October 03, 2016
By Keith 'Catfish' Sutton
Summer is over, so it’s time to start thinking about where you want to travel on your next catfishing junket. While many anglers still pursue whiskerfish primarily during the warm months, more and more are learning that autumn and winter offer even better fishing opportunities.
Fall is prime time for flatheads. As these shovel-headed brutes prepare for the lean months of winter ahead, they gorge on smaller fish like carp, shad, chubs and sunfish, a fact that makes this one of the best seasons for targeting the species.
Blue cats and channel cats feed year-round, even under the ice. And most in-the-know cat men will tell you that both species are easier to find and catch after water temperatures have cooled, bringing catfish together in large concentrated schools.
So if you’re thinking about traveling to some of the country’s blue-ribbon catfish waters, now’s the time to do it. And as you’re making plans, you’ll certainly want to consider the following list of top catfishing states.
We’ve chosen states that offer a wide variety of opportunities. Some encompass rivers or lakes well known for producing trophy-sized fish: 20-pound-plus channel cats, flatheads topping 50 and blues that may weigh 75 pounds or more. Others have earned well-deserved reputations for fast action, with the likelihood that savvy anglers can hook and lands dozens of smaller but fun-to-catch pole benders in waters ranging from little ponds and city lakes to huge reservoirs and rivers. Most allow anglers to take their pick: going geared up for monsters or choosing instead to target smaller, more plentiful cats destined for the fish fryer.
If your favorite state doesn’t appear on my list, don’t consider it an affront. While the title says “The Best States for Catfishing,” that doesn’t mean that other states don’t offer great opportunities for catching these popular sportfish. Many do, but since it’s a top 10 list, we narrowed the choices to that number. And without doubt, the following states serve up first-rate catfishing opportunities that should keep any angler happy, regardless of their goals.
Alabama tops the list of must-visit states for many big-cat aficionados. In recent years, waters like Wheeler, Wilson and Pickwick lakes on the Tennessee River have become world renowned for producing huge blue cats, including several exceeding 100 pounds. Big flatheads and channel cats are abundant in many waters, too. Other hotspots include Eufaula, Guntersville, Mitchell and Neely Henry lakes, plus the Coosa and Tombigbee rivers. When it’s eaters you want, head for one of the 23 state-owned public fishing lakes scattered around 20 counties. Ranging in size from 13 to 184 acres, each receives annual stockings of channel cats, making them ideal hotspots for filling a stringer with table fish.
Arkansas waters are stocked with millions of catfish annually by the state Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). As a result, anglers fishing for dinner can drop a line in nine state park lakes, 18 Forest Service lakes, more than 40 AGFC lakes and 16 Corps of Engineers impoundments and expect to go home with a mess of eaters. Trophy blues and flatheads are abundant, too, particularly in big rivers like the Mississippi where monsters exceeding 110 pounds have been reported in recent years. For trophy flatheads, Lake Conway in Faulkner County, brimming with 50- to 80-pounders, is hard to beat. Blues near or exceeding the century mark have been caught in Lake Ouachita, the White River and the Arkansas River. A 51-pound channel cat, one of the biggest ever recorded, surfaced in 300-acre Lake Wilhelmina in Polk County.
Illinois doesn’t get the attention it deserves as a top destination for catfishing. But great fishing abounds in waters statewide, from the Mississippi River in the west to the Ohio in the east. These two particular rivers don’t get the pressure seen on most Deep South waters, so they’re hotbeds for trophy-sized blues, flatheads and channel cats. Other topnotch rivers for trophies and eating-size fish include the Kaskaskia, Illinois, Fox and Rock. For excellent yet often overlooked flat-water action, try Carlye, Rend, Canton, Springfield, South Spring and Governor Bond lakes.
Mississippi waters produce many giant cats. One of the best is the state’s namesake river, a trophy-catfish factory running 410 miles along the state’s western border, which produced both the state-record blue (95 pounds) and flathead (77.7 pounds). Also excellent is 182-acre Lake Tom Bailey Lake just east of Meridian, which gave up the record 51.8-pound channel cat. You can put your finger on nearly any blue spot on the map and pinpoint hotspots for great action. Top reservoirs include Ross Barnett, Pickwick, Grenada, Enid, Sardis and Arkabutla. Small lakes that stand out from the rest include Oktibbeha County, Washington, Percy Quin State Park, Roosevelt State Park, Okhissa and Eagle. Among many outstanding rivers are the Big Black, Homochitto, Pascagoula, Pearl, Tenn-Tom and Yazoo.
Missouri encompasses some of the nation’s best catfishing waters, a fact that accounts for it being our number-two catfishing state (behind Texas) with half a million anglers. Top-flight rivers, all with the potential to produce record-class cats, include the Mississippi, Grand, Osage and Missouri. The latter produced a 130-pound former world-record blue. Hotspots for abundant eating-size cats and occasional trophies include Pony Express, Che-Ru and Jamesport Community lakes in the northwest part of the state; Green City, Unionville City, Hunnewell and Mark Twain lakes in the northeast; Truman and Montrose lakes and the Elk River in the southwest; and Wappapello Lake and the St. Francis River in the southeast.
Nebraska, like Illinois, isn’t highly touted for its great catfishing opportunities, but virtually all of the state’s lakes and rivers harbors healthy populations of blue, flathead and/or channel catfish. Opportunities range from waters promising high numbers of dinner-sized fish (Harlan, Swanson and Branched Oak reservoirs are great) to those offering excellent odds of taking a trophy (the Missouri and Platte rivers are two good examples). Of special note is a lake considered to be among the best trophy channel cat waters in the country. Merritt Reservoir (2,900 acres) near Valentine churns out 18- to 25-pounders—some bigger—year-round for savvy anglers. You can catch these giants from the shore or from a boat, and you can go there on any given day and expect to catch lots of them. Other top spots for trophy channel cats include Calamus, Wagon Train, Pawnee, Wildwood and Box Butte reservoirs.
Ohio anglers have been landing some monster cats in recent years, putting the Buckeye State in the spotlight as one of the country’s top destinations for catfish fans. In the Ohio River, blue cats to 100 pounds or more always are possible, and 50-pound-plus fish have become increasingly common. The river is a mother lode of nice channel cats and flatheads, too. The state DNR’s top five picks for numbers of channel cats are lakes Loramie, Milton, Berlin, Deer Creek and Beaver Creek. For channel cats over 20 inches, the recommendations are lakes LaDue, Mosquito, Milton, Cowan and Atwood. Giant flatheads swim Ohio waters, too. Hotspots include the Muskingum and Maumee rivers, particularly the Devola, Marietta, Stockport and Beverly pools on the Muskingum.
South Carolina has been a top catfishing destination for decades, thanks primarily to the storied fishing on the Santee-Cooper Lakes, Marion and Moultrie. Some say these legendary waters have seen their heyday, but trophy-class blues and flatheads continue being caught there, like a 94-pound blue caught in the Santee-Cooper Diversion canal in April 2015. Marion and Moultrie aren’t the only good Palmetto State catfish waters, however. During the past two years, places like Lake Monticello, Lake Murray, Lake Wateree and Lake Hartwell produced catfish of definitive trophy proportions, including 97- and 82-pound blues landed in Monticello. If a cooler full of eaters with a chance at an occasional trophy is your goal, you can take your pick of dozens of places, including Clarks Hill, Greenwood, Jocassee, Murray Wateree and Wylie lakes and the Congaree, Santee, Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers.
Tennessee is definitely a hotspot for catfish of all sorts, with prime waters spread out across more than 400 miles from Memphis to Chattanooga. Included are some of the country’s top blue cat holes like the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers, where triple-digit fish always are possible. Flatheads inhabit the big rivers, too, with topnotch fishing in dam tailwaters on the Cumberland and Tennessee, and in other first-rate honeyholes like the Hiwassee, Obion, Hatchie, Buffalo, Duck and Harpeth rivers. Waters well known for their abundant channel cats are Reelfoot, Old Hickory, J. Percy Priest, Woods and Douglas lakes, plus the 18 small lakes in the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency’s Family Fishing Lakes program.
Texas’ 1 million catfish anglers have no problem finding waters where big whiskerfish abound. Trophy channel cat producers include Lake Amistad and the Brazos and Colorado rivers. Lakes Livingston, Tawakoni and Palestine are among the Lone Star State’s many blue-ribbon flathead waters, with Tawakoni gaining notoriety in 2013 when three teams at a Cabela’s King Kat tournament brought in five-fish limits exceeding 200 pounds, including the winners of the event with a tournament record 239.8 pounds. Reservoirs well known for giving up big double-digit blues include Conroe, Sam Rayburn, Lake Fork, Gibbons Creek and Texoma. Texoma on the Texas/Oklahoma border, one of the largest reservoirs in the country at 89,000 acres, is considered by many to be best of the best because that’s where Cody Mullennix caught Splash, a 121.5-pound, former world-record blue cat.
Keith “Catfish” Sutton’s latest book, Hardcore Catfishing, was released in April last year. To order an autographed copy, visit his website, www.catfishsutton.com.