They thrive in lakes and rivers. They grow to triple digits. And they can be found coast to coast. Blue cats are an awesome species. But, like any renewable resource they require careful management — conserving critical habitats, regulating harvest, and managing conflicts that may arise between competing users such as anglers and commercial fishers.
The general outlook for blue cats is excellent, but several states have been slow to recognize catfish as a sport fish. "Catfish don't get the respect that bass, walleye, and crappies do," says Captain Jason Bridges of Wheeler Cat Guide Service. Darrell Van Vactor of Cabela's King Kat Tournament Trail points out that more and more states are being pushed to reclassify catfish from rough fish to sport fish. As the movement continues, he believes there will be momentum to protect trophy fisheries. Tournaments, like the King Kat Championship, which can generate up to $700,000 in revenue for a host city, also draw positive attention to these fisheries.
The good news is that the discussion is alive. Many fisheries are generally stable and some are producing record-class fish. Here's a closer look at where to find big blue catfish.
"Probably the number-one destination to catch big blue catfish would be the Mississippi River from Alton, Illinois, south to the Gulf of Mexico," says Van Vactor. "The Mississippi has held the world record on and off for the last 20 years."
Two previous world records were caught from the St. Louis stretch alone. Those fish tipped the scales at a 124 and 130 pounds. According to Van Vactor, they regularly see blue cats in the 70-pound range at tournaments held on the Mississippi. However, the sheer size and faster currents of the big river can make it more challenging to fish.
Avoid June since blue cats are spawning, then. The exact timing can depend on your latitude since the river flows over 2,300 miles. Outside of the spawn, fishing is good all year and the outlook for the near future is steady for this big-fish factory. Don't overlook the lower river from Baton Rouge south. Blues aren't targeted there as readily and it has the potential for monster fish. Contact: Captain Ryan Casey, 314/477-8355, showmecatfishing.com.
According to Van Vactor, King Kat holds several events along the Ohio River each year because the river is easier to fish compared to the larger Mississippi River. It's also a popular fishery because so many anglers live near the Ohio River Valley.
There's good news and bad news for the Ohio River blue cat fishery, however. The bad news is that the entire fishery is under pressure from Asian carps, invasive species that can be found in every tributary that can be traced back to the Mississippi River. Asian carps compete with native baitfish for food, resulting in decreased populations of gizzard shad, threadfin shad, and blueback herring. The depleted forage base limits the blue cat population.
While the entire Ohio River is adversely affected by Asian carps, there are concerns that the blue cat population in the upper Ohio River is being negatively affected by commercial fishing. To address this issue, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife has ramped up efforts to study this fishery and make recommendations.
The blue cat fishery in the lower Ohio River is healthy and commercial fishing isn't as prevalent along this stretch. Van Vactor recommends the entire stretch of river west of Louisville to the Mississippi River. This section is productive and produces plenty of big fish. He's especially fond of the Smithland Pool, which runs from the Smithland Dam to the Mississippi River. "Our heaviest 5-fish limit on the Ohio—239 pounds—came from the Smithland Pool," he says. "Seeing a big-fish weight of 70 pounds is normal." Contact: Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, fw.ky.gov.
Watts Bar Reservoir
"Watts Bar Reservoir, on the Tennessee River in Tennessee, is probably one of the most underestimated blue cat fisheries in the nation," Van Vactor says. Anglers can expect to catch plenty of blues in the 20- to 40-pound range, with fish up to 90 pounds.
This East Tennessee impoundment extends 72 miles northeast from the Watts Bar Dam to Fort Loudon Dam. Encompassing approximately 39,000 acres, don't let the massive size intimidate you. According to Van Vactor, some of the best fishing is found along the 3-mile stretch below Watts Bar Dam. The current speed and forage base are just right for big blues. Contact: Captain Aaron Jenkins; 423/312-1128, ajsguideservice.com.
Wheeler & Wilson Lakes
Following the Tennessee River south to Alabama the fishing continues to thrive. Captain Jason Bridges believes that Alabama's stretch of the Tennessee River is the river's best. His top pick? Wheeler Reservoir. "Wheeler produces more fish over 70 pounds," he says. "You even see some fish over 100 pounds."
Stretching 60 miles from Wheeler Dam to Guntersville Dam, the lake encompasses more than 67,000 acres. This massive impoundment is Alabama's second largest lake, which means there's plenty of area to explore and to get away from recreational boaters.
Bridges says Wilson Lake is a close second to Wheeler. Wilson stretches from Wilson Dam to Wheeler Dam and covers 15,500 acres. While Wilson's blues aren't as large as Wheeler's, they're more plentiful. The number of fish from 30 to 50 pounds is especially strong at Wilson, and anglers also can expect 50- to 60-pounders there, while giants are less common.
Joe Wheeler State Park, located between the two reservoirs, is a good place to stay. Expect the best fishing for blues during spring or fall. According to Bridges, the outlook for the fishery is steady, but he's concerned about the commercial fishing there. Contact: Captain Jason Bridges, 256/738-9461, wheelercatsguideservice.com; Captail Phil King, 662/286-8644; h2ow.com/catfish.
Lake Gaston & Kerr Lake
When it comes to big state-record blue cats, Lake Gaston in North Carolina is the place to be. After breaking that record twice in less than 24 hours, Captain Zakk Royce watched his records fall less than 6 months later in June 2016, when Landon Evans landed the current state record of 117 pounds 8 ounces.
Straddling the North Carolina/Virginia border, Kerr Lake is capable of producing even bigger blues. In 2011, Richard Anderson landed the current IGFA world-record blue — a 143 pound behemoth—at Kerr (aka Buggs Island).
Not only are both lakes capable of producing records, but both are also loaded with trophy blue cats, Royce says. Both have plenty of deep water for blues to roam. According to Royce, the only bad time to be on the water is when they're spawning, which is typically May through early June. Contact: Captain Zakk Royce, 919/724-2474, bluesbrotherscharters.com.
James & Potomac Rivers
Being tidal makes the James and Potomac rivers unique to our list. According to Captain Jason Kintner, the flow reverses every six hours due to the tide. That's something to pay attention to if you're an East Coast blue cat enthusiast because these river systems are loaded with trophy blue cats.
According to Kintner, the James is capable of producing blues over 100 pounds with plenty of fish in the 20- to 40-pound class. Blues haven't been in the Potomac as long as the James. The Maryland state record came from the Potomac and stands at 84 pounds. While no one has landed a 100-pounder there yet it doesn't mean they don't exist. But what the Potomac may lack in triple-digit blues it makes up in numbers.
Kintner favors the Potomac for several reasons. First, he believes the fishery in the Potomac is trending upward while the James has plateaued. Secondly, the Potomac may be big water, but the areas he fishes near the Washington D.C. area are smaller and more manageable. Finally, anglers can expect a lot more 20- to 70-pound fish on the Potomac compared to the James.
If you fish the James, check the stretch just upstream of Dutch Gap. This section has several deep holes to 60 feet and the water is angler-friendly. Kintner says the best section on the Potomac is from Quantico, Virginia, to Washington D.C.
The best time to fish either river is during the shad and herring run. On the James this begins at the end of March and continues through May. The Potomac is usually two weeks behind the James. Wing dams are prime targets. Contact: Captain Jason Kintner, 812/201-3399, capitalcatfishing.com.
Located approximately 45 miles east of Dallas, Lake Tawakoni is known for numbers of blue cats. "We often catch 10 to 15 fish over 30 pounds per trip," says Captain Michael Littlejohn. "I call it the amusement park of the West. If you want to try out new gear, such as a new circle hook or electronics, this is the place to do it."
But this 37,879-acre reservoir is also capable of producing big fish. The lake record — 87.5 pounds — was caught by Jody Jenkins in 2014 on Littlejohn's boat. Littlejohn believes there are other blues in that same size-class lurking in these waters. Stocked in 1989, those first blue cats are now reaching the 86- to 93-pound mark.
If you are planning a trip, go when it's cold. The best time to fish Tawakoni is from Thanksgiving to Spring Break. Contact: Captain Michael Littlejohn, 903/441-3937, tawakoniguideservice.com.