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The Missouri River: Trophy Cats Galore

The Missouri River: Trophy Cats Galore

If trophy catfish are your thing, the Missouri River is where you should be this summer. Read what the experts have to say about fishing this legendary river.

By Ed Harp

If you want to catch a big freshwater fish - say, something over 20 pounds - you only have so many choices. Three of them are catfish: blues, flatheads and channel cats. Blues and flatheads can grow to gigantic proportions. Flatheads attain weights in excess of 75 pounds, and blues reach the 100-pound mark on occasion.

Selecting one body of water in one state for such a trophy is a big, big, task - one made all the more difficult by the task of selecting among the many fine catfish waters that Missouri anglers have to choose from: the Missouri River, Truman Reservoir, the Mississippi River, and others.

The task is made a little easier, however, by the fact that one body of water has produced two state records in the last 13 years: a 103 pound blue caught in 1991 and a 77.5 pound flathead caught in 1997. Both fish were taken from the Missouri River with rod and reel.

History is probably the best predictor of the future, so if you're looking for a trophy catfish - blues or flatheads - you need to be fishing the Missouri River.

According to Ross Dames, chair of the Missouri Department of Conservation's catfish management committee, the state has been working on a plan that will better catfishing opportunities, and those involving plus-sized specimens in particular, across the state. And figuring prominently in the plan is the Missouri River.

Flatheads like this can already be had all along the Missouri River. And efforts are being made to increase the number of big flatheads. Photo courtesy of Dale Williams

Dames, keenly aware that the recreational popularity of the catfish is huge in Missouri, believes that a management plan should offer something for all anglers - for those who want to haul in high numbers as well as for those who want to catch big individuals - and the committee has spent considerable time and money on the project. After considerable public review and input, a draft of their plan, A Statewide Catfish Management Plan, was published in December 2003. (Final approval had not been granted as of this writing.)


Dames is confident that Missouri can return to the "old days," when gigantic catfish were common in the state, and the committee report incorporates historical references to some really enormous catfish. One report from 1866 has a blue catfish harvested from the Missouri River weighing 315 pounds; another, harvested in 1868, was said to weigh 242 pounds. While these stories should be viewed with some skepticism, it's important to note that comparable fish were reportedly taken from the Mississippi and Ohio rivers around the same time.

In fairness, Dames and the other committee members don't suggest that anything they do can be expected to result in catfish of these reputed sizes being taken from Missouri waters in the future. They do, however, think that proper management and angler cooperation can lead to trophies in the 40-pound range being caught with some regularity. A conversation about the Missouri River with committee member Vince Travnichek yielded insights both interesting and illuminating.

"The Missouri River receives less pressure," he observed. "It is more intimidating than most of our other catfish waters. The Missouri has produced big flatheads and blues for a long time. There is no reason to believe it will stop."

He doesn't recommend the Missouri as a venue for big channel cats, however, noting that for some reason, they exhibit a very slow rate of growth in the river. Perhaps the work of the committee will shed some light on that issue.


When asked to provide more detail on the committee's plans for the future of Missouri catfish, Travnichek points to the need for more information to answer that question. "We just don't know enough about catfish," he said with refreshing candor, "not as much as we need to. Not yet, anyway." He and Dames both hope that the committee's work will help shed light on some of the unknowns in the file on these magnificent fish.

That said, however, the committee does have some interesting proposals in mind based on what is known. A portion of the Missouri River is one of their target areas, and their objective there is to increase the population of flatheads at least 30 inches in length - a fairly lofty goal, insofar as a 30-inch flathead, while perhaps not qualifying as a true trophy, is certainly a pretty good fish.

Creel limits will be examined and reviewed. Currently Missouri anglers can creel five flatheads along with 10 channel and blue catfish, in any combination, unhindered by size restrictions. Some exceptions exist, but none apply to the Missouri River. The committee is looking at reducing the creel limit and imposing a minimum-size limit for the fish; specific details of this change have yet to be determined. Similar regulations restricting harvest have been successfully implemented in other states working to create trophy fisheries for other species, however, and the committee believes that they should be effective with respect to Missouri catfish.

Dale Williams, a professional Missouri River catfish guide (e-mail: supports this idea in the strongest possible terms. Though he lives within a stone's throw of the Mississippi River on the east side of the state, he fishes and guides on the Missouri. Why? Because, according to Williams, heavy commercial catfishing on the Mississippi is taking hundreds of pounds of catfish from the river at a time, which, he's convinced, harms the fishing. He points out that fish are not an infinitely resilient resource - especially not the big ones. In his words: "It will make you cry."

Commercial catfishing has been forbidden on the Missouri since 1992, and the ban's effects show, according to the guide, who asserted, "The fishing is better on the Missouri."

Of course, for any body of water to foster trophy predators, an adequate forage base must be present. In the case of 40-pound blues and flatheads, "adequate" means having plenty of existing forage species with the ability to replenish themselves; after all, a 40-pound catfish can eat a lot of minnows, bluegills, shad and skipjacks in a year's time.

Travnichek is of the opinion that the forage base in the Missouri River is more than adequate - excellent, in fact. Williams agrees, offering the observation that the fish he's catching are fat and healthy, indicating that they're getting plenty to eat. According to all available evidence, the forage species are reproducing successfully, and as long as there's a solid forage base,

there should be an equally solid catfish base.

When asked about the better segments of this river, Travnichek recommends that anglers seeking blues fish the stretch between Kansas City and St. Louis. This 250-mile section of river, which cuts the state in half, has produced a number of hefty blues over the years.

Along this stretch Travnichek specifically points to the Waverly area, just east of Kansas City, and the section between Columbia, approximately in the middle of the state, on south to Jefferson City. According to him, these areas have consistently yielded up the finest blues in the state.

He doesn't, on the other hand, advise fishing north of Kansas City for blues. "For some reason, they just aren't up that far," the MDC catfish expert said. "We really don't know why."

Anglers looking for trophy flatheads should visit the 50-mile stretch from Kansas City north to St. Joseph, he suggests. This stretch of the Missouri River has been known as flathead country for decades, and Travnichek feels that the future of this area looks as good as its past does.

Williams is considerably more generous when it comes to analyzing the river. Though he has minimal experience above Kansas City, he asserts that there isn't a bad place or area in the river when it comes to blue cats. "It's full of blues," he said.

While Williams may believe that the river is loaded with blue catfish, he obviously doesn't think that they're scattered equally throughout the water. Like all successful anglers, he zeroes in on specific spots identified by specific attributes - attributes that he's sure are necessary for success.

During June and July, Williams works behind the myriad numbers of the river's wing dams. He points out that below these dams, downstream anglers will find scour holes caused by the current swirling behind the dams; some can be very deep. Further below the scours, anglers will find tapering sandbars, which typically rise from the depths of the holes up into shallow water.

Properly fishing a wing dam begins with boat placement. Williams anchors his boat upstream from the hole, positioning his boat just a little further from shore than he can cast. The Missouri catfish guide emphasizes that anglers should approach these spots carefully and quietly. Even though these fish are big, they're still wary, and unfamiliar noise or commotion will give them lockjaw.

After securing his boat, Williams fan-casts several rigs around the area, making sure that he covers several different depths. Anglers should fish shallow in June and July on the sand bars rather than in the depths of the scours, he suggests. Whenever it's possible at this time of year, he begins fishing in the late afternoon, and will generally continue through the night and into the next morning.

Williams' bait of choice for trophy blues is cut bait. He starts with a shad perhaps 4 inches to 6 inches long. Removing the tail and discarding it, he then makes a cut behind the gills. After that, he fillets the shad along the backbone, exposing the entrails, and finally cuts off the head and removes the gut sac. After the cutting he has four pieces of bait: a filet from the top side of the shad, the gut sac, the head and a filet from the bottom of the shad with the backbone still attached. Of the four, the most effective portion is the filet from the bottom of the shad, as the backbone will ooze blood into the water for 20 minutes, sometimes even longer. This oozing blood is a powerful attractant, according to the Missouri angler.

Anglers seeking blues ought to avoid notions like the big-bait-means-big-fish concept, Williams warns. His cut baits generally average approximately 1 1/2 inches in length and are almost never more that an inch wide. "You just don't need more than that," he insisted.

After preparing his bait, he impales one piece of it on a 5/0 hook tied to 40-pound-test monofilament line. He weights his bait with a bank-sinker, which is best described as having an hourglass shape with a very narrow top. He throws this assembly on a medium-heavy baitcasting outfit.

His typical bank-sinker rig is made by tying the sinker to the end of the line. Above the sinker, approximately 12 inches, he ties a drop-line - which will be short, no more than 12 inches in length - attached to one of his hooks; he then ties another drop-line about 18 inches above the first. This rig allows him to present one piece of bait 12 inches off the bottom with another 30 inches off the bottom.

On occasion, Williams will fish for blues with live bait, and when he does, he uses shad. At times, blues need a little help finding his shad, a problem he solves by clipping off a portion of the bait's tail with scissors. This forces it to work harder when it tries to swim, as well as creates more vibrations in the water, making the shad easier to locate. That's the theory, anyway; other anglers think that the "crippled minnow" action simply triggers a predatory response from the catfish. Either way, it works.

While blues are clearly this angler's favorite, he often goes after flatheads, too. When he's targeting flatheads, he fishes the same general areas he probes for blues, but with more precision. Within the scour, or up on the sand bar, he often searches for logjams, stumps or laydowns. Big flatheads will use wood as their ambush point much more frequently than will big blues. Again, he anchors above the target and presents his bait just in front of the target area, thus allowing the current to carry the scent and vibration to the fish in its lair.

Other promising flathead spots are the many oxbows and sloughs found along the Missouri River. In a general sense similar to scour holes and sand bars, the better ones have shallow tapering sides and deeper holes in the middle. They're almost always littered with wood of one sort or another - in some cases, stumpbeds; in others, logjams left by the last episode of high water; in still others, common laydowns.

Experience has taught Williams that flathead catfish bait is much different from that used for blues, and he always, without exception, selects live bait for the former. His list of acceptable baits is long: shad, skipjack, carp, buffalo minnows, bluegill, goldfish and, in some cases, Asian carp (called "bighead carp" in certain locales).

Unlike blues, flatheads like it big; size matters to them. Williams generally fishes with bait that weighs at least a pound, sometimes a pound and a half. While such a bait may sound on the large side, keep in mind that flatheads are predators, and vicious ones, that regularly eat other fish as much as one-third their size. (To get a perspective on this, consider a 6-foot-tall man, weighing 200 pounds, eating a sandwich 2 feet long that weighs 67 pounds!)

Like blues, flatheads are attracted by scent and vibration. To take advantage of this, Williams clips the tail off his baitfish for flatheads just as he does for blues. His theory is the same: Make the bait easier to find.

At times he'll cut the side of the baitfish to cause bleeding. He cautions angle

rs not to inflict a cut that's too deep or too long. The object of the cut is to generate bleeding from the bait, not to kill it.

His flathead rigs are similar to his blue catfish rigs, except that that he may upsize his hooks into the 7/0 range at times. He may also increase the size of his sinkers to correspond to the size of this bait. A 1 1/2-pound carp can easily carry off a small sinker. Other than that, however, his rigging remains about the same.

All in all, Missouri anglers are in pretty good shape when it comes to catfish. The MDC is active, engaged and professional, and definitely serious about improving an already high-quality fishery - and that's good news, as nothing, absolutely nothing, can replace the work of a dedicated state agency for achieving goals like these.

And, of course, the Missouri River is one of the best catfish venues in the nation. Trophy blues and flatheads are caught with regularity from its waters 12 months a year. On top of that, the Missouri's a relatively short distance from of most anglers in the state. That's more good news.

So fish the Missouri River this year. And catch a big one!

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