Looking for a trophy? Or simply enough cats for a good meal? Either way, Missouri's whiskerfish waters are sure to suffice. What should you expect from our catfish season this year? (May 2008)
Missouri anglers can access prime catfish waters in virtually any area of the state.
Photo by Keith Sutton.
My first official catfishing outfit consisted of a "knuckle-buster" casting reel mounted somewhat precariously on a telescoping steel rod. Through the years I carried that combo up and down enough muddy riverbanks to realize that trying to stuff most catfishermen -- to say nothing of most catfish -- into one category is akin to trying to walk across inch-thick ice while carrying an anvil.
According to time-honored catfishing tradition, there are three ways to categorize a whiskerfish: by length, by weight, and by the distance between its eyes.
Length is the accepted standard for all catfish measuring less than 16 inches from nose to tail. It's best to describe channel cats between 2 and 10 pounds and blues and flatheads between 2 and 30 pounds by their weight. True catfish addicts grade trophy cats by measuring the distance between the fish's eyes. However, when a survey conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation asked catfishermen to define the minimum weight a catfish must attain to be considered a trophy, a plurality said 10 pounds for channel cats and 20 pounds for blues and flatheads.
Admittedly, living in Missouri makes it easy to be such a flexibly inflexible catfisherman. To avoid spending the rest of my life in a nonstop argument with residents of several other states, I'll refrain from claiming that Missouri is the nation's overall best bet for catfishing. However, the record should show that every Missouri citizen lives within a two-hour drive (at most) from not just one but several bodies of water in which swim catfish that will fit nicely into one, two or perhaps all three of the aforementioned categories.
Alas, while a broad-stroke portrait of the entire state's catfishery is exciting, encouraging and accurate, most of us catters can't spend as much time fishing as we might like. Choosing the right body of water from many has never been a sure thing, and it still won't be after you've finished reading this article, because there are hundreds -- thousands, if you count private ponds -- of good places to catch catfish.
Rather than give you a generalized long-range forecast that would stand little chance of being any more accurate than an almanac's weather forecast, I've provided specific information about a small number of past, present and future catfish hotspots scattered around the state. For purposes of clarity, I'll divide the state into four quadrants with Interstate 70 forming the boundary between north and south across the state. North of I-70, U.S. Route 65 will form the boundary between the northwest and northeast quadrants. South of I-70, U.S. Route 63 will perform the same function regarding the southwest and southeast quadrants. Each quadrant's catfishing potential for 2008 will be illustrated with a big river, a small river, a large reservoir and an MDC impoundment.
The Missouri River is this quadrant's only choice for big-river catfishing, but it's a good one, because it's accessible both from boats and from the bank. An overwhelming majority of the cities, towns and villages located along its banks have public boat ramps, and the Missouri Department of Conservation maintains several others located either directly on the river or a very short boat ride up on one of this section's many tributaries. Most of these boat access sites also include at least some opportunities for fishing from the bank.
Camping is permitted on sandbars and shorelines owned or managed by the MDC and in established public and private campgrounds. Food, lodging and fuel are available in riverside towns but rarely, if ever, on the river itself. There are innumerable bait shops between Route 65 and the state's northwest corner, but based on my own experience, many of these shops keep "banker's hours." Plan on making bait purchases in advance if you want to be on the river at dawn or dusk.
Channel cat numbers are good throughout the northwest quadrant's portion of the Missouri River, but as a general rule, the fishing for channel cats continues to improve the farther upstream an angler ventures. Look for channel cats where the current slows along cutbanks, in the chutes behind islands and on shallow flats.
Flatheads are the reigning big catfish here. Twenty-pounders are relatively common, and flatheads in the 60-pound class are caught every year by both setline and rod and reel fishermen. Look for flatheads around brushpiles, behind wing dikes or other rocky structure and along current seams.
Conventional wisdom dictates that blue catfish numbers decrease in relatively direct proportion to the distance between an angler and the river's mouth. That's probably true, but a lot of blues weighing more than 50 pounds are taken within sight of the Kansas City skyline. In fact, the current state rod and reel record blue, a 103-pounder, was caught near Kansas City in 1991. Blue cats prefer deep water and can handle heavy currents with ease, so expect to find them in the deep scour holes off the ends of wing dikes.
The Grand River may well be the best small river in the entire state for channel cats, and it's far from a poor choice for flatheads up to -- and sometimes exceeding -- 20 pounds. The Grand has a thriving catfish population, and 2008 should be an above-average year, owing to numerous high water episodes in 2007.
MDC access sites are strung like pearls from where the Grand River crosses the Iowa border to its confluence with the Missouri River near Brunswick. Most of these sites have boat ramps, and all of them can be used to fish from the bank. Bridge crossings can also be used to gain access to the river, but fishing from bridges is prohibited.
Wood is the key to catching Grand River cats. Provided that there's enough water to cover their backs, channel cats treat all wood as good wood; flatheads use wood primarily for daytime cover and thus are more particular. Look for substantial logjams in the deepest water available.
South of Plattsburg in Clinton and Clay counties, Smithville Reservoir is a popular choice for big-water catfishermen in northwest Missouri. Good shad production in 2006 should make for much improved channel cat fishing in 2008. Smithville is by far the most bank-angler-friendly U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake in the state, and its shore-angling should be good throughout the season. Channel-cat anglers should also try vertical-fishing jigs tipped with worms in the standing timber found in the upper portion of the
Trotlines and juglines baited with live fish account for most of the flatheads caught at Smithville. The lake has plenty of good flathead habitat, but it also gets a lot of fishing pressure. Twenty-pounders are no problem, but very few flatheads survive the 30 or more years necessary to reach trophy status.
Blue cats aren't stocked in Smithville, and the reservoir's feeder streams are too small to allow for much reproduction. The number of blues in the lake is accordingly declining and will likely continue to do so. That said, some dandy blue cats are caught here every year.
Picking a northwestern Missouri impoundment isn't easy. For example, Kansas City's Lake Jacomo yielded the 34-pound, 10-ounce state-record channel cat back in 1976, and it still boasts a far better than average channel catfishery. Nevertheless, Blue Springs Lake, the headwaters of which is Lake Jacomo's spillway, is a better bet for catfishermen of any skill level, but especially for newcomers to the sport. Channel cats weighing 1 to 3 pounds are abundant in the lake, and are usually eager to help provide the makings for a fish fry.
Big-river catfishermen yearning to see their names in the record book should never pass up a chance to fish northeast Missouri's share of either the Missouri or Mississippi rivers. The current rod-and-reel state record flathead -- 77 pounds, 8 ounces -- was caught in Montrose Lake in 2003; the 123-pound world record was caught in Kansas in 1998. Missouri River flatheads weighing more than 70 pounds were reported in 2006, so it seems certain that a new state-record flathead is swimming in the Missouri River right now. A new world record is certainly far from certain, but is within the realm of possibility.
In addition, the lower Missouri River produces blue cats weighing up to 90 pounds every year, and the rod-and-reel world-record blue cat, which tipped the scales at 124 pounds, was weighed in at East Alton, Ill. If that lucky angler had launched his boat from the Missouri side of the river, the Show-Me State could already claim to have been home to a world-record catfish.
I tried to avoid picking the same small river twice, but the Grand River does lie within the boundaries set for northeast Missouri from Chillicothe downstream to its mouth. More to the point, right now the lower portion of the Grand is the best small river catfish water in this part of the state. Channel cats are abundant, and as the size of the river increases, so do the sizes of the flatheads and, below Bosworth, blue cats.
Mark Twain Lake's many feeder streams make it the best reservoir in the state for enjoying the most exciting variation of channel catfishing. When upstream rainfall causes these feeder streams to rise, channel cats by the thousands -- along with a few flatheads and blues -- crowd into them to gorge on the smorgasbord of food suspended in the current.
Flathead specialists using trotlines and juglines catch a lot of 25- to 40-pounders in the upper third of the North Fork, South Fork and Middle Fork arms. Rod-and-reel anglers could do well in these areas as well, but most of this kind of fishing for flatheads takes place in the first few miles of river below the dam.
According to its managing biologist, Forest Lake, in Thousand Hills State Park near Kirksville, provides "some of the best fishing in the northeast region for cats in the 1- to 3-pound range." Visitors to the lake need to be aware that there is a 90-horsepower limit on boat motors and that the city of Kirksville charges for a permit to operate a private boat on the lake based on horsepower.
The area south of the I-70 bridge may not have a world record to its credit, but, biologists and trophy blue-cat fishermen agree, more Mississippi River-dwelling between-the-eyes blue cats will be found there than north of it. In fact, the dozen river miles on either side of the mouth of the Ohio River may well be the best of the best. There's absolutely no question but that blue cats weighing far more than the current world record inhabit this portion of the river. In addition, trophy flatheads, albeit probably not record-sized ones, are relatively abundant, as are channel cats up to 10 pounds.
The Black River below Clearwater Lake is best known for its walleye fishery, but channel catfishing is also excellent with many fish in the 5-pound class. Flatheads are far less common, but fish over 20 pounds await anyone willing to put forth the effort needed to locate them.
Not surprisingly, Clearwater Lake supports an excellent channel cat fishery, and it's difficult to find a place on the lake where catching them seems impossible. Flatheads are present in the lake in very low numbers. On the other hand, the flatheads that do inhabit Clearwater tend to be large, as evidenced by the fact that 40-pounders are landed here every year.
Fredericktown City Lake in Madison County lacks trophy channel cats, but a lot of its fish reach five pounds. This lake is also a good bet for a from-the-bank family outing.
The Osage River is this quadrant's only big river, and most of it lies submerged beneath the Lake of the Ozarks and Harry S. Truman Reservoir. Even so, fishing for measuring-sized channels and for weighing-sized flatheads and blues is good to excellent above, below and between the two lakes. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the Osage River's once nationally known cruiserweight flatheads and blues. Fishing for big cats remains fair below Bagnell Dam, where roaming Missouri River fish keep replenishing the stock. Conversely, it's still possible to catch a 60-pound blue or flathead in the Truman Dam tailrace, but overall success rates have plummeted as a result of overexploitation of the resource.
The MDC has imposed special maximum length regulations in the no-boat zone below the dam, but, frankly, the trophy fish harvest restrictions apply to a stretch of the river perhaps too small to do much good. While admittedly a shadow of what it once was, Osage River trophy catfishing is still worthwhile west of Roscoe.
After reading the "cloudy skies" forecast for the Osage River, asking if Truman retains its claim to the title "Capital of Missouri's Reservoir Catfishing" is a fair question. The answer is a qualified "yes." On one hand, the days when a jugline catfisherman -- or a rod-and-reel catfisherman for that matter -- could virtually count on catching at least one flathead or blue cat weighing more than 20 pounds and a couple of channel cats in the 8-pound class virtually every time out are gone, probably forever, owing to a combination of overharvest and a mysteriously slow growth rate.
On the other hand, as fisheries biologist Trish Yasger put it, "Truman does not have a recruitment problem." To the contrary, the lake is absolutely stiff with measuring-sized channels and blues, along with good numbers of fish in the lower echelons of the weighing class.
Be prepared for some odd looks when you show up at an Elk River canoe livery toting catfish tackle -- because this clear-water McDonald Co
unty stream became a "Black Bass Management Area" in 2004. Nevertheless, the portion of the river downstream from Noel supports a thriving channel catfish population. Most of these cats wouldn't put much of a strain on the gear used by most Mississippi River catfishermen, but the opportunity to catch feisty channel cats on light tackle from water clean enough to see through is too good to miss.
The fact that Fellows Lake is home to fantastic numbers of channel cats ranging from 8 to 19 inches is no secret to catfishermen living in nearby Springfield. Even so, visitors to the lake in 2008 will find that fishing pressure has had little or no impact on the fishery. Be advised that Springfield City Utilities owns the lake, and the use of boats is subject to obtaining a permit.
Finally, for the benefit of those among you who'd like a simple statewide catfish forecast, here it is: Catfishermen seeking channel cats weighing less than 5 pounds will have a hard time finding a river, stream, reservoir or impoundment that doesn't provide them with at least a fair chance for success -- and, far more likely, a good one. Channel-cat fishermen who dream of breaking the state record should stay home, because the chances of surpassing the current record are minuscule. Conversely, flathead anglers who fish in the state's rivers and reservoirs have a legitimate chance to set a new state record.
To end this article way out on a limb, I predict that a new state-record -- if not world-record -- blue cat will be caught in 2008. If I don't land it, I hope you do.