Kentucky's Underrated Catfish Hotspots

Kentucky's Underrated Catfish Hotspots

Places like Barkley and Barren River lakes, plus several others, continue to produce great numbers of big catfish each season without much fanfare.

With the sun dipping low, a boat ramp is bustling, mostly with folks pulling boats out. Most who have fished through the day look weary and have little to report. Fishing mostly for largemouth bass, they have battled a blazing sun and hordes of pleasure-boaters for only a few bites.

Going the other way on the same ramp, a crew of catfish anglers looks fresh, full of energy and anticipation. They have spent enough summer nights on this lake to know that the action will be fast. They are also pretty confident that they will have their favorite area of the lake to themselves.

When conditions get tough for many types of fishing, catfishing stays sizzling on several rivers and lakes in our state. And while catfish are among the most sought-after fish in Kentucky, they don't get a lot of fanfare. Catfish anglers quietly go about the business of catching fish while more glamorous species, like largemouth bass and brown trout, get the headlines.

Because catfish populations are almost always self-sustaining and don't require special management - and because some popular fish sampling techniques are inefficient for catching bottom-dwelling fish - fisheries biologists often don't even know a lot about specific waterways. Unless there has been a recent creel survey on a lake or catfish have been caught in samples directed toward other species, most of the biologists' knowledge is based on casual reports from fishermen.

Each year, the Kentucky Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) compiles a Fishing Forecast for lakes and rivers throughout the state. Regional biologists use data from various sampling efforts, along with creel surveys and casual information, to forecast fishing prospects for popular species on each lake.

Looking at the 2002 forecast, we found five lakes that have earned "excellent" ratings for channel catfish. All are much better known for other species, but the catfishing ought not be overlooked on any of them. These picks are also widely distributed in Kentucky, providing great prospects to anglers throughout all parts of the state.

Catfish are such successful breeders that there is no limit to the number of fish you can keep on these lakes. Photo by Michael Skinner

Barkley Lake's tailwater is famous for its catfish offerings, as is the head of the lake in Tennessee. Somehow, however, the 45,000 acres of the lake's main body in Kentucky tend to get overlooked by catfishermen.

All three major catfish species call Barkley home, with oversized blues getting the attention of trophy-cat specialists. Tennessee's state-record blue, which is only a few pounds shy of the world record, came from the upper end of Barkley, and 40-pound-plus blues are pretty commonly caught.

While Barkley's blues have gained a lot of fame, anglers largely overlook its huge numbers of channel catfish, which are much easier to find and catch. "Barkley has just incredible channel catfish densities," said Jerry Buynak, fisheries program coordinator for the KDFWR.

Buynak has seen Barkley's bounties both as a biologist and as a fisherman. As a biologist, he has seen samples suggest channel catfish densities of 100 pounds of fish per acre in places. As an angler, he has fished it both with rod and reel and with jugs many times, finding great success both ways.

Buynak noted that most of his rod and reel fishing has been in late June or early July, close to the spawn, so he and his buddy fished around boulders along the main lake. Fishing early in the morning, with light tackle and leeches on split-shot rigs, they would load up on cats in the 2- to 6-pound range.

After the spawn, those same fish will move up creeks and pile up on flats along edges of creek channels. Big tributaries like the Little River or Eddy Creek or one of dozens of bays that bound Barkley's main body are apt to be loaded with channel catfish at this time of the year.

For jug-fishing, Buynak and a buddy used motor-oil bottles, which they rig with about 3 feet of line and a hook. Again, they use leeches, but he noted that a lot of different kinds of bait could do the job. They will look for a big cove with the wind blowing, and they will spread several jugs into the mouth of that cover. They'll follow the bouncing jugs back into these coves, waiting for a dancing jug or two to indicate a hit. They would always catch lots of cats that way, he said.

Blues and flatheads are apt to be along the main Cumberland River channel, primarily in big holes. Both species feed best when current is pushing through the lake. The best bait for blues is a big chunk of cut skipjack or other oily baitfish. Flatheads prefer a big, live fish.

Access to Barkley is outstanding, with more than 40 ramps in the Kentucky portion. For updated fishing reports, log on to or call 1-800-448-1069. There is no reciprocal agreement between Tennessee and Kentucky for Barkley Lake. However, with 45,000 acres to explore, Kentucky catfish anglers have no need to go into Tennessee.

Barren River Lake earned an excellent rating for catfish in the Fishing Forecast. A note about the fishery stated that both flatheads and channels are numerous, with big fish in the mix. Ultra fertile, partly because it receives treated sewage from the town of Glasgow, Barren holds high densities of several fish species, including catfish.

Channel catfish provide good fishing, and anglers are likely to find them atop flats and over points in all parts of the lake through the summer. Channel cats, as their name suggests, prefer cover that is oriented around channel dropoffs. They will hold close to the drops through the day and move farther up the same flats and points at night to feed. Night-fishing is the most popular and productive approach on the lake.

As good as channel catfishing is, flatheads are the main attraction on this lake. Barren River Lake commonly produces heavyweight flatheads. However, despite its lofty reputation for big flatheads, this lake gets minimal hook-and-line fishing pressure. Most anglers put out setlines, "noodle" for the big flatheads during the spawn or target them by spearfishing.

Anglers who want to target Barren River Lake's flatheads by hook-and-line definitely should do the bulk of their fishing at night. Even more so than other kinds of catfish, flatheads are very nocturnal. The best bet is to go out a few hours before dark to scout ho

les, pick a spot or two and then fish those spots through the night.

River fish by nature, flatheads still relate heavily to river channels in reservoirs, even though the channel edges are inundated. They especially like deep river bends that have plenty of cover stretched down into the deep water. While river bends in all parts of the lake are apt to hold fish, they are far easier to recognize in the riverine upper end of the lake.

Adult flatheads feed almost exclusively on live fish, so live fish of various sorts are definitely the bait of choice for flathead fishing. Most anglers like either sunfish or big gizzard shad. Whatever the bait, flathead fishing requires stout tackle. Barren River Lake commonly yields 50-pound-plus flatheads to setline fishermen.

Barren River Lake impounds 10,000 acres on the Barren River in Barren, Allen and Monroe counties. Along with the namesake river, Beaver Creek is a major tributary.

Access to Barren River Lake is good, with 12 boat ramps spread around the lake. Barren River Lake State Park, which sits on a peninsula between Barren River and Peter Creek, has a full-service marina. For information, call 1-800-325-0052.

The Green River produced the giant flathead that still holds the Kentucky state record (a 97-pounder caught by Esker Carroll in 1956), and Green River Lake produces more than its share of super-sized cats. Along with its big flatheads, this lake yields enough big channel catfish for the lake to have earned an excellent rating on this year's forecast. The report noted that all sizes of fish are available.

Green River Lake covers 8,210 acres on the Green River near Campbellsville. It is steep-sided but not overly deep. Its waters are very clear, especially in the summer. It is not nearly as fertile as Barkley or Barren River lakes, but it still supports an abundance of channel catfish. The lake has minimal cover, forcing fish to pile up on any cover that exists. Rocky areas tend to hold catfish in this lake, and bluffs and boulders are both worth keying on.

The Green River and Robinson Creek arms of the lake both hold plenty of catfish, and cats are apt to be well distributed in the lake through the dog days of August. Channel cats are likely to be on flats that front major channels. Meanwhile, flatheads are more likely to be down in the channels, especially along big bends through the upper half of the Green River arms.

Anglers targeting channel cats, which dominate catches, typically look for fish on a graph over the tops of flats and points before setting up. Catfish, not surprisingly, are usually close to the bottom and grouped up. They also tend to congregate close to channel edges. Once they find some fish, most anglers set out several lines rigged with chicken livers, night crawlers, cut fish or some type of commercially manufactured catfish bait.

Flathead anglers aren't always able to locate specific fish because flatheads often bury themselves in very thick cover. Instead, they seek out the best-looking flatheads holes they can find, put down several live fish and wait to see whether the flatheads will cooperate.

Access to Green River Lake is excellent, with more than a dozen boat ramps spread through all parts of the lake. Green River State Park offers boating access and has a marina with boat rentals and a cabin.

"Taylorsville has an incredible population of channel catfish," Buynak said. "There are very few flatheads, but there are some really big ones." The KDFWR is also considering stocking blues in this lake to provide a bonus for anglers and to keep Taylorsville's incredible shad population in check.

A relatively small lake at 3,050 acres, the lake is convenient to large population centers, and Taylorsville gets a lot of fishing pressure. However, only a small portion of that pressure is directed toward the lake's thriving catfish fishery.

Catfish are abundant in all parts of Taylorsville, according to Buynak, who worked on this lake for 15 years. He noted that the lake has a lot of broad, shallow flats, which are good areas for the catfish to cruise and feed in. He recalled arriving at the lake one morning just as some bank-fishermen were leaving. They had caught catfish all night long from right next to the boat ramp.

Taylorsville is extremely fertile and loaded with shad, which keep the lake's biggest channel catfish fat and happy. Because baitfish become important forage for larger channel cats, anglers who want to target larger fish ought to bait at least one line with cut shad.

For the lake's jumbo flatheads, Buynak suggested that anglers look in the upper portions of major creeks and the Salt River. He pointed toward undercut banks along the channels as potentially good holding areas. Live bream probably make the best flathead bait up the rivers and creeks, but some fishermen prefer live shad or other kinds of fish.

Because of Taylorsville's immense popularity, night-fishing has even greater appeal than normal on this lake. Channel catfishermen are apt to catch plenty of fish by day or by night. It's just nicer to be on the lake at night. Flathead fishermen are really much better off going after hours.

Five boat ramps provide good access to all parts of Taylorsville Lake. Taylorsville Lake State Park operates a marina on the lake. For information, call the park marina at (503) 477-8766.

A small lake in Eastern Kentucky, Yatesville Lake stands out from most other lakes in that part of the state in a couple of ways. First, it is more fertile than most Eastern Kentucky lakes, which is partly because it is only 10 years old. Also, while high hills surround Yatesville Lake, its waters are surprisingly shallow. The average depth is only 17 feet, and it has fairly extensive flats.

According to the Fishing Forecast, channel catfish numbers are high in Yatesville Lake, with a good distribution of sizes in all areas of the lake. Through the dog days, most catfish will be on flats or on the tops of points that extend to the edge of a major creek channel. Yatesville impounds Blaine Creek, a major tributary of the Big Sandy River, but several good-sized creeks form lake arms, creating a lot of edges for whiskerfish to relate to.

Yatesville has numerous fish attractors that consist of large brushpiles. These are strategically located atop flats that are close to channels. Catfish will hold in brush, just like other kinds of fish will. However, they also will cruise the adjacent flats to feed and will follow scents to food.

A great strategy on Yatesville is to begin at a fish attractor and then go slowly toward the channel edge, watching the graph. If there are fish on the drop near the channel edge, whether above, below or on the slope, there's a good chance they are channel catfish. Anglers can pick a spot, based on what they see, and anchor and spread out a few lines

on the bottom baited with chicken livers.

Another thing that makes Yatesville unique is that it has no shad in it. Therefore, live crawfish or big minnows will best match the most important forage for large channel catfish. Anglers using big, live craws or minnows may also catch some medium-sized flatheads from Yatesville, but heavyweight flatheads are unlikely at this point. Because the lake is only 10 years old and the creeks it impounded were a bit small to be good habitat for large flatheads, giant cats are probably still a few years down the road.

Four boat ramps on Yatesville Lake provide access to all parts of the lake. Yatesville Lake State Park, which is the only developed part of the lake's shore, offers a campground and full-service marina, with boat rentals. For information, call the marina at (606) 673-1490.

Kentucky has no limits on catfish statewide or for any of the waters profiled. For methods other than rod and reel fishing, check out a copy of the 2002 Kentucky Sport Fishing & Boating Guide for compete regulations. Another booklet, Kentucky's Boating & Fishing Access Sites, is very helpful for trip planning. Both publications are available from any KDFWR office.

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