The Mississippi River is big, wide and full of big, wide blue catfish, there for the taking. Here are some tips for seining Big Muddy with your rod and reel.
Fishing the mighty Mississippi River for catfish is a shaky proposition any time, but a 125-year historic flood makes the task even harder. That’s just what we faced on a recent trip to the river near Vicksburg.
Capt. Bob Crosby noted landmarks and studied his Humminbird Helix unit intently until he spotted some big fish along the outside edge of a deep eddy. He quickly set a waypoint and put down his trolling motor, which held the boat in place against a current too swift and deep to anchor. As soon as we got into position, we cast towards the area where the big fish were and let the bait go to the bottom.
It didn’t take long before the action heated up.
“Ka-thump!” A hungry blue took the bait and slammed my rod down to the water’s surface. I grabbed it and reared back with all my might.
Wham! I drove the steel hook deep into the jaws of a monster cat, and my rod felt like it had hit a steel beam. When the monster felt the sting of the hook, it dove deep into the murky depths of the river, and it was all I could do to hang on. At one point, I thought he was going to pull me overboard.
“ZZZZZZZZZZZZZ, ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ,” the reel sizzled as the blue submarine stripped line off of the reel. As soon as the cat let up a bit, I got my bearings and a better hold on the rod and secured my feet for the next run. This was the monster catfish that I’d been looking for, and he bit right off the bat and tried to take my whole rig with him.
We had a fierce tug of war for the next 30 minutes as the fish made run after run, burning line off the reel and making the drag sing. I finally wore him down enough to get him to the top, but the current was really swift, making it hard to maneuver him.
I kept his head up as long as I could and worked him towards the boat. Time after time, he dove, and I’d have to gain back the ground I’d lost. After I finally wore him down and brought him near the boat, Crosby got his head in the net, and it took every ounce of strength, we had to lift him into the boat.
The Mississippi River blue catfish tipped the scales at 50 pounds and was the biggest I’d ever caught on rod and reel on the river. I was fishing for a trophy cat, and Crosby made that a reality, and it became a lifetime memory for me.
Best time for monster cats
As soon as the leaves start falling and the temperatures start dropping in October the blue cats start heading to their deep honey holes, and the fall and winter bite begins.
“The water usually starts cooling in October, but when it gets below 50 degrees, the big cats move to the deep holes,” Crosby said. “We typically bottom-bounce in October and November and catch good numbers of catfish — with an occasional monster cat. I’ll set my I-Pilot trolling motor on .3 mph, and we’ll slowly drift downriver, bouncing our bait just off the bottom.”
Drifting and bottom-bouncing is a fun technique, and you can drift for miles without a bite and then load the boat in one place. The fish move from day to day; you might catch them 20 to 30 feet deep one day and 70 to 80 feet deep the next day, depending upon the current.
“We’ll catch a bunch bottom-bouncing in the early fall, but we’ll hit those deep holes, too, so we can keep tabs on the big cats,” Crosby said. “After they start moving into the holes, the fun begins, and (it) usually runs through the winter until the spring floods begin.
“The colder, the better as far as catching monster blues. Most people are deer hunting and duck hunting, and we have the river to ourselves. That’s when it gets crazy and big cats are caught often.”
Heavy duty gear a must
“There’s no place comparable to the Mississippi River when it comes to catching a monster cat,” Crosby said. “The Mississippi River is so big that there are areas that never get fished, and we release the ones we catch, so there’s a big supply of catfish to be caught. But the most-important factor after learning where to fish is to have the proper equipment.”
Crosby’s two most-important pieces of equipment are his depth finder and his i-Pilot, which interface and allow him to stay on a spot or keep the boat in line.
“We’ll graph a good fish, and then we’ll anchor and start fishing for him,” he said. “And we’ll usually get bit pretty quickly if they’re feeding, but locating them with the graph is the most important part of the equation on a river this big.”
Most people are not outfitted to handle catfish ranging from 18 to 70 pounds in deep, swift water, so Crosby supplies all of equipment, tackle, and bait.
“We have tough reels filed with 60- to 80-pound braided line on heavy B’n’M catfish rods,” he said. “We’ll use a 50-pound mono leader with a 30-pound leader and a 6- to 8-ounce bell sinker to hold it down. The braided line is imperative, but you must have lighter leaders for the weight, so you won’t lose the fish or the whole rig if the weight hangs on trash.”
“When we’re bottom-bouncing, we’ll use a lighter rod and quality reel with lighter weights.”
Where to find huge blues
“My personal best is a 75-pound blue cat, but we’ve caught several 80-pounders and 90-pounders,” Crosby said. “The Mississippi state record is 95 pounds; it’s just begging to be broken, and you can be sure there’s more than one swimming around in there.”
The lower Mississippi River has a great reputation for big fish, and there’s less fishing pressure from Greenville south to Vicksburg and Port Gibson. Crosby is very familiar with that portion of the river.
“You need to go with somebody who knows the river and who can show you where they are and how to catch them,” he said. “Otherwise, it will take years to learn the river and how to find them.
“When we’re bottom-bouncing, we look for certain types of banks, and we fish like we do when bass fishing,” Crosby said. “We’ll bump, bump, bump that weight just off the bottom, and the big cats will strike, and you have to set the hook just like you do when you’re ledge-fishing for bass. If you don’t have your timing down, you’ll miss them.”
“On a great day, we’ll catch 20 to 25 blues in the 15- to 25-pound range, with one or two big fish in the 30- to 50-pound range,” said Crosby. “Just last week, I took a couple of guys bottom-bouncing, and they caught a 31-pounder doing that and earlier, we caught a 60 pounder.”
Deep scour holes, eddies
My favorite technique is hole-fishing, although I enjoy catching them bottom-bouncing as well. As in most types of fishing, 80% of the fish are in 20% of the water, and that’s where a guide like Crosby comes into play. He knows where to look, and by being on the water regularly, he can keep up with their whereabouts on a weekly basis. That’s invaluable.
“You’ve got to know when to stop, how long to fish and when to leave a hole,” Crosby said. “We’ll hit a series of holes sometimes 4 to 5 miles apart and fish them until we find them. Sometimes, we’ll give them 20 to 30 minutes and then head to the next hole. If they are there and ready to eat, they bit quick.”
Crosby knows where the deep scour holes are, and big cats will usually hit pretty quickly after he get’s set up and puts the lines out. Scour holes are places where the swift water scours the bottom and washes out deep holes below rock dikes, jetties and along deep banks. Crosby keeps up with the changing river levels and constantly checks his holes.
“Sometimes, we’ll hit a couple holes and not catch a thing, and then on the next hole catch four or five as fast as you can get your bait in the water,” he said.
On another trip to the river with Crosby, we caught five cats in the 17- to 20-pound range on one hole, with the biggest being an 80-pounder that bottomed out the scales — the largest freshwater fish I’d ever seen caught on a rod and reel.
For more information on catching monster catfish, contact Bob Crosby at 601-953-5767, or check out his website online at https://www.bluecatguideservice.com.