The Means To Mighty River Blue Catfish
May 29, 2014
Moyer on Blue-Cat Fishing
The major rivers of the central U.S. have always been premium venues for giant river blue catfish. Waterways including the Mississippi, the lower Missouri, the mid- to lower Ohio, and the Cumberland, where I went to school on the haunts and habits of this great species, rank as today's best bets for trophy blues — fish over 50 pounds.
Blue cats can be found in slackwater reservoirs, but big rivers have what it takes to grow these fish to giant size: the right temperature regime, plenty of dissolved oxygen, deep swift channels, structure like cascading ledges, snaggy bottom cover, and an ample supply of baitfish. Compared to reservoirs, bigger rivers receive relatively light fishing pressure, most of which is concentrated within 5 miles of a boat launch.
There's no telling how large blue cats can get in the rivers I mentioned — I wouldn't be surprised to see a 130- to 140-pounder caught in my lifetime. Historical records mention blues weighing over 200 pounds in the days before dams were constructed along these waterways.
Boats for Big Rivers
If you're serious about scoring a mega-blue, you need a big, safe boat. Major rivers are subject to heavy commercial traffic, and it's no fun bucking a barge wake in a 14-foot jon boat. I use a 20-foot Lund 2025 deep-V with a wide 102-inch beam; this is a safe, roomy, stable craft that can take plenty of rough water. It's powered by a 225 hp Mercury OptiMax outboard, powerful and fuel-efficient. I mention this because in a big river, you're going to do a lot of running. Boat ramps are usually few and far between — 50 miles apart on some rivers — and you invariably find the best trophy water far from an access point. You can't get by with a couple of 6-gallon gas tanks. My boat's fuel tank holds 58 gallons.
Most of my fishing is done while anchored, but a strong, quiet trolling motor is important for boat positioning and for other tasks like retrieving hung lines. I use a 36-volt MotorGuide powered by Optima batteries. Reliable batteries are a must. The last thing you want to do is spend the night on the river because your big motor wouldn't crank, especially in winter, which is prime time for big blues.
Your boat should be outfitted with several rod holders. I stole Don Wirth's design for a removable rod rack. It holds several Santee rod holders, the strongest I've found, and attaches to my boat with downrigger mounts. As for electronics, a graph with GPS capability is a big help for getting you back to offshore ledges in a jiffy and is especially useful when night-fishing.
I use two anchors. One is a unit of my own design that weighs 141â„2 pounds and is good in rocks. The other is a standard 9-pound naval fluke anchor for use on slick mud bottoms. Three to 5 feet of chain is installed between the anchor and the rope, helping to wedge the anchor into the bottom and reduce rope abrasion.
Frequently you have to retrieve your anchor to avoid a passing barge or a big tree drifting downriver. A buoy ball attached to the boat end of your anchor rope floats the rope, allowing you to untie and move the boat without hoisting the anchor. Once the barge or obstruction passes, just grab the buoy ball, unhook it, and tie the rope back to a boat cleat. I carry 150 feet of 1/2-inch poly rope per anchor. It usually takes 3 feet of anchor line for every foot of water you're fishing.
The flow in rivers I fish is controlled by dams. Big blues thrive in current, and when an upstream dam starts generating, current kicks in and sweeps algae and organic matter off bottom, activating the food chain by triggering baitfish to feed, which in turn lights up predator fish.
Current also infuses the water with life-giving oxygen and moderates its temperature, preventing the river from getting as hot as nearby lakes in summer. The tumbling action of current distributes oxygen from top to bottom, so there's less chance of a thermocline forming, common in slackwater reservoirs.
I'm often asked what level of current generation is most conducive to catching big blues. From my experience, a flow of 35,000 to 55,000 cubic feet per second is about right, but then, it depends on where you're fishing. If the river's only 100 yards wide, 55,000 cfs would put it above flood stage. As long as you notice a good swirl behind your boat when you're anchored, you should do all right.
Current can get too fast to fish, though I doubt this bothers the blue cats. I use up to 16 ounces of lead on my bait rigs if I have to. Safety becomes the primary concern when the current's really smokin' — it's possible for the bow of an anchored boat to get sucked under, and floating debris can make bottom presentations impossible. Never anchor close to a dam. And always wear your lifejacket when river fishing.
Heavy-duty tackle is a necessity. I'm now marketing rods of my own design, the Jim Moyer Boss series: 71â„2-foot one-piece baitcasting sticks in light, medium, heavy, and extra-heavy powers. These strong E-Glass rods are perfect for river catfishing. For big blues I recommend the heavy- and extra-heavy-power rods.
I'm a longtime fan of Abu Garcia Ambassadeur wide-spool baitcasting reels like the 6500 and 7000 series. These have the line capacity, line-out feature, winching power, and reliability required for tackling big catfish. I usually spool my reels with 40-pound-test Berkley Trilene Big Game mono and use up to 60-pound test for leaders.
Baits and Rigs
Deadbaits rule for big blues and my favorite is skipjack herring. These big baitfish (up to 2 pounds) are abundant in rivers in my region, and can be caught below dams on hook and line using a spinning outfit with a couple of crappie tube jigs tied onto the line. Other regional bait favorites include goldeye, white suckers, chubs, and gizzard shad.
I used to insist on catching bait the morning of the trip, but I've discovered that if it's refrigerated for 3 to 5 days, it consistently out-performs fresh bait. This storage time draws blood and oils toward its outer surfaces, enhancing the aroma and taste for catfish. I also keep frozen bait on hand if I run out of fresh or refrigerated bait, preserving it in vacuum-sealed bags.
I use Gamakatsu circle and octopus hooks (mostly 8/0) on my rigs. Patience is required with circle hooks; don't set the hook as soon as you detect a bite and expect many hookups. Instead, hold off a few seconds until the rod loads then give the rod a steady sweeping set. Circle hooks catch 95 percent of the blues that bite — fish are usually hooked in the corner of the mouth or center of the lip, making for clean releases.
Keep plenty of spare line, hooks, swivels, and sinkers on hand, because hangups are just part of the game. And don't try to break 40-pound line with your hands — wrap it around a boat cleat and move the boat to break it, instead.
»Dead of winter (water temperature: 35°F to 40ºF) — This is the best time of year to catch giant blue cats, because they remain active and feed heavily in cold water. Target the midsection of the river, keying on ledges from 30 to 40 feet deep — spots that drop off quickly into deep water. If you're unsure where to locate ledges, position your boat near the bank and idle slowly toward the middle of the river, watching on your graph to find where bottom cascades into deep water. Steeper ledges are better than areas with gradual depth changes.
Cover in the form of submerged trees, stumps, and logs is a big drawing card. Anchor upstream of the ledge with your boat's bow facing into the current, then gradually let out enough rope to get into position. Make long casts parallel to the ledge, placing your baits between 30 and 40 feet deep. One of your rods typically gets the most bites, so once the productive depth has been determined, cast one or more rigs to the same contour, staggering them 10 to 15 yards apart.
»Early spring (water temperature: 45°F to 55ºF) — Blue catfish and most other river species generally make upriver moves as the water warms. I often find them within 5 or 6 miles upstream of where I was catching them in winter. Continue to fish steep, deep ledges, with most of your rigs in 30 to 40 feet of water. If it's an unseasonably mild day and overcast, I often cast a rig on top of the drop, maybe 15 feet deep, to catch a roaming blue or a big flathead or two.
»Spring (water temperature: 55°F to 65ºF) — I find blue catfish located 2 to 3 miles below an upstream dam during this period. Seasonal rains have the water high, murky, and oxygenated. Male blues are nosing around for spawning sites, while big females continue to feed along the edges of steep drops before nesting. Blue cats can be found shallower now, so I fish mostly 12 to 20 feet deep. Keep at least one rig 25 to 30 feet deep, unless the shallow bite is strong.
»Spawn Period (water temperature: 70°F to 75ºF) — I usually fish for spawners at night because it's too hot for comfortable fishing during the day. Blues spawn around rocks and scattered woodcover in water 5 to 15 feet deep, on sloping banks with deep-water access. Cork fishing is fun and effective during the spawn; be sure to cast to visible cover like rockpiles and laydown logs.
»Summer (water temperature: 80ºF+) — Big-river blues sulk in deep, dark water and don't eat as often. Fish the coolest, most heavily oxygenated water you can find. The biggest and fastest-flowing rivers like the Mississippi are best for blues in hot weather. Fishermen on nearby Kentucky Lake catch them by vertical-jigging minnows along 60-foot channel drops, but this ain't for me. It's usually too hot with humidity to match, so I don't bother fishing for blues in the summer.
»Fall (water temperature: 55°F to 60ºF) — It seems to take forever to cool down some rivers to the point where you can fish them again successfully, but once they're down to that 60ºF mark, it's time to get back out there. My area rivers can get pretty low this time of year, which pulls predator and prey alike off the banks and sends them to deeper haunts. While the river is falling, try slipfloat rigs around steep banks. Once the river stabilizes, 30 to 40 feet becomes the magic depth again, so hunt up those ledges and start soaking those bottom rigs.
Giant blue catfish represent one of America's most exciting but overlooked angling opportunities. If you haven't gone gunning for these monsters, get yourself properly geared up with a safe boat and the right tackle, and head for the nearest big river.