Everybody knows about fishing tournaments.
High-stakes bass contests have been a staple of outdoor television for decades. Contestants streak away from the boat ramp at daybreak and spend the rest of the day plowing frothy furrows across vast reservoirs in search of a few more pounds of Micropterus salmoides. At weigh-in time, media throng the podium, and grinning superstars hoist pot-bellied fish from live wells.
Several years ago, I accompanied a hard-driving professional bass angler during a national championship. More recently, I attended a twoman team catfish tournament on the Missouri River out of Waverly. All things considered, I prefer the catfish event. It was contemplative, with less glitz and more heft. What it lacked in cash it more than made up in cachet. Two fishing- based events could hardly be more different.
Difference No. 1
Buddies, Not Rivals
At big-league bass tournaments, camaraderie is mainly for the cameras. Bass pros are lone wolves. In contrast, my companions for the catfish contest—Larry Dorsch and Tim Hager—have been close friends for more than 20 years. They finish one another’s sentences. If one forgets to take his medications, the other reminds him. During dozens of events and hundreds of hours on the water, they have acquired catfishing friends from Missouri to Canada. This far-flung network stays in close touch via mobile phones, pausing during tournaments to share choice bits of gossip with companions up or down river and with others who couldn’t make it to the event. Their goodnatured ribbing is as funny as it is merciless.
Difference No. 2
Like Day and Night
When bass anglers are coming in to weigh their fish, catfishers are just getting started. They hit the water at sunset and return shortly after sunrise. This is because catfish are more active at night. Maybe it explains why catfishing hasn’t caught on as a spectator sport. There is no light for pictures, and not many television crews would show up at sunrise for a weigh-in.
Some competitors in catfish tournaments zoom off at the start of the event to stake out their favorite fishing spots. After that, however, things slow way down. Larry and Tim were not in a big hurry to reach their first fishing destination alongside an L-shaped rock dike. They fished the swirling, gurgling mocha water in that spot until almost dark, then took a leisurely ride upstream to anchor above a notched wing dike, where we spent the balance of the night. After they set out the six lines permitted by tournament rules, we settled in and relaxed between bites. There was lots of time between bites.
The moon was only a crescent on this particular July night, and it didn’t rise until 2 a.m. Out on the river, far from city lights, the Milky Way stood out like a brush stroke of phosphorescent paint. We watched the passing bow lights of kayakers training for the upcoming Missouri River 340 race and were serenaded by barred owls, whippoor-wills and coyotes.
When coffee eventually lost its grip on our consciousness, Tim and Larry took alternating watches to be sure they didn’t miss a bite. Apparently impervious to the 52-degree chill and a heavy dewfall, they curled up on the bristly all-weather carpet of the boat’s deck.
Difference No. 4
The only thing I can figure that keeps catfishers warm under those conditions is dreaming of big fish. Boating a 10-pounder would be cause for wild rejoicing in a bass tournament. A catfish angler won’t even look up from his coffee at a fish that size. In 2007, Larry won the big-fish prize in this tournament with a 69-pound, 6-ounce blue cat. The all-time tournament record topped 90 pounds. You can imagine what it takes to win the big money for total catch.
Anglers in big-bucks bass tournaments sport fancy clothes plastered with sponsor’s names. They drive boats worth more than a modest home. Attire and equipment at a Missouri River catfish tournament lean toward dilapidated jeans, Carhartt jackets and aluminum johnboats. You see some fancy rigs, but most are simple decked aluminum jobs. Fast and fancy don’t count for much on the river. A team in a 16-foot johnboat with a 25-hp motor has about as good a chance of bringing in a winning catch as anyone.
Catfish Management Pays Off
Unlike many states, Missouri classifies channel, flathead and blue cats as game fish. The Conservation Department banned the commercial take of catfish on the Missouri River in 1992, and anglers reported catching and keeping more catfish in subsequent years. Just a few years after the end of commercial catfishing, sport anglers were catching twice as many flatheads as before. The Department implemented a new catfish management plan in 2004. According to the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation conducted by USFWS, catfish and bullheads accounted for the greatest number of angler days expended in Missouri during 2006, which is the most recent data available.
Fishing tackle is a bit more consistent. Big fish call for big gear. Some of the fishing rods resemble extra-long broom handles equipped with industrial winches. Fishing line runs toward 30- and 50-pound-test. Some anglers use steel leaders to make sure a big cat’s coarse-grit sandpaper teeth don’t wear through the line. Lead sinkers big enough to tether a Shetland pony are needed to hold down bait in the Big Muddy’s powerful current.
When it comes to “big,” nothing beats catfish anglers’ landing nets. I’m talking scoop-up-a-Mini-Cooper big. I swear, some of them were wider than the boats carrying them. If this seems overly optimistic, refer back to Difference No. 4.
Bass anglers like to tack the word “bait” onto the names of their favorite lures—buzz-bait, stick-bait, crank-bait, etc. Catfishers use real bait. Stink-, dip- cut- and doughbaits live up to the name, as do liver and various live baits, including worms and sunfish. You would be amazed how seldom serious catfishers feel the need to resort to soap between handling bait and picking up a bologna sandwich. A quick swish in the river usually suffices.
Difference No. 6
A professional bass angler can take home $100,000 from one tournament and pocket upward of $1 million in residual earnings. When I mentioned prize money to Tim and Larry, they laughed out loud. “If a person fishes for the money, he’s going to go broke,” says Tim.
Their biggest win was in 2008, when they caught a 40-pounder and claimed $1,200 for the greatest combined weight. They say they do it for fun, peace and quiet and to get together with old friends. The possibility of catching a huge catfish has a place in the equation, too.
Tim and Larry didn’t do too well the night I was with them. Their two flatheads totaling 9 pounds left them way out of the money. But they made a huge haul in the currency of catfish-tournament society—a story about how the tournament boss sank his boat before the event even got underway. In the world of catfish tournaments, that’s gold!