It's interesting how a day of rod-bending action from a fish that takes two hands to hold starts with an ultralight rod and some tiny jig baits.

That's how the day broke one morning last June as catfish buddies Steve Strong and Morgan Spivey started out on the Mississippi River. The two anglers had no hope for catching a monster blue catfish with the ultralight rigs. What they were hoping for was to hook a few of the lightning-fast bites they were getting from the mass of skipjack herring that were feeding along the backside of a rock dike in the river.

Although the fishing was fast and eventful, the pair had no interest in small fry fishing. In fact, the herring that were caught would eventually find their way back into the water on the end of a bigger hook. The pair agreed that the hands-down favorite bait of big blue cats were 10- to 16-inch skipjacks, either live or freshly cut into pieces.

When the bait tanks and coolers were adequately supplied, it was on down the river from the public ramp at LeTourneau Landing just south of Vicksburg to the first stop of the day - a hole in the Mississippi River.

No question about it, the Mississippi River is home to some of the biggest blue catfish in the world. In fact, at one time, the world record fish of 124 pounds was caught from the Mississippi, and stood from 2005 until 2010 when it was broken.

The lure of big catfish is what brings Vicksburg native Strong back to the river each trip out.

"I don't guide, I don't even tournament fish for catfish," he said. "For me it's all about catching and releasing the biggest catfish I can find. I tell you it's addictive, and I love it."

Many catfishermen compare their love of the sport with deer hunting, something Strong also enjoys. He loves the anticipation of hunting big fish, although the truly big cats don't come along as often as many folks might think.

"A good day here on the river in June will bring a couple of 20-pounders and a fish or two up to 40 pounds - I've caught plenty of those from this area," he said.

One of the keys to catching big catfish from the Mississippi is knowing where to find them. That's why you have to know where the holes are. Strong's favorites are those that have plenty of deep water, anywhere from 60 to over 100 feet depending on the river stage, and some structure inside the hole that will provide a current break for catfish to hold behind.

"Catfish like to have something to get behind so they don't have to fight the current the whole time," he said. "It's like drafting in NASCAR - the first cat will get in the eddy behind a log or a rock, and there might be two or three other catfish in there nose to tail behind the first one."

Not all sections of the Mississippi River are equal. The stretch that Strong calls home is roughly the 10 miles above and below the LeTourneau area. Since he's fished the area for many years, he's well aware of the best locations, but offers some advice for someone starting out on a new stretch of river.

"An area with a rock bluff on one side is likely to have a scoured-out hole at its base," he said. "The rising and falling currents will have eroded that bank, so it's also likely that some rock structure will have made its way into the bottom of the hole.

"The area around one of the Corps of Engineers rock dikes is also a great place. The dike will channel current from the river, and it will scour out the bottom depending on how the current hits it."

Understanding the flow of water in a river isn't difficult, but determining how that flow will affect fishing at different river stages can be a challenge. Spivey, also from Vicksburg, picks and chooses his favorite holes based on the river stage.

"I might have five to six places that I fish when the river is at 15 feet, and I might have five or six holes that I fish if the level is at 20," he said. "The river level has an effect on the current, water temperature and especially the feeding habits of the catfish."

Spivey explains that blue catfish frequently move into shallow water at night to feed but won't travel very far from their deepwater lairs to do so. Since a deep-water hole is still deep whether it's 60 feet or 100 feet, it's often the depth of water in the shallow flats surrounding the hole that dictates if fish want to hang out there.

"The combination of current, water temperature, river stage, feeding areas and water depth have to be right to hold big catfish," said Spivey. "That's how you narrow a big river like the Mississippi down to a handful of holes."

Once a location has been decided upon, the next step is getting set up to fish that location. The current of the river will wash everything downstream that gets in its way, so the obvious choice is to anchor upcurrent and fish baits downcurrent into the hole. But anchoring in the Mississippi requires a bit of skill.

"If you're on good structure, it's probably not going to be hard to find something to hang the anchor on," said Strong. "Of course, getting the anchor back can be a problem.

"I like to use three times the amount of anchor line as the depth of water I want the boat to be in. If I'm in an area where there's not much structure around the hole and I have to anchor in either mud or sand, then I'll use five times the water depth to allow the flukes a better angle on the bottom."

Positioning the boat correctly means accounting for the direction of the current then backing off the distance of the cast plus the amount of anchor scope.

Once set up, the angler then deploys his rods. Strong recommends 30-pound-class tackle. He mostly uses 7-foot MH Cat Maxx rods paired with Quantam Cabo baitcasting reels. He also favors braided line for its strength and sensitivity. On the business end of the line, he ties a three-way rig using different classes of mono line. The braided line goes to the top end of a three-way swivel while the weight, on a 12- to 14-inch section of 20-pound mono, is tied to the bottom. The middle eye hosts a 2-foot section of 50-pound mono that is snelled to his hook, either a 7/0 or 8/0 circle hook. Strong varies his weight to the conditions.

"I try to use as little weight as I can get away with and still maintain contact with the bottom," he said. "I may use a bank sinker all the way up to 10 ounces if the current is bad, but the average is about 5 to 6 ounces."

The typical array is four rods, since the current has a tendency to push them all back to the middle. Strong positions each rod in a Driftmaster rod holder, one on each corner of the stern and one on each side. The stern rods are cast back into the hole up and back, and the side rides are cast out to each side of the hole.

"I love these rod holders," Strong said referring to his ½-inch Duo and ½-inch Troller models. "I've had big cats, hang ups, all sorts of things pulling on them and putting tons of abuse on them. You just can't break them."

As indicated, both Strong and Spivey prefer fresh skipjack herring for bait. They also use the same rigs and tackle, but their presentations are different.

"Blue cats are often visual predators," said Strong. "If the water is clear enough, they might see the bait, but more often they find the bait by smell. That's why I believe cut bait is best for catching them."

Spivey feels differently.

"Skipjack are hard to keep alive, and to store them you need a special aereated bait tank with rounded corners," he said. "But the big cats love live whole bait, so it's worth the effort to keep them."

Strong said he'll give a hole 20 to 30 minutes without a bite, then he might shift his position and figure out if fish are on one side or the other before moving on. Spivey takes a technical approach, utilizing the latest in side-imaging and down-imaging sonar.

"I've only been playing around with this for a few months, but now I won't fish a hole unless I can cruise over the top of it and see fish down there," said Spivey. "I want to see that there's either big fish or a large accumulation of fish.

"With this unit, I can even tell if they're smiling, but they won't be for long."

 

Phillip Gentry is a freelance outdoor writer and photographer, and says that if it swims, walks, hops, flies or crawls, he's usually not too far behind.