The Big Fishy

Last summer I was running a trotline on a sand island on the Missouri River upstream from Jefferson City. One end of the line was tied to a log on shore. The other end angled downstream and out toward the main river channel.

Every half hour or so, I put on my life jacket and waded out to lift the line, check for fish, and replenish bait. By noon I had a half-dozen catfish weighing 2 to 6 pounds.

The next time out, I found a blue cat weighing about 35 pounds near the end of the line. My net was ample for bass fishing, but I couldn't get half this monster into it. Wrestling with the old warrior seemed like a bad idea, so I decided to drag him toward shallow water, hoping to reach better footing before he got free. I pulled on the line once, and he ran like a freight train, straightening two points of the treble hook to make his escape.

Discouraging? Not really. I knew there were plenty more where that one came from. Although fish populations in the Missouri River aren't what they were when Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery headed upriver nearly 200 years ago, the waterway is still a fish factory. Since the Missouri Department of Conservation stopped the commercial harvesting of catfish in 1992, the number and size of catfish has increased. The Missouri River produced the state pole-and-line record flathead catfish, a 77.5-pounder caught in May 1997. The blue cat record, another Missouri River denizen caught in 1991, weighed 103 pounds.

Gains in water quality and fish habitat have paralleled the improvement in fishing opportunities on the Missouri River. Tighter regulation of pesticides has reduced chemical pollution in the state's namesake river. Two years ago, the Missouri Department of Health canceled its advisory against eating catfish, carp, buffalo, drum, suckers and paddlefish from the river. The floods of 1993 and 1995 created enormous amounts of off-channel spawning habitat for fish.

The easiest and most accessible way to fish the river is from its banks. Many fish, including some 40- and 50- pounders, are caught within sight of boat ramps each year. Anglers with boats can enjoy the solitude of a remote sand bar.

When looking for a spot to fish, keep in mind that the river is a conveyor belt for food. River fish stay where they can peruse