Getting The Memphis Blues

Getting The Memphis Blues

A tournament last year proved it once and for all: The Mississippi River serves up the nation's best fishing for 100-plus-pound blue catfish.

The Mississippi River doesn't just produce a few world-class fish; anglers can catch nice numbers of fish that would be trophies anywhere else. Here catfish guide James Patterson shows off an average blue cat from the Mississippi near Memphis.

At the Bass Pro Shop's Big Cat Quest Championship, Nov. 3-4, 2007, on the Mississippi River at Memphis, something happened that had even the most hardcore catfish anglers gasping in surprise. Veteran cat men Phil King of Corinth, Mississippi, and Cary Winchester of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, plucked a pair of catfish from "The Father of Waters" the likes of which have never been seen in a catfishing tournament -- and few other places either.

Even the most astute odds makers might have hedged their bets when predicting the outcome of this tournament. The stretch of the Mississippi running along the east edge of Memphis is well known for producing giant blue cats.

The premier example is the former all-tackle, world-record blue cat caught here on Aug. 3, 2001. Around 6:30 p.m. that day, Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion, Arkansas, was catfishing with two friends in the shadow of the Memphis skyline. Ashley was fishing with a medium-weight spinning combo he recently had bought. He baited with a chunk of Hormel Spam (yes, 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 a world record.

Ashley's fish wasn't the last of the giants either. A catfish larger than the current world record -- a 127-pound blue -- was caught in a net not far downstream from Memphis in May 2002. And on April 18, 2004, Matt Bingham of Memphis caught and released a blue just upstream from Memphis that was 56 inches long with a 36-inch girth. That fish, which undoubtedly exceeded 100 pounds, may still be swimming the river and growing larger with each day.

Several other blues near or exceeding the 100-pound mark have been snatched from the big river in recent decades as well, and the Mississippi gives up its share of huge flatheads and channel cats, too.

Yet even with the best catfish anglers in the world competing on what some have described as "the best trophy catfish river in the nation," no one in their wildest dreams anticipated the historic events that would transpire at the Big Cat Quest Championship.

One For The Money . . .
At midmorning on Day 1 of the tournament, Phil King set the hook in a fish he immediately knew was a cut above average. His teammates, Tim Haynie and Leland Harris, pulled their anchor so they could follow the big catfish and give King a better chance of landing it. The strategy worked. After a 30-minute battle, King brought the gigantic blue cat close enough for Haynie to net.

"When we had it in the boat, I was pretty certain my dream had come true," King said. "After years of trying, I finally had caught a catfish weighing more than 100 pounds."

Three pounds more to be exact, a record weight for a catfish weighed in during a U.S. tournament. Although other teams brought in some very respectable cats as well, King's 103.11-pound blue was enough to put his team in the No. 1 spot at the end of the first day of competition. Their five-fish limit pushed the scale to 163.5 pounds, nearly 46 pounds ahead of second place.

Harold Dodd (left) and Cary Winchester display the 108-pound blue cat that Winchester caught to establish a new U.S. record for the largest catfish ever weighed in at a tournament.
Photo courtesy of kenfreemanoutdoorpromotions.com.

"We've just seen history being made," said Ken Freeman, founder and owner of Bass Pro Shops' Big Cat Quest. "Never before has a century-mark catfish been weighed in a catfishing tournament. I always hoped I would see it, but I never thought I actually would."

. . . Two For The Show
When Day 2 began, King and his teammates knew they needed to catch more good fish to maintain their lead.

"When you're competing on the Mississippi River with anglers who are the best in the sport, anything is possible," King said. "We knew we had to fish hard and bring in some more respectable cats to maintain our lead."

Harold Dodd and Cary Winchester of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, also were fishing hard when dawn broke on Nov. 4. For 20 minutes, they had been fishing a hole where Dodd caught an almost-50-pound blue cat a week earlier. Then, suddenly, Winchester's rod went down hard. Winchester, who has caught Mississippi River cats up to 95 pounds, knew the fish was huge when he couldn't budge it from the bottom.

"It took half an hour for me just to turn its head and get it coming toward the boat," he said. "And another 15 minutes passed before I got the fish close enough for Harold to net."

Dodd and Winchester are among the country's premier big-river catfish anglers, and they had no doubt they had caught a fish equal to or larger than King's 103-pounder.

"It was hard for me to believe it had really happened," Dodd said. "But when we finally had that big scoundrel in the boat, I knew there were going to be at least two catfish over 100 pounds weighed in at this tournament. I was excited to no end."

After the first day's weigh-in, Ken Freeman had told a reporter, "I wouldn't be surprised if King's record stood for 20 years or more." He was only off by 20 years minus a day.

"There was no way I thought anyone would beat the big fish from Day 1," he said. "But then, during the second day's weigh-in, a rumor started circulating that another team inline had a fish over 100 pounds. I was so skeptical of the possibility, I thought, Yeah, and what great angler is making that estimate? But when I heard it was Dodd and Winchester, I knew they were fully capable of accurately judging the size of any catfish they caught. Six boats later, they came up, and when I saw that big catfish, I knew immediately it would make the mark. Assistant tournament director Denny Halgren gasped, 'It's even bigger than yesterday's fish.' "

It took both Winchester and Dodd to carry the blue catfish to the stage. When they finally got the fish wedged i

n a plastic bucket and on the scale, a cheer went up from the crowd that had gathered to see the weigh-in at Mud Island River Park. Winchester's monster weighed an even 108 pounds, another new tournament record.

The author (left) and Bill Dance show off a nice Mississippi River blue the author caught with Dance's expert assistance.
Photo by James Patterson.

"I'm still in state of total shock," Winchester said as he watched the enormous catfish swimming in the mobile aquarium where it was transferred after the weigh-in. "This is an incredible fish, one I'll never forget catching as long as I live. And for it to happen here at the world championship with all these great catfish anglers participating, that's just icing on the cake."

If Phil King was upset that his record only lasted 24 hours, he didn't show it. But that could be because he had another dream come true on that final tournament day: He and teammates Tim Haynie and Leland Harris brought in five more cats with a total weight of 127.5 pounds. They won the world championship with a cumulative total of 291 pounds, and left with almost $30,000 in cash and prizes.

"For years now, I've had two main goals as an angler: to win a world championship and to catch a catfish over 100 pounds," King said. "This weekend, I accomplished both those things. To say I'm on Cloud 9 would certainly be an understatement."

Targeting Mississippi River Blues
If you've been paying attention, you've noticed we are now entering a time of year when heavyweight Mississippi River blue cats seem particularly susceptible to anglers' enticements. Charles Ashley's 116-pound world record was caught in August, and King and Winchester boated their 100-pound-plus blues the first week of November. I say this not to give the impression that big blues can't be caught during other times of the year. They certainly are. But savvy anglers will find the late summer/early fall period serves up some of the year's best catfishing on the Mississippi River at Memphis. And no doubt, many of you will be clamoring to fish the mighty river while the fishing is good. Here are some tips from three experts to help you in that regard.

King Cats
Although Phil King didn't want to reveal the specific tactics he and his partners used to catch their monster Mississippi River blue, he told me later the methods he employed during this tournament are basically the same as he uses on the Tennessee River where he guides. One of these methods he shared with me during a day of fishing several years ago. It's basically a way of bottom-bouncing baits as you drift. To me, it's a form of "finesse fishing." The angler must develop a keen "feel" for his bait rig to keep in the fish zone without becoming hung up.

King rigs with a modified three-way-swivel rig. The main line (65- to 100-pound-test braid) is tied to one eye of the swivel. To another eye, he ties a 36-inch, 60-pound-test mono leader with two 5/0 Daiichi Circle-Wide Bleeding Bait hooks snelled one above the other at the end. A barrel swivel is tied into this leader, 24 inches above the hooks. The remaining 20-pound-test mono leader, about 8 inches long, is tied between the last eye of the three-way swivel and a bell sinker. In the Mississippi's heavy current, this sinker would probably have to weigh 4 to 6 ounces or more.

King's bait is standard for most trophy cat anglers who fish the Mississippi -- a big, fresh skipjack herring. He prepares this bait in a form he refers to as a "catfish sandwich." This is simply the innards of the skipjack sandwiched between two side fillets from the same baitfish. The size of the bait -- a pound or more --is very attractive to giant blues that want a big meal.

King presents the rig in deep river holes, some dropping below 70 feet, using either a 7- or 7.5-foot, heavy-action Cabela's Phil King Signature Series King Kat casting rod. He starts at the head of a hole and drifts through after the bait rig has been lowered to the bottom. Most cats hold beside river-bottom timber and rocks, which "telegraph" signals through the braided line to the angler above. The angler must be attentive at all times, raising or lowering the rig with the rod tip so he maintains feel with the rig below and keeps it bouncing across the pieces of cover and structure without hanging.

While drifting, King watches a fish finder, looking for signals indicating cats holding near structures below. If he spies good fish that fail to take the bait on the first drift, he may drift through the hole again, targeting those spots once more that appeared to hold catfish.

Fishing With Patterson And Dance
Another good teacher when it comes to monster blue cat tactics on the Mississippi is James Patterson of Mississippi River Guide Service (901-383-8674, www.bigcatfishing. com). One of country's foremost catfish guides, Patterson knows the Memphis stretch as well as any man alive. Many of his clients catch the fish of a lifetime on an outing with him.

I recently fished the Mississippi with Patterson and his regular catfishing companion Bill Dance, who also is a big-river blue cat expert. This duo is on the river near Memphis year 'round, and they've put dozens of monster blues in the boat that would make any angler envious.

On past trips with Patterson, we drift-fished for big blues or dropped baits in eddies at the ends of the river's big rock wing dikes -- excellent tactics that produced some really nice blues. On this day, however, we anchored the boat and cast baits into deep holes adjacent to smaller dikes beneath the water's surface. These structures were more subtle and hard to find than the huge, clearly visible rock dikes we usually fish.

"No bait works better on big Mississippi River blue cats than skipjack herring," Patterson said as he sliced a 2-pounder into big chunks of cut bait. "And few places you can fish are better than holes between these shorter, older wing dikes. A good depthfinder is needed to locate them, but once you do, you can expect to enjoy some good action for really nice blues."

"Blue cats cruise these holes and eat anything that comes past in the current," Dance added. "We've had great success fishing spots like this. Any angler can do the same."

The tackle we used exemplifies the standard gear necessary for landing these hard-fighting brutes in the Mississippi's heavy current: 7-foot-plus, medium- to heavy-action rods with soft tips for detecting bites and heavy butts for strength; big, large-capacity baitcasting reels; heavy line, big sinkers and big hooks. Patterson and Dance regularly checked the tackle to be sure everything was functional in case a giant took the bait.

And while we didn't catch any of the Mississippi's truly big blues this day, the action was almost nonstop. I caught a pair of blues slightly less than 20 pounds each, and my expert guides did likewise. We also caught many smaller catfish.

"There's no doubt 100-pound blues are swimming out here," Dance said rather matter of factly. "And fishing this way with big-fish baits and tough tackle is a way to catch them. No matter what you do, however, you have to be in the right place at the right time for it to work. The monsters are out there, but blues over 100 pounds are the rarest of rare fish."

"If you want to catch one, though," Patterson added, "there's no better place in the world to try than here in the Mississippi River."

Some Final Notes
If you've never fished on this stretch of the Mississippi, consider booking a trip with a guide like James Patterson who can teach you the ropes. This is a gargantuan body of water that's tough to fish and sometimes dangerous as well. Strong current and undertows can get you in a pickle if you aren't careful, and barge traffic is incessant. Ideally, you should get some lessons from an expert before tackling it. And if you should decide to go it alone, use a big boat, be safety conscious at all times, and always wear a life jacket.

Good boat ramps exist at several areas on the river, including one at Mud Island River Park and another near the Pyramid in Memphis. For information on area accommodations, food and services, contact the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce, (901) 543-3500 or online at www.memphischamber.com.

For many years, I've been saying there's no better place in the world to fish for monster blue cats than the lower Mississippi River, and the Big Cat Quest proved that once and for all. If you want to catch the catfish of a lifetime, this is the No. 1 place you should visit. Somewhere in the depths of the Father of Waters, a new world-record blue cat is swimming and perhaps you'll be the lucky angler who catches it.

(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton's latest book, Pro Tactics Catfish, just released this spring, is now available by visiting his Web site at www.catfishsutton.com.)

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