Lessons From Missouri’s Catfish Pros
Many of the days of my youth were spent with me ankle-deep in a gumbo of aquatic plants and farm-pond muck. It never really seemed messy or dirty – the cool mud that squeezed between my bare toes was just one more reason to go fishing on warm summer afternoons. I’d split my time between propping up poles on forked sticks and hunting the banks for more bait. The catfish seemed partial to eating leopard frogs and grasshoppers – and I was partial to catching both bait and fish.
I always came home with a fish or a story and something I’d learned. Mostly I had the chance to pick up the pastime, which has stuck with me; I can still lose track of time waiting for fish to bite. Although the simpler days of farm-pond fishing have passed me by, I manage to sneak away to wet a line on many a summer afternoon. Most often, I find myself at the catfish-laden waters of the state’s rivers and reservoirs rather than at the farm ponds of my youth. And at these larger waters, landing these fish takes a different approach – and a whole different attitude.
Without doubt, Missouri’s public waters afford catfishers a grand chance of loading a stringer or filling a livewell with more fish than you could fry for Sunday dinner. For those of you who are thinking a little heftier, the likelihood of catching something big enough to scare you is better than you might think. Our state has an uncountable number of places to fish – for instance, the Missouri River, which courses from Kansas City to St. Louis. Even without taking all of its tributaries into account, it’s a catfish mecca. And for those who aren’t adept at fishing moving water, there are plenty of large lakes; whether they are the clearer sorts that grace the Ozarks or the stained variety, each holds a robust population of catfish to keep your line tight.
But herein lies the problem: With so much water and so many places to go, where, exactly, are those catfish, and how do you catch them? Well, a select few anglers can readily answer those questions. Each started out much as you or I did: fishing for cats as a pastime. But they’ve managed to develop it into something much more, taking the pastime of catfishing and turning it into a tried-and-true sport – and a competitive one, at that. So those of you skeptical about the notion of catfishing as anything more than relaxing in your favorite lawn chair and waiting for your pole to twitch should prepare to be amazed: What many still view as nothing but a sleepy diversion has been propelled by these pro catters’ strategies and secrets into an era of fast action and big payoffs.
My first exposure to the sport of competitive catfishing came by way of an encounter with seasoned river angler, champion tournament fisherman and guide Rick Gebhardt. He’s put 32 serious years into his fishing and has amassed an encyclopedic wealth of information about catching cats – especially Missouri River cats.
Upon arrival at Rick’s home, I found it hard not to notice the scores of catfish pictures; even his kitchen corkboard is pinned full of trophy-fish snapshots. He’s pulled more than his share of huge cats – not to mention many thousands of smaller ones – from the state’s muddy waters. Doubt it? Numbers don’t lie: Since 1995 he has placed in the top 20 percent of half of the catfish tournaments he’s entered. And that’s not to mention the 14 first-place finishes he has to his name.
“Years of experience have taught me that catfish, like other fish, definitely relate to underwater structure,” Rick observed. “But you don’t need to fish a stretch of river for three decades to find fish. Any angler can go out, purchase a good depthfinder and locate the hiding places of big fish.
You don’t have to be a Missouri catfish pro to take cats like this one, but professional tips can help. Photo by J.T. Upthegrove
“If you’re going to target blue cats, they might as well be big ones, and they hide in specific spots. During the day, you’ll always find them on outside bends of the river in 20 feet of water or more. Steep dropoffs hold fish, too. Between those areas, they like to follow along the ledges, where the flat bottom meets the bank. That ledge acts as a corridor or highway for the fish.
“As the evening draws near,” he continued, “the blues will abandon the holes in search of forage. At night, 5 to 10 feet of water is the best place to find them. The blues will move up to these shallow flats and chase baitfish until the sun rises. The two very best times are sunrise and sunset. I think that’s when big blues are really on the hunt.”
Most of Rick’s big blues fall to freshly cut bait. “It’s imperative to the use the freshest cut bait possible,” he insisted. In the back of the boat resides a small ice-filled cooler, inside which are a knife and cutting board. Rick will toss in a baitfish to use later. The ice will slow it down but keep it extremely fresh. Every time he gets ready to cast a rod, he cuts a new piece of bait for each hook.
“My favorite bait is a 10- or 12-inch shad,” he said. “The reason is because the larger shad have more oil in them. Once you catch them, keep them cool and fresh, and never let them sit in water. Shad is only good for one day after it dies; frozen shad is worthless. And at those odd times when shad aren’t available, I’ll switch to carp meat.”
When it’s time to put the lines out, Rick is careful to position his boat just in front of the spot in which he thinks the fish are hidden. “It’s important to be as quiet as you can be,” he asserted. “The big blues are extremely sensitive to any kind of sound.”
Once the boat is anchored, the current will hold you steady. Rick puts out three to six rods, each rigged with a sinker suited to the conditions of the current – in the swifter water of the channel he uses 8-ounce egg sinkers – and the lines fanned out behind the boat to cover as much water as possible. This is when it turns to good old catfishing: You sit and wait – but only for 45 minutes, after which, Rick says, you should pull up your lines and move to the next hole. The wait’s not long – and it’ll seem like it was even shorter when an old river blue buckles your rod down.
As good as he is at pulling blues from a river’s swift waters, Rick has a lot to say about filling your livewell with channel cats, too. “Channel cats are one of the best fish to take out of the rivers of our state,” he offered. “They’re a whole bunch of fun. You can almost always find them in shallower water, just waiting to gobble up some dip bait.
“When I want to get in some really good channel catfishing, I’ll head straight for the shallow sand flats of the river, where the current is gentle. There I anchor my boat in water from 6 inches to 5 feet deep. I’ll put out three poles to find where they’re feeding, but once I find them, I’ll cut back to one or two rods, because I can’t keep up with how fast they’ll start taking the bait.
“Flatheads are the hardest to pattern in the river,” he noted. “Usually they’re going to be in 10 feet of water or less around nasty thick cover like a brushpile. Sometimes the front corners of dikes will hold a few. Like the other big fish, I’ll quietly move the boat ahead of those areas and use my heavy rods to present a medium-size bluegill – 3 to 4 inches long – or a creek chub, if you can get them. Hook these fish through the eyes to keep them alive, since that’s how most flatheads like them.
“Because they are hunters, the best time to catch catfish is just before dark and sunrise. They’ll feed actively about then. At night you can find them on the flats when they forage, but you still need to be in close proximity to heavy cover.
“Good tackle is absolutely necessary,” he continued. “I spent a lot of time fishing the river with no-name equipment in the past, and I learned my lesson the hard way – I lost several big fish. I only put good gear in my boat now. My reels are heavy action baitcasters with matching rods. The reels are tough enough to crank in the big cats, and the rods are almost unbreakable.”
If you’re curious what kind of boat you run with in a catfish tournament, Rick will be happy to show you his custom 23-footer outfitted with a 200-horsepower outboard.
The cats prowling the depths of our lakes and reservoirs may be the same as those in our rivers, but that doesn’t mean you go about catching them in the same ways. Professional tournament catfisherman Glenn Luckett will tell you that catching big-water cats takes an entirely different tactical approach.
To keep his string of victories going, Glenn will do a little research on the lake he’ll be fishing. “If I’ve never fished a body of water before, I’ll first try and find out what the area is noted for,” he explained. “If there’s a heavy shad population, that will be my preferred bait, and it will also tell me that the blue cats and flatheads have the opportunity to get really big.”
Once he’s checked the background, Glenn takes notice of the areas where each species of fish most commonly resides. “If you’re fishing for blues,” he noted, “you want to find deeper water. You won’t focus on structure so much. Channel cats will be in the shallower water with brush and preferably near a channel of some sort. Flatheads, on the other hand, really like structure and moderately shallow water.”
Glenn uses that formula as a starting point, but, he adds, lakes vary in habitat and bait populations can make a big difference. “If there’s a good baitfish population, catfish will relate to that and find areas where they feel comfortable as close to the bait as possible. But I also want to fish places that the other anglers don’t. Normally, lakes get lots of pressure from bass and crappie anglers, and I want to find out where they congregate and go someplace else. If I can find a stump-filled little creek that doesn’t get much pressure from bass anglers, I’ll go right up there and have some of my best luck.”
Once Glenn makes it to the water, he then starts a more detailed search based on his years of experience. “Channel cats will be at the mouths of creeks that run into the main lake because this is where the shad congregate,” he observed. “If you have a good flat where there’s a lot of brush coming off it with a small channel next to it, you’ll find them there. To tempt channel cats in an area like that, I’ll get right up next to the edge of the brush and fish down both sides of it. I’ll also throw a bait in the deeper channel until I find out where I’m getting the most strikes. For bait, it depends on the lake and surroundings, but if the lake has a good shad population, I’ll go with cut shad. Without shad I’ll switch to a dip bait.
“To pick up flatheads, you have to find lots of cover; they just don’t like the open water of a lake. I’ll fish right where heavy cover drops into a deep hole with additional cover. About the only bait I’ll offer them is live perch or cut perch. Early in the morning and late in the evening are the best times. Much of the same area that hold channel cats will produce flatheads. Areas that are laden with brush and trees are even a better bet. Flatheads hold tight to structure, and to catch them you have to present your bait in the thick stuff.
“Blues are a different story,” he continued. “They will scatter themselves out across the lake. You just won’t find that many blues. Blues are hard to pattern, and you’ll have to hunt and hunt until you find them. But it helps to start looking in the deeper channels, where a lot of baitfish congregate. Flats 12 to 14 feet deep that drop right into 30- or 40-foot waters are where I have my best luck. I’ll use my fishfinder to hunt out schools of baitfish and fish near them, or under them, if possible. Usually, when you see fish bunch up like that, there are bigger fish making them do that.”
Glenn usually feels confident about finding channel cats, but in tournaments, those aren’t always enough to nab a victory. To secure a good finish, he’ll use every resource to locate a good fish. “When I need a big fish, I’ll search out a flat that drops off into a deep hole,” he explained. “Then I’d start scanning with my electronics. I’m really looking for a good fish on the bottom. I don’t look for suspended fish – that’s not where they’re at. When I spot one, I’ll find an edge that gradually drops off to his hole. Those bigger fish will feed right there on the lip of it. If there are a lot of baitfish in the surrounding area, that’s even better.”
Like any pro angler, Glenn is really picky about his equipment. He uses heavy action baitcasters for his catting. To get all his gear around on the water, he runs a 24-foot aluminum boat with a 200-horsepower outboard.
But that’s not all he’s particular about. “I always try to catch my bait fresh,” he said. “I’ll go back up into the creeks and net them before I fish. I really like to use shad 3 to 5 inches long and cut into chunks. If I have a shad in that size range, I’ll cut it into several chunks and put the head on last; it always seems to me that they want the head first. When other baits are in order I’ll go with creek chubs and night crawlers.
“Also, use a line that’s not visible. I use a camouflage line. I used to use a bright green line, but switched when I started realizing that these catfish are sensitive to that sort of thing. I think all catfish are sight-sensitive, and that’s overlooked by many anglers.”
Tournament angling is changing the face of catfishing. Improvements in gear and tactics present the average angler an increased chance at pulling in a whiskerfish. Missouri’s waters harbor a great resource for the state’s fishermen, and our pros are some of the best at finding ways to get into it.
As a testimony to the effectiveness these tactics, I’d have to say that seeing is believing. Whenever I use the logic of these long-time catfish anglers, the catfish have yet to let me down. Even my opinion of catfishing has changed: No longer do I hope for a channel cat just to nibble at my bait; instead, I expect them to inhale it and run before it settles to the bottom. And when I drop a hook in search of a good blue or flathead, I’m ready to set the hook and hold on. I never thought catfishing could be so much fun!
The big catfish cruised the rock-covered shoreline, gorging on the numerous crawdads hiding in the riprap.
A double hookup on catfish off a rocky shoreline! You can’t beat action like that. Photo by Keith Sutton.
Sitting in a boat a short distance away, a man baited his hook with a crawdad he had purchased at a bait shop earlier that morning. He hooked the big “mudbug” in the tail, dropped it in the water and free-spooled his rig to the rocks covering the bottom below. Then he placed his rod in a holder affixed to the transom.
As the man was baiting a second rig, the first rod went down. The angler lifted the rod, and then, without setting the hook, he turned the handle. The circle hook he used required no hook-set. It caught cleanly in the corner of the big cat’s mouth.
During the 15-minute battle that ensued, the man wondered if the fish might escape. The catfish surged straight away at first, and then began spinning, wrapping itself in the line. Pulling the catfish sideways through the water made it feel like a behemoth. The whiskerfish turned out to be a nice 21-pounder, and the man was justifiably proud when he finally brought it aboard.
The man rigged another crawdad and free-spooled it down to the rocks. Once again, a catfish hit before a second rig could be baited. This fish, too, was landed, and during the next hour and a half, another and another and another joined it. None were 50-pounders as the man had hoped, but all were larger than the biggest largemouth bass a man might hope to catch once in a lifetime. Five cats in 90 minutes, 15 to 23 pounds!
The man was not surprised. Catfishing on riprap in early autumn often turns out like that.
THE BEAUTY OF RIPRAP
Riprap is a covering of large, loose rocks placed at strategic places on the shorelines of large lakes and rivers to help control or prevent erosion. These blankets of angular stone, which often extend deep into the water, appeal to catfish for several reasons.
First, riprap provides a home for some of Mr. Whiskers’ favorite eats. Crawdads are particularly common around riprap, which may provide the only decent habitat for them in an entire body of water. Catfish stack up to feed on these tasty little critters, often gorging to the point that crawdad parts protrude from the mouths of these fish.
Many baitfish also are attracted to riprap. Algae grow on the submerged stones. Shad and minnows are attracted to the algae. Catfish come along to eat the baitfish.
Riprap also provides good, basic habitat structure for catfish. There is cover, depth, shade and protection.
Riprap sometimes stretches along miles of shoreline, permitting the use of varied catfishing tactics for changing seasonal and weather conditions. And because of its placement near dams, and around bridges, causeways and roadways that cross channels, it provides shallow- and deep-water domiciles in close proximity — a key catfish attractor. These factors combine to make riprap a hotspot for large numbers of catfish in early fall.
Because hang-ups are common in the rocks, it’s best to keep fishing rigs simple. When fishing shallow edges, use nothing more than a baited hook. Smaller “eating-sized” cats are abundant, so a 4/0 to 6/0 octopus or circle hook usually is adequate. Bait your hook with crawdads, baitfish, piece of cut bait or other catfish favorite, cast to your targeted spot, and then allow the rig to flutter down through the water column. When you perceive the rig has touched bottom, lift your rod tip and pull the rig sideways so it drifts down to a different spot. Repeat until you get a taker.
When targeting deep riprap edges, try a 1/4- to 1-ounce jighead with bait rigged on the hook. Work that rig in the same manner as the one previously described. Drop, lift, move; drop, lift, move. This is an ideal manner for avoiding hang-ups and targeting cats hiding in cavities and crevices within the rocks.
The best baits are native riprap inhabitants such as shad, minnows, crawdads and small sunfish (be sure to check local regulations regarding bait use first). A tail-hooked crawdad or a sunfish hooked behind the dorsal fin can bring smashing strikes. Several small whole shad or live minnows stacked on a single hook can work great. Stink baits and night crawlers are effective as well, especially on the eating-sized catfish.
For a change of pace, try artificials to catch riprap cats. Many baitfish- and crawdad-imitating crankbaits will take cats when bounced through the rocks, particularly in clear waters. Deep-diving models work best as the longer lip helps keep the line from snagging. Riprap catfish also will hit a variety of jigs and spinners.
Fish riprap methodically, casting upwind or upcurrent, and keeping a tight line while your rig moves naturally through the water. One good method is to anchor near the outer, underwater edge of the rocks near some object or contour change that distinguishes a small section of riprap from its surroundings. Sometimes a tree washed in will be enough to attract catfish. Other times a difference in the rocks will do the trick. Look for spots where big boulders change to smaller rocks. Points, cuts, pipes and cavities all attract cats.
When checking riprap for these peculiarities, you should look for other unusual bottom features as well. The alert angler will watch his depthfinder closely for a creek channel that borders a wall, submerged humps, a pit, some brush, a submerged roadbed used during the riprap’s construction or some other nuance that might tend to concentrate fish on a structure that may extend for miles.
Keep two rods ready — one with a simple baited hook rig, the other with a baited jighead — and work all depths thoroughly, starting shallow at night and deep in daylight hours. This method helps determine catfish holding preferences quicker, and then during your remaining fishing time, you can zero in on the specific depth zone where catfish are concentrated.
Bridge riprap can be especially important in lakes. Bridges usually span creeks, rivers or connecting channels, and the bridge area often represents the deepest water in the area. Catfish concentrate near distinctive features such as bridges. That happens as fish are funneled into the narrow section of water where a bridge crosses a lake or reservoir. Also, movement between two areas separated by a bridge is restricted to that relatively confined area. Some catfish will make the area their home, or at least remain long enough to feed in the shallows before continuing. Food is carried through these manmade funnels by current. Catfish take advantage of that situation and hold out of the flow on the downstream side to inspect the selection of groceries washing past.
When fishing bridge riprap, the four corners formed as the riprap bank gives way to the bridge superstructure are always worth a few casts, regardless of the presence of other structure. These corners form semi-points that often hold several catfish. The downcurrent points are best as these are ideal ambush spots for catfish. Cast into the current from a boat stationed on the bridge’s downcurrent or downwind side. Doing so allows your bait to move downcurrent in a natural manner.
Riprap offers all the things catfish need for living high on the hog, so it’s little wonder you find so many catfish on the rocks. What is surprising is the number of catfish anglers who overlook riprap as a source of great autumn catfishing. If you’re one of those anglers who continue to cruise right past this great structure, stop next time, and take a second look at those rocky stretches. They may be your ticket to catfishing success.
Tight-line rigs are best for putting baits right in front of the cats in moving water.
Photo by Jeff Samsel.
When summer starts to sizzle, the channel catfish action heats up as well. The cats are all done spawning by now, so their focus is on feeding, and they tend to pile up in predictable places. River fishing can be especially good this time of year, if an angler is well schooled on the best approaches. Let’s look at how, where and when to catch the most river cats during the dog days of summer.
FIND BIG BENDS
Among the most predictable places to find concentrations of catfish in virtually any river is within the sharpest bends along a river’s course. Sharp bends scour deep holes, often with steep banks, and bank erosion commonly causes brush and trees to fall into the deeper water. In addition, river bends naturally create a mixture of current lines and eddies that provide holding areas and feeding lanes for the catfish.
The fish might be over the slope at the head of the hole, along its edge or down in the deepest water. They are somewhere, though, and by trying a few different anchoring positions, you generally can find them. Because catfish follow their noses (and whiskers) to food, the best way to find fish in a river hole, generally speaking, is to begin at the upper end of the hole. Use baits that give off a lot of scent, which disperses farther down into the hole to draw fish to the bait.
A simple bottom rig consisting of an egg sinker, swivel, leader and hook works nicely for fishing big holes within river bends. The weight should be just enough to hold the rig solidly on the bottom, given the water depth and amount of current.
Circle hooks work nicely because the fish often hook themselves. Among the best baits for this style of fishing are commercial catfish pastes, chicken livers and cut fish. The best setup for many river holes is to anchor a cast’s distance upstream of where the baits should be, cast downstream and let the baits settle on the bottom.
FISH AFTER HOURS
Although plenty of cats certainly can be caught through the middle of the day, channel catfish are somewhat nocturnal, feeding most actively at night. This behavior becomes even more pronounced during the summer, adding to the night bite. Providing even greater appeal, nights can be more pleasant than days for being out on the water when summer really starts to sizzle.
At night, the catfish are near the same holes where they stack up during the day; however, they typically aren’t down in the deepest water. During the evening, they migrate up the slopes of the big holes, and at night, feed in shallow water just upstream of holes or on the flats that are often found along the insides of the same big bends in the river. These cats may be in very shallow water, so it’s usually necessary to anchor upstream of their likely holding position and cast to them. An alternative setup that works well in light current — which is common along inside bends — is to beach the nose of the boat and spread baits out in different directions on the flat.
Catfish roam more at night than they do during the day, so action often occurs in flurries. The best strategy is to scout out a few productive-looking spots before dark — areas where fish are holding in holes that have shallow flats near them — and set up on those flats or along the slopes before the sun goes down. Because the fish do tend to move and because of the added challenges associated with navigating rivers at night, spending more time in less spots is a better strategy than doing a lot of searching at night.
USE TIGHT LINES
Often the best way to place an offering among actively feeding cats is to position a boat directly over their heads and fish a tight line straight down to them. As long as the water is deep enough to fish overhead without spooking fish and the current is sufficiently modest to let you hold a boat in position with a trolling motor, a tight-line approach allows for precise bait presentations.
A three-way rig works really well for tight-line fishing. Beginning with a three-way swivel, one loop is tied to the main line, and the others serve as connections for leaders to a hook and a weight. The leader to the hook should be short — maybe 6 inches long. Fluorocarbon works well because of its toughness. The leader to the pyramid or bell sinker should be 12 to 18 inches long and a little lighter than the main line and hook leader so that when the weight gets snagged, there’s no need to break off the entire rig.
Tight-liners typically keep a close eye on their electronics, looking for groups of cats to target, schools of baitfish that suggest cats should be nearby or bottom contours and cover that are likely to hold fish. They let out line and reel it back in as needed, striving to keep the weight barely ticking the bottom so that the bait is suspended just off the river floor and in the faces of active cats. Good baits for this approach are big minnows, either dead or alive, frozen shrimp and small chunks of cut fish.
TARGET TIMBER TANGLES
Root wads, deadfalls, stumps, flooded trees and other woody cover rank among the most favored haunts of river cats. They provide both cover and current breaks, along with deep water where currents wash around branches. The fish may be among the branches themselves or in the big eddies that commonly form immediately downstream of them.
Often, the best way to achieve good boat positioning around trees is to tie the boat to the cover itself. Along with getting the boat close to where the most fish are apt to be hiding, tying directly to the cover spares the risk of losing an anchor in the timber. Except in competing eddies, the current usually positions the boat and holds it in place.
Typically, the closer the bait gets to the cover, the better the chances are that a cat will come out and nab it. Fishing close to the trees results in some lost terminal tackle — and possibly a lost fish or two — but the enhanced catch rate warrants the losses. Because more timber often is hidden on the bottom, a good way to lessen tackle losses it to add a large slip-cork to the rig and suspend the weight and the bait just off the bottom.
Keys to not losing fish once they have been hooked are gearing up extra heavy and being prepared to immediately work any catfish that is hooked away from the cover. The first surge is usually toward the thickest cover nearby, and that can be the make-or-break moment.
REMEMBER THE BANKS
One unique appeal of river catfishing is that you don’t need to own a boat to get in on the best angling action. In fact, bank-fishermen sometimes enjoy the best access to river holes, whether because of currents that make anchoring difficult or shallow sections that render certain spots tough to access or even inaccessible by water. Bank-fishermen also enjoy the advantage of being able to shift 100 feet to alter their approach without having to re-anchor.
The best rigs for bank-fishing can vary quite a bit from spot to spot, with the amount of current, the nature of the cover, the size of the stream and the locations of bank clearings all factoring into the equation.
For small rivers with light current, a simple and highly effective approach is to cast a split shot rig baited with a night crawler or other natural offering upstream and across. Then let it settle in a slack hole or bounce slowly downstream in the current.
For larger rivers with relatively clear access to likely cat-holding waters, a better approach is to use a sliding egg sinker, swivel, leader and hook. Cast this rig out and simply let it settle on the bottom.
Although the stereotypical shoreline catfisherman has his rods resting on forked sticks and is watching for one to bend, keeping one rod in hand significantly enhances your hookup rates. For multi-rod setups, it’s a good idea to use circle hooks for any rods that won’t be held, with the reels engaged and the rods well braced. That way the cats often hook themselves.