It was a trip my sons Matt and Josh will never forget. We were catfishing on the Missouri River with veteran angler Rick Gebhardt of Glasgow. Light rain fell on that summer day, but the catfish seemed not to mind. Josh hooked into one seconds after we started fishing.
Josh is no pushover when battling big fish, but this one made him groan. "Geeeez!" he exclaimed. "It feels huge!" And it was obvious the fish must have.
As we watched Josh struggle, Rick and I agreed the fish probably exceeded 50 pounds. Josh had a hard time gaining line. He'd take one yard and the cat would take two. After a lengthy battle, however, Josh dragged the fish close enough to net.
It was a blue cat — fat, healthy and well muscled. Instead of the 50-pounder we expected, however, Josh's trophy weighed an even 32 pounds.
"Sometime during the fight the hook came loose and snagged him behind the dorsal fin," Rick said. "No wonder he put up such a fight."
Josh released his trophy while I snapped photos. Matt now had that look on his face — the look of an angler who's just seen a big fish landed and figures there's no way another one as big could possibly be landed the same day. To his delight, however, that was not the case. Minutes later, Matt buried the hook in a trophy of his own. It fought hard, leading Matt from one side of the boat to the other as it tried to throw the hook. Matt put pressure on it, leaning back hard on the rod, and soon it, too, was in the net.
I've never seen a bigger smile on Matt's face. The pressure was off. The cat was in the boat, and it was a near twin to Josh's — 31 pounds and the biggest fish Matt had ever landed.
I didn't fish that day, but for me the outing was perfect. My sons got the trophies they'd long dreamed of. And they landed dozens of smaller cats. Watching them enjoy the Mighty Mo's fantastic fishing opportunities made my day unforgettable.
Our trip with Rick exemplifies the superb catfishing opportunities available not just in the Missouri River, but also in many other Show Me State waters. Trophy blue cats are common in many lakes and rivers, including world-record-class fish. Flatheads from 30 to 50 pounds, and some bigger, surface with astounding regularity. Fishing for channel cats continues to improve as the Missouri Department of Conservation maintains and improves populations with continual stockings.
Catfish swim in practically all waters of the state except the coldest trout streams, but the lakes and rivers listed here deserve your close attention when planning a trip in 2015. Some rate higher than others because of their potential for producing lots of eating-sized cats, but in the mix are waters that could produce a new state or world record. You could be the lucky angler who catches it.
For reasons already described, the Missouri River tops my list of Show Me State catfish hotspots. Crossing the midsection of the state from Kansas City to just north of St. Louis, this huge tributary of the Mississippi provides ideal conditions for growing lots of big catfish. The river's abundant blue, channel and flathead catfish can be caught during all seasons and on every stretch of water.
Missouri's state-record blue cat, a 103-pounder, was caught there, as was the 77 1/2-pound state-record flathead. Bigger specimens always are a possibility, with an abundance of 20- to 50-pounders to keep you on your toes. The river is bristling with big channel cats as well.
The Mississippi River is another world-class catfish river that produces astounding numbers of giant blues, flatheads and channels. Fishing rates a blue-ribbon designation throughout the entire length of the river along Missouri's eastern border.
According to MDC biologists, channel catfish can be found around snags, wing dikes and in side channels. Flatheads are common on the tips of wing dikes, along riprap banks with swift currents, and near woody debris. Blue catfish also are found along the tips of dikes, in the large eddies above the dikes, and along the river channel.
Excellent catfishing also attracts visitors to the Grand River, which flows 218 miles through southwestern Iowa and northwestern Missouri. Reports like the 1854 account of a 136-pound blue catfish caught near Chillicothe won't likely happen again. However, for those partial to moving water and the excitement of catfishing, the Grand is worth exploring. Big catfish are plentiful, and biologists note flatheads and blues topping 30 pounds aren't unusual. Channel cats are abundant, with lots of 2- to 10-pounders caught.
The best catfishing is in the lower reaches of the Grand, just above its confluence with the Missouri River. Waters near the Bosworth and Brunswick accesses are the best trophy cat waters. Bosworth Access is 22.4 miles above the Grand's mouth, near the town of Bosworth on Highway M in Carroll County. Plenty of cats are caught along the bank there, near logs or other cover. The Brunswick Access, at the intersection of Highway 24 and Polk Street in Brunswick, is three miles from the juncture of the Grand and Missouri. Anglers float-fishing from there to the river's mouth catch lots of monster cats.
The Osage River deserves mention as well. This is one of the country's top waters for giant blue cats. The stretch from Bagnell Dam to the Missouri River near Jefferson City harbors numerous 50- to 75-pound fish, and seasoned cat men like Virgil Agee of Chamois are certain there are blues there pushing the 150-pound mark. Agee himself has released blue cats back into the river that weighed 101 and 121 pounds and claims he's hooked some bigger.
Pony Express Lake, a 240-acre MDC lake west of Cameron, exemplifies the saying, "Good things often come in small packages." Despite its relatively small size, Pony Express harbors abundant channel and blue catfish. Channel cats averaging 1 to 3 pounds usually fall for chicken liver, nightcrawlers or stinkbaits fished along shallow points and in coves. Anglers drifting shallow flats and points with cut shad or live sunfish often take blue cats exceeding 20 pounds.
MDC fisheries biologists followed channel and blue catfish in Pony Express for a year by implanting radio transmitters in them. Both species showed their highest activity from sunset to sunrise. That confirms the knowledge of many catfishermen who restrict their fishing activity to nighttime hours. Wise channel cat anglers also fish near standing and downed timber. Biologists found the species near snags 73 percent of the time, usually in shallow water.
Blue cats were open-water fish. Although the information collected showed blue cats were found with structure about 50 percent of the time, those fish still were offshore.
The study also showed seasonal differences in the locations of blue cats and channel cats. Channel catfish used most of the lake during spring, tended to use the shallower, southern arms of the lake in summer and used the middle and the southeastern arm of the lake during fall and winter. Blue catfish also were spread across the lake in spring, but used the western arm and mid-impoundment areas during summer. They moved to deeper areas near the dam during fall.
Cameron Reservoir No. 3 covers just 96 acres, but it should be on your "must visit" list if flatheads are your quarry. Just west of Cameron in DeKalb County, this little gem is bristling with 25- to 39-inch-long fish, biologists say. And it harbors a sizable population of larger specimens that can exceed 40 pounds.
At 150 acres, Higginsville City Lake in Lafayette County ranks high among the region's channel cat hotspots. Each fall 1,500 channel catfish are stocked, maintaining a healthy population that includes many fish exceeding 10 pounds. Try fishing below the spillway and dam of the upper lake (by boat or bank), off the pier and along the banks with worms, doughbait and cut baits.
Long Branch Lake, a 2,400-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir, should serve up excellent fishing for all three major catfish species in 2015. Biologists report that channel catfish in the 2- to 3-pound range provide good action for bank anglers and those fishing flooded timber in the Long Branch and East Fork of Little Chariton River arms. Large blue catfish are not uncommon; jugs fished with shad are most effective in spring and early fall. Flathead catfish are more difficult to catch, but are available to those willing to use live bait in the lake's upper arms near old river channels.
Hunnewell Lake near the town of the same name is a mere 220 acres, but don't let its size fool you. The MDC marks it as "one of the best all-around fishing lakes northeast Missouri has to offer," and there are plenty of blues and channel cats available for whiskerfish enthusiasts. Several blue catfish exceeding 30 pounds are caught there each year. Private boats are prohibited on the lake. That's to protect Hunnewell Hatchery from zebra mussel invasion, but MDC boats are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There also is a covered, barrier-free fishing dock surrounded by fish attractors.
Mark Twain Lake covers 19,000 acres of the Missouri landscape near Paris. For flatheads in the region, few waters are better. Many fish exceeding 25 pounds are caught each year on trotlines, banklines and jugs, with the best fishing in the upper portions of the North Fork, Middle Fork and South Fork arms.
In that quadrant of our state, you won't find any catfishing waters more productive than Truman Reservoir. Anglers take scores of 50- to 70-pound blues and flatheads in the 55,600-acre impoundment every year. Channel cats from 5 to 10 pounds are abundant, too.
The lake encompasses the Osage River basin with four major rivers: Osage, Sac, South Grand and Pomme de Terre. In addition, there are numerous tributaries and hundreds of tiny feeder creeks.
The area around Osceola and up the Osage River to Roscoe is a well-known catfish haven and one of the best spots to begin catfish prospecting on Truman. There's also superb fishing on the Pomme de Terre River downstream from the Cross Timbers Access on Highway Y near Hermitage, and up the Sac River from the Highway 82 access area. Other blue-ribbon catfish holes include the Big Tebo Creek, Deepwater Creek and South Grand River areas.
Montrose Lake, 12 miles west of Clinton on Highway RA, harbors numerous 2- to 10-pound-plus channel cats, but large flatheads garner the most attention. In April 2003, an angler from Odessa tied the current pole-and-line state record by catching a 77 1/2-pound flathead. He caught a 35-pound fish that same morning!
The Elk River is another hotspot worth a visit. Most catfish anglers concentrate their efforts in the downstream portions of the river below Noel, catching numerous fish to 5 pounds on live and prepared baits. According to the MDC, channel catfish were abundant in the river during recent fall surveys.
In the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, 44,000-acre Wappapello Lake, a Corps of Engineers impoundment on the St. Francis River, serves up superb catfishing for the region's anglers. Channel cats to 5 pounds and more are common, especially along the dam. A few large flathead and blue catfish also are present, including some topping 50 pounds.
The St. Francis River above and below Wappapello also offers excellent catfishing, especially for abundant 12- to 24-inch channel cats. Trotlines and limblines are among the favored fishing tackle of local cat men. Almost every bait imaginable from live crawfish and minnows to stinkbaits and Ivory soap, is used to entice these hard-fighting sportfish.
For additional information on the waters mentioned, including regulations regarding catfishing, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation Web site at mdc.mo.gov