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Lessons From Missouri's Catfish Pros

Lessons From Missouri's Catfish Pros

Professional catfish anglers? Whiskerfish tournaments? That's right -- and these Missouri pros have learned a thing or two about catching cats when the pressure's on.

Many of the days of my youth were spent with me ankle-deep in a gumbo of aquatic plants and farm-pond muck. It never really seemed messy or dirty - the cool mud that squeezed between my bare toes was just one more reason to go fishing on warm summer afternoons. I'd split my time between propping up poles on forked sticks and hunting the banks for more bait. The catfish seemed partial to eating leopard frogs and grasshoppers - and I was partial to catching both bait and fish.

I always came home with a fish or a story and something I'd learned. Mostly I had the chance to pick up the pastime, which has stuck with me; I can still lose track of time waiting for fish to bite. Although the simpler days of farm-pond fishing have passed me by, I manage to sneak away to wet a line on many a summer afternoon. Most often, I find myself at the catfish-laden waters of the state's rivers and reservoirs rather than at the farm ponds of my youth. And at these larger waters, landing these fish takes a different approach - and a whole different attitude.

Without doubt, Missouri's public waters afford catfishers a grand chance of loading a stringer or filling a livewell with more fish than you could fry for Sunday dinner. For those of you who are thinking a little heftier, the likelihood of catching something big enough to scare you is better than you might think. Our state has an uncountable number of places to fish - for instance, the Missouri River, which courses from Kansas City to St. Louis. Even without taking all of its tributaries into account, it's a catfish mecca. And for those who aren't adept at fishing moving water, there are plenty of large lakes; whether they are the clearer sorts that grace the Ozarks or the stained variety, each holds a robust population of catfish to keep your line tight.

But herein lies the problem: With so much water and so many places to go, where, exactly, are those catfish, and how do you catch them? Well, a select few anglers can readily answer those questions. Each started out much as you or I did: fishing for cats as a pastime. But they've managed to develop it into something much more, taking the pastime of catfishing and turning it into a tried-and-true sport - and a competitive one, at that. So those of you skeptical about the notion of catfishing as anything more than relaxing in your favorite lawn chair and waiting for your pole to twitch should prepare to be amazed: What many still view as nothing but a sleepy diversion has been propelled by these pro catters' strategies and secrets into an era of fast action and big payoffs.

My first exposure to the sport of competitive catfishing came by way of an encounter with seasoned river angler, champion tournament fisherman and guide Rick Gebhardt. He's put 32 serious years into his fishing and has amassed an encyclopedic wealth of information about catching cats - especially Missouri River cats.

Upon arrival at Rick's home, I found it hard not to notice the scores of catfish pictures; even his kitchen corkboard is pinned full of trophy-fish snapshots. He's pulled more than his share of huge cats - not to mention many thousands of smaller ones - from the state's muddy waters. Doubt it? Numbers don't lie: Since 1995 he has placed in the top 20 percent of half of the catfish tournaments he's entered. And that's not to mention the 14 first-place finishes he has to his name.


"Years of experience have taught me that catfish, like other fish, definitely relate to underwater structure," Rick observed. "But you don't need to fish a stretch of river for three decades to find fish. Any angler can go out, purchase a good depthfinder and locate the hiding places of big fish.

You don't have to be a Missouri catfish pro to take cats like this one, but professional tips can help. Photo by J.T. Upthegrove

"If you're going to target blue cats, they might as well be big ones, and they hide in specific spots. During the day, you'll always find them on outside bends of the river in 20 feet of water or more. Steep dropoffs hold fish, too. Between those areas, they like to follow along the ledges, where the flat bottom meets the bank. That ledge acts as a corridor or highway for the fish.

"As the evening draws near," he continued, "the blues will abandon the holes in search of forage. At night, 5 to 10 feet of water is the best place to find them. The blues will move up to these shallow flats and chase baitfish until the sun rises. The two very best times are sunrise and sunset. I think that's when big blues are really on the hunt."

Most of Rick's big blues fall to freshly cut bait. "It's imperative to the use the freshest cut bait possible," he insisted. In the back of the boat resides a small ice-filled cooler, inside which are a knife and cutting board. Rick will toss in a baitfish to use later. The ice will slow it down but keep it extremely fresh. Every time he gets ready to cast a rod, he cuts a new piece of bait for each hook.

"My favorite bait is a 10- or 12-inch shad," he said. "The reason is because the larger shad have more oil in them. Once you catch them, keep them cool and fresh, and never let them sit in water. Shad is only good for one day after it dies; frozen shad is worthless. And at those odd times when shad aren't available, I'll switch to carp meat."

When it's time to put the lines out, Rick is careful to position his boat just in front of the spot in which he thinks the fish are hidden. "It's important to be as quiet as you can be," he asserted. "The big blues are extremely sensitive to any kind of sound."

Once the boat is anchored, the current will hold you steady. Rick puts out three to six rods, each rigged with a sinker suited to the conditions of the current - in the swifter water of the channel he uses 8-ounce egg sinkers - and the lines fanned out behind the boat to cover as much water as possible. This is when it turns to good old catfishing: You sit and wait - but only for 45 minutes, after which, Rick says, you should pull up your lines and move to the next hole. The wait's not long - and it'll seem like it was even shorter when an old river blue buckles your rod down.

As good as he is at pulling blues from a river's swift waters, Rick has a lot to say about filling your livewell with channel cats, too. "Channel cats are one of the best fish to take out of the rivers of our state," he offered. "They're a whole bunch of fun. You can almost always find them in shallower water, just waiting to gobble up some dip bait.

"When I want to get in some really good channel catfishing, I'll head straight for the shallow sand flats of the river, wher

e the current is gentle. There I anchor my boat in water from 6 inches to 5 feet deep. I'll put out three poles to find where they're feeding, but once I find them, I'll cut back to one or two rods, because I can't keep up with how fast they'll start taking the bait.

"Flatheads are the hardest to pattern in the river," he noted. "Usually they're going to be in 10 feet of water or less around nasty thick cover like a brushpile. Sometimes the front corners of dikes will hold a few. Like the other big fish, I'll quietly move the boat ahead of those areas and use my heavy rods to present a medium-size bluegill - 3 to 4 inches long - or a creek chub, if you can get them. Hook these fish through the eyes to keep them alive, since that's how most flatheads like them.

"Because they are hunters, the best time to catch catfish is just before dark and sunrise. They'll feed actively about then. At night you can find them on the flats when they forage, but you still need to be in close proximity to heavy cover.

"Good tackle is absolutely necessary," he continued. "I spent a lot of time fishing the river with no-name equipment in the past, and I learned my lesson the hard way - I lost several big fish. I only put good gear in my boat now. My reels are heavy action baitcasters with matching rods. The reels are tough enough to crank in the big cats, and the rods are almost unbreakable."

If you're curious what kind of boat you run with in a catfish tournament, Rick will be happy to show you his custom 23-footer outfitted with a 200-horsepower outboard.

The cats prowling the depths of our lakes and reservoirs may be the same as those in our rivers, but that doesn't mean you go about catching them in the same ways. Professional tournament catfisherman Glenn Luckett will tell you that catching big-water cats takes an entirely different tactical approach.

To keep his string of victories going, Glenn will do a little research on the lake he'll be fishing. "If I've never fished a body of water before, I'll first try and find out what the area is noted for," he explained. "If there's a heavy shad population, that will be my preferred bait, and it will also tell me that the blue cats and flatheads have the opportunity to get really big."

Once he's checked the background, Glenn takes notice of the areas where each species of fish most commonly resides. "If you're fishing for blues," he noted, "you want to find deeper water. You won't focus on structure so much. Channel cats will be in the shallower water with brush and preferably near a channel of some sort. Flatheads, on the other hand, really like structure and moderately shallow water."

Glenn uses that formula as a starting point, but, he adds, lakes vary in habitat and bait populations can make a big difference. "If there's a good baitfish population, catfish will relate to that and find areas where they feel comfortable as close to the bait as possible. But I also want to fish places that the other anglers don't. Normally, lakes get lots of pressure from bass and crappie anglers, and I want to find out where they congregate and go someplace else. If I can find a stump-filled little creek that doesn't get much pressure from bass anglers, I'll go right up there and have some of my best luck."

Once Glenn makes it to the water, he then starts a more detailed search based on his years of experience. "Channel cats will be at the mouths of creeks that run into the main lake because this is where the shad congregate," he observed. "If you have a good flat where there's a lot of brush coming off it with a small channel next to it, you'll find them there. To tempt channel cats in an area like that, I'll get right up next to the edge of the brush and fish down both sides of it. I'll also throw a bait in the deeper channel until I find out where I'm getting the most strikes. For bait, it depends on the lake and surroundings, but if the lake has a good shad population, I'll go with cut shad. Without shad I'll switch to a dip bait.

"To pick up flatheads, you have to find lots of cover; they just don't like the open water of a lake. I'll fish right where heavy cover drops into a deep hole with additional cover. About the only bait I'll offer them is live perch or cut perch. Early in the morning and late in the evening are the best times. Much of the same area that hold channel cats will produce flatheads. Areas that are laden with brush and trees are even a better bet. Flatheads hold tight to structure, and to catch them you have to present your bait in the thick stuff.

"Blues are a different story," he continued. "They will scatter themselves out across the lake. You just won't find that many blues. Blues are hard to pattern, and you'll have to hunt and hunt until you find them. But it helps to start looking in the deeper channels, where a lot of baitfish congregate. Flats 12 to 14 feet deep that drop right into 30- or 40-foot waters are where I have my best luck. I'll use my fishfinder to hunt out schools of baitfish and fish near them, or under them, if possible. Usually, when you see fish bunch up like that, there are bigger fish making them do that."

Glenn usually feels confident about finding channel cats, but in tournaments, those aren't always enough to nab a victory. To secure a good finish, he'll use every resource to locate a good fish. "When I need a big fish, I'll search out a flat that drops off into a deep hole," he explained. "Then I'd start scanning with my electronics. I'm really looking for a good fish on the bottom. I don't look for suspended fish - that's not where they're at. When I spot one, I'll find an edge that gradually drops off to his hole. Those bigger fish will feed right there on the lip of it. If there are a lot of baitfish in the surrounding area, that's even better."

Like any pro angler, Glenn is really picky about his equipment. He uses heavy action baitcasters for his catting. To get all his gear around on the water, he runs a 24-foot aluminum boat with a 200-horsepower outboard.

But that's not all he's particular about. "I always try to catch my bait fresh," he said. "I'll go back up into the creeks and net them before I fish. I really like to use shad 3 to 5 inches long and cut into chunks. If I have a shad in that size range, I'll cut it into several chunks and put the head on last; it always seems to me that they want the head first. When other baits are in order I'll go with creek chubs and night crawlers.

"Also, use a line that's not visible. I use a camouflage line. I used to use a bright green line, but switched when I started realizing that these catfish are sensitive to that sort of thing. I think all catfish are sight-sensitive, and that's overlooked by many anglers."

* * *
Tournament angling is changing the face of catfishing. Improvements in gear and tactics present the average angler an increased chance at pulling in a whiskerfish. Missouri's waters harbor a great resource for the state's fishermen, and our pros are some of the best at finding ways to get into it.

As a testimony to the effectiveness these tactics, I'd have to say that seeing is bel

ieving. Whenever I use the logic of these long-time catfish anglers, the catfish have yet to let me down. Even my opinion of catfishing has changed: No longer do I hope for a channel cat just to nibble at my bait; instead, I expect them to inhale it and run before it settles to the bottom. And when I drop a hook in search of a good blue or flathead, I'm ready to set the hook and hold on. I never thought catfishing could be so much fun!

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