According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, black bass are Missouri anglers’ favorite fish in terms of angler-hours expended. Crappie rank second. Catfish come in third.
Pardon me if I’m letting my prejudice in favor of non-scaly fish show, but I don’t believe those rankings are accurate. I think the MDC’s creel surveyors are, albeit unintentionally, ranking the angler-hours devoted to various species of fish based on how easy it is to see the anglers who pursue them.
In defense of my theory, I’d like to point out that, due to their high-powered boats, their run-and-gun tactics and their irresistible urge to stage tournaments, bass anglers are easily the state’s most visible anglers. Then too, the fact that the majority of bass angling and the majority of creel surveying — although by no means all of either — take place on a handful of reservoirs certainly doesn’t hurt the bass’ cause.
Frankly, I can’t understand how anyone could come to the conclusion that anglers on reservoirs and impoundments, where the overwhelming majority of surveys are conducted, spend more time catching bass than they do crappie. Have you ever been on a body of flat water in Missouri where the number of boats containing bass anglers was larger than the number of boats containing crappie anglers? Neither have I. Add the number of anglers fishing for crappie from the bank (bass anglers rarely fish from shore), and the crappie’s bid to claim dominance among the scaled game fish becomes even stronger.
Meanwhile, catfishermen are quietly plying their trade on streams small enough to cast across, on rivers large enough to handle commercial barge traffic, on tiny impoundments and on mega-sized reservoirs. Some will fish from boats while others cast their offerings from shore. If “day shift” and “night shift” catfishermen meet at all, it’s only in passing at some out-of-the-way boat ramp or parking lot at first or last light. And, even if they’re so legal they squeak, they’ll dodge a creel checker if at all possible.
Put all that information together and, at the very least, it’s possible that catfish (channels, blues and flatheads combined) have been Missouri’s most sought-after fish. Moreover, interest in catfishing should increase this year, because 2010 will be a banner year for catching (as opposed to merely fishing for) all three species of large catfish virtually anywhere they’re found.
Ironically, the seemingly unending series of high-water episodes that plagued all of the state’s anglers in 2008 and 2009 dramatically reduced the impact of the most serious chronic problem facing Missouri’s catfish: poor growth rates among fish weighing less than approximately 10 pounds. Having nearly constant access to flooded vegetation and the rich zooplankton soup it produces, “jump started” young-of-the-year reservoir cats and provided “teenage” fish with a rich diet of insects and other bite-sized creatures that were also drawn to the zooplankton feast.
Moving-water catfish had access to flooded vegetation for briefer periods of time, but this was made up for by a smorgasbord of terrestrial goodies being washed into every stream from the tiny Blue River near Kansas City to the mighty Mississippi River on the state’s eastern border.
If you think what I’ve just reported means you can plunk yourself down either beside or on any body of water in the state that’s home to one or more large catfish species, which means virtually all of them, and catch some catfish, you’re probably right. The problem is, if you’re like me, you only have a limited amount of time to go fishing. Therefore, it makes sense to spend that time on waters where the odds of catching limit stringers of the species and size of catfish you prefer are highest. Happily, there are so many of those that selecting the “best catfishing in Missouri” wasn’t easy. If I missed your favorite hotspot, feel free to smirk.
Frankly, I can’t imagine any list of Missouri’s catfishing paragons that didn’t begin with the Osage River, including, of course, Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir. There are other bodies of water in Missouri that may offer superior fishing for a particular species and/or size of catfish, but nowhere else in the state — or, perhaps, the nation — can provide a visiting angler with better year ’round opportunities either to catch limit stringers of “eatin’-sized cats” or to pursue blues and flatheads big enough to for-sure stretch your string.
Variety’s the name of the methodology game throughout the Osage system. Some catfishermen are rod-and-reel, trotline or jugline purists, but most employ at least two of those methods at one time or another. Most Osage basin catfishermen use boats, but — except on the Lake of the Ozarks where extremely limited public shorelines make boats a necessity — extensive bank-fishing opportunities exist both in the unimpounded portions of the river and on Truman.
This year, channel cats weighing up to around 3 pounds will do their best to satisfy anglers who like steady action throughout the unimpounded portion of the river and on flats from 2 to 20 feet deep on both lakes. Prefer the less “fishy” flavor of young blue cats? This should be a banner year for them on both impoundments. The unimpounded portions of the Osage River west of Truman Reservoir are another of our perennial blue cat hotspots anytime the water level’s rising.
River worms, fresh shad, frozen shad guts, liver, commercial punch baits, crayfish, shrimp and Little Smokey sausages are the most popular bait choices. All of them will tempt both channel cats and blues, but river worms are the No. 1 choice for channel cats; fresh shad gets the nod for blues.
According to an MDC survey conducted several years ago, Missouri catfishermen consider a channel cat weighing more than 10 pounds to be a “trophy” fish. Based on that standard, the Osage basin is not a worthwhile destination for anglers seeking trophy channel cats, despite the fact that a few channel cats that size are caught every year.
The same survey set the minimum weight for a trophy blue cat or flathead at 20 pounds. Back in the early to mid-1980s, Truman Dam’s tailrace was the place to catch blues and flatheads more — sometimes a lot more — than big enough to satisfy the survey’s trophy definition. Unfortunately, overexploitation of this perhaps too easily accessible catfishery has reduced it to a pale shadow of its glory days. That said, it’s probably still the best spot in the state to catch a 20-pounder while fishing from shore, and a 60-pounder isn’t completely out of the question.
The portion of the Mississippi River that forms Missouri’s eastern border is one of, if not the best, places in North America to catch line-class
or even all-tackle world-record blue cats. Local experts favor bull-stout rods and high-capacity baitcasting reels. Both braided and monofilament lines have unswayable advocates. Although triple-digit blue cats have been tempted by baits as exotic as whole chickens, fresh shad or skipjack herring are favored by an overwhelming majority of anglers who specialize in monster blues.
The Mississippi River is a big and potentially dangerous body of water. Its currents can be as complex as they are strong, and a strong south wind will make it as rough as any body of flatwater in the state. Eighteen-foot or longer, wide-beamed john boats powered by 90 hp or larger outboards rule the river and will almost always get their occupants back to shore, no matter what the river throws at them.
I couldn’t argue with anyone who asserted that the Missouri River isn’t the absolute best destination in the state for any of the state’s three species of large catfish. On the other hand, the entire length of the state’s namesake river boasts channel cat fishing for both bank-bound and boating anglers. River worms, shrimp, cut baits and commercial concoctions are all popular with the local anglers.
The truth of the preceding paragraph notwithstanding, the always enigmatic flathead rules the river upstream from Kansas City. Is this the place to be if dreams of an IGFA all-tackle record dance through your head? Probably not. On the other hand, if catching good numbers of 20- to 60-pounders on either set lines or on rod and reel appeals to you, you’ll fall in love with this portion of the Missouri River. As is the case everywhere flatheads are found, live bait (sunfish, carp, bullheads, chubs, suckers and so on) is the top choice.
Super-sized blue cats can be found throughout Missouri’s portion of the “Big Muddy.” That said, topnotch blue cat water starts around Glasgow. Blue cats progressively increase in both numbers and size farther downstream. Triple-digit fish are possible, especially from Hermann on east, and 70-pounders won’t raise many eyebrows back at the ramp. Between sunrise and sunset, look for the deepest and swiftest water available. At night, shallow sandbars attract blue cats so big they’re scary.
Smaller, more angler-friendly catfish rivers are legion in the Show Me State. To cite only a few (albeit better than average) examples, the multi-forked Salt, the Big, the Black, the Blackwater, the Lamine, the South Grand and the Nodaway are worthy of inclusion on any compilation of rivers sure to please channel cat and flathead anglers in 2010. Moreover, the mouths of the latter three rivers hold good numbers of blue cats.
But as good as those rivers may be, the Grand River outshines them all. First and foremost, the Grand’s channel and flathead catfisheries are thriving from the point where the river enters the state in Worth County to where it empties into the Missouri River near Brunswick. Blue catfish purists can get in their licks from the Bosworth Access downstream.
The Grand River also earns an “A” for accessibility. MDC Access Points, many of which have boat ramps, are scattered along the river. In addition, dozens of highway bridge rights-of-way provide walk-in access to the public portion of the river (the river itself and the bank up to the “normal” high water mark.)
Finally, somewhere along its length, the Grand River has water that’s ideal for a gunnysack full of catfishing tactics. Wading is popular, and very successful in the upper river; it’s also a good approach for setting bank poles and trotlines. Most catfishermen who enjoy getting into the river with the fish are after channel cats, but wading is a good choice for those who prefer battling flatheads in close quarters.
In all but the driest months, canoes and other types of car topper-class boats can be used on the upper river. They’re joined by outboard-powered, flat-bottomed boats from Chillicothe downstream. Big-river boats can ply the lower Grand River from its mouth to a few miles south of the Bosworth Access. (Warning: Submerged logs lie in wait for unwary boaters everywhere on the Grand River.)
You’ve no doubt noted that all of the best catfishing waters I’ve discussed so far have one thing in common — it takes effort in the form of travel, specialized tackle, boats or extensive catfishing experience to make the most of what they have to offer. Fortunately, there’s a way to get in on some doggone good catfishing that’s oftentimes easier, closer to home and less expensive.
In addition to its Urban Fishing Lakes program that delivers channel catfishing to the heart of the Kansas City and St. Louis metro areas, the MDC owns or manages dozens of impoundments scattered all across the state. These mini-meccas range in size from a few to several hundred acres in size, with channel catfish part of the stocking mix in all of them. A few of them offer exciting blue and/or flathead fishing as well. A catfisherman’s chances for success aren’t equal at all of them, of course. Here are a few of the top choices for 2010.
Hunnewell Lake (Shelby County) receives annual stockings of blue cats, and 30-pounders are pulled from the lake every year. To help prevent the introduction of zebra mussels into the lake, private boats are prohibited. Boats and oars are provided free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis. Anglers are allowed to use their own electric motors and must supply their own PFDs. Don’t worry about arriving too late to get a boat. Many of the best blue cat hotspots are reachable from shore.
Cameron Reservoir No. 3 (DeKalb County) is a 96-acre drinking water supply lake, complete with mid-lake bubblers. Don’t be fooled. This lake has a powerhouse channel cat fishery for 12- to 16-inch “eating-sized” cats. Want bigger game? The MDC reports that flatheads are an “underutilized resource” there. During surveys, the agency’s biologists routinely capture 20-pounders with a few fish exceeding 40 pounds. If you dream of catching a trophy flathead while fishing from shore, this is your spot!
Lake Jacomo (Jackson County) is the best of the very few bodies of water in Missouri where a channel catfisherman stands an honest chance of landing a 10- to 15-pound trophy. Channels in the 4- to 6-pound class are common — another rarity in the Show Me State. Private boats are allowed on Lake Jacomo subject to city licensing, but fishing from shore isn’t a significant disadvantage.
One final cautionary word: Don’t harass your buddies who fish for bass and crappie by pointing out how easily your favorite fish could swallow theirs. It’s true, of course, but they won’t like hearing it more than about 50 times.