Seeking Catfish Dinner in Prairie Rivers

By Bill Graham | May 1, 2021
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2021
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Catfishing on the fabius river
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Seeking Catfish Dinner in Prairie Rivers
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 Prairie rivers have a nature all their own, and the ones flowing from Missouri’s northern corners attract catfish, often big fish “stocked” by two mightier rivers. Catfish from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers move into feeder streams in spring and linger into summer. Even big catfish will swim far upstream. Anglers embracing the nature of silty rivers catch them on set lines or with stout rods and reels.

“When you go out on the river in the morning and you see one of your bank poles bouncing, you know a big one is on,” said Larry Colstion, of Tracy, a town on the banks of the Platte River, north of Kansas City.

Lengthy rivers such as the Platte and the Fabius flow out of northwest and northeast Missouri. They don’t get the same fanfare as the clear-water Ozark streams, though people do float them for fun in canoes and kayaks. They are fed by water from springs, seeps, and clear-water creeks, albeit not large gushing springs. Their waters were once filtered by native prairies, woodlands, and bottomland forests. Today, they flow past towns and through farming country.

Sometimes the currents move past rocky ledges and hills. Most often they flow in winding channels carved over centuries in soil, clay, and shale. Their waters often run murky to muddy with silt carried by rainwater runoff. Yet, during low flows in winter or dry times, the waters revert to almost clear, musky green, pre-settlement shades.

Tinted or murky, the nutrient-rich water holds biological life including catfish at the top of the food chain. Whether sitting on bank fishing with rod and reel or working bank lines or trot lines from small boats, the makings for a catfish dinner are near.

Darrick Garner watched the current push against his fishing line as the Fabius River curved around a sandbar and against a bend on the other shore, north of Hannibal.

“They catch some really nice flatheads in this section of the river,” Garner said, as the water dropped from the hills toward the Mississippi valley.

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Blue Catfish
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Blue Catfish reach large sizes.

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Channel Catfish
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Channel catfish are Missouri’s most popular sport fish.

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Flathead Catfish
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Flathead catfish like to feed on live food.

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Baiting Up

On a summer afternoon, Colstion and his granddaughter, high schooler Abby Colstion, launched their aluminum boat at an MDC ramp at the Platte Falls Conservation Area and motored upstream. He has fished the river since boyhood. She is learning his well-honed techniques. The younger angler picked the spots to place bank poles. Her favorites have deep water in places where fish food such as insects falls from trees overhanging the water. She pointed to a muddy bank. Her grandfather steered the boat’s bow into the bank and held it steady in the current with the motor.

“You want to check the depth?” Abby asked. He grabbed a paddle pushed it downward in the water for an old-fashioned depth check, then remarked, “I didn’t find the bottom, that ought to do.”

The Colstions fish with a pattern. They move upstream, setting poles and baiting hooks at promising spots. When all are set, they stop and fish with rod and reel for a while. Then they move downstream, checking the poles and pulling off fish or rebaiting hooks if necessary. Early the next morning, they run the lines again, retrieving the poles unless they are fishing again that night.

The poles are three-quarter inch white PVC pipe cut in 5-foot lengths. Five feet of cord tied through a hole drilled in the end is tipped with a 4-ounce weight, swivel, and then 96-pound test leader line.

“We’re optimistic,” Larry Colstion said. “The 96-pound test line is just in case a big one comes along.”

Hooks vary from size 6/0 to 8/0 for single hooks, or similar treble hooks to hold soft baits like chicken livers. Catfish living in silt-stained water feed by scent more than sight. Smelly bait to attract them varies from chicken gizzards to shrimp. They also use commercial stink bait, using a syringe to inject it into a small balloon and giving the balloon tiny punctures to release scent. The chicken gizzards, which hang tough on a hook, are soaked in a cherry Kool-Aid and garlic mixture.

“We’ve found it works better than just straight gizzards,” Larry Colstion said. “In early spring, we seem to catch more fish on gizzards, by late summer we catch more on shrimp.”

Abby Colstion took a pole and thrust the butt end into the mud. She threaded three bait shrimps on the hook and dropped it into the water. Her grandfather took notes on a piece of cardboard. He tracks what each hook is baited with and the result. Their Missouri Conservation ID numbers are written on the poles. Black or red paint on the line-tie end helps them re-find poles while moving on the river.

They motored upstream, moving the boat carefully around or over sunken logs in a surprisingly strong current. Easing back off a sand bar not visible in the stained water was sometimes necessary. Navigation can be tricky in prairie streams if they are running low. Abby pointed to another spot to set a pole and they nosed the boat into the bank.

“This is flathead country here,” her grandfather said. “It’s a deeper hole of water and there are a lot of stumps around.”

Running Lines

Gumbo mud holds the PVC poles firmly in the bank. They bend downward when a fish is hooked. Using willow trees for poles is a traditional way. Some anglers tie lines off on springy tree limbs or branches. Some set trot lines tied to stumps and trees.

“The biggest catfish I’ve caught out of the Platte weighed 25 pounds,” Larry Colstion said. “But I’ve seen 40- and 50-pounders come out of here. We catch blues, channels, and flatheads. Abby says she likes the fight the flatheads give the best.”

They finished setting poles, checked them again, then got out on a sandbar to stretch and fish with rod and reel. One small channel cat was landed and then they headed home for the night.

A foggy mist hung over the water early the next morning. The river had risen 6 inches from upstream rain. Songbirds chirped from tall silver maples, cottonwoods, and sycamores lining the banks in a prairie river world. Upland stretches, if not channelized, are not far different from what explorers Lewis and Clark saw in 1804 and 1806 when they trekked inland on streams feeding the Missouri.

The first hooks checked by the Colstions were bare. Small fish probably nibbled the bait off. But soon they found a pole and line moving. Abby pulled a hefty channel catfish topping 2 pounds into the boat. The next pole was bouncing harder. Her grandfather helped her with the line as she telescoped the net under an 8-pound channel catfish thrashing the water. They finally landed it, a big one for the live well and a fish fry later.

When they moved back downstream, the lines were run once more and the poles gathered back into the boat. Sometimes they just take time to enjoy their fishing haven, a place on moving water where the green-topped trees and grasses arise from brown earth, a wild place.

“I just love it out here,” Larry Colstion said.

The Fabulous Fabius

Darrick Garner and fishing partner, Jonathon Bentzinger, eased a canoe out into the Fabius River one morning in late summer. The river ran low amid drought, but there were still many fishable pools as they paddled away from the ramp at MDC’s Soulard Access in Marion County, north of Hannibal. Upstream, three of the major Fabius forks draining much of northeastern Missouri eventually merge. The upper forks are fishable for several types of fish, too. The Fabius flows into the Mississippi River a few miles downstream from the access.

Garner and Bentzinger’s first stop was a trot line set upstream from the landing. No fish were hooked off this set, but they have caught them there in the past.

“We’re using garlic and salted chunks of cut Asian carp for bait,” Garner said. “We’re getting the scent out there for sure.”

They then paddled the canoe and a kayak downstream and over to a large sandbar to fish with rods and reels. They cast toward logs in the water and their baits settled to bottom in a deep pool. The current was steady despite low water flow.

Both men live in the Taylor area, near the Fabius. Garner grew up fishing in the region. He had a stint as an MDC fisheries management biologist in northwest Missouri. He’s now back in the northeast as a commercial fisherman on the Mississippi. But he still fishes the Fabby, as locals call it, for fun and food.

“There are flatheads in the 40- to 50-pound range,” he said. “We’ll fish here and upstream in spring and early summer. In August when the water is low, we’ll go puddle jumping (wading). A lot of folks fish from the bank, and they’ll catch the heck out of channel catfish.”

The Catch

Bentzinger felt a tug on his line and set the hook with his spinning rod. He reeled in a channel catfish, a pound or so and big enough to eat.

Nightcrawlers, small cut baits, and prepared stink baits are favored for channel catfish. Live baits such as minnows, shad, or goldfish work best for flathead catfish. Blue catfish like cut shad or carp. Fish seem hungriest when gorging on a shad kill or after a rise in the river washes new food downstream. Casting bait near root wads and sunken logs can be productive. In normal flows, fish can move far inland during the spring.

“I’ve caught fish 10 or 15 miles upstream from here,” Garner said.

Bentzinger landed two more fish, a carp, then another channel catfish. Their acquaintance, Joe Hirner of Palmyra, paddled his canoe downstream and waved. Hirner hefted a stringer with a limit of frying-size channel catfish. He caught them with spinning rods using stink bait fished in deep spots near banks. Such catches make prairie rivers fun places to fish, Garner said.

“I usually take my family and friends pole and line fishing,” he said. “You can catch some pretty nice fish out here.”

The Other Streams

Several other streams on the state’s northern corners offer good catfishing.

The Salt River is a major catfish stream in the northeast region, said Travis Moore, MDC fisheries management biologist. It arises in the rolling uplands and flows to the Mississippi.

“We also have some smaller streams, which get some attention,” Moore said. “They include the North River north of Palmyra, the Wyaconda River in the LaGrange and Canton area, and the Fox River in Clark County on the Iowa border. These streams are smaller, but still get a fair amount of fishing pressure by locals for channel catfish and the occasional flathead.”

In the northwest, several rivers flow from the hilly uplands into the Missouri River bottoms. Channelized stretches are often too shallow for good fishing. But some lower pools and natural stretches in the uplands offer good fishing.

“Catfish definitely move up our smaller tributaries in the spring,” said Tory Mason, MDC fisheries management biologist. “Water in the smaller tributaries warms the quickest so they are a good place to target.”

North of St. Joseph, anglers fish in the lower Nodaway River. Boaters usually access the stream at the mouth of the river. Farther north, the Nishnabotna River flows into the Missouri. Boaters usually fish the lower end, entering the mouth or by launching at MDC’s Watson Access. Shad guts are preferred baits for channels in early spring, the other natural baits in summer. Blue catfish like cut fish for bait like shad, skipjack, or goldeye.

“Deep holes in the smaller tributaries can hold a lot of fish in the spring,” Mason said, “and they are usually biting.”

Finding Places to Fish

MDC manages several public access sites for north Missouri rivers. Some have boat ramps. Others simply offer bank fishing access or perhaps have places to launch canoes or kayaks. Some MDC conservation areas border these streams and provide ample bank fishing access.

Anglers should approach prairie rivers with some caution. Banks can often be high and steep. In wet weather, they can be slippery. Many anglers prefer to fish from shore with partners. Some partners who plan to walk the banks carry rope in case a rescue in muddy conditions is needed. Water is often deeper than it appears, too. However, anglers can usually find a safe place to fish.

Anglers fishing from boats and using the PVC pipe for bank lines may find it handy to carry a rubber mallet to drive poles into the mud if they can’t be shoved in. River bottoms can be rocky even if banks are mucky, and they can hold hidden stumps or tree trunks. If your outboard motor propeller uses shear pins, carry spares.

Study the Wildlife Code of Missouri, available at short.mdc.mo.gov/Z8T, for regulations pertaining to trot lines and set lines. Also, check fishing regulations for the stream section you are planning to fish. Carry out all trash.

To find a place to fish, visit short.mdc.mo.gov/Zq5. To learn more about catfish in Missouri, visit short.mdc.mo.gov/ZfT.

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