White Catfish Locations and Tactics
April 15, 2014
The collective rumblings of an estimated 15 million catmen have forced fisheries managers in parts of North America to re-evaluate their management strategies and look for ways to improve the quality of catfishing opportunities.
As more anglers discover the pleasure of pursuing one of the finest sportfish in freshwater, though, many others are missing out. Living by chance or choice outside the range of the "big three" — flatheads, channels, and blues — these anglers remain potentially unaffected by the catfishing renaissance.
A move from the fertile catfish-rich rivers of southeastern Iowa to the Massachusetts coast landed me right in the middle of this catfish void. "Plenty of brown bullheads," one biologist offered in answer to my query about the nearest cat spots, "but no flatheads or blues within 400 miles." During my first season in New England, I covered a lot of water and discovered a few isolated channel catfish populations. But I also discovered the white cat.
The Coastal Catfish
White catfish, Ameiurus catus, are native to Atlantic slope streams from New York to Florida, and Gulf coast drainages in Alabama and Mississippi. They're more tolerant of brackish water than other catfish species, and are often found right in the mouth of coastal rivers. White cats also have been stocked outside their native range, especially on the west coast. Their ability to adapt and reproduce in a variety of water conditions appeals to fishery managers trying to stretch budgets. In many parts of the country, channel catfish numbers must be supplemented by frequent and expensive stocking programs. White cats, once established in a body of water, however, often maintain good population densities on their own.
Many anglers and more than a few biologists have mistaken white catfish for blue or channel cats, or even oddly colored bullheads. Picture a fish with the proportions of a brown bullhead, the bluish-silver coloration of a blue cat, and a tail not quite so deeply forked as a channel's, and you have a white catfish. Confusion increases when these fish exceed 10 pounds and their mottled colors and slimmer proportions make them look more like channel catfish. The surest way to identify a white cat, short of tissue analysis, is to count the number of fleshy spines or rays in the anal fin. Whites have between 19 and 23 rays, channels between 24 and 30, and blue cats between 30 and 36.
According to a study conducted by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, white and channel catfish grow at the same rate for their first 4 years. Beyond age 4, the channel cat's growth rate continues to escalate while white cats stagnate.
Large specimens rarely exceed 10 pounds and average 2 to 4 pounds in most parts of the country. In southern New England, this size potential has made them more popular than the native brown bullhead. In states like Alabama, with established white and channel catfish populations, however, most anglers prefer channel cats for their larger size and ease of harvest.
Myths and misconceptions surround many aspects of catfish behavior, but white cats — because they're less abundant and have evaded comprehensive study — seem to effect more confusion than other species. Our collective knowledge of these fish should grow as more anglers pursue them and share what they've learned. But we need a foundation to build on, one built on angling experience, not the folklore too many of us accept without sufficient evidence.
When I began fishing for white cats, everything I read said they'd be found in the lower reaches of coastal rivers — usually the last third, all the way down to half-strength seawater. Naturally, that's where I began to fish. But instead of being spread throughout a wide featureless basin, as many of my sources claimed, white cats seemed to prefer areas I characterized as slow-water versions of classic channel-cat spots — holes below long runs, submerged brush and timber on the outside of river bends, and the mouths of tributary streams. The more I learned about white cat behavior, the more I wondered about the traditional wisdom that surrounds these fish. I also wondered about the miles of river that lay upstream.
To put white cats in perspective, consider them intermediate between channel catfish and bullheads. Their preferred habitat often overlaps with both species, and an understanding of the basic nature and seasonal location of channel cats and bullheads will help you consistently locate white catfish in any body of water.
Like other catfish, whites are built for the rigors of river life. They tolerate faster water than bullheads, but avoid the swift currents favored by channel cats. During high water, they seek areas away from the main river current, like snag-infested backwaters and side channels. When water level and velocity stabilize in early summer, however, they gradually move to main channel features like holes and eddies — areas that provide better feeding opportunities, but still offer protection from current.
Not all snags are equal, however. Single logs with few branches or root tangles may hold a few fish, but complex snags consisting of 3 or more fallen trees that extend into deeper water attract the largest fish in the system. In slow water, active fish usually are stationed upstream of the snag, to get the first crack at drifting morsels. Present baits 10 to 15 feet ahead of the snag to draw these fish out and away from tangles.
The outside edge of the cover may also hold active fish, especially if the rest of the structure lies mostly in shallow water. The eddy area formed behind large log complexes is usually a resting area for cats. But it may hold all the fish, especially during spring and other high-water periods.
Rigs and Tackle
Fishing for white cats doesn't require the jaw bustin' tackle commonly used for other catfish species, not that a big white cat won't give you a trademark catfish battle and do her best to melt the gears in your spincast combo. But the heavy-duty gear used to wrestle big flatheads in tight quarters is overkill.
Spooled with abrasion-resistant 10- to 14-pound-test line, most bass or walleye outfits work fine for whites. Baitcasting gear, though, allows for casting more weight with greater accuracy. And rods ranging from 7 to 11 feet long facilitate longer casts and better long-distance hooksets.
Rigs for white cats are simple — the way catfishing was meant to be. Grab your rod and reel, a bag of lead, a box of hooks, and a few floats, and head for the river. Cutbait, nightcrawlers, and a variety of insects presented on standard slip, set, or float rigs all take their share of white cats. Channel cat baits like pastes, dips, and cubes of softened Ivory soap appeal to smaller fish.
In brackish water, natural baits like crab and shrimp can be deadly. If you're lucky enough to fish rivers and streams containing both white and channel catfish, fresh cut pieces of shad, suckers, or other oily baitfish offer the best chance to catch both species.
Big white cats prefer livebaits at certain times of the year. A white cat's mouth is much larger than a similar size channel cat's mouth, and their appetite seems to follow these proportions. Larger baits than you would use for channel catfish of a similar size will attract more white cats and reduce the number of marauding American eels that intercept your bait. Make livebaits more attractive by clipping off parts of the fins and tail. Also make a few shallow cuts along the side of the baitfish. The frenzied vibrations and flowing juices attract prowling whites who also find the injured minnow easier to catch.
Targeting white cats throughout the year shouldn't require more than a few basic bait selections. In spring, it's tough to beat 3- to 5-inch livebaits, though you may want to experiment with small strips of sour cutbait. Adjust the size of your offerings to match water temperature and the average size of the fish. In summer, try 3- to 5-inch-long strips of fresh cutbait and livebaits in the 5- to 7-inch range. In fall, livebait again keys the fishing, but succulent fillets of fresh cutbait continue to produce.
White catfish are tenacious. After being stocked in Oregon's Tualatin River in the early 1950s, white cats weren't seen until 1989 when the state record 15-pounder was caught, and a small reproducing population was rediscovered. But few states manage their harvest, and without size and creel limits, it's up to catmen to discipline their catch. In-Fisherman advocates selective harvest. This means keeping a reasonable number of small fish for the table and releasing all fish where they are uncommon. Trophy white catfish are rare everywhere and should be released to continue to fuel the dreams of anglers.
White Catfish Outlook
Alabama — Catfish are considered a commercial species in Alabama, so little effort is made to manage their populations. Though white catfish occur in many fisheries, including Martin Reservoir and Sougahatchee Creek on the Tallapoosa River drainage, angler surveys indicate they're less popular than channel catfish.
California — White cats are the most most abundant species of catfish in California, according to biologist Dennis Lee. Most large reservoirs provide good fishing, though the Cal Delta region of the Sacramento River is best for numbers of white cats and a potential trophy.
Delaware — No species of catfish has gamefish status in Delaware, and the state lumps all species together for state record consideration. White cats are native to the Delaware system, however, and the C & D Canal remains a top fishery.
Florida — Native populations of white catfish are found in the St. Johns and Withlacoochee river systems. The St. Johns River supports a commercial fishery for white and channel cats, but neither species attracts heavy recreational fishing pressure.
Georgia — White catfish are found in most of the state's major river systems, though sampling indicates they're not abundant. Lakes Jackson, Oconee, and Sinclair support thriving commercial and recreational fisheries for both white and channel catfish.
Kentucky — Little is known of white catfish distribution in Kentucky. They are found in the Ohio River, and Kinniconick and Tygarts Creeks. Guist Creek and Taylorsville lakes also are considered top fisheries.
Maryland — White cats are native to the Potomac River drainage, but little more is known about their distribution or popularity.
Massachusetts — The Bay State does not manage white catfish populations. In the future, though, their increasing popularity with anglers may require regulations. Top fisheries include the Connecticut, Merrimack, and Charles rivers, as well as several lakes and ponds in the eastern part of the state.
Nevada — The popularity of white and channel catfish is increasing as more anglers discover this overlooked resource. Records from the state's Trophy Fish Program indicate that Carson and Humboldt rivers and the Indian lakes are consistent producers of big white cats.
New Jersey — White catfish are present in most rivers and streams, except those in the outer coastal plain where the water is too acidic and poorly buffered. They are most abundant in the Delaware River and its major tributaries. Lakes Hopatcong, Musconetcong, Greenwood, and Budd offer the best shot at a trophy white.
New York — White cats are native to New York, and underfished populations exist in the Mohawk and Hudson river drainages. Cats in the 2- to 3-pound range are common, and fish approaching the 9-pound 12-ounce state record are occasionally caught. Commercial fishing is allowed on the Hudson River, but contaminant levels in catfish are currently too high to permit harvest.
North Carolina — There are no size or creel limits on catfish in North Carolina, and little information is available on white cat distribution. The French Broad River on the Tennessee River drainage and a number of lakes and ponds across the state support healthy white cat populations.
Pennsylvania — The Pennsylvania Fish Commission has found white cats easy to raise in hatchery ponds, but difficult to establish in many impoundments. Top fisheries include pools on the Susquehanna River, the Delaware River, Greenlane Reservoir, and Lake Ontelaunee.
South Carolina — White cats, distributed throughout the state, remain an untapped angling resource. Biologists have noted a sharp decline in white cat numbers when blue or flathead catfish are stocked in the same river system, but they continue to exist. Any of the upstate reservoirs are good for numbers of white cats, though none is considered a trophy fishery.
Virginia — The Rappahannock, James, Chickahominy, and other tidal rivers contain good white catfish populations, though most whites are caught by anglers pursuing blue and channel cats. White catfish are also native to the Suffolk lakes on the southeastern coastal plain.
West Virginia — No records of white catfish catches are maintained, though the species is native to the Potomac River.