A side of smelly baitfish skipped across the surface of the Missouri River before sinking to the bottom. Rodney Charles, picked up his last rod, cut up another skipjack bait fish and cast six lines out. He stood back and looked at his set of rods that stretched across the bow from four to eight-o’clock.
Suddenly a cue-stick-sized rod jerked forward. Charles picked up the rigging and lifted the rod tip up, setting the hook. The big blue cat made several strong runs before giving in to exhaustion and a long-handled net.
Charles tipped the net against his boat and reached in to unhook the cat. Leaning his net made it easier to unhook the fish that could not move. A flopping catfish is hard to unhook. The Gamakatsu circle hooks made it even more difficult.
“Not exactly what I am after,” Charles mumbled while unhooking the cat. “But definitely a good start.”
I thought so, too, as the fish scale pushed down to 15 pounds.
“I caught a 70-pound blue out of the Kaw River last year,” Charles said. “That cat could have eaten this one. Still, this is a good eating-sized cat.”
The morning progressed as we managed to catch only an additional 12-pound cat. We had other bites including two that broke his 40-pound test line – something most strong men could not do. Normally a 12- and 15-pound blue cat would make the angler happy. Charles knew the fish could have been bigger.
“Hard to tell how big those cats we lost were,’ Charles said. “But they were big, really big.”
The Missouri River has always been great fishing for those who dare challenge the currents and other hazards. You will occasionally see large fish breaking the surface when wads of baitfish do their best to escape. This quality forage base must make fishery biologists smile. Good food sources are the key to a successful fishery.
“The Missouri River is full of big catfish,” Charles said. “I use skipjack because it has red meat and is very oily, leaving a scent catfish can easily follow. The oil mixed in with blood slips down river to catfish who want an easy meal. Bait presentation is extremely important. They have eyes and whiskers that allow them to actually sense their food. A catfish has 32,000 taste buds all over their body, not only in their whiskers.”
Charles buys his skipjack, which arrives by truck delivery frozen. He cuts each piece in half with a sinker on the end with 6- to 8-inch skipjacks.
He starts preparing his bait by scaling it before filleting sides. The scales are flipped in the water to float downstream and attract more cats. He leaves the gut sack intact for extra attraction. Often the gut sack will be gone and the sides undisturbed. Charles claims they literally suck the gut sack out, but sometimes they make a mistake and end up in his net.
“I like to fish structure,” Charles said. “Many of us use depth finders to locate the fish, then we throw bait in their direction. Catfish love structure and I look for these areas, maybe a drop-off. Then I cast out my baits so the scent will drift through or around structure and bring each fish to me. Drop-offs and ledges seem to be the best.”
Charles does not fish tournaments, but enjoys river fishing as his main recreation. However, catfishing tournaments are held annually on most of our big rivers. The rule is generally the same – only live fish may be weighed in and released. This is accomplished in adequate live wells and a technique called burping. A small plastic tube is pushed into the cat’s stomach to release trapped air. Otherwise the cat would suffer the equivalent of the bends suffered by human divers. This trapped air will quickly kill the catfish.
EQUIPMENT: Charles uses medium to medium-heavy Tiger Ugly Sticks when there is little current running. Abu Garcia 6000 reels with Berkley Big Game 40-pound test that glows in the dark under a black light. Bigger rods with an Abu Garcia 7000-I reel are used on the outside of his rod perimeter and when the current is heaviest. The bait is hooked on Gamakatsu circle hooks or Gamakatsu No. 10 Octopus hooks.
“I don’t even set the hook with a circle hook,” Charles said. “I wait until the rod is bent over and then pull the pole up while keeping constant pressure on the fish. He will bite down even harder to fully set the hook. I do set the hook with Octopus hooks.”
He releases any catfish over 15 pounds because it takes a long time for them to grow that large and they are the ones having babies. A 20-pound cat produces about three pounds of eggs annually. Only seven percent will make it to three pounds or larger.
SAFETY: “Safety is a big deal on the bigger rivers,” Charles said. “You definitely want a bigger boat. I wouldn’t go out in anything less than 18 feet long. Barge traffic is not bad, but it is important for small boats to keep their distance from these monsters.”
Never get in a hurry when navigating the river in daylight or darkness. Heavy current creates ever changing sand or mud bottoms. Obstructions in the water, like the ends of wing dikes, can be a hazard when the water is low. They are often submerged a few inches under the water. High water allows boats to float over the tops of these permanent structures.
Steel props are necessary for the unexpected. You never know what is floating under the surface. You have to be smart on the river. Anything can float in overnight, including logs or root wads on a big tree – many expensive lessons.
“A big River is not the place for your motor to quit,” Charles said. “Make sure you keep up engine maintenance and that someone knows where you plan to be in cases of trouble. Carry the local fire department’s phone number, most have boats and rescue crews. Wrap your phone in waterproof plastic.”
– 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.