May 01, 2015
The dancing rod tip means nothing. You know that. When a fish worth catching commits to the big chunk of herring on your circle hook, there will be no doubt. The rod will surge and the clicker will sing, and when you engage the reel to bury the hook you'll need to be ready for battle.
Much gets said about trophy catfish in the Midwest and the Deep South while northeastern destinations are largely overlooked. That doesn't mean that cats don't call this part of the country home. Virginia's blue cat offerings rival those of any state in the nation, and several big rivers in parts of the Northeast support excellent flathead populations. But much of the region is channel cat country, and where they lack competition from their blue-hued cousins, channels commonly reach big sizes.
We've sorted through top spots for all three major catfish species and have selected ten rivers and lakes that serve up outstanding catfishing prospects. Check them out and then begin making your summer catfishing plans.
One of the Ohio River's two main tributaries, the Allegheny rises in north-central Pennsylvania and runs most of its 325-mile course within Pennsylvania's borders. (One section slices through western New York.) Channel catfish, which are by far the most plentiful cat species in the Allegheny, offer good opportunities through much of the river's run. However, flathead catfish are also native to this river and provide big-fish potential for anglers who have the patience to target them and the tackle to wrestle powerful fish out of the heavy cover that flatheads favor.
The best overall catfish quality is in the middle and lower parts of the river, with trophy fish prospects generally increasing as you move downstream. Through the river's mid-section, which winds mostly between forest and farmlands and alternates between shoals and deeper runs, the best prospects for cover-loving flatheads are in deep areas with plentiful boulders. In the more urban lower river, flatheads and channel cats alike make heavy use of lock-and-dam structures, bridge supports, seawalls and other manmade structures.
The channel catfish page on the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife website lists the Delaware River and its tidal tributaries as the most productive channel catfish waters in the state. The NJDFW and other fisheries divisions are less enthusiastic about the flathead and blue catfish that are beginning to show up in angler's catches. The truth is, though, that the big-cat species are now part of the Delaware River story and are likely to increase in numbers and in size.
The Delaware, which rises in New York's Catskill Mountains and runs nearly 400 miles through five states before backing into Delaware Bay, offers an enormous amount of opportunity and great variety for anglers in the Northeast. While blues and flatheads offer major wild cards in the lower river, for now the Delaware is essentially a channel catfish destination, with high numbers of fish and an excellent opportunities for a big channel cat virtually anywhere in the river.
A small number of blue catfish were stocked in the James River decades ago and were largely forgotten about, but large fish started showing up in anglers' catches in a big way during the 1990s. Populations rapidly expanded in scope and in range from that point, with bigger and bigger fish being caught each year. In terms of sheer numbers of really large blue catfish, few rivers anywhere rival the lower James River. Biologists estimate that blue catfish make up as much as 75 percent of the total biomass in the lower James.
James River catfishing actually has several faces. The mammoth blues that abound in the expansive lower river earn the most acclaim and attract catfish tournaments and even full-time guides. However, upstream of the Fall Line in Richmond, a smaller, steeper and more winding river yields plentiful channel cats, and its deep timber-tangled holes house some seriously big flatheads.
Kerr Reservoir (Buggs Island)
We know. The Virginia-North Carolina border is somewhat of a stretch as a Northeastern United States selection. That said, this big impoundment of the Roanoke River regularly yields super-sized flathead and blue catfish, including the all-tackle world record blue. And any waterway that produces a 143-pound blue catfish has to make the cut even if it is kind of on the fringe!
Kerr Reservoir, or Buggs Island as it is better known by many local anglers, supports outstanding populations of all three major catfish species, but flatheads and blues clearly are the biggest draw for serious catfishermen because of the huge sizes they reach. Blues prefer main-river habitat and primarily relate to the main channel. However, good fishing can be found from the dam to way up the river because the blues tend to follow baitfish schools. Some of the best flathead fishing occurs after the sun goes down and well up the river arms from Staunton River State Park.
This massive lake, which splits it acreage between New York and Vermont, is best known through most of the nation for its largemouth and smallmouth bass offerings. Local anglers know, however, that Champlain is also a spectacular catfish lake, with big numbers of high-quality channel catfish with some genuine giants in the mix.
Champlain is an enormous body of water that could intimidate an angler, but the best catfishing action doesn't occur in the open main basin anyway. A good strategy is to pick a bay and treat it like a separate lake, and then look for baitfish and for concentrations of catfish with electronics. Search outlets and rocky breaks between flats and deeper water, and when you find fish, set up with dead minnows or cut bait. Chicken livers prompt fast action, but cut bait typically attracts larger catfish. The best catfishing on Lake Champlain typically occurs from early evening until a couple of hours after dark.
Forming at the confluence of the West Fork and Tygart Valley rivers in West Virginia and running 130 miles to Pittsburgh, the Monongahela offers good catfishing throughout its run. However, the best opportunity for the largest catfish generally occurs in the lower half of the river's Pennsylvania portion.
The Monongahela supports excellent populations of channel and flathead catfish, and each species has its own set of fans. More anglers probably target channel cats because of the dependable action and quality potential. That said, the river's flathead population, which has gotten better over the past couple of decades with improved water quality, draws the headlines because of the large sizes that flatheads commonly reach. Monongahela flathead fishermen fish mostly at night, using chubs or other live bait and seriously stout tackle. They catch a lot of big fish from tangles of downed trees and from around bridges and other manmade structures, especially in the lower river.
A relatively small water-supply reservoir for Alexandria, Virginia, Occoquan . The lake supports a strong population of channel cats, which serve up dependable action most of the year. The stars of the show, though, are the flatheads, which are big and plentiful.
Occoquan's flathead population began with a stocking of only a dozen fish in 1965. Apparently the fish liked what they found because the population has been growing ever since, and the lake routinely yields overgrown flatheads. Top among those is the Virginia state record flathead, which weighed 66 pounds, 4 ounces and was caught and released by angler Mike Willems in 1994. Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries biologists recommend that anglers focus on areas near bluffs that are close to deep water and use live bait for flatheads.
The mighty Ohio spans a few regions and its very biggest cats are the blues and flatheads that inhabit the lower river. High-quality catfish offerings begin with the river itself in Pittsburgh, though, and it's a river that clearly cannot be overlooked in any listing of top catfishing waters in the Northeast. The upper Ohio supports mostly channel catfish, but a decent flathead population includes some seriously big fish.
Good catfishing on the Ohio River begins where the Allegheny and Monongahela join forces. Throughout the Ohio River's run, the most dependable places to find and catch catfish are in the tailwaters of the river's lock and dam structures. Bars and holes at the mouths of tributaries also produce consistently, as do solid, man-made structural features like bridge supports, barge ties and riprap edges.
A look at the "Potomac River Monster Cats" website tells you everything you need to know about the catfishing opportunity in the lower Potomac River. Potomac River Monster Cats conducts catch-and-release tournaments on the river. Only two fish may be weighed, but the winning weight for most events still easily tops the 100-pound mark. The website is loaded with photos of anglers holding up giant blue catfish.
The Potomac produces good fishing for channels, blues and flatheads, but the thriving population of big blues clearly is the main attraction to serious catmen. Maryland's state record blue catfish, which weighed 84 pounds. It came from the Potomac River in 2012, and many anglers believe that record will continue to be broken. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources considers the non-native flatheads and blues a threat and discourages release of either species, but most anglers who target these fish value the big cat resource and choose to release their fish.
The Susquehanna has long stood out as one of the Northeast's premier catfishing rivers, but excellent opportunities got even better a decade or so ago, when flatheads began showing up in the river. No official stockings were ever done, and the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission has only recently stopped encouraging anglers to kill all flatheads caught. The big cats are there to stay and are expanding like crazy in size and numbers, thus providing a fine opportunity for fishermen.
Guide Rod Bates (koinoniafishingguides.com) fishes for channels and flatheads, but does so separately, based on his clients' desires and the season. Channel cats, which grow to good sizes in the Susquehanna, provide very dependable action and bite well most of the year. Flathead fishing normally means less action, but with the potential for really big fish. Bates does flathead trips from spring through fall, using an after-hours approach through the middle of the summer.