Bass and crappie have headed for their deepwater sanctuaries and seem to prefer feeding early and late in the day or at night. The peak of the bluegill spawn is over and the bigger sunfish have also headed for deep water.
While the summer heat has slowed down the fishing for some of Missouri’s favorite game fish, Show Me State anglers can still enjoy consistent action for another popular species. Catfish can be found in almost every lake, river, stream and pond throughout the state and remain active even in the heat of summer.
The three species most sought after in the state are blue, flathead and channel catfish. The blue catfish is considered a big-river fish because it is commonly found in the Mississippi, Missouri and Osage rivers and in the lower reaches of their larger tributaries such as the Grand, Gasconade and Salt rivers, according to “The Fishes of Missouri” written by William L. Pflieger. Good populations of blues also swim in the Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake. Blue cats generally inhabit swift chutes and pools with current and sand or gravel bottoms.
Flathead abound mostly in the large streams throughout our state and are one of the most abundant large catfish in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the principal tributaries of the Prairie Region and the larger streams of the lowlands. Flatheads favor pools near submerged logs, driftpiles and other wood cover.
The most abundant and widely distributed cat in the state is the channel catfish. It is common nearly everywhere in the state but is especially abundant in the prairie streams of north and west Missouri, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and the larger lowland streams and ditches of the southeast. Channel cats are also stocked in lakes and ponds managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation throughout the state. These cats prefer large pools, deep water or submerged logs and other cover.
Here’s a look at some of the best catfish waters throughout our state.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS
My home waters provide plenty of opportunities for anglers to take all three whiskered species in the heat of summer.
“Lake of the Ozarks has a real good population of blue cats and that is what people are really targeting,” says MDC fisheries biologist Greg Stoner. “There are also a lot of channel cat out there and some fair-sized channel cats in the lake. We have seen some 7, 8 and 9 pounds.”
MDC samplings the last couple of years have revealed larger blue cats inhabit the lower end of the lake (from the Hurricane Deck Bridge down to the dam) now. According to the fall 2011 jugline survey, blue cats on the lower end averaged 23 inches long, while the average length for blues on the upper end of the lake was 20 inches.
A local angler who enjoys pursuing catfish during the summer at Lake of the Ozarks is James Bryant, who credits his dad, Ed Bryant, with teaching him everything he knows about catfishing.
“There is a misconception that all catfish are bottom feeders, which is not necessarily the truth,” said James Bryant, co-owner of Bryant’s Osage Outdoors in Laurie. “They like to forage more on shad and bluegills, especially the flathead, so in the summer months guys like to use limblines on bluff walls in the evenings and at night when the surface water temperature cools. That’s when flatheads and blue cats will forage more towards the surface and eat live bait.”
The lake’s level is stable and the current is flowing slower during the summer, which allows blue catfish to move from the channel swings up on the flats to feed.
“That is a great place for the shad to congregate,” says Bryant. “I had an old customer of mine who used to say you want to look at the river, especially the Osage arm, as kind of a freeway. All the big fish go up and down the freeway and just like when people get hungry and go off the freeway to look for a McDonald’s or Cracker Barrel, catfish do the same. They are cruising on the freeway and when they need a meal they will go off the overpass (channel swing) and grab a meal (on the flat).”
The Bryants drift in a pontoon boat for catfish with a technique they call “bumping.” They rig their rods with 17- to 20-pound line and slip on a 1-ounce egg sinker followed by a barrel swivel. Attached to the swivel is a 2-foot leader line of 17- to 20-pound test and a 4/0 or 5/0 octopus style hook. The swivel serves the dual purpose of separating the hook from the weight and preventing line twist when the catfish spins while fighting against the line. A couple of shad 2 to 3 inches long are stuck on the hook for bait.
Bryant notes that anglers can catch plenty of frying-sized channel catfish in the 1- to 2-pound range while tightlining from the bank or from one of the lake’s numerous docks. “The easiest way to catch them is to put on a nightcrawler, dough bait or dip bait and even pieces of hotdogs,” he said.
The tackle shop owner recommends using a No. 4 treble hook for a 1-inch section of hotdog or 1-inch dough ball. For night crawlers a No. 2 treble or No. 1 or 1/0 gold hook works best.
A 6-foot medium-action spinning rod with 10- to 12-pound test line is all that’s needed for catching channel cats. Bryant suggests pinching a couple of No. 1 split shot on the line to weigh down the bait. Toss the bait off the dock, let it sink to the bottom and wait for Old Whiskers to bite.
Catfish Safari guide Steve Brown targets big blue cats and mostly drift fishes with cut shad while running four to six rods at one time.
“In the hot summer I try to find them above the thermocline,” says Brown. “People think they go deep in the summertime, to the cooler water, but there is no oxygen down there or not enough for the fish to stay down there. On our lakes there is a thermocline of about 20 feet, and so 99 percent of our fish are caught in 20 feet or less.”