Missouri's Monster Fish

By Craig Gemming | August 1, 2017
From Missouri Conservationist: August 2017

It was a warm spring day, so my friend and I headed to the river to do a little fishing. We hoped to catch a few small channel catfish for dinner. After we baited the lines and cast them out at our favorite fishing hole, we leaned back in our chairs to enjoy the cool breeze and the warm sun on our faces. All of a sudden, my friend’s pole bent over double and nearly jerked out of his hands. We knew this fish had to be big! The line started screaming off his reel, and we quickly realized we needed to follow this fish if we were going to land it. Tackle boxes, rods and reels, seat cushions, and bait buckets went flying as we scrambled around the boat to pull up the anchors and find the dip net. After a 15-minute battle, we brought the fish to the side of the boat — and realized our landing net was way too small. “What a monster!” my friend said. After a few agonizing minutes and two strained backs, we finally wrestled the fish into the boat. Exaggeration, you say? Not hardly! The fish my friend caught was a blue catfish that tipped the scales at 81 pounds.

Most Missourians don’t know our state is home to five species of fish that have the potential to become monster fish. These species are the only fish in Missouri that are capable of attaining weights of 100 pounds or more. Included on the monster fish list are alligator gar, lake sturgeon, paddlefish, flathead catfish, and blue catfish.

Alligator Gar

This is the largest of the monster fish found in Missouri. In fact, it is the second largest freshwater fish in North America next to the white sturgeon. Alligator gar can reach lengths of up to 10 feet and weights up to 350 pounds, although most large adults range from 5–8 feet long and weigh between 100 and 300 pounds. The current Missouri record is 127 pounds. In 2011, a Mississippi commercial fisherman caught a 327-pound alligator gar in his net. That fish was determined to be 99 years old! The alligator gar is a long, heavy-bodied fish with a somewhat short, very wide snout that resembles an alligator’s snout. They eat mostly nongame fish but are also known to eat water birds. These fish often rest quietly near the water surface, resembling a log, waiting in ambush for their prey. To capture prey, they quickly snap their head to the side and grab it with their large teeth. Alligator gar can be found throughout the lower Mississippi River system upstream to Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio. The alligator gar has become rare over most of its former range mainly due to habitat loss and changes. In 2007 and 2009, alligator gar were stocked at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in southeastern Missouri by MDC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Since that time, nine other conservation areas have been added to the stocking program. The goal of those stockings was to restore alligator gar to some of its native range in Missouri. On Mingo NWR, alligator gar must be released unharmed immediately after being caught. No gigging or bow fishing is permitted on the refuge. However, alligator gar can be caught throughout the rest of the state by a variety of methods. The department still encourages catch-and-release for alligator gar as well as the reporting of any sightings.

Lake Sturgeon

Prior to the 1900s, lake sturgeon was a common and important commercial fish in Missouri waters, especially in the Mississippi River, where lake sturgeon weighing over 300 pounds were fairly common. Since that time, however, it has become very rare in Missouri and is listed as a state-endangered species. The current Wisconsin lake sturgeon spearfishing record is 212 pounds. Lake sturgeon have a shark-like tail, a sucker-like mouth underneath the head, and four large barbels (or whiskers) that dangle under the nose. Instead of the body being covered by typical fish scales, the lake sturgeon’s body has several lengthwise rows of bony plates called scutes. Lake sturgeon feed on the bottom, and their diet consists mostly of aquatic insects, crayfish, and small fish. In 1984, MDC began a restoration program to try and reestablish fishable populations of lake sturgeon in Missouri waters. Since that time, Blind Pony and Lost Valley hatcheries have been raising lake sturgeon and then stocking them into the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. It is now fairly common to get reports of lake sturgeon up to 80 pounds being caught from those early stockings. If caught, lake sturgeon must be immediately returned to the water unharmed because they are still endangered in Missouri. Someday, MDC hopes to remove them from Missouri’s endangered species list.

Flathead Catfish

Probably the most popular and sought-after monster fish in Missouri is the flathead catfish. As the name indicates, flathead catfish have very broad, flattened heads as well as very large mouths. Like all catfish, they have long, slender barbels that surround the mouth. Adult flathead catfish commonly weigh 40 pounds or more. The Missouri rod-and-reel state record was caught in Montrose Lake in 2003 and weighed 77 pounds, 8 ounces. The Missouri alternative methods state record was caught in 2015 on a trotline from the Missouri River and weighed 100 pounds. The world-record flathead catfish weighed 123 pounds, 9 ounces, and it was caught in 1998 from Elk City Reservoir in Kansas. Flathead catfish typically occur in the large rivers and lakes in Missouri. They are more abundant in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers than anywhere else in the state. One unique trait flathead catfish have is that they will attempt to eat almost anything they can get into their large mouths. They preferlive prey and can eat a fish up to 60 percent of their body length if it fits into their mouth. For example, a 5-foot-long flathead catfish could swallow a 3-foot-long fish! Anglers use a variety of fishing methods to catch flatheads, including trotline, throwline, limb line, bank pole, and jugging. Most serious catfish anglers prefer to use live bait, such as green sunfish, gizzard shad, bullhead, bluegill, and goldfish, when fishing for this species. No matter your choice of fishing method or bait, you’re in for a lot of fun if you hook into one of these monsters.


Also known as spoonbill, paddlefish are one of the more well-known monster fish in Missouri. Paddlefish have a paddle-shaped snout, skin without scales, and, like sharks, a skeleton made of cartilage rather than bone. So how big do they get? The Missouri record paddlefish weighed 140 pounds, 9 ounces, and the world record weighed 144 pounds. Paddlefish are found mostly in our larger rivers and reservoirs, such as the Missouri, Mississippi, and Osage rivers and Lake of the Ozarks, Truman Reservoir, and Table Rock Lake. Construction of Bagnell Dam and Truman Dam eliminated some of the best spawning habitat in the state for paddlefish. As a result, paddlefish populations in Lake of the Ozarks, Truman Reservoir, and Table Rock Lake must now be maintained by annual stockings from fish that are spawned and raised at Blind Pony Hatchery. Paddlefish are filter feeders and feed primarily on microscopic plants and animals in the water. When actively feeding, they swim slowly with their mouth open and strain food out of the water. The paddle-shaped snout, which is covered with sensory organs, is thought to assist with finding food. Because paddlefish will not take bait, they are caught by snagging. Missouri’s paddlefish snagging season occurs in the spring to coincide with their spawning migration. Check MDC’s current fishing regulations to determine paddlefish season dates, length limits, and daily limits.

Blue Catfish

This is the largest species of catfish in North America. Like all catfishes, it has skin without scales and barbels around the mouth. They are similar to a channel catfish when small but differ in never having dark spots on the back and sides. Adult blue catfish commonly weigh over 50 pounds. The Missouri rod-and-reel state record weighed 130 pounds and was caught from the lower Missouri River in 2010. The world-record blue catfish was caught in 2011 from John Kerr Reservoir in Virginia and weighed 143 pounds. On a historical note, in his 1950 book, Steamboating: Sixty-Five Years on Missouri’s Rivers, Captain Bill Heckman reported the largest fish ever caught in the Missouri River was a blue catfish. It weighed 315 pounds and was taken just below Portland in 1866. The blue catfish is primarily a big river fish, occurring commonly in the Mississippi, Missouri, and Osage rivers, and occasionally in the lower reaches of their larger tributaries. There are also good populations of blue catfish in Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir. Smaller blue catfish eat a variety of food including aquatic insects, crayfish, and mussels. Once blue catfish get larger than about 18 inches, they eat mostly fish. Like flathead catfish, blue catfish can be caught using a variety of methods and baits. One exception is that blue catfish will readily take cut bait, where flathead catfish usually do not. Most catfish anglers will tell you that there is nothing like the feeling of fighting one of these huge fish!

Catch a Missouri Monster?

Check out MDC’s Master Angler and State Record Fish programs to see if your fish qualifies for special recognition. While you’re there, watch videos of state-record alligator gar, flathead catfish, paddlefish, and blue catfish. Learn more at short.mdc.mo.gov/Z3t.

Know Missouri’s Fishing Regulations

Browse seasons, possession and length limits, and other fishing regulations at short.mdc.mo.gov/ZUk. Or pick up the Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulations wherever permits are sold.

Good Management and Angler Ethics Make Bigger Fish

Experiences like the one my friend and I had that warm spring day are occurring much more frequently because of MDC’s continuing fisheries research and management. In addition, anglers are practicing catch-and-release more frequently because they, too, would like a better chance of catching a monster fish in the future. These big fish are very long-lived species, so the longer they are in the environment, the bigger they will get. If you’re looking for a real fishing challenge, try hooking into one of Missouri’s monster fish!

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