8 Great Catfish Fishing Lakes & Rivers in New York

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Of all the fish that swim in New York’s waters, channel catfish are among those that get the least amount of fishing attention and publicity. That’s a shame because the Empire State has a greater catfish population than is widely known.

Identifiable by their whiskered mouths, gray/olive coloration, sparse black dots and deeply-forked tails (they’re the only species of freshwater catfish in New York that has the latter) channel catfish are capable of growing well past 30 pounds. 

Fish of that stature are rare in New York, but many of the waters listed below offer a chance to target channel cats over 10 pounds. Fish weighing less than 3 pounds are much more common and are widely considered to be better table fare. 

Channel catfish are usually (but not always) bottom feeders. Most New York anglers find success fishing with natural baits close to the bottom.

When it comes to bait selection, the general rule is: the smellier the better. Chicken livers and cut bait made from various local baitfish species are favored by many. Commercially-available dough and dip-baits work too, though they aren’t as widely used in New York as in southern states. 

Channel cats will also bite a good, old-fashioned nightcrawler more often than not. They hunt primarily using their senses of smell and taste, and bite best in low-light conditions. 

The best time to fish for channel catfish in New York is mid-to-late spring, when these fish invade shallow bays, backwaters ,and slow-moving rivers to spawn. Throughout the warmer months, they favor deep haunts during the day, venturing shallow to feed only after dark.

New York also offers outstanding bullhead fishing. These smaller catfish commonly weigh over a pound, and occasionally top 5 pounds. They inhabit countless waters all over the state. 

There are actually three species of bullhead in New York—brown, black and yellow bullhead—of which brown bullhead are by far the most common.

Bullheads spawn earlier than channel catfish, and the period from mid-April to mid-May is much-anticipated by local bullhead anglers in many parts of the state.

What follows are the spots you should try for the best catfishing in New York.

Black River Bay and Black River

Named for its deeply tannin-stained waters, the Black River originates in the Adirondack Mountains and flows 125 miles before emptying into eastern Lake Ontario via Black River Bay. It might just be the most underrated catfish spot in New York. 

As if to drive that point home, a state record-breaking catfish was caught in Black River Bay in May of 2022. The 35-pound, 12-ounce monster was caught by 22-year-old Bailey Williams of Watertown, who was fishing from a kayak using a fish head for bait.

Catfish inhabit the lower Black River and Black River Bay year-round, but like many eastern Lake Ontario Bays, there’s also an influx of spawning channel cats in May and June.

Black River Bay has a deep, distinct river channel that drops off steeply to around 20 feet, and it also has extensive shallow, weedy backwaters that are part of Dexter Marsh Wildlife Management Area. Places where these two features meet are great places to fish for cats.

The DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) operates three boat launch sites on the bay—one hand-launch for small craft and two more developed sites—but bank access is limited. 

There are, however, some great options for shore-bound anglers in the village of Dexter, just a little over a mile upstream from the mouth of the Black River. Big cats have been caught here too.

Bank fishermen can cast into deep water at several locations in Dexter, including Fish Island Recreation and Boat Launch Site and the Village of Dexter Boat Launch. Walleye, northern pike and smallmouth bass are also common in the lower Black River.

Oneida Lake

Central New York’s Oneida Lake spans 50,894 acres, making it the largest lake entirely within the state. It’s best known as one of New York’s best walleye lakes, but it’s also a great sleeper catfish lake.

Channel cats over 25 pounds have been pulled out of Oneida Lake, and there aren’t many places in New York where you’re more likely to tussle with a 10-plus pounder. 

Catfish are fairly widespread throughout most of the year, but they head toward shallower spawning sites in May and June.

The area below the Caughdenoy Dam on the Oneida River is one of the most productive spring spots, but gravelly areas near the mouths of various tributaries can also be productive. 

Oneida Lake also supports a prolific bullhead population, and the spring bullhead run is a big event among local anglers. From late April to mid-May, bullheads are easily caught in shallow bays and the mouths of tributaries. 

Muskrat Bay, Oneida Shores Park, and the Caughdenoy Dam are reliable bullhead spots this time of year. Chicken livers are the bait of choice. Channel cats will grab chicken livers too, but cut bait is often a better option if you’re after bigger catfish. 

The best bite for both bullhead and channel catfish is usually after dark, but on overcast spring days, catfish (and especially bullheads) will bite all day long. The biggest channel cats are often caught right around dusk.

More: Complete Guide to Oneida Lake Fishing

Cattaraugus Creek

Lake Erie harbors a lot of big channel catfish, but finding them out on the main lake is extremely challenging. The lake’s tributaries tend to be much safer bets for catfish anglers, and Cattaraugus Creek is arguably the best one. 

As Lake Erie’s catfish get ready to spawn in springtime, they’ll seek out the warmest water they can find. In April, some big ones are caught along the breakwall near the mouth of Cattaraugus Creek. 

Most years, they’ll start moving into the creek—which is wide enough at its mouth that it could justifiably be called a river—by mid-May. Expect solid action right through the end of June. 

Catfish weighing 10 pounds or more are caught here every year, and there are great numbers of smaller eating-size cats weighing a pound or two. Nightcrawlers are favored for bait, but cut bait and various artificial dough baits are also effective. 

Focus your efforts on the lower 14 miles of Cattaraugus Creek, from Gowanda downstream to the mouth at Lake Erie. This section is mostly on Seneca Nation of Indians land, and a special fishing license is required. The special license is available at most convenience stores in the area.

Sunset Bay State Marine Park offers boat launch facilities and bank access in the village of Irving, near the mouth of the creek. A few not-totally-official access sites can be found at various bridge crossings farther upstream.

More: Complete Fishing Guide to Cattaraugus Creek

Black Lake

Black Lake is a 7,593-acre natural lake in Northern New York’s St. Lawrence County. It’s a highly fertile, mostly shallow lake that’s best known for largemouth bass and crappie fishing

It’s also a lake where bass anglers occasionally dredge up a 10-pound catfish that decided to engulf their jig or wacky worm. Black Lake is a highly undervalued catfish lake that harbors a lot of mid-sized fish and a few real giants. 

Late May into early June is the best time to target channel catfish on Black Lake. During their spawning season, they’ll make their way from deep haunts into shallower areas, where they hunt actively after dark. 

Of course, “deep” is a relative term. Black Lake averages just 8 feet deep, and the most productive for channel catfish tend to be hard-bottomed areas in 10 to 15 feet of water (sometimes shallower at night). 

The mouth of Orchard Bay, a U-shaped notch in the lake’s Big Island, is a good area to try. Nightcrawlers and cut bait are effective, but channel cats in Black Lake are known to strike live minnows as well. 

That said, the most reliable area for channel catfish is Lower Deep Bay, which is the deepest part of the lake, located at its southernmost end. The water is up to 40 feet deep here, and channel cats inhabit this general area all year. 

Black Lake also supports a tremendous bullhead population. Nightcrawlers and leeches are the most popular baits, and the best places to fish are bays on whichever side of the lake the wind is blowing toward.

Seneca River & Canal

The Seneca River flows eastward through 61 miles of Central New York, originating as the outlet stream from Seneca Lake and eventually merging with the Oswego and Oneida rivers at a point known as Three Rivers. 

Deep, slow-moving and often muddy, the Seneca River is also an excellent and highly underrated catfish fishery. Much of the river was channelized in the 19th and early 20th century to form portions of the Erie Canal, Barge Canal and Cayuga-Seneca Canal. 

It’s picture-perfect channel cat water. Along the way, the Seneca River meanders through the marshy landscape of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, and into and out of 1,947-acre Cross Lake. 

Some of the cat-fishiest water in the river is in the stretch from the wildlife refuge downriver to Cross Lake. Anglers can load up on 1- and 2-pound cats for the table here, and occasionally tussle with fish weighing 10 to 15 pounds. 

This section of the river is easily navigable by boat, and there’s an excellent state-owned public boat ramp on NY-38.

There are also quite a few places where one can cast a line from shore, including near the boat ramp and below the bridge on Howland Island Road (CR-139).

Another excellent catfish spot is the Richmond Aqueduct Ruins, an 840-foot structure with 31 stone arches that was constructed as part of the Erie Canal in 1849. Anglers can reach the ruins by motoring downriver from the NY-38 launch, or by hiking in from Montezuma Heritage Park.

Cut bait—especially locally-caught suckers, creek chubs and alewives—are often the best catfish bait on the Seneca River. Shrimp and nightcrawlers are also favored by some locals.

Susquehanna River

The majority of the 444-mile Susquehanna River lies within Pennsylvania, and that’s where you’ll find most of the river’s best catfish water. Still, there are some excellent cat-fishing opportunities in New York’s portion.

Much of New York’s share of the Susquehanna River is tranquil and slow-moving in all seasons except early spring, making it an easy place to wade, fish from shore, or paddle. The river also tends to be shallow, and finding deeper pools is often the key to catching catfish. 

There are some excellent deep river holes in the Owego area, above and below Hiawatha Island. Shore fishing and boat launch facilities are available at Hickories Park in Owego (the park offers camping as well). 

Mouths of tributaries like Owego Creek and the Chenango River are also catfish hot spots. The latter is accessible through Confluence Park in the city of Binghamton. 

Catfish over 10 pounds have been pulled from the Susquehanna River, and there are solid numbers of smaller cats. Approaching this river as a multispecies fishery can be a lot of fun. A live crayfish or nightcrawler is just as likely to nab a channel cat as it is a smallmouth bass or walleye.

Also worth noting is that portions of the lower Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania have become known for catches of large flathead catfish. To date, no confirmed flatheads have been caught in New York.

More: Complete Guide to Susquehanna River Fishing

Chaumont Bay

The largest freshwater embayment on earth, Lake Ontario’s Chaumont Bay spans 9,000 acres, and is best known for its walleye, smallmouth bass and yellow perch fishing.

There are also some good-sized channel cats in the bay’s depths, as well as bullheads beyond counting. 

A former state record channel cat weighing 35.3 pounds was caught here in 2017 (Eric Scordo, who caught that fish, also operates as a catfish guide in the region) and fewer places in New York produce more catfish that top 15 pounds.

Much of the best catfish water is in the area where the Chaumont River and Three Mile River enter the bay. Drifting with cut bait and nightcrawlers are the tactics of choice. Locally caught suckers and bluegill make great cut bait. 

A boat is generally a necessity to get to the best catfish water on Chaumont Bay. Shore access is limited to a handful of sites, including the free, state-owned Chaumont Boat Launch and beneath the Main Street bridge across the Chaumont River.

For shore anglers, the best time to be on the water is late April through May, when catfish head toward backwaters to spawn. Expect to catch mostly bullheads, with the occasional channel cat.

Genesee River

Flowing northward through 157 miles of Western New York, the Genesee River begins in northern Pennsylvania before eventually emptying into Lake Ontario in Rochester.

There are some excellent catfish opportunities along the way, especially in the lower half of the river. (The upper river is better known as an excellent trout fishing stream.)

You’re not likely to encounter any trophy catfish here, though the occasional channel cat weighting close to 10 pounds is a possibility. For the most part, you’ll be catching 15- to 20-inch catfish, which are great table fare.

Bullheads are abundant too, and you can catch dozens of them on a good day, many weighing a pound or more. Springtime is the best time to go after Genesee River cats, but they’ll bite at nighttime throughout summer. 

Nightcrawlers and chicken livers are the baits of choice. Chicken livers tend to be more selective, while anglers using nightcrawlers are likely to catch anything from catfish to sunfish, smallmouth bass and walleye.

The best stretch of the Genesee for catfish is from the village of Mount Morris downriver to the falls in Rochester. A free public launch ramp is located in the community of Chili, at the mouth of Black Creek where it meets the Genesee River. 

You’ll also find a lot of “unofficial” bank access under many Genesee River bridge crossings. Focus on deep pools, especially those with fallen trees, shoreline rocks, log jams and other cover.

Catch More Catfish

Check out our free and simple guide to catfish fishing, including the best baits, tackle and techniques.