Kentucky's Best Catfishing

From the Ohio to the mighty Mississippi, here is where you'll find the Commonwealth's top whiskerfishing this season! Read on for hot places to fish near you!

By Norm Minch

Some of my best memories as a youngster include the times when my father took me fishing on a summer afternoon, and let me tangle with a big old catfish or two in the pond behind our house.

I got to fish for other species like bluegills and bass, but as a kid, the fascination of catching and observing a catfish was what I was taken with the most when those trips came around. Their unique look, the way they acted on the line and the sounds they made seemed much more interesting to me, and may be responsible for hooking me into the sport I, and thousands of other Kentucky anglers, enjoy today.

As time passed, the realm of my catfishing experiences expanded greatly, and I learned that opportunities to catch catfish existed in just about every place there was water. Catfish aren't only good fighters, but their hardy character allows them to thrive in all types of water bodies from farm ponds to the largest lakes and river systems. This may be the single-most reason why so many people fish for them: Their ubiquitous nature and widespread abundance makes them available to practically every angler at any time.

Those interested in expanding their catfishing "realm" have several possibilities, according to fishery biologists with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). Many waterways support a good catfish fishery through natural reproduction, while the agency supplements populations of other smaller public lakes and state wildlife management area ponds through a pretty "hardy" stocking program of its own.

Let's take a look at some of the best spots where channel, flathead and blue catfish are, how the quality of fishing will be this summer, and key in on a couple of ways to connect with these sleek and unique underwater predators.

Flatheads, blues and channel catfish are all present in our state, and each offers a unique challenge to catfish enthusiasts. Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Western District fishery biologist Paul Rister has perhaps the two premier waterways for catfish in all Kentucky running side by side down and through his domain. The Tennessee and Cumberland river systems, which flow through Kentucky and Barkley lakes, provide superb habitat for catfish, both blue catfish (which grow the largest of Kentucky's catfish), as well as for channel catfish, perhaps the most commonly found species of catfish across the state.

"Anglers have four high-quality choices actually, and all can be equally as good during the late May through late August period," said Rister.

The main lake of either reservoir is considered excellent for both blues and channels, as are the tailwaters below the dams of these lakes, according to Rister. These two lakes carry a rich tradition for producing quality catfish, and a reputation for giving up some truly exceptional sized catfish as well. Rister expects the summer of 2003 to not be much different.

"The only obstacle anglers below Kentucky Dam might encounter is that bank-fishing might be closed or very limited due to the construction going on down there. It might restrict fishing in the immediate tailwaters, which is sometimes where the bigger blues come from," said the biologist.

Catfish are primarily bottom and opportunistic feeders, which is one reason they pack in below Kentucky and Barkley dams. There they can pick off wounded baitfish, nose through a constant flow of other possible food sources, and have the preferred rocky bottom habitat. During the summer, catfish spend most of their time somewhere either close to rocky habitat, and in deeper water during the day, and that's where fishing should be concentrated.

Catfishing on Barkley this summer gets the same very positive report from Rister as Kentucky Lake does. During the spawning period in late April through May, anglers are going to find catfish along rocky shoreline areas, around riprap banks and in the canal between the two lakes. Most of the fish won't be in really deep water yet, and most any choice of live, cut or organic baits will entice strikes.

As water temperatures warm, catfish move into creek and river channels, and can be taken at greater depths with minnows, cut-up sunfish and other offerings that appeal to both their noses and appetites. Still-fishing just off the bottom in channels or around an underwater hump is productive. At night or on overcast days, fishing around rocky cover on flats near the main-lake channel is a good choice anywhere along the course of either lake, says Rister.

Before we leave the western region, one other waterway of special note this season for catfish is Lake Beshear in Caldwell and Christian counties, one of the many smaller impoundments in the KDFWR stocking program. Reduced numbers of catfish being released in Beshear has noticeably increased the quality and growth rate on channel catfish, and is expected to provide a superb fishery this summer. Check it out.

Moving a little farther to the east, the report from Southwestern District biologist Bonny Laflin for his area indicates that Barren River Lake is one hotspot catfishermen can look to score big on channel catfish this summer. He rates the fishing as excellent, noting a large population of whiskerfish is available throughout the lake.

Feeder creek channels and locations where these channels intersect the main-river channel are hotspots to connect with catfish on Barren. Fish will also be taken near the dam around rocky banks, and off points with steep dropoffs, which form channel cuts. Laflin also notes that Barren carries a pretty good volume of larger flathead cats, which are most active at night and are caught on live shad, bluegills or minnows.

Sometimes this bigger variety of catfish can be caught in very shallow water as they come to the shoreline to find food late at night after the sun drops over the horizon. Along points where deeper water access is close by are good places to drift your bait for the big boys. Areas, too, where washed-in logs and debris stack up can attract catfish. These areas typically have suitable cover and generally a lot of smaller baitfish to feed on as well.

Laflin also notes that there is an excellent population of channel catfish in Green River Lake, which perhaps could be considered an underutilized resource for area anglers. He believes anglers can connect with various sizes of catfish ranging from those that pull like "the little engine that could" to "freight train" strength.

The Green River itself offers decent catfishing below dams on the system, and around the mouths of smaller creeks or

heavier shoreline cover in late spring and early summer. Crawdad tails, night crawlers and other baits will attract attention fished closed to the bottom, around chunk rock and other structure in deeper pools.

If the central Kentucky region is more convenient for a trip, anglers should be considering Taylorsville Lake as the top spot for major lake channel catfishing. Herrington Lake gets good marks from biologist Kerry Prather for providing its share of quality channel catfish with a few big flatheads thrown in as well.

Late spring fishing is good on Taylorsville in the timbered coves and mouths of most any creek, says Prather. He also recommends fishing off points where the river channel cuts close, and working around the dam where irregular rock outcroppings or other shoreline cover exists.

"Catfish prefer a little deeper water and tend to stay fairly close to it even when they move out to feed," said Prather.

"We've got an excellent number of fish up to 5 pounds in Taylorsville, and over at Herrington you can find about the same situation. I think anglers should really be out there taking advantage of that resource right now," the biologist added.

Some of the smaller lakes in Prather's district are also hotspots for channel catfish, many of which are supported through the KDFWR stocking program. Spots like Beaver, Guist Creek and Kincaid lakes and others are stocked annually or bi-annually to keep a supply available.

"We generally stock all the 170,000 or so channel catfish in our program each year during the summer months, and they bite best during the time right after we release them," said Ted Crowell, KDFWR assistant fisheries chief.

"We have these lakes on a rotating schedule, based on what our hatchery can produce. We've got catfish going in little lakes here and there all over the state, including several city and county park lakes and ponds and on lots of our WMAs," explained Crowell.

"Anglers might be surprised at what's swimming around in some of these smaller bodies of waters, and it's certainly an opportunity that shouldn't be discounted quickly," Crowell said.

Some of the lakes in Kentucky where larger numbers of catfish are released, besides those already mentioned, include Greenbo Lake in Carter County, Lake Malone in Muhlenberg County, Lake Reba in Madison County, Elmer Davis in Owen County and the new Cedar Creek Lake in Lincoln County, which were stocked with almost 19,000 channel cats last fall.

There are likewise numerous smaller lakes in Jefferson County such as McNeely, Cherokee, Fisherman's Park, Iroquois Park and others that receive KDFWR catfish. Jacobsen Park in Fayette County is another example of an urban fishery supported with channel cats by the state fish and wildlife agency.

Up in the north and northeastern part of the state, one of the top river catfishing spots in Kentucky can be found in the Licking River system. In addition to fishing, tickling and noodling for big catfish under the tree roots and ledges along this waterway is a time-honored tradition in the summer. If you're interested in trying it a little different way, hand-grabbing a 20-pounder out from under a rock ledge is surely a change from the usual, but can yield some incredible catches if you've got the nerve.

If you want to stick with the mainstream approach, other top spots in this vicinity to try include Cave Run Lake, Grayson and Yatesville lakes. The first two waters contain channel and flathead catfish, more of the first and some much larger of the latter.

"The potential to take a big 40- or 50-pound flathead exists at Cave Run and Grayson," reports Lew Kornman. His district office gets occasional reports of some monster flatheads being caught during summer nights, sometimes by people visiting on houseboats with a line in the water, or by limbline or jugline anglers who set their hooks out one day and the next morning see the branch bent down with a heavy fish on the other end.

Channel catfishing on all three reservoirs, including Yatesville, is rated as good. Yatesville anglers should find quality-sized catfish evenly distributed throughout the upper and lower lake. Remember to stay on the rocks during late spring and early summer, and move to the channels and deeper dropoffs in July and August. In fall, try the heads of creeks after the hard rains that create some flow into the lake.

In the south-southeast section of Kentucky, Kevin Frey recommends Fishtrap Lake as a superb catfishing spot. The biologist says if you're looking for the big flatheads, most of his sampling showed the larger fish were found in the lower end of the lake. A good number of flatheads, he found, were up in the headwaters of Fishtrap where the river channel begins widening into a reservoir.

Channels are located everywhere, and lots are taken along the shoreline on creek banks, in the backs of coves and around rocky structure from late May into June as the spawn concludes. A lot of limbline and jug- fishing goes on in Fishtrap, which is one way to connect with catfish and eliminate some of the waiting it often takes to be successful. When nesting is over, channel catfish will ease back out into deeper water and suspend along overhangs, under fallen logs and sort of stay in the shadows, so to speak, waiting for an easy meal to cruise by.

A second-best choice in this region is Buckhorn, also home to both flathead and channel catfish. In addition to good fishing in the lake, Frey notes anglers shouldn't overlook the tailwater fishery, which is also a good bet for whiskerfish. Letting your offering drift downstream with the current or tugging your bait slowly through some rocks along the bottom in an eddy just outside moving water might work well, too.

Now, taking a quick look at the waterway that spans the entire northern border of Kentucky, biologists are calling the blue, flathead and channel catfishing in the Ohio River fair to good for this summer. Most of the better fish are going to be picked up immediately below the locks and dams on live or cut bait drifted through the boils and swifter water just above the bottom. Bank-fishermen can also connect with Ohio River catfish, and the potential in the lower Ohio to hook up with a giant blue or flathead always exists.

Ohio River anglers must pay close attention when boating below the locks and dams to abide by the boundaries for boat operation and water conditions. Summer usually is the calmest in terms of heavy currents, but caution is always recommended.

Heavy tackle, line and rods are best for big-river fishing to help you be able to turn and guide big cats out of the current, off the rocks and to the net more easily without breakoffs. Other habitat to fish includes downed logs, big boulders or other submerged, large area cover you spot on the bottom. Fish slowly, and try to keep a relatively tight line so you can get on the fish before it gets you too wrapped up.

The last two spots we'll highlight will be our Cat(fish)-Out-Of-The-Bag picks for this summer. Out in Ohio

County in midwestern Kentucky, there's a little 26-acre sleeper lake where some recent renovation took place. Now the lake is fishable again after being drained and restocked, and so far angling pressure really hasn't picked back up there yet and the potential for some good catfishing is quite good.

The KDFWR regularly places more than 600 channels in Washburn Lake, and due to the lower fishing pressure, there should be a good number of better than usual catfish available in this lake right now. You might want to sling a line at Washburn sometime this summer and see what takes off with it.

A second lesser-known, but still a hotspot opportunity for catfish, according to KDFWR biologists, is Bullock Pen Lake in Grant County. It's an out-of-the-way, 134-acre lake that you don't hear much about. The lake is located outside of Crittenden and opened to fishing back in 1955. Actually, the KDFWR has stocked Bullock Pen and neighboring 92-acre Boltz Lake, also in Grant County, with blue catfish for a research study. If you're looking for a bonus over what usually is found in these smaller, state-owned lakes, try these two spots. Channel catfish over 15 inches are common, and the potential to catch some larger blues isn't bad, either.

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