July 30, 2019
By Tom Berg
Hoosier anglers have been enjoying some excellent catfish fishing recently. Lucky fishermen have caught giant blue cats, oversized flatheads and bragging-sized channel catfish across many parts of the state. It seems like catfish populations are thriving, and trophy-sized fish are becoming more numerous. But can that really be true?
Yes, it is possible. There was a change in Indiana catfish regulations back in 2016, which was meant to increase the survival of younger catfish and help protect trophy-sized fish from overharvest. The minimum length limit for catfish caught in streams and rivers increased from 10 inches to 13 inches, and anglers can now keep only one large catfish of each species per day, statewide. One blue catfish over 35 inches, one flathead over 35 inches and one channel catfish over 28 inches can be taken per day by each angler (other bag limits remain unchanged).
Those regulations apply to both commercial fishermen and recreational anglers. They should ensure quality fishing for everyone for years to come. Since catfish are fairly slow-growing, though, it will take some time before biologists know whether or not the change in regulations has made a positive impact.
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fisheries biologists have been monitoring the state’s catfish populations since before the change in regulations. Although they reported in early 2019 that it is still too early to tell, catfish anglers have been catching lots of fish (including large fish) in many of our bigger waterways.
It is definitely no secret that catfish love flowing water, and our “big water” rivers are home to some truly amazing catfish fisheries. With that in mind, Game & Fish has chosen three of our best (and largest) catfish rivers to help you decide where to fish this summer. Read on for specifics on each river.
When Hoosiers talk about big-water catfish, chances are pretty good they are talking about the Ohio River. The mighty Ohio is as big as it gets when it comes to large rivers in Indiana, and this famous waterway is absolutely teeming with catfish. Channel catfish, blue cats and flatheads are very abundant throughout this river system.
Catfish thrive in the Ohio River because it provides the different types of habitat they require. Good current flow, deep holes, submerged rock ledges, shallow feeding bars, undercut banks and big logjams offer excellent places to live, breed and feed. All three catfish species require the habitat the Ohio delivers.
Channel cats are the most abundant catfish in the river, but they are often overlooked by serious whiskerfish anglers. Even though they routinely reach weights of several pounds, channel catfish just don’t generate the excitement of trophy-sized blue cats and flatheads. Average-sized blues and flatheads tip the scales at 10 to 15 pounds, and individuals of either species won’t raise many eyebrows until they reach 30 to 40 pounds.
Big Rivers Fisheries Biologist Craig Jansen from the Indiana DNR recently reported that the Ohio River’s catfish populations are healthy and strong.
“Trotline catch rates in all areas that we sampled were substantially higher this year,” he says. “Of course, that could be due to the fact that we switched from frozen shad as bait to fresh-cut Asian carp and buffalo. Carp and buffalo skin is so tough that it stays on the hook much longer than shad.”
Indiana biologists continue to work with fisheries biologists from Kentucky when doing research on the Ohio River, and Indiana is responsible for catfish sampling in the J.T. Myers Pool each year.
“The largest blue cat we caught from the Myers Pool in 2018 was 40.9 inches long and weighed 30.9 pounds,” Jansen says. “We caught a few flathead catfish, too, up to 32 inches long.”
Kentucky biologists handle the other pools.
“I don’t have their data,” Jansen continues, “but Kentucky biologists reportedly saw an increase in the number of trophy blue cats they sampled this year.”
The change in bait might have affected the Kentucky catch rates also, but big blue catfish are definitely out there in good numbers.
“In my conversations with the Kentucky biologists, they mentioned the Cannelton Pool was once again the most productive for big blue cats,” Jansen adds. This is similar to what has been seen in previous years.
Because the Ohio River is such a well-known catfish hotspot, the Cabela’s King Kat Classic Tournament was held here in September 2018. Tournament anglers gathered at Jeffersonville and competed for two full days. The winning team fished the Cannelton Pool near Leavenworth and weighed in a two-day total of 232 pounds, including a giant blue catfish that weighed 64.9 pounds. The second-place team fished the McAlpine Pool and caught 228.2 pounds of catfish, bolstered by their own trophy blue cat (55.4 pounds). The Big Fish of the event, however, was caught by the third-place team. It was a monstrous 71.3-pound blue catfish, also caught from the Cannelton Pool. The Ohio River certainly is a great place to fish for big catfish, especially big blue cats!
Although the Wabash River is not as large and deep as the Ohio, it has the distinction of flowing through much more of the state of Indiana. It starts out relatively small and shallow up north near Huntington, and it gradually winds its way to the western edge of the state and then heads south towards the Ohio River. The farther south it goes, the bigger it gets, too.
Like the Ohio River, the Wabash also features excellent catfish habitat, including sand and gravel bars, root wads, logjams and deeper holes near river bends. Although the shallower water found throughout much of the river system is more conducive to channel catfish and flathead catfish than it is to blue cats, blues can be found in the Wabash wherever food and water depth is to their liking.
Jansen is also responsible for managing the fish populations on the Wabash River, and he and his staff conducted a catfish monitoring survey here in the summer of 2018. They sampled four stretches of the river, including Williamsport, Beal, Montezuma and New Harmony. Catch rates were good throughout the river, but some places were better than others.
“We caught the most channel cats and flatheads throughout the Williamsport reach,” Jansen says. “That was the farthest upstream site that we checked last summer. We also found the greatest average size there, with channel cats averaging 17.2 inches long and flatheads averaging 23.1 inches. There is a general trend of less harvest by anglers and larger fish the farther upstream you go.”
Four of the five largest flathead catfish caught by biologists in 2018 were captured from the Williamsport area, but anglers can certainly catch large flatheads in other areas of the river, too.
“The biggest flathead we caught on the Wabash in 2018 came from the New Harmony stretch in southern Indiana,” Jansen continues. “That fish was 48.4 inches and weighed 54 pounds.”
Blue catfish in the Wabash are found in greater numbers as you head downstream. The traditional stronghold for Wabash River blue catfish is from the confluence of the White River and Wabash all the way downstream to the Ohio River. However, blue cats — even big blue cats — can be found in deep pockets throughout the river.
“We caught the most blue catfish down by New Harmony,” Jansen says, “but we caught some blues at each of the four places we sampled. In fact, we caught eight blue cats at Montezuma and five at Williamsport.”
The White River is another popular destination for Hoosier whiskerfish anglers, and although it is not as wide and large as the Wabash and the Ohio rivers, it is still home to an incredible catfish fishery. The main stem of the White River is formed by the East Fork of the White River, which flows out of Martin County, and the West Fork, which flows south along the Daviess and Knox County lines.
Good catfish habitat is available in most parts of the river, including both forks. Deep channels, fallen trees, big logjams, sandbars and deep holes will all hold fish at one time or another. All of this structure contributes to the stable fish populations in the river. Flathead catfish, channel cats and blue catfish are all present here.
Jansen monitors fish populations on the White River as well. He and his staff conducted a catfish survey here between June and August of 2017, and they are scheduled to conduct another one this summer, too. During the 2017 survey, biologists checked four sites on the main stem of the river, and two sites each on the East Fork and West Fork.
They used submerged hoop nets and electrofishing gear to catch catfish during the study.
The data they collected showed that both channel catfish and flathead catfish were very common throughout the river system. A total of 419 flathead catfish were caught and released during the survey, ranging in size from 2.3 to 45.0 inches in length. Nearly 200 channel catfish were captured, measuring up to 28.5 inches long.
The strong flathead population was somewhat surprising, especially because more flatheads were caught during the survey than channel cats.
“The West Fork of the White River near Maysville produced the largest individual flathead catfish,” Jansen says. “That fish weighed 48.5 pounds.” There were several other flatheads caught weighing between 20 and 30 pounds, too, indicating a very healthy flathead fishery.
Channel catfish were also abundant in the White River, and many weighed 5 to 9 pounds. The largest channel catfish weighed just less than 13 pounds. During the survey, the largest concentration of channel cats was found just downstream of the confluence of the east and west forks of the White River. The area around Petersburg, both upstream and downstream of the Route 61 bridge, should produce good catches of channel catfish.
Anglers interested in targeting blue catfish on the White River should concentrate their efforts on the main stem of the river where the water is deeper. The stretch of water between Petersburg and the area where the White River meets the Wabash near Mt. Carmel, Ill., should be good. There are some deep channels and areas with very deep holes, with some exceeding 20 feet deep. That is where the bigger blue cats often hang out.
Regardless of whether you fish for blue catfish on the Ohio River, flathead catfish on the Wabash or channel catfish on the White River, be sure your tackle is up to the task. While channel cats can be caught with almost any spin-cast or spinning gear, trophy-sized flathead catfish and blue cats will require heavy duty tackle. Stiff rods, quality reels, heavy line and stout terminal tackle will help ensure success once you hook the big one.
So, plan ahead. The difference between the fish of a lifetime and a tragic missed opportunity could boil down to simply using the wrong gear. Get out there, and good luck!