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The Illinois Catfish Triple Play

The Illinois Catfish Triple Play
Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Illinois catfish water can be divided into ponds, rivers and lakes. All are part of the Mississippi River drainage, but they vary from small placid bodies of water to the fast- or slow-moving big rivers. Virtually every waterway has some catfish of one species or another.

Easily identified by their forked tail, the channel catfish is found in virtually all the rivers of the state. An aggressive program of stocking by the IDNR and private organizations supplements the natural recruitment in many ponds and lakes. They are probably the most popular stocked fish. Channels in Illinois tend to run from a few inches to 4 pounds. Larger fish are present and caught, with the Illinois state record being 48 pounds.

Younger channels are blue or gray on top with a silver underside and black spots on the sides. Larger fish are almost black and have lost the spots.

Flathead catfish are found mostly in large lakes and in the rivers of the Land of Lincoln. Their rather flat skull with prominent eyes set high on the top distinguishes the flathead from other catfish species. The tail is square. The overall color is brown with the tip of the upper lobe of the tail being white.

It is common for flathead specimens to be 15 to 35 pounds in weight and for exceptional flatheads to reach 50 pounds. The state record weighed 78 pounds.

The blue catfish is similar to the channel except for a distinctive blue cast to their skin color. They are usually shorter and larger around in girth. The tail, although forked, is more rounded. The easiest way to distinguish the blue from a channel is to note that the anal fin on the blue is long and straight. In the channel, it is rounded.

Blues are the largest of the species, often exceeding 50 pounds, with the Illinois record being 124 pounds. Many anglers report catches with fish in the 20- to 30-pound range.

Tackle and bait for catching catfish are similar for all locations but not for the three species of cats found in them. Here are some of the locations, along with baits used by anglers in pursuit of these "whiskered wonders."


When it comes to ponds, Illinois has over 80,000 of the little ecosystems. About half are on private property, leaving 33,000 acres of ponds owned by the State of Illinois and another 77,000 acres in public hands. The later includes city and county waters as well as those ponds found on federal land, such as Shawnee National Forest and wildlife refuges.

Ponds are popular places to introduce a novice to the sport of fishing. Learning the water is easy. There is deeper water near a dam and shallow flats at the other end of a pond. Fish will be hiding near points, available brush, shoreline weeds or any wood.


There are usually more fish per acre in a pond than in larger bodies of water. Ponds can also accumulate dense stands of vegetation, which interferes with fish production. Ponds choked with aquatic vegetation usually have large numbers of small fish.

To find pond fishing check with local park districts and the 2012 Illinois Fishing Information booklet available where licenses are sold and from IDNR offices. For those willing to scout locations, a plat book from your county can be obtained from a Soil Conservation office. Always ask permission from private landowners before trespassing.

Pond fishing is available on federal lands. Check with the site office to make sure which ponds you can fish and which are off-limits. Two particularly productive sites with pond fishing are the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Williamson County and Pyramid State Park in Perry County.

Generally ponds have channel catfish and not flatheads or blues. Easy to raise in a hatchery setting, the channel is a popular fish for stocking. This voracious eating machine will take virtually any bait. Good baits can be as close as the refrigerator. Hot dogs, chicken liver, worms and grasshoppers are popular baits for pond fishing. Prepared cheese (stinkbaits) concoctions are popular with those willing to mess with them.

A pond fishing rig for catfish usually consists of a light line with a slip bobber suspended about 20 inches above a small hook. You cast just beyond the suspected lair of the fish and allow the bobber to move silently into place just above the fish. If there is no action in 10 to 15 minutes, change locations. Once fish are located you should be able to take several fish from one spot.


With the exception of the large reservoirs of Shelbyville, Rend and Carlyle, most of the lakes in the state are on or border state-controlled land. The reservoirs are on river systems that have been dammed. A few power plant cooling lakes fit into both of these categories.

Governor Bond Lake, near Greenville, is typical of the impoundments popular with non-river anglers. It has 775-acres of surface area and 24-miles of shoreline. It contains a variety of woody-type cover and underwater structures. Both boat and shore fishermen use this lake. A city permit is required for boat access; there's a 120-horsepower limit on engines. The boat ramp is at the east end of the dam and has ample parking as well as picnic facilities. Limited boat slips and campsites are available at the marina on the southwest end of the lake.

IDNR surveys found channel catfish average 4 pounds with a length of 14 to 47 inches. There is no creel or length limit.

Many catfish anglers on Bond Lake like to drift fish. They motor up to the windward side of the lake and then drift over some of the 5-foot deep flats with a live shad hooked from the tail to the back. When the catfish attacks the bait from the head the hook is in a perfect position to impale him.

Josh Adkins, of Greenville, Ill., regularly fishes this lake from either a boat or on shore. He reports that his time fishing is divided about 50/50 between the two types of fishing.

Josh prefers to fish for flatheads in the dusky hours. He looks for timber, either upright or fallen. Adkins will cast to it and wait 10 to 15 minutes for a bite. If none if forthcoming, he moves to another spot and repeats his actions.

Bluegills Josh catches himself for bait are his preference four out of five times. He prefers live 'gills that are about 7 to 9 inches in length. Josh rigs them on a standard catfish rig of a 1/2-ounce sinker about 2 feet above a 2/0 hook. The hook is inserted in the bluegill just in front of the dorsal fin. The sinker stays on the bottom of the lake and the bluegill swims in circles around it. With this rig Josh has taken some 50-pound flatheads from Governor Bond Lake.

Fishermen cannot legally purchase bluegills for bait in this state. But you can catch your own and use them.

The same rig works for both flatheads and channels, too. But Josh finds either fresh or frozen shad is better with channels. Most of the channels he catches are in the 2 to 4 pound range. He follows his regular pattern and like the drift fishermen he particularly likes windswept rocks and flats that are about 3 to 6 feet in depth.

Adkins' advice to the lake and river fisherman is to pick an area and get to know it. Experimentation and study are learning keys. He stresses that one should not be afraid to try something new.

Collinsville multi-species guide Walter Krause tried something new. He found that trolling crankbaits on Prairie State lakes during hot summer days can be profitable. "Catfish do not completely turn off to taking a lure if you know where to find them," explains Walt.

He credits serendipity for the crankbait discovery. One day while fishing in water temperatures over 90 degrees he came upon suspended catfish. It was a surprise as traditional thinking is catfish go deep in search of cooler water during the summer months. These fish were about 20 feet down in much deeper water.

During summer our lakes form a thermocline at about 20 feet. Walter catches catfish while trolling crankbaits at that depth. Over humps he might find fish shallower. Catfish are found deeper, but the active fish are above the thermocline.

Krause travels more in hot weather while trolling in order to locate suspended catfish. It makes trolling crankbaits a better bet than traditional live bait.

Krause finds the thermocline in most of the lakes is at about the 20-foot level. The water temperature there is about five to 10 degrees cooler than the water above it. The water below this thin layer is considerably cooler, making fish lethargic. There is insufficient oxygen in the lower water.

Primary tackle used includes spinning gear spooled with a superline and a 15-pound monofilament leader. Krause prefers the superlines as they do not have much memory and come off the spool smoothly.

Maintaining a 2-mile per hour boat speed gets crankbaits down to the depth desired. Add weight to the line in order to get the lure down to a desired depth of about 18 feet. This is just above the fish where they can see it. Clear water is a plus for this pattern.

The most productive lures imitate the appearance of a shad and provide vibration in the water. These include such lures as the Shad Rap, Bomber A and Wiggle Wart.

Krause prefers longer, stout rods with flexible tips. They allow longer casts and have more flexibility to put more pressure on the fish.


Illinois river systems vary from the main inland rivers such as the Illinois, Kaskaskia, Big Muddy, Vermillion, Des Plaines, and Kankakee to the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, to name a few.

The northern-most areas of the Mississippi River create an ecosystem unlike the lower pools where giant blue catfish reign as live-bait gourmets.

The Mississippi River that borders Illinois is divided into two areas: The Upper Mississippi and the Middle Mississippi. In the upper section a system of lock and dam barriers was implemented to control the water level and provide more reliable navigation. Essentially, they create a series of shallow lake systems called "pools."

Impounding the river creates backwater and oxbow areas, which benefit all catfish species. The catfish are tolerant of riverine and sediment waters as well as areas with current found in the main channel and main channel border.

Beginning at Alton, the waterway to the south changes from pools to an open river with dikes, side channels, a main channel and main channel border. The extensive riprap along the channel banks provides bank protection. To the downstream of the dikes deep scour holes hold channel, flathead and blue catfish.

It is below Mel Price Dams that the big catfish one sees in the media are caught. Near the confluence of the Missouri, Mississippi and Illinois rivers is a popular location for those anglers looking for those tackle-busting cats. Fish taken from these waters have at one time or another held the state records for Illinois and Missouri as well as at least one national record.

Side channels provide quiet backwaters which hold channel and flatheads. The channel border habitat is the area between the edge of the navigation channel and the closest land or shallow water. The wing dams here are popular with catfish. The main channel is not a good area to fish due to safety concerns such as river traffic and fast current.

Elmer "Butch" Atwood, a fisheries biologist for the IDNR, spends much of his time monitoring the catfish found in the Mississippi and some adjoining rivers. He explains that the in pools of the Mississippi above Pool 24 the water levels are controlled by dam point control. They are generally maintained as a flat pool even during high water.

The dams 24, 25 and 26 are within the St. Louis District of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Those dams operate on a hinge point. That is the control point is in the middle of the river. As water begins rising, the gate is opened and you have an open river. Because it is more like a river than the pools upstream, it is a habitat favored by blue catfish. In recent years the blues have increased their habitat upriver. They can now be found as far up as Lock and Dam 22.

Blue catfish like the stronger current that provides oxygenated water and the wing dams downsteam give the illusion of a main channel as forage gets washed down to them.

Atwood says that they have found blues down there since 1980 and they are slowly filtering up into the upper pools. The upper pools more commonly contain flatheads and channel catfish. Still the three species are found to some extent in the river the entire length of the state.

Atwood has found flatheads below The Mel Price Lock and Dam at Alton in the 100-pound class. They were taken in survey nets and no scale was available to get an exact measurement. Atwood has seen a lot of catfish and is capable of accurate estimates of fish weight.

"There are quite a few catfishermen out there so if a new guy shows up he can learn a lot from the ones already on the scene," says Butch. "They are a pretty friendly lot and like to share information. €¦ For channel catfish bait, they use cut shad." For the big blues, most of the anglers use skipjack herring heads. In the open part of the river there is a good population of skipjack. Atwood has found 1-pound skipjack fairly frequently in his studies of the river. They can be located fairly easily in the tailwaters of the dam.

Shoreline fishing is permitted all along the length of the river in areas of public access. For a detailed map and listing of public facilities on the river, contact the IDNR, One Natural Resources Way, Springfield, IL 62702. Ask for either Fishing the Upper Mississippi or Fishing the Middle Mississippi booklets.

In the smaller rivers of the state feeding into the Mississippi, anglers find channel and flatheads in good numbers. Josh Adkins fishes the Mississippi and Kaskaskia rivers. He learned to fish for catfish on the Mississippi from his grandfather who would take him along on fishing trips. Adkins learned to use the catfish rig taught him by the old man and described earlier. In river situations, Josh substitutes a 1-ounce sinker for the 1/2-ounce used in lakes. The amount of current demands the heavier sinker.

In Pools 19 and 20, near Hamilton, Ill., and Keokuk, Ia., Josh catches channel catfish as well as flatheads and an occasional blue. He reports taking four or five channels to every blue. Josh concentrates his Mississippi River efforts to those areas where he can find 4- to 5-foot deep holes. Drifting over them, his bait is usually bluegills or skipjack, but he will also use Asian carp that are about a year old.

Adkins also fishes the Carlyle Lake impoundment on the Kaskaskia River, near Carlyle, Ill., He finds 2- to 4-pound channel catfish and some blues. IDNR surveys found an average channel catfish weighed 3 pounds and flatheads ran from 1 pound to over 50 pounds.

One 78-pound channel catfish came from this lake and can be seen on the wall at the visitors' center in the park. Flatheads are also found in good numbers in this waterway.

Josh fishes the Kaskaskia River after it comes out of the dam area at Carlyle Lake. The dam tailwaters is a popular area for shore anglers. He drifts down to Germantown finding good flathead fishing action along the way. The IDNR surveys in this area show channel catfish at 9 pounds-plus, flatheads at 14 to over 50 pounds, and some blues up to 50 pounds.

Regardless of the water fished, Illinois is a catfish bonanza.

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