Big River, Big Cats

Flathead catfish grow to gargantuan proportions on the Mississippi River. It’s not especially uncommon for anglers to run across cats weighing in the triple digits.

Mississippi River offers excellent action on huge flatheads and blues.

When the tip of Weldon Fortner’s rod slowly started bending double, he knew something big was attached to the other end of his line. But had his hook snagged a log on the river bottom or had another giant Mississippi River catfish swallowed the piece of cut shad he was using for bait?

“As soon as I grabbed hold of the rod, I knew it was a fish, and a big one at that,” said Fortner. “I set the hook hard, and the monster catfish shook its head but stuck fast to the bottom of the river. No matter how hard I pulled, I couldn’t budge the big fish.”

Fortner, 53, and Lisa, his wife of 26 years, were fishing for catfish in the Mississippi River near Vicksburg on March 11, 2007, at 9:55 a.m. when the big fish swallowed his bait. Being a veteran catfish angler, Fortner knew exactly what to do, or more importantly, what not to do in order to land this monster catfish.

“After sitting on the bottom for a few minutes, the big sow decided to make a run for deeper water, and when she made that decision, she was gone,” Fortner said.

Fortner knew he would have to react quickly — or the fish would be gone for good. Armed with an Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500C reel matched with a 7-foot medium action Shakespeare Ugly Stick rod, he knew that he was ill equipped to manhandle the giant blue cat. With the 40-pound Berkley Trilene line rapidly disappearing from the spool as the drag screamed in agony, Fortner did the only thing he could do in that situation.

“The boat was tied to a piling, so I yelled to Lisa to get us loose,” Fortner said. “We were going to have to chase the big fish down with the boat in order to get line back.”

It took Fortner only a few minutes of frantic reeling to recover the hundred or so yards of line that had been taken by the giant fish. But it would take him another 30 minutes to finally get the monster securely in the boat.

Fortner’s blue cat was 53½ inches long, 23 inches in girth, and it tipped the scales at a whopping 85 pounds. The fish was verified by state fisheries biologists and has been submitted to the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame for consideration as a world record blue catfish caught on 40-pound line.

And since Fortner was able to keep the big catfish alive, it will be on display in a 150,000-gallon aquarium at the headquarters of Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, Mo. — a fitting place for such a fine specimen to live out the rest of her days.

Size Matters

The muddy waters of the Mississippi River offer up a smorgasbord when it comes to the various sizes and kinds of catfish an angler is apt to catch. However, the “Big Four” of the whiskered sportfish on the “Father of Waters” and its tributaries includes blue cats, yellow cats (flatheads), white cats, and channel cats.

When it comes to size, channel cats and white cats can’t compete with monster blues or flatheads. Channel cats can grow as large as 51 pounds, as the Magnolia State record indicates. However, flathead catfish can exceed 120 pounds. Blue cats can also reach the triple- digit mark. In fact, old records indicate that gigantic blues weighing nearly 400 pounds were pulled from the Mississippi River in the 1800s.

No one really knows for certain just how big a catfish will grow. However, I have witnessed several giant catfish caught by trotline and setline fishermen that would easily shatter the world records for blue cats and flatheads. And that doesn’t include the monster blues taken by commercial fishermen on Old Man River over the years.

A friend of mine who was once a rescue scuba diver, changed professions because of a few close encounters with these deep-water giants. The final straw came on a deep-water dive to recover the body of a drowned fisherman. Feeling a gentle tap on his shoulder, my friend turned expecting to see his diving partner, but instead came face to face with a huge catfish. Even with visibility in the murky water at just a few feet, he said that the catfish he encountered could have easily swallowed him whole — quite a statement coming from a guy who tips the scales at just over 200 pounds.

Although 100-pound plus catfish are possible in the deep waters of the Mighty Mississippi, a typical blue or flathead catch will include fish in the 15- to 20-pound range, with channel cats and white cats running closer to the 5- to 10-pound range.

Catfishing Gear

When it comes to gear for catfish, you again have a wide variety from which to choose. Best of all, they are very effective in catching big fish. Most catfish anglers on the Big River are die-hard trotline fishermen. Every now and then you will come across a jug fisherman, and on rare occasion, you may even run into a hand grabber, but they are more commonly found on smaller streams and lakes where the water is much more shallow. But when it comes to catching those Muddy Mississippi Monsters, I prefer tightlining with a stout baitcasting reel and rod combo.

Several companies manufacture rods and reels designed specifically for catfishing. I use a 7-foot medium/heavy action Ugly Stick rod and match it with an Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500 baitcasting reel with a clicker alarm. My catfish reels are spooled with 30- to 50-pound Stren Magnaflex monofilament in neon yellow. I prefer high visibility line when fishing the muddy waters of the Mississippi. Since catfish are not line-shy, you can use heavy, high-visibility line without worrying about spooking them. Often, I can see a subtle bite in the movement of the line before I ever feel the bump on the rod.

When it comes to catfish rigs, I want mine to be simple, but tough. I thread my monofilament line through a 2- to 8-ounce egg sinker. I prefer to use the lightest sinker possible that will allow me to maintain contact with the bottom. This varies according to the depth of the water and strength of the current.

Next, I tie to a No. 5 barrel swivel and add a 12- to 18-inch leader of 130-pound test Stren Super Braid. I have found that the braided line is much more durable than any monofilament. This is especially important when you factor in that a battle with a giant catfish may last anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour. The swivel reduces line twist and prevents the sinker from sliding down to the 6/0 Mustad Demon circle hook attached to the end of the line.

Fresh is Best

There are two things to remember when selecting baits for giant catfish:

• Bigger is better, and;

• Fresher is better.

My favorites for trophy cats are fresh shad, skipjack herring, shiners, or goldfish. Regardless of the bait you prefer, make sure it’s big and fresh if you want to catch monster catfish. I prefer a 6-inch bait but will go bigger if I am after really big cats.

Did I mention that your bait needs to be fresh?

Blue cats, white cats, and channel cats will eat almost anything, but they prefer dead animal matter. They prowl through the water scouring the bottom for morsels, but they also prey on live creatures. Flatheads are less opportunistic feeders, preying almost exclusively upon live fish such as bream, shad, skipjack, minnows, or other catfish. Most experienced tightliners refuse to use anything other than live pond bream when fishing for giant yellow cats. To say that bream are their bait of choice would be the understatement of the century.

Think Deep

Jimmy Cassell of Port Gibson, a veteran Mississippi River catfisherman, believes in the old saying — “the deeper the hole, the bigger the fish.” The only problem a trophy catfish angler faces is choosing from the abundance of deep holes along the Muddy Mississippi.

“I concentrate mainly on holes that are 60 to 100 feet deep, unless I can find a deeper one,” Cassell says. “I don’t waste my time on a hole less than 50 feet deep if I am after really big cats.”

Wing dikes, also called rock dikes, are some of the best big river hotspots for giant catfish. These long, narrow rock structures built by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers are found along the entire length of the river. Their intended function is to divert the strong current of the big river into the main channel to prevent shoreline erosion.

Trophy catfish seek out the deep holes on the downstream side of the dikes that are created by the water swirling back on itself as the current is forced around the end of the dike and toward the middle of the river. The center of these giant eddies, or swirls, is where you will find the really big blues and flatheads. By casting into the center of the eddy, your bait will be pulled quickly to the bottom where it will remain stationary. The only thing left to do is sit back and wait for that rod-bending strike that will soon follow if a giant cat is nearby.

Some of the more productive wing dikes are located on the opposite bank from Grand Gulf, approximately 27 miles south of Vicksburg. The two dikes on either side of Yucatan Chute — as well as the upper three dikes on the backside of Middle Ground Island — have consistently produced trophy catfish. The extremely deep holes at the mouth of Palmyra Chute and the Big Black River are probably two of the better big-cat hotspots, especially good in May and June as the big blues and flatheads migrate into the shallower waters upstream in search of a hollow log or cutout in the bank to lay their eggs.

“Some of the best success I have had in the past has been at the Bunge Grain Elevator located just a short boat ride to the south of Grand Gulf, near St. Joseph, La,” said Cassell. “Big cats congregate at the elevator to feed on spilled grain on the river’s bottom. The fishing is incredible on the rare occasion that they accidentally sink a loaded barge of corn.”

Still, there is no single “best” place to catch giant catfish on the Mississippi River. As any veteran catfisherman will tell you, almost any location along the Mississippi River has the potential to produce big cats.

Safety First

In order to pursue giant cats on the Mississippi, a reliable boat is a necessity. Unfortunately, almost all the land on both sides of the river River is privately owned, which eliminates much opportunity for bank fishing. But for those with access to a boat, there are numerous public landings along the entire length of the Mississippi. Accessibility by boat is definitely not a problem.

Regardless of whether you plan to tightline, trotline, or jug fish, you need to keep a few things in mind.

• Although the river is loaded with fish, it is a very large and complex body of water. Finding and catching giant catfish consistently comes only through many hours spent on the river.

•The Mississippi River is always potentially dangerous, especially when it is rising during the Spring. Extremely strong currents, gigantic whirlpools, hidden logs, submerged rock dikes, and heavy barge traffic create major hazards for any angler. Fishermen need to learn the dynamics of the Mississippi, remain alert at all times and wear their life jackets instead of keeping them stowed away. The worst mistake you can make is to take the river for granted.

Catching monster catfish on the Mississippi doesn’t happen every time you go out, not even for veteran anglers. It takes knowledge of the proper baits, tackle, rigs and locations combined with a tremendous amount of patience and persistence. But for most trophy catfish anglers, it is the mystery of the deep muddy water that draws them to the sport. The mystery of not knowing if the next catfish that takes your bait might possibly be a Mississippi River Monster.


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