Mighty Mississippi can be mighty good for catching catfish

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Southeast Missouri catfish anglers have no shortage of places to wet their lines.

Ponds, lakes and streams all are great places to catch a mess of fish. But for those seeking catfish, there is one great fishing spot frequently overlooked -- the Mississippi River.

How much do you know about fishing the Mighty Mississippi? The Mississippi River supports excellent numbers of channel, blue and flathead catfish.

Trophy-size fish swim the river's depths. In fact, the new world record blue catfish, weighing 124 pounds, recently was caught from the Mississippi near Alton, Ill., just north of St. Louis.

Although not every catfish you'll catch in the river is that large, it is common to catch fish that will fill any dinner plate.

Historically, the river has been noted as a very productive catfish fishery. Native Americans utilized its fishery extensively. Lewis and Clark's Discovery Corps often survived on fish, especially catfish, on their upstream and downstream treks on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. A century later, commercial fishermen harvested large catfish, for sale in St. Louis markets.

However, over the years, the river has gained a reputation for being difficult to navigate and fish. Also, many believe the catfish are unsuitable and even unsafe for consumption. These concerns, although to some degree founded, have led to an underutilization of the Mississippi and its wonderful catfish fishery by sport anglers.

The river can be a challenge to navigate. Floating debris, shifting currents, barge traffic and fluctuating flows all make the river difficult to access at times. However, boating can be done safely with an understanding of the river, a quality boat with quality equipment and boating experience. For example, knowledgeable boaters know to avoid rising flood waters that carry debris and create swift currents. Also, boating on the river in anything less than a 16- to 17-foot boat equipped with a mid-size outboard (25 horsepower or larger) is not recommended.

I recommend inexperienced Mississippi River boaters to spend time with someone experienced in running the river. Learn from the pros. You will learn, as I did, how to safely navigate during normal river flows and to enjoy the river.

It is true that learning to fish the Mississippi River can be quite challenging. Water levels can fluctuate daily. The currents, often moving in opposite directions, makes it difficult to strategically place and anchor your boat much less your fishing line. Fish feeding behavior can be influenced by conditions many miles away, such as rainfall in the watershed. For an angler accustomed to fishing a local lake or small stream, the deep water, submerged logs and rocks, shifting sand and turbid water all present unique fishing situations.

However, there's nothing like experience gained by going fishing.

Experience has taught me several lessons in catfishing the Mississippi, such as: jug lining is often more productive when fishing shallower water over sandbars, live bait will catch big blue catfish while cut bait will catch turtles, catfish angling can be productive in cool weather, fishing is often poor in falling water, and there's nothing like a good pair of gloves when handling a big cat.

It's common to hear anglers, including those in my family, say catfish from the Mississippi River do not taste good. This simply is untrue. I have found that a little care in dressing and preparing catfish caught from the Mississippi will yield a fish fry that will surprise and delight your friends and family.

Here are a few tips for making a monster catfish into a culinary delight: First, I always ice freshly-caught fish while still on the water, especially in hot weather. This keeps fish fresh. Next, I fillet the catfish, taking great care to remove all bones, fat, tissue and the dark line from fillets. These materials all detract from the sweet taste of catfish fillets. I wash the fillets thoroughly and, if storing for more than a few weeks, freeze them in water. This will keep the fillets fresher and prevent freezer burn. Also, I soak fillets in ice water for a day before frying. This process seems to clarify and firm the flesh.

Frying fish is an art as well. I like to cut fillets into finger-size pieces, soak in milk for an hour, dredge the pieces in a favorite seasoned batter and then fry in hot peanut oil until they float. More than one person has expressed disbelief when told the catfish they were eating was from the Mississippi River.

Many people also believe that catfish from the Mississippi River are unsafe for consumption. They think that these fish are contaminated from pollution. According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services 2005 Fish Advisory, catfish caught from the Mississippi River are safe for consumption and may be eaten in any amount. This has been the case for many years.

The Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources conduct fish sampling and tissue analysis of contaminants. This data continually indicates that catfish from the Mississippi River are safe to eat.

Want to learn more?

The MDC will be sponsoring an adult workshop on trotlining for catfish on the river. This three-day course will be taught on July 28 through 30 and will include evening classroom as well as on-the-river instruction. The course is limited to 15 participants. There is no charge; however, a $25 application fee will be collected and then refunded at the conclusion of the course. Students must have a valid fishing permit, approved PFD III, pliers, and gloves. Applications will be processed on a first-come, first-serve basis. For more information, call Dee Dee Dockins, outdoor skills specialist, (573) 290-5858, ext. 235. Leave day and evening phone numbers.

For more information about Mississippi River catfish and angling opportunities, call the MDC Southeast Regional Office at (573) 290-5730.

Mike Reed is a fisheries management biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation in the Southeast Region.

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