Fishing Missouri's Big Rivers

By Gordon Farabee | August 2, 1995
From Missouri Conservationist: Aug 1995

Early explorers marveled at the vast natural resources of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. They reported fish large enough to upset canoes and described fertile wetlands and backwaters arranged along the river margins like pearls on a necklace.

Big Waters

Neither of Missouri's big rivers remains in its natural state. Both the Mississippi and the Missouri have been placed on a list of America's 10 most endangered streams. Once free-flowing, the big rivers are confined by dams, levees and revetments for the sake of flood control, commercial navigation, agriculture and hydropower generation.

Although the rivers have changed, they continue to be great places to catch a lot of fish. The rivers are large and complex, but generations of knowledgeable "river rats" have learned to tackle them. You can, too, and in the process enjoy seemingly unlimited fishing potential on waters that, frankly, don't receive much fishing pressure.

The Missouri and Mississippi rivers are our state's most significant water resources, totaling 264,000 surface acres or 29 percent of Missouri's total surface water acreage. Together, they exceed the combined area of the state's 15 largest reservoirs.

The Missouri River begins in southwestern Montana and flows southeast through six states before entering Missouri. It changes as it flows from a cold water trout stream to the channelized resource often referred to as the "Big Muddy." The river runs for 553 miles through the state before joining the Mississippi River.

Many of the Missouri's once-numerous islands and backwaters have been eliminated, but the Flood of 1993, although disastrous to many interests, did much to renew habitat diversity along the river. Rushing floodwaters scoured depressions throughout the floodplain. These lake-like structures, called blew holes, provide additional habitat for big river fishes and wildlife.

The Mississippi River shows three different faces as it flows along the state's eastern border. Management units reflect its changing nature, classifying the sections as the Pooled Upper Mississippi River, the Unpooled Upper Mississippi River and the Lower Mississippi River.

Missouri's portion of the pooled upper river is 176 miles long and includes a series of seven navigation locks and dams, which were built in the 1930s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps created and maintains a 9-foot deep channel from Minneapolis to St. Louis to accommodate barge traffic on the river. The navigation locks lift or lower boat and barge traffic from one pool to another.

The Unpooled Upper Mississippi River begins at Lock and Dam 26 (Alton, Illinois) and extends to the mouth of the Ohio River. In this stretch, a 9- foot channel is maintained by an extensive series of rock wing dikes and closing structures. After receiving the Ohio River's water, the volume of the Mississippi's flow is doubled, resulting in a much wider river, referred to as the Lower Mississippi River.

Big River Safety

  • Boaters should wear personal flotation devices when on the water. On the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, boaters should avoid commercial barges, which are not maneuverable. Barges also produce wakes that can capsize smaller boats. Throttle down when barges are in the vicinity and steer into a barge's wake rather than taking it on broadside.
  • Wing dams, closing dams and riprap can quickly damage a boat. Be alert for the distinct ripples caused by shallow submerged rock structure. The rivers also contain a large amount of floating debris, especially during and immediately after high water periods.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard marks the navigation channel with buoys. These can be difficult to see at night and present another boating hazard.

Big River Fish

The various habitats associated with the Missouri and Missis sippi rivers are home to numerous fishes. You will find crappie, bluegill, sunfish and largemouth bass primarily in off-channel waters. Look for species preferring swift water, such as freshwater drum, white bass, channel catfish, walleye and sauger in tailwater or main channel border habitat.

Channel Catfish

Also known as fiddler, spotted cat, pone and blue cat, the channel catfish is one of the most frequently caught sport fish in Missouri.

During low water, normally from July through September, channel catfish are found in deep water along main channel borders or along the upstream faces of rock wing dikes. At night they feed in shallow sandbar habitat. During spring high water, try fishing away from the main channel, in backwaters and tributary streams.

When tributaries are backed up by spring floods, try limb-lines baited with large minnows or worms for catching channel catfish. During cold weather, channel catfish move to deep "overwintering" holes at the ends of wing di kes and along lower tributary streams.

Several baits work well for channel cats, but the most common is a rubber worm dipped in stink bait and fished tight-lined on the river bottom. Stink bait, works best when the water temperature approaches 80 degrees.

"Sand worms" and "green worms" found along river banks in sandy soil have a distinctive odor and are excellent summer baits. Small gizzard shad, chicken liver, crayfish and bait shrimp, fished on the river bottom, are also effective in warm water. During winter one of the best baits is a piece of shad.

Flathead Catfish

Also known as johnnie cats, yellow cats, goujon and mud cats, flatheads sometimes exceed 50 pounds and have an excellent flavor. They are prized by most river anglers. The best time of the day to catch large flathead catfish is after sundown, when they begin feeding. Fish in deep water off the end of wing dikes or upstream of wing dikes or use trotlines in deep water along main channel borders.

Unlike channel catfish, flathead catfish prefer live bait. Use large minnows, goldfish, green sunfish and bullheads and fish them from set trotlines or by tight-line fishing.

Blue Catfish

Also known as white fultons, blue fultons, fultons, white cats and blue channels, blue catfish often reached 150 pounds or more in the 19th century and are still the largest catfish found in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Today some blue catfish over 60 pounds are caught.

Blue catfish are more abundant in the Missouri and in the Mississippi River below Cape Girardeau than in the pooled portion of the Mississippi. They prefer the swift current of the main channel, main channel borders or deep waters immediately below upper locks and dams.

Light saltwater tackle is recommended and skipjack herring (noted for its oily odor) is one of the best baits. Other popular baits include cut gizzard shad (also an oily fish) and all baits used to catch channel catfish. Trotlines set along the main channel border in deep water with live bait are also popular.

Bullhead Catfish

Also known as mud cat and yellow cat, two species of bullheads are found in the sluggish backwaters of the big rivers. The black bullhead is more common than its close relative, the yellow bullhead, but both are found in similar habitats.

Bullhead feed on a variety of items, ranging from insects to smaller fish. Earthworms are a common bait, but liver, crayfish and frogs are also good. During the hot, "dog days" of summer, when other fish are slow to bite, bullheads feed, making them a good choice for filling a stringer.


Also known as calico bass, slabs, strawberry bass, papermouth and tinmouth, both black and white crappie live in the off-channel areas of both big rivers.

Crappie are seasonal in their habitat selection. In late winter and early spring, "ice-out" crappie are found near deep water structures along tributaries and backwaters. As spring progresses and the big rivers ne ar flood stage, crappie remain in tributaries and off-channel areas.

As the hot summer months approach, crappie seek cooler water and rock structures along the main channel border. With cooler autumn temperatures, crappie return to many of the off-channel areas and tributaries. Fallen trees, grape vines and other bank structure usually provide good crappie habitat.

One method for catching crappie is using a light action rod (or cane pole), bobber, sinker and a hook baited with a small minnow. Some anglers prefer leadhead jigs. A good rule-of-thumb when crappie fishing is to move to a different location if crappie aren't biting.


Also known as bream, sun perch, pond perch, perch or sunfish, bluegill prefer shallow, slow moving water in off-channel habitat, such as oxbow lakes, sloughs, chutes and tributaries.

A good time to catch bluegill is during their spawning season, which runs from mid-May (water temperature nearing 68 degrees) through mid-June. Bluegill use th eir tail fins to "fan out" saucer-shaped nests over sand or gravel in shallow water (2- to 4-feet deep). Male bluegills constantly guard their nests and a small artificial lure cast close to a nest will often catch them.

After spawning, bluegill move to deep water with cover (for example, submerged stumpfields, sunken trees, grapevines) where they remain until the river freezes. Experienced ice anglers also fish these areas. Bluegill bite on a variety of natural baits, such as earthworms, crickets, grasshoppers, wax worms and meal worms. A variety of artificial lures, including small popping bugs and wet or dry flies, also prove effective for catching bluegill.

Largemouth Bass

Also known as bigmouth bass, mossback, green trout or lineside bass, largemouth bass prefer off-channel habitat associated with cover. During summer, low water and poor water quality in many off-channel areas force largemouth bass to move to structures along the main channel border.

Good places for catching largemouth bass include wing dikes and reveted banks. Some anglers catch them near wing dikes and revetments constructed of large stone. Large rock is better habitat than small rock.

During winter, largemouth bass move to deep water, off-channel areas and remain until spring high water, when they disperse throughout off-channel areas. You can catch bass on a wide variety of artificial and natural baits, including baits that also catch bluegill and crappie.

Common Carp

Also known as German carp, European carp, scaled carp, leather carp or mirror carp, the common carp was introduced into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in the late 1800s. The fish have become well established and compete for food and habitat with native big river fishes.

Carp are renowned for their fighting ability. This attribute aside, when taken from good quality water, scoured, rolled in a corn meal and flour mixture and fried at 385 degrees, the "lowly" carp is good to eat. Carp can adapt to mostwater conditions and use all habitats along both rivers.

Tightline fishing around submerged brush or above a rock wing dike is a good method for carp. Many anglers fish with dough bait and have their own special doughball recipe. But carp aren't particular and will also bite on earthworms. Dawn and dusk are good times of the day to catch carp, and the best time of the year is from late June through September.

Walleye and Sauger

Heralded for their excellent flavor, both sauger and walleye are popular big river sport fish. They're most abundant during cold weather below the upper Mississippi River locks and dams. Sauger are more commonly caught than walleye, although identical fishing techniques are used.

The ideal time to catch sauger and walleye begins with cooling water temperatures during late September and lasts through mid-March. Many anglers anchor their boats below and to the side of the fast current passing through, the dam gates. They fish the "current break" between swift and slow moving water. Good baits are a 3/8th-ounce leadhead jig tipped with a live minnow or a minnow alone, and some anglers try a variety of crank baits.

During summer, walleye and sauger are caught from the upstream faces of wing dikes by trolling a nightcrawler along the base of the dike. Cast the bait above the dike and then slowly back troll the length of the wing dike. To prevent losing hooks and sinkers, constantly pump the rod-tip. This will keep the bait or sinker from lodging in rock crevices.

Freshwater Drum

Also known as as white perch, sheepshead, gaspergou, goo, croaker, silver bass or grunt, drum are common in both of Missouri's big rivers. Drum prefer swift water. Fish for them in the main channel border, immediately below locks and dams and in flowing side channels. The best bait is an earthworm, but you can also catch them on a variety of natural and artificial baits. Some anglers even catch drum on wet flies.

Drum rapidly lose their excellent flavor if they aren't properly cared for. Immediately fillet the fish and put the fillets on ice. The next best procedure is to put live fish on ice and fillet them later.

Drum taste wonderful when rolled in a flour and corn meal mixture and deep fried at 385 degrees. Freshwater drum are also excellent blackened. They are closely related to the red drum, which is prized as "blackened redfish" along the Gulf Coast.

White Bass

Also known as stripers, striped bass or silver bass, white bass are plentiful in big rivers. Frequenters of swift water, white bass are often found below upper Mississippi River locks and dams and near wing dikes. The best time to catch white bass is during low, clear water conditions in late summer and throughout late fall.

Like many sport fish, white bass are sight feeders. An effective bait is a small minnow or an artificial lure. After locating a school of feeding white bass, cast and retrieve a yellow or white leadhead jig through the school and wait for action.

White bass are often caught with the same tackle as walleye and sauger. When walleye and sauger are plentiful below the upper Mississippi River locks and dams, anglers complain they have trouble catching them because white bass are constantly taking their baits.

Conservation agencies in Iowa and Illinois are stocking hybrid white bass into upper Mississippi River pools and the Ohio River, and reports of hybrid white bass catches within Missouri's portion of the Mississippi have become common.

Keep or Release?

Don't waste fish! Fish that are kept cool taste better later. If you aren't saving fish to eat, return them to the water unharmed immediately after you catch them.


Big River Rules

Big river fishing regulations are covered in the Summary of Fishing Regulations, which is published a nnually bythe Conservation Department.

Missouri has reciprocal fishing privileges in boundary waters with adjacent states, including Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Kansas and Nebraska.

Missouri and Mississippi Maps

Mississippi River maps are available in two sets. One set is the upper Mississippi from the mouth of the Ohio River to 10 miles above Minneapolis, Minnesota, and it costs $14.

A second set of maps covers the Mississippi River from Cairo, IL. to the Gulf of Mexico. This set costs $40. If you order these maps by phone or by mail, there is a $4.50 charge for UPS, a $15 charge for UPS Next Day, and a $10 charge for UPS Second Day.

Order the maps, using your credit card, from Gone West, 2nd and Walnut Streets, St. Louis 63102, or call 1-800-537-7962, or fax an order to 314-231-8765. Gone West is located inside the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and you can also buy the maps at that location.

Missouri River maps also come in two volumes. One set covers from Sioux City to Kansas City. The second set includes maps from Kansas City to the mouth of the Missouri River.

The sets are $13 each from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Kansas City District, 601 E. 12th St., Kansas City 64106. You can order the maps by phone (816-426-5243) and be billed for them, or you can walk into the office and buy them in person for $8.50 each.

Missouri River Access Sites

Atchison County

  • 1 Hoot Owl Bend Ac.
  • 2 Langdon Bend Ac.
  • 3 Watson Ac.

Holt County

  • 4 Bob Brown C.A.
  • 5 Payne Landing Ac.
  • 6 H.F. Thurnau C.A.

Andrew County

  • 7 Tom Brown Ac.
  • 8 Nodaway Island Ac.
  • 9 Worthwine Island C.A.

Platte County

  • 10 Schimmel City Ac.
  • 11 English Landing Park

Ray County

  • 12 Pigg's Landing Ac.

Jackson County

  • 13 Fort Osage County Park

Lafayette County

  • 14 Baltimore Bend C.A.
  • 15 Battle of Lexington State Historic Site
  • 16 Port of Waverly

Carroll County

  • 17 Grand P ass C.A.

Saline County

  • 18 Miami Riverfront Park Ac.

Chariton County

  • 19 Brunswick Ac.
  • 20 Lewis Mill Ac.

Cooper County

  • 21 De Bourgemont Ac.
  • 23 Taylor's Landing Ac.

Howard County

  • 22 Franklin Island C.A.

Boone County

  • 24 Providence Ac.
  • 25 Hartsburg Ac.

Cole County

  • 26 Marion Ac.
  • 29 Jefferson Landing
  • 30 Moreau 50 Ac.

Callaway County

  • 27 Capitol View Ac.
  • 28 Katy Trail State Park
  • 32 Mokane Ac.

Osage County

  • 31 Bonnots Mill Ac.
  • 33 Chamois Ac.

Gasconade County

  • 34 Gasconade Park Ac.
  • 35 Hermann Riverfront

Franklin County

  • 36 New Haven Ac.
  • 37 Coulter's Landing Ac.
  • 38 Washington City Park

St. Charles County

  • 39 Weldon Spring C.A.
  • 40 Howell Island C.A.
  • 41 Louis H. Bangert Mem.
  • 42 Riverwoods C.A.
  • 43 Blanchette Landing Ac.
  • 44 Pelican Island N.A.
  • 45 Sioux Passage Park

Mississippi River Access Sites

  • Clark County
  • 46 Buck & Doe Run C.A.

Lewis County

  • 47 Fenway Landing Ac.
  • 48 Lock & Dam #20
  • 49 Canton Ferry Ac.

Marion County

  • 50 Soulard Ac.v 51 Fabius Chute Ac.

Ralls County

  • 52 Lock & Dam #22
  • 53 Edward Anderson C.A.

Pike County

  • 54 Dupont Reservation C.A.
  • 55 Ted Shanks C.A.
  • 56 Louisiana Ac.
  • 57 Calumet Creek Ac.
  • 58 Hamburg Ferry Ac.

Lincoln County

  • 59 Upper Mississippi C.A.
  • 60 Norton Woods Ac.
  • 61 Sandy Island C.A.
  • 62 Lock & Dam #25

St. Charles County

  • 63 Cuivre Island C.A.
  • 64 Dresser Island Ac.
  • 65 Upper Mississippi Waterfowl Area
  • 66 Lock & Dam #26

St. Louis County

  • 67 North Riverfront Park Ac.
  • 68 Cliff Cave Park
  • Jefferson County
  • 69 Flamm City Ac.
  • 70 Truman Park

Ste. Genevieve County

  • 71 Magnolia Hollow C.A.

Perry County

  • 72 Seventy-Six C.A.
  • 73 Tower Rock N.A.

Cape Girardeau County

  • 74 Apple Cre ek C.A.
  • 75 Trail of Tears State Park
  • 76 Headwaters Ac.

Scott County

  • 77 Commerce Park

Mississippi County

  • 78 Joseph Hunter Moore Ac.
  • 79 Dorena Ac.
  • 80 Seven Island C.A.

New Madrid County

  • 81 Donaldson Point C.A.
  • 82 St. John's Bayou Ac.
  • 83 New Madrid Bend Ac.

Pemiscot County

  • 84 Gayoso Bend C.A.
  • 85 S.P. Reynolds Ac.

Fishing and Floods

What effects did the 1993 flood have on fishing success? That depends on the time perspective of the question.

During the Flood

Fish were able to access the entire river floodplain for feeding, spawning, escape and growth. Big river fish have evolved their reproductive cycle to the natural occurrence of floods. They rely on floods to successfully spawn and for the young to survive.

That's why the Flood of 1993 was so beneficial to fish. In the past, what would be considered a "normal flood" (i.e. much smaller magnitude than '93 flood) would flood bottomlands and benefit the fish. Over time, construction of levees has prevented this from happening.

Spawning and nursery areas were created as the water saturated the vegetated floodplains. Big river fish could move into these areas, away from the strong current, to spawn and rear their young. The flooded bottomlands provided protected homes to young growing fish which returned to the river when levels dropped.

A few fish were stranded as waters receded, and died. Most, however, found their way back to the river safely.

Little sport or commercial fishing could take place. Access to the rivers was restricted by blocked roads and damaged ramps and parking lots. Also, the Coast Guard and the Corps officially closed the rivers to recreational and commercial activities because of the danger to levees.

Fish populations experienced little angling pressure, growth was excellent, and reproductive success was the best that it had been in years.

After the Flood

Fish were able to take advantage of the new habitat created "off-channel." This enabled them to continue accelerated growth and reproductive success. The 1995 floods will make new blew holes and create even more habitat.

More and larger game and non-game fish were available for anglers who have enjoyed the "bounty" of the 1993 flood.

If we are successful in protecting and preserving habitats for aquatic life created by the flood, we will see improved fishing on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers for years to come.


Have you ever wondered why some anglers catch more fish than others? Usually it's because the successful anglers are familiar with the habitat they fish. The Missouri and Mississippi rivers have many varieties of habitat. Learning about them wil l increase your ability to catch the fish that live there.


The tailwater is that reach of deep, swift water extending for one-half mile below each Upper Mississippi River lock and dam. Water passing through the dam is rich in food attractive to small forage fish, which attract larger fish. Gizzard shad, freshwater drum, walleye, sauger, channel catfish and white bass frequent the swift water below each upper Mississippi River lock and dam.

Wing Dikes

Wing dikes are rock structures extending from the river bank perpendicular to the river's current. The Corps built them to prevent the main channel from filling by directing the river's current away from the bank and into the channel.

Trail dikes

Constructed along outside bends of the channelized Missouri River, trail dikes are positioned to protect against bank erosion. Similar to wing dikes, trail dikes provide rock habitat and dee p holes, which attract many fish species.

As water is forced around and over a wing dike, it carves deep "scour holes" at the tip and downstream of the dike. The holes provide important winter and summer habitat for flathead catfish, blue catfish and channel catfish. The rocks of a wing dike also provide spawning and rearing habitat for catfish. Other big river fishes, such as carp, walleye, bluegill and largemouth bass, use the rock as shelter to avoid the constant force of the river's current.

Notched Dikes

Below St. Louis, several wing dikes have had sections removed to allow water,to flow through, creating deep water holes below each notch. These modified wing dikes are called "notched dikes," and often attract flathead, channel and blue catfish, gizzard shad, freshwater drum, walleye, sauger and white bass.

Cut Banks

Another habitat sought out by river-wise anglers is the deep water associated wi th a cut bank, where the erosive force of the current scours deep areas that attract many fish. Cut banks frequently occur along outside channel bends, on the back side of islands and along non-reveted (unrocked) banks.


Fishing in the deep, slow moving current downstream of a submerged sandbar can be productive. Fish tend to collect here, out of the swifter main channel current. Sandbars are abundant along the Missouri River and unpooled Mississippi River. Channel catfish often frequent sandbar habitat.

Off-Channel Waters

Oxbow lakes, sloughs, side channels, blew holes and chutes are located off the river's main channel. In these habitats, the river's current is slow to nonexistent, providing essential spawning and rearing areas for several fish species. Off-channel waters usually have abundant cover - fallen trees, submerged vines and tree limbs - that provides shelter for young fish.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Kathy Love
Assistant Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Director - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Composition - Kevin Binkley
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Paul Childress
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Staff Writer - Charlotte Overby
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer