Don’t put away your bow and fishing gear yet. The best deer & catfish action is yet to come.
It’s winter, time to stow rod and gun and settle in for a few months of honey-dos, right?
Wrong! Some of Missouri‘s best hunting and fishing are just ahead. The places to find them might surprise you.
The most extensive and under-hunted deer habitat in the state is on thousands of acres of public land that many Missouri hunters have never heard of, let alone hunted. And along the margins of this whitetail Shangri-La are places where you can tie into blue and flathead catfish that would feed a family for weeks.
I’m talking about Big Muddy Fish and Wildlife Refuge, 16,000 acres of prime hunting grounds and fishing waters stretching like a string of pearls across Missouri’s midsection. Congress authorized the creation of Big Muddy NFWR after catastrophic flooding ruined vast tracts of farmland in the 1990s.
Its current acreage spreads over 11 units from Jackson County to St. Louis County.
THE RIVER TINE
The north and south portions of Big Muddy’s Overton Bottoms Unit are divided by I-70 just west of Columbia. The north and south units cover nearly 6,000 acres of grassland, forest, wetland, river frontage and scour ponds created by flooding.
The south unit is accessible from Cumberland Church Road off Highway 179 just south of I-70. The north unit can be reached by turning north on Highway 179 and then taking Highway 98 east through the town of Overton.
An extensive network of interior gravel roads makes this segment the most accessible of the sprawling refuge.
The Jameson Island and Lisbon Bottom units of Big Muddy cover nearly 4,000 acres and occupy oxbows on opposite sides of the river in Saline and Howard counties. Road access to the Jameson tract is through the town of Arrow Rock.
These two areas consist mostly of dense willow, cottonwood and box elder forest. You need a boat to access the Lisbon Bottom Unit, but it doesn’t have to be a big boat. In fact, a square-stern canoe with a small outboard is made to order.
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Much of Big Muddy NFWR is wild and woolly country, covered with thickets of saplings and pole-sized timber. When it rains or when the river is running high, this land gets really wet. You might need hip waders or a canoe to reach your stand, but such conditions also concentrate deer on higher ground, making them easier to hunt.
Firearms hunters might find it frustrating to hunt in cover where shots beyond 25 yards are rare, but such situations are made to order for bowhunters, who have the woodcraft and discipline to work under those constraints.
Venturing into trackless Big Muddy units without a compass is just asking to get lost. Even in winter, the remains of vegetation are so thick in some areas you are lucky to be able to see 10 feet in any direction.
Hand-held GPS units are great, but don’t rely solely on that technology; it can fail when you need it most. At those times, you need an old-fashioned compass and a hard copy of a map. More details, including maps, are available at fws.gov/refuge/big_muddy/.
The Missouri Department of Conservation also has extensive land holdings along the Missouri River. Several of these were purchased after the Great Flood of 1993, which left tens of thousands of acres of formerly productive farmland pockmarked with scour holes or blanketed with sand several feet deep.
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As with Big Muddy, conservation areas along the Missouri River tend to be difficult to access and little-hunted.
Examples include Lower Hamburg Bend, Nishnabotna, Deroin Bend, and Worthwine Island conservation areas in Atchison and Nodaway counties in extreme northwest Missouri.
The stretch of Missouri River from Kansas City to St. Louis has several conservation areas with river frontage, including Cooley Lake in Clay County, Plowboy Bend in Cooper County, Smoky Waters and Marion Bottoms in Cole County and Pelican Island and Columbia Bottom in St. Louis County.
Every imaginable type of habitat exists on these diverse areas, including islands where deer practically never see a hunter. That works to your advantage. For details, see the conservation area database at mdc.mo.gov.
The Missouri River from the Iowa border to St. Joseph has had outstanding catfishing in recent years, thanks to major floods in 2010 and 2011. Extended periods of high water gave whiskerfish access to limitless food supplies, and they turned that opportunity into fast growth. Today, those fish are in the 30- to 70-pound range.
Additionally, fishing was effectively shut down during the flood years, and so there was practically no harvest in this stretch of the river. As a result, a larger-than-usual slug of fish survived, growing all the while.
Further good news from the flood years is huge numbers of small catfish, spawned in ideal conditions.
While blue catfish numbers are off the chart in the Upper Missouri, the benefits of flooding extend much farther, down through the Kansas City area, where flatheads more than 20 pounds are common, and 50-pounders are not rare. The current state-record flathead, a 100-pound leviathan, was taken on a trotline in that stretch of river in 2015.
The catfishing outlook is just as good in the Middle Missouri River. Channel cats are thriving there, where 20- to 24-inchers are abundant. It isn’t all about channel cats in central Missouri, though. Anglers catch lots of blues ranging from 20 to 28 inches, and 20- to 50-pounders often turn up.
The water near Mokane — the same area where a 99-pound flathead was boated in 2010 — produced a 95-pound blue the next year, and an angler boated a 71-pound flathead on a trotline near Rocheport.
St. Louis area anglers aren’t left out, either. Greg Bernal’s 2010 catch of a 130-pound blue cat just upstream from the confluence with the Mississippi River broke state and world records and cemented the Big Muddy’s place among world-class catfish waters.
Fall electrofishing in the Lower Missouri River a few years ago showed an abundance of 20- to 30-inch blue cats. Several flatheads to 40 pounds showed up in the fall survey, and anglers reported catching flatheads over 50 pounds.
Thanks to changes made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it’s easier to find these fish throughout Missouri’s stretch of The Big Muddy. During the winter, whiskerfish hang out in deep holes below notches the Corps cut in wing dikes specifically to improve fish habitat.
Blue cats are creatures of the current, and even in winter can be found in scour holes in and just off the main channel. The key to success is finding eddy water near the bottom, where big blues can lie with minimal effort, waiting for morsels to drift past.
Shad or other cut bait is your best choice when tightlining for blues. You want a large-capacity baitcasting reel with at least 200 yards of 50- to 80-pound-test line and an 8-foot, medium-heavy casting rod.
Slide a 6-ounce egg or other slip-sinker up the main line, and then tie on a heavy-duty barrel swivel. That will keep the sinker above the bait and prevent line twist that can result from bait drifting in heavy current.
Next, tie on a wire leader or heavy fluorocarbon shock leader that can withstand the abuse big cats’ jaws can dish out. A 7/0 circle hook finishes the preferred rig for big blues. Using cubes of freshly cut skipjack herring helps minimize line twist.
Flatheads are ambush predators, hiding out in tangles of flotsam to watch for prey. Look for them in deeply submerged rootwads behind notched wing dikes.
These cats like their food still kicking, so offer them lively sunfish, skipjacks or shad hooked just below the dorsal fin. For channel cats, dip bait or chicken livers are good choices.
Dozens of excellent ramps maintained by the FWS and MDC provide ample river access. These are easy to find, using MDC’s conservation area database at mdc.mo.gov.
Use the detailed search option to narrow your search to one or two counties. The results will give you directions to ramps and provide maps and other details.
CAT MAN TIPS
If necessity is the mother of invention, proximity might be the father of fishing skill. Two of Missouri’s most accomplished catfish anglers have the advantage of living near world-class catfish water.
Living in Wardsville gave Virgil Agee ample opportunity to perfect his blue-cat fishing technique. The Missouri River flows just a few miles to the north, and the lower Osage River lies a short cast to the east, each a great blue catfish stream.
Agee landed several 100-pound-plus blue cats, but his Moby Dick eluded him. The fish, which he estimated weighed around 150 pounds, got away when his line broke at the moment of landing.
Yes, he was alone at the time, and we all know the conventional wisdom about fishermen and the ones that got away. But Agee already had plenty of confirmed catches on which to hang his reputation and credibility of his story.
Agee fishes for cats all year, but winter is his favorite time to chase monster blues. That puts him on the water in some of the year’s most brutal cold, but it doesn’t bother him in the least. He just builds a fire in the middle of his aluminum johnboat.
Crazy? Maybe, but probably like a fox. On the other side of the boat’s thin aluminum skin is several million gallons of frigid water, a cooling system not likely to be defeated by a little campfire. Agee says his boat hasn’t sprung a leak yet.
Ed Schneider guides catfishing trips under the nom de guerre Renegade Catfishing in his home area near Waverly, another river town. One of his secret weapons for blue cats is what he calls a “catfish sandwich.”
He starts the sandwich with the head of a skipjack herring and wraps a filet of flank meat around it, then secures the whole package with a stout circle hook.
Another of Schneider’s tricks is related to barge traffic on the Missouri River. Most anglers consider these behemoths a nuisance, convinced that their passage ruins fishing for minutes or hours after their passage.
Experience has taught Schneider that passing barges chase big blues out of their hiding places in the main channel, increasing the chances that one will find his bait. So, when a barge steams past, he smiles, waves, and starts baiting hooks.
Those honey-dos have waited this long, and they will keep until March. Tell your significant other you are working to fill the freezer. Now is the time to look for that trophy buck or monster blue!