As the water warms towards spring, big catfish begin to prowl. Many fishermen take their largest fish this time of year.
Many early boat captains claimed that sunken boat hulls made great hideouts for the Missouri's big catfish. Captain Bill Heckman navigated the muddy stream for 64 years. His stories related the perils of whiskey and dire carelessness combined with snags and shifting sand bars.
"The mouth of the Missouri separated the men from the boys in the old days," Heckman claimed. "The boys went up the Mississippi, and the men headed up the Big Muddy."
Local stories relate that Heckman once hauled in a 315-pound blue catfish, caught on a hay hook baited with a spoiled ham. At that point folks began to believe that the fishing on the Missouri was for the men, too!
The Missouri River system is one of the most under utilized catfishing resources in the nation. It traverses six states before entering Missouri, having changed from a tiny cold water trout stream to a muddy, channelized canal. In Missouri alone, the river covers 553 miles. Unfortunately most of the Missouri's backwater areas and islands have been lost to channelization for the barge industry. However, the Missouri reclaimed much of her own in the 1993 flood, renewing habitat diversity along the river.
Another major flood in 1995 reclaimed even more of the floodplain as raging flood waters scoured out depressions and potholes creating splendid habitat for big river fishes.
The ban on commercial fishing in 1992, was another boom for Missouri River fishermen. Combined with the river's rebirth of habitat, catfishing has become phenomenal on the Missouri River.
Blue catfish generate the most commotion on the Missouri because of their enormous size. A new generation of river fishermen have learned that the high waters of early spring is the time to catch these monsters.
Cliff Rost of Morrison, Missouri well remembers the spring of '94. He caught a 93-pound blue cat and a 65-pounder only a week apart. Rost emphasizes the importance of finding a clean, hard bottom in order to catch big cats in high water conditions. Sandy or muddy bottoms tend to foul baits quickly.
Old roadbeds that have recently been inundated by floodwaters offer ideal conditions. The beds are clean and solid and often covered with worms that come up out of the gravel beds or wash down ditch lines. Cutting a path through thick willows before they flood will create a virtual highway for catfish leaving the river property to prowl in the floodplains.
The openings also provide prime spots to stretch trotlines. A favorite trick of old-timers is to find a mulberry tree either in the water or hanging over the water. Catfish can't resist ripe mulberries.
The upper part of the Missouri River near St. Joseph has long been an excellent fishery. Limits of catfish are the norm even under normal water conditions. The best bite is said to take place when the river level is 9 to 11 feet at St. Joseph.
Trotlining is the favored method to take big catfish on the upper Missouri.
Flathead catfish from 30-to-40 pounds are common. Channel catfish range from 5-to-15 pounds. I have long preferred the middle Missouri near the confluence of the Osage River. High water over-the-bank conditions create catfishing action that is hard to believe. I once talked to a pair of local fishermen who caught over 300 pounds of catfish in two days, right in the middle of a flooded paved road!
Flathead fishing becomes phenomenal in flood water conditions. The numerous rivers and creeks that empty into the Missouri become fishing hotspots. Alan Borgmeyer, of Bonnotts Mill, Missouri looks for ditch lines running through old fields. He has discovered that the ditches are great travel lanes and food sources for marauding flatheads. Also, the ditches often lead to woody cover and great spawning locations.
Borgmeyer and his buddies are deadly on the river channel as well. I once followed them for a weekend. The 4-man boat crew set out 75 1-liter bottle jug lines. They tied the fluorescent orange bottles to overhanging limbs or to a log in a logjam.
Regardless, their 1-inch bluegill baits only dangled a foot or so into the water. The results were unbelievable. They hauled in 65 flatheads from 4-to-40 pounds and an uncounted number of blues and channels. Driven by a love for their sport, Borgmeyer's crew released all but three flatheads.
Blue catfish in the 50-to-60-pound class are not uncommon in this stretch of the Missouri, either. An occasional 80-to-90-pound fish is caught, always creating a frenzy of activity. Blues are a fish of deeper water. Most fishermen find them in the scour holes off the end of wing dikes. Cut shad and other smelly baits are the ticket. May and June are the best months of the year to hook into a monster blue. As the weather warms a bit more in late spring a favorite fishing method is to toss out a couple dozen jugs and simply float down the river with them.
Regardless of the month or the method, fishing on the Missouri is serious business.
Anchor your boat so that the bow is facing upstream. To do otherwise may swamp your boat. Use a 'break away' anchor to avoid having your boat swamped by logs. And, always wear a personal floatation device. I would rather you live to repeat Captain Heckman's stories of catching monster catfish rather than have your boat become a haunt of a big ol' Missouri River catfish!
I'm sure you would too!
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