Off The Main Channel For Missouri Cats

Leave the main channel behind this summer and hit the feeder creeks, sloughs and dikes of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers for a chance at some serious catfishing action. (August 2008)

Anglers don't have to target deep water to find catfish in the hot summer months. Wing dams, feeder streams, sloughs and chutes can offer equal -- if not better -- action on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
Photo by Keith Sutton.

There's no better place to go catfishin' in the dog days of summer than the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Some of the biggest cats in the Show-Me State are taken in these waters.

Most anglers target the deeper water during the hot summer months because they're convinced that's where the cats will be. They're right. But those aren't the only spots at which you can tangle with big blues, flatheads and channels. Wing dams, slack water, feeder streams, sloughs and chutes can all be productive. You just have to know when -- and where -- to look.

"You can certainly catch catfish deep in the main channel, but I've found that I catch a lot more of them -- and bigger ones -- in the shallows," said guide and tournament organizer Brad Kilpatrick of Team Catfish. "In the hot weather, their metabolism is running high and they're feeding heavily. Though most guys are fishing deep, even the big blues can be taken in water as shallow as 2 feet."

The fishing can be good wherever you find the right conditions. For Kilpatrick, that even includes the city lights of downtown Kansas City.

Here's a look at a few spots on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers that hold a surprising number of cats.

WING DAMS
Wing dams can be surprising honeyholes. Constructed of rocks and designed to keep the main channel free of debris and sand, they do their job by collecting sand into shallow flats on the downstream side of the dams. The result: a feeding shelf for big cats.

"In the Missouri River, the areas of quieter water are at the wing dams, and we fish them hard," said Kilpatrick. "We look for a good, stable, hot-weather pattern with 90- to 100-degree days. The cats will move in shallow during the evening and stay there most of the night. At times you can even catch big blues in just a few feet of water in these spots during the daylight hours."

Kilpatrick targets the sandbars downstream of the wing dams in the evening about 10 feet deep on the channel side; as the evening progresses, he fishes shallower until he's right on top of the sand. He believes that most anglers concentrate on the deepest water and overlooking cats that are up close to the surface chasing shad and other prey fish. Kilpatrick has caught blues up to 60 pounds in a couple feet of water.

The baits of choice are big chunks of cut shad, slices of carp up to 12 inches in length or large skipjack. The skipjack is Kilpatrick's personal favorite, but it's hard to come by.

The best way to present a bait here is with a 6- to 8-ounce weight on a sinker slide. The rig looks a lot like a Carolina rig. A good swivel with a 12- to 18-inch leader and an 8/0 circle hook round out the offering. Set the pole on a tight line, reel up the slack and get ready. A big fish will hook itself on the circle hook, and if line can be taken, the rod will go overboard.

"Most people underestimate the gear you'll need for these fish," said Kilpatrick. "If you're using the catfish gear you'd normally use in a small lake for eating-sized cats, you'll never land a fish, and you'll go home heartbroken. Fish from 20 to 30 pounds are common, and there are 40-, 50- and 60-pounders to be taken. One fish I know of topped 93 pounds. During a tournament last year, the largest cat was a 75-pounder with a 5-fish limit that totaled 178 pounds."

Kilpatrick packs a Catfish Safari River rod and an Abu Garcia 7000 reel spooled with 40-pound line for fishing with this method.

Virgil Agee, who owns the U.S.-C.A.T.S. tournament, has been a dedicated catfisherman for years. He's one of the few anglers -- if not the only one -- to catch four 100-pound blue catfish. Wing dams are among his favorite spots on the big rivers.

"Everybody wants the biggest and the most catfish they can find," said Agee. "Fishing near the wing dikes can provide that opportunity."

Agee's honeyholes lie wherever he can find a slow current connecting to a faster one. Though the concept applies to any river location, Agee is looking for slow water being diverted around and over the dikes to meet the main current. The slower water is pushed back by the main channel flow and circles around towards the bank. If the current actually is being forced back upstream and a swirl effect has been produced, this is the spot for dunking a bait.

"Play that tough water and you can catch all the 7- or 8-pounders you want," said Agee.

The sling bank is another alternative spot in the river that often goes overlooked, even by serious catfishermen. Though sling banks lie in the main stem, they serve to concentrate big cats.

Sling banks can be found by moving upstream to a channel marker where the shipping channel crosses over to the other side of the river. Where this happens, the wing dikes switch sides as well. As you pass over the channel crossover, move straight upstream onto the shallow water instead of following the channel. The next two or maybe three wing dams will be the most productive.

SLACK-WATER AREAS
Quiet waters off the main channel are often the feeding troughs of big cats. Where the current is slow, lumbering cats have the chance to move in to forage on crayfish, minnows, shad and even good-sized carp.

"If you're out at night and you're quiet, you can hear the fish swirling in these areas," said Kilpatrick. "Big carp and cats will be feeding in some of these areas, and when you hear a lot of activity, that's where you'll want to be."

According to Agee, slack water needs to be connected to moving water to avoid becoming oxygen-depleted in the dog days of summer. Methane bubbles can sometimes be seen breaking the surface -- not a good sign. Also, a weight can pull a bait deep into the silt, which you don't want. If you think that cats are in heavily silted waters, use a bobber. A hungry cat won't hesitate to hit the bait even if it's not on the bottom.

Coves are more slack-water spots that can hold plenty of cats. Look for tangled wood or rocky cover just out o

f the faster-moving water.

Agee is convinced that catfish anglers can be fairly inept and still catch lots of catfish, but anglers who prefer to use electronics should invest in a good Humminbird depthfinder. A Minn Kota trolling motor is a big help in keeping the boat where he wants it, and he highly recommends one for any angler targeting cats on the Missouri or Mississippi.

FEEDER RIVERS AND STREAMS
Smaller rivers and streams that feed into the bigger river systems often offer an overlooked summer bonanza. Catfish can find a lot of forage in these smaller waters, and regularly forgo the current and depths of the bigger rivers to do so.

"I hear of a lot of people catching flatheads and channel cats upstream from the confluence of the Nodaway and the Missouri rivers," said Sheila Henderson, owner of Rea's One Horse Grocery, Bait and Tackle in Rea.

Live bait seems to be the way to go for the cats in feeder rivers like the Nodaway, said Henderson. Minnows and worms produce well for channel cats, along with the stink baits and homemade concoctions.

In the Nodaway, blues are free to roam and are taken miles upstream in the Nodaway system. Ramps near the confluence of the Missouri and Nodaway rivers include the Nodaway Landing and a carry-down point called the Tom Brown access.

Agee applies his slow-water-meeting-fast-water principle to creek and stream mouths as they flow into the Missouri and Mississippi. If a meandering stream moves into the river and swirls, cats will be there. When the rivers are high and water floods the feeder streams, flatheads and channels will move up into the streams to take advantage of the havoc and look for a meal. Keeping to the deeper parts of the inflowing water can produce catfish.

Though you don't want to be out on someone's cornfield, following the flooding upstream a ways can pan out nicely. Flatheads will venture onto woody or rock cover in the smaller rivers under these conditions.

Flatheads dominate the tangled logjams and rockpiles found in the smaller rivers where they meet the Missouri and Mississippi. Live bait tossed into the tangle will tempt these brutes. The thickest submerged tangle in the river will be the most likely place in which to score.

The key to catching the biggest boys on the block is to become a part of the environment. "I don't make a sound," said Agee. "Being quiet is like calling to the big cats. If you make an unnatural sound while you're in a boat or on the bank, the larger fish will just move on back to their lairs. The big cats didn't get big by being stupid."

Most anglers vastly underestimate the senses through which catfish interpret their underwater world, find food and detect danger. A wise angler will use the cats' ability to taste, smell, hear, see and touch, as well as their extraordinary sense of electroreception, to his advantage.

A catfish only a few inches in length is already covered with a quarter-million external taste buds. The mouth, gill-rakers, belly, back, whiskers and fins are all covered with "taste buds" through which cats can extract taste from the water around them. Catfish also have an incredible sense of smell, and baits can draw them from a distance as they "follow their nose" to the source. Cut fish and other smelly organic matter can be detected by their waterborne odors.

Sound waves traveling through water vibrate right through the catfish's body, causing its swim bladder to vibrate in response. The bladder contains gas that has a different density than the rest of the catfish's body. When sound waves hit the bladder it vibrates and the catfish is able to "hear." The sound waves are then amplified as they are conveyed to the otoliths, a series of small bones in the cat's inner ear. When the otoliths vibrate, they bend little hair-like projections that transfer the message to the fish's brain. Bass hear sounds from about 20 to 1,000 cycles per second, and catfish can detect frequencies approaching 13,000 cycles per second. Banging in the boat or unnatural splashing can be a dead giveaway of danger.

Catfish have excellent sight, especially in clear water. When they're chasing live food, sight may be the most important sense that cats will bring into play.

The least understood sense is the above-mentioned electroreception, which has even the scientists scratching their heads. Cats use electroreception to help locate live food, but no one knows to what degree. The research seems to point to the cat's capabilities of sensing prey based on the weak electrical field that all animals generate. Catfish may be able to find marine worms and other small creatures buried in less than an inch of mud or located no more than a few inches away. It's been theorized that catfish use clusters of cells located along the lateral lines to sense this electrical field -- one case in which fact is indeed stranger than fiction.

Catfish in moving water rely heavily on their sense of smell. Moving water carries odors long distances and anglers will find catfish moving upstream to locate the source. Catfish do have nostrils of sorts, and as water flows through them a wide range of scents are detected and interpreted.

SLOUGHS AND CHUTES
Water levels in sloughs are tied directly to the river and can vary widely, and if there's any place on the river that can be good fishing one minute and then a total loss the next, it's a slough. Long sloughs and chutes can be productive if there's a current, but if the water is warmer than the main stem, stagnant or without a current, don't waste your time.

Sloughs are natural cuts made by flooding rivers. As the water recedes the shallows are left with debris and may fill up completely with silt. The silt-filled sloughs and chutes won't hold many cats. The bigger ones with a current are channel cat magnets, with an occasional big flathead or blue thrown in as a bonus.

Stink baits are probably the best way to locate channel cats back in these areas. Wads of earthworms and night crawlers, cut fish and skipjack are also good bets, as they are easy for the fish to track. Live bait provides stimuli to several of the senses. Fluids emitted from the body allow cats to home in on the bait.

Snags and holes can be fished to pick up hordes of channel cats. The Columbia Bottom Conservation Area in St. Louis County is an example of good catfishing opportunities that can be reached by boat. This particular slough is right at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and can harbor anything wanting to move out of the main rivers for a breather. Channels, blues and flatheads can all be available at times. Every day is different, and it's up to the catfisherman to hit it right.

A paved road crosses the slough in the Columbia Bottom property, but getting in away from the main rivers would be a challenge on foot.

Columbia Bottom CA is just north of Interstate 270 and east of state Route 367 off Columbia Bottom Road. An MD

C boat ramp and bank fishing opportunities are available. The ramp is on the south shore of the Missouri River in the conservation area and west of the slough entrance.

The nearby Howell CA provides good access to the Centaur Chute on the Missouri River. Fishing waters moving through the Centaur Chute and others like it throughout the state is a lot like fishing the main river channel but in a more protected area.

Howell Island itself is accessible by a causeway that provides access to the chute.

The area is in St. Charles County on Olive Street/Eatherton Road about three miles west of U.S. Route 40/61. During high water, the area is only accessible by boat. The MDC advises that the access is closed when the Missouri River is above 16 feet on the St. Charles-area river gauge. For river stage information, visit online riverwatch.noaa.gov .

Fishing the Missouri and Mississippi's backwaters is a great experience -- as long as you make it home safely. Don't underestimate the dangers of shallow sandbars, barges and strong currents.

For information on U.S.-C.A.T.S., contact Virgil Agee at (573) 690-3893 or Brad Kilpatrick at (913) 515-6717, or visit the Web site, kccatfish.com . Kilpatrick is organizing the annual Cattin' for a Cause charity tournament, which will take place in Kansas City in September. Rea's One Horse Grocery, Bait and Tackle can be reached at (816) 526-1200.

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