Our Best Trophy Cat Waters
September 30, 2010
With some of the best trophy catfish waters in the entire country flowing through or sitting in Missouri, it's tough to pick the cream of the crop.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Gerald J. Scott
A trophy, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. Nowhere is that more true than when the "trophy" in question is a catfish. It would be technically possible to use the number and length of a catfish's whiskers, plus its eye-to-eye spread, plus the circumference of its skull to develop an official scoring system for determining a catfish's trophy status or lack thereof. Fortunately, nobody has done so . . . at least not yet.
That leaves weight, but how heavy does a channel, flathead or blue catfish have to be before it's considered to be a trophy? The MDC put that question to some of the state's self-confessed catfish fanatics in a recent survey. A majority of the respondents chose 10 pounds as the minimum weight a channel cat could be considered a trophy. The same catfishermen set the minimum trophy weight for flatheads and blues at 20 pounds.
It pains me to question the wisdom of my fellow cattin' guys and gals, but those two answers lack a common logic. There may be more 10-pound channel cats in Missouri than there are Boone and Crockett bucks, but I'll guarantee you there aren't as many 10-pound channel cats in the state as there are Missouri Show Me Big Bucks Club trophy whitetails. Conversely, while a 20-pound flathead or blue is a nice fish - especially when taken on rod and reel - it won't raise many eyebrows back at the dock.
Back when I was a pup, my catfishing mentors were my grandfather, his older brother, Lester, and their cousin, Charlie. Ask these three bona fide experts one question on just about any topic related to catfish, and you could count on at least six, frequently conflicting, answers. However, they were in total agreement when it came to qualifying catfish according to size. They used the word "big" rather than trophy, but they would have called a 10-pound channel cat a big fish. A flathead, on the other hand, was a "good" fish if it was large enough to land by ramming your hand and forearm down its throat and grabbing a gill raker. To earn the sobriquet "big," a flathead had to weigh at least 50 pounds. There were no blue catfish in the area they fished, but I'm sure they would have lumped them together with flatheads just as Missouri's survey respondents did.
The purpose of this article is to explore Missouri's best trophy cat waters. Albeit reluctantly, the section on trophy channel cat water will use the 10-pound standard. The sections on flatheads and blue cats will yield to my familial elders and set the benchmark at 50 pounds. Doing so is the only way I know to pick the best fisheries out of dozens of possibilities. Besides, any catfishery that's producing 50-pounders will yield enough 20s to wear your arms to nubbins.
Missouri is one of the finest places in the entire nation to catch channel catfish less than 24 inches long. Channels of that size can be found in small streams, medium-sized rivers and in both the mighty Missouri and the even mightier Mississippi. Likewise, they inhabit impoundments ranging in size from one-acre farm ponds to 55,000-acre multiple use impoundments.
So why isn't Missouri also a trophy channel catfish state? The definitive answer to that question continues to elude biologists and fisheries managers. However, it's likely that competition with other species for food and habitat and relentless pressure from hungry anglers are high on the list of factors.
To be honest, I couldn't think of a single body of water in Missouri that produced 10-pound channel cats with any degree of regularity, so I called MDC biologist Trish Yasger, who, among other duties, is responsible for the day-to-day management of catfish and paddlefish on Truman Reservoir. "That's a tough question," were the first words out of Trish's mouth. Then she said, "It's possible, maybe even likely, that there are one or two 10-pound channel cats in some of the state's smaller impoundments. For example, I saw one during a survey of Fellows Lake that would have weighed well into the 20s. Even so, I can't think of anywhere in the state I could recommend somebody should go if he wants to catch a 10-pound channel cat."
Semi-daunted, I called Kevin Sullivan, the MDC's up-and-coming catfish guru. "There's only one place in the state I could recommend with confidence," Kevin declared, "and that's Lake Jacomo."
Lake Jacomo has one unique claim to fame - it yielded the state rod-and-reel record channel cat. This behemoth weighed 34 pounds, 10 ounces, which is 3 pounds heavier than the North Dakota state record from the world-famous Red River. On the other hand, Missouri's record has stood since Oct. 12, 1976, and may well have been the state's ultimate channel cat. Additional evidence in favor of what is admittedly a theory is provided by the fact that the "alternative methods" record channel cat weighed 29 pounds, 14 ounces, and was caught in a farm pond in 1974. By way of comparison, the rod-and-reel world-record channel cat weighed 58 pounds.
Further conversation revealed that Sullivan was speaking from experience, having managed Lake Jacomo for several years. He explained that Lake Jacomo's channel cats grow faster than do channels in most of the state's waters. Then, too, most of the fishing pressure on the lake is directed at black bass and crappie, allowing channel cats to remain in the lake long enough to grow exceptionally large.
Some of Jacomo's best big catfish habitat is within casting distance of the lake's unusually accessible shoreline. Even so, a super-serious trophy hunter will want to fish from a boat. Be forewarned, however, that city permits are required to operate private watercraft on Lake Jacomo.
If you go, remember that the proverbial exception that proves the rule notwithstanding, fishing for 10-pound channel cats and fishing for ordinary channel cats are two almost mutually exclusive endeavors. Big channel cats like meat, and they prefer their order "super-sized." Large bluegills, shad, goldfish or carp, fished either live or freshly crushed are far and away the best bets for big cats, but carry as wide a variety of baits as possible. More often than not, trophy channels are as persnickety as brown trout.
Missouri's rod-and-reel record flathead weighed 77 pounds, 8 ounces, and was caught at Montrose Lake on April 28, 2003. The alternative methods record flathead weighed 94 pounds and was caught from the St. Francis River on June 21, 1971. The rod-and-reel world-record flathead weighed 123 pounds.
An optimist might note the disparity between Missouri's two record flatheads and conclude that he had a reasonable chance to land
a new rod-and-reel record flathead. In this old cat man's opinion, he'd be right. But where should he be fishing?
Even though it happened a long time ago, the St. Francis River has produced one record fish, so it can't be discounted. Montrose's record flathead is excitingly recent. Montrose is part of the Osage River basin, all of which, from the Kansas line to the river's confluence with the Missouri, is capable of producing abundant numbers of 50-pound flatheads and, possibly, a new state record. As if that's not enough water, every large impoundment, most small impoundments and many streams are home to flatheads weighing from 20 to 50 pounds or more. But be all that it may, I'm convinced the single best stretch of water for a rod-and-reel angler to ply for 50-pound-and-up flatheads is the Missouri River from Kansas City to the Nebraska/Iowa border.
Flatheads have adapted very well to life in impoundments, but they are, by nature, a river fish. The upper Missouri River's plentiful wing dikes, scour holes and logjams are flathead heaven during the daylight hours, when all the solitary fish want to do is rest, snack on anything that dares swim within lunging distance and occasionally do battle with a territory-invading fellow flathead. At night, the river's submerged sandbars, backwaters and eddies are tailor made for a top-of-the-line predator that transforms itself from a sedentary lover of heavy cover into a fast-swimming, wide-ranging destroyer of any creature small enough to force between its jaws.
Not a year goes by but what a handful of monstrous flatheads are caught on light tackle by crappie fishermen, but that's not the way to bet. Kansas City native Harvey Wilson, the best flathead purist I know, uses 10-foot fiberglass rods and medium saltwater reels spooled with 20- pound abrasion-resistant monofilament line. Experience has convinced him that premium 20-pound monofilament "will hold any flathead that ever lived, provided, of course, that the reel it's spooled on has an excellent and properly set drag system."
It's hard for me to argue with Harvey because I netted a 60-pounder for him one night after he'd wrestled it out of some mighty wicked cover. However, fairness dictates that I mention that Harvey does most of his fishing at night when the flatheads are cruising the shallows. Other experts, especially those who challenge trophy flatheads in their daytime haunts, prefer shorter rods and lines testing 40, 80 or even 100 pounds.
The MDC's pamphlet, Upper Missouri River, is an excellent source of information on river access points. The MDC's St. Joseph and Blue Springs offices (816-271-3100 and 816-655-6250, respectively) can provide additional information on fishing the river.
A 50-pound blue cat is a trophy fish, make no mistake about that, but the state's record blues are so huge they're scary. The current rod-and-reel record weighed 103 pounds and was taken from the Missouri River in 1991. The alternate methods record weighed 117 pounds and was taken in 1964 from the portion of the Osage River now submerged by Truman Dam. The current world-record blue cat weighed 111 pounds. It doesn't take a high school grad-u-ate to cipher those numbers and conclude that Missouri anglers have an excellent chance of breaking the existing world record.
The trophy blue cat fishery in the Osage River from Bagnell Dam west to the Kansas line has suffered a steady decline since Truman Dam was completed in 1979, almost certainly due to overharvest of large fish. Nevertheless, there are still scads of 20s and more than a few 50s to be had in the Osage River system.
With the state-record blue cat to its credit, it would be foolish to argue that the middle and lower sections of the Missouri River aren't prime trophy blue cat water. It's within the realm of possibility that the new record blue cat lurks somewhere in the Big Muddy at this very moment. There's no doubt whatsoever that anglers who would be satisfied with blue cats in the 20- to 60-pound range will find the Missouri River to their liking.
But back to this article's topic: Missouri's portion of the Mississippi River is, beyond question, the state's premier blue cat water. What's more, I'll unashamedly admit that I selected the Mississippi River while in the throws of an extreme case of "world-record fever." I know I'm the one who set 50 pounds as the benchmark for blue cat trophy status, but the Mississippi River yields several 100-pound blues every year to anglers who, for whatever reason, don't want their catches officially recorded.
Although I suppose anything's possible, don't count on battling a trophy blue cat unless you're fishing for trophy blue cats. The biggest blue cats in a given stretch of river spend most of their time in the deepest, most current-churned water available. Let me put that another way. If the depth of the water and the power of the surface currents have you just a little bit scared, you're in a good spot.
Mississippi River trophy blue cat hunters buy their tackle in the saltwater section of the sporting goods store. Whether you're talking rods, reels, line, hooks or weights to these guys, "light" is a lantern, and "medium" is how to cook a hamburger.
Bait choices follow the same bigger-is-better logic. Legend has it that monster blue cats have been caught by anglers using whole, fresh-killed chickens as bait. That may well be, but magnum-sized cut baits prepared from shad or herring are the No. 1 choice among the pros.
TROPHY CAT MANAGEMENT
These are exciting times for trophy catfishing in Missouri because the MDC is well on its way to finalizing a plan under which flatheads and blue cats will be managed as trophy species, while channel cats will be managed for maximum numbers. It's likely the plan will include a reduction in the creel limit for blue catfish and an additional restriction on the number of blue cats above a minimum size limit that can be included in the daily limit. Look for a similar restriction on the number of big flatheads an angler may harvest in a single day.
A number of catfishermen have expressed displeasure at these proposals. However, the fact remains that it takes decades to grow a trophy catfish and about a second to knock it in the head with a hammer. The results of continuing down that mathematical road are inevitable.
On the bright side, reduced limits and minimum size restrictions have revitalized Missouri's black bass and crappie fisheries, and only a tiny minority of anglers would want the MDC to take these fisheries back to the bad old days. There's every reason to think that the same management techniques will have the same positive effects on catfish populations. This is something every catfisherman in the state should support.
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