Red and gold streaked the sky as dawn crept above the treeline. Twenty-four boats bobbed in the water. Each held two anglers--a total of 42 men and 6 women--waiting anxiously for a signal. The clock moved to 7 a.m., a loud horn sounded and all boats immediately jumped on plane.
Within 15 minutes, I was making a looping overhand cast that threw my bait about 4 feet in front of a small brushpile. The bait splashed into the water and sank. A moment later, I set the hook with a sweeping motion of my medium-heavy rod. Moments later, I was putting a 2- pound fish into the livewell.
In the front of the boat, my fishing partner flipped her bait toward a large brushpile along the rocky shoreline. As soon as her bait hit bottom her rod was nearly jerked from her hands. She pulled at the fish until the rod nearly doubled. The fish darted from right to left, then headed into the brushpile, a tactic it seemed to have learned from previous battles.
I moved the boat toward the brushpile, and the sudden slackening in the pressure caused the fish to make a hard run toward deep water. My partner held it back with the pressure of the heavy rod. Moments later, I was placing the 9-pound fish into the livewell.
That 9-pounder would almost surely qualify as big fish of the day in most bass or walleye tournaments, but in a bonafide Missouri River catfish tournament, where sometimes gargantuan fish are brought to the weigh-in, it had only a middling chance of taking that honor.
If you don't know about big river catfish tournaments, then you probably haven't picked up a fishing magazine lately. There's a growing interest in sportfishing for catfish. It's here; it's now and it's building in Missouri's big rivers.
Catfish have long been considered table fish, great for fish fries and family meals. But anglers have recently discovered that they also make great sportfish. They are challenging on a rod and reel, wily as an old coyote and bigger than almost any other fish in our waters.
St. Joseph's 4F Flathead Club has been fueling the flames of the catfish revolution. For several years now, a group of men and women have been gathering at a private Missouri launch ramp in St. Joseph for a good hard day of fishing. These people come from all walks of life, but they have in common their love of competition, camaraderie and, of course, catfish.
Their catfish tournaments officially began in 1985 when two club members, while spinning yarns at a local tavern, wrote out the first set of rules on the back of a cigarette carton.
Each year, the 4F Flathead Club holds seven to nine tournaments. However, diehard members often fish other club tournaments, as well as those sponsored by tackle shops and marinas. Typically, the club will weigh-in a total of around 800 or 900 pounds of catfish during the year. However, as with many fisherman, 1994 was a banner year for the 4F Flathead Club. Anglers weighed-in over 2000 pounds of catfish (mostly flathead) during the nine tournaments held that year.
Most of the tournaments are for flathead catfish only. However, a couple of tournaments each year allow channel catfish and blue catfish to be included in the weigh-in. The day of fishing begins at 7 a.m. and ends with a 4 p.m. weigh-in. On most days, a two-person team needs to weigh in 25 pounds to have a shot at first place.
According to the club's records, the largest catfish was weighed-in by Matt Merten. The 12-year-old boated a 49-pound flathead on June 7, 1997.
Many people might think only luck could win a tournament where you pitch out a bait and watch the river go by waiting for a bite. However, a new breed of catfish anglers has emerged who don't follow the traditional catfishing methods. Unlike their parents and grandparents who taught patience, these anglers move every 15 to 20 minutes hunting for active fish.
Heavy poles, 30-pound-test line, large hooks and live bait rule during most of the tournaments. Anglers use different riggings to attach weights and hooks. One of the most common is constructed by sliding a 2- or 3-ounce egg sinker up the line and attaching a barrel swivel. Added to the swivel is a 12-inch leader with a 5/0 hook, rounded off nicely with a bright shiny 4-inch goldfish.
During one tournament my partner used exactly that kind of rig without success the whole day, while I had used the same rig to boat three flathead catfish that together weighed about 10 pounds. "At least we didn't get skunked," I told him, looking for a silver lining.
Ten minutes later, he reported a tap on is rod tip and set the hook mightily. The rod doubled, but fish didn't budge. "I'm probably hung," he said, "but I think there's a good fish on, too."
He held on while I brought in other lines, even gingerly cutting a line that snarled around his taut line. I untied the boat and motored toward the fish, which seemed to start it moving. I cut the motor and the fish stayed near the bottom of the deep channel, despite unyielding pressure from the heavy fishing rod.
We drifted together about 50 yards, and were about the same distance upstream from a tree that leaned over the channel, when the fish came up without warning. At about the same time my partner yelled "look out," I made a grab with the dip net and, with a lot of splashing, pulled in a fish that later made the crowd hush at the weigh in. It weighed 32.5 pounds, the biggest fish of the day. With my other three catfish added, we also won with our total weight.
Adventures like these happen all up and down our big rivers as anglers discover the potential of catfish and the fun of catfish tournaments. Ask at bait shops or look in newspapers for details of a big river catfish tournament near you. It's a shame to miss the fun and the challenge offered by these hard fighting gamefish.
Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
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Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
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Photographer - Cliff White
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Staff Writer - Joan McKee
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