March 23, 2022
Until you’ve experienced it, nothing can really prepare you for facing the astonishing power of a trophy-class blue catfish. Once hooked, these big brutes can fry drags, break rods and snap line like it’s sewing thread. One 50-pounder I once hooked slammed me into the boat’s gunwale so hard I had bruises for weeks. A really big one can pummel an angler till his arms tremble and his legs turn to Jell-O.
Most anglers have a fascination with big fish and want to do battle with them. In the Midwest, with a few exceptions, not many freshwater gamefish rival a truly large blue catfish. And March is a prime time for catching these whiskered giants, especially in the big rivers flowing through the region. Fish the right bait in the right place at the right time in a sprawling, fast-moving river and you’ll find them.
You’ll have to land one topping 60 or 70 pounds before anybody starts batting an eye in some areas, but that’s always a distinct possibility.
Generally, catfish that were slow to bite throughout much of winter start responding more quickly to anglers’ offerings as we transition to spring. There are several reasons for this.
First, the water temperature is rising due to longer days and warm spring rains. As a result, catfish feeding activity increases substantially with each passing day. This is also the pre-spawn period, so catfish are gorging themselves on forage to add weight that will carry them through the summer reproductive cycle when very little is eaten. The sluggishness and reduced rations of winter leave fish with a burgeoning hunger. With rising temperatures stimulating their metabolism, cats are now almost constantly prowling for shad, herring, carp and other favored forage to satisfy their appetites.
An influx of water from heavy spring downpours and snowmelt this month also swells many rivers. The resulting increase in current concentrates blue cats in areas where they can escape the excessive flow—scour holes, creek channel edges, river backwaters and the like. Higher fish densities mean better catches for savvy cat fans who know where to find them.
In summary, early spring cats are active, hungry and concentrated in dense schools—a great situation if you’re trying to hook one.
In many respects, blue cats behave more like striped bass than other catfish species. Shad, herring and other schooling baitfish comprise most of their diet, and like stripers, they follow the baitfish wherever they go. It makes sense then that to catch river blues, you, too, must follow the schools.
Big schools of baitfish congregate in well-oxygenated tailwaters of big-river dams, which makes these prime spots to fish where available. Cast your rig into the grooves of slower-moving water between discharge areas and let it sink. Then, lift the weight and allow the current to wash your rig downstream a few feet. Let the weight down again and repeat the process. Doing this allows you to cover a big area, and cats have a chance to detect the bait and take it.
When fishing outside tailwaters, look for river blues holding near deep, open-water structures that break the current. The edges of river channel drop-offs produce many trophy fish, as do deep edges of gravel and sand bars, undercut banks near outside bends and deep holes adjacent to wing dikes.
Use a fish finder to zero-in on easily definable channel edges, as well as subtle drops and ledges. These are catfish magnets, and in late winter you’re likely to chart a dozen or more fish near each structural feature.
When it comes to the gear necessary for landing these hard-fighting brutes in heavy river current, bigger is better. Use 7-foot-plus, medium- to heavy-action rods with soft tips for detecting bites and heavy butts for strength. Go with big, large-capacity baitcasting reels and heavy line (50-pound-plus). Similarly, fish large sinkers (4 ounces and up) and hooks (4/0 and up). Also, regularly check everything to ensure all items are functional and ready to handle big fish.
When bank fishing or when fishing dam tailwaters where long casts are necessary, I switch to a 12- to 15-foot, medium-heavy- to heavy-action spinning combo like those used for surf fishing.
One of the best catfishing rigs for big rivers is a three-way rig with a circle hook and bell sinker. For the main line, use at least 50-pound test—preferably abrasion-resistant braided line—to tackle trophy-class blue cats. Tie the main line to one eye of a three-way swivel and add droplines 12 and 24 inches long to the swivel’s other two eyes.
The 12-inch dropline is the sinker line and should be 20-pound mono so it breaks easily if the sinker snags in rocks. The 24-inch dropline is the hook line and should be the same braid as your main line. Tie a 5/0 to 12/0 wide-gap circle hook on it, and a 1/2- to 4-ounce bell sinker (heavier in swifter current) to the shorter dropline.
This rig allows your bait to float above but near the bottom so cats can easily find it. Remember, when using circle hooks, don’t set the hook with a hard snatch. When a catfish runs with the bait, just start reeling fast and you should hook the fish in the corner of the mouth.
Fresh, oily baitfish are the best baits for trophy blues, especially shad, skipjack herring or Asian carp. One that is live and wiggling will sometimes outperform cut bait. But in most situations, whole dead baitfish or baitfish sliced for cut bait are just as effective as live ones, so long as you use baits that were freshly killed.
Some anglers prefer to fillet baits and use strips of side meat. Others like cutting each fish crosswise into sections—head and tail or head, middle and tail. All will work at times, but if one piece doesn’t garner a bite, try a different one. Blue cats can be picky.
To catch blues holding along bottom channels, work your rig directly beneath a boat, keeping your line perpendicular to your rod tip. This increases sensitivity to strikes. Move along the drop-off using a trolling motor, wind or current to drift along the channel. When you find fish, work the area thoroughly, as several cats may congregate there.
If you’re targeting a deep hole, expect blues to move about, gobbling up any food that drifts nearby. Anchor upstream, then cast to the hole and let the reel free-spool until the weight hits bottom. Work each hole thoroughly, top to bottom and front to back, noting where strikes occur. Concentrate on the most productive spots.
Keep in mind that big blue cats usually stay in deeper areas during sunny days and move shallow to feed at night and on cloudy days. Work your bait accordingly.
If you don’t get a hit right away, don’t get antsy. Big-river blue cats are like kids after fresh-baked cookies. They home in on the aroma and follow the scent trail to track down their treats. Their often-lethargic nature during this season requires extra patience. Give the bait plenty of time to do its job before moving it to a new locale.
HIT THE RIVER
During late winter and early spring, you have a better-than-average chance of landing a true leviathan—if you do your part. Use the right gear and baits, fish in the right spots and be ready for battle. If the stars align, you’ll be in for the fish fight of your life.
BLUE CAT BATTLEGROUNDS
Midwest whiskerfish fans should check out these renowned rivers for big blues.
Those looking to tangle with behemoth blues have plenty of location options throughout the Midwest. Big rivers run throughout the region, and many of them contain stretches offering truly phenomenal action for big blue cats. Plan a trip to one of these world-class waters for your chance at a giant.
KANSAS RIVER CATS
Formed by the confluence of the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers, the Kansas River runs east across a decent portion of the state, passing Topeka and Lawrence before reaching the Missouri River at Kansas City. It’s a dark horse in the pack of blue cat hot spots, but don’t underestimate its potential for producing trophy blues.
Missouri’s Osage River deserves mention as well. The stretch from Bagnell Dam to the Missouri River near Jefferson City harbors numerous 50- to 75-pound fish. Seasoned cat men who fish there believe this river may harbor blues pushing the 150-pound mark. One veteran angler says he’s released blue cats back into the river that weighed 101 and 121 pounds, and he claims to have hooked some bigger.
PRAIRIE STATE SLEEPERS
Illinois doesn’t always get the attention it deserves when it comes to trophy blues. However, great fishing abounds in waters statewide, especially the Mississippi River in the west and the Ohio River in the southeast. These waters don’t get the pressure seen on most Deep South rivers, so they’re hotbeds for trophy-sized blues.
BIG MUDDY BLUES
Missouri’s pole-and-line state record, a 130-pound former world-record blue cat, was caught in the Missouri River in St. Louis County in 2010. Several more 100-pound-plus blues have been caught in recent years, making this one of the nation’s best waterways for giant whiskerfish. Action is good in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.
Anglers have been regularly landing monster blues on the Ohio River in recent years. As a result, the Buckeye State has earned a place in the discussion of top trophy blue cat destinations. Blues to 100 pounds or more are always possible, and 50-pound-plus fish have become increasingly common.