Big Muddy = Big Catfish

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 8, 2010

Blue catfish survey

they are drifting along. Three years ago I caught my first fish on a sandbar, and I can’t tell you how excited I was. It was quite a revelation, because there’s nothing about a sandbar that really jumps out at you, you know?”

Schneider said understanding blue catfish’s daily and annual cycles is another key to catching them.

“The time to fish is in the wintertime for me,” he said. “That’s the time for finding all the blues. A lot of them will be back behind the jetties during the day, but that’s more the resting time for them. They are the night guys.

“In April, I catch big blues. In May, I catch big blues on the outside of bends. In June, they spawn. Then you definitely want to jump and try to find those smaller blue spots.”

Most of the fish he had been catching before our trip were females that already had spawned. He was anticipating the action that would begin when male catfish finished their nest-guarding duties in tributary streams and returned to the big river, hungry and aggressive.

“It’s good fishing right now,” he said, “but any day now the males are going to get here, and they are going to be hot!”

Schneider said when the big males return they sometimes come into an area while he is fishing and push out the smaller fish.

“I love it when the big guys start showing up,” he said. “I’ve seen it over and over, where you catch 7- or 10-pound channel cats, and then the biting stops for awhile and the next one the hammer is down. The big boys have showed up!”

The “big boys” never showed up for me, even though we stuck it out into the wee hours of Independence Day, talking in the dark and listening to the water lapping at the sides of the boat. They did put in an appearance a few weeks later, when Conservationist Photographer David Stonner spent an evening with Schneider. With me and my fishing rod nowhere in sight, he boated a 36-pound blue.

I had a good time, though, even without catching a big one, and I took home two beautiful fillets from the fish we caught. More important, I learned enough to try it on my own next time. I may need a bigger boat, though.

Barges—The Catfish Angler’s Friend

Don’t fret when a barge goes past, kicking up a large wake. Schneider says the disturbance frequently leads to a bite, as big catfish temporarily flee deep holes in the main channel and move around.

Tackling Big Cats

Schneider uses stout rods and heavy-duty saltwater bait-casting reels. The reels are spooled with 50-pound monofilament line. Rod holders allow him to fish several lines at once.

He swears by stout circle hooks, which he says set themselves and do a better job of turning strong fish in swift current. He ties 100-pound leaders to the hooks and attaches the leader to the main line with a triple swivel. The third eye of the swivel holds a 12- or 14-ounce lead sinker to hold the bait down in the river’s relentless current. He is experimenting with a bait rig that puts a spinner flanked by orange plastic beads up the line a few inches from the bait. He’s hoping the flash and vibration of the spinner will attract blue cats’ attention.

“Tennessee tarpon” are big-cat specialists’ bait of choice. These are skipjack herrings, which grow up to 16 inches long. He uses the oily fish to make “catfish sandwiches” by wrapping a flank fillet around a herring head. You can buy herring frozen from bait shops or travel to Pickwick Lake in northeastern Mississippi and catch them by the hundreds with cast nets, as Schneider does. He also keys in on shad and other baitfish in the early summer, when they congregate under mulberry trees in Missouri River tributaries to gorge on the ripe fruit. He says blue holes created by the flood of 1993 are full of shad, too, and are good places to throw a cast net for bait.

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