Flatheads, blues or channels . . . trotlines, jugs or rod and reel. Regardless of your quarry or your method of catching it, Missouri waters promise phenomenal catfish action in 2009. (May 2009)
Flooding during the 2008 spring and summer is believed to have bolstered the growth and survival rates of catfish in Missouri's river systems.
Photo by Bruce Ingram.
These days, former MDC fisheries biologist Kevin Sullivan doesn't spend his days up to his armpits in either catfish statistics or, literally, catfish. Now, he has a fancier title as one of the supervisors at the Clinton District Office. His new duties notwithstanding, Sullivan is still the sharpest tool in the shed on just about any topic associated with Missouri catfish.
When Sullivan and I got together to discuss this article, our first order of business was a figurative backslapping, cap-tossing celebration of our mutual enthusiasm about the near future of river catfishing in the Show-Me State. Both of us gave 2008's repeated -- and sometimes prolonged -- high-water events most of the credit for our optimism, but Sullivan was able to augment the more than 50 years I've spent casting baits into muddy water with some crystal-clear scientific proof.
"Major flood events like the ones we experienced on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers -- and, to a lesser extent, on the Osage (River) west of Truman -- during the 2008 spring and summer set the stage for improved catfishing for a combination of reasons," Sullivan said. "For example, the tremendous increase in food- and cover-rich habitat created when rivers overflow their banks boosts the survival and growth rates of both young-of-the-year catfish and the prey species adult catfish depend upon to maintain satisfactory growth rates. In addition, except for catfishermen like you, high water reduces fishing pressure, which keeps more fish in the system where they can continue to grow."
I had to chuckle at Sullivan's friendly jibe. It's been said that my catfishing partner, Mike Jenkins, and I would "skip work on payday," if there was a reservoir tributary rising anywhere within two (OK, maybe four) hours of Sedalia. Most of the time, that's probably a slight exaggeration, but in 2008, both of us often sang the praises of direct deposit.
At least in our minds, there's a good reason for what, at first glance, might seem to be a lack of responsibility. Whenever heavy rainfall over all or part of a reservoir's watershed pushes a rush of fresh water out of its tributaries, massive numbers of catfish leave the flat water and move into the rising streams. Most of these fish weigh less than 5 pounds, but there will be serious line-stretchers among them.
My catfish boat, a wide-bodied 16-foot johnboat is equipped with anchors at both its bow and stern so it can be anchored crosswise to the current and has sufficient rod holders to allow two anglers to fish with three rods apiece. Dropping six baits into a mass of hungry catfish can give new meaning to the term "action-packed," but it's fun -- especially when it's the other guy who has more rods bouncing than he has hands.
Since my serious conversation with Sullivan wound up beginning with reservoirs rather than rivers, this article will follow suit. For purposes of clarity, the term "reservoir" will be used to describe a multi-thousand-acre impoundment, the primary purpose of which is to provide flood control, generate electricity or both.
The Harry S. Truman Dam and Reservoir is now and, for the foreseeable future, will continue to be Missouri's premier flatwater catfishery. And why shouldn't it be? Truman Dam sits astride the Osage River, the non-impounded portions of which are the state's third-best moving-water catfishery. Its major tributaries include the Pomme de Terre, Sac and South Grand rivers, plus Big Tebo Creek. All four of these streams were producing impressive numbers of catfish before Truman flooded the last several miles before their confluence with what had been the Osage. In addition, dozens of small permanent and wet-weather creeks provide the reservoir's catfish with near-perfect habitat and an intermittent but bountiful food source.
Truman spent most of 2008 well into its flood pool. This allowed the reservoir's channel cats (the lake is positively chock-full of channel cats) to put on some much needed weight. Blue cats, especially those in the 2- to 15-pound range, were also able to defy Truman's chronic low growth rate for all three large catfish species. Flathead response to a single year's conditions are harder to measure, but it's safe to assume that Truman's "scaleless muskie" did quite well in an expanded hunting ground.
Roaming schools of blue catfish use every bit of Truman's water from bank to bank and from top to bottom. This trait makes using free-floating jug lines one of the best -- and certainly the most popular -- methods. Rod-and-reel purists can get in on the fun by drifting across deep flats close to submerged river channels. If you come to Truman for blue cats, be forewarned that, while the reservoir still harbors a lot of fish, its glory days as a trophy blue cat fishery have passed, primarily due to overexploitation of the resource.
Most of the flatheads taken from Truman are caught on trotlines, with incidental catches made by anglers who were fishing for other species coming in second. Here's a word to the wise: Truman has the potential to be an excellent place to catch trophy flatheads on rod and reel.
Smithville Reservoir, located on the Little Platte River in the shadow of Kansas City, should be another good choice for all three major catfish species this year. Smithville is by far the friendliest of the state's major reservoirs for anglers who prefer to fish from shore. Large expanses of shoreline on the lake's lower east side and smaller tracts elsewhere around the lake are maintained specifically to provide easy access for whole families of catfishermen. Best of all, as is the case in other reservoirs, most of Smithville's channel cats spend the majority of their time within casting distance of the shoreline.
Juglines baited with shad and drifted in the main body of the lake account for most of the blue cats caught here. That said, rod-and-reel catfishermen catch a lot of blue cats either drift-fishing or by locating a school of fish and then tight-line fishing "right in amongst 'em."
Flatheads seemingly take perverse pleasure in making liars out of fishing forecasters, but the best bet for this species is almost always in timbered coves and on tree-lined flats near the old river channel above the no-sailboat line. Whether you're using a trotline, a limbline or a rod and reel, a lively green sunfish is an odds-on choice.
The Mississippi River has gained a nationwide reputation for pro
ducing monster blue cats. In fact, it's all but certain that some lucky angler will wrest a new all-tackle, world-record blue cat from the portion of the Mississippi River that borders Missouri. Furthermore, it's likely -- albeit far from certain -- that this fish will be caught between Cape Girardeau and the mouth of the Ohio River. Best of all, that record catch just might be made in 2009.
One-hundred-pound blue cats aren't uncommon as far upstream as St. Louis. Blue cats can sometimes be found immediately downstream from the system of federal dams and locks that begins near St. Louis and stretches to the state's northern border. Even so, blue cat numbers and average size decline rapidly the farther north of St. Louis you go.
There are more channel cats per mile of river above St. Louis than below it, but that's like saying there are more birds in one flock of starlings than in another. Look for channel cats on current-washed flats, on the upstream side of wing dams and in chutes between islands and the riverbank.
Flatheads are more common -- or at least more commonly caught -- upstream from St. Louis, where the lock and dam system provides more of the wood-strewn backwater cover this species prefers. That said, some truly impressive flatheads are pulled from the fast water off the tips of wing dikes throughout Missouri's portion of the river.
As Kevin Sullivan alluded to at the beginning of this article, several sustained periods of high water in 2008 should make this the first of several years of steadily increasing good fishing on the Missouri River.
Statistically speaking, blue cats are most numerous in the lower portion of the river, and both their numbers and their maximum size steadily decrease as one moves upstream. Overall, that's undoubtedly true, but the current state record was caught near Kansas City, and enough blue cats can be found as far upstream as the state's northern border to make targeting the species worthwhile.
Veteran Missouri River catfishermen who specialize in catching big blue cats on rod and reel have a saying: "You can't fish too deep in the daytime or too shallow at night." When one of these men is fishing a tournament, he looks for a scour hole at least 30 feet deep that's bordered by a sandbar between 2 and 6 feet deep.
Channel cats are abundant throughout the Missouri River. Flats, chutes, the upstream sides of wing dams and the mouths of tributaries are hotspots for this species.
The upper third of the Missouri River is the state's best bet for flatheads by any method, and it's especially well suited for anglers who prefer to fish with rod and reel. During high-water periods, look for flatheads to be concentrated in the first mile of tributary streams. At other times, logjams, riprap banks and wing dams on the main river are the best places to try your luck.
Why I designated the Mississippi and Missouri as "big rivers" is obvious, but the term "small river" has a much broader definition, namely every other stream in the state except the Osage River. That includes rivers that were once navigable by commercial boats; wadeable, mud-banked northern and central Missouri creeks; and gravel-bottomed, clear-water Ozark streams. All, with the possible exception of the coldest headwaters of a few streams on the Ozark Plateau, are home to channel cats and, in most cases, flatheads.
In Missouri, the water in all "navigable" streams is public property. The term navigable has a very generous, if somewhat ephemeral, definition that includes virtually any stream large enough to hold fish of interest to anglers. Under Common Law, anglers may access these streams at bridge crossings either to launch small boats or to fish from shore so long as the angler remains below the "normal" high water mark. This is what old timers called the "first bank" and is not necessarily the point at which the river begins to flood.
Under the right conditions, catfishing can be good -- or even excellent -- in virtually every stream in the state. That said, here are two of the very best.
The Grand River: If you prefer to wade, fish from the bank or use any type of boat from a canoe to a tricked-out 20-foot river johnboat, you'll be able to find water to your liking somewhere between where the Grand River enters the state in Worth County and where it joins the Missouri River near Bosworth. You'll also find more public access points than on any other Missouri stream of similar size.
The Grand was the first small river Sullivan mentioned when our conversation turned to that topic. He pointed out that the river can produce excellent numbers of channel cats and some surprisingly large flatheads almost anywhere along its entire length. The occasional "maverick" notwithstanding, blue cats confine themselves to the first few miles of the river above its mouth and are most numerous when high water on the Missouri forces even the most current-loving of catfish to seek respite.
The Grand's watershed is huge, and when a region-wide rain causes it to rise, it really rises. The resulting currents and floating debris are nothing to ignore.
The Black River: Admittedly, the portion of the Black River from the Clearwater Lake dam to the Arkansas line (Wayne and Butler counties) is a long way from home for most Missouri catfishermen, but it just might be worth the trip. Not only does the Black have one of the best channel cat populations in the state, but it's the best bet for channel cats that will pull the scales past -- sometimes well past -- the 5-pound mark.
For those who aren't channel cat purists, the bad news is that the Black River's catfishery lacks blue cats, and, while flatheads are present, there are many better places to fish for them.
For our purposes here, an "impoundment" is a manmade body of water owned or managed by the MDC. These little -- and, sometimes, not so little -- gems are scattered liberally across the state in every type of habitat imaginable. Some are located within the corporate limits of the state's largest cities.
The one thing they all have in common is catfish. A few (Che-Ru Lake in Linn County, for example) yield trophy flatheads. Fewer still (Pony Express Lake in DeKalb County, for example) produce some big blue cats as a result of former planned and current ex officio stockings. However, this is one case where the exceptions really do prove the rule. When you think of MDC impoundments, think channel cats, because to the best of my knowledge, every impoundment in the state contains them.
Impoundments are definitely the most angler-friendly places to catch catfish. While boats are an asset on some of them, fishermen who cast from shore do well on all of them. Most have well-developed facilities, and a quick check of the MDC Web site is all it takes to make sure the impoundment you're thinking about fishing has the type of facilities (disabled access, restrooms, boat ramps) that you'll require.
Predicting which of Missouri's many good impoundments will produce the best catfishing this year
is, admittedly, an experienced-based guess on the part of the MDC's fisheries biologists and myself. Nevertheless, I'll give it a go by selecting two channel cat hotspots that are close to home for southwestern Missouri's too often forgotten catfishermen.
Shawnee Trail CA: This Barton County conservation area provides a unique angling experience, because its fishable water is made up of a number of strip mine pits and ponds. A few of the pits and ponds are large enough for disabled-access docks, jetties and even boat ramps. Most, however, are walk-in, an endeavor that is being made easier by mowed pathways and other improvements. The best of the best for channel cats should be pits 1 and 29 and ponds 34 and 39.
Fellows Lake: This lake lies in Springfield's shadow. It's owned and controlled by Springfield Utilities, but its fishery is managed by the MDC. This may well be the year for catfishing at Fellows Lake. Super abundant -- but undersized -- channel cats have been reported from the lake for the past several years. Channel cats are still abundant here, but they've grown to respectable size.
Some bank-fishing opportunity exists here, but a boat is a real asset. All boats used on the lake must have a permit issued by Springfield Utilities.
For more information on any of the bodies of water discussed in this article, check out the MDC's Web site or contact the appropriate MDC regional or district office.