Big River Blue Catfish
April 16, 2014
In 1992 Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota instituted a ban on commercial fishing for catfish in the Missouri River. Then the floods of the 1990s, starting in 1993, worked their peculiar magic on this mighty river and its denizens.
For the past 10 years anglers and biologists have pondered and debated the effects these two phenomena on the river's blue catfish population. Some anglers have noticed substantial improvements in the blue cat population. Others say the population hasn't changed. And the biologists say they haven't gathered enough data to determine the effects of the ban and the floods.
Frank Coleman of Marshall, Missouri, has witnessed the fate of the river's catfish for nearly all of his 51 years. In his eyes, the regulation that prevents fishmongers from harvesting catfish has dramatically improved the catfish population. For decades before the moratorium, Coleman's family regularly plied the river with trotlines. And back in those dark ages, a red-letter day occurred when the Coleman family's trotlines yielded several 7- and 8-pound blue catfish. Nowadays the Coleman clan tangles with demons that weigh 70 and 80 pounds, and Frank Coleman catches some nearly that size on rod and reel.
Coleman also says that the flood of 1993 gave a jumpstart to the renaissance begun by the commercial-fishing ban. After the floodwaters subsided, the river was virtually brimming with fish, and Coleman and his fellow catmen caught and released untold numbers of catfish. He describes those post-flood days as being more fruitful than his wildest dreams could ever conjure.
The great catches of the post-flood bonanza eventually petered out in 1994. Some anglers suspect that many of the catfish that had migrated out of the Mississippi River and up the Missouri River during the flood gradually returned to their home waters. But before the blues skedaddled, some of them spawned, creating a new foundation for the blue cat population.
And they did expand, according to George Hildebrand of Leavenworth, Kansas. He remembers that in the 1980s, the ratio of flathead catfish compared to the blue cats on the Missouri River along the Kansas-Missouri border near Leavenworth was 40 flatheads to one blue. Nowadays, the ratio is reversed. What's more, as the blue cat population escalated, Hildebrand says channel catfish numbers flagged.
Unlike Hildebrand and the Coleman family, John Jamison isn't a Missouri River native. He hails from Spring Hill, Kansas. Since 1987, though, Jamison has pursued the Missouri River blue catfish with the utmost diligence. And his talents have become so keen that Frank Coleman calls Jamison the Missouri River's savviest blue cat angler. Besides Coleman, other anglers utter accolades about Jamison's acute insights regarding the habits of the blue cats that abide in the Missouri River from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Boonville, Missouri.
Jamison doesn't think that the commercial-fishing ban has benefited blue cat populations. He believes that fishmongers targeted channel and flathead catfish, not blues. Nonetheless, Jamison is catching more blues than he did in the days before the ban. But he says that the reason he catches more blue cats now than in the late l980s is because he's a much better fisherman now.
Not only can Jamison's prowess can be tabulated by the impressive array of big blues he has tangled with during the past 15 years, but in recent years his name has frequently appeared at or near the top of the leaderboard at numerous Missouri River catfish tournaments. His most recent victory occurred at the US-CATS Missouri River tourney near St. Joseph, Missouri, on June 28, 2003, when teamed with Dennis Davis of Stanberry, Missouri.
In March and early April, Jamison says that blues forage frequently and ravenously. And as the water begins to slowly warm during the transition from winter to spring, they become so gluttonous that even a harsh cold front won't completely stymie their wolfish nature. In fact, Jamison caught and released a 77-pounder as a horrible cold front and brutal north wind sashayed across central Missouri in the early spring of 2003. But day in and day out, the best fishing occurs after several consecutive days of balmy weather with warm breezes from the south.
Missouri River catmen ply wing dams in March and early April. But Jamison says that most anglers probe only the current seam that courses off the tip of the dam and the scour hole below. They usually don't fish the scour hole above the dam, which is where Jamison tangled with the 77-pounder and half of the other blues he caught during the early spring of 2003.
Before Jamison fishes a wing dam, he examines it with sonar. He begins his exploration by motoring upstream in the seam of the current below the wing dam and slowly moves above it, searching for a scour hole along the face of the dam. Not all wing dams have a scour hole above them, but Jamison says that the best ones do.
As Jamison searches for the contours of a scour hole, he also monitors sonar for fish. When sonar reveals a gaggle of big fish milling about near the bottom, they're usually blue catfish, while a large congregation of suspended big fish normally indicates carp. Sometimes, though, those suspended fish are blues rather then carp, so the only way to positively identify them is to catch one.
In March and April, Jamison is virtually wedded to his sonar unit. In fact, he's so dependent on sonar that he never stops to fish a scour hole unless his sonar pinpoints a substantial number of fish. He won't even fish his most reliable and productive holes if his sonar screen is blank. He merely keeps searching until his sonar reveals fish.
As Jamison works his way upstream, he investigates current seams at every wing dam along the way. It's common, Jamison says, to survey 15 wing dams before finding one that contains a significant bevy of blues. On some outings, he has spent more than six hours searching wing dams and scour holes before discovering a treasuretrove at which to anchor. When sonar reveals a great cache of blues moseying around a scour hole, catmen have been know to catch and release 100 to 250 pounds of fish in an hour.
To catch these late-winter and early-spring blues, Jamison employs a 71â„2-foot Berkley E-Cat #3 rod and a Abu Garcia 7000C3 reel 7 spooled with 25-pound-test Solar-colored Trilene Big Game line. The line sports a 24-inch leader of 80-pound-test wax-impregnated Dacron line, a 10/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook, and a 3-ounce egg sinker, which he crafts from a Do-It mold.
Some of Jamison's colleagues describe his tackle selection as lightweight, and Jamison agrees with that assessment. Since the river's current slows down during winter, Jamison says he can effectively employ a relatively light 3-ounce sinker. This light sinker also keeps him from being plagued with continuous snags or hang-ups.
He uses an egg sinker this time of the year because he is fishing parallel to the current or "straight down the seam," rather than trying to position his bait across the current seam or perpendicular to it. But whenever Jamison fishes perpendicular to the seam of the current, he wields a heavy No-Roll sinker that's also poured in a Do-It mold.
The light line allows a lighter sinker to settle to bottom more quickly. Moreover, his relatively light-power rod makes it easier to detect subtle bites from small fish or the timorous bites of a big blue rendered sullen and lethargic by the effects of a severe cold front.
Jamison's favorite bait is either a fresh gizzard shad or goldeye. But since a substantial amount of winterkill moves downriver in March, blues will inhale a freshly frozen shad or goldeye impaled on a 10/0 hook.
If the river rises more than 6 inches above its normal flow, the location of the blue cats that congregate along the current seam at the tip of a wing dam will change. Jamison says they move into the scour hole immediately below a wing dam; this move gets them away from the debris flowing downstream and shelters them from the current.
In the locales that Jamison fishes on the Missouri River, the channel depth during normal water levels ranges from 12 to 15 feet. The depth along the outside bends of the river ranges from 20 to 25 feet. Jamison avoids fishing portions of the river that are devoid of bends. One of the verities of Missouri River blue cat fishing, according to Jamison, is the portions of the river with a multitude of bends are also graced with a multitude of blues cats.
The water temperature for Jamison's late-winter and early-spring pattern ranges from 34°F to nearly 50°F. But as the water temperature rises and eventually broaches 45°F, the massive congregations of blues begin to disperse, and individuals scatter far and wide throughout the river system. Consequently, the number of blues Jamison catches diminishes; instead of tangling with 200 pounds of cats at one scour hole, he catches one here and one there.
By the time the water temperature exceeds 50°F, blues start their gradual and inexorable progression to spawning sites. The spawn on the Missouri River, Jamison says, encompasses nearly seven weeks. During this period, continuous waves of new participants invade the spawning grounds. Some observers suspect that a few males remain near spawning sites and mate with more than one female.
Both males and females prepare the spawning bed. But after the female deposits her eggs and the male fertilizes them, it is the male's bailiwick to keep the nest clean, oxygenate the eggs, and protect the nest from creatures that seek to consume the eggs and fry. Traditionally, the last male leaves his spawning nest around July 15.
During the spawn, many of the fish become emaciated and are blemished with sores and scars. From Jamison's perspective, this 7-week spell is the most difficult period of the year to consistently catch big blues. Nevertheless he occasionally drives the barb of a Gamakatsu Octopus hook into the jowls of a blue cat of substantial proportions.
Jamison's spawning tackle consist of a 71â„2-foot Berkley E-Cat #4 rod fitted with an Abu Garcia 7000C3 reel spooled with 40-pound Big Game line. The heavier rod is needed to cast heavier sinkers and drag big fish away from heavy cover.
He attaches an 8-ounce egg sinker above an 18-inch leader of 80-pound Dacron, and a snell knot affixes the leader to a 10/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook. His choice of baits ranges from freshly cut shad, carp, or goldeye to live green sunfish and chubs.
When the river flows between normal and no more than 2 feet above normal, Jamison fishes outside riprap river bends during daylight hours. Rather than probing the steep or nearly vertical sections of these bends, he focuses on gradual sloping areas, concentrating primarily on notches and depression along these banks. Blues in these areas are searching for, preparing, or guarding a nesting site.
Jamison and a partner employ a total of four rod-and-reel combos. They place one over the drop-off, allowing it to settle into about 25 feet of water. Three other outfits work the gradual sloping topography of the riprap, plying water as shallow at 4 feet. At these riprap bends, Jamison doesn't fish a fruitless area for more than 30 minutes.
These areas can be fished at night, but they usually are replete with snags, and getting snagged, breaking lines, and tying rigs compounds the inherent chores of night fishing. Moreover, the necessity to move every 30 minutes is difficult to accomplish at night.
Therefore, during the early stages of the spawning season and toward the end of it, Jamison prefers to fish the flats in 4 to 8 feet of water between wing dams at night, the same environs he works for blues during summer. During the early days of the spawn, Jamison says, "some fish are still actively feeding and covering a lot of ground looking for spawning sites. Also, near the end of the spawn some fish have spawned and are once again actively feeding."
At night, the flats are easier to fish than the riprap bends because of fewer snags. And if an angler is anchored at a bountiful flat, he can stay there all night and allow the blues to come to him.
When working a flat, Jamison's changes the length of his leader to 24 inches. The speed of the current, Jamison says, is what dictates the length of the leader. According to his formula, an 18-incher is for fast water, a 24-incher for slower currents. He also substitutes a 3- or 4-ounce No-Roll sinker for the egg sinker on the flats.
But Jamison regularly utters an important disclaimer about plying flats during the heat of the spawn: "The flats are typically dead — no-fish zones — from June 15 to July 1 when most of the fish are spawning. Believe me, I've spent years and many, many fruitless nights figuring this out."
During those spawning seasons when the river flows high and hard, Jamison moves to L dikes, which some folks call trail dikes. Many of the blues move there, too, and they take refuge from current and debris that accompanies the high water by moving inside the L-shaped wing dams. If the water stays high throughout June, the blues also spawn in the crevices and depressions of the riprap that lines the inside of L dikes.
He fishes an L dike by anchoring his boat on top of it and then places his baits at a various spots along the inside edge, using a 24-inch leader and a 4-ounce flat sinker. From Jamison's experiences, L dikes are productive both night and day at high-water times during the spawn.
Even though Jamison pigeonholed the spawning season as his most trying and least fruitful period of the year, he still manages during every spawn to enjoy a donnybrook with some 30-pounders, and during the spawn of 2002, he caught and released a 65-pounder.
Richard Gebhardt of Glasgow, Missouri, offers another perspective for pursuing Missouri River blue cats. Gebhardt is a Missouri River stalwart who has fished the river since 1969, which was three years before the Clean Water Act became law. And some of his most poignant reminiscences about those early years focus on pollution. In his eyes, the river was a virtual cesspool. The pollution emanated from Kansas City and other municipalities upstream from Glasgow. "Some nights," Gebhardt says, "we caught more condoms than catfish."
Gebhardt ascribes to the theory that the improvement in the river's water quality has had a greater effect than the commercial-fishing ban on the blue cat population. Yet he admitts that recreational anglers are catching more and larger blue.
He also notes that the floods of the 1990s created more spawning habitat for blues, and that might explain recent successes of recreational anglers. He wonders if these increased catches are due to an increased knowledge and better equipment or more fish.
Even though Gebhardt whole-heartedly supports the commercial-fishing ban, he contends that it hasn't been properly enforced, and fishmongers are poaching untold numbers of blue cats every year. Moreover, he thinks that predation on big blue cats by recreational fishermen is significant and harmful. Therefore, he pleads for the implementation of a slot-limit regulation to protect big catfish and enhance the gene pool.
Before Gebhardt became a blue cat aficionado, he targeted channel catfish for nearly 20 years, and during that spell, he inadvertently tangled with flathead catfish that engulfed his baits.
His move into the realm of blue catdom occurred suddenly in the late l980s and quickly became afflicted with a heavy dose of blue cat fever. To placate that fever, he spent a lot of time on the river, trying to decipher the ways of his new quarry. He eventually became a wiser and more sophisticated river fisherman than he was during his channel cat days.
Now, from Gebhardt's decade and a half of chasing Missouri River blues, he is convinced that April is a premier time to be afloat. His favorite place to anchor at this time is at a wing dam with a hole at least 25 feet deep on the downstream side of the dam and a 25-foot or deeper hole at the tip of the dike. Some of these holes reach depths of 40 feet.
Most scour holes on the downstream side of wing dams lie halfway between the dam's tip and the shoreline. They are created by a gap in the riprap of the wing dam, which allows the current to rush through the gap and gouge a hole in the river bottom. When the current digs this scour hole, a hump is created between this scour hole and the hole at the tip of the dam.
To fish such a scour hole and the adjacent hump, Gebhardt places the bow of his boat on the rocks on the downstream side of the dam. A bow anchor secures the boat to the rocks of the wing dam. The stern of the boat is pointed downstream, which puts his rod holders and rods in position to probe the topography below the wing dam.
He uses 8-foot, medium-heavy power Shakespeare Ugly Stik catfish rods and Shakespeare Tidewater 30L reels spooled with 30-pound-test Cajun Red Lightnin' monofilament line. Gebhardt threads an 8-ounce egg sinker on the main line and then attaches a 2/0 snap swivel. To the snap, he affixes a 2-foot leader of 30-pound Cajun Red Lightnin', followed by a 7/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook. He adorns the hook with a fresh piece of gizzard shad or skipjack herring.
Once the bait is impaled on the hook, Gebhardt makes a long cast, placing the bait on top of the underwater hump below the wing dam in 4 to 8 feet of water. He casts the second bait to the base of the hump in 25 to 40 feet of water. The third bait is placed at an equal distance between the first and second baits, in 10 to 20 feet of water.
The hump that Gebhardt is probing lies between the scour hole in the middle on the wing dam and the scour hole at the tip of the wing dam. During winter, blues do most of their foraging on and around this hump.
Gebhardt says these humps are too wide to properly probe both sides from a single anchor position. Therefore, after he fishes the inside portion of the hump, he moves towards the tip of the wing dam and fishes the outside edge.
Gebhardt adds that two groups of blue cats are present at a wing dam: one group mills about the scour hole in the middle of the dam; another congregation is in the hole at the tip of the dam.
The average scour hole at the end of a wing dam on the Missouri River is 50 feet long. To ply this scour hole, Gebhardt anchors his boat about 60 yards above the tip of the dam to avoid spooking fish. After securely anchoring the boat, Gebhardt makes a long cast, placing the bait near the center of the hole and the tip of the dam. The second cast puts the bait at the upper end of the scour hole, and the third cast lands halfway between the first and the second cast, landing near the middle of the hole.
As the water warms in April and nears 50°F, Gebhardt says that blue cats gradually leave their winter haunts at wing dams. He calls this juncture the transition to the warmwater season, and during this time, he plies the tips of wing dams.
By the first of May, Gebhardt begins to ply the flats between wing dams in the morning and evenings, working various contours in 10 to 20 feet of water. According to Gebhardt, the best flats lie within several hundred yards of one or more deep holes. During the middle of the day, though, he prefers to fish deep outside river bends.
When heavy spring rains increase the river's flow, Gebhardt's flat pattern flags. He then moves to outside bends and probes the first ledge along riprap banks. At times, he works his baits in 20 feet of water, but he notes that blues often mill about and ravenously feed in shallower water when the river rises. "Monster blues can be caught in 2 feet of water at this time," he says.
As the water temperature approaches and then broaches 70°F in June, Gebhardt says his fishing becomes progressively more arduous. He classifies it as the spawning doldrums. Besides being preoccupied by the grip of procreation, the blues often are located in logjams, brushpiles, and crevices in rockpiles. These hideouts are nearly impossible for an angler to penetrate.
The difficulty of alluring spawning blues is one reason Gebhardt can easily dissuade himself from pursuing them. But he also is philosophically against it and says, "I don't target blues during the spawn because I don't want to disturb the reproduction of my favorite big-river gamefish."
But once the spawn ends in late June and early July, Gebhardt is afloat again and can be seen anchoring at a variety of shallow flats that are 5 to 10 feet deep and bordered by two deep scour holes. And in Gebhardt's eyes, this postspawn phenomenon is as grand as the early prespawn bonanza that he enjoys every April.
The 2003 Drought
John Jamison calls the drought of 2002 and 2003 a godsend for the growing coterie of Missouri River blue cat anglers. For months on end, the water level of the Missouri River remained relatively stable. Consequently the blues didnÊ¼t have to move and seek shelter from an onslaught of high water and debris.
The only moves the blues made during this drought were seasonal. Once those moves were made, Jamison says that he could consistently pinpoint their whereabouts. Aside from making it simpler to locate the blues and easier to present a bait to them, Jamison says that shad and skipjack herring populations significantly increased during the drought.
WhatÊ¼s more, Gebhardt reports that some scour holes in the areas he fishes normally contain 25 feet of water during high-water times, but during the drought they became deeper, reaching depths of 45 feet. And these bigger holes allowed shad, herring, and blue catfish to congregate in greater numbers, which made fishing easier.
*Ned Kehde, Lawrence, Kansas, is an In-Fiserhman Field Editor. He's a keen fisherman, observer, and reporter about fishing and has written on subjects ranging from unusual tactics for bass to reservoir basics for channel cats.