Mississippi mother lode

The author untangled this big choupique under the water at a running cut into the Mississippi River.
The author untangled this big choupique under the water at a running cut into the Mississippi River.

Falling river waters can bring unexpected treasures when limb-lining the trenasses.

The Mississippi River may be experiencing record flooding this year, but it’s bound to come down. As the water leaves the swamps and river ponds, the fast-moving, bubbly outflow from the temporary streams creates perfect locations to hunt one of my favorite fish, the choupique.

High water can really spread out the fish, but these drain-offs are what concentrates the fish. Right when the natural banks begin to expose themselves is when the rest of the trapped waters flow through the tiny gaps connecting to the river.

River monsters

I grew up catching choupique, aka bowfin, in the swamp to make patties, but it wasn’t until I started setting limb lines in the big waters of the Mississippi River and its oxbows that I started catching really big choupique that commonly exceed 10 pounds. I now stick to setting my lines in the river because it’s where all types of fish grow extra-large.

I most enjoy going on foot-only missions or using my 8-foot kayak unless my wife or some kids want to join; then, we take a larger boat.

Still, with the bay boat, I’m getting out to set and retrieve most of the lines in the water. A kayak doesn’t flip as easily as a pirogue when battling large fish in the deep-water currents.

When taking kids with you, or if the water is too cold, the same action can be had from the boat. But landing deep tangled fish is not easy.
When taking kids with you, or if the water is too cold, the same action can be had from the boat. But landing deep tangled fish is not easy.

The 100-percent bank mission just takes this task up to an extreme challenge. These river banks are usually lined with huge rocks or steep, nearly straight-up muddy banks. Climbing up those tall, soft mud banks is a challenge, but doing it while bringing a big fish to the truck is extra tough.

I only keep enough fish to eat, so with the size of these river fish, that usually doesn’t take very many. The rest I just catch and release for the sport of seeing what’s lurking out there.

I’m often targeting flathead catfish on these missions at other types of locations, but I always find a few running cuts to seek out the bowfin.

Favorite bait

My favorite bait is live bream hooked through the back or huge, live crawfish hooked through the tail. The live bait will often result in a few flathead catfish every trip, even in my choupique spots.

Getting live bait by land or kayak can be a challenge during the summer heat. I use a large ice chest with iced water and an aerator in the back of my truck. Then, I transport the fish in a small floating minnow cage by hand or tied to the kayak.

When that isn’t an option, fresh-cut bream chunks work very well. Choupique don’t seem to be too picky about what they eat. Just be sure to pick a tough bait that stays on the hook well.

Denizens of the deep

Big blue and channel cats and tasty gaspergou often come up from the depths to these shallow-running cuts at night to feed in the trenasses. The biggest soft-shells and snapping turtles visit looking to feed as well.

I set my limb lines on limber roots and limbs that are strong and have some flexibility. I try to set my lines late in the evening or at night. Gar will steal most of the baits if left during the daylight hours. Also, on nighttime sets, I’m on the lookout for big river bullfrogs to jump on. Alone at night, setting the lines in the river and the slop mud, is what I consider a peaceful evening of relaxation.

Adrenaline rush

It’s the next morning that the real adrenaline takes place. There’s nothing like seeing that limb or root tugging. Still, be prepared on slack lines that look untouched; often, they go berserk when you pull, awakening the creature below.

Sometimes, the fish can be pulled up without any issue, but usually, they are tangled underneath. That’s when I dive down to feel around and see what’s hooked.

This big catfish was tangled and too large to get in the author’s kayak, so he went diving and swam the monster to the bank.
This big catfish was tangled and too large to get in the author’s kayak, so he went diving and swam the monster to the bank.

I start by using my foot to see if it’s a big alligator gar or turtle before sticking my hand down the leader into awaiting jaws. Alligator gar may have the biggest teeth, but the choupique have super-sharp teeth and gill plates to watch out for. Luckily, the bigger catfish’s stickers are dulled down, so I bear hug those to the surface.

Even though I’m a great swimmer, since I’m often alone and near the deep, strong current, I always wear my fanny pack inflatable life vest, a dive knife on my calf and a backup tiny, folded knife on a lanyard for when I get in the water.

River gear

Having a long push pole rigged with a gaff hook helps bring up the tangled debris and fish all together. However, getting in the water and untangling the fish by hand makes the trip the most fun and ensures a landed fish once my hands get hold down below.

I use heavy duty 8/0 to 10/0 circle hooks with heavy,, braided nylon twine of at least 250-pound test or more. I rig most of my heavy duty lines Carolina-style by using about an 12- to 18-inch leader tied to a large, strong swivel. Above the swivel, I use 8 to 12 ounces of weight from old, broken cast-net weights threaded on with a knot above the weight to keep them in place.

The strong river current means a lot of weight is needed to keep the bait down and keep it from washing up against the bank or staying at the surface. The circle hook and swivel is very important to keep the fish from twisting off.

I try to set lines about 3- to 6-feet deep, directly under a limb. Since that’s not always possible at certain spots, I keep some longer, suspension-rigged lines with me, too.

These longer lines have a heavy railroad spike or nearly 16 ounces of weight tied to the end. I use them with the same leader, hook and swivel combo, but tied halfway up. When using live bait, having the bait suspended away from brambles is very important.

Most of my spots are in rarely visited locations, so instead of wasting time tying complex knots and having to remember each branch my lines are on, I use pool noodles on the ends. They only require a few wraps and quick single overhand knot to stay on the limb. This makes setting and untying to the limb a quick 5-second task, which allows me to save time and set many more lines.

A couple years back, I did an article and video on swim noodling to get the big flathead and blue cats from under the water which can be found here: https://www.louisianasportsman.com/fishing/freshwater-fishing/apex-predators-extreme-noodling-swim-fishing-for-big-cats/

Finding the fish

When driving in the truck or boat or jogging, I’m always looking for birds. Just like speckled trout fishing by spotting diving seagulls, where they have flocks of any long-legged birds standing in the drain-offs, they have big fish feeding there as well.

Getting muddy is all part of the fun when catching choupique without a boat using limb lines.
Getting muddy is all part of the fun when catching choupique without a boat using limb lines.

To find these running trenasses online, carefully search Google Earth during the lowest river level dates and seek the dried out light colored run-offs. Once found, use GPS imagery of higher river levels to dates on rivergages.com to see how that location correlates to various river levels. This way no time is wasted checking spots when on the water.

The deeper cuts have the longest fishable time as the river drops. The more narrow the cut the better odds I have since my few lines are concentrated within the run off. Fishing right next to the deep drop off into the river is where I try to set lines.

Bring your bass pole

Also bring a bass pole. The bass tend to stack up at many of these cuts, and a limit can be had in no time if the bass are there. The river may be muddy, but when the clean, swamp water is rushing out, there’s a perfect mixture for feeding bass that school up during the summer. I pack a telescopic travel rod-and-reel that fits into my backpack on these long hikes.

One time, I was fishing a running trenasse where I had set some limb lines. After catching a nice bass, suddenly my 6/0 hook set into one of the biggest alligator gar I’ve ever seen. The monster, which was more than 6 feet long, swam straight just under the surface, acting as if the tight drag it was spooling didn’t even phase this submarine of a fish, swimming out into the river. Needless to say, the 65-pound braid suddenly popped.

When targeting the rushing river cuts in the summer, catching fish is nearly a guarantee; the question is just what type and how big of a monster will you have hooked. If looking for a way to stay cool in the heat of summer try giving this ultimate wading-style limb lining mission a go.