The Missouri River generally runs like molasses in September. But heavy rains up north sent enough water to create a full pool for this long stretch by St. Josepp – good news for river navigation and even better for catfishing anglers.
Outdoor writers Zach Smith, Brent Frazee and I recently met 23-year-old tournament catfisherman Jordan Stoner in an effort to land big blue catfish on the Missouri. The young guide picked us up in a 16-foot Sea Ark powered by a 300-horsepower Mercury outboard motor, biggest I have seen on a river fishing boat.
The comfortably wide and stable boat was well rigged with heavy rod holders positioned around the bow and stern plus a state of the art Lowrance graph that featured a 19-inch full color screen. Stoner’s rig was a far cry from old wooden jon boats that once hauled commercial fishermen up and down this often-dangerous stretch of constantly flowing currents.
The boat easily navigated moderate swells while Stoner studied his graph where submerged brush and occasional fish images appear. Suddenly he cut back the motor and requested someone drop anchor at his command. He had found the exact amount of brush and fish holding against the west bank.
His anchor, fitted with a good-sized chain for more weight and drag was eventually dropped. Heavy anchors are used to hold boats in the river’s constant current. A foam float was attached to the end of the anchor line in the event of a huge catfish hookup. This allowed a quick release from the anchor. The big catfish would simultaneously fight against the current and reel’s drag while towing the boat.
“My biggest blue catfish was over 70 pounds,” Stoner said. “That cat dragged the boat a good distance until it finally tired and was netted, photographed then released. But river catfish are powerful and even much smaller fish can drag a good-sized boat.”
Soon the boat was secured and Stoner cut chunks about the size of a baseball off skipjack imported from Alabama. Skipjack shad are so named because of their habit of jumping out of the water when feeding. They survive in brackish or freshwater impoundments. The 15- or 16-inch baitfish are noted to be oily and bloody, perfect for attracting big catfish in a current that likely delivers thousands of scents by the minute.
“I ordered these skipjack from a bait shop in Alabama until we decided to drive down there and catch a bunch,” Stoner said while cutting bait. “We managed to load an ice chest with the bait fish and then brought them back for storage in our deep freeze. Unfortunately, the deep freeze broke down and I discovered this too late. I had to throw the skipjack away. Now I am back ordering them from that Alabama bait shop.”
Each chunk was secured on six good-sized hooks and cast in a fan pattern from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock. Then the wait started and the breeze suddenly quit. The sun’s rays became exceptionally hot as cold drinks were passed around the boat.
Smith noticed a big snake slip into the river, not far from our boat. Common water snake bites are not poisonous, but these reptiles are very aggressive.
“One night we were anchored off about dusk when I saw a big snake swimming across the river and straight at us,” Stoner said. “We thought the big snake would pass, but it swam to the motor and slipped up on the boat. I could see its head looking straight at me and I hate snakes. We fired up the boat and the snake was finally gone, to my relief.”
More stories were shared while we watched the rod constantly tip with the current. Occasionally a fish would bite, but likely smaller catfish nibbling at the skipjack. Yet you can’t be sure as big catfish will sometimes bite lightly. Most big blue and sometimes flathead catfish pick up the bait and run hard, giving credence to a heavy rod holder. This bends the cue-sized fishing rods in half.
We fished several spots for about 45 minutes before setting up at our last spot. I noted an especially bloody skipjack head and someone noted that a catfish would almost certainly find it. Stoner cast the head close to where fish showed on his graph and set the rod in its holder. Within five minutes the rod bent.
Smith grabbed the rod and hung on, but somehow the big cat released the bait without being hooked. This happened a second time without a hookup. The catfish was less fortunate on the third try at stealing bait and was soundly hooked.
The cue-stick sized catfish rod was well bent as the fish made several good runs. Stoner immediately threw the anchor line with float overboard and the boat moved, powered by the catfish. Smith’s reel drag was moderately set so the catfish would fight against additional resistance. I was surprised at the strength of this fish that put on a good fight for several minutes before slipping into a big net.
“That blue catfish weighs 23 pounds,” Stoner said after weighing the cat on his commercial scale. “That was a beautiful fish, determined to eat the skipjack head. The bite was slow today, but sometimes we get on a good bite and it’s not unusual to have several hookups at once.”
Smith’s catfish was quickly released after photos and the day ended. The writers would drive back to beautiful St. Joseph for a good dinner and historic museum tours the following day while Stoner continued fishing.
“That was only the second catfish I have ever caught,” Smith said on the drive back. “I want to come back and try for an even bigger cat.”
Smith had discovered just another addictive sport in our beautiful outdoors.
The catfishing trip was part of the 2017 Missouri Outdoor Communicators meeting in St. Joseph. The group visited several sites and fine restaurants around this old historic town, but were thrilled by the history. I highly recommend everyone visit this beautiful place where Jesse James ended and I began.
If you would like to visit St. Joseph and enjoy the history, call The St. Joseph Convention and Visitor’s Bureau at 816-233-6688 or 1-800-785-0360. Tell them I sent you and you may get a free Cherry Mash candy bar.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.