Photo by Keith Sutton
Sometimes you’re lucky enough to accidentally hook a blue cat where it shouldn’t be hooked. Behind the dorsal fin, for instance, which is where my 27-year-old son Josh Sutton hooked his first Missouri River blue.
It happened last May, while we were fishing the Missouri River near Glasgow with veteran catfish guide Rick Gebhardt. Rick baited three rigs with small chunks of shad, cast them near a riprap bank, and then placed the three poles in holders at the rear of his party barge. My sons Josh and Matt, both eager to tangle with one of the Mighty Mo’s gargantuan catfish, had just gotten comfortable in their chairs after debating who would grab which pole. Suddenly, Pole Number One — Josh’s by decision — made a nosedive.
Josh snatched the rod hard, burying the hook and infuriating the fish in which the hook was buried. Josh is no slouch when it comes to battling big fish, but this one made even him groan. “Geeeez!” he exclaimed. “This thing feels huge!”
As we watched Josh struggle with his whiskered opponent, Rick and I agreed it could be a hefty cat, perhaps over 50 pounds. Josh had a hard time gaining line. He’d take a yard and the cat would take a couple.
On this day, however, the catfish didn’t stand a chance. Josh was dogged in his determination, and after a lengthy battle, he managed to bring the blue cat close enough for Rick to net it.
The catfish was beautiful by all standards — fat, healthy, well muscled, with hardly a blemish on its smooth gray skin. Instead of the 50-pound-plus fish we expected, though, Josh’s trophy weighed an even 32 pounds.
“Sometime during the fight the hook came loose and snagged him behind the dorsal fin,” Gephardt said. “No wonder he put up such a fight.”
Josh released his trophy back into the river. Matt was up next. Just a short time later, Matt buried the hook in a trophy of his own. This cat wasn’t foul-hooked like Josh’s, but it had all the fight my 20-year-old son could handle. The big blue cat led Matt from one side of the boat to the other as it tried to throw the hook. But Matt was not about to be outdone by his older brother. He leaned back hard on the rod and gave the fish the fight of its life. And soon enough, he had the fat cat close enough to net.
I don’t suppose I’ve ever seen a bigger smile on Matt’s face. The pressure was off. The cat was in the boat. And it was a near-twin to Josh’s — 31 pounds on Rick’s scale, and the biggest fish to date Matt has landed.
I didn’t fish that day, but it was, for me, a perfect outing. Josh and Matt both got the trophy they’d long dreamed of. And they landed between them around 100 more pounds of smaller cats during the course of our Mighty Mo adventure. Watching them enjoy the fantastic fishing opportunities available on this incredible river made me as happy as a father could be.
The experience just described exemplifies the superb catfishing opportunities available not just in the Missouri River but in many other Show Me State waters as well. Trophy blue cats, including world-record-class fish, are common in many waters. Flatheads from 30 to 50 pounds and more surface with astounding regularity. Fishing for channel cats continues to improve as the Missouri Department of Conservation maintains and improves populations with continual stockings.
Although catfish swim in practically all waters of the state except the coldest trout streams, the lakes and rivers listed below deserve your close attention. Some rate better than others because of their potential for producing lots of eating-sized cats, but in the mix are several waters that have the potential to produce a new state-record or, perhaps, world-record catfish. And you could be the lucky angler who catches it.
For reasons already described, the Missouri River tops my list of Show Me State catfish hotspots. Crossing the midsection of the state from Kansas City to just north of St. Louis, this huge tributary of the Mississippi provides ideal conditions for growing lots of big catfish. Whether it is spring, summer, fall or winter the river’s abundant blue, channel and flathead catfish can be caught during all seasons and along every stretch of water.
In 1992, Missouri and states adjoining the Missouri River agreed to ban commercial fishing in the river in hopes of increasing the numbers of catfish and their overall size. The plan worked better than anyone might have expected. Both the size and the abundance of catfish have increased significantly since the ban, and the rate at which anglers catch all species of catfish has more than doubled, in some cases tripled, since 1992.
Since the ban on commercial fishing was instituted, sportfishermen are releasing catfish at a rate almost double that seen before the ban. This, too, has enhanced the river’s ability to produce lots of healthy catfish, including many trophy-class fish. Missouri’s state-record blue cat, a 103-pounder, was caught here, as was the 77.5-pound state-record flathead. Bigger specimens always are a possibility, with an abundance of 20- to 50-pounders to keep you on your toes. The river is bristling with big channel cats as well.
The Mississippi River is another world-class catfish river that produces astounding numbers of giant blues, flatheads and channel cats. Fishing rates a blue-ribbon designation throughout the entire length of the river along Missouri’s eastern border.
According to MDC biologists, channel catfish can be found around snags, wing dikes and in side channels. Flathead catfish are common on the tips of wing dikes, along riprap banks with swift currents and near woody debris. Blue catfish also are found along the tips of dikes, in the large eddies above the dikes and along the river channel.
Excellent catfishing also attracts many visitors to the Grand River, which flows 218 miles through southwestern Iowa and northwestern Missouri. Reports like the 1854 account of a 136-pound blue catfish caught near Chillicothe aren’t likely to be heard again. However, for those partial to moving water and the excitement of catfishing, the Grand is worth exploring. Big catfish are still plentiful, and biologists note that flatheads and blue cats topping 30 pounds aren’t unusual. Channel cats are abundant, with lots of 2- to 10-pounders ready to accept an angler’s offerings.
The best catfishing is in the lower reaches of the Grand, just above i
ts confluence with the Missouri River. Waters in the vicinity of the Bosworth and Brunswick accesses are considered the best trophy cat waters. Bosworth Access is 22.4 miles above the Grand’s mouth, near the town of Bosworth on Highway M in Carroll County. Plenty of cats are caught along the bank here, near logs or other cover. The Brunswick Access, at the intersection of Highway 24 and Polk Street in Brunswick, is three miles from the juncture of the Grand and Missouri. Anglers float-fishing from here to the river’s mouth catch lots of monster cats.
The Osage River deserves mention as well, for this is one of the country’s top waters for giant blue cats. The stretch from Bagnell Dam to the Missouri River near Jefferson City harbors numerous 50- to 75-pound fish, and seasoned cat men like Virgil Agee of Chamois are certain there are blues here pushing the 150-pound mark. Agee himself has released blue cats back into the river that weighed 101 and 121 pounds, and he claims to have hooked some bigger.
Pony Express Lake, a 240-acre MDC lake west of Cameron, exemplifies the saying, “Good things often come in small packages.” Despite its relatively small size, Pony Express harbors abundant channel and blue catfish. Channel cats averaging 1 to 3 pounds usually fall for chicken liver, night crawlers or commercial stink-baits fished along shallow points and in coves. Anglers drifting shallow flats and points with cut shad or live sunfish often take blue cats exceeding 20 pounds.
MDC fisheries biologists followed channel and blue catfish in Pony Express for a year by implanting radio transmitters in them. Both species showed their highest activity from sunset to sunrise. This confirms the knowledge of many catfishermen who restrict their fishing activity to nighttime hours. Wise channel cat anglers also fish near standing and downed timber. Biologists found this species near snags 73 percent of the time, usually in shallower water.
Blue cats were found to be open water fish. Although the information collected showed that blue cats were found near structure about 50 percent of the time, these fish were still situated offshore.
The study also revealed seasonal differences in the locations of blue cats and channel cats. Channel catfish, which used most of the lake during spring, tended to use the shallower, southern arms of the lake in summer and used the middle and the southeastern arm of the lake during fall and winter. Blue catfish too were spread across the lake in spring, but they used the western arm and middle areas of the impoundment during the summer. They moved to deeper areas near the dam during fall.
Che-Ru Lake, a 160-acre impoundment on Fountain Grove Conservation Area near Meadeville, should be on your must-visit list if flatheads are the quarry. Specimens topping 20 pounds are becoming increasingly common, and to protect the stock, MDC biologists have tagged numerous fish as a method to determine harvest rates. An angler who catches a tagged flathead is asked to contact the MDC at (660) 646-6122.
Thirty-acre Jamesport Community Lake in Daviess County ranks high among this region’s channel cat hotspots. Visiting anglers have been catching lots of 12- to 28-inch specimens in recent years, with cut shad considered the best bait. Most of the lake can be fished from the bank.
Green City Lake (60 acres) in Sullivan County should provide excellent fishing for channel catfish in 2005. Recent surveys of catfish show good numbers of fish over four pounds, with many exceeding 6 pounds. According to the MDC, the lake is also stocked annually with 300 catfish (five per acre), so anglers should be able to harvest their daily limit of four channel catfish.
Eighty-acre Unionville City Lake in Putnam County is another channel cat haven to visit this year. The lake is annually stocked with 1,275 catfish (15 per acre), so anglers should find plenty of 1- to 3-pound fish.
According to MDC biologists, there should also be plenty of 5- to 8-pound catfish available. They encouraged anglers to harvest their limit of four channel catfish per day.
Hunnewell Lake near the town of Hunnewell is a mere 220 acres, but don’t let its size fool you. The MDC points to it as one of the best all-around fishing lakes northeast Missouri has to offer, and there are plenty of blues and channel cats available for whiskerfish enthusiasts. Several blue catfish exceeding 20 pounds are caught in the lake each year. Private boats are prohibited on this lake to protect the Hunnewell Hatchery from zebra mussel invasion, but rental boats are available. The lake also offers a covered, barrier-free fishing dock surrounded by fish attractors.
Mark Twain Lake covers about 19,000 acres of the Missouri landscape near Paris. When it comes to flatheads, few waters in this regionare better. Many exceeding 25 pounds are caught each year on trotlines, banklines and jugs, with the best fishing in the upper portions of North Fork, Middle Fork and South Fork arms.
In this quadrant of the state, you won’t find any catfishing waters more productive than Truman Reservoir. Anglers take scores of 50- to 70-pound blues and flatheads in this 55,600-acre impoundment every year. Channel cats from 5 to 10 pounds are abundant, too.
The lake encompasses the Osage River basin with four major rivers: Osage, Sac, South Grand and Pomme de Terre. In addition, there are numerous tributaries and literally hundreds of tiny feeder creeks.
The area around Osceola and up the Osage River to Roscoe is a well-known catfish haven, and is one of the best spots to begin your catfish prospecting at Truman. There’s also superb fishing on the Pomme de Terre River downstream from the Cross Timbers Access on Y Highway near Hermitage, and up the Sac River from the Highway 82 access area. Other blue-ribbon catfish holes include the Big Tebo Creek, Deepwater Creek and South Grand River areas.
The fact of the matter is that there are fantastic catfishing opportunities over the entire lake. All you have to do is locate the proper structure and cover, present the proper bait in the proper manner, and hang on. The catfish will do the rest.
Montrose Lake, 12 miles west of Clinton on Highway RA, harbors numerous 2- to 10-pound-plus channel cats, but the large flatheads found here are garnering most of the attention. In April 2003, an angler from Odessa tied the current pole-and-line state record by catching a 77.5-pound flathead, and he caught a 35-pound fish the same morning.
The Elk River is another hotspot worth a visit in this region. Most catfish anglers concentrate their efforts in the downstream portions of the river below Noel, catching numerous fish to 5 pounds on live and prepared baits. According to the MDC, channel catfish were abundant in this area during recent fall surveys.
Nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, 44,000-acre Wappapello Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment on the St. Francis River, serves up superb catfishing for anglers in this region.
Channel catfish to 5 pounds and more are common, especially along the dam. A few large flathead and blue catfish also are present, including some specimens topping 50 pounds.
The St. Francis River above and below Wappapello also offers excellent catfishing, especially for abundant 12 to 24 inch channel cats. Trotlines and limblines are among the favored fishing tackle of local cat men, and almost every bait imaginable, from live crawfish and minnows to stinkbaits and Ivory soap, is used to entice these hard-fighting sportfish.
For more info on all waters mentioned, including catfishing regs, contact the MDC administrative office in Jefferson City by phoning (573) 751-4115, or log on to the department’s Web site at