Prized for their fight and flavor, catfish are readily available in Kentucky waters and can be caught on a wide assortment of baits.
A gob of nightcrawlers, cut bait, commercial stink bait, hot dogs, uncooked shell-on shrimp or scraps of chicken marinated in strawberry-flavored drink mix have all proven capable of enticing catfish into biting.
And late spring into early summer is a great time to cater to them.
“It’s prime time to be catching channel catfish,” said Paul Rister, Western Fisheries District biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
The department stocks blue catfish and channel catfish but generally doesn’t stock flathead catfish, although the species is present in a number of lakes and rivers across the state. The annual Fishing Forecast, available on the department’s website at fw.ky.gov, details spots where anglers can find each of these species.
“Kentucky offers a ton of really good areas for catfish,” said Chad Miles, host of Kentucky Afield.
The big twins of west Kentucky – Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley – are among the finest. Both offer opportunities to catch large blue and channel catfish.
Channel catfish are distinguished by a rounded anal fin and small black spots on the sides of the body. As water temperatures climb into 70s, they feed aggressively and heed the spawning instinct.
“I’ve heard of people fishing bluegill and redear fishing who just start catching catfish and change over to a little bit heavier tackle,” Rister said.
An angler fishing from the bank after work recently at a small central Kentucky lake cast a traditional bobber rig baited with a chunk of shad-scented dough pressed onto a treble hook. The float splashed down and the business end of the rig descended with the help of a pinch of split shot. In no time, a trophy channel catfish gobbled the bait and pulled the bobber beneath the surface. Other casts produced similar results, and the angler returned to his truck before sunset with three quality catfish destined for the dinner table and freezer.
At Kentucky and Barkley lakes, Rister points anglers toward shallow embayments and areas of shoreline with rip rap or big chunk rocks for channel catfish.
A night crawler fished on the bottom with a slip sinker rig is a popular presentation. To assemble the rig, tie a 4/0 circle hook onto an 18-inch fluorocarbon or monofilament leader. Tie a barrel swivel onto the other end of the leader, then take the main line and thread it through a ½- to ¾-ounce egg sinker and plastic bead before tying the line to the other eyelet of the barrel swivel.
“Channel catfish often prefer a night crawler presentation closer to the bottom but they will take something while you’re trying to redear fish, which is typically close to the bottom, or even come up to get a crappie jig,” Rister said.
The 40 lakes that comprise the Fishing in Neighborhoods (FINs) program provide opportunities to catch catfish in a smaller setting.
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife plans to stock more than 115,000 catfish in its FINs lakes this year. The stocking schedule is available on Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s website. More than two dozen FINs lakes are scheduled to receive stockings of hybrid catfish – a faster growing cross of blue and channel catfish – this month.
Populations of blue catfish have been established in several small lakes and four major reservoirs – Barren River Lake in Allen and Barren counties, Dewey Lake in Floyd County, Fishtrap Lake in Pike County and Taylorsville Lake in Spencer, Anderson and Nelson counties – in recent years.
For blue catfish at Kentucky and Barkley lakes, Rister recommends targeting the areas where creek mouths meet the river channel with nightcrawlers, skipjack or small shad, cheese baits, stink baits or chicken livers.
“Later in the summer when they get a little more active out on the main river channels, try either shad, cut bait or night crawlers,” Rister said. “A lot of times what I’ll have to do is graph some and look for the fish. If there’s not much current, they’re typically closer to the bottom. If they’re pulling some current, it seems to pull the fish more up on the ledges. So you may just be fishing more for suspended fish.”
A slip bobber rig can be an effective presentation for suspended catfish. To assemble this rig, tie a 4/0 octopus-style hook onto a 12- to 18-inch fluorocarbon or monofilament leader. Tie a barrel swivel onto the other end of the leader, then take the main line and thread it through a bobber stop, a plastic bead, the slip bobber, a sinker and another plastic bead before tying the line to the other eyelet of the barrel swivel. The sinker should not be so heavy that it sinks the bobber. Slide the bobber stop up or down to the desired fishing depth.
Anglers interested in learning more about how to catch catfish and some of the unique baits that can work for them should consider tuning in to the June 4 episode of “Kentucky Afield” on Kentucky Educational Television (KET). In one segment, Miles meets up with Jim Wise at a Shelby County farm pond. They catch catfish and other species using Wise’s homemade baits. “Kentucky Afield” airs at 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 4:30 p.m. Sundays.
Author Kevin Kelly is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Kevin and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter: @kyafield.