Angling for catfish is increasing in popularity within Pennsylvania, though not with much fanfare. Often it takes place away from anglers targeting other species. Between battles there is not a lot of movement. Anglers probably will be sitting on a folding chair most of the time. And, clearly, not many catfish anglers are flashy dressers — they do not draw attention to themselves. Much of the more serious catfishing takes place during the dark of the night. Catfishing tends to be a sport that escapes notice.
Most important in the rising popularity of catfish in Pennsylvania has been the introduction of channel catfish into several lakes by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The appearance of flathead catfish in the Susquehanna River several years ago also increased interest in catfish.
On a state map at least, Lake Erie is our top catfish lake. The big lake holds a very good number of channel catfish. A relatively small group of anglers target catfish here, at least compared to the multitudes who come here to fish for steelhead, walleye, yellow perch or smallmouth bass.
Listen to quite a few anglers and you will get the impression that blue catfish also are caught here. They are not. What fools many anglers are the gun-metal blue color phase fish, a not uncommon variation of the channel catfish in many places.
Some large channel catfish are caught here occasionally, by Pennsylvania standards anyway. A channel catfish that weighs more than 20 pounds is not out of the question. Of the top five channel catfish entered in the Angler Recognition Program for 2013, the top four were Lake Erie fish. Actually, one of these was listed as Elk Creek and another as Walnut Creek, but those either were caught at the mouths or from the lower pools. The deep, lower pool of Elk Creek probably is the most popular place to fish for catfish among local anglers.
The largest channel catfish weighed 23 pounds, 2 ounces and measured 35 inches in length. It was caught June 7 at Walnut Creek on a nightcrawler.
The number two channel catfish for 2013 weighed 22 pounds, 12 ounces and measured 35 inches in length. This catfish took a raw shrimp June 10 at Elk Creek. Jumbo raw shrimp are Lake Erie catfish anglers' secret bait. Setting the in the sun for a couple of hours before fishing adds to the aroma of the shrimp.
The number three channel catfish weighed 22 pounds, 4 ounces and measured 34 inches in length. It took a nightcrawler June 7 in Lake Erie.
No bait is listed for the number four channel catfish. It weighed 21 pounds even and measured 32 inches in length. It was caught May 29 at Lake Erie. The girth of this fish was 26 inches, 2 inches bigger around than the number three channel catfish, and 3 inches more than the number one and number two fish.
Those all are very impressive channel catfish.
A couple other channel catfish hot spots at Lake Erie are the North Pier and the South Pier at the entrance to Presque Isle Bay. Some have been caught at the entrance to North East Marina. Be sure to yield way to passing boats here and at Walnut Creek.
At night, channel catfish are caught from the beaches in several places, especially near creek mouths, and anywhere baitfish, including dead baitfish, tend to concentrate. Roiled water can improve catfish action from shore during the daytime. Some anglers in boats who are fishing for perch or walleye also catch some catfish incidentally.
Access is excellent at Walnut Creek. The area at the mouth is a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Access. The Fish and Boat Commission also owns land at the mouth of Elk Creek, and the opposite side of the creek is a park.
Perhaps the best catfish fishery in Pennsylvania in the long run is the Three Rivers, centered on the meeting of the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River at Pittsburgh. This water has good populations of both flathead catfish and channel catfish. Both species grow large in these large rivers.
The niche relationship between channel catfish and flathead catfish in these rivers provides a good generalization for anyone who is getting serious about catfish. Channel catfish tend to hold near the heads of pools, or just below riffles or other swift currents. Flathead catfish tend to hold in the mid-sections of pools. There is some cross-over, most often by channel catfish getting into flathead catfish habitat.
In the area that is backed up by navigation dams (basically below Interstate 80), look for channel catfish below locks and dams. Some of the easiest-to-find flathead catfish hot spots are around bridge piers, many of them right in Pittsburgh.
Above the navigation lock and dam system on the Allegheny River, look for flathead catfish in pools that have extensive depths of 15 feet and deeper. Also look for large boulders along shore, indicating there is a good chance some large boulders are hidden on the river bottom. Fish right in the main channel, under the stream of bubbles.
The best fishing is downstream from Tionesta.
A 42-pound, 2-ounce 41-inch-long flathead catfish caught from the Allegheny River was the third largest in 2012. It was caught April 4 with a creek chub.
A 33-pound, 6-ounce 41-inch channel catfish was the largest of its species reported during 2011 in Pennsylvania. It was caught September 10 using cut bait.
A 41-pound, 7-ounce flathead catfish caught from the Monongahela River was the fourth largest reported in 2012. It measured 44 inches in length. It was caught May 11 using a dead sucker as bait.
That same year a 15-pound, 8-ounce channel catfish caught from the Monongahela River was the fifth largest reported. It measured 31 inches in length. This catfish took a bluegill that likely was intended for flathead catfish.
During 2011, a 40-pound 39-inch flathead catfish caught May 25 on a nightcrawler ranked second, and a 37-pound 42-inch flathead catfish caught September 17 on a bluegill ranked third largest. Both were caught from the Ohio River.
The lower Beaver River, particularly at an old dam at New Brighton, has yielded some large flathead catfish. This river empties into the Ohio River in Beaver County. A 42-pound 40-inch flathead catfish was number two on the 2013 top five list. It was no accident: other large catfish have been caught here. A fishing park at New Brighton provides shore access for anglers.
Recently the Susquehanna River has surpassed the Three Rivers for big flathead catfish. Flathead catfish are not native to the Susquehanna River, and it is not known how they got there. But since arriving they have thrived.
Four of the top five flathead catfish in the 2013 Angler Recognition Program were Susquehanna River fish.
A flathead catfish that weighed 47 pounds, 1 ounce and measured 44 inches in length was the largest flathead catfish on the 2013 list. It was caught July 13 using a bluegill for bait.
A 41-pound. 9-ounce fish placed third. It measured 45 inches in length. It was caught September 14 on a bluegill.
Number four was a fish that weighed 41 pounds, 8 ounces and measured 47 inches in length. It was caught May 18 on a sunfish.
The fifth largest for 2013 was a flathead catfish that weighed 41 pounds, 2 ounces and measured 43 inches in length. It was caught June 15 using a sunfish for bait.
This makes sense assuming all of those fish were part of the first good flathead catfish spawn in the Susquehanna River. The best fishing for introduced fish species often occurs during the first several years the fish are in that water, so there may never be a better time to fish for flathead catfish in the Susquehanna River, and there may be no better situation for catching a new state record, which might surpass 50 pounds.
However, 2013 was the first year when the Susquehanna River dominated top five flathead catfish listings. None were in the 2012 top five. A 40-pound, 11-ounce 42.5-inch flathead catfish was the largest, and a 35-pound, 8-ounce fish, 43.75-inch fish placed fourth on the 2011 list. A 36-pound, 5-ounce fish placed fifth in 2010, and a 38-pound flathead catfish was third in 2009, the first year a flathead catfish caught at the Susquehanna River made the list.
Big catfish show up in many unexpected places. But the real test for good catfishing water is consistency. One such place is Shenango Reservoir, which is in Mercer County (with a small portion extending into Ohio). Reasonably likely rumors suggest that in the area near the state border some catfish exceeding state record weights have been caught. This man-made lake is home to both channel catfish and flathead catfish.
Shenango Reservoir is more fertile and has more color than most Pennsylvania lakes. This may contribute to the catfish fishery. Smaller channel catfish are very abundant.
Some large catfish have been confirmed here. A 42-pound, 9.6-ounce flathead catfish that measured 45.5 inches in length was the second largest in 2012. It was caught June 2 on a nightcrawler.
The Shenango River also has been credited with some big flathead catfish.
Channel Catfish are more numerous in Shenango Reservoir than flathead catfish. One good area is along the sunken channel of the eastern arm.
Foster Joseph Sayer Lake is a good bet for channel catfish in the Northcentral Region. This 1,730-acre lake is located in Bald Eagle State Park, providing excellent access. It is about 15 miles northeast of State College in Centre County.
Though channel catfish were in this man-made lake before 1998, consistent stocking started in that year and has resulted in a steadily improving population. No very large channel catfish have been reported here; however, fish in the 30-inch class are quite possible. Locate a hot spot and you may catch numerous channel catfish.
Both flathead catfish and channel catfish are native only to western Pennsylvania. So it should not be too surprising that most of the best places to fish for catfish are in the western part of the state, with the notable exception of the lower Susquehanna River.
Still there are several other good places to fish for channel catfish in the eastern part of Pennsylvania.
One good place is Chester Octoraro Lake, a 669-acre impoundment in southern Lancaster County. Another is Nockamixon Lake, a 1,450-acre impoundment west of Quakertown in Bucks County. In Berks County, Ontelaunee Lake, a 1,082-acre impoundment, and Streuble Lake, 146 acres, are highly regarded.
Among the lesser-known channel cat fisheries in western Pennsylvania is Tionesta Lake, a 570-acre Corps of Engineers impoundment in tiny Forest County. It holds some very nice channel catfish and may hold jumbos. This lake is best fished by boat. It is a beautiful, quiet getaway location in a county with no traffic signals.
Pymatuning Lake, a big, shallow lake in Crawford County (and a large portion in Ohio), holds a very good channel catfish population. Average size is good, though large catfish are uncommon here.
Will you be the first angler to catch a 40-pound channel catfish or a 50-pound flathead catfish in Pennsylvania? Size is what matters most to a large portion of serious catfish anglers in Pennsylvania.
Although many people enjoy eating catfish, eating these bottom feeders is not a good idea, especially the larger fish. Catfish tend to have high levels of toxins.
Get further information about catfish in Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission web site, www.fishandboat.com.