Best Catfish Lakes In Southern Illinois

Channel Catfish Southern Illinois

The Channel Catfish Is The Most Popular Of The Catfish Family To Catch And Eat


It seems like every Friday dad would pack up our old Cheverolet Caprice with my sister and mother and head to Pedler Pete’s buffet in Marion Illinois.  

A nice little mom and pop family style buffet with great hot food and incredible peach cobbler!  We would sit inside on picnic tables spread out across a makeshift barn that had a separate room for knickknack shopping once you were full.

What everyone came for on Friday in particular was all you can eat fried catfish fiddlers!

I used to take a fork and rake up and down the bones depositing the flakey crumbs onto a plate which I would then devour.  One fateful night my late grandfather told me I could eat the tails on them, one crunch and I was hooked!

While not as common to a buffet many restaurants still offer whole catfish on their menus. 


Catching Your Own Catfish


Back then, the only thing I enjoyed more that eating channel cat was catching them!

Whether it was tightlining from “the road” of the city lake in West Frankfort Illinois or tossing a leech along rip rap on Rend Lake, each bite brought the anticipation of hooking into a large cat setting up an epic battle!

My grandfather and I fished all around southern Illinois, knowing when each lake would produce at any given time and caught many whiskers over the years.

My personal favorite was a ten-pounder caught on a cane pole on little Harrisburg Lake!

If you’re new to catfishing check out my top 5 catfish baits!


Ranking My Top Lakes In Southern Illinois For Channel Catfish


Illinois is a tall state!  Breaking it down in sections I will start with Southern Illinois.  I have to find a separating point between Central Illinois from Southern so I will draw the line at Marion County, Illinois.  

On this ranking all lakes will sit south of Marion County.

I have fished all of them listed and will share some great spots to take the family out for a nice relaxing trip.  Some will be better suited for a boat but all accessible by bank!


8.) Jones Lake (Saline County)

Jones Lake Illinois, Catfishing Jones Lake Illinois
Plan a full weekend at Jone’s Lake in the Shawnee National Forrest! Plan on great catfish action!


A beautiful lake (especially in fall) sitting just east of Equality, Jones has a very good fish population both in size and numbers.  The channel catfish are no different here.  

We camped here and would fish the points closest to the site.  My dad would toss out stink bait lines and clip bells to the rods.  Sometimes at night we could hear the dinner bell ringing!

Jones is deeper than most lakes on this list, and tightlining is the best way to go in my opinion.  

After the last fish survey, a couple of years ago, the numbers were determined to still be Excellent!


7.) Murphysboro Lake

fishing lake Murphysboro Illinois, Illinois catfish lakes
Murphysboro lake sits next to the popular Kincaid lake in Illinois, but is a better option when it comes to catfishing!


For such a small lake, Murphysboro has plenty of points to fish from!  Most make great places to tightline where the deeper water meets the shallower flats near pockets.

Like a couple of other of picks on this list, there’s no one place I concentrate on when I fish, but rather see anywhere producing on a given day.

Anglers visit this lake for two main reasons, the bass and the channel catfishing!


6.) Mcleansboro City Lake

Mcleansboro City Reservoir, Fishing Mcleansboro City Lake/Reservoir, Catfishing Mcleansboro City Lake
A full day can be planned around fishing lake Mcleansboro in Hamilton County, Illinois! Sat out your catfish lines next to a park bench while the kids play in the park!


Shallow muddy reservoirs and catfish go together like chowder and cornbread!  

If coming off of St. route 14 from Benton, you will arrive at Mcleansboro City Reservoir just before getting into town.  I’ve seen firsthand how good the catfish bite is here on a recent trip in 2021!

My family and I would always fish from the boat ramp casting out as far as we could tightlining.  If you don’t mind a little walk, then the closer you can get to the top of the spillway the better!

Stink bait, cut shad, shrimp, and livers all work well here and there are some giants!  

Bring the kids as there’s a nice little park you can relax at while waiting for that strike!


5.) Dolan’s Lake


The lake that everyone thought was lost back in the 2000’s due to the overpopulation of rough fish is now one of the best overall small fisheries in the state of Illinois!  After the IDNR decided to drain and restock the lake, the fish populations skyrocketed in numbers and size!

There isn’t a bad place on this lake to try your luck for catfish in my opinion.

Cut bait, shrimp, and stink bait all work well!

Beautiful trails and a really nice campsite with cabins cane be utilized if you wish to stay several days.


4.) West Frankfort Old City Lake & New City Lake

West Frankfort Old Lake, Catfishing Old City Lake West Frankfort
The two city lakes belonging to West Frankfort are well known for their catfishing.


Both former water reservoirs to the coal mining town have been known for housing “Old Joe” as my best friend’s father would refer to the legendary 15 pounders that were periodically given up between the two.

The best stretch to tightline the new lake is along the road that cuts the lake into halves.  You can drive down to the end of the road where the water ends and park in the corner.  The northwest side yields the most consistent catches due to the deeper average water. 

If you see a man in his 80’s fishing off of it then say hello to my legendary grandfather and ask him to confirm the stories I tell within my blog!

Cut bait works really well on both lakes!

If you find the bite slow then drive about five minutes down the road until you run into the old lake.  At nighttime cast off the old boat dock toward the dam with stink bait or cut bait!


3.) Big Muddy River

Big Muddy River Illinois, Catfish Big Muddy River, Best Catfish River in Illinois
The Big Muddy River is absolutely loaded with channel catfish! You won’t catch many monsters, but you will catch more than enough fiddlers to fry whole!


Snaking in and out of southwestern Illinois, this waterway gets its name from the obvious.  A shallow winding silted river that’s most productive anywhere from the southern end of the Rend Lake Dam all the way to where it empties into the Mississippi River.

Channel cat swim upriver every spring gathering around thousands of fallen trees and brush piles.  The fish aren’t always huge but perfect eating size!  I would stick to stink bait here as there are many gars swimming around that will take any cut bait presentation.  

Also current is always present helping channels use their incredible sense of smell to find themselves at the end of your line!

Watch where you bank fish because the majority of the land along the big muddy is private property!

Read more about stink bait fishing for channel catfish here!


2.) Crab Orchard Lake

Catfish Crab Orchard Lake, Catfishing Southern Illinois
Crab Orchard Lake is one of the best catfish lakes in Illinois.


The silver medalist out of Williamson County Illinois produces numbers and size year-round.  I remember crappie fishing along wolf creek road in late winter when the lake was completely frozen over except for the current running under the bridge. 

Two guys were casting cut shad into the narrow strip of open water and by the end of the day filled a large fish basket of cold-water cats! 

The most success I’ve had is in grassy Bay when fishing out of a boat and under the route 13 bridges as it makes a great pinch point for catfish.


1.) Rend Lake

Rend Lake Catfish, Best Lake for channel catfish in Illinois
Rend Lake is in its own league with both size and quantity of catfish that can be caught here!


If you have any familiarity with my site this one comes as no surprise.

Rend Lake seems to have an unlimited supply of channel cats swimming around ranging in size from fiddler on up to seven pounds.  They’re caught using every conventional presentation known to catfish anglers, and never is there a bass tournament where someone didn’t hook into one with a crankbait.

If you’re a bank fisherman, you will find plenty of access points all around the lake.  In the springtime I enjoy fishing with leeches hanging a foot or so under a catfish bobber.

Riprap always provides the best action and there’s plenty to be found.  

In the summertime the boat ramps (turnup patch) and bridges are really popular with the local anglers, especially at night!  Cut shad, Chicken Livers, and stink bait work really well here on tight line.  Don’t worry about too heavy of a sinker due to the fact the water won’t be too deep.




Catfishing is still as popular as ever and I’m very fortunate to live around so many great lakes and reservoirs!

While I don’t eat channel cat like I used to I still fish for them a few times a year to get that old nostalgia feeling.  

These lakes are my top favorites but I’m sure there are anglers around the area with secret hidden gems of their own.  The more I explore the more I’ll uncover!



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