We paddled silently through a summer morning's fog, the canoe cutting a path through the glasslike surface of the river. Glancing back to catch a last glimpse of the century-old iron bridge where we launched, I could hear the murmur of a riffle somewhere ahead.
I paddled faster with anticipation and guided our canoe onto a nearby sand bar. My thoughts intent upon the whiskered fish that awaited us, I quietly gathered my tackle and entered the river.
My partner waded to a large cottonwood lodged in a cut bank several yards downstream from the riffle. The rootwad's gnarly mass, about the size of a small car, was mostly submerged and faced into the current.
Pausing a moment to thread a fresh minnow on the hook, he stepped off into chest-deep water. I watched as he held the entire length of the 15 foot pole before him and skillfully "walked" the bait with the current into the front of the rootwad. Then I mentally started counting as I knew he would. One, two, three... boom!
Like a flag staff in a hurricane, his pole arched as he set the hook. Once out of the rootwad and into the open current, the fish stubbornly fought the line, nearly doubling over the lanky pole.
The fish rolled at the surface for an instant, then made another run. However, in a minute or two, the fish tired and came to hand. By the time you could say "channel catfish," it was dangling from my friend's stringer.
Canepole fishing is really as simple as it looks-a pole, length of line and a hook. It's too simple for some modern anglers, but if you are willing to swallow your pride you can have fun using a canepole for catfish.
Most catfish anglers passively fish for catfish by throwing out a line and waiting for the catfish to come to them. The canepole method allows us to speed up the action and place the bait directly in front of every catfish in the pool.
You can choose from several styles of canepoles. The primary concern when shopping for a suitable pole is length. Basically, look for a pole long enough to keep you a modest distance from the fish.
A minimum length pole for river wade-fishing is 12 feet. Most anglers-or canepolers-prefer telescoping fiberglass "canepoles" for canoe fishing trips. These poles consist of three or more sections that fit inside each other like the sections of a telescope.
Rig a pole with a durable braided or twisted primary line and a 4- to 6-foot monofilament leader. For the primary line, use 100-pound test fishing cord. Braided or twisted line works equally well, however, you won't have as many problems with fraying if you use braided line.
Since you normally fish hard cover, such as boulders, rootwads and snags, and you are seeking a fish with a reputation as a fighter, you'll want to use 20-pound test line for your leader.
This line is durable, but can be broken with some effort when snagged. Bright colored monofilament line is visible in the water but won't scare the fish.
For channel catfish, flathead catfish and blue catfish, use #6 treble hooks. These fit in the mouth of any keeper catfish you encounter, and three barbs help guarantee a good hook set. You can fish treble hooks snagless, by covering all of the barbs with your bait. Because some snags are inevitable, however, I recommend using brass hooks that, when pulled, will bend out of snags with hand pressure.
Fishing with a pole requires split shot to keep the bait down. One or two small split shot placed 12 to 18 inches above the bait normally will do the job.
Some people consider channel catfish to be 'possums of the fish world. That's because they are opportunists and will consume virtually any food item that comes along. Grasshoppers or crickets, night crawlers, dead minnows, chicken entrails, crayfish, cut-bait or prepared blood-baits are effective for channel catfish. During float trips you can collect bait as you go by setting minnow traps while you fish or by seining.
A simple canvas nail pouch will hold tackle on canepole fishing trips. Adding Velcro or snap closures to the tackle pouch will complete the outfit and prevent items from getting away from you as you wade in the water. A hemostat or needle-nose pliers, spare leader material and a cache of hooks and sinkers is all the equipment you need.
Like most other game fish, catfish lurk in or near some type of structure. When searching for the best place to drop a bait, keep in mind depth, flow and substrate. Any natural structure that results in a change in any of these three factors can be good.
Rootwads are my favorite places to fish. Almost without exception, the heavy root ball of a fallen tree will point upstream with the lighter trunk and limbs trailing downstream. The roots provide cover for small minnows and attachment sites for the insects that catfish feed on.
Probably the most important feature of the rootwad, however, is the "divot" under the root ball. The divot is formed from turbulent flow around the roots that scours the stream bed sediments away, leaving a hole under the structure. This divot provides refuge for catfish from strong currents, and the rootwad itself provides shade and overhead cover from predators.
The best way to fish rootwads and other cover is to approach them at a right angle to the flow of the river. Drop your bait upstream of the rootwad at rod's length. Gently walk the bait toward the rootwad by jigging the rod tip up and down slightly. The river's current will do the work.
When the bait is right up to the rootwad you should see more line disappear into the depth of the divot. Once you are satisfied with the placement of the bait, begin counting. If you count to 100 or so without getting a bite, pull out and check your bait.
If you don't catch a fish soon, move on. Remember, the key to success is to offer a meal to as many fish as possible, so don't waste time with finicky fish.
Because of their limberness and length, canepoles require a fairly hard hook set. Catfish are good fighters and use the cover and flow to their advantage. You have the advantage if you can get the fish into open water. This is best accomplished by backing away from the cover. Without a reel, you have to let the flexibility of the pole play the fish.
Overhanging or Surface Cover:
Any overhanging cover, such as fallen or leaning trees with the tops laying in the water or debris or foam associated with a logjam or beaver dam, provides good cover for catfish. Fish this cover much like a rootwad, concentrating on the upstream end of the structure.
Riffles are productive places to fish. Start upstream and work your way downstream to be sure not to spook fish out of the area. Again, keep in mind depth, flow and substrate. Boulders and any woody debris lodged on riffles tend to cause scour and disrupt flow. Just downstream of the riffle, there is usually a small plunge pool that is created by water falling over the riffle. Concentrate on these areas of the riffle for best results.
The streams of north and west-central Missouri are often good places to fish. Like the fertile fields that line their banks, these creeks and rivers bear "bumper crops" of skillet-sized catfish. Armed with a canepole, a little bait and a lot of ambition, you too can "take the fight to the fish" and enjoy the bounty of Missouri's prairie streams.
There is no length limit on stream catfish, so you can clean the fish while you are on the stream. Dress the fish as you catch them, and immediately place the flesh on ice for best flavor.
Keep your bait fresh and it will work for you longer.
Catfish are sensitive to bright light. The best times to fish are early and late. During the day, concentrate on shady areas of the stream.
Good references for planning canepole catfishing trips include USGS topographic maps, Missouri's Conservation Atlas, published by the Conservation Department, and Guide to Floating Missouri Streams, Missouri Department of Natural Resources.