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Illinois Catfish Best Bets

Get after big catfish this year on the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio rivers.

Illinois Catfish Best Bets

While large trophy fish are often the target on these three big rivers, anglers fishing for the table can also find success. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

Illinois has many great waterways for catching catfish. It is hard to narrow down the very best, but without question the Illinois, Ohio and Mississippi rivers offer great opportunities. Whether you are looking to catch some of the biggest catfish the state has to offer or are just looking to catch some fish for the frying pan, you will not be disappointed.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) employs two sampling methods to assess catfish populations. One is electrofishing, which gives an account of “young of the year” and smaller cats. This allows the DNR to determine spawning success and overall population data. The other is hoop net sampling, which specifically targets larger blue and flathead catfish to measure those populations.

Until just a few years ago, there really wasn’t any regulation on catfish. The way the state was headed, catfish numbers were going to dwindle, but they stepped up and made a first step in protecting the fish.

In 2015, the IDNR Division of Fisheries put regulations on the harvest of flathead catfish. The Division of Fisheries is concerned about the overharvest of this large fish species. Because flathead catfish are so long-lived, overharvest damage to the population might not be noted for many years, and recovery could take decades, so the Division of Fisheries is taking these steps to be proactive in their management.


Regulations are now in effect on the Fox River from the Wisconsin border through the Chain O’ Lakes to the mouth at the Illinois River, including the Fox River tributaries. The regulation for this area allows harvest of one fish per day 28 inches or larger and two fish between 13 and less than 28 inches.


On the Wabash and Ohio Rivers, in cooperation with the states of Indiana and Kentucky, the new flathead catfish regulation is one fish per day 35 inches or larger and unlimited harvest between 13 and less than 35 inches. Blue catfish in the Wabash and Ohio Rivers have the same regulation as the flatheads.

In all three of the rivers listed, there is no harvest allowed under 13 inches. This is a step in the right direction.

OHIO RIVER

Areas on the Ohio River near Old Shawneetown in Gallatin County and the gravel bars around Mound City in Pulaski County all the way up to the Smithland Dam are some of the best spots on the river.

Anglers have several options at their disposal to catch catfish in the Ohio. One that has done well for me is fishing wing dikes or wing dams.


These dikes or dams are in the river for a reason. A couple of the biggest reasons is to reduce erosion on the shore and to keep the water levels a safe depth for vessels. Their main function is to divert current. They run perpendicular with the shore, and when water hits one of the walls, it turns back on itself and toward the middle of the river.

Most of the inactive fish are in the downstream side. It is my experience that too much time is wasted downstream for fish not interested in what you have to offer.

Monster catfish — flatheads, channels and blues — are best sought after near the eddies at the ends of the wing dikes. You should not fish directly in the eddy water. Most fish are inactive here. Instead, fish the edges. Anchor your boat on the edge and fish the currents along the edges where catfish are most active.


To catch big catfish on the Ohio, I have two preferred baits I use. The first is live bluegill 4 to 6 inches long. The other is 6-inch chunks of fresh-cut gizzard shad. These baits might seem big, but remember, I am after monster catfish.

The setup to fish these big baits is a simple one. A three-way swivel is mandatory. Off one eye is an 18-inch hook leader tipped with a 3/0 to 5/0 Kahle hook. Buy the strongest, sharpest hook you can find. From the other eye, tie on a 10-inch weight leader and tie a 3-ounce sinker to that leader. All this needs to be fished with a heavy-action rod with a baitcasting reel that can hold a lot of 20-pound-test line.

Once I have located the hole I plan to fish, I position my boat above it and drop anchor. I cast to the spot I want and let the weight hit bottom. Now, it is just a matter of waiting. These big cats hit with force, so hold tight to the rod in your hands. If you are fishing more than one rod, use a stout rod holder.

Use tackle strong enough to withstand the punishment a big cat can dish out. If you have not had a bone-jarring strike in 10 minutes or so, reel in and move to the next eddy.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

The Mississippi River in Illinois is divided into two sections, the upper and middle sections. Each area has its pros and cons.

Pool 13, consisting of almost 30,000 acres near Savanna in northwest Illinois, and Pool 15, around the Quad Cities, are your best bets upstate for both fishing from the boat and the bank. Good opportunities exist in holes on the downstream sides of logjams and fallen trees along the bank.

The southern 100 miles of the river bordering Illinois has a lot of catfish. The problem is that there is limited access to the river, and this portion of the river is very dangerous.

To catch big catfish anywhere on the Mississippi, you need to be fishing when they are active, and this holds true for the other rivers covered as well. Often, that might mean fishing when it is dark. For many of us, that is not possible during the week because of our work schedule. Try to find the time on weekends, or at the very least be on the water as the sun begins to rise. Daybreak is also a good time to catch big cats.

If you are fishing for channels on the Mississippi, or on other waters, chicken liver and stinkbaits work well. However, they do not excel in catching big flatheads. What will catch big flatheads are other big, live fish. I have had best luck with live bluegill 4 to 5 inches in length. I know of some fishermen who use live bait up to 2 pounds, so do not think you are overdoing it with an 8-inch bluegill. When using large, live bait, it will be almost impossible to get the bait where you want it. Instead, use your boat to get the bait in position.

Heavy fish also means using heavy tackle. If you hook a big catfish, then you must be able to land him. This applies on the Mississippi, as well as the other rivers discussed here. Cheap equipment can break when fighting big catfish. This refers to all gear aspects — line, rod and reel. I like to fish heavy-action rods in the 7-foot range with a big, heavy-duty spinning reel spooled with nothing less than 30-pound-test line; many of my reels are even spooled with 50-pound test. As far as hooks, use razor-sharp hooks ranging in size from 2/0 to 4/0.

ILLINOIS RIVER

On the Illinois River, catfish can be found on the channel edge near La Salle clear up to the dam above Starved Rock State Park. There is also a stumpfield above the dam at Starved Rock that always holds catfish.

As summer arrives, catfish might be spread over larger areas of the river. If this happens, it might be time to go searching.

Anglers can use either the wind or current to execute a drift, depending on the conditions. Sometimes, you have neither and need to use your trolling motor. This takes the drift out of the name though and quickly makes it a troll.

Now, for this to work to its fullest, your boat will move steadily with the current or wind. This will allow your bait to pass through large groups of catfish while the boat stays in the same position in a perfect situation.

However, this rarely happens. Instead, many times you will need to have some control over the speed and/or direction as you drift. If you need to control a current drift, the best way is by using your trolling motor to keep your boat in position while maintaining the proper speed. In a wind-driven drift, a couple drift socks on the side of the boat that you want to keep upwind is the easiest.

Good sonar will not show you which type of fish is below you, but when you find a large group holding close to the bottom, it is likely catfish. Use that sonar to identify where the fish are holding, like at a certain depth on a flat, very near the bottom in a channel or at the end of a point.

My preference is to fish just one rod that I can hold in my hand with the line tight bumping off the bottom. I don’t let it drag the bottom.

I like to use a 1-ounce drift sinker, but a 1/4- to 2-ounce sinker can also be used. Run the line through the eye of the sinker, a bead and a swivel. Use a 3-foot leader to a small cigar-shaped bobber. A circle hook in the 2/0 to 5/0 size range is appropriate if you are using nightcrawlers, shrimp or cut shad as bait. Chicken livers will require a treble hook, and dip baits need a sponge or catfish worm to keep the bait from washing away too fast.

When drifting, pay close attention to sonar while fishing. Besides watching for catfish, also watch for baitfish. When a bite occurs, take note of the depth and bottom makeup.

If the bait doesn’t get bit during a drift, start the next one to the side to prevent taking the same path. If all bites are happening at the beginning of the drift, start the next one a little farther upwind than the last.

The best thing about drift fishing is the ability to get better through the day by refining drift patterns. This requires close attention to details. Done correctly, it is a great way to land lots of fish.

HIT THE RIVERS

Catfish have their up and down years on these three rivers. That much is certain. The ticket to overall fishing success is simply to spend time on the water. While the above information is a good starting point on where and how to fish these big rivers, there’s no substitute for time on the water in figuring things out. Based on the new regulations Illinois and other nearby states are implementing to protect these species, however, the future should be looking bright.

On a parting note, anglers should always keep in mind that these are big rivers and can be unforgiving in terms of boater and angler errors. Always respect these rivers and keep safety in mind when fishing these formidable, but productive waters.

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