Morris 'Indiana' Johnson -- Ohio River Catfish Expert
October 04, 2010
One of our state's very own whiskerfish gurus shares his tips on taking big catfish from the Ohio River.
Have you ever caught a catfish from the Ohio River that weighed 52 pounds? Have you ever caught five albino catfish in one year from the Ohio River, with each one weighing above the 20-pound mark? Have you ever caught 3,000 pounds of catfish from this river in one year with rod and reel? Have you ever caught a 31-pound blue from the Ohio that was so peculiar looking that the Bass Pro Shop in Clarksville, Indiana has it living in a tank for public viewing?
If you answered no to most or all of the above questions, you shouldn't feel alone or inadequate as an angler. Few fishermen could answer yes to all or any of those questions. But there is one fisherman in southern Indiana who has accomplished all of those angling achievements. His name is Morris Johnson, and he's ready to share his knowledge and tips on how and where to catch huge catfish from the Ohio River using nothing more than a good boat, proper tackle, the right kind of bait and a lot of skill.
Johnson, who is in his 60s and is retired, resides on the west side of Evansville. His home is close to the University of Southern Indiana and just a few minutes drive from the banks of the Ohio River, which is his favorite body of water to fish for trophy catfish. Of course, the Ohio flows along the southern border of our state basically from Hardinsburg to Mt. Vernon, and is nature's fluid way of separating Indiana from Kentucky.
In fact, Johnson's favorite stretch of the river to fish runs from the Twin Bridges of Evansville (which spans from Evansville to Henderson, Kentucky) all the way downstream to Mt. Vernon. However, Johnson will occasionally sacrifice more travel time and fish above and below the Newburgh Dam.
OK, I know what you are thinking. I've told you what stretch of the river Johnson favors but not specifically where he catches those monster blues and flatheads that exceed the 40-pound-plus mark. Morris Johnson is not bashful about sharing his secrets. He is so confident of his fishing skills that competition on the water from a few readers as the result of this article doesn't bother him in the least.
But before we get into specific locations, you must know that Johnson fishes from his boat with three rods (legal limit per person) fishing tight-line on the bottom. Thus, before he sets up, he looks for two important structures in the river before he drops anchor in his pursuit of trophy-class whiskerfish.
First, Johnson uses his depthfinder to find exactly where the shelf from the bank drops off into the deep water of the old bank. Yes, you have to remember that the new dams widened the river and deepened the water level of this section of the Ohio River. So one of Johnson's favorite spots to fish is on the bottom next to the bank of the old riverbed in 20 or 30 feet of water.
Johnson has found that the big whiskerfish swim and feed on the bottom parallel to the old riverbank. So he locates and anchors his boat where he can cast all three lines downstream into this feeding trough.
Second, the next location that he likes to fish is below or downstream from a considerable logjam (he emphasized that it must be a major jam). "When there is a super amount of current, I will fish real close to logjams," he said.
So much the better if the river is running fast. Johnson said it is not unusual for him to tie up to the logjam and then fish below it where the lunkers come in to rest from the current and to feed. And if you can, locate a logjam in conjunction with the location of the old riverbank in 25 to 30 feet of water, then you have the best of both locations for your setup.
As mentioned previously, a strong, swift current, Johnson said, is very important if you want to catch big catfish. "I like the son-of-a-gun whistling Dixie. Slow current is not good for catching big fish."
Thus if the river is running, it is usually not at pool stage. In fact, one of Johnson's favorite times to fish is in the spring when the river is out of its banks and flooding the fields. It is at this time, late April and all of May, that he will revert from deep-water fishing to shallow-water fishing for big blues and flatheads. Johnson said that this is a good to time to fish ledges and small tributaries, such as ditches and creeks that feed the river.
"At this time, I like to anchor in 2 feet of water and fish in 1 foot of water because the big fish are up there chasing baitfish."
In the summer months, Johnson prefers to locate that feeding trough on the bottom next to the old bank or try to locate a dandy logjam to fish below, and the more current the better. In the spring and the fall when the river is running out of its banks, locate those ledges in shallow water where giant blue catfish are searching for baitfish. "October and November are the best months. You'll catch fewer catfish, but you'll catch bigger ones," Johnson said.
Since Johnson emphasizes getting out on the river when it's mean, cold and nasty, I wanted to know what size boat was needed to fish safely under those type of conditions. He took me out to his garage for a look at his rig. I could see that if you want to catch big catfish, you had better have a big boat and a motor to match it.
Johnson chases catfish on the Ohio in an 18-foot aluminum boat with 60 inches across the bottom powered by a 60-horse Mercury four-stroke engine. It is fitted with a 58-inch livewell that will handle 40- to 50-pound-class catfish, two pedestal seats, eight rod holders (four on each side) and a heavy-duty dip net.
When I commented that my fishing boat would fit inside his, Johnson's tone became serious, "Get a big enough boat. I've never been afraid in the boat that I've got now. When the river is up to around 35 or 40 feet and running hard, it's pretty hairy out there." A point well taken to take heed, if you are going to fish the Ohio during dangerous conditions.
Since we had covered the where, when and the best type of watercraft to be used when chasing giant catfish, I decided it was time to ask this fishing sage about what kind of tackle he uses when he goes to battle against beefy catfish.
"I use a 6 1/2- or 7-foot Power Plus Trophy Class rod that is rated for 30- to 50-pound-test line topped with an Ambassadeur 5600 C4 baitcasting reel. But I use 65-pound-test braided Power Pro line with a 30-pound-test leader. Attach a No. 5 Eagle Claw circle hook and a 2- to 4-ounce weight and you are ready to fish."
I asked, "Is that it?"
Johnson nodded yes and with a smile replied, "The rod only costs $19.95.
So the cost of tackle used for taking on monster cats is pretty affordable, once you get past the purchase of a boat and motor -- a small price to pay for the chance to land a trophy catfish.
What about bait? Inside his boat, he had a blue and white 20-quart cooler rigged with a small electric aerator. The aerator was purchased at Wal-Mart from the pet supply section. He then drilled a hole in the cooler and ran a small plastic tube from the aerator to the inside of the cooler in order to keep the water in the cooler oxygenated where baitfish could survive.
When Johnson flipped back the lid of the cooler, a dozen small sunfish were swimming about. This guy is dead serious about chasing trophy cats, and it doesn't matter what time of the year it is. He is ready at all times to hit the Ohio at a moment's notice in order to wrestle a trophy catfish into his boat. In other words, he's dedicated to his sport.
Johnson's favorite bait is living or cut bluegill. He prefers live bait, but he doesn't waste bait either. If a bluegill dies in his bait cooler, he cuts its head off and uses it for bait.
Is this legal bait? "It's legal as long as you catch the bluegill on rod and reel. Then the fish becomes your property, and you can do with it what you want," Johnson said.
And Johnson is correct. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resource's Web site www.in.gov/ dnr: "You may use wild fish as live bait as long as the fish was caught legally and meets any size, catch or possession limits established for that species. Goldfish may be used as live bait. Carp and gizzard shad cannot be used as live bait, except at Brookville Lake where live shad may be used."
In order to keep his cooler full of bait, Johnson makes an occasional trip to a local lake with hook and worm. His goal is to catch small bluegills to be used as dinner for blues and flatheads. Johnson will not use frozen bait, only fresh bait.
Johnson stresses that he takes great care in hooking his baitfish so they better entice those big catfish. His bait must be hooked so it swims in the water with a natural look, or he won't cast it overboard. Thus, he hooks the bluegill from under the chin up into the head between the eyes with those No. 4 or 5 circle hooks that he so highly recommends.
He said bluegills are tough, and they will stay alive for a long time when hooked in this fashion. This is why he prefers bluegills to shad. "Bluegills are tough enough, and most of the time when you get a bite, you get a fish. Shad is too soft, but I have used it."
OK, if bluegills were tough, wouldn't it be hard to set the hook? Johnson said he never sets the hook. When that catfish curls that rod tip within inches of the water, he just starts reeling. He never jerks the rod. That's why he swears by circle hooks.
"It is said that using circle hooks will increase your sets by 20 percent. That percentage is too low -- they have doubled my ability to hook fish."
Now you know where to fish, when to fish, what kind of gear is needed and the best type of bait to use if you want to have your photograph taken while holding a 45-pound blue catfish.
What is the most memorable experience for a man whose top three blues have weighed in at 49, 50 and 52 pounds? He said his most memorable experience was catching a "cowfish." His fishing buddy that day nicknamed the strange-looking blue catfish, "cowfish" because its skin color reminded him of a black and white Holstein cow. Johnson caught this strange-looking catfish from the Ohio River last November; it weighed in at 31 pounds and was 36 inches long.
According to Indiana's assistant district fishery biologist Jason Doll, a bluefish with this type of skin color is called a piebald catfish. Biologist Doll went on to say that piebald skin color is a genetic morph, which is more atypical than the albino skin color. The piebald color appears among horses and deer, too. But it is very rare to catch a piebald blue catfish. In fact, Johnson's cowfish is the first that Doll has heard of ever being caught in southern Indiana.
Thus, it is no wonder that this extraordinary black and white mottled blue is now on live exhibit in a glass-sided aquarium at the Bass Pro Shop in Clarksville.
"That fish is so beautiful, I wouldn't have killed it for $1,000," Johnson said.
Another memorable story is one Johnson calls his "ice cream" trip. Johnson had invited his grandson, Chad Johnson, to go catfishing with him on the river. It was Chad's 13th birthday and Johnson had a nice birthday present waiting in the boat for his grandson. Soon Johnson and Chad were anchored next to the Alcoa warmwater discharge area.
At that time, Johnson produced two new rods and reels rigged for heavy-duty catfish angling. He asked Chad to choose which rod and reel he would like to have for his birthday. Chad pondered for a minute and then picked up a rig and said he believed this pole would catch a 40-pounder. Johnson laughed and bet Chad an ice cream cone that he wouldn't catch a whiskerfish that would weigh 40 pounds.
On Chad's first cast into the bubbling, swirling current, he caught a 41-inch flathead that weighed 40 pounds. Needless to say, Grandpa was proud of his grandson and was more than glad to lose that bet. After telling me that story, Johnson laughed, shook his head and said, "I've said that twice now and bought two ice cream cones. I don't think I will make that bet anymore."
To me it sounded like the perfect ending to a perfect day of angling for monster catfish on the Ohio River. And there's no time like the present to get started trying this exciting kind of fishing.