June 27, 2019
By Tony Kalna, Jr.
Catfish are one of the most sought-after game fish in Missouri and across much of the United States. They are plentiful in most bodies of water, and they offer some delicious table fare.
Despite their abundance and savory flavor, catfish and catfishermen were often snubbed by other anglers and by the fishing industry itself. But as catfishing’s popularity has grown, the tackle and boat manufacturers and fishermen are now showing these whiskered game fish, and the anglers who pursue them, the respect that they deserve.
The catfish is the third-most popular game fish nationally, behind only panfish and black bass. It’s likely the same is true of Missouri. Boat manufacturers and tackle dealers know this and are now catering specifically to catfish anglers. For example, some “catfishing boats” can be 24 feet long and come complete with high-tech electronics and enormous live wells with price tags of $60,000.
Catfishing has even become all the rage in fishing tournaments. There are numerous catfish tourneys across the United States, and some of the best ones are right here in Missouri!
The three main catfish species in Missouri are the channel, flathead and blue catfish. They can all be found throughout most of the state. Let’s further explore each of these three species and some of the best places Missouri anglers can catch them.
In my experience, the most popular of all catfish in Missouri is the channel catfish. On May 23, 1997, then Governor Mel Carnahan signed a bill naming the channel cat as the official state fish of Missouri. More people fish for channels than any other species because they are more widespread than any of the species, and you don’t really need any special equipment to catch a mess of these whiskered wonders.
Channel cats commonly reach weights between 1 to 15 pounds but in rare instances can grow as large as 40-plus pounds. Small channels are often referred to as “fiddlers,” but another general nickname for this species is the “spotted” catfish.
You can catch channels on just about anything because they eat both plant and animal matter. My favorite catfish baits are chicken livers and stinkbaits. However, a hard to beat live bait alternative is native Missouri nightcrawlers that I dig up myself in creek and river bottoms. It’s hard for ole Mr. Whiskers to resist a 4- to 8-inch thick, juicy nightcrawler. Other popular baits include hotdogs, minnows, crawdads and sardines.
Many anglers flock to this 8,400-acre reservoir to fish for crappie each spring, but this is a true hotspot for summertime catfishing.
“Channel cats are the target species of catfish here,” says Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) Fisheries Management Biologist Dave Knuth. “Anglers can expect very good fishing in June and July.”
According to Knuth, fishermen can expect to catch a lot of channel catfish in the 4- to 5-pound range. The excellent fishing can be attributed to steady water levels during the spawning period.
Channel catfish utilize the dam face and riprap areas on the lake, along with the rocky banks, especially during the spawn. You can also find them in brushy areas in the upper lake and in brushpiles the MDC put out in the lower reaches of the lake.
Many anglers like to jug-fish for channels. Because Wappapello is a shallow floodplain lake, most jug-fishermen set their hooks about 2 to 5 feet below the jug in coves or on the face of the dam.
“I expect the channel catfishing at Wappapello to be as good as it has been for the last few years,” Knuth says. “Whether you are jugging or using rod and reel, you can expect some good fishing for catfish.”
According to Knuth, Chaonia Landing in the middle section of the lake and Redman Access on the lower part of the lake are good places to put your boat in and begin your quest for catfish. One additional note here: If you are not familiar with navigating the waters of Lake Wappapello, be on the lookout for submerged stumps, logs and other debris that may damage your prop or lower unit of your motor. For more information on fishing Lake Wappapello, contact the MDC at 573-290-5730.
Flathead catfish are voracious eaters with an appetite for live bait. Bluegill and goldfish top the list of favored baits. You can find them around woody cover like logs, logjams, stumps and brushpiles, but they also like boulders and riprap. They have enormous flat heads which make them easily recognizable. A really big flathead can reach weights of 45 pounds or more.
August A. Busch Conservation Area
When you think about fishing for big flathead catfish near St. Louis, you automatically think of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. However, for those who don’t have the boat or guts big enough to navigate those huge rivers, there are alternative places to fish for flatheads.
“Lake #33 at Busch Conservation Area has a great flathead fishery where anglers can see fish reach 45 pounds,” says MDC Fisheries Management Biologist Kevin Meneau. “Lake #7 also has some flatheads but not nearly as big.”
According to Meneau, the MDC first began stocking 182-acre Lake #33 with flatheads in the mid-1980s. At that time, the fish were only 10 to 12 inches in length, but they’ve had 30-plus years to grow.
“One of the things that has really helped the flathead fishery at Lake #33 is the abundance of shad there, which provides a tremendous food source for the fish to eat,” Meneau adds. “Every year we get pictures of some lucky fishermen catching a huge flathead while fishing for channel cats or something else.”
Lake #33 is surrounded on three sides by a levee in the Dardenne Creek bottoms. Anglers should focus fishing from or near those levees either by boat or from the bank.
“We’ve sunk some big hardwood tree brushpiles near the levees as well as many Christmas tree brushpiles,” Meneau says. “Most of the brushpiles are clearly marked on the shore and have an arrow pointed out to the lake where they are located.”
June is the best summer month for catching flatheads here. Morning, noon or night seems to be equally good, with a slight edge going to evening. Anglers can also expect to catch channel cats as big as 8 to 10 pounds!
The 12-acre Lake #7 gets a lot of fishing pressure, but it’s the only lake at the Busch Conservation Area where fishermen can catch flatheads, blues and channels. Flatheads have only recently begun to be stocked here, but anglers could expect to catch fish up to 10 pounds. As far as channel catfishing goes, Meneau says the MDC stocks 7,000 channels that are 14 to 15 inches long annually, but most of these fish get caught quickly and taken home for the frying pan. For more information about Busch Conservation Area in St. Charles County, call the MDC at 636-441-4554.
The Blue Catfish is the big dog of Missouri waters. These fish can reach weights of more than 100 pounds. Favorite baits for anglers include cut shad or cut carp.
Truman Lake is the largest manmade lake in Missouri, and it offers some excellent fishing for blue catfish because of a protective slot limit that was placed on this fishery back in 2014. On March 1, 2014, the MDC put the protective 26- to 34-inch slot limit on blue cats on Truman Lake. In other words, anglers cannot keep fish that are between 26 and 34 inches long.
According to MDC Fisheries Management Biologist Chris Brooke, Truman Lake had great blue catfish reproduction 10 years ago, and the fish were getting stunted because there were so many. The slot limit allows the taking of a lot of smaller fish and allows the rest to grow large. Only two fish in your daily limit can exceed the protective slot limit on the high side.
“Blues are the most sought-after catfish at Truman,” Brooke says. “Blues can be found anywhere across the lake.”
He adds that one of the favorite methods anglers use to catch blues at Truman is to fish the flats either with rod and reel or by jugging in 10 to 15 feet of water. Drifting cut shad in the flats is a great way to catch blue cats here.
Truman Lake is also home to some big flathead catfish. Look for flatheads along creek channels and use live bait like shiners or bluegill. Some great places to find blues are in the Upper Grand, Osage and Tebo arms of Truman Lake. For more information for catfishing at Truman Lake call the MDC at 660-885-6981.
GET OUT AFTER CATS
There is something for everyone when it comes to catfishing in Missouri. Whether you want just a few channel catfish to make a good meal, or if you want the thrill of catching a blue or flathead catfish over 40 pounds, chances are good that you can find that opportunity throughout much of the state. Fishing methods can be relatively simple, or a bit more complex; it all depends on the end result the angler is looking to achieve. Summer is the perfect time to pursue catfish on any number of Missouri streams, rivers and lakes, so get out there and get ready for great fishing.
Catfishing has transformed into serious competitive fishing in the form of tournaments across the nation. Perhaps the largest catfish tournament in the country will be held in St. Joseph, Mo., on August 9 to 11 this summer. The tournament is the Reed Chevrolet Championship, which is part of the Catfish Chasers Tournament Series. This series of catfish tournaments is run by Missourian Craig Collings of St. Joseph and David Studebaker of Harveyville, Kan.
“When we first started seriously fishing for catfish, we had between 15 to 20 guys getting together and throwing money in a pot and having fun,” Collings says. “But David and I decided to take it to the next level and start a serious catfish tournament series.”
Collings says he expects that this year’s tournament in St. Joseph will be the biggest in the nation, with a projected 200 boats competing for the top prize of $15,000. To sweeten the pot, if five fish are caught during the tournament that weigh 225 pounds or more, one lucky participant can win a brand-new truck.
“These tournaments are very competitive but also great fun and camaraderie,” Collings says. “Last year, we had 168 teams from 10 different states, and we expect to exceed that this year.”
This is the 10th year for the Catfish Chasers Tournament series, and interest in catfishing and prize money gets bigger every year.
For complete details of this tournament or more information on any of the Catfish Chasers Tournament Series, visit the website, or contact Craig Collings at 816-261-9353.