Ohio boasts healthy catfish populations for anglers

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channel catfish
Christopher Aman, a fisheries biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, caught this 25-inch channel catfish on a recreational trip to Sandusky Bay. Channel catfish average between 15 and 25 inches in Ohio but can grow to between 30 and 35 inches. Other types of catfish, like flatheads and blue catfish, can grow much bigger, especially in inland lakes and reservoirs, and the Ohio River. (Submitted photos)

As a fisheries biologist who constantly surveys different species, Chris Aman knows where to find just about any fish he could possibly want. So why did he make a trip to Sandusky Bay a few weeks ago? To catch catfish. Channel catfish. Just for fun. 

“Word is getting out, Sandusky Bay is the best place to catch large channel catfish in Ohio,” said Aman, who works for Ohio Division of Wildlife District 3, which covers northeast Ohio. 

Popular and plentiful

Folks around here may think anglers only target walleye and perch, but a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts catfish at No. 4 in popularity behind bass, panfish and trout. The number of catfish anglers is estimated at somewhere upwards of seven million. 

The weather has been especially conducive because catfish will bite on hot days when other fish become finicky, Aman said. Plus, they are active and feeding at night, offering anglers a chance to beat the heat with some nocturnal stalking. 

While catfish are plentiful in Lake Erie, the Ohio River and its tributaries, netting surveys in Ohio’s inland lakes and reservoirs result in “through-the-roof catch rates” and almost biblical scenes of catfish plenty. “We get so many in those tandem nets that it’s challenging to get them in the boat,” Aman said. “It’s not unusual to net more than a thousand when we sample a reservoir.” 

Channel cats in Ohio average between 15 and 25 inches, so Aman was happy with the 25-incher he caught in the bay. There are no limits on channel cats under 28 inches, but more than that it’s one a day. 

Record catch

Flathead catfish
Genny Ivec, a seasonal employee with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, holds a flathead catfish that was captured accidentally during a survey of other fish species at Tappan Lake in 2018. The state record flathead was caught at Clendening Lake, not too far away, measuring 58 inches and weighing 76 pounds.

For anglers seeking even larger catfish, the state record flathead catfish was 76.5 pounds and more than 58 inches, caught in Clendening Lake in southwestern Harrison County. Ironically, when the late Richard Affolter landed it in 1979, he was just getting the state record for flatheads back in the family. 

His father, Elmer Affolter, held the record for a 65-pound flathead he caught at Clendening in 1962 until someone caught a bigger one in nearby Piedmont Lake in 1973. Richard’s flathead edged out the Piedmont fish, and the record still stands. 

How they differ

Channel catfish and flatheads have different eating habits. Channel cats are omnivorous, eating insect larvae, crayfish, mollusks, fish — even those that have expired — and some fruits and berries. 

“Channels are opportunists; they’ll eat fish that are alive or dead,” Aman said. “The flathead is an ambush predator and it feeds on living fish.” 

That tends to be gizzard shad, since they are most abundant, but the flathead’s menu can include much bigger fish. Their mouths are larger than those of other kinds of cats, “so they can swallow almost anything,” he said. 

The Division of Wildlife has been stocking channel cats for decades and among catfish, they are the most likely to be encountered by anglers, Aman said. 

“Flatheads are probably the next most widely distributed catfish. We don’t stock them, but they do quite well in lakes and reservoirs,” he said.”They tend to be in lower numbers but larger in size because they’re apex predators.” 

Still, the state record flathead weighed almost 20 pounds less than the state record blue: a 96-pound blue catfish caught in the Markland Pool of the Ohio River near Cincinnati in 2009. In 2018, a 106.9-pound blue catfish was caught in the Ohio River in far west Kentucky, becoming that state’s record blue. 

Jeremy Pritt, a fisheries biologist with the Division of Wildlife who works in the Inland Fisheries Research Unit, has been in charge of a telemetry project to track catfish in the Ohio River since 2014. 

“Blue catfish are most abundant in the biggest rivers and reservoirs in the southeast U.S., and the Ohio River is on the northern edge of its native range,” Pritt said in an article posted on Ohio Ag Net. “As a result, the Ohio River is one of few places in Ohio and bordering states where anglers can catch trophy blue catfish.” 

He said it’s common to catch both flathead and blue catfish in the 20- to 40-pound range on the river, “with fish over 50 pounds being a real possibility.” 

Stocking blues

Blue catfish are native to the Ohio River, which perhaps explains what happened in the Dillon Reservoir. 

An attempt was made to stock blue catfish in the reservoir in 2010. But the reservoir is used for flood control, and when the Army Corps of Engineers opened the gates after heavy rains, the blues made a run for it. Some were fitted with telemetry devices, so scientists were able to track the escapees as they headed for the Ohio River. 

In 2011, the Division of Wildlife began stocking blue catfish in Hoover Reservoir. It supplies water to the city of Columbus and is not used for flood control, so chances of them breaking out are slim. The stocking efforts have paid off. 

The Columbus Dispatch reported that in 2019, anglers caught 41 blue catfish in the Hoover Reservoir that were larger than the Fish Ohio standard of 35 inches. That was more than the number of blues that size caught in any body of water in the state, and two more than were caught in the Ohio River that year. 

For both blues and flatheads, 35 inches is where statewide fishing regulations change from a daily limit of none to one per day. 

Aman said blue catfish are also being stocked in Caesar Creek in southwest Ohio, Senecaville Lake in the southeast, and in Clendening Lake, where there is an established population. Since Hoover Reservoir has such a successful population, stocking will continue there, he said. 

“These stocked blue catfish are usually caught on live or cut gizzard shad, whereas larger, lively baitfish are ideal for flatheads,” Aman said. “Like blues, channel catfish readily fall for cut shad, along with other options like chicken liver and raw shrimp.” 

Aman might head back to Sandusky Bay, which he calls a “hot destination fishery” for catfish. But he will not limit himself to that site, or to the warm weather. 

“You can pursue catfish year-round,” he said. As always, check the Ohio Division of Wildlife website for daily limits and regulations. 

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