Missouri's Overlooked Lake Catfish
September 30, 2010
The Missouri River is deemed the state's preeminent catfishing venue -- deservedly so. But several lakes in the state also host fabulous catfish action. A local expert tells you how to fish them.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Some days you might feel a bit odd when a glittering bass boat doing somewhere in the neighborhood of Mach 2 whizzes past while you're elbow-deep in a cooler full of the smelliest bait concoctions made by man.
But such is the life of a hardcore catfisherman, and being different isn't such a bad thing -- especially when you consider just how much fun it is to catch heavy stringers of tasty channel cats. Never mind battling big blues and flatheads that truly are underwater leviathans with possible weights 10 times that of a trophy bass. Can being a catfisherman sound any better? You bet -- particularly when you consider just how many options are available to the Missourians.
The simple truth about catfishing is it's a sport for all people and often one of the most overlooked among serious anglers looking for a challenge or a fun-filled fishing fix. The traditional images of sitting on the bank, blankly staring at propped rods while waiting for action, aren't an accurate depiction. More often, with the right information and equipment, it's a thrilling adventure on the water.
If this gets you fired up and ready to take to the water, you're in for a treat. Without any doubt, you'll be set for a sport where one good trip can make you a lifetime lover of catfishing. And what better place to become addicted than Missouri? Our state hosts a fertile list of fisheries for catfish.
In fact, the state has so many good places to fish that it might take you a lifetime to master each. To help speed up the progress and take a little legwork out of the equation, we've decided to combine the experience of one remarkable catman and a few surefire lakes to guarantee you a better chance of becoming your own catting authority.
Those surefire lakes -- Harry S. Truman Reservoir, Stockton Lake and Lake of the Ozarks -- all offer great catfish opportunities, be it the chance to catch large flatheads, channels or blue cats. But something else the lakes have in common is the attention of catfish angler Steve Brown.
It's nearly impossible to count just how many hours Brown has put into catching fish from these waters, but it's not hard to put a lot of faith in just how much he knows about each lake. He spends thousands of hours on the water guiding and has the uncanny knack of breaking a lake down and using common science to understand what relates a catfish to the waters it dwells in. His wealth of knowledge goes back many years, and he's become an expert at catching all the species of cats, big blues and flatheads being his specialty. Being a trophy cat angler and sharing a friendly demeanor go a long way to helping us catch a few fish of our own. By taking a close look at Brown's tactics and experience, it's easy to learn what it takes to make our own successful trips a snap.
According to Brown, a little preliminary research can make finding fish a whole lot easier. It would be simple if he could just pinpoint all the spots on the lake to find your catch, but it doesn't work like that. Fluctuations in temperature, wind, and water levels all cause the fish to react differently and move.
"Knowing where to catch fish hinges on several factors," he said. "The thermocline has a huge effect on the fish and where you find them. During most normal summers it hovers between 20 to 22 feet deep. This pushes the fish up and eliminates most of the lake. To get started, find a lake map and study it closely. From there focus your efforts on areas in this range. Under these conditions the catfish usually hold in 15 to 17 feet of water. Find likely spots on your map before you hit the water. This way once you have an idea you can use quality electronics to zigzag over the locations looking for a dip, a hump, a creek channel, or anything defining where both fish and bait are."
For 90 percent of his fishing he uses shad for bait. "On blues I try my best to get rid of the entrails of shad," said Brown. "Otherwise you pick up to many small fish. Heads sides, or chunks are all good. But they have to be extremely fresh. Most of my bait is netted and kept alive until I'm ready to cut it. On channel cats, it is just the opposite. Guts work well. If you can just get the guts out of shad or even buy them, they are the best channel bait for me at this time of year. Now there are a lot of commercial baits that work really well, too. Dip baits in particular are great for channel cats. Flatheads require a mix of bait in my opinion. I'll use half live bait and half cut bait. Black perch, creek chubs, or live shad work excellent. But it's a myth that flatheads won't bite cut bait."
No worthwhile article about catfish in Missouri would go without mentioning Truman Lake. Not only coveted by our state's anglers, it is also renowned for its catfishing among all who have ever taken the sport serious. Luckily for us, we never have to cross a state line to wet a line there. The Harry S. Truman Dam and Reservoir is located nearly smack-dab in the center of the state and falls inside the Osage River Basin. Approximately 100 miles southeast of Kansas City, it's easy to find. The town of Warsaw is nearest the dam which only sits a mile and a half southeast of the town.
The lake itself is a 55,600-acre marvel that floods the Osage, Grand, Pomme de Terre, and the Sac River arms. Brown's favorite technique, which is perfectly suited for Truman Reservoir, is drift fishing. It's mainly a blue and channel cat presentation that has astounding results.
"I start drift fishing in the summer months when the south wind blows steadily for several days," explained Brown. "You need a good wind to keep the boat moving and drift properly. I go to the main lake and look for long, straight stretches of water that have varying terrain below. I want the boat to move across this and have my baits encountered by scattered fish.
"I rig the boat with drift socks to slow and control the boat. I'll go far upwind of where the fish will seem likely to hold and get the drift started. I'll use four heavy baitcasters and rig each with a snake weight. Then I'll attach a 3-foot leader with a circle hook at the end and a small float between the weight and special sinker. The hooks are baited with shad heads or fresh filleted shad sides and tossed out behind the boat. I'll let the reels free-spool until the baits are well behind the boats and then lock them down. This method has killer results. The baits pull slowly along the bottom following the lakes contours and meets scattered fish tempting them with moving bait."
Spider-rigging (the use of multiple rods placed all around the boat) is a common practice am
ong catmen. But Brown takes it to the next step for blue cats. He wants to know exactly where those fish are and offer his presentation right in their faces.
"When the fish are schooled up tight with bait and you find them, I'll throw my marker buoy out or mark (the spot) on the GPS," he explained. "I'll then return and pinpoint them on the sonar. Once I know the exact location I'll move upwind of the spot and drop and anchor and let the wind push me back over the spot and then past it. I'll then drop a second anchor and pull the first anchor rope to center myself vertically right over the fish.
"You use two anchors spread apart because you don't want drop an anchor directly into the fish. These areas are usually in a hump or a small hole or some sort of structure following the same rules of the thermocline and normal fish depths around 15 feet or better. Once set, I'll use six rods baited and rigged out flat all around the boat. I'll drop the lines down to the bottom and reel them up about a foot."
Often, the fish start biting right away, but when a big one hits the fun begins, he says. A lot of times when that happens every rod in the boat will go down. What that first fish has likely done is create a feeding frenzy, said Brown. Therefore, the faster rods can be baited and sent back into the fray, the better the opportunity anglers have of keeping the excitement going. If the bite, however, are not quick in coming, he usually packs up and leaves within 30 minutes.
Flatheads are a little different. The spider-rigging method used is nearly the same, but a bit more intricate. If you find an area where the river channel and a creek arm intersects, or an area that has large chunk rock or wood cover, the flatheads will likely be there in abundance. "During the day these fish may congregate on structure," said Brown. "There may be as many as 20 fish in one brush pile. So you have to fish really tight over that brushpile. I use 80-pound braided line. Let your bait down slow, until you feel your bait bumping into the rocks or brush, whatever you are fishing, then reel it up about a foot or so. Just remember they hold real tight to structure during the day."
At night, though, the fishing alters quite dramatically. The fish that had been along the river channel of along the edges of wood or rock cover are now roaming, in search of food. Finding old roadbeds or shallow flats near bridge pilings is key, says Brown. The areas where they are foraging are not far from where they spend their days holed up. If you can find a bunch of riprap, that's likely where the flatheads are going to be located. "In this situation use a Carolina rig with a 2- or 3-ounce sinker," he said. "Don't be afraid to fish shallow either. Get right on the edge of riprap, fishing from depths just below the surface to 15 feet."
At Stockton Lake, the flathead techniques Brown uses for Truman works perfectly. But the dominant fish here is channel cat, though the blues and flatheads are here in abundance as well. "For these fish go shallow, said Brown. "Old creek and river channels are fish magnets. Look in the back of coves and at the lower ends of the lake to find likely ones. The second option is in the structure-filled coves with old trees and rock. In either place, I get on the outside of that structure, anchor the boat and throw to that submerged treeline, rock, or structure holding fish. Those channel cats will move back and forth along that structure and try to pick up bait. Ideally I'll try and be setup so that I can throw lines from depths of 2 foot to 17 feet. Here you can use shad, worms or any type of stink bait."
LAKE OF THE OZARKS
The upper 20 miles of LOZ are Brown's bread and butter. These days he fishes here more than anywhere else. His favorite areas feature a deep channel with bends, flats, and steep banks. Here, he anchors the front of the boat and fishes out the back with Carolina-rigs featuring a mix of live and cut shad for both blues and flatheads.
"There are a couple of areas I really focus on," explained Brown. "The two areas are traveling lanes and staging areas. Traveling lanes are steep slopes along the old river channel where it meets the bottom. These create long straight runs. Those fish use that to move back and forth to staging areas. A staging area is a sharp bend or a deep hole where fish pile up because the baitfishes are there. Looking for either one and placing the boat ahead of the fish is an excellent way to up your catches of huge cats."
He said the current has a lot to do with these areas being so good, since many are located just downstream from the Harry S. Truman dam. This means the waters are constantly rising and falling and picking up swift currents.
All of these tactics employed by Brown are surefire ways to increase your catfish haul. The summer months offer up some of the most exciting fishing and give way to the most productive days on the water. You just can't beat it when you take the advice of such a knowledgeable guide. If you want to give your catfishing a boost this summer, try out these methods or look up Steve Brown at
With a little legwork and a new attitude about catfish, it's easy to see why the sport can be so intense. It's not uncommon for a fish of a lifetime to be waiting in one of the exact spots described here. And when you put in the time and that monster cat bends your rod, you'll be in for the fight of your life. And those boys whizzing by in the bass boats might just feel a little odd watching you hold up a fish that makes theirs look like a minnow.