All Hail -- Missouri's King Of Cats!

All Hail -- Missouri's King Of Cats!

From the loess hills of the northwest to the swamps of the southeast, Missouri's catfisherman have crowned the channel cat king. (July 2007)

Photo by Marc Murrell.

"Mirror, mirror, on the wall -- what's Missouri's fairest fish of all?"

Getting the right answer to that question has been very difficult for the Missouri Department of Conservation's fisheries biologists. Alas, it's also very important to their mission because the only completely workable definition of the term "fairest" is "being of the most interest to the state's anglers." It's no wonder that the hardworking men and women in the MDC's fisheries division sometimes wish they had access to a magic mirror.

For decades, creel surveys -- face-to-face conversations between anglers and MDC personnel conducted either on the water or at boat ramps and marinas -- have been the primary means of determining which fish species are most popular with the state's anglers. The results of creel surveys consistently rank black bass (largemouths, smallmouths and spots in the aggregate) as the state's most popular fish and bequeath second place to the state's two species of crappie. Third went to the three large catfish species more or less by default.

Don't misunderstand: The MDC was well aware of the fact that catfish fill an important ecological niche, as is evidenced by the fact that channel catfish join largemouth bass and bluegill as the three species that the agency provides for stocking private ponds and many of its own impoundments. Likewise, the MDC knew that some percentage of the state's anglers (albeit one of unsubstantiated dimensions) enjoyed catching them. The problem was -- and to an extent continues to be -- that both catfish and catfishermen don't lend themselves to traditional sampling methods.

It wasn't until the 1990s that the MDC decided to join a rapidly growing number of states already on the "catfish bandwagon" and began to make serious efforts to find out not only just how many anglers fished for catfish but also where, how, and for what catfish species these anglers preferred to invest their efforts. Many of the results of the early angler surveys -- which provided significant input regarding the shape of the state's catfish management plans --came as no great surprise. Others, however, raised eyebrows even among those of us who, like my great-uncle Lester Allison, believe that "(t)here are only two kinds of fish in this world: catfish and them scaly (expletive deleted)."

For example: One of the first mail-in surveys confirmed that catfishermen are significantly underreported in creel surveys -- so much so, in fact, that, according to this survey, catfish ranked second only to bass in the minds of the state's anglers. Another mail-in survey pushed catfish back to their traditional position behind crappie, but only by the narrowest of margins.

However, simply stating that Missouri anglers spend a lot of time and effort fishing for "catfish" paints an all-but-hopelessly murky picture for fisheries managers. Fortunately, the MDC's survey program demonstrated that, to the state's catfishermen, that same picture is clear. Despite the fact that Missouri's portion of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers -- and perhaps the Osage River as well -- are among the best bets for a new world-record blue cat, only 9 percent of the state's catfishermen named blue cats as their primary target species. Only 14 percent of the state's catfishermen targeted flatheads. Subtract another 2 percent to cover bullhead fanatics, and a whopping 75 percent of Missouri's catfishermen prefer channel cats.

Actually, the fact that the channel is Missouri's undisputed King of Cats should come as no surprise, because channels have so much to offer. For openers, anything from a fly rod to a worm a rod is suitable channel cat tackle, so -- a few hooks and weights aside -- every angler in the state already owns most of the "channel-cat gear" that anyone needs. Channel cats take an even more laissez-faire attitude about potential food, and will readily sample anything from maggot-gagging "sour" shad to fresh-dug worms, a hot dog left over from lunch or an artistically-tied wet fly. But be all that as it may, it's the channel cat's availability that's the most important reason for this fish's royal status. Channel cats can be found in impounded waters ranging in size from a quarter-acre to more than 40,000 acres and in flowing waters ranging from tiny creeks to the mighty Mississippi.

The fact that no one in Missouri lives more than a few miles from channel-cat water is, of course, a good thing. But true though it may be, telling you that channel cats are "everywhere" doesn't help very much when you're trying to decide exactly where to spend your precious fishing time. Well, we don't treat our readers that way here at Missouri Game & Fish. The waters I'm about to describe aren't 2007's only good bets for channel cats -- there are many others -- but they are streams and impoundments in which conditions are ripe for yielding exceptional channel cat fishing this year.

However, a bit of a disclaimer is in order before I begin. Channel cats came by their name honestly -- the species loves flowing water; therefore, this article will highlight several streams. But the reader is cautioned that the comments and predictions given are based on "normal" stream levels -- something much of the state hasn't seen for the past two years. As I was writing this, I heard a report on the radio that stated the drought had been broken by the snow and ice that blanketed the state this winter. Hopefully the reporter (who hedged his bet by noting that the snowmelt had done little to fill reservoirs or to replenish the aquifer) wasn't being overly optimistic.

NORTHWEST MISSOURI

For purposes of this discussion, northwest Missouri is bounded by the Iowa state line, U.S. Highway 63, the Missouri River, and the Kansas and Nebraska state lines. With no disrespect meant to the state's other three quarters, the northwestern quadrant may well be the Comstock Lode of channel-cat fishing in Missouri. What's more, that statement holds true for streams, rivers, and for both large and small impoundments.

The Grand River

It's impossible to write about catfishing in northwest Missouri without mentioning the Grand River. Although flatheads can be found the length of the river and big blue cats are caught in its lower reaches, the channel cat is the unquestioned King from where the Grand enters the state in Worth County to its junction with the Missouri River near Brunswick in Chariton County.

There are far too many public access points scattered the length of the Grand River to mention here. There are so many, in fact, that the MDC has a brochure that covers recreational opportunity along the river.

During the summer months, the upper Grand River is an ideal wading stream. Most anglers use convent

ional tackle to present baits to cats lurking near woody cover. Conversely, a few die-hard flyfishermen are busy catching channel cats on wet flies and streamers worked through the same types of water that would hold trout.

Farther downstream -- or during periods of high water anywhere on the river -- a small boat is, if not a necessity, at least a definite asset. Woody cover in pools and runs is the most popular structure but don't overlook riffles and any place the river is beginning to spill over its banks.

For more information, contact the MDC at (660) 646-6122.

The Nodaway River

This river, which forms the eastern boundary of Holt County before emptying into the Missouri River near the town Nodaway, produced good numbers of large channel cats for the MDC's electrofishing crews in 2006. Most of the Nodaway River is wadeable during normal summer water levels, and it's probably the best catfish stream in the state for fly fishermen. That's not to say that catfishermen who prefer crispy filets to creating artificial challenges can't do very well with conventional tackle and baits, because they most certainly can.

The eddies and sometimes-swift currents near the mouth of the Nodaway have much to offer those trying for a trophy channel cat. However, the MDC warns anglers to be on the lookout for leaping silver and bighead carp.

For more information, contact the MDC at (816) 271-3100.

Mozingo Lake

Mozingo, located near Maryville, is a great place to fish for a variety of species and channel cats are definitely no exception. In fact, Mozingo is one of only a handful of places in Missouri where channel cats weighing more than 10 pounds are a realistic possibility.

If Mozingo Lake's big channel cats aren't enough of an incentive to put this lake on your must-visit list, the exceptional facilities provided by the city of Maryville should be. These include campgrounds, cabins, a fish-cleaning station, picnic pavilions, boat ramps, and a handicap-accessible covered fishing dock.

For more information, contact the MDC at (816) 271-3100.

Long Branch Lake

It's a fairly close call to be sure, but Long Branch Lake, located on the Chariton River just north of Macon, gets the nod as northwestern Missouri's top large impoundment for channel cats in 2007. First and foremost, Long Branch Lake should produce exceptional numbers of channel cats in the 2- to 3-pound class this year -- just the size Missouri's harvest-oriented channel cat fans are seeking. Then too, a lot of Long Branch's best channel cat water is accessible from the bank. (Boaters should check out the flooded timber in either of the lake's major arms.)

Long Branch is another of Missouri's exceptionally user-friendly lakes. Visitors can find everything they need and almost everything they might want either at the lake or in Macon.

For more information, contact the MDC at (660) 785-2420.

NORTHEASTERN MISSOURI

This article defines northeastern Missouri as that part of the state bounded by the Iowa state line, the Mississippi River, the Missouri River, and US Highway 63. Much to my surprise, the MDC did not list a single interior northeastern Missouri stream among its best bets for channel cats in 2007. Be that as it may, it would be serious mistake to jump to the conclusion that there aren't some very good channel cat streams in this part of the state. In fact, I wouldn't be afraid to spend a day of my precious catfishing time on any of the streams emptying into the Mississippi River.

LaBelle Lake CA

This conservation area south of LaBelle in Lewis County is no secret among area anglers. The lake offers good to excellent bass, bluegill, redear, and crappie fishing. As a result, the lake's channel-cat fishing, which should be excellent in 2007, doesn't get the attention it deserves. MDC sampling indicates good numbers of channel cats up to 18 inches long.

A boat is a definite asset at this many-armed lake. Even so, a bank angler who's willing to invest some boot leather can gain access to points and coves that are as productive as any located in more remote areas.

For more information, contact the MDC at (573) 248-2530.

Mark Twain Lake

Mark Twain has been a consistent channel cat producer since the lake first filled, and catfishermen have every reason to believe that 2007 will be an above average year. Mark Twain's channel cats can be caught from the bank or from a boat anywhere there's flooded timber. Even so, the best action is usually found well up the North Fork, South Fork, and Middle Fork arms.

For more information, contact the MDC at (573) 248-2530.

SOUTHEASTERN MISSOURI

Southeastern Missouri is that part of the state bounded by the Missouri River, the Mississippi River, the Arkansas state line, and US Highway 63. There's a lot of good channel cat water in this part of Missouri. The following stream, small impoundment, and large impoundment deserve to be mentioned here, make no mistake about that, but a double handful of other waters are virtually as worthy of serious consideration.

The Black River

The Black River below Clearwater Lake supports an excellent channel cat population. In 2006, survey crews captured many cats in the 5-pound class. Even so, the river's black bass draw far more angler attention, and that's just fine with the local catfishermen. Pretending you've tied up your boat just to take a casting break is well within the rules of fair play on the Black River.

For more information, contact the MDC at (573) 290-5730.

Perry County Lake

Perry County Lake, located west of Perryville, is another MDC impoundment with the potential to produce 10-pound channel cats. Fallen timber is the most popular catfish structure on this lake.

For more information, contact the MDC at (573) 290-5730.

Wappapello Lake

Wappapello has a justifiable reputation for producing dandy stringers of black bass and crappie, but the lake also supports an excellent population of largely overlooked channel cats ranging in size from fryers to trophies. Surprisingly, the most reliable catfish action is found near or along the dam.

For more information, contact the MDC at (573) 290-5730.

SOUTHWESTERN MISSOURI

The remainder of the state, an area bounded by the Missouri River, US Highway 63, the Arkansas state line, and the Kansas state line, is, by default, southwestern Missouri. Believe me, I wish it was as easy to define, let alone identify, this region's best channel cat fisheries.

Osage River

One thing's for certain: From the point at which the four flows that merge to form this river cross the Kansas line to Truman Lake, in which the stream drowns itself, the Osage is the

best channel catfish rivers in the state, and one of the most user-friendly. Moreover, the Osage River from Bagnell Dam to its confluence with the Missouri River near Jefferson City's no slouch of a channel cat producer either.

Truman Lake

Howls of protest from Lake of the Ozarks, Pomme de Terre, Stockton, and Table Rock advocates notwithstanding, Truman Lake is the Windsor Castle of Missouri's King of Cats. And that's not just the opinion of fisheries biologists either. Angler surveys indicate that Truman is the favorite destination in the entire state for anglers seeking channel cats. Channel cats are everywhere on Truman, but flats with standing timber in the upper third of major arms are a good place to start.

For more information, contact the MDC at (660) 438-7317.

Shawnee Trail CA

Shawnee Trail CA, on Rt. M south of Highway 160 near Mindenmines in Baron County, not only should produce excellent fishing for channel cats in 2007, but it will also do so in a unique setting. This CA's catfish holes are small ponds and strip mine pits. Pin Oak Lake, pits 1 and 27, and ponds 32 and 34 are the best bets for channel cats, but they're far from the only possibilities. Pin Oak Lake and a few of the other pits and ponds have boat ramps, but boats are not a prerequisite to success here. To the contrary, the MDC is working hard to improve bank fishing opportunities throughout the area.

For more information, contact the MDC at (417) 451-4158.

URBAN FISHING

I'd be remiss if I didn't close this article with a mention of the MDC's Urban Fishing Program. Numerous city and county park lakes in Kansas City, St. Louis, and several other towns are stocked with channel cats monthly from April through October. This program has put the king of catfish within walking, bicycling, or bus token distance of more than half of Missouri's population. You can't beat a deal like that!

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