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Best Bets For Commonwealth Cats

Whether your favorite catfish are flatheads, channels or blues, thereís a fishing hole close to home thatís just right for you.

   Watching my video monitor closely, I fully expected the screen to depict a sharp drop in the water depth at any moment. The shallow sandbar I was slowly motoring over extended far into the lake and I was almost to the river channel marker buoys, which certainly meant deep water was nearby. About 20 yards from the line of buoys, the water depth began to drop and the graph recorded the presence of fish lying along the drop. I horseshoed the boat on and off the drop a couple more times and located the feeder creek which entered the river channel. I continued to see the "fishy"-looking markings on the sonar unit, so I dropped a couple of marker buoys which would enable me to keep my bearing on the 10-foot depth line. The fish were holding in the 10- to 15- foot depth range, with the majority of the fish keying in on the area where the small creek joined the mainstream river channel. These fish were definitely relating to structure. However, as the sun continued to settle in the West, I figured the fish would migrate toward the shallow flat and begin feeding.

   I went to considerable trouble to anchor the boat properly, to ensure I could cast both to the drop and the adjacent flat should the fish do as I hoped -- and expected. I readied my worm rig, cast toward the underwater point and was quickly hooked into 5 pounds of battling CATFISH!

   To this point, many anglers may have hazarded a guess that I was fishing for black bass, or perhaps even white bass. But, in truth, the above was the setting for one of the most productive afternoons of catfishing Iíve ever experienced. Yes, catfish are often very structure-specific fish, and nowhere has it ever been more evident to me than on this structure located near the Blood River on Kentucky Lake.

   This afternoon I had a bucket of Docís Catfish Getter Dip Bait in the boat and thatís all I needed. Iíve long been a believer in this specific catfish concoction, and when I cast the first Docís Catfish Worm loaded, with the boat off the point of the drop, an eager blue catfish gobbled it up.

   As the afternoon continued, the fish did not move shallow as I had originally hoped, which was probably a blessing anyway. The fish keyed on the underwater point as if drawn by a magnet. Casting 39 feet off the point in either direction would scarcely produce a strike. However, hit the target and I could hardly set the rod into the rod holder. In fact, it became a challenge to try and get two rods rigged, baited and in the water at the same time. Although the afternoon I refer to may seem an exceptional situation to some, in reality itís not. The catfish population across the Bluegrass State is outstanding with numerous lakes holding large numbers of catfish -- many reaching huge sizes.

   Kentucky Lake certainly ranks as my overall favorite, and it must be included as one of the top catfish fisheries anywhere. When you include the tailwater and perhaps even throw in nearby Lake Barkley and its tailwater, I doubt you could find a better catfishing situation anywhere.

   Pete Pfeiffer, director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), says the two lakes hold excellent populations of all three of the major species of catfish and thatís one reason the catfish fishery is so productive. "On a statewide basis, the three major species of catfish -- the blue, flathead and channel -- are found in many different waters, from big lakes and rivers to small lakes and ponds. Sometimes they will all be found in one system while in others one or two will predominate. But the important aspect is the catfish fishery in Kentucky is very good and really getting better in most aspects. "Actually, thereís very little to report in terms of bad news for catfish anglers. We do have to monitor water quality, but thatís something necessary for all the fish species. Weíve seen a resurgence in catfishing at some of our lakes during recent years, partly because as an agency weíve begun to put more emphasis on this resource. The interest level among anglers does seem to be up as more people begin to discover how much fun they are to catch and their relative statewide availability," Pfeiffer said. The channel catfish is probably the most common species on a statewide basis, with this often-speckled fish being found in almost every fishery resource where catfish thrive. The blues tend to be found more in the western sector of the state and the flatheads are found throughout the state; they are, however, a bit more selective about the waters in which they thrive than the channel catfish. Although Kentucky and Barkley lakes comprise a hotbed of catfishing, anglers from other portions of the state certainly have no lack of outstanding catfishing opportunities. In fact, Cave Run Lake, an 8,300-acre impoundment located in the northern sector of the Daniel Boone National Forest, has yielded catfish in excess of 50 pounds with some regularity. Any freshwater fish exceeding 50 pounds is awesome by this writerís standards. In fact, the Licking River, on which Cave Run is impounded, has produced a 76-pound flathead downriver of the lake. If that doesnít get your attention, then you need to take up knitting instead of catfishing! According to local anglers and wildlife officials, one of the principal methods for taking the big cats from Cave Run is to jug-fish. Jug-fishing is a method of fishing where the angler uses discarded jugs such as milk or cola containers, with a length of string tied to them and baited hook set at various depths beneath the water. When the fish hits the bait, the buoyancy of the jug will "set" the hook and then the angler chases the jug across the lake. Unless youíve tried it and tried to catch a big catfish in this manner, you cannot begin to appreciate the fun -- and challenge -- of the sport.

Jug-fishing remains an excellent and productive way to while away a hot summer day. Photo by Terry Madewell.

   However, in the past couple of years, a great many more anglers have begun to try fishing with rods and reels for the outsized catfish with considerable success. A wide variety of baits are used effectively on these big Cave Run fish, but the best baits for the big flatheads are invariably live baits.

   Lew Kornman, the fisheries biologist with the KDFWR at Cave Run, says a lot of folks are missing a great opportunity to fish for big game if they donít fish for the Cave Run catfish. "Although the lake is certainly better known for muskies, the catfish anglers are discovering a great fishery exists here. By setting out jugs, fishermen have a good chance of taking fish in the 20- to 30- pound class size. However, weíll occasionally see one top 50 pounds. I think more and more folks will be fishing for these big fish with rods and reels in the coming years. As they learn more about where these fish hang out and how to fish for them, we could see a trophy catfish fishery develop here," Kornman said.

   Major access to the lake is via U.S. 60 and KY 801. A good side trip for visiting anglers would be the Minor E. Clark fish hatchery immediately below the dam. The hatchery produces warm water fish for stocking the stateís lakes and rivers. One of the top producing lakes in the eastern portion of the state is Dewey Lake, according to KDFWR biologists. Ed Carroll, another fisheries scientist with the KDFWR, rates Dewey as one of the most fertile lakes in the state and he ranks it as the top catfish water with which heís personally worked. A high nutrient load being washed into the lake system from upstream development is a major contributing factor to the fertility of the lake. The average size of the fish in Dewey is in the 18- to 25- inch category, which is a pretty healthy size. Numerous larger fish are available and the primary species found include a mixture of flatheads and channels.

Dave Pattison of Hebron hoists a healthy mixed stringer of channels and blues. Many lakes in Kentucky provide such an opportunity. Photo by Terry Madewell

   Night crawlers and live, crappie-type minnows are two of the most popular catfish baits at this particular lake, although the aforementioned Docís will produce excellent results as well.

   Carr Fork Lake is only a 750 acre lake, but has become a top catfish producer thanks in large part to a fertilization program whereby liquid fertilizer is added to the lake. The lake has gone from low-production on most all species to becoming a good fishing hole for several species, most notably catfish. The channel catfish is the primary species found here and occasionally fish in the 5- to 10- pound class are taken. Only time will tell how large the fish will get, but odds are good they have not nearly reached their potential.

   The Ohio River is known as an excellent catfish fishery with many fish averaging in the 2- to 5- pound class. The entire length of the river is productive, according to KDFWR biologists, the specific places being up to the fishermen to locate. There are not a lot of huge catfish caught in the Ohio, but there are large catches of decent-sized fish which create a lot of fishing interest. One local expert says to think in terms of structure, such as the feeder creek junction described at the beginning on Kentucky Lake, for consistent action on this system as well.

Hook into a big blue like this one and youíll soon learn why fishing for them with rod and reel is growing in popularity. Photo by Terry Madewell.

   Another favorite lake of many is Lake Cumberland. Some anglers have problems fishing this big, deep lake, but for success during hot weather, one of the key things to remember is to look for areas which have dingy water. The mud banks and backs of creeks can produce excellent results after rains or storms muddy the water. The whiskered fish will often move into these areas and feed ravenously for brief periods, then retreat to deep water. If you cannot find the off-colored water, then fish the points and mudrock banks at night. The channel and flathead catfish both provide good action throughout the warm weather months, although the channels are the favored species of most local anglers. Cut bait, stink bait and night crawlers are all productive offerings for the fish. Big creek minnows are a favorite of anglers to tempt the big flatheads into biting. According to Pfeiffer, no discussion of catfishing in Kentucky would be complete without the mention of the lakes managed by the state -- about 45 lakes total -- which are annually stocked with channel catfish. "Each year we stock about 100,000 channel catfish, 8 inches long and longer, into these waters and they provide an outstanding catfishing resource for rod and reel anglers," Pfeiffer said. The size of the lakes vary from the 600- to 700- acre category, with others ranging in size down to just a few acres to perhaps even some only an acre in size. The specific areas can be obtained from the KDFWR. They include the state owned lakes, as well as many of the county lakes, city parks lakes and some lakes owned by other agencies.

   The fishing pressure on some of these lakes is quite intense, as one would expect, but still the resource is one which produces consistent action for anglers. The potential to fill your cooler with big catfish is not as high as in many of the larger lakes, but these lakes generally offer good action on decent-sized catfish. Again, the talent and persistence of the individual angler will have a great influence on the actual catch made.

   This is surely only a partial list of the top catfish waters in the state, partly because there are few lakes which donít harbor a respectable number of the whiskered species of fish. This is a good representation of some of the best spots and is a clear indicator that no angler in Kentucky is far from excellent catfishing waters. Whether you go for a short trip or a multi-day excursion, thereís no need to leave the Bluegrass State for catfishing. Plus, it offers a viable alternative to fishing for other species of fish and whether you fish from the shoreline with a cane pole or prefer to use the latest in electronic gadgetry, thereís a catfishing niche for you.

 


 


 


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