Catching the blues: Missouri road trip offers shot at blue catfish on Lake of the OzarksTie into a big blue catfish, and it’s not unusual to fight the fish for 40 minutes or longer. No wonder, then, that fishing guide Steve Brown prefers to target catfish on two reservoirs best known for crappies and largemouth bass.
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
WARSAW, Mo. — The previous day had been springtime gorgeous, with temperatures in the 60s, leaves in full bloom, green grass — ah, green grass! — and trilling frogs that tickled the eardrums as the sun set over Lake of the Ozarks.
The senses confirmed it: Spring was here. And it was good.
That seemed like a distant memory now, though, as Steve Brown steered his 24-foot Sea Ark fishing boat into a stiff northeast wind and spitting rain that showed no sign of subsiding on this chilly Easter Sunday afternoon.
Owner of Catfish Safari, a guiding service on Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks and adjacent Truman Reservoir, each about 55,000 acres, Brown was taking us about 20 miles down the Osage arm of Lake of the Ozarks in pursuit of blue catfish.
Blues look a lot like the channel cats that frequent the Red River of the North, but they grow considerably larger. The Missouri record blue on rod and reel tipped the scales at a whopping 103 pounds. Brown’s personal-best weighed 78 pounds, and a graphite replica hangs from the wall in his living room.
It’s a monster of a fish.
Tie into a big blue cat, Brown says, and it’s not unusual to fight the fish for 40 minutes or longer. No wonder, then, that he prefers to target catfish on two reservoirs best known for crappies and largemouth bass.
“The difference in catfish is the next bite can be 1 pound or 100 pounds,” Brown, 46, said. “If crappie got to 50 pounds, I’d fish ‘em.”
Why we’re here
The journey that led us to this gray Easter Sunday in the Ozarks began last year, when Brad Durick of Grand Forks landed a sponsorship deal with the makers of G3 boats in Lebanon, Mo., another 80 miles south of where we’re fishing.
A frequent fishing partner, Durick runs a guiding business on the Red River, and he’d worked out a deal with G3 on a catfishing boat. But as a newcomer to the G3 team, Durick was encouraged to visit the plant in person. So when he lined up a side-trip with Brown to fish blue catfish, I jumped at the opportunity to ride along.
It’s not the kind of thing I’d normally write about for the Herald because it’s so far away — we’re more than 800 miles from Grand Forks and I’m on my own dime — but when the opportunity for a good road trip falls into my lap, I’ll bite.
Originally, we’d planned to make the trip in late March, but the flooding Red River forced us to bump the itinerary back two weeks. It was a reminder that picking a date on the calendar months in advance is always a tricky proposition when it comes to fishing.
Second trip of the day
Brown advertises his business as “rod and reel only.” That might sound strange to Red River catfish anglers, but Missouri and most Southern states have long-established traditions of using trot lines and jug lines with multiple hooks.
Jug-lining was the norm when Brown moved to Missouri from southern California in the early ’90s.
“Nobody rod-and-reeled for catfish,” he said. “It was all jug lines. That’s not fishing — it’s trapping. You fish with a rod and reel.”
Because the reservoirs rarely get more than a skim of ice in winter, Brown fishes catfish throughout the year. December through March, he says, is the best time for big blues. He already had a full-day trip on the books last Sunday, but given our circumstances, he agreed to fit us in for an evening excursion.
Conditions were far from ideal, but we made the best of it huddled under the enclosed cover in Brown’s boat as he sped into wind and waves powered by 225 horses of Suzuki outboard.
“This is the way to travel,” he said, tapping on the cover.
Brown said friends chide him about the cover, calling it the “Sissy Shack.” Better to be a sissy, though, than wet and cold and miserable.
“I don’t care how much clothes you wear,” he said. “This is better.”
Shallower the better
This time of year, Brown targets cats in shallow water, which warms up faster. It’s not uncommon to find fish in a foot of water, he said.
Holding in place is crucial, though, and there’s little escape from the stiff northeast wind on this dreary Sunday afternoon. Brown can’t anchor in the first spot he wants to fish.
If only we could have been on the water yesterday, we lament.
“I hate when the wind dictates where you can and can’t fish,” he said. “So far, I don’t know what to do about it.”
His second choice is better protected, and Brown adds insurance by jabbing two 12-foot “mud poles” bow and stern into the bottom of the lake 6 feet below and tying them to the gunnel. The water temperature is 49 degrees.
We’re not going anywhere.
Four rods baited with chunks of shad Brown caught that morning soon are positioned in holders off the back of the boat in depths varying from 5 to 25 feet of water. Lines set, he zips the cover tight and lights the “fireplace,” his Big Buddy propane heater that soon has us cozy and warm.
Like 10-year-olds waiting for Christmas, we settle in and wait for a rod to bend. Surrounded by canvas and plastic, it’s just like ice fishing — without the holes in the floor.
“I thought I was done with the heater for the year,” Brown said.
Almost immediately, the four rods begin bouncing to the beat of fish tapping and pecking at the bait. They jerk and twitch like the hammers on a giant piano but don’t buckle over with authority like they do when a big cat commits.
It’s typical, Brown says, of the way blue cats behave during a cold front.
“There’s fish to be caught,” he said. “It’s just that conditions are horrible for us.”
Big cat tales
Waiting for a bite offers time for stories — one of the best parts of any fishing trip — and Brown talks about the day two years ago when a customer in this very spot started the day with a 63-pound blue catfish.
“He was a big, burly guy,” Brown said. “He jumped up and down like a little kid.”
Brown cringes at our stories of ice fishing excursions on subzero days. Growing up in a small town in southern California, he says Missouri’s far enough north for him.
His only experience with ice fishing, he says, is the movie “Grumpy Old Men.”
“I don’t know how you live up there,” he says.
Someone has to, we reply.
Guiding on two of the country’s premier reservoirs, Brown also has had the opportunity to rub elbows with some big names, including TV fishing stars Roland Martin, Hank Parker and Jimmy Houston and NBA basketball star Kevin Duckworth, a 7-foot center for the Portland Trailblazers who died last August at age 44.
Photos, including a shot of Duckworth hoisting a massive blue catfish, adorn the bed-and-breakfast Brown and his wife run in the lower level of their home on the Osage River.
So far, Brown says his best trip this year was in late February with a first-time catfish angler. They boated 27 blue catfish, including 15 fish in the 15- to 25-pound range and one that tipped the scales at more than 50 pounds.
An average day, he says, is 15 to 20 blue cats with one or two 15- to 20-pound fish thrown into the mix.
Record of success
Brown says he’s only been skunked four times in 11 years. A big reason for that, he says, is his policy of trying to reschedule trips if the fishing’s slow or conditions are poor.
“It’s amazing we catch as many fish as we do,” Brown said. “When it comes down to it, it’s a hook, a string and a stick.”
As gray sky gives way to darkness, the rain builds in intensity but the wind subsides. We fish a handful of different spots and leave the “Sissy Shack” only when a buckled-over rod forces us to step out from the canvas to reel in another catfish.
It’s after 10 p.m. when we call it a night and Brown makes the 20-mile trek back to the dock in total darkness. All we see is blackness and the occasional yard light from homes and cabins on shore. For Brown, it’s just another day at the office; he’s made this trip hundreds of times.
We finish the evening with about 20 blues up to 12 pounds or so and a Devils Lake-size white bass. The big blues are elusive, but considering the conditions, we have no complaints.
For a couple of northerners starved for spring and open water, it’s not a bad way to start a new season.
On the Web:
If you’re ever in Missouri and want to sample the blue cats, check out Brown’s Web site at www.catfishsafari.com; contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (660) 438-3135.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to email@example.com.