Skip to main content

Triple-Header Catfishing in Kentucky

Triple-Header Catfishing in Kentucky

You'll find fabulous whiskerfish angling on Barkley, Barren River and Green River lakes this summer season. Here's where you should try on each body of water.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Jeff Samsel

Armed with a topographical map beside him and a buoy marker in hand, an avid angler watches his graph closely as he moves his boat slowly over a submerged creek channel. He's looking for a ditch that drops into the creek channel. When he locates the ditch mouth, he drops his buoy overboard. He has marked a lot of shad ever since he turned his boat into this creek, so he is confident that catfish will be using the channel edge as well.

Catfishing has gone through a major transition over the past decade or so. While barefoot boys still sit on creek banks with cane poles in their hands, dropping night crawlers into potholes, the pursuit of catfish has become serious sport for many. Armed with high-quality gear and plentiful knowledge about catfish behavior and catfishing techniques, these anglers use great care as they search out the best spots and then set up to fish those spots.

Kentucky offers a wealth of opportunities for catfishermen. From small creeks to the mighty Ohio and Mississippi rivers, thousands of miles of catfish-filled streams flow through the Commonwealth, and many of those creeks and rivers are impounded. Reservoirs provide room for catfish to roam and to grow, along with offering space for more fishermen to spread out.

Instead of seeking to pick from so many fine destinations, we turned to information from the folks who know. We looked at the fishing forecast that the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) publishes each year and selected a few of the large reservoirs that earned "excellent" ratings for one or more species of catfish. Let's take a closer look at the high-quality catfish offerings of Barkley, Barren River and Green River lakes.


The final impoundment along the Cumberland River, Barkley Lake has earned national acclaim for its big-cat offerings. This lake produces big numbers and sizes, and it supports channel, flathead and blue catfish.

Blues predominate through the lower main body of the lake, which is a big part of Barkley's appeal. Blue catfish are big-river cats and are mostly confined to the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio and Mississippi rivers in Kentucky. Blues are bigger than channels overall, so anglers catch big numbers of 5- to 15-pound catfish, instead of 1- to 5-pound cats with occasional larger fish.


Of course, big-fish potential always exists. Flatheads and blues have plenty of room to grow in Barkley's 57,920 acres (45,500 of which are in Kentucky). The lake is highly fertile and supports high numbers of threadfin and gizzard shad, skipjack herring and assorted sunfish to keep the cats well fed.

Tennessee's state-record blue cat offers evidence of how big catfish can grow in Lake Barkley. Caught in the upper end of the lake in 1998, the record blue catfish weighed 112 pounds, only 4 pounds shy of the current all-tackle world record. Commercial anglers also have caught numerous triple-digit weight cats from Barkley over the years.

Through summer, most catfishermen focus the bulk of their attention on the main Cumberland River channel, especially if they have blue catfish in mind. Most use cut skipjack or shad, either fishing the baits on tightlines or anchoring and putting them on the bottom. For either technique, fishing is best when water is being pulled through the Barkley Dam, which creates a current through the lake.

The most popular technique is tight-line fishing. Using three-way rigs, fished straight down, anglers move their boats slowly along with their trolling motors, and keeping the weight tapping the bottom so the bait is just off the bottom. They will work their offerings up and down ledges, along the edges of the channels and over structural features like humps and long points.

An alternative technique is to select a specific spot, like the edge of a significant hump, a major bend in the river channel or the mouth of a ditch, put down an anchor and lay several lines on the bottom. Some anglers turn to this method after they locate a fish.

For anglers who don't know the lake well or who aren't adept at doing a lot of searching with their electronics, outside bends in the main channel, where the old channel pushes close to the banks of the main lake to create a bluff, are predictably good locations for catfish. This type of habitat is more common in the upper (southern) reaches of the Kentucky portion of the lake.

Outside the main channel, virtually every cove in the lake supports plenty of channel catfish, along with small blues. The best summer fishing in the coves occurs after dark, when the channels move shallow and get more active. If it's windy, a lot of anglers like to drift, dragging baits along the bottom. An alternative is to pick a significant point, anchor right over the top of it, and fan several lines out at various depths. The lines that get the bites will dictate how to adjust as the night progresses. Small pieces of cut shad and chicken livers make very good bait for channel catfish in the coves.

There is no reciprocal licensing agreement covering Barkley Lake, so Kentucky anglers need to stay north of the border. Lake access is very good, with more than 40 boating access points in the Kentucky portion alone. Most access areas also offer some room for bank-fishing. For guided fishing or more on the lake, check out www.kentuckylakebarkley. com.

The fishing forecasts actually lists Barkley as "Barkley Lake and tailwater," and most anglers think of the lake and the river below it as a single fishery. The Barkley tailwater is absolutely loaded with catfish, and it produces some giant blues every year. Bank access is good, and anglers do catch a lot of catfish from the rocky shores by throwing pieces of cut skipjack toward edges of currents and letting Carolina rigs bounce on the bottom. A float between the weight and the hook helps keep the bait up just a bit and spares a lot of snags.

Boating anglers typically fish within the first mile below the dam, often by drifting. Using three-way rigs and big chunks of cut shad or skipjack, they bounce their weights along the bottom, keeping the bait just up from the rocks. They go through a lot of hardware, but they also catch a lot of catfish. Prime locations are the backsides of rockpiles and "slots" where turbines are off but water is running nearby on at least one side. If all the turbines are off, catfishing can be tough in the tailwater area.


"People just don't fish for them much," said Bonny Laflin about the catfish

on Barren River Lake, a 10,000-acre impoundment in the southwestern part of the state. Laflin, the regional fisheries biologist for the KDFWR over the lake, always sees plenty of catfish in gill net samples, and catfishermen who do fish the lake consistently report good success.

An old lake that drains a lot of farmland, Barren River Lake is pretty fertile. It supports a huge population of gizzard shad, plus a mix of alewives and occasional threadfin shad. The threadfin show up in the surveys some years but not others, Laflin said.

Barren River Lake earned an excellent rating for its channel catfish and a good rating for its flathead catfish in the fishing predictions. Channel catfish, which abound throughout the lake, make up the bulk of the catfish population. Flatheads, although far less numerous than their cousins, grow to much larger sizes.

All size classes of channel catfish are very well represented in Barren River Lake. With plenty of food and very little fishing pressure, the catfish here have the opportunity to grow big. For summer fishing, Laflin said that anglers should find plenty of catfish everywhere, except the open main body at lower end of the lake. The lower end of the lake turns fairly clear in the summer and doesn't offer really good catfish habitat.

"The Barren River arm and the major creek arms all have plenty of catfish throughout them," he said.

Barren River Lake has two major arms - Barren River and Beaver Creek. Each is joined by one fairly large creek arm, plus numerous small creeks, cuts and coves. The creek and river channels all twist and turn repeatedly, creating a lot of good river-bend holes, points and flats. Generally speaking, channel catfish will be in the river holes or creek mouths by day and on flats adjacent to them by night.

Flathead fishermen do best in the upper halves of major creek and river arms, setting up along outside bends in the old channels. Flatheads are river fish, even in reservoirs, and they rarely stray far from main channels. They also are very structure and cover oriented, so they usually will be close to some kind of break and tight to some kind of cover. Because Barren River Lake gets drawn down hard every winter, cover is fairly sparse, making every downed tree that falls into fairly deep water a potential gold mine.

Because they are predators, not scavengers, flathead catfish like live fish. Bluegills are probably the most popular live-bait offerings. Big, live gizzard shad also make very good flathead bait. Flathead fishermen will set up over deep water and drop their offerings close to any cover they locate. They use powerful conventional reels, rods that have a lot of backbone and at least 30-pound-test line. Some anglers like to go much heavier than that.

Flatheads are also the most nocturnal of the catfish, so there is something to be said for going after them at night. The setup is the same, except the fish often will move up out of the deep holes to feed on adjacent flats. Most night-fishermen pick a spot and stick with it, as catfish will move about more at night. Also, setting up in new spots is more difficult after dark. Many anglers will catch their bait late in the afternoon, pick a spot, put out their live baits and then wait on the flatheads to make their move.

A good strategy for night-fishing on Barren River Lake is to anchor along the edge of a hole and put lines both in deep water and on the flats. By putting small pieces of cut bait on a couple of bass-sized rods and live fish on much larger outfits, anglers can enjoy good action from channel catfish while keeping the opportunity open to lock horns with a jumbo flathead as well.

A dozen boat ramps provide access to all parts of Barren River Lake. Barren River Lake State Resort Park offers a marina, a lodge, cabins and a campground. For information, call (800) 255-7275 or log onto


Green River Lake has two major things in common with Barren River Lake as a catfish destination. First, it supports a very good population of channel cats, with fish of all sizes in the mix. Also, very few people fish for whiskerfish here. "They don't get nearly the fishing pressure I think they ought to," Laflin said.

Less fertile than Barren River Lake, Green River Lake does not support as high a density of baitfish or catfish. The fisheries are otherwise similar, though. Green River Lake, which covers 8,210 acres, also produces very good quality channel catfish and supports a gizzard shad-dominated forage base. Channel catfishing earned an excellent rating in the most recent fishing predictions, with a note that the size distribution is very good.

Green River Lake also has flathead catfish in it. In fact, the river that the lake impounds and is named for yielded Kentucky's state-record flathead. However, flatheads are notably less numerous than they are in Barren River Lake and their population doesn't constitute a significant fishery, according to Laflin. Anglers who do target flatheads fish for them the same way they do on Barren River Lake.

Steep-sided and fairly deep through its lower half, Green River Lake offers better catfish habitat through its upper end. "There are catfish all the way through it, but the farther you go up into the headwaters, the better your chances generally are of catching more catfish," Laflin said.

Green River Lake has two major arms: the Green River, which is the longest and the largest, and Robinson Creek. A few smaller creeks feed both, but the lake doesn't have the same abundance of cuts, coves and small tributaries as Barren River Lake does. The water is generally deep, but there are some flats, especially in the upper ends of the arms. The entire lake is undeveloped, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers purchased all the land from ridge to ridge before they built the lake.

The edges of the flats provide good areas to set up during the summer, especially on those flats that are located just inside of deep bends or are beside creek mouths. Specific positions generally will vary by day or night. Through the day, catfish generally will be on the lower halves of the slopes and or even down in the holes beside the flats. At night they will get up on the flats, sometimes moving quite shallow. Anglers can do well by anchoring close to the edge and spreading several baits out on the bottom.

Beyond looking for good structure and changes of depths, anglers should look for baitfish in an area. If shad are piled up close to the bottom near a flat or over a point that stretches close to the main channel, channel catfish are almost certainly nearby.

Probably the best bait for large channel catfish in Green River Lake is cut gizzard shad. Young channels eat a big assortment of aquatic species, including crawfish, minnows and anything else they can find, dead or alive. Bigger channels eat far more fish, especially shad and minnows. A large gizzard shad can be cut into several pieces, so a few big shad will provide enough bait for a lot of fishing. Other good bait choices include cut bluegills, chicken livers and commercial stink baits.

If the catfish don't cooperate on Green River Lake, anglers should move. There are plenty of catfish in the lake. An alternative to anchoring is to move slowly along at the edge of a flat, like anglers do on Barkley Lake, and bounce baits right off the bottom.

A dozen boat ramps provide access to all parts of Green River Lake. Green River Lake State Park, which is located at the lower end of the Robinson Creek arm, offers a marina and a large campground. For information, call (800) 255-7275 or log onto


Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South. For more on this book, log onto To order a book, mail a check for $21.95 (postage included) to Jeff Samsel, 173 Elsie Street, Clarkesville, GA 30523.

Discover even more in our monthly magazine,

and have it delivered to your door!

Subscribe to Kentucky Game & Fish

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now