Detroit Fly Fishing Examiner
Published November 23, 2013
Draggin' bottom for Blue Cats near Kansas City
For the last month, I've been traveling to Kansas City, MO. Shortly after arriving in town, I began researching local fishing spots, hoping to find a place to wet a line and unwind on an early day off or a Sunday afternoon.
A few websites for catfish guides popped up and I checked them out. Truly big catfish are rare in Michigan, and the idea of chasing them and learning a new method of fishing appealed to me. Having grown up fishing for panfish, my numerous run-ins with channel catfish and bullhead reminded me of their stubborn fighting style. I began to think about the chance to cross a toad's eyes while I was staying in Missouri...
I made some calls, sent out a few emails and finally agreed to a nighttime fishing trip. After a long day of work at the plant in Claycomo, an hour-long drive found me across the state line, shaking hands with Chris Jones, part-time catfishing guide (www.catfishpursuit.com). We were standing in the dark, at the boat launch of an impoundment that I'll call Lake X (due to its small size, this lake stands a good chance of being overfished if/when word gets out about the size of its denizens). I quickly got the score of what Chris was saying. He'd recently started fishing this lake after a tip from a buddy. His first two trips had yielded big, healthy blue cats that covered the size spectrum from 8lbs to a monstrous 93 pound female blue that broke his previous personal best by nine pounds. Other recent reports had included a few blue cats in the 50-60lb range, and a flathead that weighed almost 80lbs.
The night was cloudy and warmer than we had expected, with some wind from the south - all in all, a great night to spend time on the water. A cold snap was forecast for the next evening, and Chris liked the idea of getting some fishing in while the weather was still stable. Blue cats like cold water but a drastic change in weather or barometric pressure can shut down their bite just like any other species.
We climbed into the boat and Chris pulled away from the dock. A bunch of fresh gizzard shad were already sliming up the livewell, having been cast-netted before I got to the launch. Chris only starts with live bait, believing that big cats will detect the difference with dead or frozen bait. The huge schools of shad living here serve two major purposes - bait and catfish chow. Interestingly enough, he mentioned that on large rivers like the Missouri, guides swear by large chunks of invasive bighead or silver carp. Collecting these is easy - simply pull into a slack water area and run the outboard. In a short period of time, you will have a usable supply of large carp. The problem here is multiheaded - taking care not to get hit by a large airborne specimen is important, as some of these fish can top 60 pounds. Also, the minute they flop into your boat, they release blood and slime everywhere, making your floor dangerously slick. Finally - it's illegal to possess live carp or release them alive. Chris immediately fillets the ones he will use, then kills the others and dumps them back in the river.
We chatted about rod rigging and techniques as he started chopping up shad and baiting hooks. For late fall/winter fishing, Chris likes to cover large areas of water by drifting with the lines on the bottom. The gear for this isn't fancy - durability is far more important here. Chris runs Ugly Stik Tiger baitcasting rods with heavy Okuma reels, 40 lb test mainline and 60 lb leaders. Terminal gear includes a three-way swivel with a heavy sinker hung on 30 lb test (facilitates break offs when snagged), and a large circle hook tied to the leader. These hooks are the size and strength of those used for tuna, and they are huge. An Eagle Claw 190 in 14/0 is his go-to hook, with Mustad 10/0 Demon Circle coming in second. Each rod is baited with a shad head or chunk, then cast behind the boat and stuck in a rodholder. A trolling motor keeps the boat straight and ahead of the wind, so that the six lines dragging bottom don't cross and tangle. After all, there's plenty of opportunity for an angry catfish to do that.
Blue cats, like other big predators, relate to structure and food. Patience plays a large role while dragging bottom for a strike, but if you can find those attractors, you will probably pin down big fish. Chris related a story about some of the feeder creek areas where he has anchored in a shallow spot, fancast bottom lines around the boat and just waited for the strikes. These areas tend to warm up first when the spring sun comes out, and the big cats roll in to feed on the shad and baitfish attracted to the warm water. "It's crazy when those big bastards (50 and 60 pound cats) roll through hitting lines in two feet of water," Chris said. Slugging it out with anything that large, especially in a shallow creek mouth, is something I need to experience at least once in this life.
Finally, all six lines were out and tightened up. Chris began watching his fishfinder and using the remote to adjust course. Unlike any units I've used, this unit had a screen that rivaled some laptops, and offered regular sonar, sidescan, GPS, video and camera. Chris had a large number of waypoints set from his earlier trips, including spots where fish were landed, creek channels and good structure, trees and snags that could damage a speeding boat, etc.
There were also old roads and a bridge that he pointed out on the screen - all left-overs from the years before this impoundment was created. We were slowly moving along at drift speed, pulled along slightly by the trolling motor. Ever nod and dip of the rod tips grabbed my attention, so I asked what a strike would look like.
"It's easy to tell the difference," Chris laughed. "Bottom contact is easy to see, just a little bump and dip here or there. That right there, " he paused, pointing to the starboardmost rod, "might be a nibble. Probably a little channel cat playing with it. Watch it - if it starts to thump, pick the rod up." Indeed, the rod tip was doing an odd quiver, and then the line went slack for a moment. The rod tip eventually resumed its bob and dip and we turned our attention back to fishing stories and a few cold Boulevard wheat beers from the cooler.
I wasn't prepared for a real strike when it came. One minute, the rods were doing their slightly arrythmic bob and nod. The next, one of them slammed down hard, bent as far as the rodholder would let it go. Line peeled off the reel for a good second as I grabbed for it. Then I yanked the rod from the holder and felt that no one was home. Chris seemed more that a little surprised that our first solid hit had come unpinned. When I asked if I needed to be faster when grabbing for the rod he shook his head.
"Not at all - the big ones hit hard, then turn and run with it. Normally, you don't really need to set the hook - the circle hook handles that." We drifted through that creekbed area and around the sunken bridge for another hour or so, getting one more good hit with the same result. A solid strike, line burned off the spool, and then no one home when I grabbed the rod. After that, we turned and headed upstream to the distant shore.
One of the features that make Lake X conducive to night night fishing is a large power plant on the far side. The number of lights on the grounds makes it easy to work in the boat without using a headlight. When the plant is generating, it discharges a large volume of "hot" cooling water into the lake. This warm water attracts shad, and the predators follow them in. Playing a hunch, Chris decided to try dragging some baits through the discharge area, which is more shallow with less structure. We could hear the warmed water discharging over a lowhead dam (you can't get too close, as as a buoyed cable blocks direct access), and low-hanging fog was barely visible in the dark night. We got in close and began setting lines, surrounded by the sounds of rippling water and active shad slapping the surface. Every once in a while a larger splash would sound in the dark, signifying that a meal had been served.
We hadn't drifted far along this shallow flat when an inside rod went down hard. I grabbed for it, and immediately felt the solid thump of a good fish. Tucking the butt under my elbow, I began to pump the fish up to steer it away from the other lines. Despite those efforts, it quickly wound up another line as it thrashed, struggling to get back to the bottom. I could tell it had decent weight, but wasn't the kraken I was hoping for. After a solid tussle, I finally got it to the top and worked it over the net Chris had ready. Just like that, the 20 pound blue cat (the only blue and the largest cat I've ever caught) was laying neatly on the floor of the boat. After sorting out the mess of hooks and twisted up line, I was able to put the "grip n grin" on my first fish for a few quick pictures.
Blue cats are a handsome species, with a forked tail and smooth skin that goes from near white to a beautiful steel blue. These cats were clearly well-fed, having an almost porcine gut that jutted out below their big heads and the "shoulders" typical of a mature predatory fish. No sooner had we released our charge and gotten the rigs straightened out than another rod went off and I quickly boated a younger sibling to my first fish, a stout blue cat of maybe nine pounds. This is considered a perfect eating size (Kansas game regulations allow a daily limit of ten blue cats - no size limit), but I wasn't equipped with the means to clean and transport any fish, so she joined the first on the "lucky" side of the ledger.
After conferring with Chris, we decided to go back to the deep end of the lake, in the hopes that we could dredge up a real beast. After all, we got the skunk out of the boat - we had to have the number of at least one monster in the lake, right?
As it turned out, we didn't. We moved around, changed baits, even changed hooks, and by 3 am, we had three more solid "screamer" hits with nothing flopping in the net to show for it. The screen of the fishfinder showed huge schools of bait with large fish lurking underneath, but the beasts that hit our lines either didn't get hooked or came unbuttoned too soon.
Chris apologized more than he needed to for the hooks, disappointed with the way they performed. I have to admit I was too, although I still boated some quality fish. I've seen it countless times in my own experiences fishing and flytying - one small change can make a big difference, even it seems inconsequential. Knowing the bottom below your boat is home to numerous big fish gives new meaning to every nod and tap telegraphed up the line to your rod tip.
Work not withstanding, I would've happily stayed out until daybreak, and Chris made it clear that he would too. You never know when Lady Luck may stumble, step on the third rail and make your night exciting... After a few jokes about the potential use of electro-fishing rigs and/or dynamite, we decided to head in. It would be a solid hour-long ride back to my hotel, and my usual 8am start time for work was getting closer without any real sleep in sight. The near-constant sight of big cats visible on the fishfinder was proof that they were here - we just needed to talk them into giving up.
I've since given this a lot of thought, and I may drag a fly rod along on my next trip. Something heavy, strung with a full sinking line and a big circle hook tied to the end. While a chunk of shad won't stay on the hook if I try to cast, I'll bet it will work just fine if I drop it behind the boat, pay out the full line, and wait to see what happens. Regardless of my luck this past trip, I hope to go back for another shot at those beasts we missed this last time. Thanks for the great trip Chris, and tight lines!