A Passion for Big Cats
by Brent Frazee
Spring is a glorious time on Lake of the Ozarks.
When Anthony Ford casts into the shallows of Lake of the Ozarks in the spring, he isn’t targeting bass or a crappie. He is looking for a big hit—the type of fish that puts off a wake when it goes for the bait.
“Some people think you have to fish fairly deep to catch a big blue cat,” said Ford, who has been guiding at Lake of the Ozarks for almost 20 years. “But when the water starts to warm up in the spring, I’ve caught them in two feet of water. That’s when things get exciting. You can see a big dorsal fin cut through the water toward your bait. It’s like Jaws.”
“That blue cat will immediately come to the top when it hits, and the fight is on,” continued Ford. “Topwater fishing for catfish? Well, not quite. But there are similarities.”
Some catfish anglers have never experienced the thrill of catching a big fish in water so shallow that their dorsal fins are barely covered. But it’s a regular occurrence for Ford, who has been chasing catfish at Lake of the Ozarks for most of his life.
Spring is a glorious time for him and other big-game fishermen at Lake of the Ozarks, a 54,000-acre reservoir in central Missouri. That’s when the reservoir’s biggest fish are stirring. Though Ford guides practically year-round, he starts getting busy in mid-March when the paddlefish-snagging season opens. He guides for both paddlefish and catfish during the spring months at Lake of the Ozarks, then moves to nearby Truman Lake starting in June to guide for catfish.
When he guides for spring catfish, he starts the day by netting shad. If he finds big schools of baitfish cruising the shallows, he knows where he will be fishing.
Ford looks for the water that will warm most quickly. Often, that means he will search creeks on the upper end such as Deer, Rainy, Turkey and Cole Camp.
He stays a long cast away from the shallows and uses his mud poles to stay in place. Then, it’s a matter of waiting for that big one to come along. Once, that wasn’t such a long ordeal. Ford, 44, remembers his high-school days when he got hooked on catching big cats. He and his friends would use remote-control boats to transport their lines and baited hooks to the swirling water directly below Truman Dam.
“There were so many big catfish on that end of Lake of the Ozarks, it was ridiculous,” said Ford, who runs the Catfishingguide.com Guide Service. “A 50- to 60-pound fish was a weekly deal.”
But a no-fishing zone below the dam was established in 1997, ending the use of remote-control boats to transport lines to the water near the concrete structure where the fish stacked up. And over time, the number of big blue cats in Lake of the Ozarks declined.
“A 30- to 40-pound blue cat is considered a nice fish now,” Ford said. “We just don’t have the big fish we used to.”
The Missouri Department of Conservation agrees. Greg Stoner, the fisheries biologist who manages the reservoir, claims that overharvest of large blue cats has taken its toll over the years. That’s why a regulation establishing a slot limit for blue catfish at Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Lake was established in 2014.
New regulations call for blue catfish in the 26- to 34-inch range (roughly 7 to 16 pounds) to be immediately released. The daily limit of blue catfish also was doubled, from 5 to 10, in an attempt to thin the overabundance of blue catfish measuring less than 20 inches. Fishermen are allowed up to two blue cats 35 inches and longer.
“The blue catfish is a slow-growing fish,” Stoner said. “It takes 18 to 20 years for a blue catfish to grow to 20 to 30 pounds. Our surveys showed that a lot of our mid-sized fish were being harvested before they could grow to bigger sizes. By protecting these fish, we hope to give them a boost toward reaching their potential.”
Though no official surveys have been conducted since the slot limit was established, Stoner thinks the regulation seems to be working.
“In my own experience, I’m catching more blues in that protected size,” he said. “Yeah, it stings to have to release a 16-pound fish. But we have to keep our eye on the future. We think this slot limit will go a long way toward bringing Lake of the Ozarks back to the days when it was known for big catfish.”
The regulation has plenty of vocal critics, many of whom say the regulation prohibits fishermen from keeping the prime fish many seek for table fare. But the Department of Conservation remains resolute, and Stoner points to surveys that show most fishermen are in favor of the regulation change.
Ford is one of many who hope the measure will pay long-term benefits. He is a dedicated cat man, spending 225 days a year on the water. He concentrates on the water 20 to 40 miles below Truman Dam.
“That stretch has the biggest holes and the biggest flats,” he said. “Plus, it always has a lot of shad.”
The key at Lake of the Ozarks often is the current. If hydropower is being generated at Truman Dam, the current sent into Lake of the Ozarks can stir the big blue cats into feeding. Ford likes a flow of 30,000 to 40,000 cubic feet per second to target big fish.
He likes to use fresh cut shad, and fishes saddles, ledges, breaks or humps on the main lake after the catfish move out of the shallows.
He uses big equipment to catch big fish. He utilizes a 7 ½-foot medium-heavy rod, a baitcasting reel spooled with 100-pound braid and a leader with 60-pound monofilament line. He uses a slip sinker, but puts a float on the leader so it floats up a bit off the bottom.
Ford tries to make sure his customers are comfortable, even in the cold, rain and wind. He guides out of a 28-foot boat with an enclosed cabin on it. It has heat and can accommodate up to eight fishermen.
“Some of my customers are getting old, and being out on an open boat in the cold and rain is no fun,” he said. “I have one group of six that fishes with me. The oldest is 93, the youngest is 73. They’ll come out and fish with me no matter how the weather is. They’ll catch fish, then go in and warm up.”
Ford goes to Alabama in the winter, and fishes famous waters such as the Tennessee River and Wheeler Lake. His friend caught and released a blue cat that weighed 97 pounds, and Ford had two fish to the boat that he estimated at close to 100 pounds.
He is a big believer in catch and release of trophy blue cats.
“Sometimes, I won’t even weigh the big ones,” Ford said. “I don’t want to handle these trophy blue cats any more than necessary. These are rare fish and I don’t want to kill one because it was handled too much after a long fight.”