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The Big Fishy

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 15, 2010

Last summer I was running a trotline on a sand island on the Missouri River upstream from Jefferson City. One end of the line was tied to a log on shore. The other end angled downstream and out toward the main river channel.

Every half hour or so, I put on my life jacket and waded out to lift the line, check for fish, and replenish bait. By noon I had a half-dozen catfish weighing 2 to 6 pounds.

The next time out, I found a blue cat weighing about 35 pounds near the end of the line. My net was ample for bass fishing, but I couldn't get half this monster into it. Wrestling with the old warrior seemed like a bad idea, so I decided to drag him toward shallow water, hoping to reach better footing before he got free. I pulled on the line once, and he ran like a freight train, straightening two points of the treble hook to make his escape.

Discouraging? Not really. I knew there were plenty more where that one came from. Although fish populations in the Missouri River aren't what they were when Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery headed upriver nearly 200 years ago, the waterway is still a fish factory. Since the Missouri Department of Conservation stopped the commercial harvesting of catfish in 1992, the number and size of catfish has increased. The Missouri River produced the state pole-and-line record flathead catfish, a 77.5-pounder caught in May 1997. The blue cat record, another Missouri River denizen caught in 1991, weighed 103 pounds.

Gains in water quality and fish habitat have paralleled the improvement in fishing opportunities on the Missouri River. Tighter regulation of pesticides has reduced chemical pollution in the state's namesake river. Two years ago, the Missouri Department of Health canceled its advisory against eating catfish, carp, buffalo, drum, suckers and paddlefish from the river. The floods of 1993 and 1995 created enormous amounts of off-channel spawning habitat for fish.

The easiest and most accessible way to fish the river is from its banks. Many fish, including some 40- and 50- pounders, are caught within sight of boat ramps each year. Anglers with boats can enjoy the solitude of a remote sand bar.

When looking for a spot to fish, keep in mind that the river is a conveyor belt for food. River fish stay where they can peruse this moving smorgasbord without much effort. You will find fish around obstructions that break the force of the current. Such places include the upstream faces of wing dikes and the ends of sand bars sticking out into the channel. The slack water below wing dikes also can produce good fishing.

Shallow flats between islands and the main river channel can be fantastic fishing spots. During the day, fish patrol ledges where 3- to 4-foot water drops off to greater depth. The fish move up into the shallow water each night to forage.

The availability of current-washed food makes eddies and sheltered areas along the outside of river bends superb for fishing. The upper and lower ends of side channels behind islands often attract large numbers of fish, too. River banks covered with rocks (riprap) are good places to drift live crayfish at night.

Pay attention to the location of sand bars and other high spots in the river channel when the river is down. Visit these places when rising water covers them with slow-moving water.

In general, fishing is best when the river is rising, worst when it is falling.

The big three

Catfish are the most sought-after fish on the Missouri River. Each species of catfish has unique characteristics that affect when, where and how you catch them.

Blue cats are heavyweights. The average pole-and-line catch is 10 or 15 pounds, but the largest on record weighed 128 pounds. Blue cats are most often found in or near the main channel over sand or gravel bottoms. Live shad and skipjack herring caught with a throw net are excellent bait. Big fish usually require using big baits. Seven-inch shad are a good snacking size for big blues.

Flatheads are only slightly smaller than blues, sometimes topping 100 pounds. Flatheads are common throughout the river, but their highest densities occur in the stretch of river above Kansas City. Flatheads like to hide in root wads or other sheltered spots along banks, where they can dash out to snatch a meal. Voracious predators, they prefer live food and seldom take prepared or processed bait. Live shad, creek chubs, sunfish or crayfish all work well to catch flatheads.

Channel cats are generalists. They go everywhere on the river, and there's almost nothing they won't eat. Channel cats average only 1 to 5 pounds. However, 10-pounders aren't uncommon, and the world record is 58 pounds. Commercial stink bait, dip bait, worms, chicken liver, cut shad and fish guts all work fine.

The Rest of the cast

The Missouri River is home to a number of hard-fighting, good-eating fish besides catfish. The most common are:

Black, bigmouth and smallmouth buffalo--These get their name from their distinctive humped backs. Black buffaloes may top 50 pounds.

Freshwater drum--Most of these run two to three pounds, slightly smaller than the average size of buffaloes, but they can top out at about 40 pounds. They are distinguished by the fins on their back, which are divided distinctly into two parts.

White and largemouth bass, crappie, walleye--Fishing for these familiar species is much the same on the Missouri River as in other locations. Mouths of tributary streams are hot spots in the spring. Bass and crappie are generally found in slow water away from the main river channel.

Leave your ultralight at home

River fish are rough customers, so choose your tackle accordingly. Use braided nylon cord for the main line of trotlines. Put a heavy barrel-swivel between the main line and the lines used to tie on hooks. This will keep fish from twisting off. Buy heavy, forged hooks to prevent bending.

For a rod, take anything from a heavy bass pole to deep-sea gear. Heavy baitcasting reels stand up to big fish better than spinning reels.

River fish and conditions are hard on line. Choose an abrasion-resistant monofilament or high quality braided line of at least 20-pound-test.

You'll need up to 8 ounces of weight to hold your bait down in stiff current. Outside the main channel, you can use less.

A dropper rig, suspending the sinker from a short line "dropped" from a heavy barrel swivel, is a good idea. By using a lighter line on the dropper, you often can break off a snagged sinker without having to completely re-rig.

For more information...

For daily limits and other Missouri River fishing regulations, see the 2003 Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations. The Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Lower Missouri River Guide to Recreation and Visitor Safety is available at conservation nature centers in St. Louis, Jefferson City and Blue Springs.

Beware of flying fish

flying fishAs silly as it may sound, flying fish can be a safety concern for Missouri River anglers. The bighead carp, an Asian species, has become very abundant in the river. Powerful, athletic swimmers, these sturdy fish commonly reach weights of 10 to 20 pounds.

Bighead carp spend most of their time near the surface in slow-moving water off the main channel. When startled by a passing boat, they make frantic dashes for deeper water. If a boat gets between them and their chosen refuge, they rocket out of the water like dolphins. Their spectacular leaps are wonderful to see, but an angler unlucky enough to get clobbered by 15 pounds of flying sushi can be tumbled from his boat or knocked unconscious before he knows what has happened. To avoid such collisions, keep to the navigation channel whenever possible. Outside the main channel, move at idle speed, allowing bigheads to move ahead of you.

Missouri metro fishing spots

St. Louis area anglers will find a wealth of Missouri River fishing opportunities at the Howell Island, Weldon Spring and Columbia Bottom Conservation areas.

Good bank fishing spots in central Missouri include the Mokane, Chamois, Carl R. Noren, Marion and Taylor's Landing accesses.

Kansas City and St. Joseph area residents can wet a line at the Cooley Lake, Tom Brown, Nodaway Island and Payne Landing accesses, at Sunbridge Hills, Bob Brown, H. F. Thurnau and Arthur Dupree Memorial conservation areas and at LaBenite Park. On the Kansas side, you can reach the river from the Leavenworth and Atchison boat ramps.

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