Top Tactics for Big River Blue Catfish

Top Tactics for Big River Blue Catfish

James "Big Cat" Patterson plies the Middle Mississippi River near Memphis for giant blues.

Catfish anglers at the top of their game understand seasonal fish location and how fish respond to changing water conditions. Also at the core of their catfishing wisdom are boat-control skills like drifting and anchoring and the ability to read water.

There's probably no better proving ground than the Middle Mississippi River, from Memphis to just upstream from St. Louis where the Missouri connects to the Mississippi, and up into the Missouri. This is big cat country. Experienced guides working these waters have honed their tactics to consistently connect clients with rod wreckers.

Big River Blue Catfish Tactics:

Mississippi River, Memphis

James "Big Cat" Patterson of Bartlett, Tennessee, guides clients to blue cats on the Mississippi River around Memphis, Tennessee. Most days are spent pursuing trophy blues, although he's also wise to the ways of the river's channel and flathead catfish.

Patterson knows well the numerous wing dams jettying from shore into the Mississippi, and has caught many notable blues from the scour holes around these structures. "Wing dams can be good any time of year, but they're also feast or famine," he says. "The best ones have well defined scour holes, but those are becoming scarce because many of the older dams have filled in with sediment, and the remaining good ones get fished so heavily that it's sometimes hard to get on a good spot." So Patterson often focuses on alternative locations that hold blue cats.

Big River Blue Catfish

"Some of my favorite spots to fish in summer and early fall are faster current areas adjacent to revetment banks," he says. Expansive revetment blankets consisting of concrete slabs tied together with cable are laid along the shoreline and often covered with riprip for added stability. Revetment is installed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stabilize and protect highly erodible riverbanks where the force of the current is greatest.

"These banks provide structure and cover attractive to big blue cats and their prey, especially where older sections of revetment are falling apart," he notes. "Over time, riprap is redistributed, cables break, and the water washes out holes between and under the slabs where they've broken apart. In other places slabs have buckled, creating areas of current protection near bottom that hold big blues.

"I avoid fishing revetment banks when the current's so fast that I can't use a sinker weighing less than a pound," he says. "In summer and early fall, I prefer fishing a lower water stage, bringing the bank closer to the channel edge in about 35 to 40 feet of water. At lower river stages the current is still swift along revetment banks and the blues like the current, but I can fish them with sinkers of 12 ounces or less."

Patterson hoists a Mississippi bruiser. Photo: Bill Dance

Patterson uses primarily skipjack herring for bait, either freshly caught or previously vacuum-sealed and frozen. He baits with the head, chunks, or steaks from the larger back portion, or with fillets. Before steaking, the entire belly-meat section, including entrails, is cut out and wrapped together with rubber bands, creating another dandy bait. He also uses whole gizzard shad at times.

Baits are delivered on three-way rigs with a 7/0 to 10/0 Kahle or wide-gap hook tied to an 18- to 24-inch section of 60-pound mono leader, and a 3-ounce or heavier casting or cannonball sinker tied to a 20- to 30'‘pound'‘test dropper, with current speed dictating sinker weight. While fishing from an anchored position and for weights up to about 4 ounces, he uses 71⁄2-foot medium to medium-heavy Quantum Big Cat rods. In faster currents requiring heavier sinkers, he switches to 71⁄2-foot heavy-power rods. Quantum Cabo PT level-wind trolling reels spooled with 65-pound braid complete the setup.

"Along a typical revetment bank, I anchor in about 25 to 30 feet of water, positioning baits along the slope from about 25 to 40 feet deep. One of the most effective presentations in summer and early fall is to 'walk' baits behind the anchored boat. If I'm fishing alone, I set one bait to fish stationary while I walk the other," he says.

After a short cast behind the boat or after releasing the rig boatside, Patterson thumbs the open spool while the bait drifts slightly downstream and to bottom. Once bottom is felt, the spool is thumbed and the rod tip lifted slightly to allow the current to carry the sinker and bait downstream in short increments of 6 inches to a foot.

"It's important to feel the sinker thump bottom as you walk a bait," he says. "Some of my clients not familiar with feeling bottom continue to let out line on a snagged rig, and the current carries line downstream while the rig is stuck in one spot.

"Because the right sinker weight helps maintain bottom contact and feel, I bring sinkers in the range of 3 to 12 ounces to suit different current speeds. Sinkers that are too light move too quickly; ones that are too heavy don't allow the bait to move downstream on the subtle lifts," he notes.

"Walking bait also is a great way to identify bottom objects like rock, concrete slabs, and other cover than accumulates in revetment areas," Patterson says. "Baits can be walked as far back as 200 feet, and I think this mimics natural food items that slowly tumble downstream over bottom. The farther downstream the bait is and the flatter the line, the more slowly you can walk the rig."

Drifting sandbars — From summer into early fall, Patterson also drifts for big blues on the Mississippi's expansive sandbars. "The best sandbars are those with rollercoaster bottoms," he says, "with depths typically ranging from 25 feet on the tops of the sand humps to 45 feet in troughs between the humps. I've caught blue cats drifting in water as shallow as 15 feet and as deep as 94 feet."

Big River Blue Catfish

Big Cat's rigs for drifting are three-ways, with a Kahle hook tied to an 18- to 24-inch leader of 40-pound mono and a 20- to 30-pound mono dropper of the same length to hold the sinker — 4 ounces in most cases, which is usually plenty to feel bottom. He prefers the cannonball-style sinker for drifting because it makes a good thump on the sand. For drifting, he uses 71⁄2-foot medium-heavy to heavy rods, and reels spooled with 40'‘pound-test braid. He baits drift rigs with golfball-sized chunks of skipjack.

"I slow the drift with my trolling motor while keeping the bow pointed upstream," he says. This method, often called "slipping," allows baits to be fished more vertically and on a shorter line, helping to control baits and maintain feel and contact with bottom.

"Drifting is best using a short line, with the bait bouncing bottom about 20 feet downstream of the boat," he says. "The line's usually at about a 10-degree angle. Don't jig the rig too aggressively. Subtle lifts and drops of the rod tip are just enough to help the bait scoot along. The steep line angle also keeps the bait swimming downstream slightly above bottom, while the sinker thumps bottom along the way," he explains.

Carl Roberts (right), with an 80 from the Missouri River near St. Louis. Photo: Mo Dept. Conservation

Most of Patterson's catches while drifting occur on the upstream portions of the drop-off from a hump into a hole. "When approaching a hole, slow the drift and let out line to maintain contact with the bottom, keeping a steep line angle. The extra time also allows blues to find the bait. They often hit it on the fall as line is let out," he says, "and they commonly swim straight up with the bait in their mouth, which is why I like a fairly long rod to take up slack in a hurry."

He relies on electronics to adjust the depths of his rigs to work bottom as the depths change over the series of humps and troughs, and also uses a GPS unit to adjust course to stay on trails of productive drifts.

"If I'm fishing with clients who have a difficult time maintaining contact with bottom while on a controlled drift, I switch to dragging baits over the same sandbar areas," he says. "It's easier for beginners. I shorten the sinker dropper on three-way rigs or use sliprigs to drag baits. The sinker dragging bottom creates a plume that might be an additional

trigger. When blue cats take a bait, they're notorious for swimming downstream toward the boat, so it's important to watch for slack line that often indicates a bite. Reel up slack quickly and set the hook."

Missouri & Mississippi Rivers, St. Louis

Carl Roberts of the St. Louis, Missouri, area primarily targets big blues, although he fishes for channels and flatheads as well. Most of his pursuits are in the area of the confluence of the Missouri River with the Mississippi River.

Roberts likes skipjack herring for big blue cats. In the areas he fishes, skipjack typically begin to appear in late March to early April. "I catch them on small curlytail jigs with a red head and white body, but other colors like chartreuse and black work well, too," he says. "I also use Sabiki rigs with four jigs, sometimes catching multiple skipjacks at a time. The best spots are where they concentrate in turbulent water below dams and around wing dams. As the river cools in October and November, they can be caught at warmwater discharges." He vacuum-seals and freezes whole baitfish to keep year-round.

Bluff banks — While Roberts fishes wing dams when conditions are right, some of his favorite spots for big blue cats are the bluff banks scattered along the lower Missouri. "The bluffs are always on the list of stops," he says, "because the characteristics of bottom along these banks attract big catfish."

Big River Blue Catfish

Over time, weathering and erosion have loosened chunks of rock that fall from the bluff and accumulate in the river. "The larger chunks on bottom serve as current deflectors, with catfish holding downstream of them. You snag and lose a lot of rigs, but the catches outweigh the costs of losing lead. I also duck behind bluff banks to fish when high winds prevent effective fishing in openwater areas," he says.

Roberts uses slipsinker rigs consisting of an 8/0 Lazer Sharp L7228 circle hook tied to a 50-pound-test mono leader. The leader is tied to a 1/0 barrel swivel connected to 80-pound Sufix 832 braid, after sliding on a No-Roll slipsinker from 3 to 8 ounces, depending on current. He pours his own No-Rolls using Do-It Molds. "I prefer the No-Roll sinker style when fishing rocky areas, because its flat shape keeps it from settling into and snagging in cracks as often as egg sinkers," he says. He uses Shakespeare Ugly Stik Tiger rods matched with Abu-Garcia 7000 C3 reels.

The river next to a typical bluff is about 18 to 20 feet deep. Roberts pinpoints likely catfish holding areas along the bluff and anchors about 30 to 40 yards upstream.

"I set baits to cover depths where the chunk rock has settled, which is in about 20 to 25 feet as the bottom slopes from the bluff into the channel," he says. "I let baits drift along bottom in current, allowing them to settle behind larger boulders. If my rig snags, I let it fish, because blue cats often pull it free when they strike."

Bridges — "The big concrete pilings that support bridges spanning the rivers are good spots for big blue cats," Roberts says. "The best pilings have a lot of fast current rushing by. The fast water scours holes, and the pilings break current on the downstream side. I anchor about 40 yards upstream from the piling and cast, letting baits drift and settle in the scour hole on the side of the piling and also behind it on the downstream side.

Big River Blue Catfish

"Blue cats hole up in these areas eating food that drifts along and gets washed behind the pillars," he says. One of his favorite bridge pilings has a scour hole about 24 feet deep on one side that wraps slightly around the downstream end to a depth of about 16 feet. An 80-pound behemoth blue, Roberts' largest, was caught on a chunk of skipjack placed behind that bridge piling.

No fisherman hits the bull's-eye for big blue cats each time out. Blues can be nomadic, moody at times — and conditions can make their whereabouts and eagerness to feed unpredictable, often sending the most experienced catters off course. But in the long run, focusing on good locations and fishing them with fine-tuned presentations should put you on better aim to more and bigger catfish.

The locations that Patterson and Roberts fish are numerous along the Middle Miss, providing ample opportunities for anglers to connect with big blues. The best part is that spots like these are common in nearly all big navigable rivers where blues exist.

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