Drifting along in a canoe on a June morning, I came to the type of place on the Potomac River where I have done very well in the past. It contained a water-willow bed along the shoreline, a riffle area to the left of the grass bed and drop-offs along the main channel. It also had submerged rocks and wood dotting the streambed in many places.
Because of this, I was not surprised when on my third cast into the run, a sizable fish slammed a Cordell Big O crankbait. The fish's heft was obvious, but the lack of aerial display made me begin to think that a smallmouth was not on the other end of the line. Sure enough, a minute or so later I netted a 20-inch channel catfish.
Situations like this are fairly regular, according to Fisheries Biologist John Mullican, as channel cats are very abundant throughout non-tidal sections of the river. The average size of this game fish often runs around 15 inches, but fish exceeding 30 inches are caught annually, especially around deep pools, shallow runs and woody debris. Unfortunately, flatheads are now also in the river.
"Fishermen introductions are believed to be responsible for the establishment of flathead catfish," said Mullican. "Flatheads are indiscriminate top predators that may pose a long-term risk to native fish species or established game fish populations, including channel catfish. This invasive catfish species was documented at all 2014 electrofishing survey sites in the middle river between Dam 5 near Clear Spring and Dam 3 near Harpers Ferry."
Mullican said that multiple year-classes, with fish ranging from 15 to 27 inches, were collected, suggesting that flathead catfish are successfully reproducing in the Potomac. Future surveys will help determine the impact of this new species on other fish and the ecosystem.
The Potomac is definitely one of the premier catfish fisheries in District II (the Eastern Panhandle and surrounding counties), but good action exists in every one of the state's six districts.
NORTHERN WEST VIRGINIA
The Northern Panhandle and the counties below it feature several bodies of water that offers superlative catfish sport says David Wellman, Jr., assistant District I fisheries biologist for the West Virginia DNR.
"On the Ohio River, flathead catfish are abundant and some very large fish, 50-plus pounds, are caught every year," he said. "Blue catfish are becoming more abundant in the lower portion of West Virginia's section of Ohio River, but we have just started stocking them in the New Cumberland and Pike Island pools."
According to Wellman, the top catfish lake in District I is Cheat Lake near Morgantown. Channel catfish are the most abundant fish collected during DNR surveys, as neither flathead nor blue catfish exists in Cheat Lake. Good eating size fish are common with 2- to 3-pound channels available.
"One of the most interesting aspects of channel catfish in Cheat Lake is their seasonal movement," said Wellman. "During cooler/cold seasons, channel catfish will migrate to the deepest part of the lake near the dam. Anglers can catch them from piers near the dam, fishing in nearly 50 feet of water all winter, as long as the lake is not iced over.
During spring and summer, however, channel catfish move upstream toward the head of the lake, where it is more riverine. They stay there until temperatures start to drop in fall and winter. This fishery is often underutilized, as most anglers focus on other species during this time.
According to the biologist, about 15 small impoundments in District I are stocked with channel cats. Many hold over very well and are quite abundant in several lakes. Some are also stocked with trout, but fishing pressure can drop significantly after trout season, leaving catfish anglers plenty of elbowroom.
Some of the best to consider are Teter Creek (35 acres in Barbour County), Newburg (5 acres in Preston County), Bear Rock (16 acres in Ohio County), Mason Lake (55 acres in Monongalia County) and Curtisville Lake (30 acres in Marion County).
SOUTHERN WEST VIRGINIA
Bluestone Lake, covering 2,040 acres, is a major destination in the southern reaches of the Mountain State, providing ample catfishing opportunities to anglers.
"Bluestone is definitely one of the top channel cat spots in the state," said Mark Scott, District IV fisheries biologist. "Bluestone has always shown a very good population of channel cats in all of our surveys. The fish run on average probably a pound and a half, but there are plenty of larger size fish up to the upper 20-inch size range."
Scott says that one thing Bluestone anglers should keep in mind is that they will have to probe main channel drop-offs if they want to encounter cats. The lake, he informs, is basically "just the New and Bluestone rivers dammed up" and few backwaters exist.
Anglers typically approach the Bluestone Lake in several different ways. Some work the deep drop-offs at the lower end of the impoundment, while others head for the upper reaches, especially near the Indian Creek access point, to check out the deep holes there. The Indian Creek area is where the swift current of the New River starts to slow, so this area remains well aerated in the summer.
Anglers who enjoy chasing cats in smaller impoundments should look at 20-acre Berwind in McDowell County, 18-acre Little Beaver in Raleigh County and 16-acre Pipestem in Summers County.
NORTHWESTERN WEST VIRGINIA
District VI contains much of the northwestern part of the state and fisheries biologist Scott Morrison believes one destination stands out above all others. That destination is a river that borders 277 miles of West Virginia and, arguably, is one of only two state bodies of water (along with the New River) that boasts national reputations as fisheries.
"The Ohio River produces large fish every year," said Morrison. "Channel catfish (go up) to 20 pounds, flatheads over 50 pounds and blues over 30 pounds."
Scott says that both Belleville and Willow Island pools can produce plenty of quality-size cats, though the former boasts a better fishery. The biologist also encourages non-boaters to visit the tailwaters of these two pools, as bank anglers have been enjoying very good catches of cats in recent years. Many families come to the tailwaters and spend the day there with the goal of bringing home fish for numerous meals.
However, because of PCB contamination, a consumption advisory exists from the Pennsylvania border to Belleville Lock. The most stringent part of the advisory is that channel catfish 18 inches and over should not be eaten at all. An advisory is also in play from the Belleville Lock to the Kentucky border, again because of PCBs. The harshest part of this warning is that channel catfish 18 inches and over should only be part of six meals a year.
EASTERN WEST VIRGINIA
Brandon Keplinger, assistant fisheries biologist for District II, is a big fan of the channel cat fishery in the South Branch of the Potomac. He says that channels greater than 30 inches in length and in excess of 10 pounds are caught by anglers and sampled regularly by DNR staff. Routine population surveys suggest that more than 40 percent of fish are 16 inches or greater. What's more, many of these fish go on impressive migrations.
"The catfish seem to move out of the South Branch of the Potomac River and into the Potomac River Main Stem during late fall and winter months," said Keplinger. "Channel catfish habitation of the South Branch begins to pick up as individuals move upstream during high stream flows and warming temperatures in the spring. Catfish have been noted to move upstream over 17 miles within approximately a month's time."
The biologist adds that staff have tagged catfish in the South Branch that were later caught by anglers in the Potomac River, over 70 miles downstream. Additionally, high rates of catfish movement and activity are apparent during storm flows. Opportunities to catch quality channels in even mediocre or poor habitats rise during high flow events, because the fish migrate (and likely feed) on their way to more preferable habitats as flows subside.
During summer months, the density of channel catfish in large pool habitats can frequently reach over 40 fish per surface acre of stream — essentially hundreds of cats per pool where acceptable habitat is found says the biologist. What is the takeaway advice for cat fans in the eastern part of the state? Head for the South Branch the next time a summertime thunderstorm slams the area.
Additionally, Parker Hollow (34.5 acres in Hardy County), South Mill Creek (48 acres in Grant County) and Kimsey Run (60 acres in Hardy County) are all small impoundments in District II that provide excellent channel catfish angling opportunities. The populations are managed through stocking efforts. However, substantial numbers of catfish spawning boxes have been placed in these impoundments to encourage natural reproduction.
District III flaunts several outstanding cat fisheries, according to Jim Walker. The fisheries biologist relates that the DNR has been stocking 10,000 to 15,000 fingerling channels at Burnsville Lake for the past five to seven years, and lots of decent-size fish are now showing up in electrofishing surveys. As such, the number of anglers targeting catfish has understandably increased.
Adding to the appeal of the 968-acre impoundment in Braxton County is that large flatheads also roam the body of water, though channels remain the species most likely to be caught. Most of the channels run between 3 and 5 pounds, with a few going between 5 and 15 pounds, while most of the flatheads weigh between 10 and 20 pounds, with some moving into the 30- to 40-pound range.
"The DNR has been placing catfishing spawning boxes in Burnsville Lake and has been monitoring use with underwater cameras," said Walker. "The boxes are being used and should help enhance natural reproduction and ultimately increase population for more angler action."
Another destination is 550-acre Stonecoal Lake, which also receives annual stockings of channel cat fingerlings. The lake has a 10-horsepower limit and is known for its tranquility.
WESTERN WEST VIRGINIA
According to District V Fisheries Biologist Jeff Hansbarger, the top catfish destination in the western reaches of the Mountain State is the Ohio River.
"The state record was recently caught and has been caught multiple times from the Robert C. Byrd pool in the past," said Hansbarger. "There's a growing blue cat fishery, and there's always a chance of catching a record catfish from the Ohio, particularly a record blue cat."
Hansbarger says that all three major species of catfish — blues, channels and flatheads — thrive in the district's portion of the Ohio, and the waterway tends to turn out the biggest catfish in all three species for that region.
Small impoundment fans also have a good destination in this part of the state in the form of Laurel Lake. The 29-acre lake in Mingo County regularly receives fingerlings and harvestable-size channel cats.
To be honest, I had never realized how impressive West Virginia's catfish angling truly was until contacting the biologists. Kind of makes me — and perhaps you as well — want to go out and tangle with some behemoth blues, flatheads and channels. After all, I would rank the catfish as one of the best tasting game fish — and not a bad fighter either.