There is a song recorded by country music star Kenny Chesney that mentions driving out to the lake to see if the catfish are jumping and then setting our baits. Well, regardless of whether the catfish are actually jumping or not, it is most definitely time to set those baits. Warm weather has arrived in earnest, and the temperature is not the only thing getting hotter; the catfish bite is sizzling.
Some of the best catfishing of the year is straight ahead in the weeks to come. Whether heading out to the lake as the song mentions or setting up shop on one of our many rivers, Prairie State anglers have lots of options for great whiskerfish action. To help get the ball rolling, we have checked with biologists from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, looked at creel surveys and sampling data and talked with local and pro catfish anglers to get the latest information on the hottest catfish waters in the state. Although there is no way to include all the great hotspots, here is our look at some of the best places at which to target whiskerfish this year.
First up is our largest river, which provides immeasurable access to a tremendous population of catfish. The river forms the entire western edge of the state and stretches nearly 600 miles along the Illinois border. The northern portion of the river is broken into pools formed by 14 navigational dams. The southern portion is more characterized by open river, although there are some wing dams present. In all, the stretch of river bordering Illinois provides more than 260,000 acres of water.
All three species of catfish are plentiful in the river. Channel catfish are the most abundant and are found throughout the river system. Most of the fish caught average about 1 to 3 pounds, but fish up to 5 to 8 pounds are very common. Although not caught as often, there are plenty of channel cats in the range of 10 to 15 pounds.
For those anglers wanting to tangle with a real brute, the Mississippi River is definitely a place with a greater possibility of that than most locations. Enormous blue catfish and jumbo flathead catfish are found in the river. In fact, the current Illinois state record and former world-record blue catfish came from the Mississippi River and weighed an incredible 124 pounds. That fish, caught in 2005, has since been surpassed, but still ranks third in the nation behind a monster 143-pound fish caught in Virginia and a 130-pounder from the Missouri River.
Obviously, not everyone is going to catch a blue catfish in excess of 100 pounds, but they are present, so the thrill of the possibility is ever present. More common are catches of fish weighing between 5 and 20 pounds, but there are many blues caught every year weighing up to 50 pounds or more. Real giants turn up less frequently.
Big flatheads are no stranger to river anglers either. Although they do not generally run as large as the blues, plenty of 40- to 60-pound beasts are lurking in the Mississippi. Big flatheads are more difficult to locate, but some anglers like the challenge and are rewarded with battling a brute.
The Ohio River stretches a long way and touches the borders of several states. Although only a short section of the river is along the Illinois border, it is some of the best the river has to offer for catfishing. The portion from the confluence with the Mississippi River near Cairo through the Smithland Pool to where the Ohio River joins Illinois at the mouth of the Wabash River is absolutely awesome for catfish.
Huge blue catfish especially like this portion of the river because it is wider, deeper and provides more desired habitat. Blues are in good number throughout the portion of the river along Illinois, but then, so are jumbo flatheads and channel cats. The river has never produced a catfish of world-record status, but there is no reason not to think it possible, especially in the Illinois section of the river. Regardless of a record, Prairie State anglers can expect plenty of great whiskerfish action in the Ohio River.
Similar to the Ohio River, much of the length of the Wabash River is outside the Prairie State. However, the portion accessible to Illinois anglers provides tremendous catfishing action. All three species of catfish are present and there are some really large individuals, even a few trophies.
Channel catfish are the most abundant and widespread. They can be found most anywhere in the river there is suitable depth and habitat. Most fish caught average less than 5 pounds, but larger fish up to about 8 to 10 pounds are not uncommon. More and more blue catfish are starting to show up in the Wabash too. The section nearest the Ohio River is best for blue catfish.
The Wabash really shines with its flathead catfish. There are some real brutes in there, and catches of fish between 20 and 40 pounds are not uncommon. Bigger fish, over 50 pounds, have been reported in the Illinois and Indiana portions of the river.
These are our largest rivers, but certainly not the only ones in Illinois with good catfish populations. Several other rivers and streams in the state have excellent fisheries and provide lots of action. The Illinois River has an excellent population of channel catfish and the Kishwaukee and Pecatonica rivers have very good channel fisheries as well.
The Sangamon, Fox and Kaskaskia rivers all have very good populations of channel and flathead catfish, plus the Kaskaskia also has some good size blue catfish, although in lower number, near Venedy Station.
The channel catfish fishery is rated as excellent by the DNR. In fact, reports regard this lake as "one of the premier channel catfish waters in southern Illinois." Natural reproduction and good recruitment keep the population very strong and fish are available throughout a wide size distribution.
The last survey results showed an abundant population of channel catfish between 1.5 and 3 pounds, with larger fish available up to about 6 pounds. It is reasonable to believe larger fish exist beyond those sampled by the DNR, and angler reports concur. The catch rate during the last sampling effort fell slightly from the one previous, but it still was the second-highest level in over a decade.
Channel cats caught by anglers average just under 2 pounds and measure about 18 inches in length.
There has been excellent reproduction and recruitment of flathead catfish, especially over the past four years or so. The result has been an abundance of smaller fish under 5 pounds with most of the fish caught by anglers averaging 2 pounds or less.
The upside is the large number of fish provides a lot of action and really adds to catfishing success. The most recent status report stated, "The large number of smaller fish should provide stable angling opportunities for several years to come." There are a fair number of flatheads up to about 20 pounds, with larger fish less frequent.
The DNR status report stated, "Lake Springfield is one of the best channel catfish lakes in the state." The population includes ample numbers of fish with very good body quality. The size distribution is very good although the average size fish caught by anglers is about 1 1/2 pounds.
The last available DNR sampling report indicated a catch rate of 12 channel catfish per hour of electrofishing with a weight of 24 pounds per hour, or an average of 2 pounds per fish. Bigger fish are certainly available though. The largest channel cat ever sampled by the DNR at Lake Springfield was 27 1/2 inches long and weighed more than 13 1/2 pounds.
As an added bonus, and a significant bonus at that, there is a very good population of flathead catfish in the lake and the fishery has been rated as excellent by the DNR. There is good size structure through a wide range, with the average size fish caught by anglers weighing about 3 to 3 1/2 pounds and measuring over 20 inches. But what really makes this lake so inviting is the number of really large flatheads present.
There are plenty of flatheads caught each year weighing upwards of 20 pounds, and angler reports of much larger fish are frequent. In fact, the largest reported weighed more than 60 pounds. Just as recent as 2012, the DNR collected two flatheads over 50 pounds and 10 others weighing more than 30 pounds while trying to catch some fish for display at the Illinois State Fair. Those are numbers that should impress most any catfishing enthusiast.
This is another great location for jumbo flathead catfish. In fact, it may even be better than Lake Springfield. Flathead catfish caught by anglers average less than 2 pounds, but that is certainly no indication of the quality of the fish present. It merely points to there being good numbers of fish in total. The DNR cannot adequately sample the really large flatheads to get a firm impression of the fishery, however, creel reports testify to the impressive fishery present.
Anglers report catching flatheads at Sangchris every year that weigh over 40 pounds. DNR biologists once caught a flathead weighing 69 pounds, and the largest ever reported caught by an angler weighed a whopping 76 pounds, which is just a couple pounds shy of the state record flathead. Could there be a new state record lurking in Lake Sangchris?
Channel catfish are also present in good numbers and the fishery is rated "very good" by the DNR assessment method. The average size fish caught is roughly about a pound, but there are plenty of fish available up to 5 pounds. Larger fish are caught less frequently. The latest DNR report indicated biologists sample channel catfish every year at Sangchris up to 8 pounds and the largest ever sampled weighed 9 pounds and measured over 27 inches in length.
This 1,750-acre lake is not known for flatheads like the previous two lakes, but it is a superb channel catfish destination. In fact, the DNR status report stated, "Natural reproduction is tremendous in this cooling lake." This fact is evidenced by the large number of channel catfish present, so much so there is no daily creel or size limit.
Most of the fish caught by anglers are less than 2 pounds, and some creel estimates even put the average at less than 1 pound. However, there are plenty of fish up to about 4 pounds and some larger ones present. Channel catfish are a very popular target for bank anglers, and new sections have recently been opened up for bank angling at Newton Lake.
There is a very good population of channel catfish at Lake Taylorville. There are good numbers of catfish available throughout a wide size distribution, and the body quality is excellent. The average fish caught weighs about 4 pounds. Biologists have sampled channel catfish up to 14 pounds at Taylorville when electrofishing, but the majority are under 10 pounds.
Lake Taylorville is fairly shallow, with an average depth of only 7 feet. Channel catfish do well in shallow water, but even so, at times it is necessary to locate the deeper holes, channels or drains to locate fish. Look for the channel catfish to hold close to any wood structure such as stumps or downed trees. Night is a good time to find fish moving in shallow water closer to shore while foraging for food. Always remember to check for site-specific regulations before fishing at any of these locations.