The cold pierced our bones. Rain came down in buckets, filling the bottom of the boat with water despite the bilge pump and our attempts at bailing. When the lightning raced across the sky, we caught a glimpse of the shoreline. I knew it was dangerous to be in an aluminum boat on the water with lightning flashing, but we couldn’t find our campsite.
Four hours earlier, my partner and I had baited, with live carp, eight trotlines in wooded coves on the upper end of Truman Lake. Every May, we camp at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sparrowfoot Campground south of Clinton and fish for flathead catfish. This time we decided to stay on the water after dark to check the lines and re-bait with goldfish. The vicious storm caught us completely unaware.
Now we were both soaked and hopelessly lost at night on the lake. Our 2-million candlepower spotlight was useless because of the way the rain diffused the light. Except when the lightning flashed, we couldn’t even see the front of the boat. For four hours we blundered around in the dark and rain before we finally made it back to camp.
At 3:45 a.m., I crawled into my wet tent, shivering from the cold and thankful to be out of the rain and lightning. But as I went to sleep, I had a good feeling. The rain would make the reservoir rise, and years of fishing for big flathead catfish had taught me that rising water would bring the flatheads out to feed.
Sure enough, the next morning we caught a 62-pound flathead and several more in the 30- to 50-pound class.
Trotline fishing is the most dependable and probably the easiest way to catch big catfish out of our reservoirs and rivers. It’s a lot of fun, too. I usually set my trotlines in about 10 feet of water and try to keep the lines 3 feet off of the bottom. I run the lines between trees. For my main line, I use #60, 580-pound test, nylon braid. Flatheads are found in submerged brush or old flooded trees, and you need line that won’t break easily.
If the hooks snag on the brush, I can wrap the line around a canoe paddle, brace the paddle on the inside of the boat and pull the hooks free using the boat motor. The line never breaks.
The hooks are large, usually 9/0 steel shank. I space them at 6-foot intervals on 18-inch drop lines made with #36, 280-pound test, nylon braid. I use a double figure-8 knot at each point on the main line for the staging. Each of these is attached to an 8/0 or larger brass barrel swivel.
The swivel is important because big catfish tend to spin and roll on the line. The large barrel swivel makes it simple to attach a pre-made stage line and hook with a simple loop rather than a knot. This makes it easy to remove the stage lines.
Each trotline has about six to eight stages with hooks. The main lines are weighted in the center, with the weight just touching the bottom of the lake. Old window sashes make perfect weights. I also use the weights from a barbell set that my kids used when they played high school football.
The two most important aspects of trotline fishing for big flatheads are setting the lines in the best habitat and tying knots that will hold a big fish. I was a Boy Scout leader in Moniteau County for 10 years. Each year I took the Scouts on an overnight float trip on the Lamine River, putting in at the Highway 50 access. I took live bait, usually goldfish or green sunfish, in a cooler with a battery powered aerator. We camped on a gravel bar and then tied up new trotlines.
Each Scout had to learn three knots. We used two halfhitches with a loop in the second hitch to tie the line to a tree stump, rock or some other sturdy object. The loop is important because it is easy to undo, especially in a heavy wind or other adverse conditions that seem to pop up whenever it’s time to take the lines out of the water.
We used a square knot to join two lines of equal size together. It is easy to tie in a hurry as you set the lines. Trees and other suitable anchors never seem to space themselves at the perfect interval for a prefabricated trotline.
Finally, they learned the palomar knot for tying the hook to the stage line. Scout leaders are supposed to intuitively know how to tie knots. This is false. I learned knots by typing the keywords “fishing knots” into an Internet search engine. There are many good web sites with excellent diagrams for tying the knots I routinely use, plus hundreds more. There are even animated computer programs showing how to tie knots in slow motion. These are so foolproof that even Scout leaders can become experts overnight.
After the Scouts made several trotlines, we loaded into the canoes and searched for good places to set the lines. I taught the Scouts to look for trees and old logs that produce deep scour holes in the river channel. We checked the bottom structure with canoe paddles, searching for locations in the slow water pools with brush and other places for fish to hide. We tried to set the lines to cross a variety of depths while staying close to submerged cover.
We never failed to catch fish on these outings. The first year we caught a 45-pound flathead. The boys couldn’t believe that such big fish existed in Missouri rivers. The problem was how to get such a big fish off the line without tipping the canoe.
After gathering the Scouts on the bank to discuss options, I appointed two “volunteers” to help me in the canoe. They raised the line slowly from both ends of the canoe. As the big fish came to the surface, I gently placed my hand, protected by a leather glove, into its mouth. Flatheads have very fine teeth that are pointed backwards. Their bony jaw is easy to grip, and the fish instinctively closed its mouth.
I was surprised at how calmly the fish accepted my hand. Then, everyone in the canoe leaned to the right and I pulled the fish over the left side of the canoe. It was a miracle that the canoe did not flip. Ever since that experience, I routinely wear a leather glove to remove big catfish from the trotlines.
Next, we hung the fish from a tree, and I showed the scouts how to remove the skin by making a shallow cut around the base of the fish’s head and down the back to the tail. We removed the skin by pulling on it with pliers. Special skin strippers are also available for this job. We then removed two big fillets from the back, and one from the underside of the fish.
All of this activity delayed our arrival at our takeout point by more than two hours. Needless to say, there were some impatient and concerned parents waiting to pick us up, but their moods lightened when we parceled out the fish fillets. None of the parents knew how to process the meat, so I demonstrated how to remove the red portion, leaving just white meat.
In recent years, I have turned my attention to setting trotlines on the Missouri River. The best time to fish for flatheads on the Missouri River is mid-April through May. Fishing success during the summer is not as predictable.
On the Missouri River, I set my lines on the downriver side of wing dikes. These rock structures extend from the bank into the river and divert the current away from the bank. Often the wing dikes have a notch that allows current to flow through. The notch usually has a deep plunge pool on the down river side.
I tie the trotline onto a big rock at the edge of the notch. I then set the line parallel to the flow of the current through the notch and drop the other end of the line with a 10- to 20-pound weight on the river bottom.
Typically, my line has five to six hooks spaced at 6-foot intervals. Baiting with live fish seems to work best, although I have caught flatheads on beef liver, cut shad, chicken hearts and smoked sausages. I was going to eat those sausages for lunch, but I used them when I ran out of other bait.
Two years ago, I asked the former Director of the Department of Conservation, Jerry Conley, to help me check my Missouri River trotlines. We caught a 32- pound flathead.
As we were cleaning the fish, Director Conley, who started his conservation career as a fisheries biologist, opened the fish’s stomach. I was surprised to see five of my bait fish inside. I routinely hooked the bait fish near the tail because somebody had once told me to do that. It was apparent that this flathead had moved down my line and pulled the fish off the line head-first. Now, I hook bait fish under the dorsal fin so the catfish will have the bait fish and the hook in the mouth at the same time.
Learning how to fish for big catfish has taken me years of experimenting and talking with other fishermen. Last year I met a flathead fisherman on the Missouri River who had years of experience. We had never met before, so I was surprised to learn that he lived less than two miles from my house in rural Moniteau County.
We swapped stories, and then he offered to inspect my lines and gear. His best suggestion was to abandon the J-shaped hooks I had been using and switch to a hook with the tip pointed back to the shank. These hooks are more difficult to bait, but they prevent twisting and rolling catfish from pulling the hooks out of their mouths.
He also showed me how to attach my stage lines and hooks to the main line using a key ring. This allowed me to space the hooks at whatever intervals I wanted to take advantage of the best underwater cover and habitat conditions. When my new friend and instructor was done with his advice, he reached into a big tub, gave me a 30- pound flathead and told me to pass on what I had learned.
I usually try to camp overnight on a Missouri River sandbar when I am fishing for big flatheads. After dark, I have the river to myself. Pole and line fishing for channel catfish on the down river ends of sandbars can be excellent at night. Each time I camp on the Missouri River, I am awed at how isolated, wild and quiet it is only 10 miles from my house. The wilderness atmosphere of the Missouri River is grand, and there is always the chance of pulling up a flathead catfish, Missouri’s big game fish.