Many folks including myself occasionally have difficulty distinguishing between some of the catfish species. I have been sent numerous photos from readers of my column asking me to identify various catfish that have been caught in Lake Oconee and Lake Sinclair. In some cases, I have sent those photos to biologists at the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (GWRD) because I was not completely sure myself.

Since both Lake Oconee and Lake Sinclair have several catfish species, I decided this week to take a closer look at how the three primary species of catfish in both lakes can be identified. Lakes Oconee and Sinclair have several species of catfish in their waters but only three species dominate and are of real interest to the angler. 

The lakes contain white and bullhead catfish but they are infrequently caught, are usually small and the bullhead isn’t good table fare. The primary species of catfish in the lakes that provide anglers with opportunity for both good table fare and a chance at catching a trophy-sized fish are the channel, blue and flathead catfish species.

Until recent years, the largest population of any of the catfish species in both lakes was the channel catfish. However, the blue catfish is now the dominant species. The blue catfish were illegally stocked sometime within the last 20 years. 

Channel catfish remain in both lakes in good numbers and can reach 20 pounds or more. The Lake Oconee record channel catfish was caught in 1998 and weighed 34 pounds and 8 ounces. The Lake Sinclair record channel catfish was caught in 2007 and weighed 21 pounds and 5 ounces.

The blue catfish population in Lakes Oconee and Sinclair is steadily growing and the blue catfish is known to reach over 100 pounds in some waters. The current Lake Oconee record for blue catfish is 69 pounds and76 ounces and was caught in 2016. The Lake Sinclair blue catfish record was caught in 2018 and weighed 51 pounds and 14 ounces.

The blue catfish is now being caught with regularity by anglers in both lakes and due to a similar appearance to the channel catfish, they are often misidentified. The coloration of the two species is quite similar and cannot be used for identification. The fins hold the key to determining whether a catfish is a channel or blue.

Channel catfish have a rounded anal fin and the forked tail is rounded. The blue catfish has a straight-edged anal fin and a very distinctive forked tail. The photos included with this week’s article should help in showing the differences between the channel and blue catfish. 

The blue catfish diet consists of primarily live prey and that might include shad, bluegill, other catfish, crawfish, turtles, frogs and the young of almost any fish species in either lake. They can be caught on cut baits of shad and bluegill but live specimens of both shad and bluegill are excellent.

The last species of catfish that provides for the possibility of a trophy catch is the flathead catfish. The flathead was apparently illegally stocked by anglers in Lake Oconee several years ago. The Lake Oconee flathead record weighed 49 pounds and 1.28 ounces and was caught in 2016. Any fish species in Lake Oconee is going to end up in Lake Sinclair by escaping through the Wallace Dam and the flathead catfish now showing up in Lake Sinclair likely came through the Wallace Dam.

Several small flatheads have been electro-shocked in Lake Sinclair by the GWRD. However, a whopping 36 pound and 11.2-ounce flathead was caught in 2011 and remains the lake record catch. That flathead had to have been in the lake for some time to reach that size or was illegally placed in the lake. The populations of blue and flathead catfish will likely continue to grow and the population of channel catfish may be somewhat reduced as a result. 

Like the blue catfish, the flathead catfish prefers live prey and has already reached close to fifty pounds in Lake Oconee. The flathead can live for twenty years and reach weights that exceed 100 pounds. The world record flathead weighed 123 pounds. The Lake Oconee record for flatheads was caught in 2016 and weighed 49 pounds and 1.28 ounces.  

The flathead looks nothing like a blue or channel catfish in appearance so identifying that species is much easier and less confusing. The long-term impact on other lake species in the lake from the illegally stocked blue and flathead catfish is unknown at this point. All three primary catfish species in both lakes offer good trophy potential for anglers. 

You are now aware of most details that will allow you to catch and identify the catfish species you have harvested. The Georgia Outdoors News (GON) maintains records for all species of fish caught in Georgia lakes and rivers. Submit your trophy catch to the GON if you think your catch exceeds the current lake record and make sure to send me a photo. 

Good fishing and see you next week.   


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