Some of our state's biggest whiskerfish (including two state records) hail from the Commonwealth's fine river systems. Here are five top rivers to try this summer.
The Ohio River system is the most likely place for Kentucky anglers to tangle with a big catfish, though good-sized specimens can be taken from any of our state's rivers.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
As a teenager, I used to spend as much time as I could exploring new territory. We'd fish where we could, spend countless hours waiting on groundhogs to come out of holes and walk miles over farms of my relatives just to find what we could find.
I was lucky that my uncles owned farms, and my grandmother, especially, had a place that stretched down a long bottom right to the banks of the Kentucky River. My father had introduced me to catfishing in farm ponds, and naturally, that led me to give it a try from under the canopy of the tree-lined shore along the river on the Henry and Owen county line.
Come to find out later, at least for catfish on this waterway, my scrounging around and using what red worms and green worms I found along the bank, is exactly what is most recommended for catching channel catfish on the Kentucky River even today. Imagine that.
Fishery biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) say that catfishing for channels, flatheads and blues in many of our state's major river systems is expected to be very good this summer. The Kentucky River is one such example, but other big waterways like the Green River, Licking, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee systems also offer some very high-quality whiskerfish catching opportunities as well.
As alluded to earlier, going for channel catfish in the Kentucky River is a good bet during the summer. Anglers who use natural baits below dams or around larger rock outcroppings are almost certain to hook a catfish or two (and more likely many more than two). Most anglers know that catfish are primarily bottom feeders, but on overcast days or at night, they will roam closer to the surface and along features of the bank looking for a meal.
Areas along the Kentucky River where steeper bluffs, banks and chunk rock habitat adorn the shoreline are top spots to find channel cats. Mouths of creeks also provide catfish a corridor to intercept food that is washing into the main river system. These areas often offer a little deeper water that catfish prefer almost anytime of year.
If you use a depthfinder to locate the deeper holes in the Kentucky River, usually that's going to be where catfish can be found right now. The Kentucky River is not necessarily known for trophy catfish, but more for producing plenty of eating- sized fish. Pools with sunken debris, logs on the bottom or spots where silt and mud doesn't cover everything are places to fish first. Catfish like to settle into a rocky area and ambush smaller fish, snag a crawfish or suck up other organisms that drift or wiggle their way downstream and close to the bottom.
Channel catfish will congregate below dams for two big reasons. One, there are usually a lot of rocks below a dam, and the flow over a dam seems to attract lots of other fish, big and small. After a rain, when surface water rushes into a river system, feeding activity often picks up below dams as new food sources are moved downstream.
Anglers should be aware that there's a learning curve when fishing below dams. It takes a little while to figure out how to work baits in tailwaters without hanging up on every cast. It takes experimentation with weights and drifts to get your lure down enough and into the spots where the catfish are waiting. The contour and composition of the bottom below every dam is different. However, once you spend some time doing it, the "feel" of working along the bottom will be more familiar. You'll soon spend more time catching fish than re-tying hooks and clamping on new sinkers. It just takes practice.
In the Kentucky River, most of the catfish species will be channels, but some opportunity for flatheads in the deeper sections does exist. Remember that flatheads are more prone to feed on live fish rather than on chicken liver or some other manufactured catfish bait. If you can get a small baitfish or minnow down close to the bottom and in harm's way, you may come up with a flathead or two. Flatheads, as any seasoned angler knows, have the potential to grow much larger than a channel.
Esker Carroll found out just how big mudcats can get when he landed the state-record flathead back in 1956. His behemoth weighed in at 97 pounds and was taken out of the Green River. This river, obviously, is another fine catfishing water in mid-western Kentucky.
The latest report from biologist David Bell on Green River catfish is pretty positive. He said channel catfish can be taken regularly below the dams in the boils and rocks. The Green River is a highly productive waterway, so like many other fish species, channels and flatheads flourish.
There are about a half-dozen locks and dams on the Green River, which stretches roughly from Liberty to the Ohio River near Henderson. The two dams that offer some of the better catfishing each year are lock No. 2 near Calhoun and lock No. 4 south of Morgantown.
Fishing also at the mouths of the bigger creeks that feed into this river is a good approach for catfish, and there are several. A good map of the Green (and others) is available from the KDFWR in the Kentucky Boating & Fishing Access Sites publication the agency has produced free for the asking.
Cut and live bait are good producers for summertime cats in the Green River, especially in the deeper pools, sunken woody structure and along rocky shorelines. Shaded banks are usually best, and those with big root wads down deep, or washed-out undercut banks are prime places to find catfish hanging around.
You may simply want to try drifting livers, crawdad tails or night crawlers. Your best bet is to drift these offerings just above the bottom in the deepest holes you can find on day fishing trips. Sometimes big catfish just lie on the bottom until the sun goes down, but that doesn't mean they won't eat something that comes within a whisker's length or a tail-swoosh or two.
One of the top catfishing waters spanning the entire northern border of Kentucky is the Ohio River. Catfish have always been sought after in this waterway, and from all indications, it continues to produce excellent opportunity for channels, flatheads and blues. Blue catfish, the species with the potential to grow the biggest, are primarily found from Markland downstream, while the other two species run the length of this large system.
According to Ohio River biologist Doug Henley, both the "little man" in the johnboat, and the full-blown tournament angler with all the latest equipment can successfully catch catfish; yet those with bigger boats will likely score the larger fish on the Ohio. While some big flatheads and channels are found in the pools, most are taken in the immediate tailwater area below the dams. It takes heavy-duty equipment and a larger craft to get into the areas with more current. "We spent a lot of time in the Newburgh Pool last year looking for channels, flatheads and blues, and we found some pretty interesting stuff," Henley said. "For example, we captured two blues, one 36 inches and one 26 inches, and both aged at 11 years old. We picked up a 30-inch flathead that was 16 years old," the biologist continued.
The difference in the size of the blues of the same age, Henley suspects, is that one fish, the smaller, was a male, while the larger was a female.
"Watching the USCATS Web site, and hearing what anglers we come in contact with say, there's a whole lot more catch and release of big fish now than 10 or 15 years ago, and I think that's a great thing," Henley said.
"There are only so many of these old, giant-sized fish in the population, and the act of recycling them, I think, is a big benefit to the sport itself, much like for bass fishing.
"Most of the guys catching the really big ones, and the Ohio has its share, are putting them back, so someone else has the same chance for enjoyment of tangling with a trophy-class fish. If you think about a 30-inch flathead being 16 years old, think how old some of the 40- to 50- inch ones probably are," Henley said.
Recommendations from Henley on where to find catfish in the calmer waters is to look for the deeper drop-offs, out from the bank, where rock ledges slowly fall off into 50, 60 or more feet of water.
"There's a great spot I think would hold bigger fish in the Cannelton Pool; it is just down from the Wolf Creek ramp about the first bend," Henley said. "We've graphed depths to about 90 feet in there, and the big blues and flatheads like what I imagine are some big rock crevices and ledges in the deep water to lie in.
"They may not be staying on the very bottom, but drifting a bait or live, small sunfish down the drop ought to find some of those fish lying in among the rocks," Henley said.
If you use a depthfinder to locate the deeper holes in the Kentucky River, usually that's going to be where catfish can be found right now.
The current state-record blue catfish, the 104-pounder taken by Bruce Midkiff about five years ago, came out of the lower Ohio. There's no doubt some very high-quality fish in this waterway.
There's not a whole lot of the Tennessee River in Kentucky, but what part there is below Kentucky Lake has been a mecca for anglers who seek big blues, flatheads and channels. Kentucky River tailwater fishermen have found these lurking giants in the foamy, churning water below the dam by using all kinds of fishing methods.
Bank-fishermen can cast into the frothy depths, allowing their heavily weighted baits to drift back in the current and wait for a catfish to hit them and run. Boating anglers can systematically work up and back, probing the irregular bottom of the river, until their lure winds up in front of a catfish resting in the safety of a rockpile.
At night, fishing along the rocky banks of the Tennessee River is a good bet for intercepting catfish that are cruising the banks looking to pick up wounded baitfish that have washed through the dam. All shapes and sizes of whiskerfish can be expected. You never really know whether you're going to hook onto an average channel catfish or a 50- pound blue or flathead.
Other irregular shoreline features, any submerged cover piled up or washed in along a bank in a channel cut, or spots where sudden depth changes in the bottom occur are places to find catfish. It may be best to get on the water before dark, find a few spots, then come back and fish them when the sun goes down.
Maybe because the Licking River is in northeastern Kentucky and winds down through less populated country, may be why this river doesn't get much credit for the fishing it offers. This is especially true in the upper portion of the river.
While one of the methods of getting hold of some big flatheads and channels is to wade close to the bank and literally pull these fish out from under rocks and roots of trees (called tickling and noodling), catfish can also be caught on conventional pole and line methods, too.
One of the more productive stretches of this river system for catfish is the stretch through Kenton, Pendleton and Robertson counties. In this stretch the river has some deeper holes, plus a whole lot of bank cover that gives catfish a lot of places to hide and wait for food. Anglers should concentrate on where the Licking River breaks into the North and South forks, and perhaps around Johnson Creek, which feeds into the main river in Robertson County.
Catfish like to travel some, and they will move freely from tributaries to the main stem of a river system like the Licking, depending on water levels and number of food sources. Still-fishing during the day in the deeper water, then along the bank adjacent to deep water or on rocky cover during low-light periods, is usually productive for catfish. In the Licking River, it's mostly going to be channels and flatheads that you'll be catching.
Selecting medium-action rods and stronger test line is going to be important when catfishing most any of the river systems highlighted here. Catfish are one of the best species at getting wrapped up over rocks and limbs when they get hooked. You have to have some confidence you can ride out a fight against the heavier fish, and that you can do some directing of where the fish goes.
Obviously, an ultralight spinning rod spooled with 4-pound-test won't give you much option besides a few tugs. Likewise, you might want to stay clear of two-piece rods, and choose one with a two-hand handle. Bigger fish that fight longer can tire your hands quickly, even if you're doing nothing more than trying to hang on.
Catfish like to travel some, and they will move freely from
tributaries to the main stem of a river system like the Licking, depending on water levels and number of food sources.
Other tips include having a dip net handy, just for ease and speed of getting fish boated. Pliers are essential to remove hooks from these rubbery-mouthed species. Catfish will pull so hard against you that the hook tends to bury itself, and is just plain tou
gh to get out. Hooks swallowed are more often cut off, which will eventually dissolve and usually cause less internal damage than trying to wrench it free from well down in a fish's gullet.
All of Kentucky's river systems hold catfish. The larger ones and those that flow through agricultural lands with rich run-off can grow some really big, impressive fish. Most anglers say the smaller ones, up to 3 to 5 pounds, taste best. So maybe releasing the trophies after a digital photo is a good idea to consider.
One final note regarding catfishing in the Ohio is to remember that there is a consumption advisory on all species of fish, including channel, flathead and blue catfish. It is not unsafe to eat fish, but there is a recommendation of how much you should consume of each species to reduce health risks. These specific advisories, based on where you fish in the Ohio, are listed in the 2005 Kentucky Sport Fishing and Boating Guide. This booklet is available from license outlets, or over the Internet at http://fw.ky.gov.
The KDFWR also has available a Boating Access Guide that lists all of the launch ramps for Bluegrass State rivers. You can get that free by calling (800) 858-1549 and requesting a copy from the KDFWR during regular Monday through Friday state office hours.
Summer catfishing on these rivers this year is expected to be very good. If you've not gotten hold of a big Kentucky catfish lately, these waterways are certainly at the top of the list of best rivers to catch one for yourself.