Big Muddy = Big Catfish
It was Thursday, and I was getting the jump on last year’s long Independence Day weekend with Ed Schneider, hog producer and occasional Missouri River catfish guide. We had met for the first time at a convenience store in Waverly, five minutes from the town’s nice new boat ramp. I was ready to catch fish. Big fish. Big blue catfish, to be exact, and everything looked promising.
For one thing, the river had stopped falling, and the water temperature was rising. A week or so earlier, a deluge had dropped 4 inches of rain on the area, bumping the river’s level up 4 feet and dropping its temperature to the low 70s. Now it was back to nearly 80 degrees. Just the night before, Schneider had experienced a good bite.
We were getting a break in the weather, too. The day’s high temperature was 85 degrees, and a pleasant breeze was pushing cotton-ball clouds around in an otherwise clear sky.
Schneider slid his boat, a 22-foot Bay Cruiser designed for coastal waters and powered by a 200 hp outboard, into the mocha-colored water at 3:30 p.m. An hour later, I boated the first fish of the day, a fat 10-pound blue cat caught at the edge of the navigation channel on the outside of a long river bend. It looked like this was going to be a long, productive evening.
The fish got finicky after that, so Schneider shifted operations to a spot below a wing dike where a clump of flood-washed tree trunks and root wads promised channel catfish action. Birds serenaded us as the sun sank toward the water upriver. The channel cats proved picky, too, but that was okay. We were just killing time until dark, when the main event would commence.
Schneider is a blue cat specialist. After a friend introduced him to river fishing a decade ago, he got a little obsessed with it.
“I liked the challenge of figuring out where the fish were,” he told me. “The Missouri is a tough river to figure out.”
Now that he thinks he has figured it out, he hires out as a catfish guide. With all the money he has tied up in his boat and fishing equipment, it is a stretch to call Renegade Catfishing a business in the conventional sense. It is more of a calling.
“I like to show my clients how to find catfish and how to catch them,” he said. He certainly did everything he could to explain the ways of Missouri River catfishing to me.
Schneider said the problem with finding blue cats in the Missouri River is the abundance of suitable habitat for the fish, which can top 100 pounds.
“The blue cat can live right where he wants to live,” said Schneider. “He wants the deepest water, and he doesn’t mind the current, so he’s living right in the main channel.”
There is a lot of “main channel” acreage in the Missouri River, but Schneider has discovered ways of narrowing his search. Blue catfish tend to retreat to deep water during the day, then come out at night to forage in shallower water. He looks for conditions that boost the chances a particular stretch of channel will hold big cats.
One is the entry of water from a tributary stream or a levee district drain. We found such a spot just a few yards downriver from a levee district outflow, and that’s where we hooked the 10-pounder.
Big blues also like to hang out at the boundary between eddies and the main channel. He sometimes anchors in slack water just outside the current and casts into the channel, letting the flow carry his bait into that sweet spot.
Another consistent catfish attractor is a submerged hump of sand in or near the main channel. Schneider uses his boat’s side-scanning sonar to locate some of these features. He finds others when the river is at low flow.
“When the river is down in December or January,” he said, “I’ll take that cold trip by myself and lock spots in on my GPS. I found one sandbar last winter that actually has a hole in it. That was a thrill for me. That’s a very big deal, knowing that when I’m night fishing I can go in two feet of water and have a hole right there with at least 12 feet of water.”
Schneider’s grasp of blue catfish behavior took years and hundreds of hours on the river to puzzle out. Some parts of the puzzle were harder than others to fit into place.
“It took me forever to learn to fish sandbars,” said Schneider. “I didn’t understand the principles behind it or anything about it. I didn’t understand why a catfish would want just a bunch of sand. I didn’t know about the mussels and the crayfish and the other things they are foraging on as 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.