. Near the dam is another popular location.

Anglers may have their preference of fishing either muddy or clear water at Dewey. Frey said the upper end of the lake has more turbidity and stays muddy. The lower end is much clearer, although it can also become stained immediately following heavy rains.


Biologist Kerry Prather said Taylorsville has a tremendous channel catfish fishery and it has been tremendous since the mid-1980s. Channel catfish rank as the third most popular fish at the lake behind bluegills and white crappie. "There is a lot of standing timber, a lot of structure, and plenty of forage, such as gizzard shad. Spawning has also been good at the lake," the biologist said.

Another unique opportunity exists at Taylorsville. Some 25,000 blue catfish were stocked in 2002, with 88,000 and 25,000 being stocked the follo

wing two years, respectively. Though the lake is dominated by channel catfish now, don't be surprised if the blue catfish population makes some inroads as far as total numbers of catfish.

The blue catfish stocking has normally been done in three segments each year. The fish stocked have a wide range of sizes -- some as small as 4 to 5 inches. The channel catfish fishery is self-sufficient and receives no supplemental stocking.

Blue catfish are normally a big-river fish with the exception of Kentucky and Barkley lakes. This stocking program creates a unique situation because fisheries personnel envision a trophy blue fishing opportunity in a reservoir in the heart of the state.

Blue catfish are very popular with anglers, according to Prather. This catfish inhabits different habitat than that of the channel catfish. It is a live fish feeder and much more prone to be shallow. It can even be caught in open water where it feeds on shad and is sometimes caught by bass and striper anglers out away from the more traditionally believed catfish structure.

A creel survey conducted in 2003 showed the average size of harvested fish to be 12.1 inches for channel catfish and 16.8 inches for blues. There is also a fair population of flatheads, which showed an average catch size of 23.5 inches. However, this did not include those taken by hand grabbing (noodling), which is very popular at Taylorsville.


Information on these and other catfish waters, as well as contact information for the fisheries biologists, can be found on the KDFWR Web site at

www.kdfwr.state.ky.us. Those without Internet access can call toll- free at (800) 858-1549. Contact Bill Pierson at (270) 625-1793 for information on catfishing at Kentucky Lake or in the Ohio River.

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