Big "blues" are found in rivers and reservoirs of the eastern, southeastern, and south-central regions of the U.S. Blue catfish like current, and in rivers they can be found along channel edges, steep ledges, wing dams, shallow flats, and deep holes. Which habitats they use often depends on the season and flow conditions. In colder water, they're generally deeper in rivers and reservoirs. But even in mid-winter, a few days of mild weather can draw them shallow to feed. On reservoirs, structure such as points, humps, saddles, and submerged creek channels attract baitfish such as shad and blue cats that move in to eat them.
Blue cats move seasonally, typically downriver in cold water and upstream in spring to eventual summer locations. Similar movements occur in reservoirs, where blues generally spend winter in deep water near structure, moving uplake into shallow creek arms and feeder rivers in spring. After spawning, they settle into summer patterns, following and feeding on baitfish schools in the main basin, although they can ben found lakewide depending on how widespread baitfish are distributed. Blues also can suspend in open water. Check out these top blue catfish locations in the U.S.
1 East Coast Rivers
Virginia's state record 102-pounder caught from the James River was bumped for the behemoth 143-pound world record caught from Bugg's Island Lake in 2011. But the James still reigns as one of the nation's premier waters for big fish. 'We consistently see 80-plus-pound fish in tournaments, ' says Ken Freeman of Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest, who held a tournament there in March this year. 'The gizzard shad forage base is perfect for producing remarkable fish year after year. ' The Potomac River joins the James among the best options east for catching a 50-pound blue, with numbers of 30- to 50-pounders.
Contact: James River Guides Chris Eberwien, 804/449-6134, catfishingva.com
; Capt. Joe Hecht, 804/221-1951, fatcatguide.com
; Capt. Neil Renouf, 804-539-8023, olddominionoutdoors.com
. Potomac River: Capt. Josh Fitchett, 804/836-5220, rivercatn.com
2 Tennessee River
Wheeler, Wilson, and Pickwick lakes continue to offer outstanding fishing for numbers of quality blue cats and join a handful of waters with the potential for 100-pound fish. Guide Jason Bridges says Wheeler's rich forage base and blues' genetics grow huge fish. Plus, you can enjoy river or lake fishing, depending on which end of the reservoir you fish. Look outside the spawn (late May into June) for the best fishing. Anchoring in winter and drift-fishing in warmer water are top bets. Controlled drifting and vertically fishing deep water unveils giant fish. In July 2014, anglers will make their way to Pickwick Lake for the Big Cat Quest World Championship of Catfishing, held each year on this storied stretch of cat water. Other top tournament trails make this a regular stopover.
Contact: Guides Jason Bridges, 256/738-9461, wheelercatsguideservice.com
; Guide Phil King, 662/286-8644; h2ow.com/catfish
3 Lake Tawakoni
This 39,000-acre lake at West Tawakoni, Texas, is garnering national acclaim. 'We have held events on Tawakoni for the past several years in February and March and have broken records for total weight for five-fish limits, ' says Darrell VanVactor, President of the Cabela's King Kat Tournament Trail. 'This lake turns out limit after limit of five fish weighing 200-pounds plus. Last year Paul and Dan Miles broke records with five fish weighing 240 pounds. In 2014, Roger Gerloff and Justin Cook weighed in five fish totaling 217 pounds. We see so many huge fish it is definitely a blue cat manufacturing plant! ' The lake record 87.5-pounder was caught in early 2014.
Contact: Guides Cody Mullennix, 903/815-0273; Michael Littlejohn, 903/441-3937; tawakoniguideservice.com
4 Lower Mississippi River
Just about every blue cat expert weighing in picks the Mississippi River as perhaps the best blue cat water that exists today. St. Louis, Missouri, to Tunica, Mississippi, is Freeman's favorite stretch, making it a regular stop for his Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest tournament circuit. 'This is great area with fantastic fishing for giant blues. We've had 100-plus-pounders brought to the scales more than once, ' he says. 'In 2007, two 100-pounders were weighed in on the same day at a tournament at Memphis. I think this water has a great chance of producing the next world record soon. ' South, the lower Mississippi Delta is mostly untapped for giant blues. Even south of New Orleans, giant cats await between the levees along deep river ledges. On a trip to the area last year, anglers in the group I was with side-imaged several big blues by day, going back at night and catching fish to 70 pounds within a couple hours.
Contact: Guides James Patterson (Memphis area), 901/383-8674, bigcatfishing.com
; Cajun Fishing Adventures, 504/657-8717; cajunfishingadventures.com
5 Powerton Lake
Asian carp took a hit in 2012 and 2013 due to summerkills in this 1,500-acre power-plant cooling reservoir near Pekin, Illinois, but the blue catfish population wasn't affected, says Wayne Herndon, fishery biologist with the Illinois DNR. 'The DNR started stocking blues in 2001 and they grow to 20 to 30 pounds in 5 years, with fish to 60 pounds available, ' he says. 'The warm-water discharge creates a 300-day growing season and the blues grow fast, faster than in rivers in the region. The lake contains gizzard and threadfin shad, and we've sampled blue cats that ate buffalo. They also likely eat bighead and silver carp. ' Herndon also recommends LaSalle Cooling Lake. Powerton is closed to fishing during the waterfowl hunting season; check for rules at LaSalle.
Contact: Spring Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area (Powerton Lake), 309/968-7135; LaSalle Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, 815/357-1608.
6 Middle Missouri River
Catfish pro John Jamison reports the middle Missouri River to Kansas City as been the best he's seen in years. 'I haven't seen a lot of giants recently, but there's an abundance of fish to about 25 pounds, ' he says. 'I attribute this to the Asian carp infestation providing a huge food base. I've been catching 10 to 20 blues a day, which is extremely high for the Missouri. Big fish are here but more difficult to catch because of all the smaller fish. The Kansas City area and the river from Waverly to Hermann, Missouri, produces fish in the 70- to 90-pound range every year. A blue over 100 pounds caught two years ago in Kansas City set the state record. ' He says the best times to fish the Missouri are late February (right after ice flows) through about mid-May for numbers of fish and an occasional large fish, and then again from mid-August through October for big fish. 'By mid-August, all the big blues are done spawning and aggressively feeding. Set up on sandbars in 5 to 10 feet of water at night. '
Contact: Guide John Trager, 913/706-5888; captaincatfish.net
7 Ohio River
Capt. Paul Willett, Henderson, Kentucky, fishes the Ohio River from Cannelton Dam to its mouth at the Mississippi River. 'I've caught better than a 50-pound blue cat from three pools starting below Cannelton Dam upstream to Cave In Rock, Illinois, during every month of the year, ' he says. 'There's potential to catch quality fish consistently in all seasons whether the water temps are 35°F or 85°F. I enjoy fishing for them most when they pile up below the lock and dams in spring and fall. When I was guiding it wasn't uncommon to have day total weights over 600 pounds with fish averaging over 20. ' In winter, Kentucky and Barkley Lakes are hard to beat, he says. There are hundreds of miles of old river channel ledges and usually good current flow that time of year.
Contact: Capt. Paul Willett, kentuckytourism.com/camofishguideservice
; Kentucky Dept. Fish and Wildlife, fw.ky.gov
8 Southern California Lakes
Before San Vicente Reservoir in San Diego County was closed for dam repair several years ago, 100-pounders were known to exist there. With several years to go before the lake reopens, those fish will pack on pounds and thrive in the absence of fishing pressure. In the meantime, local catfish expert Ronson Smothers remains on his quest for monster blues, focusing on Lower Otay Lake's history for giant fish, including an 83-pounder he caught there a couple years ago. He says Lower Otay's fish run 10 pounds to over 100, maybe as big as 140 or more. Fall through winter is primetime, with mackerel chunks being a top bait. He also recommends Lake Irvine in Orange County for it's high abundance of smaller fish. Lake Jennings and Diamond Valley Lake also are worth a look.
Contact: Lower Otay Lake Concessions, 619/397-5212; Irvine Lake, 714/649-9111.