Channel, flathead and blue catfish are a tremendously important and popular resource for Kentucky anglers. In addition to what fish come from natural reproduction, the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Department supplements various waters with about 244,000 channels and 30,000 blues each year from state agency fish hatcheries.
And with that, there are a number of lakes where catfish anglers will find good to excellent fishing in 2015, according to KDFWR biologist reports and creel studies. Of course, some areas are better than others, especially in regard to specific species of catfish.
In the majority of waters in the eastern third of the state, habitats are best suited for channel and flathead cats, and they are both highly sought after by anglers.
Fishtrap Reservoir in Pike County isn't a big lake — it's just a very good lake for channel catfish year in and year out. Its 1,131 surface acres are largely surrounded by forested hills, and are maintained primarily from the flow of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River.
Fishtrap has four ramps available to the main lake and one to the tailwater. In addition to the catfish abundant waters in the reservoir, the river headwaters also offer excellent fishing for channels and flatheads in early summer into late fall.
Fishery biologists are very optimistic that a good 2015 fishing season is in store at Fishtrap, after observing what they describe as excellent size distribution and numbers for channel cats in lake studies. Channel cat use the upper portion of the lake into the river in early summer because that's where the best spawning habitat occurs on Fishtrap.
After a rain event is a good time to fish, because as water levels increase and the water becomes stained, channels cats are along the banks around woody cover and under bank ledges nosing out food.
Although noodling for flatheads is popular on lakes such as Fishtrap, hook and line anglers can also connect with what biologist Kevin Frey terms "excellent" numbers of large fish in upper tributaries and the main river channel during the spawn. Late May through June is the peak period for flatheads, when they are in shallow water close to the bank. At this time, they can be taken consistently day or night.
For those who like trying blue cats, Frey notes that Fishtrap was stocked with this species in 2011 and 2013, which means in 2015 the lake should have fish up to 30 inches, and the fishery will continue to improve in quality as even more stockings are planned for the future. He says blues utilize the zebra mussel and large gizzard shad population to gain size quickly, but they generally do not spawn.
Buckhorn Lake, just outside of Hazard, offers 1,250 surface acres formed by a dam on the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River. Buckhorn experiences a good natural spawn of channel cats, which helps buoy the high numbers of fish in this eastern reservoir. Like most lakes formed from rivers, Buckhorn has a decent population of flatheads, some into the 50-pound range are caught each year, according to Frey.
Big flatheads are most often taken by pole fisherman after dark along the main river channel, or feeder creek intersections with the river channel. When these fish cruise the banks, they are susceptible to limblines baited with cut bait or something else of organic, smelly origin. Later in the season, they move back out to deeper waters and spend most of their time along main channel cuts and off steep points.
One other spot not to by pass, Frey says on Buckhorn, is the tailwater. Both species are routinely caught below the dam around chunk-rock bottom structure where they wait to pick up food drifting by near the bottom.
Top spots to be this summer for catfish in central Kentucky include Lake Cumberland to the south and Taylorsville Lake to the north. Both reservoirs hold channels and flatheads, and Taylorsville supports a good blue catfish population from stocked fish.
The two reservoirs are quite a bit different in habitat and characteristics, as Cumberland is very deep, generally clear and very large, with a lot of feeder creeks to its 50,000-acre summer pool. Taylorsville is smaller and more fertile, with a good percentage of standing and submerged timber, and it watersheds more agricultural lands than Cumberland. Both, however, are well suited for different types of whiskerfish in their own way.
"The channels and flatheads found in Cumberland in summer and early fall are along main lake and creek channels, and often on feeding flats in more open water," said John Williams, lead fishery biologist for KDFWR in south-central Kentucky. "The potential for truly big flatheads is there, along with very good numbers of channels of harvestable size."
Drifting live and cut bait, or fishing marked fish suspended on the flats gets good results. During the summer months, better fishing for flatheads happens after dark in the many large tributaries with steep banks and rocky walls and ledges.
Cumberland channel cats, as summer turns to fall, can be picked up where cuts intersect points, over humps and irregular bottoms isolated by a flat, or just off the main river channel.
In contrast, good tactics for Taylorsville are often fishing steeper bank cover, such as fallen trees or stickups in the coves or stumps off the point where tributaries flow into the main lake. Channels and blues will be found in these types of areas consistently from late May into fall.
Upstream in the Salt River that forms Taylorsville, look for fish in the curves and bends of the river, or around shoreline cover during the spawn. Fish can also be taken around riprap areas near the dam or elsewhere, and the bite sometimes improves when the water is coming up or has gotten murky from a recent rain.
According to Jeff Crosby, central district biologist for the KDFWR, anglers can expect to find blues up to 30 inches, excellent numbers of channel cats of all sizes and an increasing flathead population on Taylorsville in 2015. And, this is another major lake where spending a little time below the dam from the bank is a pretty good bet for finding some hungry cats.
Though catfish are commonly found throughout the Commonwealth, when anglers in the know think of top catfishing locations, the western end of Kentucky comes to mind almost every time. Based on biologist Paul Rister's research and monitoring for the KDFWR, fishermen are indeed on target with this assessment.
What can be said about Kentucky and Barkley lakes? These two monster reservoirs are just insanely good lakes to fish, and catfishing, for blues and channels in particular, contributes a great deal to that accolade.
In essence, there are really two lakes here, but four different sets of fisheries when considering the tailwaters of both these reservoirs. This, of course, is required when talking about catfishing, because above and below both are stellar opportunities for taking quality fish.
To connect with what Rister terms as an excellent blue cat population in Barkley Lake, he says times of better flow concentrates fish and increases success.
"There are good numbers of 10- and 20-pounders available, and through the summer months, when water is moving through at a higher exchange rate, fishing along the main river channel ledges in fairly deep water catches blues," said Rister.
In the Barkley tailwater, this species can be taken year 'round on cut bait, and an angler who connects with a 50-pound blue should be quite excited, but not surprised. They are in there.
Barkley channel "catters" should be hitting shallow rocky and riprapped banks in late spring through summer with various types of stink baits. As warm weather increases, look for channels along river cuts that create an edge to a flat bottom area for more activity, or junctions of creek channels with the main lake channel.
For a little different type of fishing, casting and drifting below Barkley dam is good all year for channel catfish. More pounds per acre of fish exist in tailwaters than in any other type of water. Anglers may lose a bit more tackle in that setting, but it should improve success rates.
Over on Kentucky Lake, the catfishing outlook is much the same for this year. Kentucky is a deeper lake in general than Barkley, but catfishing techniques used on one typically works well on the other.
Drifting live shiners along bends in the main channel, or on stair-step ledges when more current is moving, takes blues that stack up along that corridor. In the summer, when the flow slows and settles, move up to flats beside the track of the main channel and target suspended fish.
Other good baits to use include cut shad or skipjack from the lake for big blues, or chicken hearts, grasshoppers and catalpa worms for channels.
Kentucky Lake's channel cat population, along with quality of the fish, is one of the best anywhere in the state. Often anglers don't really have to travel far from a marina to find chunk-rock banks. The dam area, and many other places, contains this kind of cover. Into mid-summer, that's where a good number of fish will gather.
In the Kentucky Lake tailwater, while channel cats are certainly present, studies show that blue cats are more numerous. There is good access to bank fish, or a pier can be used to reach the flowing water with chunks of bait fish or a weighted slab of chicken liver.
Anglers can also fish the territory below Kentucky Dam, looking for bank debris, mouths of creeks and other irregular shoreline features that will hold catfish all year long in normal conditions. Sometimes a little added color in the water increases feeding activity for both species.
One final resource not to overlook in 2015, for any of the three most sought-after catfish species, is the Ohio River. The Ohio is basically a serious of stable waters, and behind the locks and dams, on this river that spans the entire northern border of Kentucky, is truly good catfishing.
In a nutshell, best bets for channels are finding woody structure along the banks and around the mouths of creeks in pools. Blues can be taken in deeper pools when the current is good, and in the outside bends of the river channel where overhangs and submerged cuts in the contour exist.
Monster flatheads in the Ohio often key on big objects on the bottom, such as log piles, large groups of rocks, or anything else that they can lounge in, around or under. If anglers can get a few lines down to those kinds of spots, chances are very good that a lumbering old flathead will nose out to see what's for dinner.
Expectations for quality catfishing in many Kentucky waters are very good for 2015. It's one of summer's few species that seems to be in the mood to bite, even in the hottest weather. Of course, additional catfish waters can be found atfw.ky.gov.
And lastly — ever wondered about the sound a catfish makes when caught? Catfish have the ability to lock their fins in place, while moving other parts. This grinding movement creates a vibration inside, which causes the noise. It's a defense mechanism when they are threatened. Now you're "one up" on the kids.