Our State's Big-River Catfishing

It's no surprise that our state's biggest river systems produce the most trophy-sized whiskerfish each season. Here's where you should try right now!

How big will a catfish grow? No one really knows for sure because mighty rivers hide so many fish that no one ever sees. Over the years, trotline and setline fishermen have caught dozens of catfish that would shatter current world records for blues and flatheads, and historical references hint that commercial anglers used to bring up even bigger blues then they do today.

Meanwhile, the world record for blue catfish has been broken four times since the early 1990s, and the world-record flathead was topped by more than 20 pounds a few years ago. Many anglers believe those records will continue falling as more fishermen become more serious about whiskerfish and adjust their strategies and tackle accordingly.

Most really hefty catfish come from major rivers, something Kentucky is blessed with many miles of. Let's look at a handful of the state's best rivers, with an emphasis on how and where to catch heavyweight flatheads and blues.

Big catfish like big rivers, and in America, rivers don't come any bigger than the mighty Mississippi. Strong support of the big-river/big-cat theory came last summer when Arkansas' portion of the Mississippi produced a new all-tackle world-record blue catfish.

That was well downriver from Kentucky, as were new Mississippi and Louisiana state-record blues, both over 90 pounds and both caught in the late 1990s. Upriver, the Illinois state-record blue catfish, an 85-pounder, came from the river in 2000. That's a lot of heavyweight cats to come from one river in only a handful of years, and it doesn't scratch the surface of what commercial anglers commonly drag out.

Without much question, there are at least a few triple-digit-weight catfish swimming the Kentucky portion of the Mississippi River. This section supports enormous numbers of catfish, with channels, blues and flatheads all well represented.

In recent years, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) biologists have seen quite tangibly that the Mississippi River is absolutely loaded with catfish. They began doing electroshocking surveys on the river during the 1990s to assess and monitor populations of striped bass and hybrid stripers. In the process, they discovered very high numbers of catfish.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Until recently, the Mississippi got very little attention from recreational fishermen, and its catfish are still vastly underfished compared to most of the state's other sport fisheries. Anglers are often frightened by the Mississippi, which is understandable, and they don't know where to begin searching for fish on such a large waterway.

The Mississippi River forms 58 miles of the Kentucky/Missouri border, beginning at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The Ohio's flow doubles the size of the Mississippi and marks the upper end of what is commonly considered the Lower Mississippi River. It's a massive river, often more than 2 miles across. Along this stretch, the river's water level commonly fluctuates 50 feet over the course of a year.

Summer is a great time to fish the Mississippi because the river generally runs at a moderate level. In early June, it might still be high from spring rains or even snowmelt in the upper Missouri or Ohio River watershed. As the month progresses, however, and even more so through the rest of summer, the river level normally will drop and stabilize.

If the river is fairly high, the best fishing generally is found on shallow flats that are protected from main-river currents by islands, shoreline cuts or the upper ends of wing dikes. Waters within oxbows and other backwater areas also produce well late in the spring and early in the summer. Channel cats, which pile up in shallow, protected areas, serve up fast action to fishermen under such conditions.

Fishermen targeting channel catfish during early summer typically will use basic Carolina rigs with 1- or 2-ounce egg weights. Most anglers will use either commercially manufactured dip baits or small pieces of cut shad or herring.

Flatheads also hit well in early summer. Again, anglers should look for waters out of the current. For flatheads, though, they stay along the main-river body and look for deeper water and plenty of cover. Most fishermen will use big, live gizzard shad and very stout gear.

As the water runs low, catfish begin to spread out in broad areas of the river that have lots of sandbars and deep cuts downstream. Downstream from major bends and long points, the currents often create lots of "ups" and "downs" along the bottom. Anglers will drift such areas, bouncing big chunks of cut bait along the bottom.

Drifting is more controlled than it sounds. Fishermen will move in and out from channel edges to test a range of depths and pay close attention to where they see fish on the graph and where they draw strikes. Once they figure out the depth ranges the fish are using, drifters who are able to stay over bars and drops within that range often catch a lot of cats.

Drift-fishing works well for blues and channels, with the size of the bait being the most important factor. Big pieces of cut skipjack or gizzard shad produce mostly blues in the Mississippi, with occasional heavyweight fish among them.

Anglers who prefer more traditional catfishing setups often concentrate on big bends in the river and waters immediately downstream from wing dikes. Big, deep holes, which form on bends and behind dikes, provide good refuge areas for catfish through the summer. Fish that pile up in the deepest parts of holes often are tough to catch, but fish holding in current along slopes down into holes generally are more active.

Fish deep waters in and along the slopes of big river bend holes during the day, or fish shallow flats adjacent to the same holes at night.

Either way, experienced anglers use big pieces of skipjack and very heavy gear. Beyond the fact that any given strike could be from a 60-pound catfish, anglers who fish deep holes often need several ounces of weight just to keep their baits down among the catfish.

Whether they plan to drift or anchor, fishermen taking on the Mississippi should keep a couple things in mind. First, while the river is loaded with fish, it is also extremely large and complex, and finding and catching whiskerfish consistently comes only through time spent on the river.

Second, the Mississippi is

potentially dangerous, especially when it is rising. Strong currents and big whirlpools create major hazards, as do ends of wing dikes and other submerged structures. The river also carries a lot of large debris and is heavily used by barges. Anglers must learn the dynamics of large rivers, remain alert at all times and wear life jackets instead of stowing them.

Fishermen will find good boating access to the Mississippi near the town of Wickliffe, at Columbus/Belmont State Park and at Hickman Harbor.

Second in volume only to the Mississippi, the Ohio River itself is a huge river. The Ohio is a much more significant resource for most Kentucky fishermen than the Mississippi. The Ohio River runs 700 miles along Kentucky's northern border, making a lot of its water convenient to a lot of Kentucky anglers. Louisville, Owensboro and Paducah are situated along the Ohio River; Lexington, Frankfort and Bowling Green are all within an hour or so drive of the river's banks.

Catfish abound from Ashland, where the river flows into Kentucky, all the way to its mouth. Channel and flathead catfish are found from one end to the other. Blues are found only in the lower half of the Kentucky run. Somewhere around Louisville, blues become an important part of the fishery. Through the river's far lower reaches, blues are the predominant catfish species.

Beyond supporting big numbers of catfish, the Ohio River produces plenty of heavyweight whiskerfish. Three years ago, Bruce Midkiff of Owensboro broke the Kentucky state record (and the Indiana state record) with a 104-pound blue catfish that he pulled from a deep Ohio River hole downstream from the Cannelton Lock and Dam.

Ten high-rise lock-and-dam structures, built for navigational purposes, divide the Kentucky portion of the river into 10 distinct pools. Vastly different from the river that once twisted through hard bends and poured over mighty shoals, the Ohio River is generally deep and lazy, except in the tailwater portions immediately downstream from the dams.

Strong current, abundant cover and concentrations of baitfish make the tailwaters the most productive portions of the Ohio River, by far. Catfish also spawn along riprap banks of tailwaters, so numbers tend to be extra high through the first part of the summer. Tailwater access is also typically quite good for boating and bank-fishing anglers alike.

Most tailwater fishermen use three-way rigs anchored with bell or bank sinkers that range from 1 ounce to about 8 ounces. For channel cats, savvy anglers will key on slack areas that are close to moving water. They'll fish in these areas with small pieces of cut bait or chicken livers. For blues, experienced bait dunkers will fish in a little more current and switch to big pieces of cut shad or herring. For flatheads, almost all anglers use big, live fish, usually gizzard shad. They'll fish these baits in deep water that has plenty of good cover.

All the tailwaters offer good catfishing, but some of the most popular include Markland, Cannelton, Smithland and Lock and Dam 52. Markland is especially intriguing to flathead fishermen, because the rubble from a historic smaller lock-and-dam structure is right in the tailwater, providing fabulous holding areas for flatheads.

Outside the tailwaters, the mouths of major tributaries and holes situated along major river bends also produce a lot of catfish. Through the summer, most fishermen will set up at night over creek channel edges or big bluff holes. Again, small baits produce big numbers of channel cats, but big chunks of cut bait or live offerings yield heavyweight blues and flatheads, respectively.

The tailwaters of Kentucky and Barkley lakes on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, respectively, flow side by side toward the Ohio River from neighboring dams that impound the two reservoirs. Both rivers join the river between the Smithland Lock and Dam and Lock and Dam 52. Both of these areas can be accessed from the Ohio side. The best fishing is close to Kentucky and Barkley dams, however, and both rivers have boating and bank-fishing access near the dams.

Formed by large hydroelectric dams with multiple generators and spill gates for flood control, the Barkley and Kentucky tailwaters are similar to one another, except that the Tennessee River is much larger and has more generators and spill gates. Both areas produce an abundant supply of catfish of all three major species. There are even some big ones in these waters. In fact, the Kentucky Lake tailwater produced the previous state-record blue catfish.

Both tailwaters vary markedly in character from day to day or even hour to hour, according to power-generation schedules. The fishing is best when the water is running. The best places to fish, overall, are in eddies or "slots" of lesser current.

If some generators are on and others are off, anglers typically move up into the slots between running generators, drop three-way rigs baited with cut bait and drift downstream. Ideally, the rigs should tick the bottom but not drag along it. Bank-fishermen use long rods to make long casts into the running water and let their offerings bounce downstream in the current. They bring a lot of terminal tackle and expect to go through it.

If most of the generators and any spill gates are running, the best fishing is sometimes found a little farther from the dams. Anywhere fish can get out of the strongest currents but still stay within ambush range can be outstanding. Submerged rockpiles, cuts in the bank, eddies below logjams and mouths of creeks all offer good prospects.

The Green River, a major tributary of the Ohio River, provides outstanding opportunities for anglers who have a specific interest in catching flathead catfish. The Green is interesting as a flathead destination because it is large enough to support a good population of heavyweight flatheads, but not so overwhelmingly large that identifying spots or setting up to fish for them becomes prohibitive.

Evidence of the quality of the Green River's flathead fishery comes from the fact that it produced Kentucky's long-standing state-record flathead catfish. Caught in 1957 by Esker Carroll, the fish weighed an impressive 97 pounds.

Like the big river it flows into, the Green River is pooled up by several lock-and-dam structures, and, like on the Ohio, much of the best fishing exists within a couple miles downstream from each dam. While flatheads like to get out of the direct current, they prefer to be in areas where good current pushes past them.

Within those sections, anglers look for good, dense cover, like rockpiles or logjams, and a broad range of depths. Flatheads like to hold deep and tight to cover through the day and then roam onto nearby flats at night to hunt. Classic pools on outside bends, where currents scour big holes and bank erosion topples trees into the river, are ideal areas for setting up to catch flatheads.

Most anglers use traditio

nal methods, primarily running setlines, to catch flatheads from the Green River, but anglers who do go after them with rods and reels enjoy good success. Rod-and-reel anglers typically scout by day and fish by night, setting up on prime holes with several big, live baits fished down in holes and close to the cover.

Anglers who want to target giant flatheads without forsaking the nearly certain action that channels offer can bait a line or two with dip bait or chicken livers and another with a big, live bluegill. The smaller offerings, fished on the bottom near the edge of any big river hole, are likely to get hammered by channel catfish all night long, while the flatheads consider the live bait that has been put down among them.

Flathead fishermen need rods that have a lot of backbone, geared-down reels and heavy line. Beyond the fact that flatheads grow to enormous sizes, they fight like bulldogs and will head straight for the thickest cover in sight as soon as they are hooked.

More than 30 access points provide convenient access to all parts of the Green River. The best starting points for scouting flathead holes are those just downstream from the six lock-and-dam structures and in the tailwaters of Green River Lake.

Because the Ohio and Mississippi rivers share waters with other states, fishermen should familiarize themselves with reciprocal agreements with each appropriate state before fishing either. These agreements and all fishing regulations are detailed in the 2002 Sport Fishing and Boating Guide, which is available from all license dealers. Two other publications, Kentucky's Boating & Fishing Access Sites and the Ohio River Fishing Guide, are also very helpful for trip planning. Call 1-800-310-1873 for either publication or for more information.

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