Fishing the Ohio River
The Ohio River is formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It flows generally south and west 981 miles to the Mississippi River while forming the border between five states after leaving Pennsylvania. Portions of 11 states drain into the Ohio River representing 20 percent of the Mississippi River watershed.
United States Supreme Court settlements changed jurisdiction of the Ohio River from the exclusive jurisdiction of Kentucky to concurrent jurisdiction with the states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois beginning in 1985. The Ohio Decree was entered on April 15, 1985 (Ohio v. Kentucky, 471 U.S. 153); the Indiana Decree was entered on November 4, 1985 (Indiana v. Kentucky, 474 U.S. 1); and, the Illinois opinion was decided on May 28, 1991 (Illinois v. Kentucky, 500 U.S. 380, No. 106, Orig.). Similar shared jurisdiction does not exist between the states of Ohio and West Virginia. West Virginia has current jurisdiction of the Ohio River along the Ohio-West Virginia border.
Ohio-Kentucky Boundary Information
The boundary between Ohio and Kentucky is within the Ohio River and was determined by a U.S. Supreme Court Decree in 1985 as the 1792 low water mark. Proximity of this boundary to the shore varies along the river. The boundary can be identified with a file which may be loaded in many Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers used for navigation. The boundary file OHKY_boundary.txt in decimal degree format (WGS84 datum) is available for downloading to your computer for this purpose. Right click on the file and select “save target as” to save it on your computer. Loading the file on your GPS receiver from your computer will require a PC interface cable and may require software specific to your GPS receiver. Upload the data as a track rather than waypoints to save storage space on your device. Consult the user manual for your device for recommended procedures.
During the early spring when water temperatures exceed 50 degrees, largemouth bass begin moving into creeks and embayments to spawn. After spawning some bass stay in this shallow habitat while others move into the main river. The deeper backwaters are likely to hold more bass than the shallow ones once the water warms above 80 degrees. The best time to catch largemouth bass in the main river is June through the fall.
When fishing the embayments in the spring try shallow running crank baits, plastic worms and spinner baits fished slowly. As the water warms, try fishing the creek mouths with jig and pigs, deep running crank baits and jigging spoons. When fishing the main channel target the weed beds, rocky banks and woody debris. Keep in mind that most largemouth bass are taken in less than six feet of water.
Smallmouth bass are found throughout the Ohio River. The best smallmouth habitat in the river is upstream of the Willow Island dam, but they are commonly caught in all of the tailwaters and from most rocky areas in any of the pools. Since crayfish are such an important food for smallmouth bass, they are seldom far from rock substrates that are also the primary habitat of these crustaceans.
Smallmouth bass can be readily taken from spring through fall, but most lunkers are caught from mid-April through early May. Before spawning begins, try fishing deep-running crank baits or 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jigs tipped with black or brown jig bodies near drop-offs in 3 to 10 feet of water. If the fishing is slow, try tipping these jigs with a minnow. If the water is high and turbid, try fishing light-colored spinner baits behind current breaks such as barge mooring cells, boulders or other obstructions. As the water warms up, light-colored buzz baits or noisy surface plugs work well against rocky shorelines. Smallmouth bass are consistently by drifting a minnow four to five feet under a small bobber in the tailwaters, near creek mouths or around islands.
Sauger & Walleye
Sauger provide some of the highest catch rates of any fish in the river and walleye can be caught by fishing the same methods. Walleye and sauger (Percids) concentrate in tailwater areas in the early spring then disperse during the summer months. In the fall when water temperatures drop into the 50’s, they begin congregating at stream confluences and move to tailwater areas in fair numbers for most of the fall and winter.
The most productive times to fish for these fish in the Ohio River are during late fall, winter and early spring using a variety of simple techniques. The most popular method of taking walleye and sauger is by fishing 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jigs tipped with white or chartreuse twister tails near the bottom. Adding a minnow to this rig, or to a plain jig, is a real advantage when fishing is slow. Jigging spoons and vibrating blade lures are also effective at getting down to the fish which typically hug the bottom. Sauger move into shallow water at sunset and can be taken with small crank baits throughout the night until the sun rises the next morning. Fishing can be excellent during the day if there is heavy cloud cover.
White, Striped, & Hybrid Striped Bass
The temperate basses (Morone) are the most abundant sport fish species group in the Ohio River. The white bass is the most frequently caught native game fish in the river, averaging 8 to 12 inches in length but never exceeds 21 inches. White bass have stripes above the lateral line that are usually un-broken and only a single stripe will reach the base of the tail. White bass have only a single tooth patch on the tounge. Hybrid striped bass have been stocked in the river by Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania and fish up to 10 pounds are fairly common. They often exceed 18 inches in length and can reach well over 21 inches. Hybrid striped bass have stripes above the lateral line that are often broken and multiple stripes reach the base of the tail. The tooth patch on the tounge of a hybrid striped bass is split down the center forming two patches. Striped bass are stocked in the river by Kentucky and can weigh up to 20 pounds. Light tackle is acceptable for catching white bass, but the larger stripers and hybrids require much heavier gear.
April and May are probably the best month to fish tailwater areas for these fish with good angling continuing through the summer and into the fall. The temperate basses are attracted to highly oxygenated water below dams and typically seek quiet water adjacent to fast moving water where they wait to ambush gizzard shad and emerald shiners. Savvy anglers catch their own shad with cast nets and use them fished from jigs large enough to get the bait down in the current, usually one to two ounces. White bass, being smaller, can be taken on much lighter jigs tipped with minnows, small spinners, crank baits and spoons. These fish often feed on the surface and can be taken on top-water baits. A common method of surface fishing calls for a jig to be trailed behind a floating, hookless agitator which pops across the surface and attracts strikes. Many anglers keep two rods handy, one rigged with a surface lure and the other with a jig. Quite a few hybrid striped bass are also taken by anglers that are bottom fishing with live bait, cut bait, or liver.
Channel, Flathead, & Blue Catfish
The most common catfish species in the Ohio River sport fishery are channel cats, flatheads and blue catfish. These species are widely distributed and can be readily taken by shore anglers. Blue catfish are taken in the lower river, but are rare in the Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia portions of the river. Channel catfish up to 15 pounds are fairly common. Flatheads are capable of reaching 100 pounds, but 20- to 30-pound fish are the norm.
Catfish can be caught almost any time water temperatures are above 50 degrees, but night fishing during May, June and July is best. Tailwaters produce the most fish, but warm water discharges, stream confluences and gravel flats near deep water are also proven producers of big cats. Try drifting large gizzard shad (four to six inches) on a two-ounce jig in swift water for large channels and flatheads. If larger shad are available, try cutting these into two-inch pieces (cut bait) and bottom fishing with heavy tackle. It is not uncommon for channel catfish to be taken incidentally on crank baits by anglers targeting other species.