Finding a variety of catfish on the Mississippi River

Friday, August 16, 2002

When the tip of my rod starting bouncing I knew I was in for an exciting fishing trip.

" Take your time and let the fish run with it," my fishing partner told me.

"Wait …wait", then suddenly something started pulling on the other end.

With a tight grip I yanked straight back with a sudden pull and set the hook on a big fish.

I hope this 20-pound line holds up," I told him.

My heart started beating faster as I got the fish closer to the boat. As my partner reached over the edge of the boat with his large dip net I stood there anxiously waiting to see how big this fish was. The blue catfish weighed about fifteen pounds, which was a great fish to start the day off. But the day was still far from over.

The dog days of summer are upon us, which is one of the best times to catch a big river catfish. For those anglers sitting in the recliner enjoying the air conditioner, the opportunity of catching a nice catfish is slipping by. If it's the summer heat is keeping you off the water, try fishing the early morning before it gets hot.

Blue catfish are Missouri's largest catfish and can exceed 100 pounds. The state record fish was caught in the Osage River on a trotline and weighed 117 pounds. The flathead is our second largest catfish and the record fish was caught on a trotline in the St. Francis River and weighed 94 pounds. The channel catfish is smaller than the blue or flathead. Missouri's largest channel cat was caught in Lake Jacomo and weighed 34 pounds.

Blue catfish are frequently mistaken for channel catfish because of their similar appearance. The two fish can easily be distinguished by checking the anal fin, which is rounded on the channel catfish and straight on the blue catfish. Black spots are found only on the young channel cats, but not on the blues. The blue catfish have a bluish gray coloration while channel catfish are pale gray to olive. Flathead catfish is easily distinguished by its broad, flat head and noticeable yellowish-brown colors.

Location is especially important when dealing with a river the size of the Mississippi. Finding the habitat that catfish prefer is an important part of catching them. Blue catfish prefer the scour holes that are located behind wing dikes or in sharp bends of the river. Channel cats can be found just about anywhere, such as the main channel, side channel and down stream behind wing dikes.

Flathead catfish are probably the hardest to find of all three species. They tend to concentrate in tributaries and side channels where water velocity is slow and log jams and brush piles are more common. This catfish is also common around the points of wing dikes and riprap banks. There are a variety of methods to fish for catfish. On the Mississippi River, anglers must often use pole and line, trotline, or jugs. Pole and line is the most popular method when fishing for catfish. Use a medium-heavy action rod with a large reel that has a good drag system that can support 20 to 40 pound fishing line. Sinkers that weigh six to ten ounces are recommended for keeping the bait on the bottom, especially when fishing in strong currents.

Jugging is another popular method. Anglers can use labeled gallon jugs or two liter bottles that have a line attached with a weight and a heavy hook. Braided or monofilament fishing lines are recommended from 20- to 80-pound test in lengths of three to eight feet. About 15 to 20 jugs is enough to keep you busy, but if your party has more than one boat, more jugs can easily be fished.

Shad and skipjack herring are both good baits because they give off an oily film that attracts catfish. For more tips on catfishing, check with your local bait shop or the conservation cafe message board (www.conservation.state.mo.us).

The daily limit and possession limit on the Mississippi River is 20 channel and blue catfish in the aggregate and 10 flathead catfish. Other regulations are listed in A Summary of Missouri Fishing Regulation and the Missouri Wildlife Code, available where permits are sold. Keep in mind that safety comes first. It's best to not fish alone and always wear a life jacket when in a boat. Additional safety and fishing tips can be found in the free pamphlet "Fishing Missouri's Big Rivers."

Call the Missouri Department of Conservation office at (573) 290-5730 for a copy.

With a little knowledge of their habitat and how to locate them, both experienced and inexperienced anglers have a good chance of catching a mess of catfish.

It's not always about catching fish, its about getting the chance to be out there, away from the office, enjoying our natural resources. If you have the chance to fish, give the big river a shot. You may be the lucky one who catches that 50-pound blue cat.

Or then again you may walk away with a couple small ones, but either way, I'll bet the first time you see that rod tip bouncing you'll be able to relate to the grip and heart pounding moment that I experienced on the Mississippi River.

Eric Heuring is a fisheries resource aid with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

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