July 16, 2015
Summer Strategies on Big Rivers
What could be more American than propping up a lawn chair along a riverbank and casting out a few baits for catfish? Rockwellian portraits of Americana commonly depict summertime scenes of kids and crusty old characters sharing a bank and a bucket of bait in hopes that a catfish might bite. Smartphones and other modern distractions aside, thank goodness all these years later, a visit to the local river still often reveals this same pastoral setting.
Certainly, our affection for rivers and catching catfish with good buddies predates Mark Twain, who once wrote of a "Mississippi River catfish that was more than six feet long." Further, in a 1950 book entitled Steamboating: Sixty-Five Years on Missouri's Rivers, author William Heckman documented several more stories of 200- to 300-pound blues caught during the early 19th century. Passed down generations, these intriguing tales only elevate the allure of big river blue catfish. Not sure how Twain might have viewed the current catfish climate — tournaments and high-tech electronics, in particular. He'd be pleased to find great fishing enduring on his favorite rivers.
For modern day river runners — guides like Captain Ryan Casey, wily veterans like John Jamison, and tournament champions such as Jason and Daryl Masingale — a singular factor affects each and every outing, regardless of the waterway. On the Mississippi where Casey guides, the summer period, from June through early September, can offer any flow condition from high and hazardous to nearly lake-like. Afloat on Jamison's home river, the Missouri, any season can herald fast-flowing mayhem or pleasant, placid fishing. And on the Ohio, where the Masingales won a July 2014 King Kat tournament, a similar range of scenarios exist.
"It's easy to talk about summer fishing and fond memories of stable, perfect current conditions," Jamison says. "But the reality is — especially in recent years — summer is no guarantee of stable flows. On the Missouri in and around the Kansas City area, extreme low or high water seems to be more the rule than the exception — drought and torrential rains are common these days."
Casey, who mostly guides on the St. Louis section of the Mississippi — migrating south to Lake Tawakoni, Texas, for a few weeks in winter — says the 2014 season was historic. "I had the best big fish year of my career," he says. "We boated a bunch of giant fish, including blues of 84, 85, 86, 92, 93, and 105 pounds."
While summer for Casey generally means loads of 10- to 30-pound fish (40 to 50 fish per day, on average, he reports), this past summer also kicked out plenty of giants. Whether the Mississippi's low and slow or high and fast, he finds enough good fish to keep things interesting. Periods of rain and high water are typically intensified by wide-open dam flows, which also collide with wild current coming out of the Missouri, as it enters the Mississippi near Alton, Illinois. Even in low flows, he can still find briskly moving water and active catfish by keying on areas around and into the ever-flowing Missouri, or on fast-moving stretches, such as the channelized section in front of the St. Louis Arch.
"Reading current and how fish move and position relative to it is the biggest factor separating great anglers from everyone else," Casey says. "Surprisingly, a lot of people don't pay any attention to it. They want to get into the slack water out of the main flow, but more often than not, this is dead water. Doesn't matter how good the spot looks. Without some current coursing over or near the structure, it probably won't produce."
Casey says that depending on summer flows, he keys on one of three presentations — walking or bumpin' bait, drifting, or anchoring. "In tournaments, we're after big fish. And I'm usually actively bumping bottom, walking baits downstream with the rod in my hands. I love this type of fishing. It's much more engaging and you get to feel the bite.
"When I'm guiding less-experienced anglers, we're usually drifting with the current, rods in holders and rigs hung vertically beneath the boat. This method is productive, and it's efficient, especially for covering water and catching loads of 10- to 20-pounders.
"Typically, most of the anchoring I do is in winter when fish are congregated in holes, or anytime I'm working fish on a specific piece of structure. Anchoring also can be good when working a big-fish spot in summer. But when I need a big bite, bumpin's the deal — it helps you present baits more naturally. You can control your rig; keep it walking downstream while matching current speed. The biggest, oldest blues know what current speed looks like, and I believe they're more likely to eat a bait that looks like it's tumbling downstream naturally. Bumpin' keeps you constantly in contact with bottom, so you feel every little transition or change in the river." He adds that in order to walk baits effectively, it's necessary to fish areas with enough current to move a 2- to 5-ounce sinker with the flow. Lacking sufficient current, bumping baits becomes ineffective. Moreover, slackwater areas also often won't hold many catfish.
Most days when he's guiding, Casey drifts short sections of river with three-way rigs baited with skipjack herring or Asian carp. He says that when the Mississippi slows, fishing can still be good at the Missouri confluence, as eddies, seams, and whirlpools play against structure and distribute catfish differently each day.
"To stay on fish, I have to constantly pay attention to what's happening to the water. Usually, I can see a change in the flow by watching line angle while drifting. Or, I note the speed at which current carries a walked bait downstream.
"Generally, when the river is low or dropping, I move toward the main channel. Use your sonar to analyze different mid-river structure — humps, cover such as woodpiles, dikes, and even intangible structure such as current seams. Structure on inside riverbends can be especially good. Blue cats in slow current also have a tendency to suspend.
"Conversely, in rising water, it's usually best to move toward spots near or along the riverbank. Key on newly inundated woodcover and vegetation. Fish near creek or rivermouths and current seams. Regardless of flow, the best anglers know how to interpret and fish seams, and are comfortable walking baits, bumping bottom on mid-river areas — not just the obvious holes behind dikes."
A couple hundred river miles to the west, John Jamison often works the night shift. With the Missouri just out his back door, it's no surprise that he has boated numerous giant blues from this ever-volatile river. Among them are two 90-pounders, both caught from a similar sand beach in summer.
"After big blues leave their nests in June they move to 3- to 8-foot sandbars and feed like crazy," he says. While other tactics and baits score greater numbers of smaller cats, he primarily seeks giants, and on most outings he expects three to seven bites. Often, one of those bites results in a hulking hookup — a fish from 50 to as heavy as 100 pounds. In a July 2012 KC Catfish tournament near Waverly, Missouri, Jamison and partner Justin Cook landed an 80-pounder, and it was only good enough for a second-place finish.
Although giant sandbar blues can often be caught during the day, Jamison's best summer fishing usually happens between 9 p.m. and midnight, when the baddest blues go on the prowl. He usually sets up on sandbars that form on inside riverbends, where shad, carp, and other preyfish escape current and feed atop these fertile sand mesas. During the day, catfish gather in the deeper water just behind or off the tips of manmade dikes, he says. It's why he prefers to fish on sandbars adjacent to the largest, deepest holes. "If most of the dikes on a stretch of river have 20-foot-deep scour holes, but I find one with 35, I position near the deep dike every time," he says.
He says that on the Missouri, dikes often are about 200 yards apart, and blues seem to travel in a nearly straight line from the tip of one dike, down- or upstream, to the tip of the next one. Likewise, to keep his boat and baits in prime position, he lines up with the tips of two dikes, and anchors between them, on the sandbar. Once he gets set up around dusk, he prefers to stay on the same flat until midnight, remaining quiet while he and partners cast rigs around their position. "You've got to commit to one spot, and wait for fish to move through. If you've been smart about your spot selection, it'll happen.
"At night we spread baits all around our position," Jamison says, "staggering depths and distances. But during the day, I place baits near the head of the deep scour hole to intercept active catfish."
Because a big blue often buries a sinker in the sand when it runs after biting, Jamison prefers a three-way rig with a 6-inch dropper of 30-pound-test line and a 4- to 8-ounce bank sinker. When a cat hits this rig, he can land the fish, even if the sinker snags and the dropper breaks. To allow fish to run, he often employs a sliding dropper — a barrel swivel sliding on 80-pound Spiderwire Stealth mainline, which is tied to another barrel swivel. Finally, he snells a tandem of two 6/0 or 8/0 Rippin Lips circle hooks several inches apart on an 18-inch leader of 60-pound-test Cabela's Fluorocarbon.
Bait size determines hook size, and when he selects 1- to 2-pound live carp (blues especially crave exotic silver carp) he'll opt for two 8/0 circle hooks. One goes through the lips, another through the back, near the dorsal fin. While he also often uses large fillets of skipjack herring, carp, or shad, he chooses livebait when he's targeting monster blues. To heave heavy baits and battle big blues, he fishes up to six 8-foot heavy-power S-glass rods, such as the Rippin Lips SuperCat.
"This can be an incredible pattern on any big river," Jamison says. "But if the rains arrive and high water results, things can change fast. Right after a big surge in water level and current, the river fills up with a lot of small roots, grass, and big trees. We call it line trash. Clings to your line horribly and ruins your fishing."
To adjust, he looks for places that are free from the trash — inside bends and below dikes. "If you can find a slackwater spot that's largely free from debris, you often find big numbers of fish. I believe the fish get out of current areas because they don't like constantly dodging and colliding with debris."
Another high-water pattern that can happen, particularly when the river rises out of its bank, revolves around small openings within flooded timber, he says. "Catfish like to get up into these shallow inundated areas and use trees and bushes as current breaks. Trees also filter debris out of the water so you can fish behind them. I like a bare patch of ground inside the timber, especially if there's some low-growing grass there. Mostly, these are clean-bottom areas where blues can feed. Lots of bait collects here because it's fresh fertile ground with plenty of insects and food for smaller fish. If you can find one of these shallow, slackwater spots during high water, you can catch some nice fish here, even during the day.
Champs on Current
Factoring river current to another level, the Masingales continued their domination of the competitive catfish arena in 2014. Fresh off wins at the Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest Championship on the Mississippi River at New Madrid, Missouri, and the July Cabela's King Kat event on the Ohio River in Metropolis, Illinois, the Arkansas-based anglers shared thoughts on water flow and presentation.
"Blues love current," says Jason Masingale, "but as the water gets hotter, we find big fish seek faster water. Perhaps they like increased flow across their gills as oxygen levels drop in warmer water. Given stable flows, which we encountered on the Ohio last July, we look for deep water and fast current."
"Especially good are pinch points," Daryl says. "These are narrow spots in the river where current picks up speed, especially on outside bends. It can be up to a 1/2-mph increase, and it makes a difference.
"On a river like the Ohio, you've got to pay attention to dam generation cycles, too. Know exactly when they're generating, opening the gates. We always like to be on our best spot when they're generating current. It seems like 30 minutes after the water kicks on, big fish feed first and then move off. If we're catching little fish, it usually means there aren't any big fish there, and we move."
Helping cap their tournament-winning limit on the Ohio, the Masingales boated a 71-pounder. "Often, we're drifting at current speed. But in summer events, like the one on the Ohio, fish can get touchy about biting, and you sometimes need to try different presentations.
"On one particular spot, everyone was struggling, but we were marking big fish on sonar. So we decided to turn the boat downriver and crank up the trolling-motor speed slightly, a couple tenths of a mile per hour over the current speed — .8 to 1 mph. Sounds like a trivial adjustment, but it was exactly the right trigger to convince an otherwise sluggish 70-pounder to eat." –
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt writes for all In-Fisherman publications, often covering the latest on the catfish scene.