June 26, 2019
By Brent Frazee
In Great Plains states, where the walleye is king, big catfish don’t cultivate the same following as their sharp-toothed counterparts.
But maybe they should.
From the monstrous blues of Kansas to the trophy channels of North Dakota and Nebraska, the Great Plains offers some of the nation’s best catfishing.
Here are a few places where fishermen will have a shot at hooking some line-stretching cats in 2019.
If you’re in search of a big tug, head to Milford Reservoir in northeast Kansas.
The 16,000-acre body of water, the biggest reservoir in the Sunflower State, is home to some monster blue catfish.
Check out the lake record: an 82.05-pound trophy caught in 2013 by Stefanie Stanley of Olathe, Kansas. Then consider that catches of 50-pound fish, considered rare in many reservoirs, no longer turn heads at Milford.
Yes, Milford is that good. Once a secret, the reservoir now attracts fishermen from across the nation for its trophy fishery.
Ryan Gnagy of Prime Time Catfishing has helped customers catch blue catfish up to 60 pounds in as little as 2 feet of water in the spring. In March, April and May, he will locate concentrations of blue cats with his side-scan then anchor and cast fresh cut shad.
In the summer months, Gnagy often trolls with cut baits on either long lines or with the aid of planer boards to get the presentation off to the side of the boat. Either way, it works. Catches of 25 to 30 blue catfish in a variety of sizes aren’t uncommon on Gnagy’s guide trips.
He finds his best success on the north end of the reservoir, but the Madison, School and Curtis creek arms can all be good in the spring, he said.
Fishermen can thank the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) for much of that. After KDWPT started rearing Kansas blue cats in its hatcheries, Milford was among the first to be stocked. It was an experiment when the reservoir first received fish in 1990, but it didn’t take long for that plan to pay off. The population quickly took off, and it has grown to the point now that stockings are no longer needed. Natural reproduction is enough to sustain the fishery.
To protect those trophy fish, KDWPT has instituted a slot limit on blue catfish, calling on anglers to release all fish from 25 to 40 inches and allowing them to keep only one fish over 40 pounds.
A channel-catfish gem: For trophy channel cats, put John Redmond Reservoir in the travel plans.
Fish in the 20-pound class can be caught at this shallow, murky reservoir in eastern Kansas. The fishing is best in the early fall months when cormorants migrate in and roost in flooded trees. Fishermen cast fresh cut shad to the base of that timber, where channel cats concentrate to feed on the cormorants’ shad-rich droppings. But big fish are caught other times of the year trolling or drifting with shad on the flats.
Looking for channel-cat heaven? Travel to Calamus Reservoir in northeast Nebraska.
The 5,200-acre irrigation reservoir is no secret to avid fishermen seeking big, whiskered fish. The long strip reservoir is known for its deep, clear water, abundant shad and line-stretching channel cats.
David Studebaker, who runs the Catfish Chasers tournament circuit, can attest to that. He calls Calamus one of the best catfish reservoirs in the nation.
“There are places where you will catch more channel cats, but Calamus is hard to beat for size,” said Studebaker, who lives in Harveyville, Kansas. “The average fish there weighs in the teens, and that’s saying something.”
Studebaker has caught and released many channel catfish in the 20- to 25-pound class at Calamus. He caught a 23-pounder in August 2018, fishing in – get this – 57 feet of water with cut shad.
Consider that the winning team of a two-day-long Catfish Chasers tournament in August brought in 10 catfish, most of them channels, weighing 180 pounds to the scales. The big-fish winner reeled in a channel cat that weighed 24.30 pounds.
The reservoir gets heavy fishing pressure because of its reputation and many fishermen practice catch-and-release on channel catfish 10 pounds or larger. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission stocks 25,000 5-inch channel cats each spring to bolster the population. Calamus doesn’t have the density of channel catfish that many of Nebraska’s waters do, but it definitely offers the quality.
Another Nebraska reservoir that offers giant channel catfish is Merritt in the Sandhills of the north-central part of the state. There, too, big whiskered fish are the norm, not the exception.
Tyler Brown, who runs the Tooth and Whisker Guide Service, finds success in the dead of summer, drifting main-lake flats with cut bait or blood bait in 20 to 50 feet of water. His Facebook page is filled with photos of customers proudly displaying trophy channel catfish.
“Those big fish are roaming the flats, so you want to cover as much water as you can,” Brown said. “Our best fishing is in August, after they have spawned and they’re feeding.
“But we’ll have good fishing all the way into the fall. We’ll even catch them through the ice on jigging spoons tipped with a (baitfish) head.”
Brown and his customers have caught channel catfish up to 25 pounds and he knows bigger ones still roam the murky water.
The state-record channel catfish – 41.5 pounds – was caught at Merritt in 1986. Recent surveys by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission confirmed what fisheries officials suspected: Merritt doesn’t offer great densities of channel cats but it does have some big ones. About 65 percent of the cats sampled measured 25 inches or longer.
Brad Durick will tell you his job description is really quite simple.
“My job is to put people who hire me on the fish of a lifetime,” he said.
Durick guides on the Red River near Grand Forks, North Dakota, a place where the channel catfish, not the walleye, is king.
People from across the nation flock to the murky river for a shot at some of the world’s biggest channel catfish. Durick guided customers from 19 states last year and a lot of them caught their personal best catfish.
“The Red River is a destination,” Durick said. “People read about how good the channel cat fishing is and they’ll travel.
“Most of the time, they’re not looking for fish to eat. They’re looking for that trophy fish they can pose with and then release.”
So, how big is big? Let’s just say that fish weighing in the teens aren’t uncommon if conditions are right. Durick’s customers have caught channel cats from 15 to 20 pounds with one that weighed close to 30 pounds.
Durick fishes in the heart of North Dakota’s big-fish territory. When there is current, he fishes the Grand Forks area, a stretch of the Red River filled with classic channel-cat cover. But if conditions aren’t right, he will take his customers north to the Drayton area, where the habitat isn’t as impressive but the catfish are.
Big fish can be found in the Red River from that point all the way until it flows north into Canada.
Durick targets river bends, the upper end of holes, current breaks and cover such as large rocks or logs. He will anchor above that structure and have his customers make long casts to the chosen spot.
He uses 7-and-a-half-foot casting rods, with baitcasting reels spooled with 30-pound test monofilament line. He uses 7/0 hooks and small pieces of cut suckers or goldeyes.
The best fishing often takes place the entire month of May into early June, then again from late July through September.
So, why is the Red River such a good big-cat fishery? Fisheries officials credit fertile water, an abundant forage base, the fact that the cats are long-lived and restrictive fishing regulations (only one channel measuring more than 24 inches may be taken per day on the North Dakota portion of the Red River).
Another river system in North Dakota that produces plenty of channel catfish is the Missouri on the western part of the state. It contains good numbers, though the size of the fish is nowhere near as the ones in the Red.
Catfish are the Rodney Dangerfield of the fish world in South Dakota. They just don’t get any respect. In yet another part of the nation where walleyes are the marquee attraction, catfish don’t even get a minor credit.
That’s too bad. Fisheries officials with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks say the Missouri River reservoirs are teeming with channel catfish.
“Channel catfish are our most underutilized resource,” said Mike Smith, an area fisheries supervisor for Game, Fish and Parks. “There are tons of them in our Missouri River reservoirs. There are times when you can catch 5-pound fish on cast after cast.
“But they still don’t get much of a following. When we do our fish preference surveys, channel catfish are down near the bottom of the list.”
Take the hint: anglers who like to fish for channel catfish should head to South Dakota.
Oahe, Sharpe, Francis Case, and Lewis and Clark reservoirs all hold excellent populations of channel cats. During the spring and early summer, large concentrations of the whiskered fish can be found in the backs of bays on Oahe, Sharpe and Francis Case. Fish weighing 10 pounds or more are common, according to Geno Adams, fisheries program administrator for Game, Fish and Parks.
During the summer, large concentrations of channel cats roam the water below the dams. And the braided channel of the Niobrara Delta on Lewis and Clark Lake holds catfish year-round.
Tom Bruno, who runs the Major League Adventures Guide Service, has seen just how impressive that channel-cat fishing can be.
One of Bruno’s favorite spots is Lake Sharpe below Oahe Dam. When there is good current, that tailwaters section can attract big concentrations of channel cats, especially in summer and early fall.
Looking for a big bite? Try the Lower James and Missouri rivers below Gavin’s Point Dam.
Adams labels that water as the best in South Dakota for trophy flathead catfish. The state record (63 pounds, 8 ounces) was caught on the James in 2006. A number of “Proud Angler” flathead catfish (15 pounds and bigger) are caught annually below Gavin’s Point.