Monsters of the Midway
by Brent Frazee
Membership in the Missouri River’s ‘100-Pound Club’ is growing
The stretch of the Missouri River that John Trager fishes won’t win many beauty contests. In the Kansas City area, the river is muddy, looks like a big drainage ditch, and is lined with abandoned buildings and urban blight.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And to Trager, this unlikely setting looks like big-cat paradise.
“You can catch some monster blue cats not far from downtown,” said Trager, better known as Captain Catfish to his followers and guide clients. “Some people have a hard time believing there are fish this big in a muddy river like the Missouri. But there are 100-pound blues in here. They’re not easy to come by, but they’re out there.”
Trager, 47, who lives in Merriam, KN, caught the proof when he joined the “100-Pound Club” in May.
Fishing in the Kaw River not far from where it joins the Missouri, he and a friend had a day that only adds to the lore of the Missouri River’s status as trophy water.
Anchored below a stretch of river where whitewater tumbles over a rocky riffle, Trager and Brian Elvis Britt both hooked up on huge blue catfish at the same time.
Britt brought his to the boat first. It was huge – 64 pounds. Then after a more-extended fight, Trager landed a fish far bigger – a blue cat that weighed slightly more than 100 pounds.
By the time they were done, their best five blue cats, which were released, totaled a whopping 281 pounds.
For Trager, who has fished the Kaw and the Missouri rivers since the mid-1980s, that was a landmark moment, one he doubts he will ever match.
But he knows monstrous catfish are still roaming that muddy water. It’s just that the bites from fish like that are few and far between. It takes patience. Lots and lots of patience.
“I had fished the Kaw and the Missouri for a long time, and my best blue cat before this one weighed only 72 pounds,” Trager said.
That tells what kind of fishery the Missouri River is. Despite its unseemly looks, it harbors world-class blue catfish in its 340-mile journey across Missouri.
Fish in the 100-pound class have been caught in the Kansas City area to the east and in the St. Louis area to the west and many points in between.
Another river monster
Rob Stanley of Olathe, KN, knows there are some enormous catfish living the city life in Kansas City.
He proved it in August 2012 when he went night fishing not far from the city lights. Anchored near a bridge that carried a steady stream of traffic, he and his fishing partner Brad Kilpatrick set up and waited for the big bite.
That night, a big blue served as an alarm clock for Stanley.
“I was sleeping and I woke up when I heard my reel just screaming,” Stanley said. “That fish peeled off at least 100 yards of line before it even slowed down. Brad pulled the anchor and we followed that fish. It took me 45 minutes to get it in.”
The result? A 102.8-pound blue catfish, which ranked as a Kansas state record because it was caught on the Kansas side of the river. That mark still stands, though Stanley believes it is by no means safe.
“There are bigger ones out there,” he said. “But you have to put in your time to catch something like that. I’ve had a lot of trips when I won’t catch a thing. But it’s fish like the one that keep me coming back.”
And still another monstrous catch
Even in the winter, the Missouri River can provide some giant bites.
Justin Neece of Odessa, MO, joined the 100-Pound Club in February when he took his cousin, Jeremy Gore, and Jeremy’s 9-year-old son, Jase, fishing near Lexington, MO.
Neece knew that stretch of the river well, and had marked some huge fish in wintering holes on a previous trip. The plan was to let Jase reel in a few of the blue cats and introduce him to the sport. But when a giant fish hit, Neece had to take over.
“I knew that fish would have just about pulled Jase in,” Neece said.
The fish hit in a blow hole on the tip of a wing dike. As the bait settled to the bottom in a spot right at the seam of the current, the big blue cat hit and took off. After a spirited fight, the 107-pound blue catfish was brought to the boat.
For as impressive as that fish was, it couldn’t match the Missouri state record. Greg Bernal set that standard in July of 2010 when he caught a 130-pound blue catfish on –you guessed it – the Missouri River.
A special river
So what makes the Muddy Mo so special for blue catfish?
Fisheries biologists point to a series of factors. The tide started changing in the early 1990s, when commercial fishing for blue cats was banned. In 1993, the river spilled out of its banks during a massive flood and changed the face of the Big Mo.
Suddenly, the fish had plenty of good spawning habitat – low-flow areas out of the current. New sandbars sprung up and the course of the channel changed, providing a variety of habitat. That flood quickly changed the makeup of the Missouri River’s catfish population.
“I believe the blue cats had a great spawn in 1993,” said Jake Allman of the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Prior to that year, we rarely caught blue cats in our sampling in the Kansas City area. But we started seeing impressive numbers. And high-water years in 1995, 1997 and 2011 helped, too. In 25 years, we went from hardly finding any blue cats in this stretch to seeing good numbers.”
Other factors helped, too. The rise in the population of Asian carp provided the blue catfish with a ready food source, according to Allman. And the health of the river, despite its muddy appearance, added to equation.
“The Missouri River today is cleaner than it was in the 1950s,” Allman said. “There is a lot less erosion in the watershed, and there is less pollution, too.”
Add one more factor – the lack of fishing pressure – and you have the making of a trophy fishery.
Where to fish
Trager follows a seasonal pattern when he chases the big blue catfish. He fishes into winter, when the ice floes make it unsafe to be on the water. In the cold months, he looks for wintering holes—deeper spots where the blue cats often congregate.
As the water warms in the late spring, the big blue catfish will move up large tributaries such as the Kaw. Once the spawn is over, usually by early July, the fish will move back into the Missouri and Trager often will concentrate on the sandbars at night. By fall, the daytime fishing often recovers and Trager will be back on the main channel, looking for current breaks.
“I like to fish current seams—places like where calmer water or an eddy meets the current,” he said. “I like anything that will break the current – rocks, logs, stumps, wing dikes.”
Trager starts the season fishing with shad, which he collects with a throw net. Later, he will go to cut skipjack, a delicacy for blue cats.
Trager learned early that you don’t go into a fight with a monster with undersized tackle.
“I remember one time when we were using a rod that wasn’t stout enough and a big blue hit and just snapped that rod in two,” he said. “That’s why I go to heavy-duty equipment now.”
That means a heavy-duty rod, a Penn reel spooled with 40-pound Trilene Big Game line, big Whisker Sticker hooks and heavy sinkers. He likes to anchor, fish a spot for at least 30 minutes, then move.
He relishes the days when he can tangle with a river monster, but those days don’t come along every outing.
“There are days when I swear there wasn’t a blue cat in this river,” he said. “But on the Missouri, you know there’s always that chance of catching a huge fish. That’s what keeps me going.”