Bass and crappie have headed for their deepwater sanctuaries and seem to prefer feeding early and late in the day or at night. The peak of the bluegill spawn is over and the bigger sunfish have also headed for deep water.
While the summer heat has slowed down the fishing for some of Missouri's favorite game fish, Show Me State anglers can still enjoy consistent action for another popular species. Catfish can be found in almost every lake, river, stream and pond throughout the state and remain active even in the heat of summer.
The three species most sought after in the state are blue, flathead and channel catfish. The blue catfish is considered a big-river fish because it is commonly found in the Mississippi, Missouri and Osage rivers and in the lower reaches of their larger tributaries such as the Grand, Gasconade and Salt rivers, according to "The Fishes of Missouri" written by William L. Pflieger. Good populations of blues also swim in the Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake. Blue cats generally inhabit swift chutes and pools with current and sand or gravel bottoms.
Flathead abound mostly in the large streams throughout our state and are one of the most abundant large catfish in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, the principal tributaries of the Prairie Region and the larger streams of the lowlands. Flatheads favor pools near submerged logs, driftpiles and other wood cover.
The most abundant and widely distributed cat in the state is the channel catfish. It is common nearly everywhere in the state but is especially abundant in the prairie streams of north and west Missouri, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, and the larger lowland streams and ditches of the southeast. Channel cats are also stocked in lakes and ponds managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation throughout the state. These cats prefer large pools, deep water or submerged logs and other cover.
Here's a look at some of the best catfish waters throughout our state.
LAKE OF THE OZARKS
My home waters provide plenty of opportunities for anglers to take all three whiskered species in the heat of summer.
"Lake of the Ozarks has a real good population of blue cats and that is what people are really targeting," says MDC fisheries biologist Greg Stoner. "There are also a lot of channel cat out there and some fair-sized channel cats in the lake. We have seen some 7, 8 and 9 pounds."
MDC samplings the last couple of years have revealed larger blue cats inhabit the lower end of the lake (from the Hurricane Deck Bridge down to the dam) now. According to the fall 2011 jugline survey, blue cats on the lower end averaged 23 inches long, while the average length for blues on the upper end of the lake was 20 inches.
A local angler who enjoys pursuing catfish during the summer at Lake of the Ozarks is James Bryant, who credits his dad, Ed Bryant, with teaching him everything he knows about catfishing.
"There is a misconception that all catfish are bottom feeders, which is not necessarily the truth," said James Bryant, co-owner of Bryant's Osage Outdoors in Laurie. "They like to forage more on shad and bluegills, especially the flathead, so in the summer months guys like to use limblines on bluff walls in the evenings and at night when the surface water temperature cools. That's when flatheads and blue cats will forage more towards the surface and eat live bait."
The lake's level is stable and the current is flowing slower during the summer, which allows blue catfish to move from the channel swings up on the flats to feed.
"That is a great place for the shad to congregate," says Bryant. "I had an old customer of mine who used to say you want to look at the river, especially the Osage arm, as kind of a freeway. All the big fish go up and down the freeway and just like when people get hungry and go off the freeway to look for a McDonald's or Cracker Barrel, catfish do the same. They are cruising on the freeway and when they need a meal they will go off the overpass (channel swing) and grab a meal (on the flat)."
The Bryants drift in a pontoon boat for catfish with a technique they call "bumping." They rig their rods with 17- to 20-pound line and slip on a 1-ounce egg sinker followed by a barrel swivel. Attached to the swivel is a 2-foot leader line of 17- to 20-pound test and a 4/0 or 5/0 octopus style hook. The swivel serves the dual purpose of separating the hook from the weight and preventing line twist when the catfish spins while fighting against the line. A couple of shad 2 to 3 inches long are stuck on the hook for bait.
Bryant notes that anglers can catch plenty of frying-sized channel catfish in the 1- to 2-pound range while tightlining from the bank or from one of the lake's numerous docks. "The easiest way to catch them is to put on a nightcrawler, dough bait or dip bait and even pieces of hotdogs," he said.
The tackle shop owner recommends using a No. 4 treble hook for a 1-inch section of hotdog or 1-inch dough ball. For night crawlers a No. 2 treble or No. 1 or 1/0 gold hook works best.
A 6-foot medium-action spinning rod with 10- to 12-pound test line is all that's needed for catching channel cats. Bryant suggests pinching a couple of No. 1 split shot on the line to weigh down the bait. Toss the bait off the dock, let it sink to the bottom and wait for Old Whiskers to bite.
Catfish Safari guide Steve Brown targets big blue cats and mostly drift fishes with cut shad while running four to six rods at one time.
"In the hot summer I try to find them above the thermocline," says Brown. "People think they go deep in the summertime, to the cooler water, but there is no oxygen down there or not enough for the fish to stay down there. On our lakes there is a thermocline of about 20 feet, and so 99 percent of our fish are caught in 20 feet or less."
The trick for Brown is to find humps where old corn or bean fields are submerged around 20 feet deep or less. He believes the big cats congregate and feed on those flats.
His catfish rigs consist of an 8/0 hook on an 18- to 36-inch leader of 50- to 60-pound monofilament attached to a 3/0 barrel swivel. He slips a homemade chain sinker onto his main line of high visibility braided Dacron. Brown also clips an oval bobber on the leader line about 6 inches away from the bait. The bobber helps keep the bait off the bottom and serves as a shock absorber by preventing his bait from jerking too much when his rods are bobbing up and down in his boat.
Brown baits his hooks with chunks of shad sides or heads about the length of his hand. He puts heads on some of his rods and sides on the others to see which the blue cats prefer for that trip.
"Some days they will tear the heads up and not touch the sides and then one day they don't want the heads," he says. "There is no rhyme or reason to it. You can go from a dream trip to the worst day ever if you don't try both."
After attaching a couple of sides and heads to each of his hooks, Brown lets out line so that his baits will drift about 150 feet behind the boat. "The whole key is to keep that bait about a foot off the bottom," he says. He achieves this by drifting with a drift sock on windy days or slow-trolling with his electric motor on calm days. The ideal speed for his drift is about 1/2 to 3/4 miles per hour.
The big-cat expert makes a pass over the flat and if it produces he will circle around and drift the same route. If the pass fails to produce a bite, he will move over about 50 yards on the flat and make a second drift.
During the dog days of summer, Brown's clients usually catch 30 to 60 blue cats a day. The fish usually weigh 2 to 10 pounds with a few larger blues taken each day. "Most of the time we will catch one or two in the 25- to 30-pound range," says Brown.
A five-year reward tag study initiated in 2004 by the MDC has revealed blue cats are heavily harvested on Truman Lake with estimated annual exploitation rates ranging from 25.5 percent to 33.4 percent. These results have prompted the MDC to consider protective regulations for blue cats at Truman and the Lake of the Ozarks.
MDC fisheries biologist Mike Bayless notes Truman has a "pretty good" population of flatheads. "There are plenty of quality fish out there and they don't get harvested at nearly as high of a rate as blue cats do," he says. "There is usually some 50-, 60- and 70-pounders caught every year."
The biologist gives Truman's channel catfish population a good rating with most of the fish running in the 1- to 5-pound range.
The Missouri River offers the best opportunity to catch big blues and flatheads close to the metropolitan area, according to MDC fisheries biologist Jake Allman.
For summertime flatheads, try fishing around the river jetties, wing dikes and submerged brushpiles. Allman suggests using live fish for bait, although flatheads will also take a gob of nightcrawlers. River anglers should use a main line of 40- to 50-pound test with a 20-pound leader and attach a 4/0 hook with a weight that will vary in size depending on the current.
"You want a heavy enough weight to keep the bait down near the bottom in the current," says Allman. The biologist notes that flathead catches in the 40- to 50-pound range are fairly common on the river.
Fishing at night is good for blue cats since the fish move up on the sandbars between the wing dikes to feed. Some blues can also be taken in the deep water off the end of the wing dikes. "Blue cats in the 70-pound-plus range are not unheard of," says Allman. He suggests using cut bait for blues, but the fish will also bite live bait.
Channel catfishing is good in the river and a host of urban lakes that are stocked by the MDC around Kansas City. Nightcrawlers, cut bait and prepared baits will produce channel cats during the day or night. Allman notices many of the channel catfish catches around the city run in the 2- to 5-pound range. "Blue Springs Lake actually has a population of larger channel catfish with fish over 10 pounds not uncommon," he says. The urban lakes are stocked every year with 10-inch fingerlings at a rate of 15 to 20 fish per acre.
The big rivers winding around the Gateway City are home to behemoth blue cats. "Every weekend I will look at a local newspaper and see another picture of a 60- or 70-pound blue (being caught on the Mississippi or Missouri)," says MDC fisheries biologist Danny Brown. "The blues have been really good on both of those rivers."
A 130-pound blue cat caught by Greg Bernal of Florissant on July 20, 2010, on the Missouri River near Columbia Bottoms held the world record for nearly a year until a 143-pounder was caught in North Carolina in 2011. Bernal's catfish still holds the state record for pole-and-line catches. A 121-pound blue was caught below the Melvin Price Lock and Dam on the Mississippi River in 2005. The Missouri and the section of the Mississippi River below St. Louis both have ideal habitat for blue cats, with plenty of exposed wing dikes and confined channels, according to Brown.
Fresh skipjack herring is a favorite of the big river blues, but cut Asian carp and shad will also trigger strikes. "There is a contingency of fisherman out there that really like to use fresh-caught fish though," says Brown. "They feel that the frozen fish that are thawed out don't work as well."
Bragging-sized flatheads can be found on the rivers along any wood cover with a little current flowing into it. Brown suggests trying behind islands in the chutes and side channels where the natural banks are dotted with root wads and fallen trees. The best live baits for big flatheads are carp, green sunfish, bluegills and goldfish. Smaller flatheads can be taken on nightcrawlers.
Channel cats and smaller blues on the rivers will bite on a variety of prepared baits. Focus on the holes below the wing dikes to find the biggest concentrations of fish.
The Urban Fishing Program provides city anglers with the best chance to catch a stringer full of channel catfish. Tens of thousands of 15-inch channel catfish are stocked into Urban Fishing Program lakes from April through September.