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Catching Big River Blues

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 29, 2010

We motored up the Mississippi just after dark to a fleet of moored barges. A few miles upstream from the mouth of the Missouri River, we anchored next to the rusty leviathans. I mentioned to Carl that it seemed like a peculiar place to catch catfish.

He baited my line without asking me if I needed help and showed me where to cast. Ten minutes later, I was reeling in a huge mass of flesh and whiskers under the industrial lights of the barge repair depot.

As Carl netted the blue catfish, he guessed the weight at 35 pounds. “Nice fish,” he said, not overly impressed. A quick check on the digital scale put the fish at 38 pounds, by far the biggest catfish I had ever caught on pole and line. As he cut off another skipjack’s head and slid it onto my hook, he added, “Lets see if you can do a little better; the night’s still young.”

St. Louis is home to the confluence of our nation’s two greatest rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri. As a fisheries management biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, I have promoted fishing big rivers through seminars, hands-on fishing workshops, and brochures. Occasionally, people also approach me on their own (usually by phone) to ask how to safely navigate and fish the Missouri or Mississippi rivers. That’s how I met Carl Roberts, a 51-yearold electrician.

Carl had been bank fishing on the Mississippi River with night crawlers and stink bait for a couple of years, but he rarely caught a catfish over 5 pounds. After watching anglers come in from the river in fishing boats with blue cats up to 50 pounds and larger, he decided it was time for a new challenge. A few months later, Carl was plying the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in a 17-foot, deep-V aluminum boat. His quarry was blue catfish—or more specifically, big blue catfish.

During that period, beginning about five years ago, I heard from Carl often. He asked about everything from river hazards to bait and catfish habitat. I helped him to the best of my ability, but I eventually steered him toward popular fishing magazines, including In-Fisherman’s Catfish Insider, to get the latest information on catching big blues. It took a few years, but Carl’s efforts paid off. Now, he routinely catches blue cats in the 30- to 40-pound range and caught 65- and 72-pounders last year.

Carl’s culminating achievement began a few weeks ago, when In-Fisherman’s Catfish Insider writers and photographers accompanied him to the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. They wanted to document his methods of catching blues by rod and reel.

Fishing was slow, but Carl managed to catch a 35-pounder on the second day. The icing on the cake came a week later when, during a three-hour photo shoot for this article, he took my friend Kevin Krause to one of his favorite spots on the Missouri River. Kevin, with a lot of help, boated an 80-pound behemoth!

So, is Carl Roberts special, or can anyone learn to boat big blues on big rivers? There is no doubt that Carl is above average as catfish anglers go, but with a little education, persistence and common sense, most anglers can gain access to quality-sized blue catfish in Missouri’s big rivers. This article provides some introductory education. The reader is responsible for the persistence and common sense.

Stalking the cat

The Missouri and Mississippi rivers are home to the blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus), the channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) and the flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris). Anglers should learn to identify these three catfish and become familiar with the regulations that apply to them on Missouri’s big rivers.

Because blue catfish and channel catfish are similar in appearance, they were formerly lumped together under the same Missouri regulation, which allowed anglers to keep up to 10 channels and blues in any combination each day. In order to better manage blue catfish, which are very different in size, range and abundance from channel catfish, the Department of Conservation has enacted a separate creel limit, effective March 1, 2006, for blue catfish (five per day) from that of channel catfish, which will remain at 10 per day. Ultimately, the new regulation should provide a better opportunity for more anglers to catch quality-sized blue catfish.

Blue catfish are common in both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers throughout the state of Missouri. Their numbers have declined in the Mississippi River upstream from the mouth of the Missouri River, but they are still taken in those waters by savvy anglers, especially in the tailwaters of the locks and dams.

Carl fishes for blues in areas that vary in depth from 6 to 20 feet or more, but always chooses areas with current, sometimes right out in the main channel of the river. Blue cats are often found near structures and/or cover, such as wing dikes, bluff holes, log jams and cut banks. Some wing dikes have notches that produce a downstream scour hole where blues can be found. Although it is most efficient to access blue cat habitat by boat, many of these locations are accessible from the bank.

In urban areas such as St. Louis, an abundance of additional structures such as moored barges and bridge piers are available. Chris Morrow, a veteran blue cat angler from Troy, Missouri, focuses on these structures when fishing.

In a recent article for In-Fisherman’s Catfish Insider, Chris explained that his favorite targets are moored barges that have been in place for a week or more, usually for repair. Carl also fishes by moored barges where he suspects that all of the artificial lighting attracts insects and baitfish at night, which further attracts big blues.

Both Chris and Carl fish day and night, depending on their work schedules and the season. During the cooler times of year, they often fish during the day. In the summer, they are usually on the river in the early morning hours or at night to avoid the heat. Although many long-time blue cat anglers insist that nighttime offers the best fishing, Carl notes that many catfish tournaments are held during the day and they regularly produce huge blue cats.

Catching the cat

Appropriate gear is important when pursuing big river giants that can exceed 100 pounds. The typical rig for blues includes a 7- to 8-foot rod with a strong back and a sensitive tip. Carl feels that a rod with too stiff of a tip will spook big blues when they pick up the bait.

Many companies now design rods for big river cat-fishing. A heavy-duty bait-casting reel loaded with 30- to 50-pound monofilament line works well for blues. Chris uses braided fishing line, which is becoming more popular among catfish anglers. If you don’t want to get too fancy, there are plenty of affordable, heavy-duty rod and reel combos that will do the trick on big river blues. The most important thing is that you feel confident in your equipment when you go into battle.

Tackle should include slip sinkers weighing from 3 to 8 ounces. Attach a piece of 12- to 24-inch line to a two-way swivel below the slip sinker and tie a 6/0 to 8/0 circle hook to the end. Most blue cat anglers swear by circle hooks because they eliminate the need for “setting the hook.” When a blue cat grabs a circle hook, all the angler has to do is pick up the rod and start fighting. Rod holders are highly recommended in a boat or from the bank because a huge blue catfish can easily pull an expensive rig into the water before an angler has time to react.

Most big river “catters,” as they are sometimes called, agree that the best baits for large blues are gizzard shad, goldeye, or best of all, skipjack herring. They typically use a throw net to catch gizzard shad in the mouth of a tributary or in shallow backwaters that are protected from the current.

Some anglers prefer catching goldeye or skipjack herring on small jigs similar to those used to catch crappie. Skipjack herring are more widely used on the Mississippi River due to their better availability. Missouri River anglers typically fish with gizzard shad, which can only be taken by net.

Shad and other baits are typically cut into pieces depending on the size of the bait. Carl feels that the bigger the bait the better. He likes to describe bait in monetary terms, comparing a large hunk of bait to a quarter and a small piece to a penny. Would you bend down to pick up a penny?” he asks, “A mungo blue might swim right by that penny, but it rarely ignores a quarter.”

Most blue cat anglers consider the head of the shad or skipjack the best bait of all. According to a recent article in Outdoor Life, the Illinois state record blue cat, which was taken last year on the Mississippi River near St. Louis, was caught with the front half of a skipjack herring—including the head, of course.

Virtually all serious blue cat anglers are sensitive about bait and they shun the frozen sort. They prefer to catch their bait fresh, but if that isn’t possible, they vacuum seal the bait before they freeze it so that it will appear fresh when thawed. Chris has been known to go out of state, if necessary, to collect skipjack herring, vacuum seal it, and freeze it for the next fishing season.

Although many catfish anglers practice catch and release on trophy-sized blues, it is worth mentioning that the blue catfish makes fine table fare. Their meat is firm and delicious, and when deep fried in oil with a light coating of corn meal, it is as good as crappie and walleye as far as I’m concerned. As with all fish that you eat from Missouri’s rivers, you should check for recommended consumption rates that are released by the Missouri Department of Health each year. Currently, catfish from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers are under a consumption advisory.

If you still don’t feel prepared to venture onto Missouri’s big rivers in pursuit of big blues, just remember that Carl Roberts was in the same boat, so to speak, five years ago. By taking these basic recommendations, reading a few fishing magazines, and most importantly, talking to successful catters, you just might end up being interviewed by a film crew from In-Fisherman yourself some day.

In the meantime, don’t hesitate to contact a fisheries biologist from the Department for help (see page 1 for regional office phone numbers). It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of our job!

Flathead Catfish limit: 5 fish daily

The flathead is a slender catfish with a broadly flattened head and a projecting lower jaw. The back and sides are pale yellow to light brown, and mottled with dark brown or black (mottling often is poorly developed in adults from muddy water). Adults commonly are 15 to 45 inches long and weigh 1 to 45 pounds

Channel Catfish limit: 10 fish daily

The channel catfish is also slender, but with a projecting upper jaw. It is similar to the blue catfish, but has scattered, roundish dark spots on its back and sides (spots often are absent in the smallest young and large adults). The anal fin margin is rounded, and the back and sides are olive-brown or slate blue. Breeding males are a deep blue-black on the back and sides, with the head swollen and knobby and the lips thickened and fleshy. Adults commonly are 12 to 32 inches long and weigh 1 to 15 pounds.

Blue Catfish limit: 5 fish daily

These are similar to channel catfish, with one significant difference— the anal fin margin is straight and tapered. They never have dark spots on the back and sides. The back and upper sides are pale bluish-silver, grading to silver-white on the lower sides and belly. The light coloring often leads to confusion with the white catfish—a species neither native nor common to Missouri. Adult blue catfish commonly are 20 to 44 inches long and weigh 3 to 40 pounds on average.

***The new catfish regulations became effective March 1, 2006, and apply on all Missouri waters except where special catfish management regulations apply. Anglers should note that some waters that support blue catfish populations will not be impacted by the new regulation. This includes the Missouri portion of the Mississippi River, which will continue with a daily and possession limit of 20 channels and blues in the aggregate and 10 flathead catfish. Anglers should always refer to the Wildlife Code and area signs and brochures to determine daily and possession limits.

Big River Safety

Boaters should wear personal flotation devices when on the water. On the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, boaters should avoid commercial barges, which are not maneuverable. Barges also produce wakes that can capsize smaller boats. Throttle down when barges are in the vicinity and steer into a barge's wake rather than taking it on broadside.

Wing dams, closing dams and riprap can quickly damage a boat. Be alert for the distinct ripples caused by shallow submerged rock structures. The rivers also contain a large amount of floating debris, especially during and immediately after high water periods.

The U.S. Coast Guard marks the navigation channel with buoys. These can be difficult to see at night and present another boating hazard.

Health Advisory

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has reevaluated their fish consumption advisory on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. While fish tissue contaminant concentrations have declined, PCBs and chlordane remain at levels of health concern for sturgeon and sturgeon eggs and several catfish species. DHSS reviewed recent sampling conducted on these rivers and recommends that all consumers limit catfish consumption to one meal per week of flathead, channel and blue catfish greater than 17 inches due to PCBs, chlordane, and mercury. Visit the News & Public Notices section of the DHSS Web site at www.dhss.mo.gov for information.

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