Big Cats, Big River
September 24, 2010
The name "Mississippi" comes from Native American words for "big river" -- and that big river holds plenty of equally big cats. You just need to know where to find them. (June 2006)
The Mississippi River is the largest river in North America, flowing more than 2,300 miles from its source at Lake Itasca in the Minnesota North Woods to its juncture with the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana's marsh country. The origin of the name "Mississippi" lies in the Native American words misi sipi, meaning "big river" -- in some interpretations, "gathering of waters." An appropriate designation for a river whose watershed extends from the Allegheny Mountains to the Rocky Mountains, including all or parts of 31 states and two Canadian provinces, and whose basin covers about 40 percent of the United States and about one-eighth of North America.
The Arkansas portion of the Mississippi River flows 320 miles along the state's eastern border with Tennessee and Mississippi, from near Blytheville on the north to near Eudora on the south. More than 100 species of fish inhabit the river in the Natural State, but few can tolerate the river's fast, muddy water for extended periods, and of those that do, very few are popular targets of anglers. Of those that do, the most popular by far are blue, channel and flathead catfish.
Catfishing in the Mississippi can be an extraordinary experience, with opportunities to catch lots of fish, including trophy-class specimens. In fact, many aficionados believe the Mississippi River offers action-packed fishing for giant catfish that surpasses that found anywhere else on this continent.
Blue cats reach enormous proportions here. In August 2001, Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion landed a former rod-and-reel world record -- a 116-pound, 12-ounce monster -- just downstream from the Interstate 40 bridge between Memphis, Tenn., and West Memphis, Ark. Several more 100-pound-plus blues have been caught in recent years -- some on commercial fishing tackle, but at least one that was caught on rod and reel and released by the angler who took it. Many anglers believe a 150-pounder is certain to lurk here.
The Mississippi is a mother lode of giant flatheads, too. Fifteen- to 30-pounders are abundant. Forty- to 70-pounders are probably caught somewhere along the river's length nearly every day during warm months.
Channel catfish are common, too, and catching 50 or more during a night's fishing is simple for savvy anglers. Most range from 1 to 5 pounds, but specimens exceeding 10 pounds usually anchor the stringers of serious fishermen.
Because catfish are so common, it is difficult to pick one portion of the river over another when selecting the best fishing areas. It is wiser, instead, for the visiting angler to learn as much as possible about the habits of the particular catfish being sought and then to apply knowledge of those habits in finding and catching the quarry. Some of this knowledge will be found in the paragraphs that follow.
Long fiberglass or composite rods -- 7 feet or longer -- offer several advantages for fishing the Mississippi. Casting distance increases with a longer rod, an important feature in this wide river. Long rods give more "reach," so you can work rigs properly around cover or keep a feisty cat out of your prop. Long rods let you keep more line out of the water, allowing quicker hooksets and better bait control, and permitting more accurate drifts and natural presentation when catfishing. Long rods made of fiberglass or composites also provide more leverage when battling the trophy cats found here. And you'll need all the leverage you can get.
Baitcasting reels are toughest and provide more power for cranking in big fish. Look for a solid frame, tough gears and smooth casting, plus enough line capacity for the conditions you fish. The best models hold at least 160 yards of 30- to 50-pound monofilament.
Other gear you might need will include a cast-net for catching shad for bait, insect repellent, a good boat anchor, plenty of big hooks and heavy sinkers.
Few people fish more for the Mississippi's trophy catfish than does James Patterson of Bartlett, Tenn. The proprietor of Mississippi River Guide Service -- (901) 383-8674, www.bigcatfishing.com -- he's on the river near Memphis 100-plus days each year. One day in 1998, he reeled in two Mississippi blues weighing 62 and 65 pounds. His clients often catch the biggest cats of their career when accompanying Patterson on the big river.
"After you've found the cats with sonar, which is fairly easy, catching 100 to 300 pounds or more a day is very common," Patterson said. "The average size here is about 10 pounds, but 20- to 40-pounders are very common, and bigger cats come along often enough as well."
Patterson often uses one of two basic catfishing rigs: a three-way-swivel rig or a basic float rig. He described his procedure for assembling the three-way-swivel rig: "I use leaders of monofilament in a bright fluorescent green color. The 24- to 32-inch hook leader is 50-pound-test mono; 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. "I sometimes add a small Styrofoam float onto my hook leader to float the live bait off the bottom," he said. "This is pegged a few inches above the hook."
Patterson's float rig consists of five basic components: a big balsa or Styrofoam slip float that will suspend an 8-ounce bait, a bobber stop, a 1/2- to 1-ounce egg sinker, a sturdy barrel swivel, and a 7/0 Kahle hook. The bobber stop goes on the line first and is positioned so that when the float abuts it the bait will suspend about a foot above the bottom. Next the float is added; below it, the egg sinker, and then the barrel swivel. Patterson then ties the 24-inch hook leader to the swivel.
Blue cats, Patterson reports, often hold in holes near the river's many rock wing dikes, where the main river current is diverted into the channel, creating a big circular rotation in the water below these structures. These holes are often over 50 feet deep and are found using a sonar fishfinder.
"I don't fish the eddy part of the rotation," Patterson noted. "Instead, I fish the current along the edges. I find that catfish in eddy water are not active. Active cats are along the edges. I want to be anchored and fishing right along the edge of the eddy."
Shad and skipjack herring are Patterson's preferred blue cat baits. "I use live shad a lot," he said. "I locate them by sight or with a depthfinder, then throw a cast net over them. Cut skipjacks also are good bait." The latter he catches using Mustad Piscator rigs, which have multiple drop lines tipped with tiny fly-like lures that the skipjacks find irresistible.
The three-way-swivel rig described earlier is Patterson's standard blue cat-catcher. "I anchor above the hole I intend to fish," he said, "then cast to the spot and let the reel free-spool until the weight hits bottom; sometimes I'll have out 200 feet of line. Blues usually hit hard and quick, so rod holders are necessary if you fish more rods than you can hold."
It would seem that a bait tossed to the edge of one of these huge vortices would swirl round and round, but when it's done properly, the bait will sink quickly to the bottom and remain stationary. Reposition your rig if necessary to achieve this end; then, prepare for the rod-jarring strike that will soon follow if a giant cat is nearby. Often, big cats cruise slowly through a hole, waiting for something to jolt their taste buds before they rush in to strike. Allow the bait to sit up to 10 minutes, but if there's no bite by then, move and try another eddy hole.
Because catfish are so common, it is difficult to pick one portion of the river over another when selecting the best fishing areas.
Strikes usually come quick and hard, so use heavy tackle, and keep a firm grip on your rod at all times. One moment of inattention could cost you the catfish of a lifetime. Clear, high-pressure days with a north wind are Patterson's favorites.
"The flathead has a mystique all its own," Patterson said. "And part of that mystique relates to the difficulty of catching it. Even in waters like the Mississippi River, where flatheads are common, locating trophy-class specimens is not an easy task. In a big-river environment, water levels and water clarity are ever-changing, and the location of prime fishing spots is unpredictable day in and day out."
One type of hotspot Patterson looks for is a rotating current near a large hole that has formed beneath buckled revetment. Giant flatheads love the security of these dark cavities, and anglers who use a finesse presentation to put the bait right in front of the fish often find themselves battling a trophy-class cat.
"A good depthfinder is essential for finding these underwater houses," said Patterson. "I usually start downstream and troll slowly upstream parallel to the bank, watching the screen for the ups and downs of these buckled-up revetment slabs. When I find a hole and feel like the boat is directly over it, I pick out a reference spot on the bank; then, I motor upstream and anchor the boat casting distance away from the hole.
"I typically use a float rig set 4 to 6 feet deep for this type of fishing because the revetment houses are small, and precise location is mandatory for success. I cast directly over the hole, let the rig settle and wait for a hit. If I haven't had a bite after 15 to 20 minutes, I troll up the bank until I find another likely spot and anchor again. I continue doing this, working my way upstream and fishing first one hole and then another."
Another flathead hotspot is where a steep mudbank, slow current and timber combine to create an area attractive to flatheads. Cats visit these areas in spring looking for spawning sites in protected cavities and undercuts in the woody cover, and may remain here or revisit the area in other seasons 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 offshore. 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."
In Patterson's view, summer is the best season for flatheads. "Flatheads frequent shallow water throughout summer," he said. "That makes them easier to target. In the Mississippi, depths of 100 feet or more are not rare. But in summer, even though the water temperature may reach 80 degrees or more, the flatheads usually are in less than 20 feet of water."
"After you've found the cats with sonar, which is fairly easy, catching 100 to 300 pounds or more a day is very common." -- James Patterson, Mississippi River Guide Service
Feeding activity peaks at night. "Summer flatheads definitely bite better after dark or at the first part of the sunrise or sunset," Patterson noted. "So fish at night or near dawn and dusk for the best chance of success."
If it's channel cats you're after, the places you should target are dictated by structure -- unusual bottom features such as logjams, big rocks, fallen trees or brushpiles.
When fishing during the day, look for the deepest water available. At night, fish the edges of deep holes first; if you don't connect with a cat, move the bait into progressively shallower water, sometimes as little as 2 or 3 feet. Sandbar edges provide some of the best fishing in the river. If one area doesn't produce, move to another, and keep moving until you pinpoint fish.
An egg-sinker rig works well when fishing the areas just described. The egg sinker (2 to 8 ounces, depending on current speed) is placed on the main line above a barrel swivel. To the swivel's lower eye, tie a 36-inch leader with a 5/0 to 8/0 barbless octopus or circle hook. When drifting and casting to shallow flats, try a slip-bobber rig. Shad and skipjack herring are the baits of choice for most trophy seekers, with the fresh fish prepared as cut bait and impaled on the hook.
Sturdy tackle is a must. A good all-round outfit is a 7-foot medium-heavy fast-action rod paired with a good-quality baitcasting reel spooled with 30- to 40-pound-test braid.
Carry a big landing net, keep your drag set at a point just below the breaking strength of your line, and always keep a firm grip on your tackle. The Mississippi's giants can yank a rod and reel into the water quicker than you can say boo.
Whatever the bait or rig, and wherever you fish it, you can expect to more 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 water in the river.
Several Mississippi River access areas are available in Arkansas, among them the Sans Souci Landing near Osceola, the 8th Street Landing in West Memphis, Peters Island in Lee County, the St. Francis Landing (access to Mississippi via St. Francis River) north of Helena, and Panther Forest Landing north of Lake City
. All are on county maps included in the Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, available from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission by phoning 1-800-364-GAME or logging on to www. agfc.com.
Fishing regulations also are posted on the Web site and are available in the current guide available at fishing license dealers statewide.
Always be safety-conscious on this gargantuan river. 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.
You may not catch a world record cat the next time you fish in the Mississippi River. But if you employ the right tactics under the right conditions, you're almost certain to catch plenty of eating-size catfish, and every time you visit, there's a chance you'll catch a monster bigger than any you've hooked before.
(Editor's Note: To order Keith Sutton's latest book, Catfishing: Beyond the Basics, send a check or money order for $22.45 -- Ark. residents should also add sales tax -- to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002.)