Night Shift Blues

Night Shift Blues

These experts have great fun catching big Missouri River catfish at night. Follow their advice and you can get in on the action too! (August 2009)

Adam Wolf, owner of Tombstone Tackle in Columbia, makes a habit of taking giant blue catfish from the Missouri River at night. This 70-pounder is a good example of what he's catching.
Photo courtesy of Adam Wolf.

On the Missouri River, Heart-pounding things really do go bump in the night, and that's never more likely to happen than during the month of August.

One minute, the barely audible thrum of the anchor rope, straining to hold the boat bow-on into the current and the even-more-subtle hiss of swift water passing under the hull are the only sounds you can hear. Then, with no warning whatsoever, the clicker on one of the reels at the stern of the boat starts to scream.

You and your partner reach the bucking rod at the same time, and it takes both of you to pry it out of its holder. Somewhere out in the darkness, "something" thrashes on the surface for the briefest of moments before getting serious about ridding itself of whatever has pricked its jaw.

If your knots hold and if you've paid sufficient homage to the Big Muddy's ancient spirits, eventually a blue head and a forked tail, separated by 4 or 5 feet of muscle and bone, will be brought to heel and manhandled into the boat. This is a fish that doesn't suffer from the piscatorial version of "ground shrinkage." It looks big in the water, it looks big on the boat's deck, and it will look big when the scales are applied.

If that sounds like something you'd like to try, the odds are you won't have to drive far to do it. A significant majority of our state's citizens live less than 50 miles from the Missouri River. In fact, it passes through the state's two largest cities.

With that many people so close to that much water -- the Missouri River is, by far, the state's largest body of water -- it might seem logical that bank-fishing opportunities would abound. Unfortunately, that's not the case for anglers targeting double-digit blue cats. While riverside city parks, Missouri Department of Conservation accesses, and federal land purchased after the 1993 flood do provide some walk-in access to the riverbank, a boat remains a virtual necessity.

Even so, operating a fishing boat on this particular river requires an "attitude adjustment" when compared with boating anywhere else in the state. When I was talking to retired MDC employee Craig Gemming recently, I made the potentially embarrassing admission that the Missouri River is the only body of water I've ever been on that scared me.

"That's a good thing," he replied. "I'm afraid of the river, too, and I've been fishing it for many years. In fact, you should tell your readers that, if they ever stop being at least a little bit afraid while they're fishing on the Missouri, they need to get off of the river immediately and stay off of it."

So, what type of boat is required to fish -- not merely float downstream, but fish -- the Missouri River safely in the daytime, let alone at night? Wide-beamed, flat-bottomed john­boats powered by outboard motors in the 90- to 150-horsepower class are, by far, the most popular with experienced "river rats." This boat style allows the current to slip underneath it with minimal resistance, which makes both boat control when underway and anchoring far easier than it would be with a deeper hull.

Slightly smaller "river johns" (mine is 16 feet long and is powered by a 30-horsepower outboard) are adequate under normal water level and settled weather conditions. Bass boats can also do double duty as river boats, but anchors weighing 30 pounds or more are required to hold them stationary in the heavy currents.

Having the right boat isn't the whole package, of course. The boat's operator absolutely must have the ability to read complex currents, have a thorough knowledge of Coast Guard-approved buoys and other navigation aids, and have the courage to allow his common sense to override temptation.

Well, enough of that. Hang onto your caps, because we're about to take off on a fishing trip that's very likely to produce the biggest freshwater fish of your life -- and just might put your name in the record book!

Deciding what part of the river to fish isn't easy, partly because jumbo blues can be found anywhere from where the river enters the state's northwest corner to where it joins the Mississippi River near St. Louis. That said, blue cat populations are much higher east of Kansas City than north of it. The stretch of the Missouri River between the mouth of the Grand River downstream to Hermann is exceptionally productive, but a lot of big cats are caught close to the St. Louis metro area.

Access can, and sometimes should, be a factor in deciding where to fish. Boat ramps are plentiful along the Missouri River, but many of them, to use Gemming's term, are "tricky" and best left to the experts. He suggests using launch ramps located close to the river in tributary streams. The MDC's Conservation Atlas or a call to the MDC district office in charge of the portion of the river you'd like to fish will point you in the right direction.

Adam Wolf, owner of Columbia's Tombstone Tackle, manages to find at least four nights a week to fish for big blues. And he's a fountainhead of information on all things catfishing. What's more, he and the river rats that gather at Tombstone are eager to share what they know.

Wolf opened our conversation by stating his belief that 2009 would be one of the best years for big blue cats since the big floods of the mid-1990s. He bases that prediction on the fact that not only did 2008's high water discourage trotline fishing, but that it also moved a lot of fish up out of the Mississippi River.

I next asked Wolf about tackle, and he quickly voiced his preference for bull-stout rods mated to baitcasting reels more commonly found on saltwater big-game boats. Like many big catfish specialists, he uses 9/0 and 10/0 octopus hooks.

His choice of lines, on the other hand, is anything but standard. Instead of the 80-pound-plus braided lines favored by many of his peers, Wolf uses 20- to 30-pound-test copolymer. His reasoning is simple: "Catfish line needs to stretch. If it doesn't, big fish pull off and tackle gets wrecked."

Owning a bait-and-tackle shop gives Wolf the luxury of having a wide range of catfish baits at his fingertips. Nevertheless, it's a pretty safe bet that during August he'll be using cut bait made from frozen skipjack herring. Other possibilities include shad and goldeye, either frozen or fresh

-caught from the river.

I thought I was asking Wolf a rhetorical question when I asked him what type of structure he preferred to fish in August. I was in for a surprise.

"One thing's for certain," he replied. "I won't be anywhere near a wing dike. I know that's contrary to everything you've read about fishing the Missouri River, but wing dikes are not the places to be if you're hunting big blues during August. At other times of the year, yes, but not in August."

Instead, Wolf uses his electronics to search for water 15 to 20 feet deep with plenty of current. He then refines his search to locate ditches, humps or "anything different" on the bottom. Changes in depth of as little as 2 feet are enough to attract and hold big blues.

Once he's located a likely spot, Wolf moves his boat far enough upstream so that, when the boat is anchored, he's within casting distance of the spot he wants to fish but not over it. Wolf's boat is equipped with a custom-made device with four rod holders, which spans the boat just ahead of the motor. The inside pair of rods is fished straight downstream, and their baits are kept on the bottom with 6-ounce weights. Each of the outside rods is cast across and downstream. Depending on the current, 12-ounce weights are often necessary to keep the baits on those rods from being swept directly downstream.

Although he modestly insists he's not as good at it as some of his buddies, Wolf also fishes sandbars. Sunset will find him working the extreme upstream side of the bar in water approximately 10 feet deep. After it's completely dark, he'll weigh anchor and allow his boat to slip downstream until he can fish water around 6 feet deep. Midnight will find him fishing in as little as 1 or 2 feet of water.

The most important thing Wolf and an increasing number of other catfishermen are doing is releasing all of the big blues they catch. Usually it's done immediately after the fish is landed, but Wolf sometimes holds them overnight in tanks at Tombstone Tackle, photographs them the next morning and then releases them.

For more information or help with bait, tackle or tactics, contact Tombstone Tackle, 1206 Business Loop 70 West, Columbia, MO; or call (573) 874-2277.

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