By Doug Smith
It was a July day with the waves kicking up strong and the summer sun beating down hot. My wife and young daughter and I had been out for an afternoon surf on a large personal watercraft when we stopped after about 45 minutes to change drivers. As we eased past each other on one of the PWC’s rails, a huge wave coming from the other side of the craft hit us, bowling us over and dumping everyone into the drink. We quickly located the little one bobbing secured tightly in her life vest and started swimming for a nearby private dock. That’s when I saw him – quite possibly one of the largest channel catfish I’d ever seen. The location was Lake of the Ozarks.
Mid-Missouri’s fishing and water-sports kingdom sits just southwest of the middle of the state. “The Lake” is 55,000 acres large, with 1,300 miles of shoreline and a bottom of primarily sand, gravel and rock. It’s fed by nearly a dozen major streams and an estimated 1,000-plus springs, and boasts a strong population of nearly all kinds of baitfish native to the state. If I was a big channel, blue or flathead catfish this is where I’d want to be.
While I can’t be at Lake of the Ozarks all the time, especially living as a fat and sassy catfish, there’s one man who does spend the majority of his time in, or at least on, the lake. It’s Greg Stoner, fisheries management biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. Stoner is responsible for working to maintain the impoundment’s population of catfish, as well as other species, and thereby he is the man to go to for the most detailed how-to and where-to information.
“In June I’d look for catfish on pea-gravel banks,” Stoner says. That’s easier than first expected, when you consider the bulk of the lake is made up of some kind of aggregate bottom and has a maximum depth of only about 100 feet. The majority of the shoreline area is slowly sloping and ideal for cats to hang out on.
First, a look at what the lake has to offer in the way of whiskered fish. There’s blue, flathead and channels to choose from. The average blue cat weighs from 2 1/2 to 3 pounds, is about 20 inches long and puts up an admirable fight. Remember, that’s the norm, but not the extent of what’s possible. Nearly every year someone takes a blue cat running in the 80-pound range from the lake, Stoner says. While it’s impossible to electrofish for cats in such a deep impoundment, creel studies and photographs don’t lie. The big ones are in there.
The place to go for consistently big blue cats is the tailwaters of Truman Dam. Why so, you ask? Even Stoner admits it’s the hotspot for anyone wanting to fill a limit of catfish. Because of such a concentration of fish, the MDC has been forced to impose some restrictions exclusive to these waters. For the Truman Dam tailwaters there’s a limit of four catfish daily, any combination, but only one more than 24 inches in length. Any more generous, Stoner says, and the area could easily be overharvested.
Just a note of interest: An over-harvested crappie population can rebound to an average fish size of 1 to 1 1/2 pounds in as little as two to three years. Growing cats that are 40, 50 or 60 pounds of better can take as much as 20 years to mature.
The general creel limit for the remainder of the lake – not counting Truman Dam – is any mixture of 10 blues and channels and five flatheads with no length restrictions.
Stoner says electrofishing efforts in 2002 turned up little usable information. The shallows targeted tend to turn up the smaller fish. He relies more on creel surveys for a snapshot of just how the lake’s catfish populations are doing. Until recently there was a consistent creel survey effort on the Niangua River, one of the major tributaries to the lake. One surprising fact the creel sampling has turned up is that blue cats seem to be outnumbering channel cats, or at least on angler’s lines. Not so many years ago it was the just the opposite, with channels far outweighing blue and flatheads.
Other things I’ve heard of catfish biting (but haven’t used successfully myself) include salamanders, crawfish, mussels, cheese, persimmons, frogs and bubble gum. Simply because of their locale, catfish are prone to favor minnows, shad, bluegills or goldfish, especially if they’re presented right. One trick that’s probably not OK with the bunny-hugger animal rights people is to use a sizable bluegill and suspend it hooked through the upper part of the back with a treble hook on a limb line. Make the line just long enough to reach from the limb down into the water where the fish will swim in circles and make ripples in the water’s surface. A foraging cat will travel a long way off the bottom to snatch up such an easy and inviting meal.
Shad can be fished live or as cut bait. History has shown that summertime cats prefer live bait if given the choice. Most small lake or pond anglers usually think of still fishing for cats. That’s when you simply put out the bait and wait. When going after summer cats in such a large location as Lake of the Ozarks, a better bet might be trolling. There are several variations on how to do it, but all boil down to baiting up a couple of rigs with a hearty bait that will stay on a moving hook, throwing them out and starting to troll the gravelly shallows. Night crawlers, live shad, bluegills or goldfish are the sort will usually stay on a hook without problems, but for dough baits, dip baits and even chicken livers, there has to be some ingenuity added. One of the oldest tricks is to use a piece of nylon hose as a pocket for the bait. Put the dough bait, livers or whatever on the hook and then cover the offering with a small piece of nylon stocking. Tie the stocking around the top of the hook. The scent from the bait
will filter out as you troll along, and the bait itself should stay intact until a fish takes it hook, bait, nylon piece and all.
Jugging, limblining and trotlining are all common practices at the lake. Any restrictions are those imposed for such methods anywhere in the state. All setups should be clearly visible to potential swimmers and clearly marked as to ownership.
While less common and not considered catfish attractants, I’ve also taken catfish randomly on jigs, crankbaits, plastic worms and spinners. With catfishing, as I said before, there are sometimes no proven, tried-and-true methods. It’s usually a case of try this and try that until you catch one fish, and then see if you’re on to something or if it was just a fluke. Don’t be afraid to vary your depth, structure or presentation all within the same half hour of fishing time.
As for night-fishing, pack a jacket and plan to make a night of it when at all possible. One expert I know starts catfishing at night when it warms enough he can make it through until morning with only a light jacket to ward off mosquitoes. Tracy Mackley, of Park Hills, prefers to jug-fish by targeting submerged river channels. When he loads his boat to go out, his sons and fishing buddies knows he likely won’t step foot back on land until the sun is coming up. He’s had consistently good luck in fishing using jugs and cut or live bait. He motors up into a feeder creek of a large water body and starts setting out jugs just short of the place where the boat starts dragging bottom. He then backs out of the creek and drops jugs as he goes. Once all the jugs are set, he baits up a rod and reel and sits back to fish and occasionally check his setups; once he gets a hit in a particular depth, he rebaits the setup and checks it again a short time later. Another hit on the line or any nearby jug indicates he’s found the active depth. That’s when he concentrates his setups and line and pole fishing more in that immediate area. Mackley uses these methods on feeder streams leading to the Mississippi as well.
Once you have the map, mark any spots that show river or stream channels or abrupt transitions from a deep hole to gravelly shallows. One such example of this would be the Gravois Arm area near the town of Gravois Mills, on the lake’s uppermost north side. Here a relatively wide expanse of water has depths that fluctuate only between 10 and 30 feet. There area some places where a 10-foot-deep gravely bed quickly dives to a 50-foot hole. With over 1,000 miles of shoreline available, finding underwater terrain that fits this pattern is less a matter of the only such places available, and more a matter of picking and choosing what’s easiest accessible using a good map and depth finder together.
Stoner suggests sticking to pea-gravel banks during June and into July unless you have countless hours to spend searching around. In his report for the Mac’s 2003 fishing prospects, Stoner writes, “Catfish action should be similar to the past few years. The best months are April through September. Drifting and fishing live or cut shad on the bottom on days with a light breeze consistently produces the best catch.”
When I arrive at the lake I’ll start targeting areas around marked “to try” spots on my map. I look for heavy concentrations of shad. As noted earlier, baitfish are a cat’s main diet regardless of where he’s living. Dough and dip baits work great, but natural bait is always the first consideration. A lake with a good shad population will likely have a good catfish population as well, especially with some really big fish thrown in to the equation.
Once I find some pockets of shad I start comparing my location to my map. Any shallows nearby and I’m probably looking for channel cats. This is especially true for shallow areas with brush or some other kind of underwater structure nearby. Look for a creek or river channel on the map and position your boat between the two distinctly different features. No creek or channel nearby? We’re probably looking at flatheads, if anything. And if there’s a deeper hole or the entire area is deep than you might even hook into a blue cat. Blues are the hardest to find a pattern in. I never set out looking for blue cats in particular – they just find me occasionally.
Another place to look for heavy pockets of shad are in the mouths of feeder creeks that run into the main lake. Lake of the Ozarks has four major water sources – Osage River, Niangua River, Gravois Creek and Grand Glaize Creek – but dozens of smaller creeks that feed into it. As Mackley explained, look for channel cats up into the mouths of these creeks. That’s where shad will often be found. Even though live shad or bluegills may work best, I really prefer using cut shad – maybe it’s just me.
The one occasion where I’ll fuss with live bait is if I’m targeting flatheads. Then I’ll come by some perch or bluegill and search the map and depthfinder for areas of heavy cover and sharp dropoffs. Remember the method I explained earlier that involves suspending a bluegill just under the water’s surface and letting it upset the water. Here’s the perfect place to try that, if you can find some good overhanging cover. If not I’ll consider using jugs with relatively short lines. Cut panfish is the second option next to live bait.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
o Missouri Game & Fish