I don’t like to answer a question with a question, but sometimes there’s no other option. For example, the only honest response to “Can you Show Me Missouri catfish?” is to ask, “What type of catfish would you like to be shown?”
Here’s what I mean. Many Missouri catfishermen consider the state to be home to three species of catfish which grow large enough to be of interest: the channel cat, the blue cat and the flathead. Yet other anglers would insist that the black bullhead, yellow bullhead and brown bullhead be added to the list. To further complicate matters, the behavior patterns of “small” (1- to 3-pound) channels, blues and flatheads are so different from those of 20-pound-plus “trophy” catfish that the latter are almost separate “species.”
This report’s purpose is to highlight representative locations where fishing for small and/or trophy cats of one or more of the three catfish species should be well above average in 2006 — so let’s get right to it.
With all due apologies to my fellow bullhead aficionados, Missouri’s smallest sporting catfish will get short shrift in this report. Stream channelization, gravel mining, reservoir construction, soil erosion, non-point pollution and a host of other mostly human-created factors have not been kind to the bullhead. Even so, localized populations of decent-sized bullheads still exist in a few prairie streams and a handful of Missouri Department of Conservation impoundments. These fisheries are too delicate to withstand mention in print, but discovering one on your own can be more than worth the effort.
SMALL CHANNEL CATS
The coldest sections of spring-fed Ozark streams and “wet-weather” creeks in central and northern Missouri excepted, I’d be hard pressed to name a body of water in Missouri that doesn’t have fishable numbers of small channel cats. That means, however, that catfishermen who enjoy the minimal hassle of light-tackle angling have the pleasant problem of sifting out the better and best fishing holes from the merely good. The following suggestions should point you in the right direction.
A majority of Missouri’s citizens don’t have to leave town to find good small channel catfish action. In cooperation with various city and county agencies, the MDC stocks dozens of “urban lakes” within the city limits of St. Louis and Kansas City with harvest-ready channel cats several times per year. These channel cat hotspots are within a short walk, bicycle ride or bus trip of millions of people.
Ponds and larger impoundments on MDC conservation areas are extremely popular with channel catfishermen for a number of reasons. For one thing, MDC impoundments are “accessible” in every sense of the word. MDC impoundments are located within an easy drive of every place in the state, and they have been designed to maximize opportunities for handicapped anglers, bank-anglers and boaters.
Can’t-miss MDC impoundments for small channel catfish in 2006 include: The Schell-Osage CA’s Atkinson Lake, Ben Branch Lake northwest of Linn, Binder Lake near Jefferson City, Blue Springs Lake near Kansas City, Crane Lake in Iron County, the Bismarck CA’s DiSalvo Lake, Fellows Lake near Springfield, Harmony Mission Lake southwest of Rich Hill, and Manito Lake south of Tipton,
Warmwater rivers provide another interesting option for catfishermen who prefer small channel cats. Depending on the portion of the waterway the angler chooses, several of these rivers offer catfishermen the choice of wading, walking the bank or using a small boat. Catfishermen who opt to wade or to fish from the bank can gain access to these streams at any bridge crossing. Small boats can be launched from ramps found on most of the conservation areas and access sites scattered along the courses of northern Missouri’s rivers.
Based on information provided by MDC creel surveys and river veterans, the best bets for 2006 include: The St. Francis County portion of the Big River, the Elk River downstream from Noel, the Gasconade River in Pulaski County, the entire length of the Grand River, the James River near Springfield, the Meramec River downstream from Meramec State Park, the middle portion of the Mississippi River near St. Louis, the entire length of the Missouri River, the entire length of the Nodaway River, and the Platte River downstream from Smithville Lake.
TROPHY CHANNEL CATFISH
Missouri’s pole-and-line state-record channel cat weighed 34 pounds, 10 ounces. Since this fish is among the nation’s largest state records, it’s easy to assume that Missouri must be among the elite producers of trophy channel cats. Unfortunately, the rest of the story is that this fish — which came from Lake Jacomo — was caught October 12, 1976, and has never been seriously challenged. In fact, even the alternate-methods record is 29 pounds 14 ounces, and it was caught in 1974.
For reasons not clearly understood by anyone, the plain truth is that trophy channel cats are as rare in Missouri as small channel cats are abundant. Moreover, the above-mentioned 20-pound benchmark for trophy cat status renders the quest for a trophy channel cat similar to that for the Holy Grail. Dropping the minimum to 10 pounds leaves the angler with a still-difficult task, but one within the realm of possibility.
There are undoubtedly 10-pound or perhaps 20-pound channel cats swimming the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. By far the best chance of encountering one of these giants is to fish the lower reaches of tributaries flowing into the big rivers in May and June, when the channel cats are searching our places to spawn. Other options include Lake Jacomo and Nodaway County Community Lake, both of which have channel cat growth rates far in excess of the statewide average.
SMALL BLUE CATS
Some veteran catfishermen — including this one — insist that small blues are the best-eating catfish in Missouri. Since the MDC is no longer stocking blue cats outside of the species’ native habitat, the state’s three largest river systems, the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Osage, are the places to be if you’re hungry for blue cat fillets.
The secret to success with small blue cats is to think slow-to-moderate current and relatively shallow water — certainly less than 20 feet, preferably less than 10. River worms and shad guts are the best bet, but don’t overlook liver and dip baits.
TROPHY BLUE CATS
Missouri’s pole-and-line-record blue cat weighed 103 pounds and was caught in the Missouri River on September 16, 1991. The alternate-methods record, caught on July 25, 1964, in the portion of the Osage River now impounded behind Truman Dam, weighed 117 pounds. No fisheries biologist or veteran big-river angler doubts that larger
blue cats are alive and well in the Mississippi, Missouri and Osage rivers right now. In fact, larger blue cats have been caught near St. Louis in recent years — unfortunately, by anglers who launched from the Illinois bank.
MDC fisheries biologist Kevin Sullivan recommends that anyone seeking a new Missouri- or world-record blue cat concentrate his efforts either on the lower third of the Missouri or on the Mississippi from St. Louis downstream. On either river, the secret to locating trophy blue cats is to fish the deepest current-washed holes available. In fact, many an angler on the swift-flowing Missouri has been known to say, “If you’re not half-scared, you’re fishing too far out of the main current.”
Fresh shad or river herring are the only trophy blue cat baits worth mentioning. Don’t skimp on the amount of bait you use. Remember that you’re trying to tempt a fish equipped with a mouth big enough to suck down a careless raccoon.
While the big rivers are the only hope for a 100-pound blue, they’re not the only possibility for taking a 20- to 50-pound trophy. Remnants of discontinued stocking programs and releases of surplus fish have produced exciting trophy blue cat opportunities in a few MDC impoundments like Hazel Creek Lake near Kirksville, Hunnewell Lake near Hunnewell, Lake Jacomo near Kansas City, Little Dixie Lake west of Kingdom City, Long Branch Lake near Macon and Pony Express Lake west of Cameron.
The solitary flathead is too special to be divided into categories based on size. It’s not that flatheads weighing under 10 or 15 pounds aren’t delicious table fare — in fact, anyone who doesn’t relish fried flathead probably doesn’t like catfish under any circumstances — but what sets the flathead apart is that, in many ways, it’s a muskie without scales. Both species are relatively uncommon even in the best habitats. Both species use both ambush and cruising tactics to obtain their prey. Finally, both species, like the smallmouth bass and the brown trout, are simply too valuable to catch only once.
The pole-and-line state-record flathead weighed 77 pounds, 8 ounces; it was caught at Montrose Lake on April 28, 2003. The alternative-method record flathead, which weighed 94 pounds, was pulled from the St. Francis River on June 21, 1971. It’s likely the pole-and-line record will be broken, and a 100-pound plus Missouri flathead is not out of the question.
The flathead is a river species, so it’s no surprise that the Missouri River and its major tributaries are among the state’s best bets for trophy flatheads. On the Missouri River itself, most experts favor the portion of the river upstream from Kansas City. There is indeed a lot of good flathead habitat along the banks of this part of the river. There’s also a lot more interest in fishing for flatheads in this area than there is elsewhere on the river. It’s likely that both facts combine to produce the region’s outstanding flatheads.
Some surprisingly large flatheads are present in small- and medium-sized streams as well. The Meramec, Nodaway, Platte, St. Francis, Grand and Lamine Rivers are prime examples. The Lamine produces excitingly for anglers who wade the riffles on dark nights and tumble gobs of night crawlers over the lip of the hole at the riffle’s downstream end.
Flatheads — including some true trophies — can also be found in a number of MDC impoundments. The best of these include: Che-Ru Lake on the Fountain Grove CA, Lake Jacomo, Longview Lake near Kansas City, Montrose Lake, and Nodaway County Community Lake. In addition, large flatheads are present in all of the state’s U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs.
MISSOURI’S CATFISHING VALHALLA
Up to this point, this report has made only the briefest possible references to the Osage River from the Kansas line downstream through Truman Reservoir and the Lake of the Ozarks to its confluence with the Missouri River near Jefferson City. That’s because this river and lake system boasts such a fantastic catfishery that it deserves to be discussed by itself. I’ve dubbed it “catfishing Valhalla,” but it’s a far different place than the Viking version: To the Vikings, the celestial Valhalla was where warriors went after glorious death; to us, the Osage River Valhalla is where catfishermen of every stripe go to enjoy glorious life.
Are bullheads your thing? There are bullheads in the far upper reaches of most of the Osage Rivers’ tributaries from Truman dam on west. You may have to beach your boat and wade or walk to reach them, but they’re there.
According to Kevin Sullivan, Truman Lake’s channel cats are the lake’s most underexploited resource. There’s no doubt that lake is thick with them, so pick any flat or cove and you should do well.
Admittedly, trophy channel cats are as hard to come by here as they are elsewhere in the state. Even so, half of the 10-pound-plus channels that this writer has caught in Missouri have come from Truman or from the Osage River west of the lake.
Without doubt, Lake of the Ozarks and Truman are the two top places in the entire state to catch small blue cats. The coves and flats at the upper ends of both lakes are especially productive.
Is the Osage River system the best place in Missouri to fish for giant blue cats? No — it isn’t. That honor rightfully belongs to the Mississippi River. However, given that the angler can avoid the recreational boat traffic on Lake of the Ozarks and the commercial traffic on the Mississippi, the Osage River is the safest place a catfisherman can go in Missouri and have an honest chance at a blue cat weighing 60 pounds or more. As is the case elsewhere, fish deep to target big blues.
Relatively speaking, flatheads abound from one end of the Osage River to the other. The best fishing is from April through October, with one peak in June and another in late August or early September. Tactics range from flipping jigs tipped with large minnows beneath boat docks on Lake of the Ozarks to casting heavy jigs into the Truman tailrace to vertical fishing with live bluegills along Truman Lake bluffs.
Finally, what’s the long-term forecast for Missouri’s premier catfishery? Not even Kevin Sullivan can provide a definitive answer to that question. However, data from a two-year survey of volunteer anglers on Truman have yielded unexpected results. It appears that growth rates for all three large catfish species are very low. It also appears that anglers keep almost all the catfish over 19 inches in length that they catch.
One of the purposes of Sullivan’s study was to set the stage for implementing special catfishing regulations in the Osage basin with the express purpose of promoting a trophy catfishery. At press time, no decision had been made regarding what impact, if any, the first two years of data may have on the special management program. In the meantime, the state’s anglers can help by doing the same thing they’re already doing with bass: releasing most, if not all, of the large catfish they catch.