Missouri is chock-full of small public waters that burst at the seams with great catfishing. Try these less-celebrated hotspots for more cats this summer.
By Doug Smith
I've repeated the same process literally hundreds of times in my life. Gather up the catfish rod-and-reel combos, load them in the Jeep along with an assortment of dough bait, stink bait, dip bait, chicken livers or night crawlers - depending on what I have on hand at the time, and where I'm going and the time of year. I head out to a farm pond, a small public lake or a river. Once there I unload my cache, find a suitable spot to fish from and set up shop. That first noticeable draw on the end of the rod tip lets me know I've found whiskered gold. From then on, it's catfishing time.
Missouri has a golden opportunity for catfish anglers hoping to spend some quality time collecting thick white catfish filets without spending a lot of money or time. Oh, yeah - you can go after the big cats on the Mississippi with a sizable boat and outboard, or seek out the monster blue cats of Lake of the Ozarks from the deck of a bass boat, but you have just as many opportunities to catch Missouri cats with a rod and reel and a good lawn chair or small johnboat and trolling motor. You see, Missouri is a hotbed for "close-water" cats - those lurking in impoundments of 200 acres or less, public waters all and just waiting to be fished.
FIRST, THE STUDY In May 2001 the Missouri Department of Conservation began a detailed five-year study of catfish in small impoundments. The plan is to target 69 lakes and public waters across the state to see just how current management practices are affecting catfish populations, look at what anglers are removing from the waters, and try some changes in management practices in an effort to enhance what the state has to offer to catfish and cat anglers.
The "Channel Catfish Management in Small Impoundments" study is being headed by Paul Michaletz, a MDC fisheries research biologist. The study started with sampling of all 69 lakes and ponds involved. Samples will be taken again this year, and then again in 2005. Researchers and assistants use hoop nets baited with cheese to draw the fish in to be counted. This marks the first such highly detailed study to be done on the state's small impoundments.
In addition to periodic sampling, the MDC has established a tagging and tracking program on several of the test lakes. One such impoundment is Council Bluffs Lake in southeast Missouri. There an angler might very well pull in a channel cat tagged with a $10, $50 tag or better. The angler is asked to remove the tag and mail it to an MDC address (posted on a poster at the lake) to redeem his (or her) cash stipend. Biologist ask that the tags be removed and details about the fish be recorded whether the fish is ultimately released or kept and consumed.
Michaletz says the department hopes to get a better idea of what stocking rate will work best for the different waters involved in the study. At present the MDC stocks different lakes and ponds on different schedules and with varying numbers of fish - usually based on the perception of the individual biologist overseeing that particular impoundment. Some waters receive as little as three fish per acre per year, while others get as many as 30 fish per acre.
"The department spends a lot of money stocking catfish. If we didn't stock, there wouldn't be any catfish to speak of. The bass would clean them up," Michaletz says. The department raises millions of fingerling catfish each year before releasing them once they reach roughly 8 inches in length.
In essence, the MDC hopes the study will help them discover differences in population characteristics - such as condition, age and growth - and not just the number of fish in any given location. By doing so, it should help the experts to develop a stocking plan that will be best for the fish put in the lakes and ponds in the future, and possibly keep stocking costs down for the department in coming years.
NOW - WHERE TO GO? To list even the 69 waters being tested would be too much for this article. What we'll try to do here is just discuss a few small impoundments open to the public and teeming with catfish for the average angler to get up close and personal with. These are all relatively small impoundments, all easily accessible, and all less than a day's drive from home. And the fact is that there are hundreds like them in the state.
PERRY COUNTY LAKE Located in southeast Missouri's Perry County, Perry Lake offers channel cats up to and exceeding 10 pounds as well as a unique fishing opportunity. The lake, an artificial impoundment, has seen about 2,000 channel cats stocked annually in recent years. The key to fishing the lake is to look for any inflow. Cats are drawn to the flowing water, and fishing the lake on a rainy day is a good bet. If there's no fresh rainwater flowing in, try fishing the shallow flats.
The fact that Perry County Lake is artificially aerated makes it unique among MDC impoundments, and also makes deep angling for catfish a better bet than in other lakes.
Contour maps of the lake are available by calling (573) 290-5730.
HENRY SEVER LAKE Located near the town of Edina and the city of Kirksville, Henry Sever Lake is an impoundment in transition, according to resident MDC fisheries biologist Mike Anderson.
Owing to slow growth of the catfish populations in recent years, stocking at Henry Sever has been reduced from five fish per acre to three per acre. It's hoped that lessened competition among fish will foster more growth in what of late seems a stunted population.
That doesn't mean you can't find a 10-pound blue or respectable channel cat in the lake, though. The waters hold good populations of both subspecies. By all indications, Anderson's job likely got harder when the lake unexpectedly went turbid in 1999, causing sunlight reaching the lake's bottom to be nearly a thing of the past, and some species to soar in growth and numbers while others nearly fell flat. The lake is clearing, and efforts were made in 2001 to rid the lake of grass carp - a hard species to catch and eradicate, says MDC fisheries biologist Paul Cieslewicz.
While Cieslewicz doesn't work at Henry Sever, he's faced similar grass carp and channel cat concerns at Duck Creek Conservation Area where he works, near the mouth of southeast Missouri's Bootheel region in. Cieslewicz recently reported on efforts to evict grass carp from the main pool, Pool No. 1, at Duck Creek. He said that while the grass carp serve a purpose, it's sometimes harder to remove them once their work is done than to consider other methods of handling underwater vegetation. That's another one of the factors being reviewed in connection with the ongoing catfish study.
Back to Henry Sever. Blue cats were last stocked at the lake in 1990. Channel cats continue to be stocked annually, but A
nderson says there's not a lot of rationale for stocking catfish at this point, until the five-year study can perhaps give a better idea of what's happening at the lake. But as I remarked earlier, this is a management problem at the lake, and not necessarily an angler's daily concern. The lake still manages to produces quality cats, both blue and channel, nearly year 'round.
The lake has a respectable dock and numerous jetties to fish from. The lake can be reached by heading down Route 6 leaving Kirksville to Edina. Watch for the sign, turn north onto Route 15, and go roughly one mile. Turn back onto Route 6 and head for Knox City. Once there take Highway E some 11 miles to Route 156. Turn north onto Highway KK and watch for the MDC sign.
COUNCIL BLUFF LAKE Like Henry Sever and Perry County, Council Bluff Lake offers plenty of opportunities for the bank-angler or small-boat owner. The 440-acre lake has a no-wake restriction that is strongly enforced. For the fisherman going it on foot, there are well-worn foot paths around much of the lake's shoreline, especially the areas nearest the swimming and picnic area, and the boat launch pad and parking lot.
Council Bluff is relatively shallow with more than its fair share of stumps and stickups. While it draws crowds for its panfish and crappie, nighttime catfish anglers are almost always launching boats at sunset as most other people are pulling out. Prospects for channel cats for 2003 continue good. Fish up to and in excess of 20 inches are there, and aren't all that hard to find. Shallow sloughs that lend themselves well to largemouth bass also serve as cruising grounds for some bragging-grade cats, too.
Getting to Council Bluffs can be done by taking Highway 32 north in northwestern Iron County from Highway 21. There is a gravel put-in off Highway 32, but the best bet is to continue on the highway to Route DD, turn left on DD and go until you see the Council Bluffs entrance sign on the left. The park entrance is on the right; it will take you to the concrete boat ramp and spacious parking lot. As with most public waters these days, there is a day-use fee for fishing the lake.
Once you're on the lake, there are several areas worth trying. I tend to see a lot of guys setting up just a hundred yards or so off the concrete boat ramp. The lake there is already beginning to fan out wide and be filled with stumps. From the boat ramp you can take either of two major arms to the right - both of which which contain a dozen or so major coves with great cover - or you can work along the main channel and veer to the left around a point and into the main body of the lake. Keep bearing to the left and you'll eventually see the bottom level out again as you approach a swimming area. The entire strip along the left shoreline is extremely shallow in places, sometimes even a couple of dozen yards out from the water's edge. To the right you'll see an earthen and concrete dam that blocks a narrow valley between two points. The bottom in that area is primarily riprap and large boulders. Take your pick of bottom terrain and get acquainted with some of the lake's nice-sized channel cats. Hopefully you'll luck into a tagged fish along the way - I know guys who have already.
BINDER LAKE Head northwest and you'll find a premier example of small water catfish lakes. Binder Lake, near Jefferson City, is 128 acres' worth of consistent catfish-producing waters. The lake is actually a steep-sided reservoir. It's fairly clear, and reaches depths of just over 32 feet. Because of the deeper coves it's best fished from a small boat.
Phil Pitts oversees Binder Lake. In 2001, he said, the lake, although small, had a steady population of catfish. He added that clarity of the water was exceptionally good for a catfish lake, but the depth of the water no doubt adds to the appeal of the lake for the whiskered fish.
Getting to Binder is easy. Head west from Jefferson City on Route 50. Go roughly a mile and a half to Apache Flats, turn left onto Binder Lake Road, travel about a third of a mile and start looking for the sign saying you've arrived.
DiSALVO LAKE Here's another dandy little lake to give a try. Formerly known as Bismarck Lake, DiSalvo Lake was renamed less than 10 years ago. The lake is a 210-acre impoundment in the Bismarck Conservation Area in St. Francois County.
Fishing DiSalvo can be easy. The lake is fairly open with a good mixture of timber, sloping shoreline and underwater vegetation. In fact, the only real drawback to targeting summer cats is the abundance of vegetation that tended to take over during warmer months in past years. But herbicide treatments in 2001 and 2002 are the hope for the future, to hopefully thin out the thickest cover and provide some good boat access to the better catfishing locations.
And don't think you have to have a boat to fish DiSalvo. Aside from a generous bank area near the boat launch ramp, the road into the lake leads past a parking lot and nice handicap-accessible fishing jetty off to the left. I've made countless squirrel hunting trips to DiSalvo Lake in late summer and stopped by the jetty and launch ramp to have a look around, and I always find a large quantity of chicken liver and night crawler containers.
There's a bait shop in the nearby community of Bismarck named Beer, Bait and Bull. Stop in and ask them how the catfish are biting on your way to the lake. The lake is located off Route N heading south out of town. Take U.S. 67 to Park Hills, in St. Francois County, turn west on Highway 32, go approximately eight miles to Bismarck and turn onto Route N at the first four-way intersections. Take N just out of town about a mile and watch for the DiSalvo Lake sign on the right. The lake is very secluded from any nearby communities.
WHAT TO DO NEXT As I said before, the lakes we discussed here are only the proverbial drop in the bucket of the close waters in the state that house keepable catfish. All of these locations are small and for the most part fished less than larger impoundments and rivers. And these impoundments can generally be fished both from the shoreline or a small boat. Almost all of the state's smaller fishing lakes have walkways - whether dirt paths of paved walks - and these smaller-type lakes usually lend themselves well to bank-fishing.
So what do you need to take? That's simple: just standard catfishing fare. I have two medium- to heavy-action 6 1/2-foot rods with reels strung with 20- to 30-pound monofilament. While I don't usually tout brand names, I currently have both rigs strung with Spider Wire, about a 16-pound-test, if I recall right. The way to rig for cats is as varied as is the number of good baits and types of equipment available. I prefer a treble hook on the end with sizable bullet sinker tied on about 18 inches up from the hook. I've fished with chicken livers, night crawlers, dough bait, dip bait, cheese and even soap at different times - all with some success. My preference, but not always the fish's, is pre-made dough bait not already formed into nuggets.
The MDC sees the growing interest in catfish angling in all its waters, but especially on the smaller lakes
and ponds. That's why it's going to the lengths of conducting this catfish study to see how best to provide quality catfish to the state's many anglers on a consistent basis. This is for anglers who enjoy the relaxed peace and tranquility of spending a beautiful evening sitting in a lawn chair or johnboat just waiting for the rod tip to start drawing down into that hard signature bend that lets you know there's something with whiskers on the other end. It's a sport for all ages and all walks of life, and fortunately, it's available right here on the small waters of Missouri.
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