Dark was quickly closing in on us when my son said, “we could use a few more bluegill.” We were catching as many bluegill as possible to use as bait on our droplines and trotlines later that night. Small bluegill are the perfect size for channel catfish and they can be used as either live bait or cut bait. On catfishing trips like this, leaving a few hours early allows some time with a flyrod and popping bug — which is fun in itself, though the overall goal is to fill a cooler with 25 to 40 bluegill. This provides a good number to use as bait for a night of channel cat fishing using drop lines on a nearby river.
By far, shad is the top catfish bait, but if you don’t have access to it, bluegill are a great second choice for live bait. Other baits including night crawlers or commercially prepared baits such as Rippin Lips Bootleg Blood Dip. When we are running droplines, we just simply pick a small stretch of river, get our drop lines set and spend the night motoring up at either end of the run. You must check lines once every 24 hours but checking multiple times throughout the night can increase the catch. It just depends on how late you like to stay up. Generally, by daylight most of catfish activity starts dropping off some.
There is little doubt that if you want to catch big catfish in the Mountain State, you need to go to the Ohio River or tributaries of the Ohio. Fortunately, WV DNR is putting a great deal of effort into improving catfish fishing opportunities not only on the Ohio River, but also on other rivers across the state.
Katie Zipfel and Nate Taylor are the state’s biologists who focus on Large Rivers. Biologists are actively conducting research on catfish on the Ohio River.
Taylor said, “Two years ago, we began implanting acoustic transmitters in nine blue and three flathead catfish to monitor their movements in the river.”
When the project is complete, there will be a total of sixty fish tagged and along with a series of receivers scattered along the river. This past year one fish moved from Point Pleasant up to Winfield Dam and back, 26 miles over a 20-hour period. When all the information is fully analyzed in coming years, DNR will be better able to manage catfish, which should benefit anglers. As this information is shared anglers will also be able to better understand where and when to target catfish. Overall the Byrd Pool is best for blue catfish.
Unlike some other states, West Virginia does not allow commercial fishing. In addition to protecting catfish, there is also a regulation which helps protect larger catfish on the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers: Anglers may only keep four catfish per day and of those four fish, only one can be over 35 inches. Other regulations restrict the use of jug lines or pool noodles. Other than rod and reel, anglers can only use trot lines or drop lines from limbs. Anglers who want to do some trotline fishing should consult the regulations.
Taylor added that biologists are receiving great reports that the Kanawha River is producing flathead catfish in the 35 to 40-pound range. In fact, by some rankings, the Kanawha River is among the top ten in catfish rivers nationwide.”
Katie Zipfel, Large Rivers Fisheries Biologist for West Virginia DNR, described many of the techniques the agency is using to learn more about where catfish are located and about on growth rates and general productivity. Biologists are using normal survey techniques such as electrofishing and barrel nets, but also in some places trot lines, a technique familiar to many anglers. Combining all of these techniques help biologists obtain larger samples of the population.
Zipfel said, “one of the better places to fish for catfish is along the Belleview Lock and Dam, but generally along the entire river (but especially) on the outside bends of the river where deep holes are created.”
The scouring action of the river in these bends tends to remove sand, leaving exposed rocks. Such areas, along with submerged islands or any type of hump on the river bottom, will hide cats. The river is perfect for those who prefer bottom fishing.
Along these same sections of the state, District 5 Fisheries Biologist Jeff Hansbarger agreed that the best catfishing in this section of the Mountain State must be the Ohio River. Both the Robert C. Byrd Pool and the Greenup Pool are exceptional for blue catfish — and over the years, the Byrd and Greenup pools have alternated in producing new West Virginia state record catfish.
Hansbarger said, “This burgeoning catfish fishery is a result of West Virginia DNR along with neighboring state fish and wildlife agencies all combining their efforts in reintroducing blue catfish into the Ohio River several years ago — and there is still room for growth.”
Throughout the summer months, the deeper water behind the dams on the Ohio River is preferred habitat because these pools are holding enough forage fish for hungry catfish. They maintain good levels of oxygen. During hot summer months obtaining sufficient oxygen is critical and these pools apparently have enough flow during the summer to give the catfish what they need.
Anglers should not overlook many of the tributaries along the Ohio River. Larger tributaries like the Kanawha and Guyandotte Rivers are supporting blues, channels and flathead catfish, and even smaller rivers that won’t support blue catfish have flatheads and channel catfish.
In District 1, District Fisheries Biologist Dave Wellman said, “Beyond any doubt the Ohio River is the big catfish water in the state, but one body of water that may be overlooked for channel catfish is the Monongalia River.”
Because of its location in the northern end of the state, you may not think about catfish being here in good numbers, but this past year, Wellman and his staff have started assessing catfish populations along the “Mon,” basically getting what is called baseline data, sizes and abundances of all the catfish species in the river. Although the “Mon” is a large tributary of the Ohio, channel catfish are the most abundant catfish in this river.
Wellman said, “Back in the 90s, anglers were concerned about numbers of bullhead catfish disappearing.” At that time, bullheads were the only fish that could survive in the poor-quality water, but as the Mon has continued recovering from mine acid drainage and other pollution sources, channel catfish have been gradually been replacing bullhead catfish.
In 2019, the Monongahela River is a real success story. Today, fishery biologists are saying it’s not unusual to see channel catfish over 20 inches long, with some pushing 30 inches. Wellman said, “This seems to be an under underutilized fish resource and folks wanting to catch a nice mess of channel catfish can’t beat the Monongahela.”
Additionally, flathead catfish, while much less abundant, can reach 40-inches!
Catfishing on the Mon is like other places — live bait is best. Wellman said, “These channel cats on the Mon are big enough that they will take live shad up to 5 or 6 inches but they will also take cut bait.”
Shad are normally found all the way up the river but in most cases, it may be tough to catch enough to fish with, so you might also consider bluegill for either cut bait or live bait. Some commercial mixes are also a good alternative.
Opekiska and Hildebrand Dams are the two upper dams on the Monongalia. During the summer months there is not a great deal of boat traffic and the upper pools tend to get stratified (especially the Upper Opekiska).
Wellman said, “The deepest part is around 35 feet and many times we don’t see any oxygen below 20 feet. This is an unusual situation for most rivers in West Virginia, but (it happens in the) upper portion of the Monongalia.”
In situations like this don’t sink bait down lower than the thermacline, as most catfish will be feeding in the center of the water column.
Another good source of channel catfish in this district is Cheat Lake. Wellman thinks it may be one of the best channel cat lakes in the state. Cheat Lake also tends to stratify during the summer, so remember the secret to finding catfish in this situation is understanding where you will find oxygen.
Wellman added, “Anglers should remember that there is a seasonal migration to the back of reservoir.”
Cheat Lake channel cats are run around 2 to 3 pounds.
East in District 2, Fisheries Biologist Brandon Keplinger said, “In the eastern panhandle, you won’t find flatheads or blue catfish, but channel catfish are in good numbers.”
Keplinger says that of all the rivers in District 2, the best channel catfish are on the South Branch of the Potomac River. Keplinger said, “There are incredible (population) densities and channel cats around 25-inches are not uncommon.”
The Potomac may not resemble what you think of as catfish water, but 12-pounders are there. Normally the Potomac is clear and in clear water it may be hard to trick a catfish. Anglers who wait until the flow picks up just a little have an advantage over the fish. Added turbidity in the water will get cats moving. Anglers should look for muddy water running into clear or clear into muddy. Bait will move along the edge, and catfish will be there to eat.
There are also some bullheads, so using a float to keep the bait off the bottom will help prevent these true bottom dwellers from cleaning the bait off your hook before a nice channel cat has time to find it.
While anglers down on the Ohio are relying on shad, the primary forage fish in the Potomac will be large creek chub, stone rollers, or striped shiners. Keplinger said, “These channel cats are also taking crayfish, hellgrammites and long-eared sunfish.”
Catfish anglers across the state have some pretty good options, from trophy-class blues to a mess of nice skillet-size channel cats. Always check regulations for the stream or lake you are fishing. If you don’t have access to rivers, always remember that many of the state lakes are stocked with channel catfish throughout the year.