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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The unofficial fish of summer, catfish abound in Kentucky’s lakes and streams

Catfish are the unofficial “fish of summer.”

Summer is a prime time to seek out these heavyweight brawlers. They cruise the shallows at night until the break of dawn, before heading back to deep water during the heat of the day.
Catfish are popular with anglers because they are easy to catch and are good table fare.

As a word of caution, be careful when unhooking and handling catfish. They have sharp dorsal and pectoral fins, which can inflict painful puncture wounds to the hands.

Blue Catfish recently sampled at Taylorsville Lake by Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife crews. (Photo from KDFWR)

The three most important species to anglers are the Channel Catfish, Flathead Catfish and Blue Catfish.

There are also three species of Bullhead Catfish in Kentucky waters. The Yellow Bullhead (Ictalurus natalis) is the most common since it is present in all 10 of the state’s river drainages. Bullheads are found most often in headwater tributaries, are small and not significant to anglers.

Catfish populations are sustained by natural reproduction and annual stockings.

Some years as many as 322,000 catfish are raised at the Peter W. Pfeiffer Fish Hatchery near Frankfort, according to Josh Pennington, Hatchery Manager for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR).

The number produced varies year-to-year based on stocking schedules and hatchery productivity, but the target numbers include 80,000 8 to 10-inch Channel Catfish, 36,000 15-inch Channel Catfish, 60,000 to 120,000 5 to 7-inch Blue Catfish, and 86,000 15-inch Hybrid Catfish.

The Hybrid Catfish, stocked in 44 small lakes in the Fishing in the Neighborhoods (FINs) program, is a cross between a Channel Catfish female and a Blue Catfish male. This example of interspecific hybridization, the cross between two species of the same genus, produces an offspring with improved growth rates, improved resistance to diseases, and a higher tolerance to stress, thus greater survival.

Size and Coloration

All catfish are members of the family Ictaluridae.

The Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) is by far the most widely distributed catfish species in Kentucky. It is found in all the state’s river drainages, the small lakes and major reservoirs in these basins, and is stocked in farm ponds.

Coloration is bluish-silver on the back, with a whitish belly, and silvery sides that have small, irregular dark spots. The four pairs of barbels (whiskers) are quite long, and the tail fin is deeply forked. Common names for the Channel Catfish are “fiddler” and “willow cat.”

Adults are commonly 12 to 20 inches long, and on rare occasions 30 inches or more. They are tolerant of turbidity and can live in warm water.

The Flathead Catfish (Pylodictis olivaris), commonly called shovelhead or mudcat, can grow to an enormous size.

Kentucky’s state record flathead, which weighed 97 pounds and was caught on June 6, 1956, by Esker Carroll from the Green River.

Coloration is brown to reddish-brown to yellowish above, with dark blotches, a yellowish to white belly, and a distinctive wide, flat head. Its tail is triangular-shaped, and its protruding lower jaw has long barbels. Flatheads commonly reach 36 inches in length and can live for 20 years. They are more common than Blue Catfish but less abundant than Channel Catfish.

They thrive in large rivers and major reservoirs. Adults are solitary and inhabit deep, sluggish pools, brush piles, and undercut banks in rivers, where they move into the shallows at night to feed, at the head of a pool.

The Blue Catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) is common in Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.

They thrive in current, and pool and riffle environments, and are native to the lower Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and their major river tributaries, including the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Green.

In recent years the Blue Catfish has been stocked into four major reservoirs — Taylorsville Lake, Barren River Lake, Dewey Lake, Fishtrap Lake, and six state-owned lakes, which get stocked every third year. The state-owned lakes are: Beshear Lake, 760 acres in Caldwell and Christian Counties, Boltz Lake, 92 acres in Grant County, Bullock Pen Lake, 134 acres in Grant County, Lake Wilgreen, 169 acres in Madison County, Metcalfe County Lake, 22 acres in Metcalfe County, and Mill Creek Lake, 109 acres in Monroe County.

The Blue Catfish is similar in appearance to the Channel Catfish. The most obvious difference is the Channel Catfish’s rounded anal fin. Coloration is bluish-gray, with silvery sides and a white belly. It is without spots or other markings. The tail is deeply forked.

Blue catfish can attain an enormous size. The Kentucky state record Blue Catfish weighed 106.9 pounds and was caught by Glynn Grogan from the Ohio River on October 20, 2018.

Distribution in Kentucky

Catfish abound in a wide range of Kentucky waters.

Major lakes that support catfish fisheries rated excellent, according to the 2020 KDFWR Fishing Forecast include: Barren River Lake, Buckhorn Lake, Dewey Lake, Fishtrap Lake, Green River Lake, Kentucky Lake, Lake Barkley, Rough River Lake, Taylorsville Lake, and Yatesvillle Lake.

Food Habits

The Channel Catfish is not a finicky eater and its natural foods include crayfish, freshwater clams and snails, aquatic insects, fish and worms. Adults eat mostly fish.

The Flathead Catfish has a more fish orientated diet. While young Flathead Catfish live in riffles and feed on aquatic insects, adults are piscivorous, eating only live fish. They do not scavenge.

The Blue Catfish consumes crayfish, freshwater mussels and fish, both alive and fresh-killed, with a preference for gizzard shad.

Fishing Tips

Anglers employ a wide array of fishing tackle and techniques to catch catfish.

This includes hook and line, set lines (trotlines and limb lines) and jug lines, in which a length of heavy line and baited hook are tied to an empty plastic gallon jug or 2-liter bottle, or a foam pool noodle, and set adrift over a shallow flat.

Be sure to check fishing regulations before putting out set lines and jug lines since they are not allowed on all waters.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Use heavy tackle and lines when catfishing. Some anglers spool their casting reels in braided line and use heavy monofilament line, 17- to 30-pound test, for the leaders. The Palomar knot is an excellent knot for tying on the large hooks (No. 4 to 3/0) used in catfishing. Fingernail clippers worn around your neck on a lanyard are ideal for clipping line.

The hook of choice for catfish is the circle hook, which ensures more consistent hookups. When the angler feels the catfish on the line, simply raise the rod tip and start reeling. Consult a hook chart for recommended hook sizes, based on the size of catfish likely to be encountered.

Channel Catfish can be caught on numerous baits, including cut bait, the viscera and gills of gizzard shad and skipjack herring, small live shad, shiners, creek chubs, chicken livers, crayfish, nightcrawlers and catalpa worms.

Channel Catfish cruise the bottom looking for food, so baits should be fished right on the bottom.

A slip sinker rig is a good choice for bottom fishing on flats. Tie a hook on an 18-inch leader of monofilament line. On the other end of the leader, tie the line to a barrel swivel.

On the line from the rod and reel, thread a 3/4-ounce barrel sinker and a plastic bead, then tie the line to the other end of the barrel swivel. The plastic bead will prevent the weight from damaging the knot.

The lead weight will take the bait to the bottom, but when the catfish picks up the bait and runs with it, he won’t feel any resistance since the line will slip through the weight. Then you’ve got him.

Rocky areas are productive places to fish in lakes, especially during the spawn. This includes gravel flats and riprap on road and bridge levees, also riprap on banks around boat launching ramps, fishing piers and other lake access areas.

In tailwaters, Channel Catfish locate around bottom irregularities, facing into the current. Slow your presentation down, and probe every hump, ditch, rock pile or hole in the bottom cover. Put the bait right in front of the catfish’s nose so he gets two or three good looks at the bait, not just a fleeting glance.

A bottom-bouncing rig is ideal for fishing from a boat in the current, such as in tailwater areas, where snags are a problem. Use a three-way swivel, with the lead weight on the bottom and the hook suspended on a leader to the side so it will trail in the current and not hang up on the bottom.

The preferred live bait for Flathead Catfish is a wiggling fish, a big creek chub, gizzard shad, shiner minnow, or small sunfish. Large shiners should be hooked through the back, just in front of the dorsal fin. Creek chubs and shad are less hardy and should be hooked through the lips. Start the point of the hook below the lower jaw and bring it out through the snout.

Drifting cut bait is a good strategy for Blue Catfish during the summer when catfish are widely scattered across the flat basins of major reservoirs.

The basic catfish drifting rig starts with a three-way swivel. Use a bell sinker for the weight on the bottom of the rig, tied to the three-way swivel on a 30 to 36-inch leader. Typically, the hook leader is shorter, about 20 to 24 inches long. Foam floats are sometimes added to the hook leader to keep the bait up in the water column, just off the bottom.

Most anglers use a lighter line on the sinker leader, to prevent losing the whole rig when snags occur.

Creel Limits

Statewide, there’s no creel limit or minimum size on catfish, but special regulations, which include creel limits and minimum size limits, are in effect on many lakes across the state.

Also a trophy catfish regulation is in effect on all Kentucky waters. Anglers may only keep one trophy catfish per species per day, whether using traditional (hook and line) or non-traditional fishing methods (trotlines, limb lines or jug lines). A trophy catfish is defined as a Blue Catfish or Flathead Catfish 35 inches or longer, or a Channel Catfish 28 inches or longer.

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