Catfish have been an important resource of the big rivers for a long time. A journal entry by a member of the Lewis and Clark party, Patrick Gass, mentions catfish caught by the expedition from the Missouri River in Nebraska, August 25, 1804: “Two of our men last night caught nine catfish that would together weigh three hundred pounds. The large catfish are caught in the Missouri with hook and line.” Arguably, the grandest fishing trip of all time started on the Missouri River in May 1804.
Catfish are so important to Missourians that the Missouri legislature designated channel catfish as the state fish. A recent national survey of fishing and hunting reported that Missouri anglers pursued catfish more than any other kind of fish except black bass. However, a survey conducted by the Department of Conservation found that only 11 percent of catfish anglers fished the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, even though these rivers are teeming with three major catfish species (blue, flathead, and channel catfish), offering the best opportunity to catch a large fish. So why do so few catfish anglers fish Missouri’s big rivers? Some may find these rivers intimidating.
Others may believe these large rivers are challenging to fish successfully. At times, big rivers can be dangerous, especially during inclement weather or extreme floods. Fishing in strong current and deep water takes a different approach than typically used in smaller waters. However, with preparation and experience, nearly anyone with an adequate-sized boat can safely navigate and successfully fish Missouri’s prized rivers for catfish.
The Missouri and Mississippi rivers are Missouri’s most important water resources. They account for 29 percent of Missouri’s total surface water acreage, more than the combined area of the state’s 15 largest reservoirs. Both rivers are greatly altered from their original state; confined by dams, levees, dikes, and rocked shorelines to facilitate flood control, commercial navigation, drinking water, agriculture, and hydropower.
The lowermost 553 miles of the Missouri River run through Missouri before joining the Mississippi River near St. Louis. The Mississippi River forms the Show-Me state’s eastern boundary for about 490 miles. The uppermost 176 miles includes a series of seven navigation locks and dams. Both rivers provide a variety of habitats for catfish ranging from shallow backwaters with log piles to deep holes off rock dike tips. Learning to fish these rivers can be exciting and rewarding.
Blue catfish, flathead catfish, and channel catfish can often be found alongside one another when they concentrate in deep water below dikes, in dam tailwaters, or in the mouths of tributary streams. During summer months, they can be found around dikes, along drop-offs, near woody structure, and along rocked banks. However, blue catfish prefer areas with significant current near dike tips, below dams, or near the main channel. When pursuing blue catfish in the Mississippi River, Chris Morrow, an avid catfish tournament angler from Troy, suggests concentrating on lock and dam tailwaters during early spring when water temperatures range from about 50 to 60 degrees. Set an anchor so that the boat is just within casting distance of your target location. Try setting up along a current seam, an area where swift and slow water are adjacent, just below the dam or near a deep scour (a hole caused by swiftly moving water).
As water temperatures warm into the mid-60s, Chris moves downstream and looks for areas near structures or for deep scours. Target scour holes by anchoring the boat upstream so that your bait drifts to just where the sides of the hole drop to the bottom. Barges that have been sitting idle for an extended time are also good spots for blue catfish during summer. Anchor upstream so that the bait settles just underneath the barge. Look for the same types of areas on the Missouri River, especially along rocked banks on outside bends, around trail dikes and wing dikes (look especially for notched dikes), and scour holes. Target deep holes during the coldest months.
Channel catfish can be found in a wide variety of habitats. They prefer areas with slow current between dikes, in backwaters and side channels, and near shore behind dikes. They often use shallower water than blue catfish and flathead catfish. Shallow sand flats can be very productive during the summer.
Flathead catfish like deep pools with slow current where they feed along the bottom at night, which makes them more difficult to catch. They occupy many of the same habitats as blue catfish but are far more cover-oriented than blues. Flathead catfish prefer cut banks, dikes, and backwaters with an abundance of woody cover such as logjams. Concentrate on woody or rock structures near sunset and sunrise to increase your odds of landing one of these elusive river cats.
Because these rivers are massive and offer a wide variety of catfish habitat, locating active fish is not always easy. On a recent trip, Chris was quick to point out that catfish are wary, so approaching potential hangouts quietly is critical. And regardless of when or where you’re fishing, if nothing happens in 30 minutes, move to another spot.
Pole and Line
The same methods used to catch catfish on lakes and reservoirs are effective on big rivers. Rod and reel, trotlines, limb lines or bank poles, and jug lines are used successfully by big river anglers. Although anglers may select a method based on a specific fishing situation or target species, the tactic employed is largely a matter of personal preference. Rod and reel fishing and trotline fishing are clearly the most popular methods used in big rivers.
The typical pole and line rig for blue catfish and flathead catfish includes a 7- to 10-ft medium heavy or heavy-action rod matched with a heavy duty bait-casting or spinning reel loaded with 30- to 50-pound monofilament line. Chris prefers 80-pound braided line for targeting blue catfish.
For tight-line fishing, terminal tackle should include a 3- to 8-ounce slip sinker, just enough to keep the bait down, threaded on the main line between the rod tip and a two-way swivel.
A lighter leader, Chris uses 50-pound monofilament, about 18 inches long, is attached to the bottom of the swivel. This leader will break below the swivel should you become snagged, making re-rigging much quicker, especially if you have several rigged replacement leaders ready. Hook style and size varies, but most catfish anglers use 6/0 to 8/0 circle hooks. Circle hooks eliminate the need to “set the hook.” Just start reeling when a fish picks up the bait and the hook will set itself.
If, like Chris, you prefer the thrill of the hook set, use a “Kahle” style or straight shank hook. This same basic setup works well for channel catfish, just downsize everything. You may need to change hook style depending on your bait choice.
Although tight-line fishing has been the go-to rod and reel method for river catfish, drift fishing in the main channel, primarily for blue catfish, has become a popular summer tactic in recent years. Terminal rigging for drift fishing consists of a leader about 30 inches long with two 8/0 or 12/0 circle hooks spaced 18 inches apart. Attach a 12- to 24-ounce sinker to the end of the leader and tie the lowermost hook about 6 inches above the sinker so that it fishes just off the bottom. Drop the line over the side of the boat and keep the line as vertical as possible so the sinker bumps along the bottom without dragging as the boat drifts downstream at about 1 mph. Use a strong trolling motor or an outboard to maintain this drift speed. Constant adjustments to the amount of line out is necessary because water depth changes as the boat drifts, but maintaining a vertical alignment will keep the bait near the bottom and minimize frustrating hangups.
For those who think catching catfish on a trotline is not fun, think again! Nothing compares to playing tug of war with large catfish determined to swim to the bottom of the river.
Trotlines are constructed of a strong main line with multiple drop lines with hooks placed at intervals. Although they can be purchased, experienced “trotliners” construct their own using very sturdy materials. Lines can be constructed in several ways but, generally, consist of a main line (#60 nylon braid works well) 100-150 feet long. Lighter drop lines 18-24 inches long are placed 3-4 feet apart along the main line. Drop lines can be permanently attached or removable using a spring clip tied to one end of the drop line. A large hook, circle hooks are preferred, is tied to the other end of the drop line. A large barrel swivel placed above the hook helps prevent line twist. A quick Internet search will reveal several methods for constructing trotlines.
A weight heavy enough to hold the line on the bottom is placed at one end of the main line while the other end is tied to a solid object like a rock or tree on the bank. Sometimes a weight is placed in the middle of the main line. Pieces of scrap iron or old window weights work well. Lines placed on the bottom off dike tips along the current seam are often very productive. Lines may also be strung between trees and suspended just below the water’s surface.
Live and cut bait work well on trotlines. Many trotliners use live sunfish or goldfish, hooked through the back, especially when fishing deep holes holding large blue catfish and flathead catfish. When using cut bait, try using small pieces threaded on the hook. This technique will help prevent the bait from spinning in the current and wrapping the drop line around the main line.
A large dip net makes boating cats much easier, especially large fish. Wearing angler-style gloves may seem an inconvenience but makes it much easier to handle lines and fish. A pair of needle-nose pliers makes hook removal easier. Lines set and baited near dusk and picked up early the next morning are often most productive. The longer a line goes unattended, the greater the chance of losing fish. Managing trotlines on rivers poses safety concerns not encountered on lakes, so anglers should never set or run lines alone. One person should operate the boat to keep tension off the main line while another works the line. A sudden change in current or the boat’s position can slide a line through your hand and result in an embedded hook. Keep a sharp knife within reach should you need to cut a line quickly.
Skipjack herring is the preferred bait for blue catfish. Gizzard shad are also popular and easier to collect. Experienced catfishers agree that fresh bait is best and use frozen bait only when fresh is unavailable. Vacuum sealing bait will help preserve some freshness when freezing is necessary.
Herring, shad, and other baits are usually cut into pieces and referred to as “cut bait.” Although bighead and silver carp may not be used as live bait, they can be used as cut bait. Chris loads the hook with as many pieces of bait as the hook will take. Live herring, shad, and sunfish can be effective for blue catfish. Flathead catfish prefer live bait such as large minnows, goldfish, sunfish, and bullheads. Run the hook through the fish’s back just below the dorsal fin or through both the upper and lower lips. Channel catfish will take a variety of baits including ribbed rubber worms dipped in stink or blood baits, dough baits, night crawlers, grasshoppers, chicken liver, small fish, cut bait, and even hotdogs. Rig with a treble hook when using liver or dough bait.
Clearly, there are many variations on the pole and line and trotline techniques described here. Many devoted big river catfishers also offer additional advice and guidance through several online resources and outdoor publications. For information on permits, regulations, and more, visit the Department’s Fishing page or pick up a copy of A Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations at your local permit vendor. Experience the thrill of wrestling one of Missouri’s big river cats, and claim your share of one of our state’s grandest fishing opportunities.
Ross Dames grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River near Hannibal and has been a Department fisheries management biologist in the area for 18 years. Mike Reed first fished the Mississippi River near Cape Girardeau for catfish as a youngster, and he has been a Department fisheries management biologist in southeast Missouri for 15 years.
Big River Safety
- Wear a life jacket!
- Avoid commercial barges. Barges cannot make sudden stops or turns and often produce large wakes. Always steer your boat into a large wake rather than taking it on broadside.
- Look for navigation hazards like wing dikes, rock structures, submerged debris, sandbars, and buoys.
- Identify submerged hazards by “reading the water.”
- Any change in the water surface pattern usually indicates submerged structures.
- Operate at slow speeds when outside the navigation channel, which is marked by red and green buoys.
- Anchor with the bow upstream and keep a knife near the anchor rope to cut the anchor free in an emergency.
- Be mindful of jumping invasive carp, especially when operating in areas with slow current.