Catch Big Catfish
January 09, 2017
So you want to catch the biggest catfish possible, a once-in-a-lifetime leviathan, a personal best that you can post on all the Internet catfishing forums? Do you head cross-country to legendary waters or do you simply spend a weekend targeting Ol' Joe at the local spillway? The neat thing about American catfishing is that you can choose either route and cross paths with the catfish of your dreams. You can go big and travel to famous waters to battle behemoths, or stay close to home and find monsters that lurk in local fisheries.
The biggest channel cat ever caught on rod and reel was a 58-pounder from Lake Moultrie in South Carolina caught in 1964. The James River in South Dakota produced a 55-pound channel cat back in 1949, and in 1997 a 51-pounder came out of Lake Tom Bailey in Mississippi. Even though it's been more than two decades since a 50-plus-pound channel has been recorded, there are plenty of places around the country to cross paths with huge specimens.
The Red River of the North, flowing north on the border between North Dakota and Minnesota into Canada, is renowned for large numbers of big channel cats. In-Fisherman's Doug Stange reported on the phenomenal fishing upstream of Selkirk, Manitoba, in 1985, and has returned year after year for the opportunity to routinely boat 20 or more cats per outing commonly exceeding 20 pounds with fish up to 30-plus pounds. Captain Brad Durick, a guide based in Grand Forks, North Dakota, has made a career of connecting anglers to the Red's biggest channel cats.
"Selkirk has the best channel catfishing on earth," Durick says. "At Selkirk, if you know anything about catfishing and fish from a boat, you can probably catch at least one between 15 and 20 pounds. If you're in a boat with somebody who knows his stuff, it's nothing to catch 500 to 1,000 pounds of cats in a single day."
The same reasons that created a trophy fishery in the Red River have led to the development of other low-profile but highly productive hotspots for big channels across northern-tier states. Biologists note that growth rates related to short summers and long winters tend to optimize the size of channel catfish. Regional attitudes of anglers affect harvest pressure, so catfish living in walleye and perch country are often less-targeted and able to grow to maximum size. That's why rivers in the eastern two-thirds of Montana, lakes in Wisconsin, and bays on Lake Erie are overlooked goldmines for anglers who appreciate big channel cats.
"For sheer numbers of channel catfish, it's tough to beat the Yellowstone River near Sidney in eastern Montana," says Sidney resident Steve Harris. "They average 3 to 5 pounds, and you easily handle 20 to 30 cats in a day's fishing. If you want bigger ones, the upper end of Fort Peck Reservoir and the Missouri River just above Fort Peck has a huge population of 10- to 25-pounders."
In Wisconsin, on the north side of Madison, Lake Mendota has been producing phenomenal numbers of big channel cats for nearly a decade. The lake is legendary for its ice-out bite for channels, when they concentrate in the shallows on the lake's north and northeastern sides. Several years ago, local angler Jerome Hochhausen reported, "During the months of April and May, we put a total of more than 3,000 pounds of channel catfish in the boat. They averaged 11 pounds. The biggest was 21 pounds 4 ounces."
Lake Erie normally brings to mind walleyes and smallmouth bass. For Ohio Guide Skip Martin, Lake Erie means big channel catfish. "Sandusky Bay has the best catfishing I've ever been around," Martin says. "When I fish channel cat tournaments in other lakes, 50 pounds of fish usually puts you in the top five. On Sandusky Bay, 50 pounds probably won't make the top ten.
"The bay is one of the few places in Ohio where shore anglers have a good shot at a lot of trophy-size channel cats. The old Route 2 bridge was removed, but they left a lot of the approaches as fishing piers. When the wind is creating currents, big cats pile into those areas and the guys on shore cash in."
California-based Guide Steve Johnson is often asked by anglers from east of the Rockies if there are catfish in California. "Clear Lake could be ranked as one of the top channel cat fisheries in the country," Johnson says. "They average 12 to 15 pounds, with lots in the 17- to 19-pound range, and quite a few topping 20. The lake record is 33 pounds and my biggest from Clear Lake is 32 pounds."
Ken Freeman's position as director of Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest national tournament series gives him a unique overview of where the biggest catfish have been found around the United States. He has a long list of rivers and lakes where anglers in his tournaments have brought noteworthy flatheads to the scales.
"The Rock River in Illinois has always been good but it seems to be producing bigger than average flatheads in the past few years," Freeman says. "Flatheads from the Coosa River and the Coosa River basin in Georgia and up into South Carolina have impressed me recently. Lake Eufaula in Oklahoma has produced enough 50-pound and larger flatheads lately to catch people's attention. And we've been hearing good things about big flatheads from Arizona, which surprises a lot of people."
Flathead Guide Ed "Flathead Ed" Wilcoxson set the Arizona flathead record with a 76.5-pounder from Lake Bartlett in 2013. He says that flatheads in Arizona grow large, thanks to the climate and a culture that overlooks their widespread presence.
"People down here don't use baits big enough to interest big flatheads," he says. "I was using a 2-pound carp for bait when I caught the state record. I know there are bigger ones in Bartlett, for sure. I hook a couple each year that I haven't been able to land."
Johnson says the Colorado River and its tributaries along the California/Arizona border has good flathead fishing. "The state record 72-pound flathead came from that area," he says. "It offers some of the best flathead fishing anywhere, even if the rest of the country doesn't know about it."
David Ashby, owner of Bottom Dwellers Tackle, talks to customers who love to catfish every day, and has a mental map of where the biggest flatheads lurk across the United States. "Some rivers in Florida, especially the Apalachicola, have been on fire for big flatheads," he says. "Lake Guntersville and Wilson Lake on the Tennessee River in Alabama have been producing big ones, too."
Almost any river in the southeastern U.S. has the potential to give up trophy flatheads. Joe Deiveney is co-holder of the rod-and-reel record for flathead catfish in Georgia, with an 83-pounder he caught from a dock on the Altamaha River. The title is shared with another 83-pounder from the Altamaha caught by Carl Sawyer.
Also look to Prairie states for gargantuan flatheads. Elk City Reservoir in Kansas gave up Ken Paulie's 123-pound world-record. The fish stretched the tape at 61 inches with 42¾-inch girth. According to Ben Neely, the fishery biologist who oversees the reservoir, this fish recently reappeared and he was able to collect information from it including age, sex, and gut contents. Check the Cat Bits column in this guide for details. The Kansas River has been producing giant flatheads, and Milford Reservoir is another top option. Many Nebraska reservoirs and rivers hold big flatheads, too.
It seems giant flatheads can show up in a variety of waters today across the species' range, from Georgia to Arizona, through the Plains and Midwest. Big Rivers like the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri always surprise with colossal flatheads.
Any time monster catfish are discussed, blue cats are euphemistically the elephant in the room. While the world-record 143-pound blue pulled from Kerr Lake in Virginia in 2011 has yet to be topped, tournament anglers have steadily raised the bar for what's considered an "average" blue catfish.
"In a 5-fish tournament on the Missouri River it now usually takes 200 pounds of catfish to just get into the top 7 or 8 places," says Darrell Van Vactor, operations manager for Cabela's King Kat Tournament Trail. "In the Southeast, the lakes on the Tennessee River — Wilson, Wheeler, Guntersville — have been producing big blues. Cave Run Lake in Kentucky is another tremendous fishery for blues. It's not very old, but it's already producing 40-pounders. And you can't talk about blue cats without mentioning the James and Potomac rivers out east. The Virginia section of the James has some huge blues."
Ashby has experience on eastern rivers. "The James has big blues, in the 70-pound-plus range, but the Potomac is notorious for an abundance of 40- to 50-pound fish, with potential to 70 pounds," he says. "It's a unique fishery. Where else can you catch 10 to 20 40-pound blues in a day almost within casting distance of the Lincoln Memorial and other historical sites? Because of national security issues, there's a good chance that during a day's fishing you're going to be approached and inspected by a Coast Guard cutter with .50 caliber machine guns manned and ready. Other than that, it's a fantastic place to fish."
Another top venue for blues is Lake Tawakoni in North Texas. Local anglers are so used to large catches of big blues that many don't realize the bonanza off the bows of their boats. "I didn't realize how special our fishing was till I got to talking with guys who've fished all over the country," says Guide Michael Littlejohn. "To me it's not hard to average 10 cats over 25 pounds per trip, and probably half of those are over 40. That's just normal fishing down here. And the future looks good. I've been on the north end of the lake and have seen an area maybe two acres in size that was nothing but shad busting the surface. I tied on a Zara Spook to cash in on what I thought were stripers, and started catching 5-pound blues on every cast. I'm optimistic about the future of blue cat fishing at Tawakoni."
If Tawakoni comes up when talking numbers of big blue cats, then the Mississippi River is name-dropped when there's talk of monsters. "From Alton south to below St. Louis is prime water for big blues," says Van Vactor. "The farther south you go, the greater the potential. Around Cape Girardeau and New Madrid, blues trend larger yet. We regularly see 70-pounders around New Madrid. The Memphis area is monster region. There's a reason they've been catching 100-pounders in the mid-section of the Mississippi — all the big rivers, the Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio come together there — and conditions are right for blues to get as big as possible. Have we seen the biggest blues from the Mississippi yet? Probably not."
The same applies to the Missouri River, especially from Kansas City to Omaha. Omaha is traditionally toward the northern end of blue cat territory in the Missouri, but in recent years anglers have noted an increase in both size and numbers of blues formerly "rare" in that area. The Iowa state record, taken from the Missouri River south of Council Bluffs, weighed 101 pounds. The Missouri River between Southwest Iowa and Southeast Nebraska flows fast, often approaching 9 mph, with numerous deep, mid-channel holes hidden from casual anglers. Fast water, deep holes, and little pressure is a classic formula for rivers to produce mega-blues.
On the Mississippi, Guide Ryan Casey works from St. Louis, so he's familiar with the potential of both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. When he's looking for the biggest cats, he favors the southern reaches of the Mississippi.
"South of Tunica, Mississippi, there's more water," he says. "You're looking at depths of 100 feet, the river is wider, and there's a lot less commercial and recreational fishing because there aren't many boat ramps. I've fished that area, and there are monsters there. I've hooked and landed 100-pounders. I'm confident I've got the tackle and the experience to handle big fish. But I've hooked fish in the lower Mississippi that I couldn't stop."
Guide Bob Crosby, based in Vicksburg, Mississippi, agrees. "The Mississippi south of Tunica is almost a forgotten stretch of river for catfishing," Crosby says. "When people down here think about trophy fish, they head for the Gulf Coast and saltwater fishing and overlook the monsters in the lower Mississippi River. I think the biggest blue catfish you can find anywhere in the United States are in the lower Mississippi, waiting to be caught."
In the west, anglers also should look to reservoirs in southern California, where blues in excess of 100 pounds have been boated. "Some of the lakes in San Diego County have produced monsters," Johnson says, "including the last three state record blue cats, which weighed 89, 101, and most recently, 113 pounds."
Whether it's a world record, state record, or personal best, the potential to catch the biggest catfish possible is what draws anglers to the water. Some load up and trek cross-country to well-known lakes and rivers to find big fish. Others focus on local lakes and big creeks, like Beaver Creek, a farm-country creek in Central Iowa that averages 20 feet wide and 4 feet deep through the summer. A surprised angler caught a 45-pound flathead from that chub-and-carp creek last summer about 20 miles upstream from its confluence with the Des Moines River.
"Never overlook smaller rivers for big catfish," Freeman says. "The Mississippi River and large reservoirs on the Tennessee River get lots of attention for tournament catches, but smaller rivers and lakes that aren't big enough for tournaments also can hold big fish. Rivers like the Hatchie, the Wolf, and the Bigbee waterway are smaller yet have a history of big cats. I grew up by a little creek near Joplin, Missouri, called Shoal Creek — a nice little creek for bass. But it also had a surprising population of big flatheads because nobody bothers them.
"There are trophy catfish just about anywhere there are catfish, if you just take time to figure out where they are and how to catch them."