Big-Cat Waters Of The Mighty Mississippi
September 24, 2010
Great catfishing can be found all along the Mississippi River, with flathead, blue and channel cats all abounding. Here are several of the best stretches -- and how to fish them.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
In Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck caught "a cat-fish that was as big as a man, being six foot two inches long, and weighed over 200 pounds. '¦ It was as big a fish as was ever catched in the Mississippi, I reckon."
Monsters that size haven't been seen in recent years, but the Mississippi River still produces big channels, blues and flatheads, especially in the stretch running the length of Arkansas' eastern border from Blytheville south to Eudora.
I should know. I've been fishing for the whiskered warriors that call this river home for almost four decades. I have also fished for catfish in the best rivers and lakes throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil, and I can say without hesitation that no other body of water on the planet surpasses the lower Mississippi River in terms of catfishing action. The Father of Waters produces extraordinary numbers of extraordinarily large catfish year-round, year after year. For the ardent catfish fan, this is hallowed water.
The Mississippi River has been churning out giant blue cats for more than 100 years. In November 1879, a 150-pound blue catfish taken in the Mississippi River near St. Louis was sent to the U.S. National Museum by Dr. J.G.W. Steedman, chairman of the Missouri Fish Commission, who found it, and a 144-pound blue, in a St. Louis fish market. It's likely that blues near, perhaps over, the 150-pound mark are still swimming the river today, and I strongly believe one will establish a new rod-and-reel record for the species sometime in the near future.
Several 100-pound-plus blue cats have surfaced in the Mississippi in recent years. The best known of these was the former world record landed in 2001.
On Aug. 3 of that year, Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion was catfishing with two friends on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River at West Memphis. Ashley was fishing with an inexpensive medium-weight spinning combo that he had recently bought at Wal-Mart. He baited with a chunk of Spam, cast it out, let it sink to the bottom and set the hook in a 116-pound, 12-ounce blue cat just minutes later. The next day, I certified his fish as a new Arkansas rod-and-reel record, and later it was certified as an all-tackle world record.
No one in the catfishing community was surprised to hear the new record came from the Mississippi River. But most were be amazed that it was caught on a 100-degree summer afternoon on tackle better suited for bullhead fishing -- and with a chunk of Spam for bait.
My own fishing for Mississippi blues has proven most successful in the area I long ago dubbed "Three Rivers Country." This is the stretch of water in southeast Arkansas where the White and Arkansas rivers join with the Mississippi.
I've tried fishing for blues using many tactics here, and have discovered one that works especially well in summer. From June through August, large schools of skipjack herring often churn the surface of the water at the river junctions as they pursue young-of-the-year shad. This is a highly visible phenomenon, quite similar to the surface-feeding mÃªlées of stripers and white bass. You can see the fish swirling near the surface, with little shad squirting all about as they try to elude the skipjacks. This activity usually occurs near dawn and dusk.
When surfacing skipjacks are sighted, I've found that it's highly likely scores of blue cats are lurking below. They're attracted not only by the prospect of a skipjack entrée, but also by the many dead and crippled shad left behind when skipjacks slash through a school. Sometimes striped or white bass join the feeding frenzy, too, working on skipjacks and shad alike. This increases the number of injured baitfish fluttering about, another drawing card for gluttonous blues.
For the dyed-in-the-wool blue cat angler, this is a setting like no other. A 1/64- to 1/32-ounce silver or white jig cast toward swirling fish will usually garner a strike from a skipjack that can be used for bait. Cut the skippie in small pieces, run a hook through one chunk, and then cast it toward the swirls, letting it fall enticingly to hungry blues waiting below. Better yet, come prepared with a few small shad ready to rig.
Drift-fishing is another method for finding scattered concentrations of Mississippi River blue cats. James Patterson of Mississippi River Guide Service -- (901) 383-8674,
www.bigcatfishing.com -- shared this tactic with three of my sons and me on a fishing trip several years ago. After catching shad with a cast net, we baited up three-way-swivel rigs sweetened with chunks of these fresh baitfish.
To make the three-way-swivel rig, Patterson uses leaders of Stren Magnaflex monofilament in a bright fluorescent green color. "The 24- to 32-inch hook leader is 50-pound-test mono," he said. "The 6- to 10-inch sinker leader is 30-pound-test. I use Eagle Claw L-141 Kahle hooks with a black platinum finish, usually in the 7/0 size. Sometimes larger hooks are needed when using large baits. To complete the rig, the two leaders and the main line are each tied to a separate eye on a large three-way swivel."
Sinker size and type will vary according to the amount of current and the area being fished, but in most situations, Patterson uses a 3- or 4-ounce bank-sinker.
After we baited up, Patterson turned his boat perpendicular to the current with the bow and stern pointed toward the banks, and we rode the current past the Pyramid and beneath the Interstate 40 and 55 bridges, and continued downstream. The river bottom at Memphis is clean, hard sand that is roughened like a washboard. We could feel the weight of the rig bouncing across this substrate, but we had no difficulty discerning the hard strikes of blue cats. During a few hours fishing, we landed several nice blues, including one 28-pounder.
Ever since, I've often employed drift-fishing when targeting the big river's blue cats.
On another trip with James Patterson, two friends and I got a taste of the Mississippi's astounding propensity for producing jumbo flathead cats. Spring rains had swollen the river, making it high and muddy. Logs and debris were pushed into huge floating mats in the backwaters near Memphis. These mats, Patterson explained, attract flatheads searching for a meal.
To catch our quarry, we baited live shad and sunfish on an egg-sinker bottom rig. The rig was cast so that it sank beneath the moving mats of
timber, and within a few minutes, the first flathead was giving one of my friends a run for his money. Several eating-sized flatheads were taken, and one nice fish that pulled the scale to 21 pounds.
Catching a dozen or more small flatheads (from 2 to 10 pounds) happens frequently when fishing in this manner, and though larger fish don't equal Huck's 200-pounder, 20- to 40-pound flatheads come often, and bigger ones are possible.
No one knows for sure why high-rise periods in late spring and early summer are so good for flatheads, but there's no doubt they are. Some anglers believe the flatheads are hungry after months on lean rations, and the sudden influx of food washed into the water by warm rain stimulates feeding activity. Others believe the spawning urge draws the fish together, and they feed ravenously to fatten up before the austerity of egg laying and nesting. Whatever the case, this is a boom time for flathead fans. No better situation exists for catching Mississippi flatheads in numbers.
James Patterson also targets flatheads in areas where a steep mudbank, slow current and timber combine to create an attractive area. Catfish visit such areas in spring, looking for spawning sites in protected cavities and undercuts in the woody cover. These fish may remain here or revisit the area season after season to feed on baitfish and crustaceans.
"I look for bluff banks with timber or old stumps sticking up," Patterson stated. "These are excellent fishing spots, particularly those on the downstream side of shallow sandbars where the current is slow and baitfish stack up. These banks often drop off into troughs of water that are more than 20 feet deep just 40 feet from shore. The troughs typically run parallel to the bank, and they're great features for cats. Flatheads run the troughs most of the year, depending on the water level and current speed. And you can catch them by working one of the two basic rigs in and around the cover."
Big flatheads scavenge very little, preferring live food, especially fish and crustaceans. "I use baits such as shad, goldfish, river shrimp, small bighead carp, small grass carp, small buffalo, bream and river minnows," Patterson said. "These are caught with a cast net, hook and bait or with the aid of minnow/shrimp traps.
"Any good live bait that is native to the river will work. I hook the shrimp through the tail and leave the barb sticking out. Live fish are hooked through the lips when in current, because strong current can open the baitfish's gill flaps and kill it if it's hooked behind the dorsal fin. When fishing slack water, however, I hook the baitfish behind the dorsal fin."
Trotlines provide another great means for tackling giant Mississippi flatheads. Most local "liners" set several short lines (10 to 15 hooks) perpendicular to the bank near prominent structure (outside river bends, river-bottom scour holes, logpiles, etc.). Goldfish are the bait of choice, because they remain lively for a long time and are highly attractive to big flats. Large (6-inch-plus) shiner minnows are also common baits.
The trotline staging (short lines to which the hooks are tied) should be attached to the main line with swivels to prevent big cats from rolling the rig and tangling it. It's also imperative to carry a big, sturdy landing net. I helped a fellow trotliner put an 80-pounder in the boat two years ago without a net, and it was only by the grace of God that we managed to get it in.
If it's channel cats you're after, make your way back into one of the many river-connected oxbows on the Mississippi. You can find them by watching for chutes running back into heavy stands of willows. Most of the lakes cover less than 100 acres, but all of them harbor phenomenal numbers of fat, sassy channel cats that will inhale almost any cat bait thrown their way.
Channel cats are especially common in older oxbows in which lots of hollow trees have toppled to create prime spawning holes. Look for channel cats anywhere there is a combination of cover, structure and food -- around fallen trees, beaver lodges, sunken Christmas tree shelters, weedbeds, shoreline riprap, stumpfields, docks, duck hunting blinds, river channels and the like.
Even though most oxbows are relatively flat and of uniform depth, the outside bend of the lake is almost always deeper than the inside bend. During summer and winter, cats tend to concentrate on the deeper side of the lake, where the temperature and water conditions are more to their liking. In most oxbows, the amount of deep water is very limited, so you don't have to look far to find fish.
When fishing the main river for channel cats, the places I target are dictated by structure -- unusual bottom features like logjams, big rocks, fallen trees or brushpiles. If I'm fishing during the day, I look for the deepest water available. At night, I fish the edges of deep holes first; then, if I don't connect with a cat, I move the bait into progressively shallower water, sometimes as little as 2 or 3 feet. Sandbars' edges provide some of the best fishing, especially whenever the channel cats are gorging on small leeches that inhabit these areas.
My favorite channel catfish outfit is a bass-fishing combo -- a baitcasting reel on a 6-foot medium-action rod. Just as for bass, I like to move systematically from one spot to another instead of sticking to one place. If I drop bait in a spot and don't get a bite within 10 minutes, it's time to move. If a hungry catfish were there, it would hit within that time.
Though Mississippi River channel cats can be caught on a wide variety of baits, I use five most often. These are (in order of my preference) crawfish, chicken liver, earthworms, catalpa worms and baitfish such as minnows. Fishing these on a slip-bobber rig is especially effective. Place a bobber stop or rubber band on the line so the bobber suspends the bait a few inches above bottom. Use just enough weight to carry the bait to the desired level.
Whatever the bait or rig, and wherever you fish it, it's been my experience that you can expect to catch four or five times as many channel cats by fishing the hours between dusk and dawn as by fishing during daylight. The blackest nights are best, especially if heavy rains have muddied the river.
Where is the best catfishing on the Mississippi River? I'm often asked that, and answer by saying, wherever you happen to fishing. I've mentioned the two areas I most often frequent -- the Memphis area and Three Rivers Country. But I have yet to find any portion of the river that won't give up good cats and lots of them to the savvy angler. Don't worry about where to fish; just get out there and give it a try.
Be sure, however, to follow all safety precautions if you're boating on the Mississippi. Strong current and undertows can get you in pickle if you aren't careful, and barge traffic is incessant. Keep a safe distance from these big boats, and always wear a life jacket.
No doubt, the "bigness" of this river keeps lots of anglers away. Despite the fact that this is one of the world's premier hotspots for giant catfish, relatively few rod-and-reel anglers ever f
ish it. If you want to catch the biggest fish of your lifetime, however -- a catfish that could run over 100 pounds -- no body of water in Arkansas is better than the Mississippi River.
(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton's latest book, Catfishing: Beyond the Basics, is available by sending a check or money order for $22.45 -- Arkansas residents should add sales tax -- to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card orders, log on to the Web site