Catfishing on ‘The Father of Waters’

Keith Sutton, Contributing Writer Published July 6, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Keith Sutton / Contributing Photographer

Chunks of fresh skipjack herring are the bait of choice for Mississippi River catfish anglers.

You never know what monsters you might catch in the Mississippi River. On June 14, for example, at the Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest catfishing tournament in Tunica, Mississippi, anglers Jeff Dodd and Daryl Masingale weighed in a whopping 80.55-pound blue catfish to win big-fish honors in the competition. Few Arkansas anglers will ever catch a freshwater fish that size.

Just a few years earlier, at another Big Cat Quest tournament in Memphis, the top two fish — also blue cats — weighed an astounding 108 and 103 pounds. They were giants of their kind, for sure. But even bigger cats have been caught in the Arkansas portion of the river, including a 116-pounder at Helena and a 116-pound, 12-ounce former world-record cat at West Memphis. The river is also a motherload of huge flatheads and channel cats.

With high hopes of catching such a leviathan ourselves, James Patterson and I fished the Mississippi downstream from Memphis earlier this spring. Patterson, who lives in Bartlett, Tennessee, knows the river along the Arkansas/Tennessee/Mississippi borders with an intimacy few people can claim. He’s been guiding catfish anglers here for decades, and as proprietor of Mississippi River Guide Service (901) 383-8674, www.bigcatfishing.com), he’s on “The Father of Waters” 100-plus days each year. Scores of anglers fishing with “Big Cat” have caught their biggest freshwater fish ever. His uncanny ability to find and catch heavyweight fish makes him one of the most sought-after catfish guides in the United States.

Fortunately for me, James and I got to be friends years ago while teaching together at a one-of-a-kind national event called Katfish Kollege. We quickly learned we had a mutual love for the Mississippi River and started fishing together whenever our schedules would permit. Our outings together have been few and far between in recent years, but James eagerly agreed to a day on the water when I contacted him this April.

“The river is high and muddy,” he said when I called. “Fishing may be tough, but I’m game to try it if you are.”

I certainly was. A day on the water with James is always a learning experience, even for someone like me who has fished for catfish throughout a lifetime. He knows where catfish are likely to be and how to coax them to bite, regardless of conditions. Whenever we’re together on the water, he teaches me new tactics I can use to increase my catch, regardless of where I am fishing.

We met at a boat ramp near the Pyramid in Memphis and launched Patterson’s boat in a bank-full river the color of milk chocolate. The powerful Mississippi, one of the world’s biggest rivers, can be intimidating to anglers even when at “normal” levels. When it’s high after spring rains, it can be downright horrifying to the inexperienced. I admit to being a little nervous when we pushed off and headed downstream, but once we were underway, I felt that old exhilaration I always experience whenever I have an opportunity to fish one of the best trophy-catfish waters in the world.

“When the river is high like this, the catfish usually bite well, but we may spend a lot of time dodging widowmakers carried in the current,” James said as we anchored on a spot near the Interstate 40 bridge.

A widowmaker is a big log or tree that’s fallen in the water and gets swept downstream in the fast-moving water. I had seen plenty shooting down the river when I passed over the bridge between West Memphis and Memphis that morning, but few were actually visible when we arrived at our first fishing spot.

James anchored his boat with the bow pointed upstream; then we baited hooks with big chunks of skipjack herring, the favored bait of almost all trophy-catfish anglers.

“Having fresh skipjack baits is a key facet of attracting trophy fish,” James said as he impaled a big chunk on a huge hook and cast it into the river downstream from the boat. “Other baits like shad work well, too. But there’s nothing big catfish like better than a meal of skipjacks.”

James often travels long distances to catch large quantities of skipjacks below dams on the Tennessee River, where these fish are plentiful. Surplus stocks are then vacuum-packaged and frozen to keep them as fresh as possible. When it’s fishing time, each baitfish is cut into four to six pieces, with one large piece placed on each hook. Each fishing rig includes a bank sinker weighing several ounces to carry the bait to the bottom in the heavy current.

Safety should be foremost on your mind whenever fishing the Mississippi, but especially when the river is near flood stage. Everyone should wear life jackets and be attentive to hazards caused by floating debris. Even so, mishaps sometimes occur, as James and I found out. While our attention was focused on our lines in the water downstream, a widowmaker the size of a small submarine crashed into the bow of the boat, snagging the anchor line. Only after several minutes of hard effort were we able to extract ourselves from this predicament, but fortunately, no damage occurred. A few minutes later we were anchored on another spot downstream where floating debris was less in evidence.

We’d been fishing there only a few minutes when one of the rods went down hard.

“Fish on!” James shouted.

I pulled the rod from the holder and set the hook. The fish at the other end surged away, pulling line against the tight drag. It felt like I had snagged a whale.

That’s one of the fun things about fishing the Mississippi — even “normal” sized catfish feel huge when fought in the river’s heavy current. This one gave me all the fight I could handle, and when I finally brought it near the boat, James quickly netted it. It was a beautiful 16-pound blue cat, one of several we caught before the widowmakers made us move.

Unfortunately, we had to end our day of fishing early. After we had gone downstream, a barge had crashed into the Interstate 55 bridge. Several officers in a Memphis police patrol boat escorted us back to the boat ramp when we motored back upstream, indicating — to our surprise — “The river is now closed.”

Fortunately, it’s not often that the mighty Mississippi is closed for fishing. No body of water in North America produces more giant catfish than “The Father of Waters,” and anglers like James Patterson who learn the best ways to fish this ever-changing river can experience days catching catfish they’ll never forget.

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