Channel cats, bullheads and big flatheads await anglers on these proven summertime lakes and rivers throughout the Keystone State. All you have to do is pick one!
With a blue-collar persona to match its whiskered mug, catfish are low on the glamour list of game fish. But if you seek species that are abundant and hard-fighting, with the ability to reach impressive dimensions, then the state's numerous catfish waters will be of noteworthy interest.
Channel catfish -- or forktails -- are the foundation of the Commonwealth's catfishing clan.
Well distributed across much of the state, this working-class whiskerfish can be found in most rivers, streams and reservoirs. Most channel cat fisheries host good numbers of modest-sized fish, along with some bigger specimens.
The current state-record channel catfish is 35 pounds, 2.5 ounces. Caught from the Lehigh Canal by Austin Roth III, that record has stood since 1991. Roth's trophy came from an eastern Pennsylvania water, where channel cats have been successfully introduced over the years. But channel cats are not believed to be native to the waters of the Atlantic slope, which in Pennsylvania include the Susquehanna, Delaware and Potomac river drainages.
Native channel catfish waters are believed to occur in the western portion of the state. The Ohio River drainage, which includes the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers as well as the Ohio itself, is considered to be the species' native range.
Regardless of the species' status -- native or exotic -- solid channel catfish fisheries exist in most areas of the state. Many populations are self-supporting. Where habitat limitations or other factors limit catfish reproduction, forktail numbers are bolstered by maintenance stocking by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Channel cats could well be classified as both scavengers and predators. Traditional fishing tactics often include using smelly non-living offerings, including chicken livers (or beef or even deer livers, which are tougher and stay on the hook longer), cut baits and commercial catfish concoctions. But the opportunistic channel cat isn't shy about hitting artificial lures like as jigs or crankbaits.
Three of the top five channel cats registered in 2007 in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's annual big fish contest came from Lake Erie.
Three of the top five channel cats registered in 2007 in the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's annual big fish contest came from Lake Erie. Anglers often hook up with big forktails when pursing other species.
The lures listed for these catches -- which included the top channel cat of the year at 24 pounds -- were an Erie Dearie (weight-forward spinner), a drop-shot rig and a tube jig.
Across the state, channel cats commonly slam crankbaits intended for bass or walleyes. You could say that channel catfish are aggressive fish, willing to bite on a variety of presentations, which makes them winners in most folks' book.
Flathead catfish represent a smaller, but still significant piece of the state's overall whiskerfish picture. Like channel cats, flatheads are native to the Ohio River watershed. In recent years, they've been found in the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers as well. In fact, the current state-record flathead was taken from the spillway section of Blue Marsh Lake. That 48-pound, six-ounce shovelhead topped a 47-pound Ohio River fish that formerly held the record.
Flatheads show up in some odd places. A few years ago, fisheries management personnel discovered two big flatheads in Cambria County's Lake Rowena, a 13-acre lake best known for providing good action for stocked trout. It's believed the flatheads may be been introduced to the lake along with channel cats.
The best flathead fisheries tend to be in the fish's native range. Decent numbers of flatheads have been found in the Schuylkill River, though that population of fish may negatively impact panfish species in that river section.
Though channel cats have been known to hit an assortment of baits and lures, flatheads are pretty much predators, preferring live or dead bait.
The final component of the Keystone State trinity puzzle is the bullhead. Though commonly pan-sized, both brown and yellow bullheads can grow to decent proportions. Each year, bullheads in the 2- to 4-pound range are taken from state waters, though most fish run from 10 to 16 inches.
Bullheads are eager biters, a plentiful resource often untapped in most waters, and make an excellent target species for novice anglers.
By late summer, river levels are usually low. As the dog days set in, the action for bass, walleyes, trout and panfish can become spotty. Now is one of the best times to go cattin'.
Starting in the traditional catfish range of western Pennsylvania, here's a look at 10 top waters to try this month:
The middle and lower portions of the Allegheny provide about 200 miles of free-flowing and impounded water, a prime resource for catfish anglers in both the northwestern and southwestern portions of the state. Both flatheads and channel cats are found in the Allegheny.
The middle portion of the river -- where it's free-flowing -- runs from the Kinzua Dam tailrace to East Brady, a distance of about 125 miles.
The best catfishing water begins around Tionesta, where the cooling influence of the Kinzua's multi-level discharge is no longer a factor.
A good boat ramp is available in Tionesta, which leads into one of the middle Allegheny's dredge holes. Such deep pools, formed by dredging operations decades ago, provide the deep habitat catfish prefer.
Another deep dredge hole is at Oil City, where good boat and shore access are available on the east bank of the river south of town.
A few miles below Oil City, another deep hole can be found at the mouth of Two Mile Creek.
Dredge holes aren't the only places to find catfish. Dozens of natural deep pools exist along this lengthy stretch of river. On this portion of the Allegheny, bridge piers can be catfish hotspots. Current scours out a depression at the base of each pier, and submerged wood cover that snags on the
structure adds to the likelihood that it will hold cats.
The navigable portion of the Allegheny begins near East Brady. Eight locks and dams impound the river from Brady down to Pittsburgh. The tailrace areas of the dams often provide good shore-fishing options.
Fishing platforms are present at L&Ds 9, 8, 6 and 5 near Rimer, Mosgrove, Clinton and Freeport, respectively.
At the heads of the deeper holes in the lower river, boat-fishing is tops. Good boat access is available at East Brady, Tarentum, Cowanshannock Creek, Freeport and Harmar.
The entire Monongahela River is navigable, from its entrance into the state from West Virginia to its merger with the Allegheny in downtown Pittsburgh. While the dams on the Allegheny are fixed-crest and of modest height, several dams on the Monongahela are gated, high-profile affairs. Thus the Monongahela displays more of a lake-like character than the Allegheny.
Six navigation pools are found in Pennsylvania's portion of the Monongahela River. The quality of the catfishing depends on the habitat present.
As on the Allegheny, shore-fishing for cats is often available in the tailrace areas below the dams. Many of the better boat-fishing spots are found near the entrances of feeder waters. Such mergers often form rock bars, creating the deep pools and eddies that concentrate catfish.
In many cases, rock bars provide good shore-fishing spots, too.
One of the better areas of the Monongahela River stretches from the Speers Access area up to the tailwaters of the Maxwell Locks and Dams, found upriver of Brownsville.
Along this river there are many feeder waters forming the good, deeper catfish habitat just described.
Boat anglers can expect good action plying the waters below the Maxwell Locks.
Catfish often turn on when water is discharged and the level in the lock chamber is lowered. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Speers Access near the Interstate Route 70 bridge provides excellent boat access.
Like the Monongahela River, the Ohio flows through gated dams and over fixed crest dams before it leaves our state. The 18-mile Montgomery Pool -- from the Montgomery Locks and Dams up to the Dashields Locks and Dam -- contains a wealth of good catfishing spots.
Just below the Dashields Dam, the merger of Little Sewickley Creek features a deep hole that can be accessed by shore-anglers. A couple of miles downriver, Big Sewickley Creek forms a good-sized hole that provides good catfishing habitat for the boat angler.
On down the river, there are several other good areas, including the remnants of an old lock and dam that create deep, slow habitat on both sides of the river.
The mouth of the Beaver River near Rochester is a catfish hotspot for both boat and shore anglers. Shore anglers score on up the Beaver, at the tailrace of the old dam found there. Boats can run up the Beaver, though it's all a no-wake zone.
Public boat access to this portion of the river is by way of the commission's ramp at Rochester. There's also a ramp in Leetsdale (formerly leased to the Commission). Use of this ramp now requires a seasonal permit.
Among the best sources of information for fishing the Ohio, Monongahela and lower Allegheny are the navigation charts from the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Log on to the Corps' Web site at www.lrp.usace.armyfor details on ordering.
CROOKED CREEK LAKE
Armstrong County's Crooked Creek Lake is a federal flood control lake covering 350 acres.
Crooked Creek is best known as a lake for largemouth bass and crappies. But when the PFBC last surveyed the lake, channel catfish were the most abundant species present. Yellow and brown bullheads were also collected in good numbers.
The serpentine shape of this narrow waterway lends itself to several extended points that collect channel cats during the evening and provide key areas for boat anglers. Shore anglers will find the best access in the lower end of the lake, both uplake and downlake of the swimming area.
Crooked Creek has a thick population of gizzard shad, which helps fatten up its game fish. Die-offs of shad are typical, particularly during cold-water periods, and it's likely that channel cats make use of both live and dead shad.
There is no horsepower restriction on Crooked Creek Lake. During summertime weekends, boating activity can be intense. The U.S. Corps of Engineers provides a boat ramp and a soft-landing area.
Phone (724) 763-2764 for an updated message on lake conditions.
Easy access, its proximity to population centers and a varied fishery keep the pressure on Butler County's Lake Arthur. Despite nearly round-the-clock attention from the angling community the year around, the lake still produces great catches of fish, channel cats included.
Last spring, PFBC personnel used trap nets to collect nearly 400 channel cats, making this species the most abundant game fish gathered during the survey. The longest forktail measured over 28 inches.
Though channel cats are well distributed throughout the 3,300-acre lake, two of the better areas to key in on are the bridges that carry routes 528 and 422 over the lake. These major structures provide necked-down areas that funnel food to waiting catfish and also furnish cover.
Channel cats also take up residence along the lake's submerged railroad bed. Numerous anglers trolling crankbaits for walleyes, myself included, can attest to that.
Lake Arthur is in Moraine State Park. A 20-horsepower motor restriction is in place. Boat access is available around the lake. There are a large parking lot and good ramp at the Route 528 bridge, as well as one called the "Church Ramp" across the lake. The Bear Run Access provides a good spot for folks wishing to fish the Route 422 bridge.
This 3,500-acre lake in Mercer County contains a robust population of channel catfish. The PFBC's last trap-net survey, conducted in 2005, collected 750 forktails. Many of the fish ran in the 18- to 22-inch range, with the largest running to 28 inches.
A multi-use federal flood control lake, Shenango lies in a gently rolling hill setting. It's rich in points and humps as well as rocky causeways, and the necked-down areas they provide. Bridges carry Route 18, Route 846 and a railroad across the lake.
There's no horsepower restriction on Shenango. It, like Crooked Creek, can get
crowded during nice summer days. The Shenango and Clark recreation areas provide boat ramps that are open 24 hours -- an important consideration for catfishing, which often takes place at night.
Call (724) 962-4384 for an undated message on lake conditions and recreation information.
The mighty Susquehanna provides anglers in central and eastern Pennsylvania with excellent catfishing opportunities.
Channel cats may be found in both the West and North Branch of the Susquehanna, but the main stem of the river provides perhaps the most consistent action. The Dauphin Narrows portion of the river, just above Harrisburg at Marysville, is a popular channel catfishing area. Recently, when the PFBC electro-shocked the Marietta portion of the river, it revealed good numbers of channel cats, plus quite a few flatheads as well.
The Marietta portion of the Susquehanna may be accessed by boat from either the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Marietta access or the East Donegal Township ramp at its river front park.
Northeastern Pennsylvania anglers, particularly those from the Wilkes-Barre-Scranton area, have a good catfish resource in Lackawanna Lake. Found in the state park of the same name, this 200-acre impoundment contains good numbers and sizes of channel cats, plus a fine population of bullheads.
Last spring, the PFBC surveyed Lackawanna, primarily to study the lake's panfish density and size structure. The lake census also revealed a good population of channel catfish, with the biggest fish stretching to 28 inches. While channel cats appear to be in modest numbers, the bullhead fishery is denser.
Both brown and yellow bullheads are present. Brown bullheads topped out at 15 inches, while yellow bullheads to 13 inches were collected.
Lackawanna Lake lies about 10 miles north of Scranton. Three boat launches are provided. Motors are limited to electrics only.
Phone the state park office at (570) 945-3239 for more information.
Last spring, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission conducted a survey of this 1,450-acre Bucks County lake to determine if channel catfish were reproducing successfully. Not only did they conclude that the answer is yes, but they collected good numbers of both stocked and wild channel cats.
Fueled by a long-term maintenance-stocking program, Nockamixon has been a consistent producer of channel catfish. The 2007 survey trap-netted 97 channel cats up to 29 inches. Channel cats are present from years in which cats were not stocked, so it appears the fishery will continue as a self-supporting one.
Located in Nockamixon State Park, the lake has a 20-horsepower motor limit. For anglers, the most popular ramps are Haycock and Threemile Run.
Call the park office at (215) 529-7300 for additional information.
The Schuylkill, particularly the stretch within Valley Forge National Park, supports an excellent catfish population close to many anglers in the southeastern part of the state.
When the PFBC looked at this portion of the river three years ago, it found not only the excellent channel catfish fishery it expected, but numerous flathead catfish as well.
Channel cats outnumbered flatheads five to one. But the largest channel cat measured 30 inches in length, while the biggest shovelhead taped 36 inches.
The national park provides an access area for boats. There is also excellent shoreline access to this stretch of river.
For more information, call the park office at (610) 783-1000.